Friday, September 27, 2019


Successful Attack On Aramco Possible Only With Help Inside The Kingdom
                                                                                          Saeed Naqvi

In a world where the victor’s narrative prevails, there is not even grudging acceptance of the truth that the ‘confident and over lusty’ Saudi’s were trounced in the oil fields of Aramco in the eastern province. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who peers through his binoculars 24X7, instantly raised his finger: “Iran”.

If Iran was the source from where the drones came, where were all the $ trillions worth of defensive batteries sold by the US to protect the very citadel of world oil? Or is it even more humiliating to accept reversal at the hands of an impoverished, ill equipped adversary? Asymmetric victories as in David and Goliath, are demoralizing for arms merchants. In such success, ingenuity trumps vast arsenals.

In recent years, the west has quite unambiguously placed, Houthis, Zaidis, indeed, Yemenis in a huge pile called Shias. The Shia-Sunni faultline has been attempted by East-Coast strategists eversince the Ayatullahs ousted the Shah in 1979 and the Saudis began to have palpitations at the sight of a rival pole in Tehran, as a result of a fracture in the Ummah.

The external fracture was severely compounded by an internal one when extremists opposed to Wahabism occupied the holy mosque at Mecca, demanding that the House of Saud vacate the holy shrines. In the ensuing battle, over 130 people were killed. American and French military help was needed. It must be put down to obsequiousness, a worship of Saudi petro dollars that details of how the West helped lift the siege of Mecca have been removed from the narrative.

It is common knowledge that Saudis do not allow non-Muslims in the city of Mecca, leave alone the great mosque. How then did western, Christian soldiers enter the mosque? Regular Mullahs were mobilized to help them recite the “Kalima”, an essential pre condition for conversion to Islam. Faiths were changed to save the mosque and the face of the House of Saud.

While the revolution in Iran and in Mecca took place simultaneously in 1979, it is the latter event which gives the Saudis nightmares to this day. The enunciation of the Shia-Sunni faultline became possible after the revolution in Tehran. This is supposed to have subsumed the Israel–Palestinian faultiline a turn that is useful to Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

In contemporary diplomacy, where propaganda is all, Israeli publicity lists Hamas in the nasty Iran, Hezbollah, Syria (Alawi) Shia axis when everybody knows that Hamas is 100 percent Sunni. What worries Riyadh and Tel Aviv is something more fundamental. Hamas is Mulsim Brotherhood with deep links in Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.

If Yemen is Shia, why was Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, present King Salman’s brother, busy building up a Mujahideen force in Yemen at the same time he was creating such a power in Afghanistan? What was the link?

American expertise, Saudi money and huge Pakistani logistical help created the Mujahideen in Afghanistan who helped expel the Soviets in 1989. It is a measure of the low esteem in which sub continental Muslims are held by the Saudi ruling class, that Naif considered religious zeal being instilled in the Afghan-Mujahideen as a temporary requirement. For the long term, thoroughbred Arabs had to be trained in Yemen because here too there was a real and present “Soviet danger”, in the context of the Cold War.

Aden and Southern Yemen had in 1967 come under Egyptian-Nasserite, and therefore Soviet influence. Naif’s countermove is the origin of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

When Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman rained bombs on Sanaa, past four years, he may not be aware that he was bruising a city continuously inhabited for 2,500 years. Prophet Mohammad sent his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as the Qazi of Sanaa. The old city of Sanaa reminded me of Jaisalmer, its narrow lanes hemmed in by multistoryed structures. The facades of these high structure have exquisite geometrical designs. Suited to Jaisalmer’s harsh summers, on the other hand the fa├žade, without colourful design, is easy on the eye because it does not reflect any light.

The Shia-Sunni narrative in Yemen is not straightforward. When Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Ataturk disbanded the Khilafat after World War-I, a system of Imamate continued in Yemen until 1962. A system of Imams leading the community is internal to Shias who may be segregated between those looking upto twelve or seven or an endless line of Imams. Iranian, sub continental, Lebanese, Kuwaiti or Bahrain Shias are known as Isna Ashari or twelvers.

Zayd Ibn Ali, brother of Muhammad al Baqir, the fifth Imam, did not accept the twelve system and shifted base to Yemen giving rise to a whole Zaidi sect. This unique Imamate lasted till 1962.

Since Ali, the first Imam, was the Qazi of Sanaa in 630 where he built a handsome mosque, Zaid could claim that affiliation too. But Yemen was constantly in the eye of the storm because of the shifting Saudi politics. Its personality was riven between its innate Shia roots and external Wahabi pressures.

This was the confusing maze, when MbS, his fingers burnt in Syria, embarked on a war in Yemen. Americans gleefully encouraged the war to sell arms to the prince of all narcissists. The war has been a disgraceful stalemate for the Crown Prince. Doggedly battling uneven odds the Houthis (Zaidis who derive their name from their leader Abdul Malik al Houthi) are improving by the day as warriors, fighting for their ancient land, and their faith, which in these four years has by association with the Iranians, been more firmed up with Shias. The Saudis have thrown into the battle money and mercenaries even from such far off places as Colombia and Peru. After the attack on Abqaiq, Aramco, Houthi armed forces duly claimed responsibility: “This operation came after an accurate intelligence operation and advance monitoring and cooperation of honorable and free men within the Kingdom.”

Phrase “within the Kingdom” will give Riyadh sleepless nights for months to come.

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Ill Wind For West: Houthis Hit Aramco, Netanyahu Wobbles


Ill Wind For West: Houthis Hit Aramco, Netanyahu Wobbles
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

Attack on Aramco, decline of Benjamin Netanyahu, departure of John Bolton from the White House are all honeyed music to the leadership in Iran. In April, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a talk at New York’s Asia Society, was categorical: dialogue with Washington was not possible because the “B” team wanted war with Iran. The “B” team was Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, (Mohammad) bin Salman and (Mohammed) bin Zayed. And now the “B” team has disintegrated.

Many foreign technicians are engaged to operate oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. It is interesting that they were not hit. Loss of American lives would have provoked retaliation in Washington. This, though, would not have been the first time the US and British personnel were killed. Over 30 foreigners lost their lives when Islamist extremists attacked three compounds in Riyadh in May, 2003.

That however was a totally different circumstance. There was anger at foreign military personnel on the land which houses Mecca and Medina. The attacks took place within a month of the US occupation of Iraq. The Saudis involved in the attack on the Riyadh compounds were no different from the ones who flew into the twin-towers on September 11.

This time the Saudis who have been relentlessly pummeling Yemen for nearly five years, creating a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions are getting their just desserts.

Since news of military reversals is never aired in a society as closed as the Saudis, regimes end up underestimating the tenacity of their adversaries. Ingenuity comes in where military hardware is lacking. It was ingenuity which caused the great Mervaka tank in the Israeli armory look so vulnerable while confronting the Hezbollah in the 2006 war. Also, just the other day, on June 20 to be precise, an inexpensively configured Iranian drone brought down a $15.9 million US drone in the Gulf.

The drone attack by the Houthis on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqyaq, is devastating for the Saudis, ofcourse. But it is much more worrying for the American military industrial complex. The question uppermost in the minds of the Saudi ruling elite will be: $ trillions of Western arms which we have bought over the years cannot protect “our crown jewels?” the US arms market may take a profound hit worldwide, not a happy development when Trump is looking for deep pockets to clean out the Chinese in the trade war.

A weakened Netanyahu is further bad news for the “B” team. No cooing dove himself but his high tolerance level for outlandish schools of thought as his projected partners was harmful for Israeli image worldwide.

Netanyahu is not a very “likeable” person. This was seen as one of the ingredients in the anti Semitism sweeping through the western world. The persistent lobbying by the Israeli leader to demonize Iran has not worked. Indeed, it has boomeranged. In fact, he himself has had egg on his face as, for instance, at the high powered conference in Warsaw past February with the known purpose of isolating Iran. Russia slammed the planned meeting at the very outset as “counterproductive” because of its obsession with Iran.

The conference collapsed after Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, crossed all possible diplomatic red lines. “Poles suckled anti Semitism from their mother’s milk” he accused his hosts. The conference was in tatters. A meeting scheduled in Jerusalem to carry forward ideas from Warsaw was cancelled. Can you blame Poles for nursing a guilt for which they are so publicly insulted?

Here is an opportunity for the leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz to make Israel not just feared but also loved. I have in years past travelled around the length and breadth of the Israel, Gaza, the West Bank with my dear friend, the late Eric Silver. Israel then was never a harsh, forbidding place it appeared to be in the Netanyahu years.

Just after Trump was elected President, two grand old men, leaders of the strategic community, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski turned up in Oslo as guests of the Nobel Foundation. I could distil two points from their punditry: that the principal task of US foreign policy was to keep two points of the compass, Beijing and Moscow, as far apart from each other as possible. It is clear as day light that not only are the two points not far from each other, but they are getting increasing intertwined. The second point had even greater urgency. The Arab-Israeli faultline was losing saliency to the Shia-Sunni faultline. There was an assumption that the Sunnis, being numerically superior, would in the end prevail. And with US and Israeli support, they could ask for the moon.

To get the calculations right one must set aside Indonesia, world’s largest Muslim country and Malaysia, both Sunni but different from the Arab world. In Indonesia, particularly, there is a quaint coexistence of Islam and Hindu culture. Even though Islam is the religion of an overwhelming majority, Mahabharata and Ramayana define the nation’s culture.

The Gulf Co-operation Council or the GCC put their heads together largely in response to the Iranian revolution of 1979. But it is far from a Wahabi-Salafi dominated homogenous group. In Bahrain, the conflict is unique: an 80% majority Shia population is treated by the Wahabi ruling Sheikhs as the only opposition. In 2011, when the Arab spring was in the air, US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman had very nearly worked out a power sharing arrangement between the Sheikh and the main opposition. The arrangement was scuttled by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who saw any arrangement with Shias as a compact with Iran and therefore the devil. He saw Iran as “the head of a snake which had to be cut off.”

Has this approach worked for the Saudis? They are sitting on a heap of rubble in Yemen, in Aramco and in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, has consolidated itself with Hezbollah in Beirut, Hashd al-Shaabi (in Iraq) and the Houthis in Yemen. Will this be sufficient provocation for the scattered “B” team to regroup?

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Friday, September 6, 2019

Is Ladakh Part Of The Buddhist Ring Encircling China?


Is Ladakh Part Of The Buddhist Ring Encircling China?
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Hardline Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have celebrated the creation of a new Buddhist entity in Ladakh. It is an optical illusion that Jammu and Kashmir has been neatly divided into Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, that is, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist entities. The projection of Ladakh as purely Buddhist is odd because in the combined population of Kargil and Leh, Muslims are a majority according to the 2011 census.

New Delhi has also been keeping a steady gaze on Sri Lanka where Buddhist, Muslim and Christian factors came into play during the April 21, Easter Sunday massacre. Indian Intelligence had alerted their counterparts in Colombo as early as April 4 that a major act of terror would be executed in the island nation, possibly near Easter. When the bombs were detonated in Colombo’s Churches and hotels killing nearly 300 people and injuring 500 more. Indian Intelligence looked very impressive after the event. Then Intelligence agencies from the US, UK, Israel, Australia, India, all descended on Colombo with state of the art technology. Everyone was out to hold Colombo’s hand. A petrified establishment, it was hoped, would fall into the Western lap. Machinations would then follow to steer Sri Lanka away from the Road and Belt Embrace.

Spanish Anthropologist, Joseba Zulaika’s famous dictum is worrisome: “Counter terrorism is terrorism’s best friend.” Hints of terror cells in South India, the cover up in Sri Lanka, the political turnstile in the Maldives makes this Indian Ocean triangle a source of anxiety.

All the more worrisome because the current phase of terrorism is not just Muslim anger, revenge, vendetta. It has been identified as energy to be harnessed as an asset. It all began with the Afghan Mujahideen in the 80s. Just take a look at what some scholarly investigations in Sri Lanka have found.

Sniffer dogs, making a round of the Hilton hotel found nothing but the hotel staff asked the handlers to examine another branch of the hotel. At this new location something mysterious was experienced. The dogs would not stop barking in front of one room. There was some humming and hawing, and excuses by the management as to why the room could not be opened. It was occupied by employees of the US embassy. According to Dr. Michael Roberts of the University of Adelaide, Australia, when the embassy officials ultimately opened the room, Sri Lankan police found two bomb detectors which, the officials explained, were for their own safety. The overawed Sri Lanka police appears not to have pursued the obvious line of inquiry. Sniffer dogs would bark only if the detectors had been in contact with material which went into the manufacture of bombs.

One complicating factor is the divergent foreign policy preferences of the President, a votary of China’s Belt and Road initiative, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who has exerted every muscle to sign the Status of Forces Agreement which would give the US Military a free run of an island. Note the head on conflict. The Prime Minister is keen that SOFA is signed before the Island’s general elections next year.

There are some tell-tale details. I have earlier mentioned a research paper, “Weaponization of Religion” by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake. According to her, the growing Chinese influence on the island may well have been the target of the Easter attacks.

Not only were hotels targeted which had Chinese affiliations, but the six Chinese who lost their lives were from the South China Institute of Oceanography. Western agencies would not look at this data. They were, quite tellingly, focused only on the clash of civilizations and conflicts across faiths.

Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, Sikkim, Mongolia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, are all bound by Buddhism, though sometimes of distinct Mahayana and Hinayana strands. How many of these would possibly be brought into play in President Donald Trump’s strategy of encircling China?

When Trump entered the White House in 2016, his avowed aim was to upturn everything Barack Obama had ever erected in the arena of foreign affairs, as in other areas. But his demoniacal desire to eradicate Obamaism from its root has run into that constant called American national interest.

The Obama-John Kerry team’s priority became the nuclear deal with Iran, signed in 2015 for a reason: focusing on West Asian affairs on a daily basis was keeping the administration away from other global priorities that required urgent attention – the pivot to Asia, for instance. Despite Israel and Saudi Arabia throwing every monkey wrench at hand into the 5+1discussions with Iran, the team determinedly concluded the deal with several objectives but one which often goes unnoticed.

Lyndon Johnson’s colourful image was instructive. “It is better to have the camel in the tent, peeing out, than to leave him out peeing in.” Iran was going to be part of West Asian balance of power along with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar. Washington would then have the time to focus on Asia Pacific.

To be characteristically contrary, Trump walked out of the nuclear deal, made a mess with Europe, North Korea, raised stakes everywhere. But eventually he picked up the thread where Obama had left it: “Pivot to Asia” but only after having soiled much turf enroute. The US support to the protests in Hong Kong, playing up the Taiwan-China differences, shady US behaviour in Sri Lanka, the Economic showdown with Beijing are all part of Trump’s risky, untidy “contain China” movement set by his predecessor. But with Trump you know nothing until you do. Who would have expected him to propose a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani on the margins of the UN General Assembly? Or that he would initiate direct talks with the Houthis in Yemen either with Saudi concurrence or without it, sailing above their heads? Either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be hopping mad at this turn or he will be pleased as punch in case he was in the loop and these leaks are only designed to set up adversaries. Who knows?

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