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)

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)

Israel and Saudis cannot be amused at the Obama-Putin pirouette

Barack Obama - Vladimir PutinBY SAEED NAQVI

The Cuban Missile Crisis produced great scholarship. A classic of the period, ‘Essence of A Decision’ by Prof. Grahame Allison, is a study of decision making in the Kennedy administration during a crisis when the world came close to a nuclear collision.

By that reckoning, research proposals must be in the process of being cleared as to who ordered the two ballistic missiles towards Syria which Russian intercepts brought down in the Mediterranean? The whole episode is frightening.

It was therefore a chastened Barack Obama who turned up at G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. The Russian suggestion that Syria sign the chemical weapons Convention and surrender its chemical weapons was a practical idea which would also be a face saver for Washington which had painted itself into a corner on surgical strikes in Syria.

In the whispering gallery of diplomatic leaks, it has been suggested that if Syria acquiesced in some highly restricted missile attacks on its territory, to satisfy US, Israeli, Saudi hawks, the crisis would be over. Bashar al Assad said he would have none of it. Unspecified retaliation would follow.

Why has Assad now agreed to surrender his strategic chemical weapons?

First, the advantage in his willingness to surrender the nasty arsenal is clear in Putin’s article in the New York Times and later in Obama’s weekly address to the nation.

Putin said: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

Putin then issues a warning. “Reports that militants are preparing another attack, this time against Israel, cannot be ignored”. This last sting is enough to set the cat among the pigeons. The implication is straightforward. Having failed to provoke foreign intervention after the August 21 chemical attack in Ghouta on the periphery of Damascus, the Syrian Opposition were planning an even bigger provocation by attacking Israel. Putin clearly knows more than he has revealed. Note his cocky assertiveness a few days ago: “It is a sly provocation by the Syrian Opposition.”

That is how worrisome the Syrian chemical arsenal has become. The opposition can either use its existence as a cover to obtain supplies of lethal agents like Sarin from across the border or to find defectors from the regime with access to Syrian chemical weapons.

It therefore becomes a critical item in its inventory that Syria is surrendering.

In his address, Obama said: “Until recently, the Assad regime would not admit that it possessed chemical weapon”. “Today, Syria has signaled a willingness to join with 189 other nations, representing 98 per cent of humanity, in abiding by an international agreement that prohibits the use of chemical weapons”. And, Obama proceeds to pay a compliment to Moscow. “Russia has staked its own credibility on supporting this outcome”.

Washington’s new found reliance on Moscow to navigate it out of the Syrian minefield, is a historic new development. For this very reason it is a fragile arrangement. Israel and Saudi Arabia, for instance, would scream murder if a Washington-Moscow entente sidelined their interests in the eventual outcome in Syria. How does Washington square this circle? This is the pressure on Washington.

Now that clouds of war have cleared a bit, Syria is beginning to feel self confident with the hand it has been dealt to play. So what if it has to surrender its chemical weapons. The gesture will enhance Russian profile in the region which is useful for the entire team – Hezbollah, Iran.

In any case, the strategic shortfall on account of its chemical weapons, would be made up by Russian SS300s or 400s, which have already shown their effectiveness in bringing down US missiles over Syria.

This one act of statesmanship will be seen to have saved West Asia from a calamitous conflict. Would it not boost Assads regional profile? Within Syria, he will seen to have defeated the regime’s opponents and as a national leader who prevented the breakup of his country into autonomous regions.

All of it seems to be fitting nicely into the Russian aim of Middle East free of weapons of Mass Destruction, an aspiration which has implications for Israel too. Iranian Supreme leader, Ayatullah Khamenei obliged on this score at a meeting with commanders and officials of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He said Iran’s opposition to the possession of nuclear weapons was based on the beliefs of the Iranian nation. This, was more or less reiterated by President Hassan Rouhani who, while in the US for the UN General Assembly, is also expected to meet President Obama.

Does the script appear to be proceeding advantageously for one side?

To restore balance, how does Russia work closely with the US in ensuring Israeli security, which is the cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East? Moves of interest to Saudi Arabia could be in the works after US diplomat, Jeffrey Feltman, turned up in Teheran recently wearing a UN cap.

After all, Tehran and Riyadh have been on talking terms some years ago. Remember the Mecca Summit?

(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)