Friday, December 25, 2015

New Year Retrospective: How Catastrophe Was Manufactured In Syria

New Year Retrospective: How Catastrophe Was Manufactured In Syria
                                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

The year end image etched on my mind is not of the US-Russian chess games in Syria but of how I saw the crisis being manufactured in that blighted land. Let me take advantage of the New Year and revisit stories to give you a perspective.

On December 10, 2010 Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire after his trawler with meagre merchandize of grocery was upturned by a Tunisian police woman, igniting what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

The uprising took a toll of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and of the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak. When the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned from convalescence in Europe, he could not believe his eyes. Two American friends had been dethroned. Who would be next?

In panic he charged off to his Kingdom. He was going to take no chances. Just in case his own people turned against him, he rained $135 billion on the people, a sort of opiate to keep them away from revolutionary temptation. No monarchies in the region would be allowed to fall, he declared.

If protective walls were to be erected around Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, where would the tidal wave of Arab Spring be directed?

All the countries listed above have been squarely in the American camp since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Iraq, Syria, Libya were all in the Soviet camp. Therefore as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the plan to settle scores with the recalcitrants was set into motion by launching operation Desert Storm in Iraq in February 1991 ostensibly to force Saddam Hussain to vacate Kuwait which he had occupied. The more important reason was to signal America’s arrival as the sole superpower.

The “sole superpower” moment did not last long. Economic downturn since 2008, the rise of China, resurgent Russia, decline of Europe, all contributed to a world in flux.

In a world so configured, regime change in Syria became a difficult proposition.

Why was regime change in Damascus required? Because that would break the Iran, Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas chain. Israel, US and Saudi Arabia were keen.

It would weaken Iran which Israel and Saudi Arabia saw as an existential threat.

Also, neither Israel nor the Saudis were keen to have in their vicinity efficient dictatorships as possible role models.

In 2003, the Sole Superpower had occupied Iraq. 2011 was another world. With Afghanistan, Iraq, the economy not going well, the plan for Syria was less grand.

Led by Saudi Arabia, countries abutting Syria would nurture anti Assad groups inside Syria. US, France and Britain would provide military training and, ofcourse, arms.

I was on my way to West Asia when a remarkable article by James Glanz and John Markoff in The New York Times confirmed my worst fears. It read.
“The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.” Washington was four square behind dissidents in Syria.

“The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cell phone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase” – all part of what is being called “Liberation technology movement”.

“The suitcase can be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.”

“The State Department is financing the creation of stealth wireless networks that would enable activists to communicate outside the reach in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya.”

This was the state of play when I found myself in Damascus in the company of Edward Lionel Peck, an Arabist and a former US diplomat with 32 years of experience in the Arab world.

We had driven to Hama in West Central Syria which has traditionally been a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. The President’s father, Hafez al Assad had once brutally quelled a rebellion in Hama, killing thousands.

The place looked sullen but under control. We were advised against visiting Homs, on the Lebanese border because of disturbed conditions. This was in August 2011. In other words, Syrian restiveness fuelled by outside help was beginning to destablize parts of the country.

One had to be careful to venture out far from Damascus. That is why I was astonished that US ambassador Robert Stephen Ford and his French counterpart were driving to the most disturbed areas of the country. They would collect groups and address them. It was extraordinary. Here were foreign diplomats openly stirring up trouble in a foreign land.

Ed Peck, quite as amazed at the spectacle his country’s ambassador was making of himself, wrote the following to a friend:
“I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in - and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will, that is still going on.  It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here.  I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive, and is sliding into just plain rampant and offensive arrogance.”

The Syrian story will be with us for years. Next time Syria pops out of the TV screens or the newspapers, do reflect on this new year retrospective on how the catastrophe was manufactured.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

Is There A Kerry-Lavrov Understanding, Faltering But Steady?

Is There A Kerry-Lavrov Understanding, Faltering But Steady?
                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

Right wing opinion in the US with Think Tanks like Brookings in the Vanguard is now firm: Shia-Sunni conflict will define West Asian politics in the foreseeable future. The way the dice is loaded at the moment, the West sees its interests served best in alliance with the Sunnis. There is an unstated acceptance of Sunni terrorism as an asset.

At a recent seminar in New Delhi, Strobe Talbott, Deputy Secretary of State with President Bill Clinton, minced no words: Moscow will be made to pay by Sunni Muslims in Russia’s backyard for what Putin is doing in Syria.

The implication is that Russian intervention in Syria is decisively helping President Bashar al Assad to remain in power. In the altered vocabulary in West Asia, Assad is not a Baathist but an Alawite leader and Alawites are a variety of Shia who are mortal enemies of Sunnis.

What Talbott is implying is this: for the reverses being heaped on them, the Sunnis are going to take revenge on Russia. Muslim populations across the Caucasus would plague Putin with masterstrokes of terrorism.

When ex Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan turned up at the Kremlin on July 31, 2013, his conversation with Putin contained just the sort of threat Strobe Talbott’s response exuded. If only Putin would give him Assad’s head on a platter, Bandar would give him the moon. Sochi Winter Olympics would pass without a terrorist incident. Bandar claimed considerable control on terrorist groups in the region.

Americans are miffed that all their efforts at regime change in Damascus atleast since August 2011 have been in vain. How many times ex Secretary of State and now Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, imperiously waved her hand: “Get out of the way Assad.”

Well, Assad is still in the Damascus Presidential Palace, exactly as this column had predicted in September 2011. The argument was straightforward. The US had occupied Iraq in April 2003. It had dismantled the Baath Party structure, the army, Presidential guards, the mukhabirat (intelligence), stayed in Iraq for over a decade and then left without any identifiable war aims achieved.

Yes, the Shias in the south oppressed, by Saddam Hussain, were thrilled. Naturally they co-operated – but only upto a point. So moved was Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that he recommended Ayatullah Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize.

If the Iraqi melodrama now in its twelfth year, has not yet concluded to American advantage, how would Assad, controlling a power structure which is the mirror image of Baghdad, be dislodged by mere cross border terrorism, armed and supported by regional powers and their western patrons but who have, in the midst of battle, been at cross purposes.

Eversince the Russians entered Syria everybody’s bluff is being called. The most embarrassed of the lot has been US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter. Militants being trained by US officers, surrendered their weapons to heaven knows who and sought safe passage.

Carter had to sheepishly announce to the media that a secret $500 million training programme in Syria has been abandoned. Other, unreported projects in Syria are apparently in similar disrepair. In a Congressional hearing, Senator John McCain asked Carter: “what evidence do you have that the IS was being defeated.” A flustered Defence Secretary said: “Momentum was being built against the IS.”

Meanwhile, Carter’s counterpart in the State Department has proceeded deftly in a terrain full of mines. Unadvertised, the Kerry-Lavrov duet had since their May 12 joint announcement worked towards a political settlement in Damascus. Like good diplomats they proceeded with a script which could be given a suitable spin in Washington as well as in Moscow.

Lavrov could say that Assad will be required in the interim but the future of Syria will be determined by the Syrian people. Kerry meanwhile could cope with Saudi Arabia’s tantrums by saying that Assad’s future was in the balance. In essence Lavrov’s and Kerry’s formulations do not contradict each other.

Under this over all understanding, a ceasefire has been declared in Yemen. Saudis and the Houthis are talking.

The long standing impasse on naming the Lebanese President has been broken. Suleiman Frangieh could well be the consensus candidate.

The US signal to regional players to form an Arab army to fight the IS has prompted the Saudis to scramble and announce an army without soldiers. Various countries, including Pakistan, in the Saudi list have denied they were ever consulted.

Why this Saudi impatience to announce an Arab army without any prior consultations? What is the Saudi anxiety? The answer may lie in a counter question: which is the battle ready Arab army with an incentive to destroy the IS? The Syrian army, ofcourse.

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Right in France, Left in Madrid because Voters disgusted with establishments

The astonishing success of the far-right National Front in France is part of a global trend  challenging  establishments.  Neither the far-Left nor far-Right have been universally embraced. But the voter everywhere is expressing his exhasperation with the two party system which has its apron strings tied to corporates and, thereby, to international finance.

Two-party systems are as old as the hills, but the ones in bad odour with the electorate are part of the post Soviet world order erected directly or indirectly, under American auspices. This world order did not come riding a crest of democracy and human rights. It was brazenly sold as the triumph of the market. Capitalism, it was, that had won.

The popular imagination shaped by the market mythology found the 2008 collapse of capitalism’s citadel, Lehman Brothers, inexpicable. The economic downturn would just not be arrested.

The first installment of Manmohan Singh’s Prime Ministerial year from 2004 to 2009 glided smoothly because not only was the global economy holding but also free market excesses were being kept in check by a large contingent of Left parties supporting the government.

The second term was so badly tainted by corruption and a popular disgust with the Gandhi      family that the corporates switched. They mounted the world’s most expensive media campaign which brought Narendra Modi to power.

While the corporates imagined Modi would do their bidding (give them unfettered access to, for instances, mines, that tribals jealously guard), the voter experienced a huge anti climax. He had brought down Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family. This one negative act, had the consequence of placing Modi on the Prime Ministerial gaddi.

What erupted as a record success of AAP in Delhi was actually the voter’s realization that he is hemmed into a system of two parties which, post poll, are controlled by the same set of interests – the corporates. Whether AAP falls in that category will be known later.

There is good reason why the two premier political parties in India are frequently described as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

The shocking endorsement of Marine Le Pen by the French voter does not necessarily signal a dark cloud of racism over France. Le Pen is the beneficiary of terrorist attacks in Paris three weeks ago. Had elections taken place in the shadow of some economic debacle, a major corporate scandal, elements of the French Left would have asserted themselves. Electorate in other words is not rushing towards something it likes. It is demonstrating a sense of fatigue with what has been its lot for too long.
Even the Tweedledum – Tweedledee image fits nicely. Francois Hollande’s Socialist party has decided to withdrew from the second round of voting this Sunday (December 13), so that his floating voters can help the Republican Right’s Nicolas Sarkozy  prevent the National Front from winning. The future of refugees from Syria is tragically in the balance.

I saw a completely different picture in Madrid. A placard, as big as a cinema screen, is pinned on  the facade of the newly elected communist Mayor’s office : Refugees Welcome. This is the sentiment in Valencia, Barcelona. Photographs of Pablo Iglesias, charismatic leader of Podemos, the communist party are common. The party did well in a different context. Spain’s economic predicament was desperate. Over 55 percent of the under 35 years were unemployed. Its speculative builders had, with government help, built 40 million housing units, more than the total constructed by UK, France and Germany. The bubble burst in 2009 and angry  demonstrators crowded the city squares. The political system imploded. It is in this mood and the shadow of Catalan separatism that Spain awaits its historic general election on December 20.

The establishment, including the media is still throwing its weight behind the discredited Peoples Party and the Spanish Socialist Party. Do Podemos- like electoral eruptions have the strength to take on the might of well entrenched establishments? This is precisely what will be on test in the December elections.

While Podemos takes heart from the fact that the Communist Party is part of the ruling coalition in Portugal, the compromises made by Styriza, the Communist Party of Greece, have demoralized left forces in Europe.

The important point is the widespread disenchantment with the post cold war structures erected in the name of democracy and the unfulfilled promise of never ending boom for the market.

Jeremy Corbyn in UK, the Scottish vote for separation, Joko Widodo as a surprise President of Indonesia and a host of others are all symptomatic of popular restiveness with established structures.

Who knows the world may be inching towards the Day of Judgement. Why are Pundits not giving eredence to the fact that Donald Trump is front runner for the Republican nomination – atleast at the moment.

The media may have blacked out Bernie Sanders but he is  giving Hillary Clinton the run for her money. Wall Street Journal, reports that 18 to 29 year olds polled by the Harvard Institute of politics prefer anti establishment candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. While 35% favoured Clinton, 41% favoured her insurgent challenger Sanders.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Around The Syrian Theatre Many Engaging Side Shows

Around The Syrian Theatre Many Engaging Side Shows
                                                                        Saeed Naqvi
The world’s attention has been kept away from engaging side shows because of the centrality of the Syrian drama.

The position of Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is not very different from that of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. Neither are popular with their countrymen. They have been placed on the thrones by machinations in the name of democracy.

In Iraq, this meant popular unrest, frequent demonstrations against lack of governance, corruption. Now quite openly, the Prime Minister is being described as an “American lackey”.

In the powerful Shia centres of Najaf and Karbala there is a growing conviction that the Prime Minister is not allowing the Russians to act in Iraq on the basis of an earlier Treaty of friendship between the two countries.

To soften public opinion, Prime Minister Abadi is trying to enlist the support of the powerful clergy in Najaf. His overtures have so far been spurned. In desperation, Abadi turned up in Najaf without a prior appointment with Ayatullah Ali Sistani. He was sent back.

A shaky Prime Minister is also not responding to US pressure to attack the IS in Ramadi. Coteries have begun to condition his moves.

There is a clear reason for Abadi’s reluctance to act in Ramadi. In March, Shia militias supported by Iran, had cornered a powerful ISIS contingent in Tikrit. The US pressured Abadi to abort the Tikrit operation. The reason given was that a victory of Shia militias in Tikrit would create sectarian complications in the region. Saudi Arabia would throw a fit.

Facts which surfaced later were quite different. Yes, sectarianism may have received a boost, but the basic reason why the siege had to be called off was Riyadh’s anxiety on another count: important Saudi assets, holed up in Tikrit, had to be given them safe passage. That is why the Tikrit operation had to be taken away from the hands of Shia militia.

The Wall Street Journal reported: “Iraq began its attack without alerting the US or its partners. Instead, Iran played a leading role, in guiding Shia militias and providing weapons.”

Americans and the Iranians gave their own versions. US spokesmen said the Shia advance on Tikrit got stalled prompting the Iraqi government to seek US air support.

Iran’s version was quite different: US brought pressure on Baghdad to withdraw Shia militias from Tikrit. Only then would the US launch air strikes.

What is the truth? An American field commander gave the game away. “Iraq is going to have to decide who they want to partner with. We’ve been demonstrating all across the country and now in Tikrit, that we are good and able partners.”

“The good and able partner” is now pressing Abadi to knock ISIS out of Ramadi but Abadi’s military is dragging its feet. After the experience of Tikrit, the military’s caution is understandable. Sections of the army work closely with a host of Shia militias, who would not like to be seen fighting ISIS virtually in an exclusively Sunni enclave amplifying Shia-Sunni conflict. While for the West and its regional allies like Riyadh the Sunni-Shia divide is strategically advantageous, the line from Iran and Najaf is to play down sectarianism.

Another sideshow is being mounted by the Saudis in Riyadh from December 11 to 14. Atleast 65 Syrian opposition groups have been invited to attend the Riyadh conference. But opposition unity has been punctured at the very outset by Turkey which insists that some members of Kurdish Democratic Union party, invited by Riyadh, must not be allowed to attend. Names of other invitees will likewise cause contention. When Lakhdar Brahimi was the UN representative in Syria, several attempts to send coherent opposition groups to Geneva failed.

It must be assumed that most of Saudi assets in Syria will be present in Riyadh. But did Saudi Arabia ever sponsor moderate groups in Syria? Were groups in bed with the ISIS in Tikrit in March and for whom Saudis sought safe passage “moderate”?

To sort out the moderate-extremist dilemma, an even more interesting side show is being played in the secret chambers of the Royal Palace in Amman. King Abdullah of Jordan is in a bit of a spot here.

At the Vienna conference held on November 14, a day after the Paris terror attacks, the question of identifying terrorist groups was raised. An earlier meeting, held on October 30 in Vienna, had issued a communiqué which states: “Daesh (Islamic State), and other terrorist groups, as designated by the UN Security Council, and further, as agreed by the participants, must be defeated.” This communiqué was issued after Russia’s entry in the Syrian theatre.

The mention of “other terrorist groups” at October 30 Vienna communiqué, provided the alert Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with just the opening required to identify terrorist groups who float in and out of ISIS and are maintained by regional and western groups as their assets.

Promptly, King Abdullah was given the task to identify “terrorist groups”. He must surely pry into the Riyadh conference for a plentiful catch of groups whom he will alas not be able to name because they will all be tied to the apron strings of his patrons like the House of Saud.

Other sideshows have been less transparent for obvious reasons. Saudi war on Yemen introduced new codes of ethics in contemporary warfare when Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadoran, Chilean and Mexican soldiers were enlisted to fight the war. Huffington Post quotes proliferation expert William Hartung, that the US government has trained 30,000 soldiers from Latin American countries which make up the mercenary force in Yemen.

Meanwhile French and German intelligence have been in touch with their Syrian counterpart seeking help in separating the “good” refugees from the “bad” entering Europe. A Syrian demand that they talk “officially” by reopening missions in Damascus has been half met. The two European countries will open interest sections in the Czech embassy in Damascus.

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