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)

But for Atal Behari Vajpayee, Kurdish Iraq was nearly ours

BY SAEED NAQVI

Hard to believe, but Mosul, currently in the news, would have been ours today had Atal Behari Vajpayee not played spoil sport.

After their invasion of Iraq in April 2003, Americans realized fairly early that a full fledged occupation for an unspecified period was not possible without allies taking responsibility to administer large swathes of the ancient land.

Seldom has a US ambassador been more effective than David Mulford was. It took very little persuasion for External Affairs, Jaswant Singh, Defence Minister George Fernandez, and Army Chief N.C. Vij to fall in line.

Ships were readied, battalions shortlisted, Generals chosen for India’s first imperialist adventure since the Cholas. We were going to rule a part of that country which alone of all the 52 Muslim states had stood by us at the UN, OIC and elsewhere on the Kashmir issue.

I suppose it must have been self interest which caused us to turn turtle on Iraq as soon as the Americans were in occupation of the country.

Our ambassador to Baghdad, B.B. Tyagi, even risked his life. Iraqi resistance had identified him as a diplomat who was supportive of the occupation. No wonder I was once ushered into his presence while he sat in bed, his legs outstretched, eyes wide open as in a daze, his hands on automatic weapons by both his sides. It was a frame for a possible Woody Allen war film.

Just as the first US representative, Paul Bremer, was convinced that the occupation would be a cakewalk, so was South Block and, indeed, Tyagi.

Bremer, a devout Roman Catholic, had turned up with a batch of Priests who smacked their lips at the prospect of saving souls in a post Saddam Iraq. It turned out that Antique smugglers did rather better, cleaning out the Baghdad museum on America’s watch.

South Block, like Bremer, had assumed that once Saddam’s yoke was lifted from their necks, Iraqis would turn up in droves to hug the Americans.

In anticipation of Iraq’s immediate future in American hands, South Block parked Tyagi in a three star hotel in Amman where he spent mornings, afternoons, evenings watching CNN and BBC for the American progress in Iraq. The irony was that Lyse Ducet of the BBC was herself in occupation of the terrace of Amman’s Intercontinental hotel watching her Arab staff count their worry beads, waiting for the American flag to be fluttering over all of Iraq.

Were this to happen, Tyagi would helicopter into Baghdad’s Green Zone and offer his credentials to Bremer or his Iraqi nominee.

Just imagine, New Delhi was all but ready to open its embassy with the American occupiers of a country which had given unstinted support to India always, particularly against Pakistani machinations at the UN.

This being the state of affairs, who could blame the US for being so confident of India’s enthusiastic willingness to partner them and take charge of Kurdish Iraq. It had very nearly happened, had Vajpayee not decided to show spine – just in the nick of time.

He kept his head while those around him were losing theirs. On April 9, American marines brought down Saddam Hussain’s statue and exactly the media which is lined up behind Hillary Clinton, attributed the statue’s fall to popular rage.

Vajpayee kept his counsel. On April 18 he turned up in Srinagar. Remember, Armies of India and Pakistan were in an eye-ball to eye-ball confrontation after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on Indian Parliament.

The fall of Saddam’s statue had registered differently with Vajpayee – this scale of western triumphalism was a source of anxiety for him. An “awesome” power has arisen. In the new situation, regional quarrels had to be composed, he said. Dramatically, he extended his hand of Peace to Pakistan.

This was the beginning of the process which led to India and Pakistan signing an agreement in Islamabad on January 4, 2004 that forbids the use of a country’s territory for cross border terrorism. The word was not kept by Pakistan, but that is another story.

The “shining India” campaign mounted by the BJP recoiled on it during the May 2004 elections. But for Indo-Pak relations, it was an unfortunate turn. When Vajpayee became External Affairs Minister in the 1977 Janata government, he had made up his mind on Pakistan: “we cannot change our neighbours.” Among his first foreign visits was to Pakistan in February 1978. The bus journey to Lahore in February 1999, and the January 2004 visit which resulted in the agreement against cross border terrorism, were audacious. But there were reverses.

He was able to cushion the reverses because of his cross party stature nationally and his standing with the RSS. But he persisted because he had grasped the triangle in which the country had trapped itself since 1947 – Srinagar-New Delhi, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim are one complex of issues. Unless a holistic view is taken of this triangle to outline suitable policy, eternal social strife would remain the nation’s lot.

He had the vision to pull India back from the brink on Iraq. Just imagine what would have been our fate had ships carrying Indian troops actually set sail.

The troop build up against Pakistan after the Parliament attack was also a calculated move. The Sole super power was in place to pull the protagonists back from the brink. It is just as well that neither Russia, and China (nor the US) paid much credence to the “surgical strikes”. In the absence of an overarching super power, real “surgical strikes” may cause the situation to spiral out of control.

(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)

The difficult task of finding friends and foes in West Asia

BY SAEED NAQVI

It is widely known that New Delhi tilts towards Israel in its dealings with West Asia, particularly since the 1999 Kargil war when the Jewish state provided the ammunition required for India’s field guns. Other mutual interests have since multiplied.

It therefore made practical sense that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj restored the balance somewhat when she dwelt at length on traditional ties with the Arab world while opening an India-Arab media conference organized by the MEA and attended by media managers from the Arab world. The media link is a tenuous one because an independent media is not the Arab world’s strongest feature, Al Jazeera’s inexplicable credibility notwithstanding. It is an enigma: an independent channel owned by a Sheikhdom which hosts the US Central Command.

Even during India’s non-aligned phase, there were groups and individuals who saw Israel as a model for the wrong reasons. The late M.L. Sondhi, for instance, sketched a grand design in my presence in the conference room of Jerusalem’s King David hotel: two non-Muslim countries surrounded by problematic Muslim neighbours. Both also had “problematic” Muslims within.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it seemed a dream scenario for these “two” countries to clasp the hand of the world’s sole superpower and live happily ever after.

It would be useful for Sushma Swaraj to recall the goings on in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet. L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh had agreed to send Indian troops to govern the Kurdish North of Iraq, exactly the region the Americans have now returned to in military formation. Why was India willing to subserve US occupation of a friendly country? In fact possibly the friendliest country India ever had. In every UN debate Iraq was the only Muslim country that stood with India on Kashmir.

In 2003 there was great faith in the durability of the sole superpower. After Saddam Hussein’s fall, the Indian ambassador to Baghdad was not asked to return to New Delhi. He was asked to mark time in a three star hotel in neighbouring Amman, and wait for Americans to take charge in Baghdad whence he would rush to present his credentials.

The person who read the future right was Vajpayee. On April 9, Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down at Baghdad’s Firdous Square by US marines. The global media gave it a different spin. Angry Iraqis had pulled down the statue, the world was told. Vajpayee described the US as an “awesome” power on the move. From Srinagar he called off the eye ball to eye ball confrontation with Pakistan.

I have inserted this piece of history the world knows little about, deliberately at a time when a handful of Arab media representatives are present in New Delhi. The Arab media itself had been pushed beyond the margins during the occupation of Iraq. The show was being largely controlled by BBC and CNN. It is worth mentioning that Doordarshan was the only non-Western media to have comprehensively covered that piece of history. Sushma Swaraj was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then.

US Vice President Dick Cheney, even more than Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was keen to declare victory on global TV. Obstructing celebrations was a singular problem. There was no demonstrable public enthusiasm for Saddam’s ouster. The entire choreography of the war had been designed for TV. How could the US declare victory if there were no street celebrations?

The only people willing to celebrate Saddam’s downfall were Shias in the south and east of the country. They could not be magically produced in Baghdad. In any case Shias would be ultra cautious coming out on an American invitation because after Operation Desert Storm in 1992 they had mounted an uprising in the South against Saddam Hussein. They mistakenly thought they had US protection. But Washington looked the other way. Saddam Hussein brutally crushed the uprising.

Cheney’s men did some quick thinking. After the 1992 uprising, Saddam Hussein had settled rebellious Shias from the south in a ghetto outside Baghdad called Saddam city. These Shias could be commandeered if their leaders, Ayatullah Baqar al Hakeem and Muqtada Sadr could be persuaded. They agreed. That is when Shias came out of their ghetto slapping Saddam Hussein’s photographs with heir sandals. Saddam city was overnight renamed Sadr city by an American edict.

Only after operation Desert Storm did Saddam Hussein place “Allah O Akbar” on the Iraqi flag. His message was simple: the “agnostic” and “atheistic” Baath Sunnis would from now on not be averse to the easier, more emotional, religious mobilization. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a subsequent creature of this duality. Baathist education with a religious edge. An ability to organize, administer, hold territory, derives from his Baathist training. Macabre actions like James Foley’s beheading and suicide bombing are a specialization of recent Sunni Jehadism. The two can be alternately stoked against the American infidel in Iraq and the Shia exclusivism of Baghdad. Now the US, Baghdad and Iran are laying traps to catch this animal.

(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)

For love of democracy West prefers Islamisation in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

The luxury bus leaves downtown Cam hotel to Qassion mountains for a panoramic view of the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited city, Damascus. The picture has to be sketched because outside Syria everyone is counting on the level of chaos we did not see.

There are diplomats, journalists, scholars, some NGOs too, invited by a Syrian think tank to study the current situation. Edward Lionel Peck, former US ambassador to several Arab countries was in the group. From the Ahlatala Café at the Qassian heights, the vast expanse looks the very picture of tranquility. The city’s calm is all the more noticeable because, thanks to the media, we have been conditioned to expect tension, conflict, street protests.

“No fireworks here” the manager of the Café intervenes. Derra, Alleppo, Homs, Hama – “those are the cities where you might see some action”.

An Indian businessman invites me to spend the evening with a Syrian Sunni family he has known for long years. The husband is a retired civil servant; the wife dons a white chiffon scarf. She has a sad, beatific smile on her face. Her two daughters in frocks are constantly replenishing the centre table with fruits, baklavas, scones, soft drinks, Turkish coffee – endless hospitality.

The negative media focus on Syria in recent months has erased from minds the continuing reality: the country is among the few remaining parts of the Arab world where elegant, gracious living is still possible.

“But it may end soon” the wife says, wiping her tears. “Can you imagine – I have to wear this scarf now”. She is Sunni who are supposed to be with the Islamist rebels opposing the Alawi ruling elite. Then why is she unhappy wearing a scarf? Syrian social order is in turmoil.

The population of Syria consists overwhelmingly of Sunnis – say 80 percent. The biggest minority are Alawis, in their origins a Shia Sect but as a result of decades of Baath party training, have shed their religion. They are secular in a non religious sort of way, rather in the image of Mustafa Kemal Pasha or the more Socialist, left leaning Jawaharlal Nehru, a blend of an abiding local culture and western education.

Until the Ayatullahs came to power in 1979, Teheran, Istanbul, Beirut, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Baghdad, Algiers, Tunis and any city in Morocco, and even Tripoli had among their populations the most secular elites. The secular enclaves may have been few but emphatic secular presence was a check on mindless religiosity. How was the secular stamp rubbed out in most of these societies in the space of three decades? Each city has a different narrative. The narrative of Damascus is currently in the making.

With the world’s media arrayed on the other side, it is difficult to persuade those who would care to listen, that it is secularism which is fighting with its back to the wall in Syria.

But the narrative the media beams about Syria is: Assad brutalizes his people.

It can be nobody’s case that Arab monarchies and dictatorships, Kemalist Turkey and Shah’s Iran were paragons of liberal democracy, if that be such a non negotiable value. But a certain elegant urbanity was available in these enclaves. In Cairo and Beirut, this urbanity came along with a sparkling intellectual life. Mubarak’s Cairo stilled the fizz. An anti intellectual aridity crept in which gradually overwhelmed most of the cities listed above. Damascus, believe it or not, is the last bastion where one can sit with friends and discuss ideas.

What, then, is our hostess that evening so distraught about? The growing religiosity travelling from across a post Kemalist Turkey and post Saddam Hussain Iraq have generated peer pressure for the scarf. And now, the impulses which brought in the scarf are providing hospitality for Islamism to topple the Baathist structure. Islamism is being preferred to secular Baathism by the US, Europe, Israel (Saudi Arabia) because the move removes Syria from the Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas chain. The regional chessboard changes.

Historically, in Syria Sunnis owned most of the lands and the rather poorer Alawis gravitated towards the army and other services. Just as the great Red Army, in the ultimate analysis, turned out to be a Russian army, the Yugoslav army, a Serbian army, the Syrian army is mostly an Alawi army. This army is the backbone of the Baath structure. Much the largest membership of Baath party comes from the Sunni majority for the obvious reason.

But they do not have as much of a “control” on power as the Alawis do particularly since the ascent of Hafez Assad in 1971.

There has always been a little bit of Muslim Brotherhood of varying strengths throughout the Arab sub stratum. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and breakdown of the Lebanon power sharing system after the Israeli occupation caused something of a stir in the central city of Hama, inviting a brutal crackdown by Assad in 1982.

The “Arab spring” broke up into three theatres – North Africa upto Egypt. Britain and France are to this day trying to manage the mess they have created in Libya. The Saudis are at the wheel on Bahrain and Yemen. Syria appeared to have been spared. Then Turkey began to look like a good model for Arabs in search of the electoral route. Moreover, if Syria can be fitted into that scheme, Iran will lost an ally and Turkey will gain influence.

The media has taken up the project with its concoctions and exaggerations. Double check this last fact with Ambassador Peck who is quite as puzzled. Meanwhile the lady with the scarf will swear by the holy book that she and her family in Alleppo have seen arms being funneled in for the protestors from Turkey. Others talk of Protesters being armed from Iraq and Jordan, a story the media will not investigate.

(Saeed Naqvi is 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)