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Syria

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After the Iran Nuclear Deal

The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.

If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.

Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.

So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.

Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.

There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?

Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.

That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.

But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.

The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.

By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.

So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)

Syria: The Last Chance Saloon

The fall of Ramadi to Islamic State troops last Wednesday was not a big deal. The city was deep inside IS-held territory, IS fighters had controlled 80 percent of it since March, and we already knew that the Iraqi army can’t fight. Even so, Islamic State is not going to take much more of Iraq. What it doesn’t already hold is either Shia or just not Arab at all (Kurdistan), and that is not fertile ground for Sunni Arab fanatics.

The fall of Palmyra on Friday was a very big deal, because it was clear evidence that the Syrian army’s morale is starting to crumble. It was doing quite well until last summer and even regaining ground from the insurgents, but the tide has now turned. After every defeat and retreat, it gives up more easily at the next stop. It may be too late already, but at best the Syrian regime is now in the Last Chance Saloon.

The Syrian army is very tired and short of manpower after four years of war, but what is really making the difference is that the insurgents are now united in two powerful groups rather than being split into dozens of bickering fragments. Unfortunately, both of those groups are Islamist fanatics.

The Al Nusra Front had to fight very hard for Idlib, the northwestern provincial capital, in March, but Islamic State met little resistance when it took over the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk in April. And Palmyra and the adjacent gas fields, which the regime fought for months to defend last year, fell to Islamic State this month after just four days.

It’s never possible to say when a hard-pressed army will actually collapse, but the Syrian army is now in zone. If the Assad regime does go under, Islamic State and the Nusra Front will take over all of Syria. What happens next would be very ugly.

Islamic State and the Nusra Front are both “takfiri” groups who believe that Muslims who do not follow their own extreme version of Sunni Islam are “apostates”, not real Muslims, and that they deserve to be killed. Around one-fifth of Syria’s population are “apostates” by this definition – Alawites and other Shias – and so are the Druze and Chrisian minorities. They are all at great risk.

True, the Nusra Front has been less outspoken about its intentions than Islamic State, but that’s just a question of timing and tactics. The basic ideology is the same, and the Nusra Front in power would be committed by its own religious beliefs to exactly the same murderous “cleansing” of the population. When religious fanatics tell you they intend to do something, it is wise to take them seriously.

An Islamist victory in Syria could entail the death of millions. It would also cause panic in the neighbouring Arab countries, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Yet no nearby Arab country will put troops into Syria to stop the looming disaster, because they cannot imagine fighting fellow Sunnis in Syria, however extreme their doctrine, in order to save the Shia regime of Bashar al Assad.

You don’t get the choices you would like to have. You only get the choices that are on the table, even if you are the president of the world’s only superpower. At this point Barack Obama has only two options: save the Syrian regime, or let it go under and live with the consequences.

It’s not even clear that he can save it. He cannot and should not put American troops on the ground in Syria, but he could provide military and economic aid to the Syrian regime – and, more importantly, put US airpower at the service of the Syrian army.

Even that might not save Assad’s regime, but it would certainly help the morale of the army and the two-thirds of the population that still lives under his rule. With more and better weapons and US air support, the Syrian army might be able to catch its breath and regain its balance. It would be a gamble, and if Obama did that he would be alienating two major allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But if he doesn’t do it, very bad things may follow.

US planes are already bombing Islamic State (and the Nusra Front too, in practice) all over northern Syria, but they did not bomb the IS troops attacking Palmyra. That was a deliberate decision, not an oversight, even though Palmyra would probably not have fallen if Obama had given the order.

The US President didn’t do that because he is still stuck in the fantasy-land of an American-trained “third force” that will defeat both Islamic State and the Assad regime in a couple of years’ time. Saving the Syrian regime is a deeply unattractive choice, because it is a brutally repressive dictatorship. Its only redeeming virtues are that it is not genocidal, and does not threaten all of the neighbours.

Obama may have as little as a couple of months to come to terms with reality and make a decision. Waiting until the Syrian regime is already falling to intervene is not a good option; decision time is now. His reluctance to decide is entirely understandable, but rescuing Assad is the least bad option.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 7. (“The al Nusra…ugly”; and “True…seriously”)

Franchise Wars

You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.

In the beginning there was Al Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organisation with Al Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organisations.

It was Al Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organisation for protection.

Al Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front grew very fast – so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.

Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.

Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire – and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.

The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.

Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority – even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.

That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.

Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the al Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.

So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
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To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 4 and 11. (“It was…protection”; and “That includes…categories”)

The Armenian Genocide

It is with great reluctance that I write about the Armenian genocide, as I know from experience that what I say will infuriate both sides. But it is the hundredth anniversary of the catastrophe this month, and Pope Francis has just declared that the mass killing of Armenian citizens of the Ottoman empire in 1915 was indeed a genocide. Turkey, predictably, has responded by withdrawing its ambassador from the Vatican.

Well, surprise! We’ve been listening to this argument for several generations now, and it rarely gets much further than “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Unfortunately, I know a lot more about it than that.

Ages ago, when I was a history graduate student doing research about Turkey’s role in the First World War, I got into the Turkish General Staff archives in Ankara and found the actual telegrams (written in the old riqa script) that went back and forth between Istanbul and eastern Anatolia in the spring of 1915.

Later on I saw the British and Russian documents on their plans for joint action with Armenian revolutionaries in the spring of 1915, so I also know the context in which the Turks and Armenians were acting. And I can say with some confidence that both sides are wrong.

There was an Armenian genocide. Of course there was. When up to 800,000 people from a single ethnic and religious community die from violence, hunger or exposure in a short time, and they are under guard by armed men from a different ethnicity and religion at the time, it’s an open-and-shut case. (Today’s Armenians say 1.5 million died in 1915, but that’s too high. It could be as few as half a million, but 800,000 is plausible.)

On the other hand, the Armenians desperately want their tragedy to be seen in the same light as the Nazi attempt to exterminate the European Jews, and won’t settle for anything less. But what happened to the Armenians was not pre-planned by the Turkish government, and there was provocation from the Armenian side. That doesn’t remotely begin to justify what happened, but it does put the Turks in a somewhat different light.

A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only 10 percent of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. The Russians didn’t follow right away – poor generalship – but the Turks had almost nothing left to stop them if they did. The Turks scrambled to put some kind of defensive line together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

Various revolutionary Armenian groups had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Learning that the Turks had retreated in disarray, some groups assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

Similarly the Armenian revolutionary groups further south, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on the Turkish south coast near Adana. Quite late in the day the British switched their planned invasion much further west to Gallipoli, but once again some of the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

Enver Pasha and his colleagues in Istanbul simply panicked. If the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. (There was no railway yet.) And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were confined in once they arrived in Syria. It was genocide through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it cannot be compared to what happened to the European Jews. Indeed the large Armenian community in Istanbul, far from the military operations in eastern Anatolia, survived the war virtually unharmed.

If the Turks had only had the sense to admit what really happened fifty or seventy-five years ago, there would be no controversy now. The only duty of the current generation is to acknowledge the past, not to fix it (as if they could). Instead there has been a hundred years of blank denial, which is why the issue is still on the international agenda. It will stay there until the Turks finally come to terms with their past.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 10. (“Well…that”; “Later…wrong”; and “Similarly…anyway”)