• Archive of "Iran" Category

    Notes on the Khasshogi Case

    November 23, 2018 // 20 Comments »




    The Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi story will someday be seen by historians (not in the US) as a near-perfect example of the failure of American policy in the Middle East begatting more failure. Only ignorance of history and the amazing sheepishness of the American people to have their opinions spoon fed to them will make things “work out.”

    Forget the current arms sales (the naughty thing the media says made Trump “pardon” Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for supposedly ordering the murder, conveniently on a phone fully-tapped by the US, though sooner or later someone will claim the real driver is some sort of shady Trump real estates deal negotiated by Kushner) the US at present needs the Saudis as a hedge against the empowered Iran our wars of the last decades in Iraq inadvertently created, and of course as Israel’s new friend in that same regard in the music of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” that powers the Jewish state’s relations in the neighborhood. Trump is boorish and gross, but he is just the ugly face of truth behind decades of US policy, a Few Good Men’s Colonel Jessup inside foreign affairs screaming we can’t handle the truth. The truth is every American president from Roosevelt to Trump bent over for the Saudis. And so will the next president, whether it’s Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Representative Tulsi Gabbard eviscerating Trump as “Saudi Arabia’s bitch” is true enough, even if she was incomplete in not naming every other American leader since WWII. And, oh yeah, the Clinton Foundation, which was engorged with Saudi cash.

    (Trump as Colonel Jessup telling us what we don’t want to hear is not restricted to Saudi affairs. When journalism cosplayer, now friend of the #Resistance, Bill O’Reilly demanded to know what Trump thought about Vladimir Putin being a killer, Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?… I think our country does plenty of killing also.”)

    The truth is the Saudis can do whatever they want inside their own sphere as long as they serve our (shifting needs) for (example) oil, war in Afghanistan against the USSR, and now bulwark against Iran.

    And the US is always happy to return a favor. Two Bushs waged wars that helped the Kingdom. Obama sent US forces into bloody work in Yemen for the Saudis. Stuff happens along the way — OPEC was unleashed out of a plan to control prices, 9/11 and al Qaeda out of the creation of the jihad against the Sovs, Desert Storm when then-US ally Saddam ended up too strong after we used him to knock back Iran in the 1980s and America had to defend the Kingdom’s oil so they could sell it to us, and this year the relatively minor kerfuffle (promoted by Erdogan for his own political purposes) of Khasshogi. But the US always looks the other way, whether it is Saudi funding to kill 2,997 Americans on 9/11 or the Soprano’s hit on Khasshogi. Meh.

    The latter just caught the public’s attention because it fits with the media’s 24/7/365 need to create Trump-driven crisis fodder (don’t forget Mohammed Bin Salman — MBS to his friends and PR handlers — was a US-media darling only months ago because he was gonna let the ladies drive over there), plus of course Trump’s own willingness to constantly fan the flames with a Tweet or flippant comment. It’s nice to see them have such a symbiotic relationship. Meanwhile the greater American atrocity, supporting the slaughter of civilians by Saudi forces in Yemen, is left more or less untouched except as an adjunct to the Khasshogi case; the US may publically pull back there a symbolic bit as playful punishment. The real blowback from Khasshogi will be near-zero compared to what happened for example when OPEC crushed our economy and when al Qaeda sent us to war for 18 years.

    US-Saudi relations are a constant clusterfutz where one unexpected horrible outcome is “fixed” by an even larger problem once envisioned as the solution. That domino effect, from 1945 through tomorrow, is what binds the US and Saudi Arabia as brothers in foreign policy crime, and if the Saudi’s play it right (as they have for decades) it always will.




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    Managing Expectations Over North Korea

    June 10, 2018 // 22 Comments »


    There is room for concern in tripartite negotiations as complex as those about to commence in Singapore among the U.S., and North and South Korea. There is certainly cause for optimism — Kim Jong Un reportedly fired top military leaders who may have dissented over his approaches to South Korea and the United States. And the three nations’ leaders have also never before sat down together to work out issues; this is all new.


    But there is no basis for claiming anything short of a developed full denuclearization deal left neatly tied with a ribbon on June 12’s doorstep means Donald Trump, or South Korean president Moon Jae In for that matter, has failed. Diplomacy simply does not work that way.


    And never mind the silliness Kim wants to step aside from global history-influencing issues to negotiate a McDonald’s for Pyongyang. And never mind the speculative Trump-centric psychodrama that replaces geopolitical analysis with twitter-level discourse about the friction that may develop between the “freewheeling American president and a paranoid Asian dictator” (such speculation always seems to leave out the critical third-party to the talks, South Korean president Moon Jae In.)

    One of the more balanced views of the Singapore summit comes from former State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun. Yun’s February retirement as Special Representative for North Korea Policy triggered a round of dire statements that his absence left a “void at head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar end-of-the-world predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The Council on Foreign Relations then assessed the chances of war on the Korean Peninsula at 50 percent.

    Ambassador Yun himself is much more a realist than most others commenting on the Peninsula. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he dismisses quickly those who expect some sort of complete denuclearization deal in about a week. Instead, he suggests “success” will include memorializing North Korea’s self-imposed moratoriums on nuclear and missile tests, and opening the Yongbyon nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The North will need to provide a full list of its nuclear sites and an accounting of its fissile material.

    But even Joe Yun falls victim to unrealistic expectations, suggesting success includes a timeline for full denuclearization, and the elimination of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, all by 2020 to silence skeptics. Yun was involved in Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000 before North Korea even had nuclear weapons, and wouldn’t have been caught dead then suggesting such unrealistic results; the modest hope those 18 years ago was for follow-on meetings leading to a someday presidential summit. Ironically, then-President Bill Clinton held off, pending more interim progress, the result being that no real progress occurred over successive administrations. It took Moon Jae In to convince Washington North Korea is a uniquely top-down system and needs to be dealt with as such.


    Managing expectations, for the public and at the negotiating table, is key. History provides examples the principals in Singapore should be reviewing. Though imperfect, the 2015 Accord with Iran is a workable model. It focused on specific actions, independently verifiable by the International Atomic Energy Agency: for example, Iran would reduce its uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms at an enrichment level of 3.67 percent. The other parties to the Accord, especially the United States, were equally committed to specific actions over a timeline that extended decades. Nobody simply hoped peace would break out. Denuclearization is far more complicated than just offering sanctions relief over tea in return for boxing up the bad bombs.

    Deeper history offers the painstakingly complex Cold War nuclear treaties with the USSR, where success was measured by the continued absence of war and the continued sense war was increasingly unlikely. In contrast, look to the example of Libya (ridiculously cited in the positive by National Security advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence), which gave up a limited nuclear development program under threat; we are still watching the chaos in northern Africa unfold as the answer to how that worked out in the long run.


    Success is in the long-game, not in facile predictions of failure. William Johnson, a retired Foreign Service Officer who served as the State Department’s political adviser on special operations to the United States’ Pacific Command, explained “If ‘failed’ negotiations obviated further diplomatic options, Trump would need no ambassadors, and no advice from anyone on how to conduct diplomatic affairs. For we have failed on multiple occasions. But diplomacy is often a series of failures, and in the best case, the failures become incrementally less bad, until the least spectacular failure is declared to be success. Diplomacy is a game where the goalposts are supposed to move, and often, to move erratically. Trump needs a plan, with specific goals, each laid out neatly in a set of talking points, not because he will attain those goals, but because he needs to figure out how short of them he can afford to fall or how far beyond them he can push his interlocutor.”

    A process, not an event.


    Success in Singapore may include an agreement to formally end the Korean War (supported by some 80 percent of South Koreans. This would be a massive domestic win for Moon, himself the son of North Korean refugees, ahead of the June 13 South Korean by-elections.) Success will include humanitarian aid from the South, perhaps some modest investments from China, and scaled easing of sanctions from the American side. These are not concessions, but the give and take of negotiations, the stuff of diplomacy, where uneven forward movement can be a sign of strength and strategy. Success might be Kim formalizing the promises he has already voiced in his Panmunjom meetings with his South Korean counterpart. Success also will include keeping Moon Jae In in the center of unfolding events; no other nuclear negotiations in history have had such an interlocutor, one who shares goals near equally with both other parties, and one who can talk to each as a partner.


    If people demand Trump bull into the room and say “Nukes, number one and we’re done,” the process will indeed fail. Wipe clean the cartoon image of Kim as a madman. North Korea currently has nuclear weapons as the guarantor of its survival; that is a starting point, not a debatable one. If the United States and South Korea want the North to give up those weapons, something has to replace them as that assurance of survival. The ask here is extraordinary; only one nation in history that self-developed nuclear weapons, South Africa, ever gave them up, and that was because their purpose, the survival of the white apartheid regime, disappeared into history.

    Success in Singapore will be an agreement to meet again, and again after that; it should not be forgotten the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord took 20 months to negotiate. Success means forwarding the process of building trust and creating an infrastructure to solve the inevitable problems (sadly, yes, there will likely be tweets) that accompany the often herky-jerky path forward. Anyone demanding more than that from the June 12 meeting wants it to fail.



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    Posted in Iran, Iraq, Trump

    Lost and Found in Iran

    May 31, 2018 // 6 Comments »


    I’m just back from eight days in Iran. Before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.


    Inside Iran I spoke with fearful students, anxious Foreign Ministry officials, and clerics seemingly pleased they’d been right, Americans could not be trusted. We’ve empowered the wrong people, a perfect circle of shouting at the very folks who might have helped lower the nuclear temperature.

    Among students there is deep frustration at not participating in the world, and a desire to engage. The universities I visited had foreign students from China, but no one from the United States. One man who had never left Iran spoke English with a scarred Southern accent, admitting he got his start with an DVD of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” his father brought home from an now-ancient business trip. The Trump visa ban which meant he’d never travel, to be able to “sip the water” as he said, was a personal affront to a man who loved from afar. The students I met are not people who’ll take the streets for John Bolton, demanding regime change. Nowhere did I feel any of the sense of panic, crisis or disruption American pundits speak of. These kids want to see LA.


    People from the Foreign Ministry expressed frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why the U.S. still questions the legitimacy and stability of Iran’s government. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying,” one said. There was much talk about Russia and China, little confidence the Europeans would fight the American sanctions, and a sad resignation moderates would not be able to overrule the hardliners again on foreign policy for a long time. “The door you came through to Iran,” one said, “is open but it’s Russians and Chinese who seem to want to come in.”

    Trump’s terms for a new agreement – basically the old agreement plus restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles plus restrictions on Iran’s overseas military efforts plus extending the nuke terms indefinitely plus unlimited inspections – are the equivalent of pre-burned bridges.

    The missiles are central to Iran’s defense. Memories of the 1980s Iran-Iraq missile war, which saw devastation across multiple cities, run 9/11-deep. Detailed talk of Iran’s efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere was too much for our conversations, but the implication was there was no way to curtail such efforts while the U.S. had boots on the ground in the same places. An open-ended treaty to replace one the U.S. reneged on? Unlimited inspections in response to the U.S. breaking a deal negotiated in good faith? Who would accept such terms, the diplomats laughed.


    But my search for people empowered by American actions was not a long one. From a reception side-chat, to a fully-sanctioned speech, to a sermon at the central mosque, the clerics conveyed a single message: we told you so. We told you the Americans could not be trusted. We told you not to listen to those in Iran who sought moderation. Regime change? Why, we’re the ones who were right.

    The theocratic regime seems intellectually stronger than ever in its position. Trump’s actions frightened America’s natural friends inside Iran. His terms for “progress” are designed instead to force failure abroad to look tough at home. Instead of an era of transition (one builds on previous agreements, not trashes them), Iran may kick-start its nuclear program. Teheran’s hegemonic efforts remain untouched. Iran’s missiles still reach Jerusalem. Russia and China are teed up as the good guys. Europe is wandering circa pre-Iraq invasion 2003. In the streets of Mashhad, there seemed no way forward.

    But me, I was at the airport again. Turkish Airlines had lost my luggage, and along with a new German friend I had met at the hotel and an Iranian translator, I had a mission: find my suitcase. It’s not like I was trying to negotiate a nuclear accord or something, I just needed my boxers.

    I lost the first round of negotiations after finding Turkish Airlines had no ground staff in Mashhad and the “local” number rang through to a nightmare multilingual phone tree where, after roaming charges approaching the cost of a cruise missile strike, I was told to submit a lost luggage form from a web site I couldn’t access. Technology wasn’t the answer. I was going to have to do this with the Iranians.

    The taxi driver sluiced through an airport police checkpoint announcing he had a foreigner with lost luggage, damn the hardliners in the security booth. First stop was the wrong terminal. Most of the lights were out, but there was plenty of parking so we tried there. In fact, the airport was surrounded by miles of parking lots, enough to fill with thousands of cars but mostly filled with puddles from afternoon showers. The terminal doors were unlocked but no one was inside absent a handful of local people who might have arrived and missed their rides, or were waiting for another day, or perhaps just lived there.

    Back outside, the taxi driver explained we should try the other terminal, the one with the lights on he hadn’t driven to. It would take him some time to navigate the complex airport roads, so instead he suggested we walk there and he’d follow later in the taxi. Decouple the problems, be practical, got it. Unburdened by luggage of course, we cut across a field and yet another parking lot.

    A woman at an information counter, after reacting as if no one had ever asked her for information before, directed our inquiry down several flights of stairs. We stumbled into an office with a lone cop blasting through TV channels so quickly you’d have guessed the button pushing was responsible for keeping his heart beating. The cop paused on a Korean period drama translated into Farsi. Hands up? Nope, we were redirected to the state airline Iran Air. The bureaucrats would know.

    Under stern photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, three Iran Air employees, two already grinding prayer beads while the third stubbed out a cigarette, stared me down. Tired, I ignored my German friend’s small talk to demand an answer – where the hell was my suitcase!


    I might as well have brought up Trump unilaterally pulling the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal or moving the embassy to Jerusalem or George W. Bush lumping Iran into a made-up Axis of Evil or the support for Saddam Hussein in his missile wars against Iran or the 1988 American shoot down of a civilian Iranian airliner killing 290 passengers or the U.S. support for the Shah’s secret police or the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran’s secular, democratically chosen leader, or…

    My German friend stopped me. With the Iran Air staff he brought up mutual goals; a lost suitcase jumbling around the airport was no good for anyone. We didn’t need to be friends, we needed to solve a problem together. There’d be other nights to figure out whose fault it was, why no one answered the phone, why the office to find suitcases was located four stories underground. Sometimes a suitcase is a suitcase and with a little goodwill we found a solution. And my boxers.

    If I had a geopolitical wish to make, it’d be that some expensive Trump luggage got misplaced in Mashhad. You can learn a lot there.


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    Message from Iran; Mike Pompeo is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

    May 28, 2018 // 10 Comments »



    Iran is a dangerous place these days, at least in a car. Traffic here moves like Tetris, with drivers pushing their way into any open space they think will fit. Trips begin in chaos and play out in confusion. How it ends is always up to God’s will, everyone says.

    In Iran I met with students at Mashhad University, Ferdouse University, and at a woman’s educational institute, as well as with visiting scholars from Tehran. Just before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All at the start of Ramadan. These events were tracked in Iran as closely as World Cup scores, though absent celebration.


    It was not hard to learn students’ opinions. “What does America want from us? To force us to negotiate? We did, we agreed, already, in 2015,” said one student. “Regime change — do Americans even know we vote for our government here?” said another. In answer to a question, a grad student responded “The Shah we overthrew, yes, but he was not selected by the Iranians, you installed him. Trump and Bolton (the two names are almost always mentioned in one slur of mispronunciation) want us to change our government? And why do they think we will, because you make it harder for us to purchase western goods?”

    Two American Studies students likely headed to government jobs collectively translated a local idiom into “Who can sail an ark on such waters?” when asked if perhaps smarter, more targeted sanctions might move Iran to negotiate a new accord. “Who would we send to talk? The hardliners? Trump just told them they were right in 2015 when they said not to trust America. President Rouhani? He doesn’t have the power anymore –” There was a sharp side discussion in Farsi before one student corrected his peer to say “The President doesn’t have the power under the Constitution he meant, yes.”

    People have reasonable access to information. Web tools such as VPNs get around government blocks. Instagram and Facebook are popular. You can watch the latest superhero movies on smuggled Blu-Ray. The ban on popular social media app Telegram is seen as just an inconvenience to make “old people,” perhaps a euphamism for the hardliners, feel better. But there is an absence of counter-balancing physical presence to the rhetoric, theirs from New York and ours from places like Mashhad.

    So despite the facts, conclusions are often amiss. Opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is the west using culture to attack morals — “Hollywoodism.” Israeli soldiers broadcast pornography into Muslim homes, and a well-known western media magnate is secretly creating child sex movies in Farsi. Israel drives American foreign policy, the group MEK (Bolton again) is behind every bush. America demands a unipolar world which excludes Iran. And it is no conincidence American decisions favoring Israel were pushed into Muslim faces at the start of Ramadan!

    There is little sense of the powerful role American domestic politics played in moving the embassy to Jerusalem, faint awareness of the evangelical voting bloc. Instead, American actions are evidence of… everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Iranian efforts to reach out to the United States are slapped down, the time between reach and slap a measure only of the degree of duplicity. The students expressed an ongoing concern the United States wants to destroy them. That America has since decades before they were born wanted to destroy them. These students are terribly familiar with the United States while terrified of it. Too many sat with me in a quiet room at a university named after a famous ancient poet and worried other Americans will someday come kill them. It is absurd to imagine these young people taking to the streets for reigime change with the immediacy you’d think they had if all you watched was cable TV news in the United States.

    Outside, in Mashhad city, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and visiting the central mosque here after Friday prayers more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else. This is a religious city, home to the sacred shrine of the Eighth Iman, but you would be wrong to think things are measured more evenly on these streets than in Tehran by everyone.

    The clerics were harsh. One looked me up and down like I was an unappealing meal before politely explaining the goal of burning the American flag is to “end the state.” On the wall behind him was a photo of the Statue of Liberty holding a Menorah, another showing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in jail. In a stemwinding speech, an important cleric stated the European Union is breakable by an Iran-China-Russia bloc. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund.


    People from the Foreign Ministry spoke in more measured tones of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why 40 years after the Revolution that created Iran’s complex democratic theocracy the United States still questions its legitimacy and stability. The anger from America, one older diplomat said, was like a phantom itch people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to make go away. “Do you want this to all fail?” he asked, sweeping the room with his arm. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying.”


    Iran is an odd silk road. The air is a mix of honeysuckle, saffron, and diesel exhaust. Aside from the ubiquitous American sodas, somehow immune from sanctions (ordered here by color — red for Coke, white for Sprite, orange for Fanta), there are few products from home to crowd out the Chinese names alongside LG, Peugeot, Samsung, and Sony. Things are modern and extraordinarily clean, but at the same time worn, and when you look closely, patched and often repaired. The past, both 5,000 years ancient and in more recent images of the Revolution, is omnipresent in posters and murals.

    It would be naive to think a place as complex as Iran could reveal itself in a short visit, but the people I encountered took that as their mission. They left me anxious trying to calm the fears of aspirational people now seemingly cut off from aspiration, while bad actors in Washington and locally fill their gaps in understanding. “Our future,” said one scholar, “is already forgotten.”

    Outside several of the students piled into a taxi and dove into the mad, mad traffic. You see people off here in the hope everyone gets where they need to go, because driving is always slow and often dangerous. It’s God’s will, everyone says.


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    The U.S. is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

    May 5, 2018 // 27 Comments »



    A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

    The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

    The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

    Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.

    The 2030 agreement end date is to the Trump administration a ticking time bomb; Iran will nefariously lie in wait, springing whole into nuclear status 12 years from now. Leaving aside the original agreement was negotiated with such a deadline, and American policy has generally been for presidents to honor agreements in place as they take office, the worry over an Iran of the future going nuclear is pure drama.

    Twelve years is a lifetime in the Middle East. Some 12 years ago Syria was at peace with its neighbors, and the United States happy to outsource torture to Assad as part of the War on Terror. Turkey was a democracy, Russia mostly a non-player in the region, and Iran was timidly facing the American military on two of its borders, open to broad negotiations with Washington. There is more than enough to focus on in the Middle East of 2018 than what the area might look like strategically in 2030, even assuming Iran could surreptitiously keep its nuclear development going such to pop out of the cake in 12 years with a nuclear surprise. Washington’s demand for an indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s nuclear activities is political theatre.

    As for the concern Iran is not compliant with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations body charged with monitoring the deal, has presented no such evidence. Iran has in fact shown itself anxious to stay in compliance; in two past minor instances where the Agency noted Iran exceeded its heavy water limits, Tehran immediately disposed of the excessive amount. Trump has suggested he wants unprecedented access to any and all Iranian sites, including military sites not known to be part of any nuclear program. The United States never allowed carte blanche to the Soviets during the Cold War, no nation with the power to say no would. Following the inspections ahead of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, where intelligence officers were embedded in the process and the results politicized, American credibility for this ask is low.

    So these aren’t really negotiating points, they’re excuses for the United States itself to step out of compliance with an agreement. “President Trump appears to have presented the [Europeans] with a false choice: either kill the deal with me, or I’ll kill it alone,’ said Rob Malley, a senior American negotiator of the deal, and now head of the International Crisis Group.

    None of this is a surprise. Trump has always wanted out of what he calls the “worst deal ever.” His new foreign policy team — Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton — are also ardent opponents. While anything can happen inside a White House fueled by chaos, there is no plausible scenario that says the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will survive May 12. What happens next?

    The likely effects of walking away from the agreement are global. Iran may immediately kick start its nuclear program. Tehran’s hegemonic efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria would remain untouched if not intensify in retaliation. Iran’s current missiles will still be able to reach Jerusalem and Riyadh. The odds of the North Koreans agreeing to a nuclear deal decrease; imagine being the new State Department envoy sitting across from an experienced North Korean diplomat trying to answer his question “What is to say you won’t do this to us in three years?”

    European allies will be reluctant to join in future diplomatic heavy lifting in the Middle East or elsewhere, shy to commit only to see the Americans turn up their noses following another election. Relations could easily sink to the level of 2003, when America’s bullheaded invasion of Iraq split the alliance. Russia and China, signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will have a chance at being the “good guys,” seizing an opening to expand cooperation with Iran at a time when American diplomacy might instead be looking for ways to drive wedges among them.

    Meanwhile, the impact of renewed sanctions may be quite limited strategically. It is unclear if American pique will be followed by all of Europe falling into line with re-imposed sanctions; there is a lot of money in doing business in Iran and absent unambiguous proof Iran violated the agreement it is hard to see them going along in earnest. It is even less clear Russia and China will follow the new sanctions regime. And even if some signatories agree to reimpose sanctions, there is little to suggest Iran’s ambitions have been severely thwarted by decades of sanctions anyway. Had they been fully effective, there’d have been no need for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the first place.

    Without the agreement, there is, to misquote Churchill, nothing left to “jaw jaw,” leaving Iran free to develop its weapons and America only the option of destroying them. It’s perhaps the dangerous scenario Washington, encouraged by an Israel who has sought the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities for years, wants. The Israeli air strikes which decimated Saddam’s nuclear program and Syria’s were small scale, directed against nearby, discrete targets, vulnerable above ground. Not so for Iran, whose nuclear facilities are far away, dispersed, underground, and protected by both a decent air defense system and a credible threat of conventional, terrorist, cyber, and/or chemical retaliation. And that’s all before the newly-emboldened Russians weigh in.

    The chance of terminating Iran’s nuclear program is held against the risk of full-on war in the region. The United States is playing with real fire if it walks away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on May 12.




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    Mike Pompeo and the Missiles of Spring

    March 24, 2018 // 11 Comments »




    Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo will walk into his confirmation hearings, and soon after that his first day of work, confronting the missiles of spring.

    In one case President Donald Trump and Pompeo signal they want to back away from an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, while in the other both men seem intent on securing a likely similar deal with North Korea. It will be Pompeo’s counsel to Trump which will help shape the nuclear landscape American foreign policy will move forward in.


    The shakeup at State places an ardent critic of the Iran nuclear deal as the nation’s top diplomat, alongside a president who already delivered an ultimatum to European powers in January to fix the deal’s “terrible flaws.” Absent changes western Europe (as well as China and Russia) would agree to press on the Iranians, Trump will not extend U.S. sanctions relief when the current waiver expires on May 12. That move would likely scuttle the whole agreement and spin Iran back into the nuclear development cycle.

    Trump previously singled out the Iran nuclear deal as one of the main policy differences he had with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The new Secretary of State’s starting position on the 2015 agreement is unambiguous: “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo remarked during his Central Intelligence Agency confirmation process. As director of the Agency, Pompeo likened Iran to Islamic State, and called the nation a “thuggish police state.”


    It may be as simple as that. Iran’s Javad newspaper, believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guard, said replacing Tillerson with Pompeo signaled the end of the nuclear deal. But sometimes, as the old saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. Pompeo will find the region more complex as Secretary of State than as Director of Central Intelligence. Pompeo will inherit a Department of State which views the Iran agreement as one of its key legacy successes. Should he seek advice from his new staff at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo will be challenged on his hardline views. Same for Pompeo’s initial calls to his counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia. They are likely to ask for more time to work with Iran on an arrangement that allows Trump to appear to have bested the Obama deal without it falling apart and sparking a nuclear crisis in the Persian Gulf.

    As Secretary, Pompeo will become much more conscious of the powerful role Iran now plays in Iraq. While at the Agency Iran is simply known as a bad guy, over at State it is seen as an odd bedfellow, a pseudo-partner. Effectively defeating Islamic State in Iraq is a little-mentioned foreign policy success for Trump, and one due significantly to cooperation with Tehran. Tehran, with its military advisors in place, control over the Shiite militias, and influence among key politicians, holds the key to stability in Iraq. With elections for the next prime minister scheduled for May 12 in Iraq (major candidates all have ties to Iran), Tehran has some bargaining chips of its own, including threats to vulnerable American forces and diplomats in Iraq, right at the time the U.S. might reimplement sanctions.

    The good news? If his new counterparts in western Europe, China, and Russia can get Pompeo’s ear where they have failed to do so with Trump, they’ll have a strong advocate in the Oval Office. Those same counterparts, knowing Pompeo is unafraid of war with Iran, also have a new impetus to find common ground with Washington on modifying the Iran deal; even as Tillerson was being fired Tuesday his top policy aide Brian Hook frantically headed to Vienna for meetings with European allies aimed at coming up with new measures that can satisfy Trump.

    Pompeo might be persuaded, for example, to get Trump to extend his sanctions waiver on Iran into the autumn, buying time to negotiate a “soft exit” that would delay enforcement of secondary U.S. sanctions so international companies could continue trading with Iran without the threat of losing the American market. Extending the sanctions waiver into the fall would also allow Mike Pompeo to forestall a potential crisis striking the Middle East nearly to the day the president is scheduled to sit down with Kim Jong Un.


    Mike Pompeo’s most recent comments on North Korea emphasize he is now in lock step with Trump: “We’ve gotten more than any previous administration — an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program, the things that would put them capable of getting across the threshold… at the same time [Kim] has agreed to have a conversation about denuclearization.” Pompeo’s move to Foggy Bottom appears timed to have him shepherd through the summit plans; one report claims the reason Trump is putting Pompeo at the State Department now was because he “wanted a strong team ready for North Korea.”

    Trump seems to want a deal with North Korea, very likely ironically similar to the one Obama made with Iran — reduced sanctions in return for progress on denuclearization. The highly-technical deal with Iran, with its tethered sanctions, inspection protocols, and multinational angle, could even serve as a quiet blueprint for what may happen with the North.

    Pompeo is well-placed to help. One of his first acts at the Agency was to revamp intelligence collection on North Korea to inform the administration’s sanctions campaign. Pompeo will be ready to suggest where sanctions can be adjusted for whatever impact Trump is seeking. And unlike others at State, whom Trump would likely fear were trying to make him look weak with their suggestions, Pompeo is trusted. Pompeo has also been in charge of a covert cyber campaign against the North, hinted at on several occasions, which can be strategically dialed up or down as appropriate.

    For Pompeo to implement his marching orders in Asia, he will need to walk back earlier comments about regime change in North Korea. Security is Kim Jong-un’s primary goal for negotiations with the U.S., and a guarantee of his own position will be non-negotiable. Trump can expect no progress on denuclearization without deflecting Pompeo’s July 2017 statement the North Korean people “would love to see” Kim removed from power, and that he remained hopeful the U.S. would figure out a way to make that happen. But it won’t be hard to sort out; the North understands well the role of bellicose rhetoric in negotiations.


    Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State stands at an important policy intersection. His relationship with Trump means overseas he will be seen as speaking with the full authority of the president. He is a true believer in Trump’s worldview, and an influential figure in a chaotic White House. How he handles the role as chief foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump will help determine whether or not the Middle East falls into a nuclear crisis even as first steps are taken to avoid one in East Asia.



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    The Next Middle East War, Post-ISIS

    October 29, 2017 // 3 Comments »

    Iraqs-Prime-Minister-Nuri-al-Maliki

    Islamic State is in fatal decline. The Middle East will soon enter a new era, post-Islamic State, dominated by the Saudi-Iranian power struggle. The struggle will, as it has as it ran alongside the fight against Islamic State, involve shifting Sunni and Shiite allegiances. But the fight is not about religion. Religion this time has more to do with complicating choices in political bedfellows and where proxies are recruited than dogma. For behind that Sunni-Shiite curtain, this is a classic geopolitical power struggle — for control of Iraq and Syria, and for expanding diplomatic and strategic reach throughout the region.

    In the fight against Islamic State, it has been all too easy to cite expediency in putting complex issues aside, but as the alliances created for that struggle run their course, the new reality will force changes. With the strategic value of funding Islamic State as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq gone, the Saudis appear to be pivoting toward building warmer relations with the Shiite government in Baghdad. That a Saudi airline is just now announcing the first return of direct service between the two countries since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 is no coincidence, nor is it an isolated event

    The Saudis also appear willing to let a lot of religious water pass under the bridge to take advantage of a looming intra-Shiite power struggle in Baghdad among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (above), and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr, the most religiously zealous Shiite of the group, has always been something of a nationalist, and unlike his rivals, is wary of Iranian influence. It is perhaps not surprising that he has made friendly trips to Sunni Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, the first time in 11 years done under official invitation from Saudi Arabia.

    Sadr is an interesting choice for the Saudis to use to gain influence in Baghdad. Real progress for Riyadh means untangling years of close Iranian cooperation in Iraq, to include limiting the power of the Iranian-backed militias. Sadr has significant influence among the militias, and can use his religious credibility to sell Saudi cooperation to the vast numbers of his followers who remember well the Saudis funded al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State’s killing of so many Shiites over the years. Further enhancing Sadr’s Shiite religious status can thus further Sunni Saudi goals. During his visit, the Saudis gifted Sadr with $10 million for “rebuilding,” but also astutely threw in some special visas for this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for Sadr to distribute.

    One should not, however, sell Iran short. Its ties to officials in Baghdad are a tiny part of a deep relationship forged in the bloody fight against the American occupiers. Iranian special forces then helped defeat Islamic State, Iranian money continues to support Iraq, and the Shiite militias who will suddenly have a lot less to occupy their time post-Islamic State are still mostly under Iranian influence. In the absence of any effective national army, no government will stand long in Baghdad without militia support. At the moment, Iran is way ahead in Iraq.

    Iran is also likely to be a winner in Syria. Islamic State’s defeat will significantly lessen Sunni influence there, and Iran’s role as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s protector will only increase in value now that it appears Assad will remain in control of some portion of the country. The Saudis backed the wrong team and are left with little influence.

    In addition to a strong hand in Iraq and Syria, Iran is also probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. It has existed more or less within its current borders for thousands of years, and is largely religiously, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous (though keep an eye on the Kurdish minority.) While still governed in significant part by its clerics, the country has held a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions since the 1979 revolution. And unlike the Saudis, Iran’s leaders do not rule in fear of an Islamic revolution. They already had one.


    Power struggles create flashpoints, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle post-Islamic State is no exception.

    The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen has settled into a version of World War I-style trench warfare, with neither side strong enough to win or weak enough to lose. In an ugly form of stasis, the conflict seems likely to stay within its present borders.

    A potential powder keg however lies in Kurdistan. The Kurds, a de facto state arguably since 2003, did the one thing they weren’t allowed to do, pull the tiger’s tale by holding a formal independence referendum. That vote required everyone with a stake to consider their next moves instead of leaving well enough alone.

    Iran, and the Iranian-backed government now in Baghdad, are clear they will not tolerate an actual Kurdish state. With Islamic State defeated, those governments will simultaneously lose the need to make nice to keep the Kurds in that fight and find themselves with combat-tested Shiite militias ready for the next task. Following a Shiite move against the Kurds, and stymied in Yemen, imagine the Saudis throwing their support into the fight, and a new proxy war will be underway right on Iran’s own western border.


    While it may seem odd to write about the balance of power in the Middle East leaving out the United States, that may very well describe America’s range of options post-Islamic State.

    The United States, which did so much via its unnecessary invasion of Iraq and tragic handling of the post-war period to nurture the growth of Islamic State, seems the least positioned of all players to find a place in a post-Islamic State Middle East. American influence in Baghdad is limited, and with Washington having declared its opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum, likely limited in Erbil as well. Detente with Iran is in shambles under the Trump administration, leaving Washington with few options other than perhaps supporting the Saudis in whatever meddling they do in Iraq.

    Having followed his predecessor’s single minded “strategy” of simply “destroy Islamic State,” there are no signs the Trump administration has any ideas about what to do next, and with the military exhausted and the State Department apparently sitting out international relations at present, it is unclear if any will emerge. It will soon be mission accomplished for America with nothing much to follow. And if that sounds familiar, echoing back to 2003, well, then you understand how things got to where they are.




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    Kurdistan Independence Referendum: Fuse for Iraq War 4.0, and What Might Have Been

    October 5, 2017 // 1 Comment »

    Free Iraqi Child

    It was all a terrible, terrible waste. There were plenty of worthy markers along the way, but history loves a signature event, so let it be September 25, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence referendum. That overwhelmingly “yes” vote to someday, somehow break away from Iraq will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in October.


    The referendum, coupled with the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Sunni minority population (with the destruction of Mosul in summer 2017 as its signature event), means “Iraq” no longer in practice exists. In its place is a Shiite state dominated by Iran, a new nation in all but name called Kurdistan, and a shrinking population of Sunnis tottering between annihilation or reservation-like existence, depending on whether the United States uses the last of its influence to sketch out the borders or abandons the Sunnis to fate.

    The waste comes in that a better version of all this was available around 2006. Every life (estimates are of some one million Iraqi dead, plus those 4,424 Americans), every dollar (the cost is in the trillions), and every unanticipated outcome (the rise of Islamic State, conflict in Syria) since then is part of the waste.


    The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement created modern Iraq, dividing up Arab lands that had been part the Ottoman Empire. A key goal of the era, creating Kurdistan, never happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum never took place, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result is 30 million Kurds now scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    No one at the time of Sykes-Picot could have imagined the Kurds would wait over 80 years for the United States to show up under the false flag of post-9/11 retribution to create the conditions for a modern referendum.


    The 2003 American invasion, arguably the single worst foreign policy decision since WWII, destroyed all civil order in Iraq. American failures opened the door to massive Iranian influence, such that a pro-Iranian government was installed in 2010 under the passivity of an America in retreat anxious for the illusion of stability. Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies manipulated chaos into opportunity and began a process of political marginalization followed by direct ongoing violence against Iraqi Sunnis. That in turn created an opening for a Sunni protector, Islamic State, to replace the scattered al Qaeda.

    The situation facing the United States at that point was grim. While then President Obama seemed content to accept a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad in return for enough stability to maintain the false impression at home that America had at least “not lost” in Iraq, he could not accept a powerful Islamic State holding territory in northern and western Iraq, threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army dropped its weapons, broke, and ran in 2014, and local Shiite militias proved too weak to fill the breach, Obama reinserted the U.S. military into Iraq, saving the Kurds with air power to then repurpose those fighters against Islamic State.

    It kind of worked: the Kurds, with American help, blunted Islamic State’s progress in the south, and retook territory in the north. The problem was that while American diplomacy, the carrot-and-stick of aid, and difficulty of maintaining long-distance logistics saw the Kurdish forces replaced by Shiite militias in some locations, the Kurds held their gains in the north. Victorious and blooded, they were not about to go home empty handed. The Kurds’ need for American arms did force them to postpone an independence referendum in 2014 opposed by Washington. However, three years later with Islamic State mortally weakened, Washington no longer holds that sway over Kurdish ambitions.

    The ground truth in autumn 2017 — a referendum-endorsed Kurdistan in the the north, a Shiite state in the south, a marginalized Sunni population out west — is pretty much the deal that could have been had in 2006, albeit now for a 2017 price.


    In 2006 then-senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden proposed Iraq be divided into three separate regions: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Biden wanted the United States to broker the deal and leave behind a “residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” A peacekeeping force of Americans that would impose itself between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, while keeping outsiders like Islamic State at bay. The Senate actually passed a resolution in 2007 supporting Biden’s idea.

    It probably would have stabilized the region. The Middle East in 2006 was a very different place than in 2017.

    In 2006 Iran faced an American military as yet unsullied by a decade more of grinding war. That military sat on both Iran’s western border with Iraq, and eastern border with Afghanistan. The Iranian nuclear program was years behind where it is today, leaving Iran’s ability to intercede in Iraq minimal. Syria in 2006 was a relatively stable place under not-then-yet-enemy of the free world Bashar al-Assad; indeed, there was some hope the young Assad might be a minor reformer. Turkey was stable, a recognized albeit reluctant NATO ally. Russia was not in 2006 a major player in the Middle East. Many of 2017’s regional genies were thus still in the bottle.

    By Middle Eastern standards security would have been a manageable proposition via a modest American military presence. Alongside this, America would have realized its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq and could have decoupled its Islamic State-forward Syrian policy from Iraq. Never mind the savings of all those lives and all that money.


    Instead, the rough play of the last decade has brought us to a worse place on the ground in Iraq at much greater cost. The ten years has also torn apart the regions surrounding Iraq such that Kurdish independence being a source of stability has greatly diminished. There are now new questions: in 2017 and beyond, will an empowered Iran push back against the Kurds? Will an engorged, nationalistic Turkey politically distant from NATO go to war over disputed borderlands with Kurdistan? Will the Kurds, emboldened by their victories and aware of America’s weaker position try to hold territory they now occupy in Syria? Will the Russians, newly returned to the neighborhood, look for opportunities? Will Israel, who backs Kurdish independence as part of its search for allies, seek a bigger role in the ongoing conflicts?

    Who will control the disputed flashpoint city of Kirkuk? And what will become of the oil reserves held by the land-locked Kurds? That question is key to the future of Kurdistan, as the government there is some $20 billion in debt with oil as its primary export.


    Alongside these questions, the American military, once with the chance of a role similar to that played in former Yugoslavia, instead will exist as a crumple zone among the forces of its own warring semi-allies. Imagine American forces trapped between Turk and Kurd fighters, all three sides armed by the United States, on a scale dwarfing the so-far quickly deconflicted skirmishes now happening inside Syria. Such a scenario tells the tale of what might have been in 2006 when the United States could have managed events, and 2017, when Americans can do little more than witness them.

    Kurdish independence — the 2017 version — is a fuse waiting to ignite the next phase of Mesopotamia sorting itself out. Call it the end of Iraq War 3.0, and the start of the next version.




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    Sour Grapes: Iran Wins the Iraq War, and I Scooped the NYT by Six Years on the Story

    July 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »


    The New York Times is featuring a piece stating Iran is the big winner of the U.S.-Iraq wars, 1991-2017.

    So what does winning in Iraq look like, asks the Times? About like this:

    A Shia-dominated government is in Baghdad, beholden to Tehran for its security post-ISIS. Shia thug militias, an anti-Sunni and Kurd force in waiting, are fully integrated into the otherwise-failed national Iraqi military. There are robust and growing economic ties between the two nations. An Iraqi security structure will never threaten Iran again. A corridor between Iran and Syria will allow arms and fighters to flow westward in support of greater Iranian geopolitical aims in the Middle East. And after one trillion in U.S. taxpayer dollars spent, and 4,500 Americans killed in hopes of making Iraq the cornerstone of a Western-facing Middle East, American influence in Iraq limited.

    It seems the Times is surprised by the conclusion; it’s “news” for some apparently. The newspaper ran the story on its hometown edition front page.

    But sorry, it wasn’t news to me. I tried writing basically the same story in 2010 as a formal reporting cable for the State Department. Nobody wanted to hear it.

    At the time I was assigned to Iraq as an American diplomat, with some 20 years of field experience, embedded at a rural forward operating base. All the things that took until 2017 to become obvious to the New York Times were available to anyone on the ground back then with the eyes to see.

    The problem was what I wrote could never get cleared past my boss, and was never allowed to be sent to Washington. The Obama administration message was that America had won in Mesopotamia, and that we would be withdrawing to focus our national efforts on Afghanistan. “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq — all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success,” said Barack Obama. “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self reliant Iraq.”

    So it was off-message – I was off-message – and thus needed to be ignored. The area where I was assigned in Iraq had a heavy Iranian presence, both special forces working with Iraqi Shia militias to help kill Americans, and Iranian traders and businessmen selling agricultural products (the Iranian watermelons were among the best I’ve ever eaten.) Bus loads of Iranian tourists were everywhere. Most were religious pilgrims, visiting special Shia sites, including mosques that had been converted by Saddam into Sunni places of worship which had been restored to their original Shia status, often with Iranian money, following America’s “victory.”

    In fact, somewhere in Iran are a tourist’s photos of me and his family, posing together in the area outside Salman Pak. He begged me for the souvenir photo op, never having met an American before, telling me about the small local hotel he hoped to finance for Iranian pilgrims in the future. I’d sure like a copy of the picture if he somehow reads this.

    Even after my boss deep-sixed my reporting in 2010, I still thought there was something to this Iranian thing. So I spoke to the designated “Iran Watcher” at the American Embassy in Baghdad. Her job was to monitor and report on Iran-related news out of Iraq, albeit from well inside the air conditioned Green Zone, without ever speaking to an Iranian or worrying that her convoy might be blown up by an Iranian Special Forces IED.

    I told her about the watermelons, those delicious Iranian fruits which were flooding the markets in the boonies where I lived. The melons were putting enormous pressure on Iraqi farmers, whose fruit was neither as tasty nor as government subsidized. The State Department Iran Watcher was quick to point out that I must be wrong about the Iranian fruit, because she had only yesterday been in a meeting with the Iraqi agricultural minister who had explained the Iraqi government’s efforts to seal the border had been wholly successful; she’d seen a translated report! Things went downhill from there, and the Embassy offered only canned peaches in syrup at lunch. Damn things tasted like the can, and there was a joke about the truth being too bitter to swallow I was too tired to make.

    A year later, 2011, back in Washington DC, I set down the same broad ideas about Iran victorious in layperson’s terms and was turned down as an op-ed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. One editor said “So you’re telling Barack Obama he’s wrong? That the surge failed, the war wasn’t won, all those dead Americans were for nothing and Iran came out on top? Seriously?” I was made to feel like I was wearing a skirt in an NFL locker room.

    The best I could do with the knowledge I had that in yet another way the war had been for nothing was to settle for being treated as a kind of novelty, a guest blogger at Foreign Policy. Here’s the article I wrote there, scooping the New York Times by six years.

    As for the U.S. government, I’m still not sure they’ve gotten the story on Iraq.

     

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    Groundhog Day in Iraq? Nope, Worse

    June 23, 2017 // 31 Comments »

    petraeus-crocker-sons-of-iraq


    It’s a helluva question: “Tell me how this ends.”

    It was a good question in 2003 when then Major General David Petraeus asked it as the United States invaded Iraq, an ironic one in 2011 when the US withdrew, worth revisiting in 2014 when the US reinvaded Iraq, and again in 2017 as Islamic State appears to be on its way out. Problem is we still don’t have a good answer. It could be Groundhog Day all over again in Iraq, or it could be worse.



    Groundhog Day

    The Groundhog Day argument, that little has changed from 2003 until now, is quite persuasive. Just look at the headlines. A massive Ramadan car bomb exploded not just in Baghdad, but in Karada, its wealthiest neighborhood, during a holiday period of heightened security, and all just outside the Green Zone were the American Embassy remains hunkered down like a medieval castle. Islamic State, like al Qaeda before it, can penetrate the heart of the capital city, even after the fall of their home base in Fallujah (2004, 2016.) Meanwhile, Mosul is under siege (2004, 2017.) Iranian forces are on the ground supporting the Baghdad central government. The Kurds seek their own state. American troops are deep in the fighting and taking casualties. The Iraqi Prime Minister seems in control at best only of the Shia areas of his country. Groundhog Day.

    But maybe this time around, in what some call Iraq War 3.0, we do know how it ends.


    Not Groundhog Day

    It seems unlikely anyone will be able to get the toothpaste of Kurdish independence back into the tube. A functional confederacy since soon after the American invasion of 2003, Kurdish national forces have linked with Kurdish militias, albeit with American help, across the width of northern Iraq, from the Iranian border in the east into Turkey and Syria in the west. This is in large part the land mass traditionally thought of as Kurdistan.

    The Trump administration is for the first time overtly arming Kurdish militias in Syria (some of whom the Turks consider terrorists) to fight Islamic State, without much plan in mind about how to de-arm them when they turn towards the Turks who hold parts of their ancestral homeland. That may not even be a valid question; the ties that bound the United States and Turkey during Iraq War 2.0 appear significantly weakened following Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s coup. His authoritarian government seems far less a valued NATO partner in 2017 than it was even a few years ago. Though the US may require the Kurds to maintain some sort of fictional relationship with the country of “Iraq” to preserve the illusion of a unified nation for American domestic consumption, the key question is whether the Kurds will go to war with Turkey somewhere in the process, and whether the US will choose a side.

    Any reluctance on the part of the United States during Iraq War 2.0 to act as a restraining force on the Shia central government’s empowering of militias (gifted the Orwellian name of Popular Mobilization Units) disappeared when the Iraqi National Army dropped its weapons and ran from Islamic State in 2014. Those militias — only loosely allied with one another, and even less tied to the central government — now carry the bulk of the responsibility for the fight against Islamic State. Many owe their primary allegiance to Iran, who helps arm them, command them, and by some accounts supplements their efforts with special forces dispatched from Tehran. These militias, empowered by the Iranian help now offered openly as America shrugs its shoulders at expediency, are unlikely to be interested in any kind of Sunni-Shia unified Iraq post-Islamic State. It will be near impossible to demobilize them. Indeed, holding them back from committed a Sunni genocide will be the likely challenge in the near future.

    The Iraqi government “victories” over Islamic State in Sunni strongholds like Ramadi and Fallujah have left little for those not sent off as internal refugees. Large swathes of Sunni territory lay in ruins, with no clear plan to rebuild in sight. A political officer at the American Embassy would likely tell you the problem is that neither the U.S. nor Iraq will have the funds anytime in the foreseeable future. A Sunni tribal leader would likely spit on the ground and explain the Shia central government wouldn’t spend a dime if it had a dollar, and will settle for a slow-motion genocide of the Sunni people if the Americans won’t allow a quick one at Shia gunpoint. No matter; the desolation of Sunni areas is severe, regardless of the cause.

    Iraq will be a Shia nation with extraordinary ties to Iran. With no small amount of irony, the price Iraq and Iran will be forced to pay for America, and Israel, titularly accepting this will likely be permanent American military bases inside Iraq (don’t laugh until you remember Guantanamo in Soviet-dominated Cuba, or Hong Kong nestled in Communist China), mostly out of sight way out west with more interest in Syria than Iran. America has wanted those bases since the early days of Iraq War 2.0, and Iran has nothing to gain by picking a fight with the United States. They get the rest of Iraq, after all.

    What happens to the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis is less certain, though the menu is all bad news. World media optics suggest it is in everyone’s interests that any mass slaughter be avoided; Iran in particular would have no interest in giving President Trump or an angry Congress an excuse to get more involved in Iraq’s internal affairs. With the US bases most likely to be located in western Iraqi Sunni homelands, it may be that the tribes find themselves the unofficial beneficiaries of American protection. Those permanent American bases, and the safety they provide, might also keep the successor to Islamic State from moving into a power vacuum the way Islamic State did when al Qaeda found it had outstayed its welcome among the Sunni population.

    This is the End

    Tell me how this ends? A defacto divided Sunni-Shia-Kurd “Iraq” with stronger ties to Iran than the United States. The only unanswered question will be if the value of that ending is worth the cost of some 14 years of American combat, close to 4,500 American dead, and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent.

     

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    Quick Update, End-of-the-World

    March 29, 2017 // 36 Comments »



    Well, just checking in from my bunker. After taking inventory of my canned goods and ammunition, I thought I’d look into how some of the media’s predictions have been playing out over the first weeks of the new administration.

    — No nuclear wars.

    — No wars with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. Same wars Obama started or escalated still going strong.

    — No diplomatic breakdown because of Taiwan. No change in U.S. “Two China Policy.”

    — No new wars anywhere.

    — NATO and alliances with Australia, Japan, etc. still intact.

    — No mass resignations among government employees. CIA, NSA, and State Department still open for business.

    — No coups.

    — 1st Amendment, and others, still in place.

    — No impeachment, no invocation of Emoluments Clause, 25th Amendment, formal charges of treason.

    — Congress has approved Cabinet nominees.

    — No roundups of POC, women, journalists, LGBTQ, deportations are still below Obama-era headcount of 2.5 million deported, highest under any presidency.

    — Stock market did not crash.

    — No psychological break down by Trump leading to anarchy, war, etc.

    — No signs of capitulation to Putin.

    — U.S. justice system and courts still open and functioning.



    I will keep an eye on all this, and update as necessary.

    BONUS: I don’t like Trump. This post is a criticism of his critics and the media for all their idiot fear-mongering.

    BONUS BONUS: Someone will respond “Yes, but it’s only been _____ weeks, so you never know.” This is true because no one knows the future, but it is also irrelevant because I am writing about what has already (not) happened.




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    More Media B.S. — OMG, Trump Company Legally Rented Office Space to Iranian Bank!

    October 3, 2016 // 13 Comments »

    gmbuilding

    Once again a story that Trump did nothing illegal is somehow front page news. His crime this time? Continuing to legally rent out office space to a bank already in a building he bought 18 years ago.

    So the big news is that Donald Trump’s real estate organization rented space to an Iranian bank later linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

    Bank Melli, one of Iran’s largest state-controlled banks, was already a tenant in 1998 when Trump purchased the General Motors Building, above, in Manhattan, but he kept them on for another five years, until 2003.


    Quick summary:

    — There is no evidence and it is highly unlikely that Trump himself knew every one of the hundreds of tenants in a building he bought in 1998. In fact, the building occupies a full city block, with 1,774,000 net leasable square feet (the bank rented 8,000 square feet.)

    — U.S. security authorities allowed Bank Melli to legally operate offices in the U.S., so renting to them is not a story.

    — Bank Melli was prohibited from conducting bank transactions in the U.S., and did not conduct transactions, but kept an office in New York in hopes sanctions might one day be eased.

    — Bank Melli operated fully in the open. The U.S. Department of the Treasury could have shut them down at any time, or sanctioned Trump for dealing with them if it wished. It did not.

    — The bank itself (not Trump) was only sanctioned by Treasury in 2007, four years after it left Trump’s building. However, the Huffington Post helpfully notes (emphasis added) “[Unnamed] Experts told the Center for Public Integrity that the bank likely supported proliferation activity and Iran’s military years before the Treasury Department publicly condemned the bank,” something the owners of the rental building presumably should have been aware of somehow.

    — The Center for Public Integrity reveals on its website that the Bank Melli “as being controlled by the Iranian government” since 1999. Actually in its own publically available history, the Bank notes it served as the nation’s central bank, issuing currency, from 1931.


    While the media is enjoying this story, it ignores the broader picture. Despite sanctions and trade embargoes, over the past decade the United States government allowed American companies to do billions of dollars in business with Iran and other countries blacklisted as state sponsors of terrorism.

    At the request of companies from Kraft Food and Pepsi to some of the nation’s largest banks, the Treasury Department across multiple administrations granted some 10,000 licenses for deals involving sanctioned countries.


    The media is so full of sh*t on these stories their eyes are brown.



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    How I Was Blacklisted at CNN, and How Easily America Goes to War Now

    August 26, 2016 // 14 Comments »



    It was about two years ago to the day I was blacklisted at CNN.

    I don’t want to remind them they were sadly wrong, but they were. So write this off however you prefer, but understand that we were lied to again to drag us again into an open-ended war in Iraq-Syria. Last time it was Bush and those missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. This time is was Obama and saving the Yazidi people from genocide.

    Wait, what? Who are the Yazidis? How they get us back into Iraq?

    Ah, how fast time flies.


    Two years ago a group of Yazidis, a minority spread across Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were being threatened by a group called ISIS few American were focused on. Obama declared a genocide was about to happen, and the U.S. had to act. U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the safety of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military drew up plans for limited airstrikes and the deployment of 150 ground troops.

    No Congressional authorization was sought, no attempt was made to secure UN sanction, no effort was made to seek Iraqi military help to save their own people inside their own country. However, promises were made by the White House of having no American “boots on the ground” and that the airstrikes to kill people were for a humanitarian purpose.

    Two years later the U.S. has some 6,000 troops on the ground, including artillery units and aircraft based inside Iraq and Syria. The limited airstrikes have expanded to a 24 month broad-based bombing campaign, which has spread into Syria, with the sideshows of complete collapse of democracy in Turkey, a Russian military presence in Syria, and an Iranian military presence in Iraq. For the record, the Yazidis are pretty much fine, as are ISIS and Syrian president Assad. The Yazadis do occasionally show up in fear-mongering, unsourced stories about ISIS sex slaves, usually spoon-fed to American media, and only American media, by pro-Yazidi ethnic groups safely in the west.

    In fact, other than a massive regional death toll and no progress toward whatever the actual goal for the United States is (um, whatever, “destroy” ISIS), things are pretty much the same after two years, +chaos. And whomever is elected this November will be the fifth U.S. president to make war in Iraq.


    Back to CNN.

    As the Yazidi situation was unfolding, I was invited to tape a discussion there alongside the usual retired U.S. military colonel. I was asked a single question, explained in my answer that the U.S. was in fact using the Yazidi “humanitarian crisis/faux genocide” as an excuse to re-enter the Iraq quagmire, and equated it to George W. Bush’s flim-flam about weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

    The host literally said I was wrong. I was not asked another question, though the colonel was given several minutes to explain the urgency of the situation, demand America act where no one else would, and assure the public that Obama planned only limited, surgical strikes and that was it, one and done.

    My question was edited out, the colonel’s lengthy answer was played on air, and my very brief moment in the glow of CNN was ended even though I wore a nice suit and a tie. Oh well, we still have each other here, and hey, CNN, my number’s still the same if you wanna call.



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    Russia Teams Up With Iran to Continue to Bomb Syria

    August 22, 2016 // 12 Comments »

    pokemongo_syria

    Ho, ho, ho, here’s a scenario no one could have possibly anticipated: some complex thing in the Middle East as a temporary patch to some previous complicated thing in the Middle East turned out to backfire for the U.S. because of a lack of any semblance of an actual policy as opposed to a series of random actions linked only in temporal order. Soon a new thing will be needed to counteract the lastest old thing, but that’s for next week.


    The most current thing is that Russia deployed bomber and fighter aircraft to Iran for air strikes on rebels in Syria, the first time in 37 years that Iran allowed foreign forces to base and deploy from its territory. The new basing dramatically cuts into the number of frequent flyer miles the Russian air forces needs to bomb Syria. Flying out of Iran instead of from inside Russia means more sorties a day, maybe lower maintenance burdens, maybe heavier payloads.

    Iran has, for now, walked back the arrangement, apparently embarrassed at the publicity. The larger issues still remain.



    So a review, to put things in context. We’ll go quick here, kind of like the opening song of the Big Bang Theory, where they cover the history of the whole universe in 30 seconds of jaunty song:

    — About 13 years ago Iraq was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same dictator it had been for decades. U.S. invades to “free Iraq,” chaos ensues through two presidencies with a third teed up. The more or less stable Iraqi-Syrian border became a porous sore for Sunni baddies to enter and leave the fight, precursor foot soldiers to ISIS. The Sunni collaboration with (then) al Qaeda to protect themselves from Shiite militias spread into Syria.

    — Five years ago Syria was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same family of dictators it has been since the 1960s. The U.S. had tolerated, dealt with and cooperated with the Assad family during much of that time. Why, post-9/11, the U.S. even outsourced some torture to them. There were no Syrian aid agencies, no orphaned kids of Aleppo, no global refugee crisis.

    — The Arab Spring starts in 2011, U.S. sees an opening, fans the flames in what started as a legitimate people’s revolt in Syria. Assad fights back, U.S. keeps intervening just enough to keep the fires burning but not much else, chaos ensues. Hillary and David Petraeus demand more U.S. war in Syria, end up instead getting a new U.S. invasion of Libya as a consolation prize from Obama and another failed state is created in another crappy Mideast stinkhole that had been run stably by the same dictator for decades. But we digress.

    — Blah blah, time passes, people die, U.S. declares Assad an evil dictator who “must go,” thinks it negotiates the Russians into the new war to help “free Syria.” Russians grin wildly as they establish new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Syria without a shot fired. They’re back into the game in the Middle East, half-invited by the U.S.!

    — The oops! It turns out the sneaky Russians support Assad (who knew???), as America used to, and aren’t fighting him, like America wants them to. Bad, bad. John Kerry flies around Europe ignored by the White House (“sure, John, off you go, don’t forget to write and let us know how it’s going”) with his trademark Muppety “cautious but optimistic” face.

    — But oops! Things change; the U.S. doesn’t like Assad, no sir, evil dictator kills his own people genocide barrel bombs poison gas save children, but isn’t going to attack him either like the Russians won’t attack him, because the war isn’t about “taking him out” per se except when asked to say that on TV news in America, it is about defeating destroying ISIS. So, the U.S., Russia and hey, sure, why not, Iran, are all on the same side, fighting ISIS.

    — BONUS: The U.S. and Iran are also “fighting ISIS” in Iraq. Iran, the big winner of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is grinning wildly as it establishes a new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Iraq without a shot fired. They’re back in the game, half-invited by the U.S. Iran had been training and equipping the people who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011. Now they are helping U.S.-supported Iraqi Shiite militias who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011 retake the same cities U.S. soldiers died taking 2003-2011.


    And that brings us to this week, where Assad is still around, ISIS is still around, Iraq is still a sectarian mess, Iran more or less controls the Iraqi government and the powerful Shiite militias except for the ones who might just rebel and/or slaughter Sunnis to complete a slow-burn civil war, Turkey a newly-collapsing crappy Mideast-ish stinkhole run by a new dictator and Russia and Iran, always a bit wary of one another, are cooperating militarily to attack ISIS (U.S. thumbs up!) in support of Assad (U.S. thumbs down!)

    And that’s all before we get to the Kurds, who are well on their way to creating a confederacy of Kurdistan carved out of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That will be the impetus behind the next war inside the Middle East, with most of the same players now in Syria joining in. Figure maybe a year from now or so.




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    Candidates, Here’s Your Iraq/Syria/Libya Mess to Fix

    April 12, 2016 // 25 Comments »

    hole

    Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?


    You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.

    The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.

    But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.


    Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.

    Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.

    Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.


    As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.

    Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.

    The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.

    Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then re-trained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.


    As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, re-trying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.

    What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?

    The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.



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    Assad-Oriented Shia Militia May Have U.S. M-1 Abrams Tank

    April 6, 2016 // 10 Comments »

    tank


    Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the flailing U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is the belief that any group willing to fight ISIS must support at least some U.S. goals, and that any group not ISIS is better in the long run than ISIS.


    Such a viewpoint ignores the near-infinite complexities of Middle East alliances and politics, ignores the well-known reality that any group that does, in part, support the U.S. also needs to simultaneously prepare for when the U.S. one day suddenly picks up and leaves, and allows very dangerous weapons to exfiltrate out of the semi-right hands into the really wrong hands.

    The video below shows the Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuda (KSS), which is also known as the Battalion of the Sayyid’s Martyrs, cruising around in an American-made M1 Abrams tank (at around the 16-second mark of the video). The video surfaced on SOFREP, a very pro-U.S. military website that states it is run by Special Ops veterans.


    About those KSS guys with our tank.

    Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) are an Iraqi Shia militia formed in 2013 to protect “Shia shrines across the globe” among other fun things. It militarily supports the Assad Government in Syria, and has close ties to the Badr Organization. The Badr’s are some nasty people who excelled at killing Americans, with Iranian help, during the 2003-2010 Iraq War 2.0.

    The U.S. has since 2010 been supplying the government of Iraq with M-1 tanks. The Iraqi government is denying their involvement with KSS, and claims “not to know” how they obtained the U.S.-made tank. Tanks, of course, are just darned hard things to keep track of.

    According to the U.S. Defense Department, “We have received assurances from the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements. If we receive reports that U.S.-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy to address any confirmed issues — up to the highest levels, if necessary.”


    The best news of all (it is not the best news) is that if Iranian-connected militia loyal to Assad have M-1 tanks, that means the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, at a minimum, have access to any M-1 technology they might wish to inspect or reverse engineer, or sell on the global black market.


    This war just keeps getting better (it is not getting better.)





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    Negotiating a New (Sykes-Picot) Contract for the Middle East

    March 12, 2016 // 12 Comments »

    flashman



    It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put this whole thing together.


    The “whole thing” is the Middle East, and the “contract” is the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The world those documents created no longer exists except on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled, primarily the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and a Kurdish homeland, have now come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.



    Chances Lost

    In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State, and mess of greater Iraq, was to use American/Coalition peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide.

    However, in the intervening 15 months the problems swept in Turkey and Russia, and perhaps soon the Saudis. The United States, Iraq, Islamic State, and Iran never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed and refugee crisis. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.

    A new Sykes-Picot Agreement if you will.


    Sykes-Picot Agreement

    The old Sykes-Picot divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of that moment, Britain and France with buy-in from the Russians. The immediate goal was colonialism, not independent states, but the unspoken end point was a form of stability. Following the massive realignment of the balance of power that was World War I, the lines were literally drawn for the next eight decades. The lines themselves did not cause all the problems per se; the lines codified the problems on the ground.

    The other important event of the era was that the idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.



    Modern History

    Zoom to some more modern history. In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, and the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire.

    From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what you have right now: The invasion of Iraq blew open the power struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Forces unleashed led to some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran into the Iraqi conflict.

    Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government threats and attacks on Iraqi Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as a protector. The struggle metastasized into Syria. The Kurds, aided by the U.S. military, are seeking to create new transnational borders out of their current confederacy by displacing Islamic State and Turkish forces. The Turks are looking to repel that, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own borders. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send troops into Syria. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Assad still holds territory in Syria, as does Islamic State. There are many local players as well.

    In short, many forces are redrawing the borders, as violently as their weapons allow, creating massive human suffering, to include refugee flows into Europe that no one seem sure how to handle.


    A New Struggle

    The struggle has shifted from a semi-ideological one (Islamic extremism) that could not be bombed away to one of seizing and holding territory. The effort now ongoing to bomb that problem away has resulted primarily in repeatedly destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs and soon Mosul in order to save them.

    With the realignment of borders a process that can only be delayed — at great cost in every definition of that word — the answer is only to negotiate a conclusion. That conclusion will be ugly and distasteful, though if it is any help, it will be distasteful to everyone participated. It will need to be enforced by military power (we’ll call them peacekeepers) that is coordinated by the U.S., Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and controlling, its proxies. The U.S. is basically doing something like that with Jordan, forming a military dam against the mess in Syria, and Israel has done it for years.

    It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army, to resolve “troubles.”

    Out of the negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with some land from Turkey and the former-Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will be stronger. A Sunni homeland state, to include what Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured, with a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad. At the same time, that Sunni homeland offers the first real framework to contain Islamic State.



    The World’s Policeman

    American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (purloined HUMVEES are as ubiquitous as iPads in the region) to putting out fires. You want to be the world’s policeman? This is the neighborhood to prove it, because this now needs cops of a sort, not warfighters. There is no quick fix. There isn’t really a medium-term fix. Four America presidents have bombed the region, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.

    Yes, I hate it too. And of course I understand the difficulties of an imperfect resolution. But solution is no longer a viable term I am afraid.

    After you’ve soiled the bed, you do your best to clean it up. The process will be messy. But it is too late for elegant solutions. So with the Middle East.



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    Mini-World War Underway in Syria: The Players

    February 23, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    Peter_O'Toole_in_Lawrence_of_Arabia


    While Secretary of State John Kerry (personal slogan: “Did you know I was still Secretary of State?”) bleats about reaching some sort of imaginary ceasefire with the Russians during negotiations in Munich (optics, John, optics: you don’t negotiate a peace thing in Munich), what is basically a small version of world war continues unabated in Syria.


    Because the war, entering its sixth year, is so confusing, and the on-the-ground situation so complex, let’s look at it in simple digest form:


    Russian warplanes are bombing away, primarily in support of Syrian president Assad against a plethora of militias including ISIS, but also against Turkish proxy forces likely trying to slice off some tasty Syrian border territory.

    Iraqi and Lebanese militias aided by Iranian special forces are on the ground. An assortment of Syrian rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting to hold them back.

    Various Kurdish forces working with Washington and/or Moscow are taking advantage of the chaos to extend Kurdish territories, in Syria, Iraq and odd bits of Turkey. The Islamic State has snatched land while all the focus was on the other groups, and still holds substantial territory in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have threatened to invade Syria with ground troops, which the Iranians say they will respond to militarily.

    Ahead of Kerry’s supposed ceasefire, the conflict is escalating. Turkey joined in over the weekend, firing artillery across its border at Kurdish positions, prompting appeals from the Obama administration to both Turks and Kurds to back down.

    The U.S. is supporting both sides as part of its anti-ISIS clusterfutz campaign.


    The current locus of the struggle is around the city of Aleppo, in Syria. As the Washington Post’s most excellent reporter Liz Sly describes it, “The Aleppo offensive is affirming Moscow’s stature as a dominant regional power across the heart of the Middle East. The advances by Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias are extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria. Although Syria’s army is claiming the victories, rebels, military experts and videos by the fighters themselves say almost all of the advances are being made by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iraqi Badr Brigade, Harakat al-Nujaba and other Iraqi Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran.”

    Back to those Russian airstrikes. With that help, Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias are trying to besiege the rebel-held section of Aleppo to starve the rebels into submission. Using starvation as a weapon is a war crime, but it has been widely used in the Syrian war. Government-aligned forces have also severed the main supply route to Turkey that delivered food, weapons and aid to rebel-held areas, leaving one remaining route. The United Nations is warning that about 300,000 people in the rebel-held part of Aleppo could be at risk of starvation.


    Got it? If you think you do, please drop the White House a line and explain it to them.




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    U.S. Supported Shia Militias in Iraq Lead Ethnic Cleansing

    February 13, 2016 // 18 Comments »

    forrest-gump-lrg


    Oh, yes, and also civil war. Here’s a preview of what to expect in Iraq after ISIS is mostly run out of the country.


    Set the scene: the country formerly known as Iraq was basically an steaming pile of ethnic/religious tension in 2003 when the U.S. invaded. It was divided among three broad groups we didn’t seem to know much about then, but damn well do now: Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. The Kurds, who always wanted to be independent, like from nearly the time of the dinosaurs always, saw their opportunity and broke away and are now essentially their own country. The Sunnis and Shia both wanted the same land and resources and freaking hate each other, and so have been fighting one another since 2003 when the post-U.S. invasion chaos unleashed them.

    Among the many reasons the U.S. plans for Iraq failed was that it took the United States years to realize they were sitting squat in the middle of a civil war, hated by both sides as much as both sides hated them. The U.S. exit strategy, as it was, was a last gasp (The Surge) try to balance the power between Sunni and Shia and when that failed, run for the exit and allow Iran to push the Shias into power. The Sunnis took the bait from ISIS to be their protector from the Shias and zowie! it’s Mad Max in 2016.

    A bit simplified, (duh) but that’s basically the outline.

    When a couple of years ago the U.S. woke up and decided ISIS was the worst thingie ever, the U.S. also leaped into bed with Iran and the Shias to smite Islamic State. The reason was that the U.S.-paid for Iraqi National “Army” collapsed overnight and the Americans were desperate for someone to fight ISIS. The Shia were more than happy to help chase ISIS, and along the way, any other Sunnies they could find, out of Iraq.

    So it is no surprise in any way that we learn since Shia militias recaptured most of (Sunni) Diyala from ISIS in 2015, they have dominated the province, with minimal oversight from the Iraqi state. As a result, the ultra-sectarian Shia groups have been free to attack Sunni civilians with impunity. The effect has been quite clear: Diyala has been depopulated of Sunnis.

    Anywhere else in the world the U.S. would label this ethnic cleansing, and say it was a forerunner of genocide. It is, and likely will be, we just don’t want to call it that for PR purposes. You know, one person’s evil thugs are another’s freedom fighters.


    And Diyala’s problems point to something bigger: While the militias are especially powerful in Diyala, they wield enormous influence throughout Iraq due to their role in the fight on ISIS. Their influence is doing serious harm to the prospects of Sunni-Shia reconciliation in Iraq — which is the only way to ensure ISIS’s long-term defeat and will happen only after pigs fly over a frozen Hell.

    So in a way, if ISIS is not defeated in Iraq, that will be the good news in the long view. As Forrest Gump, who appears to be running American foreign policy at present, once said “Stupid is what stupid does.”



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    U.S. Allies Have No Interest in Anti-ISIS Coalition

    February 10, 2016 // 11 Comments »

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    What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.


    Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.

    So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.

    “We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.


    Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.

    “What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.

    “And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”

    Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.


    A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.

    Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.



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    What’s In A Name? Iraqis Change Names to Avoid Being Targeted by Militias

    January 30, 2016 // 12 Comments »

    johnkerryhearing


    So, yep, thanks for asking, this war is going well.


    Especially now, as we learn some Sunnis are far more afraid of Iraqi government-supported Shiite militias than they are of anyone from Islamic State. This will not end well, especially since the United States still hopes to get those same Sunnis to turn on ISIS and support the same goals as the Shiite Iraqi government.


    Fear of those Shiite Muslim militias is driving many locals in Diyala Province, where the population is mixed, to change their names to more neutral formulations.

    The reason is simple survival. “Just over the past two months our department has received between 150 and 200 applications for a name change,” said an official working for Diyala’s Directorate of Nationality. “Most of the applications are being submitted by people whose names reveal their sect or the areas from where their family or tribe comes.”


    In the Middle East, a name can tell a lot about its bearer. A surname may indicate which tribe one comes from originally, and thereby which part of the country. A first name or father’s name can indicate which sect one belongs to, especially if one is given a name specific to either Shiite or Sunni Muslims.


    In Diyala, a province with a population where Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and a variety of ethnicities are thrown together, locals say that they fear being targeted for their Sunni religious background, even though they may not actually be very religious. They specifically fear the Shiite Muslim militias, supported by the United States, Iran, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, who are ostensibly fighting Islamic State. The militias are also engaged in some serious ethnic cleansing directed against the Sunni population.

    Iraq’s Shiite-controlled Ministry of the Interior issued an order two months ago to put a stop to the Sunni name changes, stating that only those who have the name “Saddam” would be allowed to change their names. However, the responsible (Sunni-controlled) department in Diyala has resumed its work in defiance of Baghdad.



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    Freedom! 19,000 Iraqi Civilians Killed in Less Than Two Years

    January 26, 2016 // 9 Comments »

    Powell-anthrax-vial

    …that works out to about 28 dead every day.

    It is also an estimate, given that many areas of the country are not readily accessible, and because the death toll from the siege of Ramadi is not accounted for in the figures. More than 3.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced and/or homeless.

    Iraq is now an ungoverned, failed state, a killing field on the scale of genocide.

    At least 18,802 civilians were killed and 36,245 wounded in Iraq over the last 22 months, according to the UN’s Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Armed Conflict in Iraq. Another 3,206,736 Iraqis are internally displaced, including more than one million children. The study emphasizes that these are conservative estimates. The UN also is careful to note that the number of civilians killed by secondary effects of the violence, such as lack of access to food, water or medical care, is unknown. In many areas of Iraq schools are closed and basic infrastructure is not functioning.

    All that is in addition to the more than one million people already killed during the American occupation period.

    These horrors are directly caused by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. In addition to unleashing near-total chaos in the nation, the U.S. invasion led directly to the rise of Islamic State, which found the consuming violence fertile soil for growth. ISIS went on to see a new role to emerge, protector of the Sunni population, which was being slaughtered and impoverished by the Shiite majority empowered by the Americans and Iran.

    “Armed violence continues to take an obscene toll on Iraqi civilians and their communities,” remarked the UN high commissioner for human rights. “The so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ continues to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law. These acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”

    ISIS is targeting non-Sunni ethnic and religious communities, “systematically persecuting” them, subjecting them to violent repression and crimes, the UN notes. Women and children are particularly affected by these atrocities. Women face extreme sexual violence and even sexual slavery. Children are being forcibly recruited as fighters.

    In addition to ISIS violence, the UN notes that civilians have been killed and kidnapped, and that civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by pro-government forces, militias and tribal fighters. Moreover, civilians are being killed by U.S. airstrikes.

    Adding to the depth of horror in Iraq, many Iraqi refugees have sought asylum in the West, but have been largely unwelcome. In a time of heightened Islamophobia, some European countries and many right-wing American politicians — including more than half of the U.S. governors — have made it clear they do not want to accept Muslim refugees.


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    You Won’t Like It, But Here’s the Answer to ISIS

    January 25, 2016 // 11 Comments »

    isis




    How can we stop the Islamic State?

    Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?


    What Hasn’t Worked

    You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)

    Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.

    Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.

    How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”

    Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.

    If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.


    How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?

    To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?

    Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).

    And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?

    Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.

    Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.


    Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World

    You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.

    So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”


    We Have to Do Something

    So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”

    Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.

    As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.

    As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.

    But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.

    Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.

    The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS.  That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.

    And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.

    You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.

    Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else?  There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”

    To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.

    In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.

    This is history talking to us.


    That Darn History Thing

    Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”

    In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.

    In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.

    It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.

    The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.

    There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.


    Fear Itself

    Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.

    And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.

    It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies.  This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.

    And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.


    At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”

    And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”




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    Can Iran Disrupt American Encrypted GPS Systems?

    January 18, 2016 // 5 Comments »

    GPS_Satellite_NASA_art-iif


    Iranians may have learned how to disrupt and spoof American encrypted GPS systems, and that new ability is connected to the downing of an American drone a few years ago, and also to the capture of two American Navy craft earlier this month.

    If true, this new tech is a potential global game changer. Here’s some additional information on what might have happened recently in the Persian Gulf.



    Misnavigation

    To recap, after some bumbling false explanation about engine failure, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained that the captured American sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” as they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base. The LA Times added “a sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course.”

    All that “misnavigation” would have meant two boats making the identical error in some of the world’s most volatile waters, and that no backup systems as simple as those in your cell phone were available. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Measure twice, cut once.

    In 2011, when Iran downed an American drone that had “drifted” more than 100 miles into that nation from its flight path in Afghanistan, Iranian General Moharam Gholizadeh, the deputy for electronic warfare at the air defense headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stated publicaly “We have a project on hand that is one step ahead of jamming, meaning ‘deception’ of the aggressive systems… we can define our own desired information for it so the path of the missile would change to our desired destination… all the movements of these [enemy drones are being watched]” and “obstructing” their work was “always on our agenda.”

    Technology site Daily Tech explains how this might work:

    A team uses a technique known as “spoofing” — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain. In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, commonly acquired from several satellites [pictured above]. By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince the drone that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base. At that point the drone’s autopilot functionality kicked in and triggered the landing. But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone victim instead found itself captured at an Iranian military landing zone. Spoofing the GPS is a clever method, as it allows hackers to land on its own where they wanted it to, without having to crack the [encrypted] remote-control signals and communications.

    What May Have Happened

    If the Iranians have such technology, what happened in the Gulf with those two U.S. Navy boats is easy to explain. As they came close to Iranian territorial waters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) spoofed both crafts’ GPS system simultaneously. The navigation systems were told the boats were outside of the line, when in fact they were inside the line by about a mile. Two systems with the same information displayed at the same time are unlikely to be questioned.

    Why Now?

    If the Iranians had such technology since 2011, and assuming they have not used it before against the U.S. in any undisclosed incidents, why did they employ it now, and against such meaningless targets as two small patrol boats?

    Timing is everything. The nuclear deal the U.S. made with Iran was not popular among its own conservatives. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard represents a conservative body of thought in general, and are specifically in charge of much of the weapons-side of the nuclear program. That opens the door to two potential “why now” answers.

    The first may have been to try and postpone or trash the nuclear deal at the last minute by sparking an international incident. Imagine if the more liberal, secular elements of the Iranian government had failed to get the American sailors released so quickly, and the whole mess developed into a full-blown hostage “crisis.” American war drums would have beat hard.

    The second may be more subtle. The United States uses GPS technology to guide most of its long range weapons, the weapons that would play a significant role in any U.S. attacks on Iran. The Guards’ overt use of the spoofing tech may have been a warning shot to the U.S., a signal that any American aggression towards a non-nuclear Iran (as happened to non-nuclear Saddam, or in Libya soon after that nation abandoned its nuclear ambitions under U.S. pressure) would be complex, and possibly a failure. And if that wasn’t enough, the IRG may have sent a note via its actions that such tech could easily find its way into other unfriendly hands.


    Speculation, of course. There may be an explanation for the boats’ misnavigation as simple as a young sailor’s human error. But the science suggests at least one other reason, with significant repercussions for years to come.



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    So What Really Happened With Those U.S. Boats Captured by Iran?

    January 17, 2016 // 7 Comments »

    iran


    Whatever happened, it does not seem to be anywhere close to what we are being told.

    As with the killing of Osama bin Laden, Benghazi, and the bombing of that Afghan hospital, the U.S. government seems to be spitting out explanations and seeing which one the media will swallow.

    But there may be an explanation that might answer some questions. But first a review of what’s already been said, and then discarded.

    When news first broke of the detention of two U.S. ships in Iranian territorial waters, the U.S. media uncritically repeated the U.S. government’s explanation for what happened — one boat experienced “mechanical failure” and “inadvertently drifted” into Iranian waters. On CBS News, Joe Biden said, “One of the boats had engine failure, drifted into Iranian waters.”

    But then a few people began to ask how two boats had mechanical failures simultaneously, or why one didn’t tow the other, or evacuate the crew and sink the broken boat or call for help or anything else that made sense. And the idea that somehow the U.S. government was simply misinformed about what really happened to the degree that the vice president made a fool of himself on national TV is a bit hard to process.

    And, according to The Intercept, the U.S. government itself now says this story was false. There was no engine failure, and the boats were never “in distress.” Once the sailors were released, the AP reported, “In Washington, a defense official said the Navy has ruled out engine or propulsion failure as the reason the boats entered Iranian waters.”



    Instead, said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at a press conference, the sailors “made a navigational error that mistakenly took them into Iranian territorial waters.” He added that they “obviously had misnavigated” when, in the words of the New York Times, “they came within a few miles of Farsi Island, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has a naval base.”

    The LA Times conveyed this new official explanation: “A sailor may have punched the wrong coordinates into the GPS and they wound up off course. Or the crew members may have taken a shortcut into Iranian waters as they headed for the refueling ship, officials said.”

    Well, it would have had to have been two boats making an error, and that in some of the world’s most tricky territory. Armed boats inside the Persian Gulf nosing around a foreign military base usually drive very, very carefully. Seems hard to just write this off blithely as “pilot error.” Among other questions: wasn’t the big Navy, with lots of ships and planes in the area, tracking these boats via radar? Seems the Iranians sure as hell were.


    Don’t like those ideas? Oh wait, there are some more explanations.

    “U.S. defense officials were befuddled about how both vessels’ navigational systems failed to alert them that they were entering Iranian waters,” reported the Daily Beast’s Nancy Youseff. SecDef Carter sought to explain this away by saying, “It may have been they were trying to sort it out at the time when they encountered the Iranian boats.” The LA Times said boats were perhaps running out of gas, entered Iranian waters merely as a “shortcut,” experienced engine failure when they tried to escape, and then on top of all these misfortunes, experienced radio failure.


    So, what did happen? We may never know, but here’s something to consider.

    In 2011 a drone (the U.S. never acknowledged it was American, but it very much appeared to be from the photos) was forced down in Iran. What if the Iranians have figured out how to jam the U.S. encrypted GPS systems and instead feed them false coordinates? The false GPS coordinates may have said the drone was at the airfield, so the thing went into a landing cycle and crashed in Iran. A lot of sensitive technology fell into Iran along with that drone.

    So consider this. Let’s assume the U.S. boat crews did not intend to enter Iranian waters, technically an act of war. The U.S. itself has ruled out mechanical failure, and said the cause was navigational error — GPS-based technology. A dumb crew making mistakes is always a possibility, but two crews doing it simultaneously in such dangerous territory? Seems like a place where you measure twice and cut once. With backup.

    What if their GPS was spoofed, telling the crews they were not in Iranian territorial waters, at least until the Iranian Revolutionary Guard showed up to inform them at gunpoint? The U.S. government, shocked, fumbles around for a day or two looking for an explanation people will accept. Iran accomplished its goal, tweaking the U.S., and telling the Americans not to mess around in their Gulf.


    Anyway, if you have a better explanation, feel free to shout it out. That’s no different at this point than what the government is doing.



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    Interview on Politics and Reality Radio

    January 16, 2016 // Comments Off on Interview on Politics and Reality Radio

    A Face Made for Radio


    I joined host Joshua Holland on Politics and Reality Radio to talk about Islamic State, the refugee crisis in Syria and concerns about the gap between on-the-ground reality in Iraq and what might be being reported up the chain by military intelligence analysts intent on cooking the books to suggest we are winning.

    My portion of the show starts at 7:05 in.

    Also featured are Ed Kilgore from The Washington Monthly on U.S. politics and the 2016 campaign, and The New Republic‘s Rebecca Leber talking about the horrific shootings broadcast live out of Virginia this week.

    Check out the interview online.




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    What’s the Real Story Behind Saudi Arabia’s Execution of Shia Cleric al-Nimr?

    January 11, 2016 // 9 Comments »

    shia-cleric
    The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.

    Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.

     

    But why execute al-Nimr now?

    The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.

    While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.

    The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.

     

    Times have changed.

    Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.

    The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.

    But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.

    It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.

     

    The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.

    Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.

    And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.

    The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.

    Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.

    But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.

     

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    Ramadi is Free! But This Ain’t Over Yet…

    December 29, 2015 // 2 Comments »

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    So, have you heard the good news? The town of Ramadi, in the Disneyland of the Middle East, Iraq, is free again. Iraqi military forces have retaken the town from Islamic State. Sort of. Maybe.

    The town of Ramadi is a popular place for liberationing. In 2003, the United States liberated it from Saddam, though fighting continued right up through 2011, when the new Iraqis liberated the town from the Americans. That lasted until spring 2015, when ISIS liberated Ramadi back from the new Iraqi National Army. Now, in December, somebody Iraqi sort of took the town back.


    — Sort of… is the operative word, in that even the best estimates suggest that ISIS still controls some 25 percent of Ramadi.

    — Sort of… in the sense that U.S. bombing and the Iraqi siege has destroyed much of Ramadi in order to free it and left many of its residents homeless, or dead.

    — Sort… of in the sense that it was not solely the Iraqi government’s forces which liberated Ramadi, but also Shia militias controlled by various factions in Iraq, and beholden to Iran. The event was stage-managed by the U.S. to create the appearance of a more unified effort by the Iraq side, and to use Ramadi as an example of how America’s train and equip strategy was finally working… sort of… somewhere.



    Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reports that the security forces of the Iran-backed regime in Baghdad that captured Ramadi largely consist of Shiite fighters in league with murderous militias that have slaughtered innocent Sunnis after ousting ISIS militants from Tikrit and other battlegrounds in the past year. Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, and the Shiites are ready to break some sectarian skulls.

    “We are not calling a spade a spade,” says Derek Harvey, a retired U.S. Army intelligence colonel who’s been dealing with Iraq for over 25 years, including as intelligence adviser to both General David Petraeus,as quoted in Newsweek. “My sources on the ground say Shiite militias and sectarian fighters… are wearing MOI [Ministry of Interior] uniforms with MOI patches.” So they look like Iraqi Government forces, even though they are not.

    Their vehicles, Harvey adds, fly Shiite militia banners, “and the people who are commanding them are still Shiite militia leaders. Just because you put on a different uniform doesn’t mean you aren’t who you are, who their group identity is and who they’re committed to.”

    In Tikrit earlier this year, such circumstances of “victory” lead to reprisals killings of Sunnis, and loss of central government control over the city. If that happens again in Ramadi, there is nothing close to a victory to celebrate.

    The U.S. coalition denies any Shia groups were involved in Ramadi, and reports from the very few journalists on the ground tend to support that position,in contrast to the Newsweek report.



    BONUS: The Ministry of Interior is controlled by the Shia Badr political party, which originated in 1982 as an Iran-backed Iraqi exile group headquartered in Tehran. With the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it moved inside the country, and its members infiltrated the army and police. In 2014, the stand-alone Badr Brigade, led by Iranian officers, was basically the only force standing in the way of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad.



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    This Year’s Hottest Toy: Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset

    December 22, 2015 // 8 Comments »

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    Every Christmas sees one toy emerge as the most-wanted, gotta have gift — remember Tickle Me Elmo, and Beanie Babies from years past? Well, 2015’s big hit has emerged: The Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset.


    The set retails for three trillion dollars, though the price may have doubled by the time this is published. Included in the standard set are enough LEGOS to build replicas of Mosul and Fallujah, allowing a child to refight those battles over and over.

    Figures, all with removable heads, include Sunni militias, Islamic State fighters, Shia militias, one figure representing the actual Iraqi Army, American special forces with and without boots, Iranians, Kurds, Turks, Russians, Syrians (moderate and radical, though they cannot be told apart), British, French and Italian troops, shady Saudi financiers and Hezbollah soldiers.

    The basic set also includes a starter pack of refugee figures, though most people will want to opt for the bonus pack, if only to get access to the limited edition dead children refugee figures.

    Not included: any weapons of mass destruction.


    While the Iraq-Syria LEGO Playset will provide any child with decades of fun, even more adventures can be played out by buying the Turkish Expansion Pack.

    And parents, please note: Even after careful construction with the best of intention, the playset tends to simply fall apart.



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    Washington to Whomever: Please Fight the Islamic State for Us

    December 17, 2015 // 5 Comments »

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    In the many strategies proposed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by presidential candidates, policymakers, and media pundits alike across the American political spectrum, one common element stands out: someone else should really do it.

    The United States will send in planes, advisers, and special ops guys, but it would be best — and this varies depending on which pseudo-strategist you cite — if the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, and/or Shias would please step in soon and get America off the hook.

    The idea of seeing other-than-American boots on the ground, like Washington’s recently deep-sixed scheme to create some “moderate” Syrian rebels out of whole cloth, is attractive on paper. Let someone else fight America’s wars for American goals. Put an Arab face on the conflict, or if not that at least a Kurdish one (since, though they may not be Arabs, they’re close enough in an American calculus). Let the U.S. focus on its “bloodless” use of air power and covert ops. Somebody else, Washington’s top brains repeatedly suggest, should put their feet on the embattled, contested ground of Syria and Iraq. Why, the U.S. might even gift them with nice, new boots as a thank-you.

    Is this, however, a realistic strategy for winning America’s war(s) in the Middle East?


    The Great Champions of the Grand Strategy

    Recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton openly called for the U.S. to round up some Arab allies, Kurds, and Iraqi Sunnis to drive the Islamic State’s fighters out of Iraq and Syria. On the same day that Clinton made her proposal, Bernie Sanders called for “destroying” the Islamic State, but suggested that it “must be done primarily by Muslim nations.” It’s doubtful he meant Indonesia or Malaysia.

    Among the Republican contenders, Marco Rubio proposed that the U.S. “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.” Ted Cruz threw his support behind arming the Kurds, while Donald Trump appeared to favor more violence in the region by whoever might be willing to jump in.

    The Pentagon has long been in favor of arming both the Kurds and whatever Sunni tribal groups it could round up in Iraq or Syria. Various pundits across the political spectrum say much the same.

    They may all mean well, but their plans are guaranteed to fail. Here’s why, group by group.


    The Gulf Arabs

    Much of what the candidates demand is based one premise: that “the Arabs” see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.

    It’s a position that, at first glance, would seem to make obvious sense. After all, while American politicians are fretting about whether patient IS assault teams can wind their way through this country’s two-year refugee screening process, countries like Saudi Arabia have them at their doorstep. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to lend a helping hand, including some planes and soldiers, to the task of destroying that outfit? “The Arabs,” by which the U.S. generally means a handful of Persian Gulf states and Jordan, should logically be demanding the chance to be deeply engaged in the fight.

    That was certainly one of the early themes the Obama administration promoted after it kicked off its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq back in 2014. In reality, the Arab contribution to that “coalition” effort to date has been stunningly limited. Actual numbers can be slippery, but we know that American warplanes have carried out something like 90% of the air strikes against IS. Of those strikes that are not all-American, parsing out how many have been from Arab nations is beyond even Google search’s ability. The answer clearly seems to be not many.

    Keep in mind as well that the realities of the region seldom seem to play much of a part in Washington’s thinking. For the Gulf Arabs, all predominantly Sunni nations, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked Sunni ilk are little more than a distraction from what they fear most, the rise of Shia power in places like Iraq and the growing regional strength of Iran.

    In this context, imagining such Arab nations as a significant future anti-IS force is absurd. In fact, Sunni terror groups like IS and al-Qaeda have in part been funded by states like Saudi Arabia or at least rich supporters living in them. Direct funding links are often difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to publicly prove them. This is especially so because the money that flows into such terror outfits often comes from individual donors, not directly from national treasuries, or may even be routed through legitimate charitable organizations and front companies.

    However, one person concerned in an off-the-record way with such Saudi funding for terror groups was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009.  In a classified warning message (now posted on WikiLeaks), she suggested in blunt terms that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

    One who thinks the Saudis and other Gulf countries may be funding rather than fighting IS and is ready to say so is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the recent G20 meeting, he announced that he had shared intelligence information revealing that 40 countries, including some belonging to the G20 itself, finance the majority of the Islamic State’s activities. Though Putin’s list of supposed funders was not made public, on the G20 side Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely candidates than South Korea and Japan.

    Most recently, the German vice chancellor has explicitly accused the Saudis of funding Sunni radical groups.

    Expecting the Gulf Arab states to fight IS also ignores the complex political relationship between those nations and Islamic fundamentalism generally. The situation is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where the secular royal family holds power only with the shadowy permission of Wahhabist religious leaders. The latter provide the former with legitimacy at the price of promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad. From the royals’ point of view, abroad is the best place for it to be, as they fear an Islamic revolution at home. In a very real way, Saudi Arabia is supporting an ideology that threatens its own survival.


    The Kurds

    At the top of the list of groups included in the American dream of someone else fighting IS are the Kurds. And indeed, the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are actually on the battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria, using American-supplied weapons and supported by American air power and advisers in their efforts to kill Islamic State fighters.

    But looks can be deceiving. While a Venn diagram would show an overlap between some U.S. and Kurdish aims, it’s important not to ignore the rest of the picture. The Kurds are fighting primarily for a homeland, parts of which are, for the time being, full of Islamic State fighters in need of killing. The Kurds may indeed destroy them, but only within the boundaries of what they imagine to be a future Kurdistan, not in the heartlands of the Syrian and Iraqi regions that IS now controls.

    Not only will the Kurds not fight America’s battles in parts of the region, no matter how we arm and advise them, but it seems unlikely that, once in control of extended swaths of northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they will simply abandon their designs on territory that is now a part of Turkey. It’s a dangerous American illusion to imagine that Washington can turn Kurdish nationalism on and off as needed.

    The Kurds, now well armed and battle-tested, are just one of the genies Washington released from that Middle Eastern bottle in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Now, whatever hopes the U.S. might still have for future stability in the region shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Using the Kurds to fight IS is a devil’s bargain.


    The Turks

    And talking about devil’s bargains, don’t forget about Turkey. The Obama administration reached a deal to fly combat missions in its intensifying air war against the Islamic State from two bases in Turkey. In return, Washington essentially looked the other way while Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-launched a war against internal Kurdish rebels at least in part to rally nationalistic supporters and win an election. Similarly, the U.S. has supported Turkey’s recent shoot-down of a Russian aircraft.

    When it comes to the Islamic State, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Turks to lend a serious military hand. That country’s government has, at the very least, probably been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into Syria for IS, and is clearly a conduit for smuggling its oil out onto world markets. American politicians seem to feel that, for now, it’s best to leave the Turks off to the side and simply be grateful to them for slapping the Russians down and opening their air space to American aircraft.

    That gratitude may be misplaced. Some 150 Turkish troops, supported by 20 to 25 tanks, have recently entered northern Iraq, prompting one Iraqi parliamentarian to label the action “switching out alien (IS) rule for other alien rule.” The Turks claim that they have had military trainers in the area for some time and that they are working with local Kurds to fight IS. It may also be that the Turks are simply taking a bite from a splintering Iraq. As with so many situations in the region, the details are murky, but the bottom line is the same: the Turks’ aims are their own and they are likely to contribute little either to regional stability or American war aims.


    The Sunnis

    Of the many sub-strategies proposed to deal with the Islamic State, the idea of recruiting and arming “the Sunnis” is among the most fantastical. It offers a striking illustration of the curious, somewhat delusional mindset that Washington policymakers, including undoubtedly the next president, live in.

    As a start, the thought that the U.S. can effectively fulfill its own goals by recruiting local Sunnis to take up arms against IS is based on a myth: that “the surge” during America’s previous Iraq War brought us a victory later squandered by the locals. With this goes a belief, demonstrably false, in the shallowness of the relationship between many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and the Islamic State.

    According to the Washington mythology that has grown up around that so-called surge of 2007-2008, the U.S. military used money, weapons, and clever persuasion to convince Iraq’s Sunni tribes to break with Iraq’s local al-Qaeda organization. The Sunnis were then energized to join the coalition government the U.S. had created. In this way, so the story goes, the U.S. arrived at a true “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington still believe that the surge, led by General David Petraeus, swept to success by promoting and arming a “Sunni Awakening Movement,” only to see American plans thwarted by a too-speedy Obama administration withdrawal from the country and the intra-Iraqi squabbling that followed. So the question now is: why not “awaken” the Sunnis again?

    In reality, the surge involved almost 200,000 American soldiers, who put themselves temporarily between Sunni and Shia militias. It also involved untold millions of dollars of “payments” — what in another situation would be called bribes — that brought about temporary alliances between the U.S. and the Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi central government never signed onto the deal, which began to fall apart well before the American occupation ended. The replacement of al-Qaeda in Iraq by a newly birthed Islamic State movement was, of course, part and parcel of that falling-apart process.

    After the Iraqi government stopped making the payments to Sunni tribal groups first instituted by the Americans, those tribes felt betrayed. Still occupying Iraq, those Americans did nothing to help the Sunnis. History suggests that much of Sunni thinking in the region since then has been built around the motto of “won’t get fooled again.”

    So it is unlikely in the extreme that local Sunnis will buy into basically the same deal that gave them so little of lasting value the previous time around. This is especially so since there will be no new massive U.S. force to act as a buffer against resurgent Shia militias. Add to this mix a deep Sunni conviction that American commitments are never for the long term, at least when it comes to them. What, then, would be in it for the Sunnis if they were to again throw in their lot with the Americans? Another chance to be part of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that seeks to marginalize or destroy them, a government now strengthened by Iranian support, or a Syria whose chaos could easily yield a leadership with similar aims?

    In addition, a program to rally Sunnis to take up arms against the Islamic State presumes that significant numbers of them don’t support that movement, especially given their need for protection from the depredations of Shia militias. Add in religious and ethnic sentiments, anti-western feelings, tribal affiliations, and economic advantage — it is believed that IS kicks back a share of its oil revenues to compliant Sunni tribal leaders — and what exactly would motivate a large-scale Sunni transformation into an effective anti-Islamic State boots-on-the-ground force?


    Shias

    Not that they get mentioned all that often, being closely associated with acts of brutality against Sunnis and heavily supported by Iran, but Iraq’s Shia militias are quietly seen by some in Washington as a potent anti-IS force. They have, in Washington’s mindset, picked up the slack left after the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled the Islamic State’s fighters in northern Iraq in June 2014, and again in the Sunni city of Ramadi in May 2015.

    Yet even the militia strategy seems to be coming undone. Several powerful Shia militias recently announced, for instance, their opposition to any further deployment of U.S. forces to their country. This was after the U.S. Secretary of Defense unilaterally announced that an elite special operations unit would be sent to Iraq to combat the Islamic State. The militias just don’t trust Washington to have their long-term interests at heart (and in this they are in good company in the region). “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq,” said one militia spokesman. “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting.”


    Refusing to Recognize Reality

    The Obama/Clinton/Sanders/Cruz/Rubio/Pentagon/et al. solution — let someone else fight the ground war against IS — is based on what can only be called a delusion: that regional forces there believe in American goals (some variant of secular rule, disposing of evil dictators, perhaps some enduring U.S. military presence) enough to ignore their own varied, conflicting, aggrandizing, and often fluid interests. In this way, Washington continues to convince itself that local political goals are not in conflict with America’s strategic goals. This is a delusion.

    In fact, Washington’s goals in this whole process are unnervingly far-fetched. Overblown fears about the supposedly dire threats of the Islamic State to “the homeland” aside, the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there — not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia — is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.

    Unworkable national boundaries were drawn up after World War I without regard for ethnic, sectarian, or tribal realities and dictatorships were then imposed or supported past their due dates. The Western answer that only secular governments are acceptable makes sad light of the power of Islam in a region that often sees little or no separation between church and state.

    Secretary of State John Kerry can join the calls for the use of “indigenous forces” as often as he wants, but the reality is clear: Washington’s policy in Syria and Iraq is bound to fail, no matter who does the fighting.




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