19 January 2014
Syrian Peace Talks
By Gwynne Dyer
It would be interesting to know just what tidbits of information the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has turned up on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He certainly caved in very fast: on Sunday he invited Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria; on Sunday evening the United States loudly objected, and on Monday he obediently uninvited Iran.
So the peace talks get underway in Switzerland this week after all, and the omens for peace are not that bad. Unless, of course, you were also hoping for the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and the emergence of a democratic Syria, in which case the omens are positively awful.
The breakthrough may not happen at Geneva this week, but the Russians and the Americans are now on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Assad). Moreover, some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be fast and it won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will come to Syria within a year or two.
What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.
Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.
The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared that the use of poison gas would cross a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.
Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. After that there was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it on their own.
More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. So far in January more people have been killed in this internecine rebel war (over a thousand) than in the war against the regime. And the US and Russia are working on a deal that would swing most of the non-jihadi rebels over to the regime’s side.
General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield), said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.
He was actually signalling that the Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”
The jihadis are not at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and the Syrian National coalition (the Free Syrian Army’s political front), and a few odds and sods to make up the numbers. It is an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path.
The fighting in Syria will continue for many months, even if a joint front of the regime and the FSA is formed to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones. In practice the end game will probably be even more ragged than that, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years away.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The catalyst…on their own”)
Gwynne Dyer in an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries
26 December 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”
Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week – “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” – nobody laughed.
Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.
“You recognise that you’re going in blind…,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.
The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy,” but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the US government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.
As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.
US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “almost Orwellian”, and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).
Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.
This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.
“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.
Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?
We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: it didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.
Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.
Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.
Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.
But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.
Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on 9 December by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.
There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate – and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.
So far, so good – but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kiev as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time – and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.
The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.
Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.
In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?
And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.
The African continent is emphatically NOT at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.
The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world – except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.
The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.
As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old US-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.
So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10-percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)
And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.
What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.
The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next ten years (no election required), and “Curiosity”, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.
In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.
In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right.)
In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.
To shorten to 1650 words, omit paragraphs 5 (“The bloated…reasons”); 7 and 8 (“US district…hubris”); 19-21 (“There was…Side”); 25 (“The African…strain”); 27 (“As evidence…loudly”); and 31 (“The United…month”).
A further cut to 1100 words can be achieved by omitting paragraphs 11-18 (“Now…weapon”)
23 October 2013
Syria’s Chemical Weapons: Everybody Wins (Except the Syrians)
By Gwynne Dyer
“That prize should have been given to me,” joked Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad shortly after the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 11 October. The guests gathered in his palace in Damascus presumably laughed, out of courtesy to their host, but they all knew that giving up Syria’s chemical weapons hadn’t been Assad’s idea at all.
Al-Akhbar, the Beirut newspaper that reported Assad’s remarks, has close links with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that is supported by Syria and Iran, and it accepted Assad’s regret about the new turn of events at face value. “There is no doubt that the loss of chemical weapons has resulted in a loss of morale and a political loss for Syria,” Assad said.
“Since 2003, Syria has demanded that the countries in the region dismantle their weapons of mass destruction, and the chemical weapons were meant to be a bargaining chip in Syria’s hands in exchange for Israel dismantling its nuclear arsenal,” the Syrian president continued. “Today the price (of the bargaining chip) has changed, and we have agreed to give up our chemical weapons to remove the threat of the US attacking us.”
He’s really doing it, too. Sixty out of a planned hundred OPCW inspectors are already in Syria, and they have made no complaints about a lack of cooperation by Damascus. By the end of this month they will have completed their initial verification visits and confirmed that Syria’s account of its chemical weapons and facilities is accurate and conceals nothing.
They will also have disabled the country’s ability to produce and mix poison gases and load them into actual weapons by then. The work is “cheap, quick and low-tech,” in the words of OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan. The inspectors are just smashing the control panels on the machines that produce and mix the gases, and destroying the munitions that would actually deliver the end product with sledgehammers, grinders and bulldozers.
Significantly, the inspectors have so far found no bombs, shells or missiles that are actually filled with poison gas, which suggests that Syria’s chemical weapons were in a very low state of readiness. It also greatly eases the next phase of the OPCW’s task, the destruction of the actual chemicals, since it is a tricky and dangerous business to extract the liquefied poison gas from a projectile that also contains the explosives to disperse it when it lands.
Syria has an estimated 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemicals: around 300 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a blistering agent, and about 700 tonnes of the nerve agents sarin and VX. But if none of it is “weaponised” (loaded into projectiles), and much of the nerve agent is in “precursor” form, as separate, less toxic components, then OPCW’s goal of finishing the job by mid-2014 seems feasible. Even if it has to be done in the midst of a civil war.
It’s quite clear that Assad did not plan all this. His forces (or somebody else’s) used poison gas in Damascus, though the attack was pointless in military terms. President Barack Obama was trapped by his previous loose talk about an American “red line” into threatening to bomb Syria. And the Russians got Obama off the hook (and saved Assad from a severe pounding) by “persuading” the Syrian leader to renounce his chemical weapons.
But what has Assad really lost? “The chemical weapons, which have lost their deterrent value over the past few years, were meant to be used only after Israel used its nuclear weapons,” he says, but it was never a very credible deterrent. Israel’s unstoppable nuclear weapons could annihilate Syria, whereas the very effective Israeli civil defence organisation would have made mass casualties unlikely even in a worst-case Syrian gas attack.
In any case, Syria’s chemical weapons have indeed now lost whatever deterrent value they ever had, for Israel has acquired good anti-missile defences that would shoot down most incoming Syrian missiles. Syria actually stopped producing new chemical weapons in 1997, Assad said, because they had lost their military usefulness.
After that, they were only a low-value “bargaining chip” to be put on the table in the improbable event of region-wide negotiations on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. (Poison gas is not remotely comparable to nuclear weapons in its destructiveness, but it is technically “WMD”.) But Assad is a very lucky man. He discovered belatedly that his bargaining chip could be traded for something else: immunity from American attack.
So everybody wins. Obama escapes from the new Middle Eastern war that he dreaded. Moscow gets huge diplomatic credit for coming up with the formula that averted that war, and saves its Syrian client as well. Assad regains a measure of respectability by nobly relinquishing his useless chemical weapons. And the OPCW gets the Nobel Peace Prize.
The only losers are the Syrian people on both sides of a dreadful civil war, which looks set to drag on indefinitely.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“Al-Akhbar…said”; and “They…bulldozers”)
9 October 2013
Meanwhile, Back in Iraq…
By Gwynne Dyer
The media spotlight on the Arab world shifts focus almost every month: counter-revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, an American raid in Libya… It rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.
Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for ten years for selling novelty hand-held golf-ball detectors (cost $20) to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors (cost $40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don’t even have a power source. This tells you all you need to know about the situation in the country
It’s not because the Iraqis are unaware of the problem. McCormick allegedly received $75 million from the Iraqi government for the useless toys, and at least a third of that amount would have gone as kickbacks to the government officials who signed off on the deal. That much lolly was bound to attract the jealousy of rival government officials, and so there has indeed been an Iraqi investigation into the deal.
Three local culprits, including Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, the head of the Defence Ministry’s directorate of combat explosives, even went to jail over the crime. (They were probably insufficiently generous in sharing their good fortune with other high office-holders.) But as late as last May Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was still insisting that the “ADE-651” golf-ball detectors were effective – and they are still in widespread use today.
This is beyond bizarre, because Iraq is currently losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism.
The fear now is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well. Maliki’s government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls only about half the country. The Kurds, who would really rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.
There has been a revolution in Iraq in the past decade, although it was not the democratic one that the American invaders thought they were bringing. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, they also ended many centuries of domination by the Sunni Arab minority. Now it’s Shia Arabs who rule the roost, and the Sunnis are largely frozen out of the government, the army, and the civil service.
That may be even more important in alienating the Sunni community from the post-American settlement than the constant arrests and torture of Sunnis suspected of anti-government activity. Unemployment in Iraq is 30 percent, and half the jobs that do exist are in the gift of the government. They almost all go to Shias, and the Sunnis have fallen on very hard times.
Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations – another by-product of the American occupation – were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.
Then in April the Iraqi (i.e. Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some of them were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.
This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the American occupation, when some 3,000 people were being killed each month, and the government is doing nothing effective to stop it. But then, the government does nothing effective in any domain.
The Iraq government gets $100 billion a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees, a large majority of whom either don’t show up for work at all, or fail to do any useful work when they get there. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the government’s own senior officials.
The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them. Until the question of which people has been decided, nothing will be done.
The soldiers and police using them in the streets don’t mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn’t detect bombs is just fine with them.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“There has…hard times”)