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Sunni Arab

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The Vanishing Civilians of Aleppo

Did it cross your mind occasionally, in the past week, to wonder where all of the “250,000 civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo” have gone? As the area of the city under rebel control dwindled – by Wednesday morning the Syrian regime’s troops had recaptured three-quarters of it – did you see massive columns of fleeing civilians, or mounds of civilian dead?

If several hundred thousand people were on the move, you would expect to be seeing video images of it. If they were fleeing into the enclave the rebels still hold (to escape the evil Syrian army), you would expect the rebels to give us dramatic images of that. They certainly gave us footage of every civilian killed by Russian bombing in eastern Aleppo over the past three months.

And if hundreds of thousands or even just tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing for safety into government-held territory, you would expect the regime’s propagandists to be making equally striking images available. “Look!” they would say. “The civilians really loved President Bashar al-Assad all along.”

Or maybe the civilians are all dead. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned just a week ago that if Assad’s forces went on advancing, then “the besieged parts of eastern Aleppo” would become “one giant graveyard.” So where are those quarter-million bodies? Or even a few thousand bodies? That’s kind of hard to hide.

Here’s a radical thought: Have most of those quarter-million people suddenly become invisible because they were never really there in the first place?

There were certainly a significant number of civilians trapped with the rebels: you saw them crying and shaking their fists every time the Russians bombed another hospital. But even then, did you sometimes think how strange it was that the Russian air force never seemed to bomb anything but hospitals? Where’s the strategic sense in that?

Well, here’s a clue. There were no foreign journalists in eastern Aleppo. They were quite reasonably afraid of being kidnapped by one of the many rebel groups in the city and held for ransom – or accused of being spies and ritually slaughtered by one of the more extreme Islamist outfits.

All the reporting out of eastern Aleppo for the past three months has been what the rebel groups wanted us to see, and nothing else. And to them, the presence of large numbers of “defenseless civilians”, the more the better, was their best protection against a full-scale onslaught by the regime.

So of course they gave us video of every civilian killed by a bomb, and greatly exaggerated the number of civilians in their part of the city, and almost never showed their own fighters.

There’s no crime in this. It’s the way propaganda works, and nobody fighting a war can afford to be too respectful of the truth. The real question is this: why did the international media fall for it?

For months, what was obviously rebel propaganda has been shown by the world’s media as if it were the impartial truth. Was it just laziness, or was it subservience to a political agenda set by the West and its main allies in the Middle East? A bit of both, probably.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were all determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even if it did take six years of civil war. And even though they didn’t agree on what they wanted to replace it with.

Washington pursued the dream of a democratic, secular Syria. Riyadh and Ankara wanted a decisive victory by the Sunni Arab majority (about 60-65 percent of the population) and an authoritarian Islamic state. But they all agreed on the need to overthrow Assad, and left the rest for later.

Syrians from the start were much more ambivalent. Few loved the Assad regime, which was repressive and brutal. But many Syrians – including many Sunni Muslims, especially in the cities – saw the regime as their only protection against the triumph of an even nastier Islamist dictatorship.

There was never a mass uprising in Aleppo against the regime. Various rebel groups from the overwhelmingly Sunni rural areas around Aleppo stormed into the city in 2012 and won control over the eastern half, but it was never clear that the local residents were glad to see them.

On the other hand, it was not a good idea to look too unhappy about it, so over the next four years a great many people left the rebel-held part of the city, whose population gradually dwindled to – well, we don’t know exactly how many remained by this year, but it was certainly not a quarter-million or anywhere near it.

And it would appear that when the Syrian army retook most of eastern Aleppo in the past week, most of those people just stayed in their homes and waited to be “liberated”. Some of them will be terrified of being arrested and tortured, especially if they collaborated with the rebels even under duress. And others will simply be relieved that it’s over.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 11. (“There…outfits”;and “There’s…it”))

“Decisive Storm” Blows Over

Once upon a time big military operations were given obscure names so the enemy wouldn’t guess what the plan was. The German plan for the invasion of France in 1940 was called “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow); the American counter-attack in the Korean War that recovered Seoul was “Operation Chromite”. But then the PR guys got their hands on it.

By the 21st century we were getting dramatic titles like “Desert Storm” (the 1991 Gulf war), and then aspirational ones like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. So it was only natural, when Saudi Arabia decided to bomb the Houthi rebels who had taken over most of Yemen, to name the operation “Decisive Storm”. That sounds nice and decisive, and stormy too.

And when the Saudi military spokesman, Brig-Gen Ahmed al-Asiri, announced on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was calling the bombing campaign off after one month and 2,415 bombing sorties, he naturally claimed that it had been a decisive victory. The bombing had destroyed 80 percent of the Houthis’ “transport lines” (colloquially known as “roads”), and they had also knocked out all of the rebels’ ballistic missiles.

Ballistic missiles? Yes, the Houthis had captured a base outside Sana’a that was home to some Scud B ground-to-ground missiles (range 300 km., vintage 1965), although they might not actually fly after half a century of Yemeni-style maintenance, and they could barely reach the country’s own borders if they did.

Anyway, the Saudi Arabian Air Force took them out, so we can all rest easier now. A Saudi billionaire has even promised to give each of the 100 Saudi pilots involved in the bombing campaign a Bentley (sort of a down-market Rolls-Royce) in gratitude for their efforts.

Moreover, said General al-Amiri, the Houthi militia is no longer in a position to harm civilians. He didn’t actually say so, but you would assume from the context and his manner that Yemen is now at peace, and the Houthis have all gone home to their own tribal territory in the north of Yemen, and Yemen’s legitimate president is safely back in Sana’a, the capital.

What’s that? The legitimate president is still in exile in Saudi Arabia? And the Houthis haven’t gone home either? They still control most of Yemen right down to Aden. And the remainder of the country is now ruled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, except for the bits run by its even nastier Islamist rival, ISIS. How is that a victory?

Have some pity for poor General al-Asiri. He had to say something positive; he works for the government. But the one scene that defines the event was a television studio in Sana’a where a Yemeni news anchor was running a clip of Asiri’s speech. When the anchor comes back on the screen and picks up his script, he can’t say anything. He’s trying to, but he’s corpsing.

He giggles, he snorts, he fans himself with his script, he puts his head on the desk, he completely loses it. And then the people behind the camera start laughing too. This is known in PR-speak as “abject failure”. When you are trying to convince your audience that your bankruptcy was actually a canny tactical move, you do not want them to collapse in hysterical laughter.

What can have possessed Saudi Arabia to launch this foredoomed aerial campaign, and rope in practically every other Sunni Arab state to send a few planes along to help? Mostly, it was simple paranoia. The Saudi Arabian authorities have convinced themselves that the “Shias” (by which they usually mean Iran) are on the offensive, and gobbling up any Arab territories where they can find fellow Shias. The Houthis are Shias. Q.E.D.

There was a lot of talk about Iran supplying arms to the Houthis at the start of the bombing campaign, and the Saudis managed to get almost every other Sunni Arab counry to send a couple of planes along to help. At the end of it, General al-Asiri didn’t mention the Iranians at all. Maybe they all went home (although it would be hard to leave with all the airports shut and the coast under naval blockade). Or maybe they were never there.

Bigger countries have made bigger mistakes and paid quite small prices: the United States invasion of Iraq, for example. Saudi Arabia won’t pay a big price either, for it appears that the grown-ups in Riyadh have intervened after a month and turned the military machine off. No follow-up ground invasion, just a smooth transition to “Operation Restore Hope”, the humanitarian aid they would have provided after they’d won, if they had won.

Saudi Arabia is well out of it, and as outcomes go, it’s less bad than many. Just a bit of advice. Stop using those American-style names for operations. When the United States started using them is when it started fighting dumb wars, and losing them.

STOP PRESS: On Wednesday, the Saudis started bombing again, but just a bit, they said. Oh, well…
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Anyway…efforts”; and “There was…there”)

Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath

11 November 2013

Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath

By Gwynne Dyer

What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.

It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.

The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”

Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.

All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.

One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)

But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.

The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.

Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.

For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.

Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.

Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)

 

Iraq: Civil War at Last?

23 February 2006

Iraq: Civil War at Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

“We must cooperate and work together against this danger…of civil war,” said Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, but others think that the civil war has already arrived. At least 130 people, almost all of them Sunnis, were murdered in reprisal killings, and over a hundred Sunni mosques attacked, in the 24 hours after the destruction of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, sacred to the Shias, on 22 February. But it is not yet time to say that Iraq has slid irrevocably into civil war.

The casualties of the sectarian violence in Iraq are already comparable to those in the Lebanese civil war — a couple of dozen killed on slow days, a hundred or so on the worst days — but Iraq has about eight times as many people as Lebanon, so there is still some distance to go. And Iraq may never go the full distance, because it is hard to hold a proper civil war unless the different ethnic or religious groups hold separate territories.

The Kurds do, of course, and it is unlikely that the fighting will ever spread to the north of what now is Iraq, for Kurdistan is already effectively a separate country with its own army. The Kurds are currently allied with the Shia Arab religious parties of southern Iraq who control politics in the Arabic-speaking eighty percent of Iraq, but even if that alliance broke the Shias could not take back the north. The worst that might happen is ethnic cleansing around Kirkuk and its oilfields, where Saddam Hussein encouraged Arab settlement to erode Kurdish dominance of the area.

Southern Iraq is already controlled by the militias of the Shia religious parties, and has only a small minority of Sunnis. Baghdad and the “Sunni Triangle” in central Iraq are the only potential battlegrounds of an Iraqi civil war, but even there it is hard to have a real civil war, because only one side has an army.

The old, predominantly Sunni Arab army of Iraq was disbanded by proconsul Paul Bremer soon after the American occupation of Iraq. The new army and police force being trained by the US forces are almost entirely Shia (except in Kurdistan, where they are entirely Kurdish). Indeed, many of Iraq’s soldiers are members of existing Shia and Kurdish militias who have been shifted onto the payroll of the state.

So how can you have a civil war? All the Sunnis are capable of at the moment is guerilla attacks and terrorism. Unless really substantial aid and reinforcements come in from other Arab countries, they are unlikely to be able to move beyond that. They can kill some American soldiers (they are currently accounting for about a thousand a year), and they can play a tit-for-tat game of kidnapping and murder with the Shia militias and the Interior Ministry’s death squads, but they cannot really challenge Shia control of Arab Iraq.

Three years after the American invasion of Iraq, it’s possible to discern many of the final results of this “war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab world,” as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called it just before the invasion began. It is a study in unintended consequences, and a good argument for the rule that ideological crusaders must listen to the experts even though they know that their hearts are pure. Those consequences will include: The emergence of an independent Kurdish state in what used to be northern Iraq.

The destruction of the old, secular Iraq, and the installation of a thinly disguised Shia theocracy in the Arabic-speaking parts of the country.

A perpetual, low-grade insurgency by the Sunni Arab minority against the Shia state, but no change in their current desperate circumstances unless neighbouring Arab states become involved.

The destruction of the secular middle class in Arab Iraq. Most of these people are abandoning the country as fast as they can, for they know that all the future holds is Iranian-style social rules plus an unending Sunni insurgency..

The extension of Iran’s power and influence to the borders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The United States has handed Iraq to Iran on a plate.

American troops will remain in Iraq for several years, probably right down to the November, 2008 election, because it is impossible for the Bush administration to pull out without admitting a ghastly blunder. Too many people have died for “sorry” to suffice.

US troops stayed in Vietnam for five years after Richard Nixon was first elected in1968 on a promise to find an “honourable” way out, while Henry Kissinger searched for a formula that would separate US withdrawal from total defeat for its Vietnamese clients by a “decent interval” of a couple of years. Two-thirds of all US casualties in Vietnam occurred during that period. We are probably going to go through that charade again, but it won’t change any of the outcomes.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6 (“So how…Arab Iraq”).