Fair is foul and foul is fair in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

Like Henry Kissinger, New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, belongs to a growing tribe of strategists who insist that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by a much bigger, Shia-Sunni faultline.

Even though Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackers, Wahabism, Salafism, are all traced to Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and the West in general have developed a high comfort level with Saudi Arabia regardless. In this framework, the West has placed the Shia world in opposition to it.

Was it always like this? Consider this recent historical perspective.

“As we approach the season of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would like to nominate the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for this year’s medal.” The recommendation came from NYT ace columnist, Friedman. For emphasis, he added: “I’m serious.”

This was in 2005. Friedman, was “in” with George W. Bush. In ecstatic pieces for the world’s most powerful newspaper, the NYT, he repeatedly described the occupation of Iraq as history’s greatest effort at democratization.

Americans had come against Saddam Hussain, a tough Baathist and atheist by belief and a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction. Remember Saddam invoked “Allah” for political mobilization only after the 1992 operation Desert Storm. He had Allah o Akbar inscribed on an otherwise secular emblem as an afterthought.

The eclipse of Saddam brought great relief to Shias in the South – around the holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and oil rich enclaves neighbouring Basra. For the first time the world realized that Shias were an overwhelming majority in all of Iraq.

A triangular situation had emerged – the occupying Americans, Sunni (plus Kurdish) minority and the Shia majority. The Shias, led by Ayatollah Sistani, played a straight political hand. Once occupation had taken place, he encouraged the occupiers against his tormentor, Saddam Hussain.

That is when Friedman was moved to write:

“If some kind of democracy takes root here (Iraq), it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the dominant Iraqi Shiite communal leader, Ayatollah Sistani.”

“It was Sistani who insisted that the elections not be postponed in the face of the Baathist-fascist insurgency. And it was Sistani who ordered Shiites not to retaliate for the Sunni Baathist and Jihadist attempts to drag them into civil war by attacking Shiite mosques and massacring Shiite civilians.”

Friedman proceeded to compare the Ayatollah with other icons who helped bring democracy to their respective countries – Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. The quality of democracy that obtains in Russia, Iraq and South must be left for Friedman to applaud.

Rightly or wrongly, Friedman extrapolated from his experience in Iraq. This is at a variance from the fraud Bush’s Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney sought to perpetrate on April 9, 2003, when he had the marines pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdous square and attributed the event to a popular uprising.

Friedman zigzagged along shifting convictions, until by August 2015, he began to show the first signs of tolerating something so totally different from Sistani as to take one’s breath away. In a conversation with Barack Obama he appeared to be nodding agreement on a kind of positive ambiguity about the ISIS.

Sudden and exponential growth of the Islamic State was something of a mystery. It is in the nature of the post colonial media that the views of Developing country elites particularly in the Arab world (except allies like Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and Jordan) never get reflected in the media. How did the elites in Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries view the IS phenomenon. Without exception, they described it as an American, French, British, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperative effort. I know first hand. Ask the ambassadors in New Delhi.

If this is what they thought, why were they silent? They were not silent, but their protestations were ignored by the global networks. So hopelessly one sided is the global media, that even shining stars of independent journalism like Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk are killed by a simple trick of being ignored.

Writing on Donald Trump’s proposed visit to the centres of semitic religions, Riyadh, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Fisk satirically speculates: “Trump will be able to ask Netanyahu for help against the IS without – presumably – realizing that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never – ever – bombed IS in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al Nusra which is part of Al Qaeda which attacked the US on 9/11.”

By universal consent, Fisk is among the most knowledgeable journalist who has lived in West Asia for decades. But the Imperial Information order keeps him outside the ken.

Truth however has a way of surfacing. Let us revert to Friedman’s interview with Obama. Friedman asked Obama why he delayed taking action against the IS when it was in its nascent stages?

Obama replies: “That we did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.”

In other words, by the US President’s own admission, the IS at that stage worked as an asset to apply pressure on Maliki who was in bad adour with the US because he had refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the US ironically on the advice of exactly the person Friedman was recommending for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 – Sistani.

Lo and behold, in his recent column, Friedman is advising Trump to give up the pretense of fighting IS – because that is not in the US (and presumably Israel’s) national interest.

He wants “Trump to be Trump – utterly cynical and unpredictable. ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias.”

“In Syria” Friedman recommends, “Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In other words, let the IS be a Western asset.

A recent cartoon with a most succinct message shows one Saudi ask another: “We finance wars all around us, when shall we bomb the Jewish state?” “When it becomes Shia.”

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Is global establishment in for surprise in France too?

BY SAEED NAQVI

Accustomed either to isolation or global dominance, the US has in recent years been playing a third role. Ever since its power diminished following the 2008 meltdown, it finds itself running around to block political forces which are ascendant everywhere almost independent of its authority.

Brexit happened despite the US. The country itself has a President it did not want. And now, the weight of its establishment is behind the centrist banker, Emmanuel Macron in France. But will that suffice to keep the ultranationalist Marine Le Pen at bay? The falcon cannot see the falconer.

Electoral eruptions are taking place everywhere almost in defiance of American will. In some instances it is difficult to fathom what possible interest the US might have had in a certain outcome until the truth suddenly leaps out of the thicket, in sharp silhouette.

Why, for instances, would the CIA exert every muscle to support the Right Wing Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, a country of 16 million people? In the event, a rank Leftist with a menacing name, Lenin Moreno, won.

World Affairs these days are sometimes like a game of billiards. That roughly is the effect of Lenin Moreno’s victory in Quito. The consequence of this outcome is that Julian Assange, who controls the nightmare called Wikileaks, now cannot be dispatched to Sweden for trial. He can live for the next few years in the comfort of the Ecuador Embassy in London. That clearly is an affront to the US establishment.

Worse maybe on its way in Mexico, Monroe doctrine or no Monroe doctrine. Come the 2018 elections, President Enrique Nieto will by all accounts be hit for a six, to be replaced by Leftist Lopez Obrador, if not something more radical. “Building the wall” rhetoric is not the only humiliation that has registered with the Mexican electorate.

So, scramble CIA; reversal in Mexico has to be averted at all costs just as one has to be speeded up in Venezuela.

You may sail the world’s most powerful Armada to threaten Kim Jong-un, but every school boy in Seoul knows that US troops in Panmunjom and at nearby Okinawa Island would be exposed to even hand carried ordnance in the unlikely event of hostilities.

Then why all this bluster on the part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump himself? The US has patronized many corrupt regimes in Seoul, but the disgrace in which President Park Geun-hye had to leave office has left South Koreans shattered. Is the US influence with the regime that comes in after May 9 elections about to plummet?

Is all this muscle flexing, then mixing hot and cold (Trump says he would meet Kim Jong-un), designed to somehow psyche Korean voting intentions. South Korea is not exempt from anti Americanism. An outcome conditioned by this factor will clearly be advantageous to China and Russia.

The global establishment is on sixes and sevens on which way the cookie might crumble in France. At the outset Macron seemed a clever idea, responding to the universal quest for something new, different from the established parties. But as the date of elections approaches, the idea begins to look too clever by half.

A 39-year-old, married to a grandmother, branches out with his own party, En Marche, or March Ahead has considerable novelty attached to it. But on close scrutiny he is a Rothschild banker, a former member of the most unpopular Francois Hollande government. Establishment to the core. Old wine in new bottle. Le Pen tattooed him with punches on that count in the TV debate the other night.

Suddenly imagination transports me to that Dumbo Loft under the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of November 8. Hillary Clinton was the front runner. It was an impressive assembly of World bankers, State Department officials, artists, journalists, friends Saeed Raza and Nusrat Durrani from Lucknow (to underscore my parochialism), all eager to celebrate a Clinton victory. But we all know what happened. (for the rest of the drama read my November 10, blog.)

Does Macron’s fate on election day resemble Clinton’s. American establishment shows traces of Joseph McCarthy in its DNA at the sight of anything resembling the classical left. Comfort level with a Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller is confined to Broadway shows. Little wonder, Bernie Sanders was grounded by the Democratic Establishment when he was miles ahead in the race.

In the French campaign, the communist Jean-Luc Melenchon surged with lightening speed, but French public were witness to his brilliant presentation only towards the end of the campaign. Imagine where he might have been had a viscerally anti Left media placed the spotlight on him earlier. Even so, he got 20 percent of the first round votes as against Le Pen’s 21 and Macron’s 23 percent.

All sorts of calculations are afoot: if 90 percent of Le Pen’s supporter turned out but only 65 of Macron’s were mobilized, she would win.

The trophy for prescience on the US elections clearly belonged to the film maker Michael Moore:

“This election is only about who gets who out to vote, who gets the most rabid supporters, the mind of candidate who gets people out of bed at 5.00 am on Election Day.”

Moore added: “So many people have given up on the system because the system has given up on them. They know it is all bullshit: politics, politicians, elections. People want to tear down establishments.” And Macron sadly, is “the” establishment in very thin disguise.

In an insightful piece, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times, that Le Pen has with great deliberation distanced herself from the anti Semitism of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. This brings her closer to the middle.

According to Douthat, “Nobody seriously doubts Le Pen’s competence, her command of policy, her ability to serve as President without turning the office into a Reality – TV thunderdrome.” Trump’s inability to master his own turbulent emotions is not an issue with his Gallic counterpart.

In the US, the media (except Fox News) threw its total weight behind Clinton. It had egg on its face. The French media, likewise, is supporting Macron to the hilt. In our perverse times, is that not a good omen for Le Pen?

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)