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)

The New Cold War: American Jihadis vs Russian Jihadis

BY RSN SINGH

A strategically revolutionary statement has been ascribed to a high ranking Russian foreign ministry official, Zamir Kabulov, that his country’s interests are same as Taliban (Afghan Taliban) in fighting Islamic State terror. Kabulov is considered to wield formidable influence in fashioning Russian policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much to the disconcertment of India and Afghanistan, in the recently concluded Heart of Asia Conference, Kabulov came to defence of Pakistan on its role on terror. This was echoed by one Alexander Mantyskly in the upper house of Russian Parliament.

This development has in effect the potential to bring together Russia and Pakistan in enduring strategic alignment. Indications in this regard are getting increasingly pronounced. Joint military exercises in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s purchase of MI-35 helicopters, intention to purchase Su-35 fighters, visit of the three Pakistan Service Chiefs and intense confabulations on strategic issues, economic cooperation and connectivity — being some of them. This strategic approach if persisted with will also strategically impel Iran in the same direction. It will be a very tough call for India’s foreign policy establishment in case Russia-Taliban partnership materializes. It is a classic case of geopolitical flux overtaking foreign policy. The geopolitical flux can be best explained from the current chapter of recent capture of Aleppo city by government forces in Syria as beginning.

The rebel forces in Syria have lost the strategic town of Aleppo after months of bitter fighting with government forces. It is a watershed moment for Assad who not very long ago seemed beleaguered and considered a spent force. In fact, western countries had written his regime’s obituary. Aleppo in North West Syria is the most populous city and also country’s financial centre. The government now has significant writ as it has gained control of major cities in the west and the Mediterranean coast line. It is a major victory for Russia-Iran-Assad combine. Though the Islamic State was not much of a factor in the Aleppo battle, there were other rebel outfits, some two dozen, which included affiliates of Al Qaeda. In the case of Syria the largest is Jabhat Fatah al Sham which till very recently was known as Al-Nusra. Even the Islamic State (IS) is a reincarnation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The groups engaged in war in Syria are motivated by different political, territorial and jihadi considerations. Some of these groups cooperate, and there are others who have inimical relations and clash when their interests collide. Aleppo, is one such area which was beset by Islamic State in the east and Syrian Kurdish groups in the North West. Both are hostile to each other and have clashed endemically. But both are equally hostile to anti- Assad rebels like Al-Fatah. The Kurds are motivated by territorial considerations hence Turkey opposes not only Assad but Kurds as well. Turkey is increasingly getting disquieted with the Islamic State.

Most groups engaged in conflict in Syria are being leveraged by some or other external power. It is beyond debate or rather is well documented that the US or NATO has leveraged several affiliates of Al Qaeda in different conflicts. The latest being Al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al Sham) in Syria. Allegedly the Islamic State has been covertly supported and financed by US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Nevertheless, Erdogan after July coup seems to have lost his desire to join European Union and is visibly tilted towards Moscow and Iran.

Strategic detractors or even some independent analysts are of the view that the Islamic State is part of long standing US project to territorially re-engineer Iraq and Syria in a manner that there is a Sunni Islamic Caliphate; an Arab Shia Republic and a Republic of Kurdistan. Syria happens to be the heartland of Arab culture.

In 2014, the Iranian newspaper Tehran Times carried a front page story allegedly saying that the Islamic State is a US ploy to destabilize the region and protect Israel. The story ascribed to Snowden leaks, described the Islamic State as a joint US, British and Israeli effort to ‘’create a terrorist organization, capable of centralizing all extremist actions across the world. ‘’ As per a New York based consultancy, Soufan Group report of Dec 2015, an estimated 27000 foreign jihadis from 86 countries had traveled to join the Islamic State. The Tehran Times story is far from corroborated, but it is certainly not bereft of geopolitical sense. It is increasingly becoming clear that the US not only created the Islamic State but was also responsible for resurrection of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Further the US encouraged Erdogan to establish his own Caliphate so that the Islamic State could get a route to supply oil in world market. It may be mentioned that at its peak the Islamic State controlled 60 percent and 10 percent of Syria’s and Iraq’s oil production respectively.

The US led coalition had uncontested sway in influencing the civil war in Syria till Russia made an emphatic bid in September 2015 to reclaim its strategic space in West Asia, much to the chagrin of US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, amongst others. Israel and Saudi Arabia are perceived to be the biggest potential beneficiaries of the envisaged redrawing of the geopolitical map of West Asia by the US under Obama. The political umbilical of Obama administration with Saudi monarchy is hardly a secret. The link extended to Hillary Clinton as well, and in the process the Wahabis took advantage of the dependence. On this account India was surely a victim of Clinton’s acquiescence of Wahabis, specially from the likes of Zakir Naik. As far as Israel is concerned it was benefited in the sense that its worst enemies Syria and Iran were circumscribed and incapacitated to cause much harm. Speculations about links between Israel and Islamic State have never attenuated.

The Russian intervention apart from salvaging Assad from what seemed to be a hopeless situation gave a huge strategic boost to Iran. It became very clear that the targeting of Islamic State was only a ruse for the US coalition to debilitate government forces in Syria thus facilitating onslaught by the rebels. Since Aug 2014 the coalition has conducted more than 10000 air strikes, but till very late the Islamic State remained relatively unhurt and intact. It is only when the Russians forced their way through and began to genuinely target the Islamic State territory that it began to shrink and the cadres were in disarray. Consequently the Islamic State having suffered major territorial reverses changed its strategy and began to disperse. Instructions are being issued by the top Islamic State leadership urging volunteers not to travel to Syria and operate in autonomous mode in their respective countries.

As per US National Counter Terrorism Centre the Islamic State is now operational in 18 countries in the world including Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are also’’ aspiring branches’’ in Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines. In this year i.e. the Islamic State has carried out attacks in Turkey, Indonesia, Belgium, US and Bangladesh. There can therefore be no final or eventual victory over Islamic State just as Al-Qaeda continues to survive even after suffering US or NATO might all these years. They possibly cannot be snuffed by force because they are ideologically driven, and transcend ethnicity and nations.

What impacts India is the spread of Islamic State in South Asia. James Comey former FBI chief had warned that if the Islamic State wins and gets entrenched attacks on the West will increase, particularly Western Europe. The US, he said, will also suffer but minimally. Probably, by design then the Islamic State was diverted to South Asia!

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) maintains that all attacks in Afghanistan in the recent times were the handiwork of LeT, JeM, Haqqani network, Hizb-e- Islami, and Islamic State. The US, but curiously maintains strategic ambivalence over JeM and LeT and drums only Haqqani network. There is little doubt that the US has allowed LeT to flourish knowing fully well that the organization has global ambitions and consequent to Operation Enduring Freedom most of the Al Qaeda cadres had joined the LeT. Is it that Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Masood Azhar is coordinating Islamic State operations in Afghanistan at the behest of CIA and ISI?

As per the Director of National Intelligence, Afghanistan the Islamic State established its Khorasan branch in South Asia in Jan 2015 comprising disaffected members of Afghan Taliban and TTP. There are reports to suggest that the basic structure of Khorasan was assembled in Peshawar under the watchful eyes of ISI and then pushed into Nangarahar region of Afghanistan. Thousands of TTP cadres who joined Vilayat Khorasan were sent to Syria in 2014 and subsequently FATA born Hafiz Saeed Khan was made the chief. The Vilayat Khorasan has a brigade strength and in Afghanistan it is alluded as the’ ISI brigade.’

The attack on Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan is probably being engineered to exacerbate the Shia-Sunni divide. Both, the Islamic State or its regional version Vilayat Khorasan are frantically recruiting for the ongoing internecine war in the core of the Islamic World. The Shia-Sunni conflict for dominance is witnessing a feverish pitch in South Asia. Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) has been recruiting Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight alongside Assad forces on promises Iran’s residence permit and monthly salary of $500. It has formed two brigades from Shia recruits i.e. Fatemiyon Brigade and Zeinabiyoun Brigade. The recruitment of Shia Muslims is fueling sectarian attacks by the Islamic State. The spillover of Syrian conflict has been on India as well. 30,000 Shia Muslims volunteered to fight to protect Shiite shrines in Syria from Islamic State.

The US continues to lean heavily on Pakistan’s ISI for success of its geopolitical project in the region which is essentially an extension of West Asia. Does the US with the support of Pakistan aim to restrict Russia in Central Asia?

The military-intelligence establishment in Pakistan, historically adept at playing double game, is hedging its chances between US and Russia. The US operations in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was the catalyst. For Pakistan the interests of China in this Great Game is also a critical factor. For the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to enjoy sustainability, stability in the region is the main imperative.

This author has been told by several Balochis that the Islamic State or Lashkar Khorasan operatives are operating out of the barracks of Frontier Corps. The Khorasan militants have been let loose on Balochis to kill their struggle through the jihadi means of Islam.

As far as India is concerned notwithstanding its posturing, the US has a soft corner for LeT and JeM. It is also a fact the jihadi leaders have different strongholds in different parts of Pakistan and the region. The jihadi industry is an amalgamation of these. Probably at the behest of the Americans these outfits have entered into a partnership with Islamic State or Vilayat Khorasan. So the waving of Islamic flags in Kashmir Valley is not incidental and part of the larger phenomenon or design.

In the ultimate analysis India is getting increasingly entrapped in a new Cold War in the region i.e. American jihadis versus Russian jihadis—an ironical departure from the Islam versus Communism narrative staged in the battlefields of Afghanistan in the 80s, between Soviet forces and US funded and Pakistan trained jihadis.

(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)

Western Media wrong on spate of issues: Time for Indian Media?

BY SAEED NAQVI

Since I had been to the region some time ago, a school invited me for a talk on Syria, particularly Aleppo, and why Assad was killing his own people.

“This is not true” I said. “Why do you have this impression?”

“Because this is what we read in our newspapers”, one said.

“Even in the Hindi newspapers which my grandfather reads”, chipped in another.

Teachers were worse. Their minds were more firmly made up. They had seen it all on TV, and next day’s newspapers confirmed what they saw at night.

How does one cope with this challenge? I agree that world affairs are not the staple in hundreds of thousands of higher secondary schools in India. But the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, war in Syria, bombing of Gaza, the post Qaddafi mayhem in Libya, Ukraine, Trump’s shock victory, Europe bolting from the stable of liberalism, are all events that must, willy, nilly, come into everyone’s focus, even in schools, the better ones certainly. And they will all come through western filters. And on all these issues, a large segment of the western media has been woefully misleading. I shall never tire of repeating myself: now is the time for an Indian, global, multimedia network.

The students I addressed were 17 and 18 years old. Their world view was being shaped by what they watched on TV and read in newspapers. Since there has never been an Indian journalist, leave alone an Indian news bureau, in any of the live news theatres listed above, we are witness to an entire generation in the thrall of the only sources they have for information on global events.

In fact, the world view on show in that school hall, is not a casual inclination towards a way of looking at the world. It has solidified over generations.

Upto the 90s, BBC World Service News and Reuters were the routine sources of world news. The hegemonic embrace of the global media began in 1991 when Peter Arnett of the CNN inaugurated the new, invasive age of the global TV. He beamed live images of Operation Desert Storm in February of that year. This was the first time that a war was brought into our drawing rooms. This was also the first time when the BBC was beaten by cousins from across the Atlantic. I still remember John Simpson driving around Baghdad with his satellite telephone for BBC World Radio. BBC World Service TV was born later.

The televised coverage of western triumphalism divided the world into two hostile audiences – the victorious West and a humiliated Muslim world. This was the base on which hostilities simmered. 9/11 detonated an almighty explosion – the war on terror, which ostensibly brought the West into conflict with many Muslim societies on varying perceptions of terrorism.

Parents of those I was addressing in the school had been fed on this media diet for its understanding of world affairs.

An important fact is often overlooked. Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent Information Order coincided with new economic policies bringing India in line with globalization, then on a gallop. The World Is Flat, declared Thomas Friedman in his bestselling book. He was treated like a local hero by Bengaluru’s IT pundits.

The neo-liberal economic policies rapidly augmented the ranks of the Maruti-plus middle class. To cater to the burgeoning consumerism this class brought in its wake, came the mushroom growth of electronic media.

Both, the media as well as the new middle class found itself out of sync with another reality. The country was gripped by unprecedented social disharmony after the Babri Masjid was pulled down by BJP volunteers on December 6, 1992. This was the period when Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister, was promoting new economic policies.

The new middle class, was looking at the stars. A bonanza was writ on the horizon. He was impatient with the conflation in his mind of the war on terror and social disharmony in India. The Muslim was spoiling the game.

The new TV channels, creatures of globalization, were brazenly imitative of the way the western media covered the war on terror. As I have said earlier, western coverage created a distance between nations – Western and Muslim. Indian coverage distanced 180 million Muslims with a distinct nuance on the war on terror. It strengthened majoritarianism.

I am not for a moment suggesting that all the western media dissembles. They do, however, see the world from their own perspective. For us to swallow everything doled out to us by these sources will cause us to lost sight of reality.

“What nationalism” taunted a scholar recently in London. “You don’t allow travel between yourselves and a neighbouring country you helped create.” I thought this was the usual harangue about a Pakistan policy we have grown accustomed to. But his punchline was devastating:

“And your entire elite, without exception, aches for a Green Card for its progeny, to be parked permanently in the United States of America – what nationalism?”

(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)

With skates on, Turkey could slip into Syrian quagmire

BY SAEED NAQVI

Hakan Fidan, Chief of Turkish Intelligence, did not give much credence to warnings by Russian Agencies that a coup to oust President Tayyip Erdogan was in the works. But he shared the information with others on a “need-to-know” basis. In a manner of speaking, he closed the door, a sort of general precaution. He did not send out an alert.

The Russians persisted. A helicopter gunship would target Erdogan at his Mediterranean holiday resort.

Subsequent stories remain unverified – that Erdogan could not land at Istanbul, Germany, Azerbaijan. That is when the Americans gave him refuge at the Incirlik air base which, ironically, happens to be in Turkey. Then Fethullah Gulen surfaced as the master plotter, in cahoots with “some” American Generals.

Obviously the Russians had their ears close to the ground when they picked up the earliest signals of the impending coup. When Erdogan called out the people to thwart the plotters, Tehran was the first capital to openly support the embattled Turkish president. Suddenly, Moscow, Tehran, Hezbullah in Lebanon, Iraq particularly Najaf, because Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in Baghdad is seen as something of an American puppet – all of them had broad smiles on their faces.

With athletic agility, Erdogan turned up at St. Petersburg, apologized for the Russian pilot being shot down over Turkey in November, 2015, and locked Vladimir Putin in a tight embrace.

And, to and behold, Turkish forces are now in Syria, tanks and all. Is the theory of unintended consequences catching up with everybody after the failed coup of July 15? I mention this because I have been witness to another botched up coup which changed the world – The Saur (April) 1978 revolution which brought the Afghan Communist Parties, Khalq and Parcham, to power. This paved the way for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. I remember a panic stricken Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser on the Pakistan-Afghan border, discussing strategies.

Let me first explain how it was a “botched” up coup.

Having suffered reverses in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua at the hands of local communist movements, the Americans pressured the Shah of Iran’s Savak secret service to oust the Left in Kabul which was getting powerful around President Daoud Khan.

When the coup plan was still in its nascent stages, Mir Akbar Khybar, a trade union leader, affiliated to Parcham, was killed in an intelligence-counter intelligence mixup. The coup plot had leaked. Abdul Qadir and Aslam Watanjar, Communist moles in the Afghan Armed Forces, drove out tanks from Pul e Charkhi. They slaughtered Daoud and his entourage.

The Left, unprepared for power, persuaded Nur Mohammad Taraki of Khalq to take over as Prime Minister. Within two years, the Soviets were in Afghanistan.

The US, Saudis, Pakistan, for their own reasons, got into a scrum. Began the training of Mujahideen in hundreds of Madrasas along the border with Afghanistan. The strategy was to play on Islamic aversion to “Godless” communism. The trick, bolstered by stinger missiles, worked.

After 1981, President Reagan had raised the cost of the Cold War for the Soviet Union everywhere, including Afghanistan. By 1989, the new Secretary General of CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, began withdrawing Soviet troops. Then, the Berlin wall fell. By 1991 the Soviet Union had come down like melting ice cream.

Two comparisons with the situation in Turkey and Afghanistan are possible. It was a botched up coup in Afghanistan in 1978 which changed the world. The consequences plague us to this day. Witness the ghastly attack on the American University in Kabul this week. Likewise, the botched up coup in Turkey has brought about strategically new power equations globally as well as regionally.

The other comparison, to which Syrians are subscribing, is plausible: Soviet Union hurtled headlong into Afghanistan and came out irreparably broken. Might Erdogan likewise be leading Turkey inextricably into the Syrian quagmire?

The omens are not good. For the past five years every country in the Syrian theatre – the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan – has been supporting either “moderates” opposed to Bashar al Assad or extremists like Jumat al Nussra in pursuit of the same end. Each side has other gameplans which are played out as subsidiary side shows. These are too many to be listed.

Americans occupied Iraq for a decade, dismantled all its institutions and left in 2011 more or less empty handed. Which is why they had to remove Premier Nouri al Maliki who had dedicated himself exclusively to the expansion of his Shia base. Saudis next door were throwing fits. Americans needed influence in Baghdad. Little wonder Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is their man.

With such experience in Iraq how did the Americans (and their cohorts) imagine that mere cross border terrorism – albeit, lethally armed – would topple Assad? After all the Baathist structure in Syria is the mirror image of the one in Iraq. Assad is a non practicing Alawi just as Saddam Hussain was only a notional Sunni. Except for public rituals, both must be listed as devout atheists.

The impression now being put out is that Erdogan’s primary aim for entering Syria is to prevent Syrian Kurds carving out territory along the Turkish border. That would feed Turkish Kurd party, the PKK’s quest for separation. Erdogan’s purpose last year was different: he was facilitating ISIS’s oil trade across the border. Erdogan’s ownership of a large fraction of ISIS was universally acknowledged. In brief, everybody in the Syrian war was everybody else’s proxy. Erdogan was a major player in this game of surreptitious intent.

Will the terms of endearment now change totally just because Erdogan kissed Putin on both his cheeks in St. Petersburg?

A new pirouette has begun in Syria. Only after the US elections will it become clear who is on the dance floor and who is sinking in a quagmire.

(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)

Aleppo Milestone: Syria to limp along until US Presidential Polls

BY SAEED NAQVI

Just when it appeared that Syrian rebels and their proxies had thrown in the towel, and that they had been persuaded to acquiesce in a political settlement to be negotiated in Geneva, there is a sudden spike in fighting in the northern city of Aleppo. Its 5.5 million population as against Damascus’ 4.5 million, makes it the country’s most populous city.

Writings in the New York Times, other Western and Saudi publications have been talking of a “divided city of Aleppo”. This is ominous.

With Russian help, Syrian forces had won a morale boosting victory in Palmyra. In the third week of March, Russians had all but encircled Aleppo. Why did they spare Izaz, the main smuggling route to Turkey? That is the route through which most new arms and men on brand new vehicles have driven in to revive the mayhem in Aleppo.

Russian Foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov has been flourishing “proof” under Secretary of State, John Kerry’s nose: “look so much of this material is brand new and American in origin.”

In the Syrian whodunit, Americans have actually been admitting their mistakes with endearing docility. Remember Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, his face distinctly in the lower mould, being grilled by a congressional committee, then by the media, for the clumsiness of US Special Operations in Syria? The “moderates” they were training left their weapons with the Al-Nusra Front and sought safe passage. Carter announced, on live cameras, that a $500 million training programme had been discontinued.

Asked by Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, why had he not used air strikes when the Islamic State first reared its head, President Obama was honest: that would have released pressure on Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. At that stage, the US-Saudi combine’s priority was to put an end to Maliki’s brazenly pro Shia regime. In that project, the IS was an asset. Is it no longer an asset?

In the latest attacks in Iraq, the IS does not look like a diminished power despite US, Britain and Israel having rung alarm bells across the world. Is this trio confronting the IS powerless?

Arab ambassadors, particularly those opposed to the Saudis, draw diagrams to prove that the IS, in its origins, was a US backed project which may have grown out of US control. Just as Osama bin Laden did.

The other day a journalist in Dhaka placed in my hand a copy of Dabiq, the slick IS online magazine threatening Islamist mayhem in Bangladesh, Myammar, India. Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina’s government in not convinced. She believes her arch rival Begum Khaleda Zia’s Jamaat-e-Islami supporters are behind the recent killings of liberal bloggers, university professors, and minority groups to destabilize her government.

Syrian diplomats on the other hand are targeting Britain with fanciful stories. When British Parliament did not permit Prime Minister David Cameron to attack Assad’s Forces in Syria, British intelligence thought of an alternative scheme: set up the propaganda machine for groups opposed to Assad. Intelligence intercepts, which authorities in Damascus decoded, are cited as evidence.

As one grapples with this confusion, emerges Christiane Amanpour of the CNN subjecting the hapless Ashton Carter to fierce interrogation. She put the fear of God in him. “Aleppo is another Srebrenica waiting to happen.”

Srebrenica became notorious for genocide. Serbian troops separated 8373 men and boys from their womenfolk during the Bosnian war and, in July 1995, slaughtered them. They were buried in mass graves.

Carter did not rise to the bait. “The misery of Syria can only be ended by reaching a political solution.”

Why this resumption of fierce fighting in Aleppo?

With Russian help, Syrian Forces had regained so much territory that the opposition had very few chips to play with at the bargaining table in Geneva. Turkish demand for a no-fly-zone along the stretch north of Aleppo and the Turkish border has not been conceded. The US would not like to dislodge Kurdish influence in that region. A divided Aleppo gives the Syrian opposition atleast a toehold. Russians would be doing a cost-benefit analysis to see if they can allow that to happen.

The US and Russians had agreed to the original ceasefire primarily between the Syrian Army and groups who accept the ceasefire. The agreement did not provide scope for the Al-Nusra Front or IS to be protected. But the US, under pressure from the Saudis and the Turks, is lumping Al-Nusra with the so called “moderate opposition”.

Roughly, what is going on is this: there are, say, rocket attacks which the Syrian Army compasses show are coming from Nusra held enclaves. The army retaliates. The Western media screams murder – look, they are attacking civilians and moderate oppositions.

In other words, Al-Nusra is the miasmal mist behind which a so called moderate opposition is being conceived and forged. What I suspect is being sought is a ceasefire along an imaginary line which will then divide Aleppo. The Syrian-Russian combine would like to impose on Aleppo a fait accompli favourable to them. Syria, I am afraid, will probably limp along a path of non resolution until a new administration in Washington begins to take stock of the situation after November 7.

(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)

Seymour Hersh dishes on Saudi oil money bribes and the killing of Osama Bin Laden

BY KEN KILPPENSTEIN/ALTERNET

(This interview is republished here with due permission from AlterNet. It was first published here)

Seymour Hersh is an American investigative journalist who is the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for his article exposing the My Lai massacre by the U.S. military in Vietnam. More recently, he exposed the U.S. government’s abuse of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison facility.

Hersh’s new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, is a corrective to the official account of the war on terror. Drawing from accounts of a number of high-level military officials, Hersh challenges a number of commonly accepted narratives: that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the Sarin gas attack in Ghouta; that the Pakistani government didn’t know Bin Laden was in the country; that the late ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in a solely diplomatic capacity; and that Assad did not want to give up his chemical weapons until the U.S. called on him to do so.

Ken Klippenstein: In the book you describe Saudi financial support for the compound in which Osama Bin Laden was being kept in Pakistan. Was that Saudi government officials, private individuals or both?

Seymour Hersh: The Saudis bribed the Pakistanis not to tell us [that the Pakistani government had Bin Laden] because they didn’t want us interrogating Bin Laden (that’s my best guess), because he would’ve talked to us, probably. My guess is, we don’t know anything really about 9/11. We just don’t know. We don’t know what role was played by whom.

KK: So you don’t know if the hush money was from the Saudi government or private individuals?

SH: The money was from the government … what the Saudis were doing, so I’ve been told, by reasonable people (I haven’t written this) is that they were also passing along tankers of oil for the Pakistanis to resell. That’s really a lot of money.

KK: For the Bin Laden compound?

SH: Yeah, in exchange for being quiet. The Paks traditionally have done security for both Saudi Arabia and UAE.

KK: Do you have any idea how much Saudi Arabia gave Pakistan in hush money?

SH: I have been given numbers, but I haven’t done the work on it so I’m just relaying. I know it was certainly many—you know, we’re talking about four or five years—hundreds of millions [of dollars]. But I don’t have enough to tell you.

KK: You quote a retired U.S. official as saying the Bin Laden killing was “clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder” and a former SEAL commander as saying “by law we know what we’re doing inside Pakistan is homicide.”

Do you think Bin Laden was deprived of due process?

SH: [Laughs] He was a prisoner of war! The SEALs weren’t proud of that mission; they were so mad it was outed…I know a lot about what they think and what they thought and what they were debriefed, I will tell you that. They were very unhappy about the attention paid to that because they went in and it was just a hit.

Look, they’ve done it before. We do targeted assassinations. That’s what we do. They understood—the SEALs—that if they were captured by the Pakistani police authorities, they could be tried for murder. They understood that.

KK: Why didn’t they apprehend Bin Laden? Can you imagine the intelligence we could have gotten from him?

SH: The Pakistani high command said go kill him, but for chrissake don’t leave a body, don’t arrest him, just tell them a week later that you killed him in Hindu Kush. That was the plan.

Many sections, particularly in the Urdu-speaking sections, were really very positive about Bin Laden. Significant percentages in some areas supported Bin Laden. They [the Pakistani government] would’ve been under great duress if the average person knew that they’d helped us kill him.

KK: How did it hurt U.S./Pakistan relations when, as you point out in your book, Obama violated his promise not to mention Pakistan’s cooperation with the assassination?

SH: We spend a lot of time with [Pakistani] generals Pasha and Kayani, the head of the army and ISI, the intelligence service. Why? Why are we so worried about Pakistan? Because they have [nuclear] bombs. … at least 100, probably more. And we want to think that they’re going to share what they know with us and they’re not hiding it.

We don’t really know everything we think we know and they don’t tell us everything… so when he [Obama] is doing that, he’s really messing around with the devil in a sense.

…. He [Bin Laden] had wives and children there. Did we ever get to them? No. We never got to them. Just think about all the things we didn’t do. We didn’t get to any of the wives, we didn’t do much interrogation, we let it go.

There are people that know much more about this and I wish they would talk, but they don’t.

KK: You write that Obama authorized a ratline wherein CIA funneled arms from Libya into Syria and they ended up in jihadi hands. [According to Hersh, this operation was coordinated via the Benghazi consulate where U.S. ambassador Stevens was killed.] What was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in this given her significant role in Libya?

SH: The only thing we know is that she was very close to Petraeus who was the CIA director at the time … she’s not out of the loop, she knows when there’s covert ops. … That ambassador who was killed, he was known as a guy, from what I understand, as somebody who would not get in the way of the CIA. As I wrote, on the day of the mission he was meeting with the CIA base chief and the shipping company. He was certainly involved, aware and witting of everything that was going on. And there’s no way somebody in that sensitive of a position is not talking to the boss, by some channel.

KK: In the book you quote a former intelligence official as saying that the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the Joint Chiefs as being insufficiently painful to the Assad regime. (You note that the original targets included military sites only—nothing by way of civilian infrastructure.) Later the White House proposed a target list that included civilian infrastructure.

What would the toll to civilians have been if the White House’s proposed strike had been carried out?

SH: Do you really think that at any time this is discussed? You know who’s sanest on this: Dan Ellsberg. When I first met Dan, it was way early—in ’70, ’71, during the Vietnam War. I think I met him before the Pentagon Papers were around. I remember him telling me that he asked that question at a meeting while planning the war [regarding B-52 targets] and nobody had even looked at it.

You really don’t get a very good hard, objective look. You can see a movie in which they seem to do it, but that’s not really so.

I don’t know if [regarding Syria] they looked at collateral damage and noncombatants, but I do know that in wars in the past, that’s never been a big issue. … you’re talking about the country that dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki.

KK: In a recent interview with the Atlantic, Obama characterized his foreign policy as “Don’t do stupid shit.”

SH: I read the Jeff Goldberg piece…and it of course drove me nuts, but that’s something else.

KK: As you point out in your book, Obama originally wanted to remove Assad. Isn’t that the definition of stupid? The power vacuum that would ensue would open Syria up to all kinds of jihadi groups.

SH: God knows I can’t tell you why anybody does anything. I’m not inside their head. I can tell you that the same question was asked by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs—Dempsey—which is why I was able to write that story about their going, indirectly, behind his [Obama’s] back because nobody could figure out why.

I don’t know why we persist on living in the Cold War, but we do. Russia actually did a very good job. They not only did the bombing that was more effective than what we do, I think that’s fair to say. Russia also did stuff that was sort of more subtle and more interesting: they renewed the Syrian army. They took many major units of the Syrian army offline, gave them R&R and re-equipped them. Got new arms, got a couple weeks off, then they came back, got more training and became a much better army.

I think in the beginning, there’s just no question, we wanted to get rid of Bashar. I think they misread the whole resistance. Wikileaks is very good on this…there’s enough State Department documents that show that from 2003 on, we really had a policy—not very subtle, not violent, but millions of dollars given to opposition people. We certainly were not a nonpartisan foreign government inside Syria.

Our policy has always been against him [Assad]. Period.

One of the things that comes across just in the current stories about all the travails we’re having about ISIS allegedly running all these terror teams in Brussels and in the suburbs of Paris… it’s very clear, ironically, that one of the things France and Belgium (and a lot of other countries) did was after the Syrian civil war began, if you wanted to go there and fight there in 2011-2013, ‘Go, go, go… overthrow Bashar!’

So they actually pushed a lot of people to go. I don’t think they were paying for them but they certainly gave visas. And they would spend four or five months, come back and do organized crime and get in jail and next thing you know they’re killing people. There’s a real pattern there.

I do remember when the war began in 2003, our war against Baghdad, I was in Damascus working for The New Yorker then and I saw Bashar and one of the things he told me, he said, ‘Look, we’ve got a bunch of radical kids and if they want to go fight, if they want to leave the mosque here in Damascus and go fight in Baghdad, we said fine! We even gave them buses!’

So there’s always been a tremendous, Why does America do what it does? Why do we not say to the Russians, Let’s work together?

KK: So why don’t we work closer with Russia? It seems so rational.

SH: I don’t know. I would also say, why wasn’t the first door we knocked on after 9/11, Russia’s? They just had a terrible 10-year war with Chechnya. Believe me, the Chechen influence in the Sunni world in terms of jihadism is strong. For example I’ve been told by my friends in the intelligence community that al-Baghdadi (who runs ISIS) is surrounded by a lot of guys with experience in Chechnya. A lot of people involved in that operation did.

So who knows the most about jihadism? You look at it from the Russian point of view—we never like looking at things from other people’s point of view.

KK: In the book you quote a Joint Chiefs of Staff adviser who said that Brennan told the Saudis to stop arming the extremist rebels in Syria and their weapons will dry up—which seems like a rational request—but then, you point out, the Saudis ramped up arms support.

Seymour Hersh: That’s true.

KK: Did the U.S. do anything to punish the Saudis for it?

SH: Nothing. Of course not. No, no. I’ll tell you what’s going on right now … al Nusra, certainly a jihadist group… has new arms. They’ve got some tanks now—I think the Saudis are supplying stuff. They’ve got tanks now, have a lot of arms, and are staging some operations around Aleppo. There’s a ceasefire and even though they’re not part of it, they obviously took advantage of the ceasefire to resupply. It’s going to be bloody.

KK: Just to be clear, the U.S. hasn’t done anything to punish or at least disincentivize the Saudis from arming our enemies in Syria?

SH: Quite the contrary. The Saudis and Qatar and the Turks put money into those arms [sent to Syrian jihadis].

You’re asking the right questions. Do we say anything? No. Turkey’s Erdogan has played a complete double game: for years he supported and accommodated ISIS. The border was wide open—Hatay Province—guys were going back and forth, bad guys. We know Erdogan’s deeply involved. He’s changing his tune slightly but he’s been deeply involved in this.

Let me talk to you about the sarin story [the sarin gas attack in Ghouta, a suburb near Damascus, which the U.S. government attributed to the Assad regime] because it really is in my craw.  In this article that was this long series of interviews [of Obama] by Jeff Goldberg…he says, without citing the source (you have to presume it was the president because he’s talking to him all the time) that the head of National Intelligence, General [James] Clapper, said to him very early after the [sarin] incident took place, “Hey, it’s not a slam dunk.”

You have to understand in the intelligence community—Tenet [Bush-era CIA director who infamously said Iraqi WMD was a “slam dunk”] is the one who said that about the war in Baghdad—that’s a serious comment. That means you’ve got a problem with the intelligence. As you know I wrote a story that said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs told the president that information the same day. I now know more about it.

The president’s explanation for [not bombing Syria] was that the Syrians agreed that night, rather than be bombed, they’d give up their chemical weapons arsenal, which in this article in the Atlantic, Goldberg said they [the Syrians] had never disclosed before. This is ludicrous. Lavrov [Russia’s Foreign Minister] and Kerry had talked about it for a year—getting rid of the arsenal—because it was under threat from the rebels.

The issue was not that they [the Syrians] suddenly caved in. [Before the Ghouta attack] there was a G-20 summit and Putin and Bashar met for an hour. There was an official briefing from Ben Rhodes and he said they talked about the chemical weapons issue and what to do. The issue was that Bashar couldn’t pay for it—it cost more than a billion bucks. The Russians said, ‘Hey, we can’t pay it all. Oil prices are going down and we’re hurt for money.’ And so, all that happened was we agreed to handle it. We took care of a lot of the costs of it.

Guess what? We had a ship, it was called the Cape Maid, it was parked out in the Med. The Syrians would let us destroy this stuff [the chemical weapons]… there was 1,308 tons that was shipped to the port…and we had, guess what, a forensic unit out there. Wouldn’t we like to really prove—here we have all his sarin and we had sarin from what happened in Ghouta, the UN had a team there and got samples—guess what?

It didn’t match. But we didn’t hear that. I now know it, I’m going to write a lot about it.

Guess what else we know from the forensic analysis we have (we had all the missiles in their arsenal). Nothing in their arsenal had anything close to what was on the ground in Ghouta. A lot of people I know, nobody’s going to go on the record, but the people I know said we couldn’t make a connection, there was no connection between what was given to us by Bashar and what was used in Ghouta. That to me is interesting. That doesn’t prove anything, but it opens up a door to further investigation and further questioning.

(This interview was lightly edited for readability)

(Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)