An appointment in Mosul: ISIS, the politics of resentment, and American adventurism in the 'Greater Middle East'

A different version of this post was published at RT.com

In Mosul, a perfect storm has gathered on June 10th, produced by decades of American adventurism in the ‘greater Middle East’.  American wars, including the War On Terror, were a cat-and-mouse games that did not produce a final confrontation with Takfiri groups, but rather multiple confrontations, which have deferred or delayed both the domestic goals of these groups and their destructive power abroad, while ratcheting up their number and the resentment they carry against the West and its regional allies.  What happened in Mosul, after what happened in Syria, threatens the pluralistic essence of Iraq and the Levant, and promises us another decade of unrest and terror in the region and abroad, if not addressed cooperatively on the international level, and in a responsible manner. 

There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud, retold by Somerset Maugham in 1933, which my father liked to tell me when I was a child, about a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions.  Back from the market, the servant told his master that a woman in the crowd, who seemed to be Death, gestured threateningly at him. He asked his master to lend him a horse to flee to Samarra. The merchant lent his horse and went down to the marketplace where he saw the woman. He asked her why did she make a threatening gesture at his servant. ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ said he woman, ‘I was only surprised to see your servant in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’

By all accounts, the appointment that was given by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria) in Mosul to Iraq, the region and the world, seems to have taken everybody by surprise, but it was bound to happen.   For decades now, the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, have been playing cat and mouse with Islamist extremists trying to harness their destructive power, without yielding to this power, and for years, they have succeeded, exception made of 911.  The post 911 war-on-terror was supposed to be the end of this game with terror, but it wasn’t.  Since then, terror has grown and moved to the Fertile Crescent, thanks to two events: the 2003 American led invasion of Iraq, and the 2011 toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, along with the three year old failed attempt at regime change in Syria.   These two sets of events, the invasion of Iraq and the so-called Arab Spring, have introduced power vacuum in most of the countries they touched, weakened the central authority of the state and the security apparatuses, attracting Islamist extremist groups, to the point where many are talking of a rebirth of al-Qaida.  However, what’s different this time is the mobilisation of these groups based on humiliation and religious and class resentment in the face of power shift and power loss.  This complex reality is acknowledged in the West only as the one-dimensional religious sectarianism viewed through the History of religious wars in the West.  The appointment given by extremist groups in Mosul to Iraq, the region and the world, is likely to signal the death of pluralistic societies in the Middle East and the Levant.   This may seem benign to westerners because, contrary to the threat felt with 911, the end of religious pluralism in the Levant is, after all, far from their shores.  But it will be a mistake to think that, in an interconnected, multicultural, multiracial world, the end of religious pluralism in the Levant will have no impact in the West.  

An appointment always deferred.

ISIS originated in Iraq in the wake of the American led invasion based on the lie that Iraq had a ‘relationship’ with al-Qaida.  Its new name was acquired only recently after assuming a new role fighting for regime change in Syria.  ISIS terror operations in Iraq were led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who waged a savage sectarian campaign against Iraqis in the name of al-Qaida, but ended up on bad terms with the terror group as his actions turned Iraqi Sunnis against al-Qaida. Zarqawi was defeated and killed in 2006.  The group fighting with Zarqawi suffered many setbacks before merging with other small insurgent groups - including former officers from the disbanded Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein - continuing terror operations in an Iraq that never ceased to bleed, since the American led invasion. 

Led now by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, liberated by the US in 2009, after five years of detention in camp Bucca in Iraq, ISIS found a new opportunity in the Syrian ‘revolution’, and territorial aims.  In Syria, ISIS gained strength, followers, and greater coverage form the traditional and the new media, being western liberals or conservatives from the Arab Gulf, willing to bet their sympathies on any group challenging the rule of president Bashar el-Assad.  In Syria, ISIS also came to lay its hands on revenues from oil refineries and seems to have achieved financial success by attracting private donations and logistic support for a ‘cause’ dear to West, Gulf leaders, Saudi affiliated Sunni groups in Lebanon, and Turkey. 

ISIS terror operations in Syria and Iraq intensified in Iraq, during late 2013 and early 2014, due to the advances of the Syrian Arab army on their positions in Syria.  ISIS, an organization with a structured leadership and a long-term vision, turned to Iraq to break the deadlock in which it found itself in Syria.  Iraq was ripe for an ISIS breakthrough, with a weak central government, a weak leader, a poisoned political climate, and a known operational field, thanks to its ISIS dormant cells and help from former officers in Saddam’s disbanded army and supposedly other Sunni tribes.  

Syria didn’t make ISIS, as some allege, it is rather the US invasion of Iraq that made ISIS, and the Syrian ‘revolution’ gave it a sympathetic platform in the West.

ISIS riches are estimated somewhere between $400 millions and $2 billion now; most gained during the Mosul takeover with the looting of the central bank, although sources in the US say these figures are exaggerated.  ISIS has been already known for its mafia style, racketeering and imposing local taxes on the population, with harsh punishments for those who refuse to pay (see also ISIS inc).  Mosul’s proximity to Kurdish territory, which evades Baghdad’s control and sells its oil on the black market - or to countries willing to defy Baghdad, will make business easy for ISIS.  In the wake of Mosul’s takeover, many speculated about a Kurdish-ISIS conspiracy, but this is only logical since Kurds and ISIS, despite differing views, both plan to sell Iraq’s oil on the black market, unencumbered by a central authority.

Without the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, ISIS would not have existed in Iraq and resurrected in Syria, and without Gulf Arab countries’ and West’s push for regime change in Syria, ISIS would not be claiming its throne in Mosul.  But “Sitting a throne is a thousand times harder than winning one.”  ISIS territorial ambitions are fantasies.  Not one pious Sunni Muslim, let alone any Muslim, outside the fanatics who are fighting with ISIS, wishes to live by their rules.

The War On Terror and the politics of resentment. 

Since the early 1990s, al-Qaida and other Takfiri groups, militarily strengthened by the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, trained and radicalized with Saudi-Gulf money; American complicity, have been serving the interventionist unilateral foreign policy of the United States and its allies acting as facilitators of armed intervention in countries they view as theirs to subdue to their brand of Islam.  From Afghanistan to Nigeria and in-between, these groups have either reacted to US interventions or pro-actively preceded US penetration in new territory by causing a deep enough crisis resulting in US intervention. A recent example is the US late penetration of sub Saharan Africa, achieved through these two modes of action and reaction resulting in the presence of these groups where there is American presence, being on the military or security levels. The cat and mouse game the US plays with these groups follows two main objectives, which have not changed for decades: Israel’s security and the US own energy security.  ISIS is an al-Qaida revival willing to profit, both materially and politically, from the destabilization brought on many Arab countries by the so-called Arab Spring.  The US and its allies are willing to take this gamble and to profit from the chaos brought by ISIS on this process, in its turn.

The religious extremism of Takiri groups is a project born out of resentment; it is not a resistance movement, neither a revolutionary one.  It is bound to fail.  The politics of resentment often ignores reality, is moved by a set of negative collective emotions pertaining to loss of power, experience of humiliation, and desire for vengeance.  Its project is often to withdraw, return to a previous state.  It thrives on the sentiment of disenchantment with the world.  At its source, Takfiri ideology was born in Egypt where it thrived in a context of endemic poverty and oppression as an alternative to the emergence of a secular state in the process of decolonization.  Takfiri ideology not only distrusted colonial powers, but also the process of decolonization as a march toward separation between the religious, the spiritual, and the state.  Takfiri ideology advocates a return the Umma when the religious, communautarian and geopolitical were one and unbroken.  But this ideology is problematic since a return the the triumphant days of the Umma is not only a backward ideology, but also a return to sectarianism in which the tools of oppression of former colonial powers are internalized because decolonization is feared for its power to break the religious hold on the state.  This is a dangerous ideology, not only because it breeds terrorism but also because it is against any progress, futur or hope.

From Egypt, the Takfiri ideology spread to Saudi Arabia who tried, and succeeded, in harnessing the discontent of these groups persecuted by Egypt’s governments and used it against nascent Arab secular regimes. But in Saudi Arabia, Takfiri ideology gained traction among part of the elite who felt ostracized and alienated by the Saudi monarchy.  Before gaining prominence on the world stage, the first attempts of these groups at implementing their political objectives were made in Egypt - where an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made at Nasser's life and later a successful one at Sadat's - and in Saudi Arabia.   Since then, either they were manipulated to fight in many conflicts where their resentment could find an operational terrain or they were fought in a manner feeding resentment, through illegal invasions, illegal detentions, and humiliations. 

America’s War On terror in the wake of 911 did not address the root cause of Takfiri ideology, it worked mainly on validating the way Takfiris view the world and the West.  After each battle, along with or against America, these groups have returned to fight their governments at home, always better armed and better trained.  Groups who fought in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan initiated the Algerian civil war.  The tragedy of  911 can be seen as a reaction to Gulf countries’ willingness to surrender more sovereignty to American troops in the form of permanent US bases, in exchange for more protection, after the first Gulf war.  The takeover of the Syrian ‘revolution’ by ISIS, and its offshoot al-Nusra, is the direct result of the 2003 American led invasion of Iraq, which unsettled the power equation in the whole region.  And the current Iraq war, with the takeover of Mosul and the direct threat to the integrity of Iraq is the direct result of the war western and Gulf countries are waging on the Syrian regime with the help of these groups.

The resentment of these groups, carefully cultivated over the years, has been multiplied by the resentment of Iraq’s Sunni cadres after their exile from a long held throne. Many have questioned the unnatural alliance between ISIS and former Saddamists, but it is not to be seen unnatural if we consider that both ISIS and former Saddamists share a strong resentment against Shia, and other sects, as a motivation for the exile of Sunnis from power.  Saddam’s regime never achieved the kind of secularism and inclusion fostered by the Syrian Baath because it relied heavily on brutal sectarian politics, and its former cadres are moved by strong sectarian politics against other sects, mainly the Shia.  It is madness to accuse Nouri al-Maliki of sectarianism when the Sunni insurgency, which never abated since power has been taken from them in Iraq, has killed mainly Shias.  

As ISIS descends now on Mosul and other cities in Iraq, including Samarra, a perfect storm is gathering.  Its outcome is certain to produce only atrocities and wars for years.    And as ISIS descends on Mosul, and Samarra, and Baghdad, there will be no escape this time for the US and its regional allies but to own the monster they have created.  Unfortunately, this is not what the US administration has signalled since the beginning of this crisis.  Obama, who, to his credit, opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, finds himself with no clear policy on Iraq, and I am not sure, even with the best intentions, that he understands the gravity of the situation.  His two speeches until now indicate a mix of caution and laissez-faire that marked his approach to foreign policy.  But this is no time for nuances and carefully studied caution.  The absence of a coordinated campaign with other powers that have influence in the region, Iran and Russia, against ISIS, makes the current situation even more alarming.  If ISIS is to consolidate its presence in Mosul and beyond, no country will escape the chaos created by this storm.

For the time being, the only ones who will reap benefits from this chaos are black market oil merchants, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  For obvious reasons, anything dividing Arabs is good for Israel who has been the number one generator of resentment in the region while cultivating Sunni resentment has been the trademark of Saudi Arabia’s regional policy in recent years, partly to appease Takfiris at home, and partly to delay the emergence of Iran as a regional power to contend with.  But Saudi Arabia will not stay out of the storm, neither Israel.  Resentment produces chaos, and chaos is not discriminatory because its direction cannot be predicted. 

And there is no contradiction between Saudi Arabia’s position toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which it fights in Egypt, and its acquaintances with other Takfiris groups.  Saudi Arabia fights the Muslim Brotherhood because it doesn't control it.

In rallying groups like former cadres from the Saddam era, ISIS has triumphed of al-Qaida’s narrow and antiquated vision of sectarian politics, which is unable to absorb nonreligious Sunni resentment tied to political privileges and social class, as in Iraq and Egypt (on secular sectarianism see this analysis).  Zawahiri bulked at rallying Saddamists and lost when he endorsed al-Nusra against ISIS regional ambitions.

But the whole region of the Middle East and the Levant, whose identity is built on tolerance and co-existence, is now hostage to these two competing axes of resentment; the strictly religious, and the power related produced by the American invasion of Iraq.  In Syria and in Iraq’s Fallujah and Mosul, we have an appointment with Takfirism in its heyday, which, if successful, may augur the death of the pluralist essence of the civilizations in the ME and the Levant, the end of co-existence.  A dark future, of which we are starting to see the contours between Syria’s Raqqa, Iraq’s Fallujah and Mosul, is gesturing at us.  

Can this dark future be changed?  It can and it must.  Either the neocolonial nature of sectarianism - and the politics of resentment it breeds - is faced and challenged, leaving room for a legacy of hope for future generations in the Middle East, or the people of the Middle East will dissolve in its poison, letting it end their millennial history of pluralism, tolerance and co-existence, withdrawing from the civilizations they helped foster and thrive (see here for a very brief history of Mosul)


Us and Putin

Yesterday, I watched the 2012 documentary 'I, Putin',  by Hubert Seipel (French version, Youtube.)

Seipel was one of the few westerners to approach Putin so closely, accompanying him on hunting trips, to his Hockey games, and swimming and Judo practices.  His documentary is one of the few to present a complex portrait of Putin and was hailed as objective while being intimate, leaving the international audience to make its mind and gain a better knowledge of Putin through the documentary.  Despite this, Spiegel gave a largely western centric and negative account of Putin, as he appears in the documentary, brushing aside the insight offered by Seipel.

The documentary is not intimate in the sense that it offers knowledge of Putin's private life, which was kept off-limits.  It is intimate in another way, in reducing the distance between the largely a priori western perception of Putin - as a leader whose only aim is soviet revival - and the national perception of Putin, by presenting Putin against a backdrop of recent Soviet and Russian history and Putin's family history.

The most important thing we learn from this documentary, in my opinion, is that Putin was not part of the Soviet nomenklatura.  He comes from a working class background and had an ambition for himself to work for the KGB.

Putin left the KGB after their failed coup against Gorbatchev's Perestroika, proved his skills in the St. Petersburg's municipal council, as advisor to the mayor, fighting the crime that engulfed Russia after the fall of the USSR, then became Yeltsin's trusted man, probably because of the same skills he showed in St. Petersburg. He restructured & headed the new KGB, the FSB, and climbed quickly the different echelons of power during the Yeltsin's years.  Putin's rise to the pinnacle of power during these troubled years appears as natural, he had the right instincts to rescue his country from disintegration navigating between a disoriented class of apparatchiks, and young oligarchs seizing the country's resources and industry, unemcumbered by the non existant law and order.  This was a time when the USSR had disappeared leaving Russians without institutions, without a country, and in economic apocalypse.  Putin filled the void and guided the existent institutions on the road to reformation, while nationalizing the country's resources and bargaining them on the world market in order to sustain an economic activity capable of lifting the country and its population from the economic abyss towards which it was pushed by the oligarchs who were aided by West.

One can fairly say that the new Russia is not the Russia of the Tzars, not the Russia of the communist party, not the Russia of the oligarchs, it is the Russia of Putin.  We can easily understand the responsibility that Putin must feel and shoulder for Russia.  It is within this context that we have to understand Russia's nascent democracy.  Putin could have easily become a full-fledged autocrat, unemcumbered by the democratic process.  But here we see another aspect of Putin: a man self-aware of the perception of his leadership in the rest of the world - and correlatively - of the place of Russia in the world.  The Putin we see in the documentary is a leader who wants to work with the rest of the world, and the West, as he proved it many times already by developing Russia's diplomacy and econnomic reach worldwide.

But what has the West offered Putin?  At best, an inability to understand the new Russia, at worst, disdain, arrogance and threats to comply with the diktat of a league bent on keeping Russia 'contained' or rather weak - to speak plainly.  Indeed, neither Russia, nor the USSR, even at the height of Soviet might and power, ever achieved the military reach of the West.

I wondered, at the end of the documentary, which emphasized Putin's outsider status among his country's elite, if western leaders, none of whom come from a working class background similar to Putin's, and none of whom ever felt the weight of having to shoulder, on their own, the responsibility of keeping a country over their heads, as in keeping a roof over one's head and bread on the table, will ever be able to understand the man and his mission.

For certain, Putin can be ruthless, but which leader isn't when his country is on the brink?   The western press would like us to believe that Putin is only this.  He isn't. 

Of interest in the documentary:
Minute 21 : 19 Putin on NATO's anti-missile defence shield
Minute 24 : 26 Putin on Chechnya
Minute 35 : Putin on the disintegration of the USSR
Minute 40:  Footage of Yeltsin, the West's darling, during a government session
Minute 46 :23 Putin and the oligarchs


Syria: The Year of Living Dangerously

It is said that Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president after independence, borrowed the expression ‘vivere pericoloso’ from Italian, to which he added ‘Tahun’, or ‘year’, making it ‘Tahun vivere pericoloso’, or ‘The Year of Living Dangerously.’  He used it as a title for his independence day speech in 1964, a year before a coup attempt against him by various groups – the army, the communist party, and the Islamists - weakened him to the point of making him relinquish power, ending in house arrest.  ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ is also the title of both a novel and a movie about the coup, a fiction built around three central characters, a local activist opposed to Sukarno, an Australian journalist, and a female British embassy officer who provides him privileged information.

To draw an analogy between Syria and Indonesia at the time and between Assad and Sukarno is revealing: Syria is still very much in a post colonial era and Assad has been, since March 2011, the target of a concerted and open effort from various forces aimed at ending his rule.  But in his third year into the crisis, Assad is going nowhere and does not appear to be weakened by the crisis.  If anything, Assad’s leadership is now uncontested, as no credible leader has emerged from the various groups working to remove him from power.  Also, the fictional account of the coup against Sukarno touches directly on the way the Syrian crisis has been portrayed in the West.  In the movie, the trio formed by the local activist, the British diplomat and the journalist produces a view of events marked by their own relationships, hopes, and fantasies.  This provides a measure of how fraught with manipulation, and marked with a western-centric perspective, is the information that western journalists, as foreign correspondents, weave their stories around.  In Syria’s case, this paradigm has had its limits tested by the duration of the crisis as the manipulated information has led to unreal expectations about seeing Assad gone, now severely challenged by realities wilfully ignored for most of the first two years of the crisis.  Chief among them are the heavy presence of Islamist extremists in the heart of the Syrian ‘revolution’, the dynamic of the Resistance axis, and Syria allies’ – Iran and Russia - formidable diplomacy.

Enter Al-Qaida and other related groups

We were told that the uprising against Bashar el-Assad became violent as protesters retaliated against the initial violence of the regime.  But there are many indicators that the violence of the uprising was not a spontaneous outpouring of grief and anger, but an organized one, and that Islamist extremists affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaida, already operating in Syria in 2011, were responsible for this violence.  Most of the violence in 2011 and 2012 happened in towns  bordering Lebanon and Iraq where al-Qaida, and/or al-Qaida inspired groups, have been particularly active since 2007-2008.  There is not one fighting video provided by the Syrian opposition in which there are no enthusiastic shouts of ‘AllahuAkbar’, indicating, at least, that secularism is not the hallmark of armed groups fighting the Syrian state, contrary to what we were repeatedly told by the mainstream media.  Add to this the attacks against religious minorities and the vociferations of extremist scholars, or the thinking masters of jihadists against Bashar el-Assad and his ‘sect’, and we end up with an uprising carrying an Islamist militant agenda from the beginning.

Less than three months into the crisis in Syria,  in  June 2011, armed groups attacked government checkpoints and buildings at Jisr el-shugur, took the town, and killed 120 army and security personnel.  There are differing accounts of what happened in Jisr el-Shugur, but the main fact is still that this was the first act of organized violence against the army and the police aimed not at retaliation but at terrorizing and infusing fear among army and police personnel and the population at large, with bodies of the police and the army mutilated and thrown into the river.  During the same period, parts of the city of Homs were overtaken by armed groups who, to this day, still control a small area amidst continuing and uninterrupted fighting with the Syrian army since May 2011.  The next territory infiltrated by armed groups would be on the Syrian-Turkish border, culminating in the fall of parts of Aleppo - the city who did not want the revolution - to armed groups in the summer of 2012.  With the ‘revolution’ in Aleppo and Kurdish areas along the Turkish border inflamed, Turkey opened its border to jihadists and weapons destined to Syria after having tried, and failed, to promote ‘humanitarian’ corridors to open the way for a NATO bombing campaign on Syria. 

Looking at the maps of rebel-controlled areas - as al-Qaida terrorists came to be called, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey appear to have been the main providers of both al-Qaida and al-Qaida inspired militants operating on a regional level (French expert Fabrice Balanche calls the latter non-internationalists Islamists).  This new al-Qaida field operation in Syria, after Iraq, was facilitated by many factors.  Among them are Lebanon’s weak institutions and sectarian worries, Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, and the larger political context set up by the Bush administration, with complicity from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to weaken the Resistance axis of Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in ‘The Redirection’.  

To explain the organized violence against the Syrian state and its institutions, we were told that defected soldiers did most of the fighting.  Some estimates point to 100000 defected soldiers, an unverified number, with al-Jazeera only recently publishing an interactive tool tracking Syria defections, pointing to merely 82 senior army and security personnel who defected, and no tracking of soldiers’ defections. The myth of the FSA, the ‘empty logo’ for a non existent secular uprising against Assad, was born, and it stood firm in the media narrative until only recently, when it appeared that the FSA leadership, following in the footsteps of the Syrian opposition, imploded, with one notable leader defecting to a foreign country seeking a decent living away from the uncertainties of the ‘revolution’.

It is very troubling to watch the schizophrenia of mainstream journalists who portray the Syrian crisis as a civil and sectarian war led by mainly ‘secularists’ fighters from FSA, without seeing any contradiction in their statements.

Talk about al-Qaida in Syria in the mainstream media started openly, albeit timidly, only after the US labelled the main Islamist group fighting there, Jabhat el-Nusra, as a terrorist organization in December 2012, probably prompted by the assassination of its ambassador and three others in the US embassy compound in Benghazi by armed Islamists, on September 11th, 2012.  Barely one month later, jihadists were threatening both Algeria and Mali.  The new opportunities have emboldened al-Qaida and the groups it inspires.  By early 2013, those who were hoping that the unleashing of jihadists and their sectarian violence would result in the ‘controlled’ collapse of the Syrian state realized that they were losing control over the process to jihadists.  Serious people noticed, but not the mainstream media, who are still keeping the lid on horrible stories of abduction and detention of their own people at the hands of al-Qaida groups in Syria, with some coming back to tell the dark side of the ‘revolution’, still unheard by their colleagues.

Enter Hezbollah

We don’t know when Hezbollah did enter the fray in Syria, but it must have been a gradual process.  The Syrian opposition accused Hezbollah from day one of helping Assad, despite the party’s apparent neutrality, going as far as to offer mediation between the parties in 2011. Hezbollah always maintained that it took the decision to enter Syria when it felt that it was being targeted by the armed groups fighting against Assad.  Indeed, at the time, not only was the Lebanese border porous with fighters crossing in both directions, but friction points appeared quickly in the Lebanese territory, notably in Tripoli and Palestinian refugee camps in Saida.  With Syrian refugees pouring into Lebanon, the Lebanese state’s authority challenged in ‘Arsal, a Lebanese town staunchly against Assad, and the instability in Lebanon’s two Sunni cities, Tripoli and Saida, the stage was set for a serious challenge to the territorial integrity of both countries, a delicate question when it comes to relations between Syria and Lebanon. Losing territorial integrity  was going to be a slippery slope for the Syrian government,  starting the irreversible process of losing control over the whole country.  As Assad spelled out in one his speeches, what is important, he said, is not winning here and there: what is important is territorial integrity.  Hence, the battle for Qusayr, in which Hezbollah openly joined Syrian government troops, was a battle for territorial integrity for both Syria and Lebanon.

From the party’s leader declarations during the speeches he made in 2013, it appears that Hezbollah first provided strategic and logistical help to approximately 30000 Lebanese Shia living in Syrian border towns who were subjected to the violence of armed groups battling Assad.  Secondly, Hezbollah sent fighters to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab, near Damascus,  when it was surrounded by rebels.  Then Hezbollah openly admitted its role in the battle to retake Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, in June 2013.  After Qusayr, there was question as to whether Hezbollah would retreat or continue the fight in other parts of Syria. Even though the party’s leader said, in defiance of its critics, that Hezbollah reserves the right to intervene anytime and anywhere in Syria, the lines of the battle for Hezbollah are still mainly oriented, to this day, at preventing Syria’s armed groups from entering or leaving Lebanon, and preserving the territorial integrity of the country.

Hezbollah’s role meant that the Syrian government could count on Hezbollah’s fighters to secure its borders with Lebanon.  The Syrian government proceeded similarly on the Turkish frontier where it allowed Kurdish fighters, who are neither his nor the armed groups’ allies, to operate freely to protect their areas. 

The Syrian army has been fighting for more than two years to repel armed groups from Damascus, the capital, and to maintainthe country’s territorial integrity.  Are we in a state of stalemate, as some mainstream media suggest?  Not if we consider that no army can easily get rid of an insurgency aided by exterior actors, and not if we consider that, at no point in time, the armed groups were able to exert total control over towns and frontiers.  Until now, the Syrian army has succeeded in preventing the armed groups from putting into question the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, and this, in itself, is a victory.  Not to mention the unique experience acquired by the Syrian army in fighting these groups in rural and urban settings.

Diplomacy, not chemical weapons, as a game changer in the ME: the case of Russia and Iran

A reality often overlooked by the mainstream media is the help provided by Iran and Russia to Syria.  Just as one cannot count how many editorials were written about the danger facing Hezbollah in Lebanon because of his role in Syria, one cannot count how many times a shift in Russia’s and Iran’s stances toward Syria was actually postulated, and announced, based purely on wishful thinking.  In fact, contrary to Hezbollah’s stance toward the Syrian regime, Iran’s and Russia’s stances are based neither on territorial integrity thinking nor ideology, at least not for the new rulers of Iran.   Their stances are based on the simple fact that there is no point in leaving a strong ally – as Assad has proved to be – to the unknown, even though Russia’s diplomatic moves included intensive diplomacy directed at the Syrian opposition.  Although Iran apparently refused to discuss Syria as part of the negotiations with the US on its nuclear program, it has always advocated a diplomatic solution to the crisis and has openly criticized, without naming them, the countries who send extremists to fight in Syria.   Additionally, Syria and Hezbollah, Iran’s allies, welcomed the US-Iran deal and understood its potential to bring about a relative peace in the region.  Many, myself included, see the Iran-US rapprochement as potentially capable of changing Iran’s support for the Resistance in the near and long term.  However, the strong anti-Iran sentiment among many in the American political class, and among America’s close allies in the ME, will delay this kind of rapprochement, even if a permanent deal is struck on the nuclear file.  Moreover, Iran’s new regional role, eclipsing and replacing Saudi Arabia, has benefited greatly from its support to the Resistance.  It is unlikely, then, that Iran will abandon Hezbollah and Syria, at least not in the short and middle term.  It will maybe abandon its active support of Palestinian groups, but not of its allies in Syria and Lebanon who have never betrayed their alliance with Iran. 

Iran’s new leadership diplomacy seems to have started unofficially well before Obama and Rouhani’s historic phone call in September 2013, leading to a temporary deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity just a month ago, in November 2013.

One has to view the shift in Obama’s stance on Syria and on its red line warning, against the backdrop of the potential US-Iran deal on the nuclear file.  It is true that Obama offered shaky evidence of the chemical weapons’ attacks that happened in Ghouta, Syria,  on August 21st.  It is also true that Obama seemed determined to go to war on Syria, based on this shaky evidence, as Seymour Hersh recently demonstrated.  But when Obama promptly accepted  Russia’s offer to mediate the Syrian regime’s compliance with the chemical weapons convention in exchange for the US backtracking on its threats to attack Syria, many saw a radical shift in Obama’s stance.  It was a radical shift from the outside, but if Obama had proceeded with his attack on Syria plan, he would have lost the Iranian deal.  What would have Iran made of a nuclear deal while the region would have been ablaze with bombs again?  In his first interview with Press TV, and before going to the UNGA in September 2013, Iran’s FM outlined his new motto: diplomacy, not threats, is how countries deal with each other.  ‘Not all options are on the table’ said Zarif, echoing in negation a famous US motto used when dealing with other countries.

Russia and Iran’s diplomacies worked in tandem to avert another devastating war in the region.  Obama didn’t mind bombing Syria, just as he didn’t mind bombing Libya, even if the evidence pointing to the regime’s responsibility is shaky and even if solid evidence rather pointed to al-Qaida possessing chemical weapons in Syria.  Obama’s red line wasn’t meant to ‘punish’ or ‘stop’ atrocities.  It was meant as a provision to offer a justification to intervene in Syria when it was going to be the time to intervene.  A possible scenario was that, in case the controlled collapse of the Syrian state by al-Qaida wasn’t going to work, the US would step in to weaken these groups, as Seymour Hersh uncovered in a recent investigation.  But Obama was eager to strike a deal with Iran and he wasn’t going to get it if he had attacked Syria.

Bush famously said that he looked Putin in the eyes and saw his soul, but Putin didn’t have to look Obama in the eyes to read his mind.

2013: The Year Assad lived dangerously and won

One can understand the disappointment that pervaded Syrian opposition circles in the aftermath of the deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, as they have played all their cards and lost.  The ‘peaceful revolution’ did not work, the controlled collapse of the Syrian state did not work, and even the game-changing chemical weapons attacks did not work.
But the perception of the Syrian ‘revolution’ being offered to us in the mainstream media endures, even when the expectations that were built on this perception have been repeatedly collapsing.   In Indonesia, after  a ‘Year of Living Dangerously’, Sukarno, a communist dictator, was replaced by a western-friendly dictator.  This scheme will not work in Syria because the western-friendly dictators-to-be have just lost.

Saudi limbo and the future of the Levant

Saudi limbo and the future of the Levant

Recent developments in the Middle East have been playing out like an accelerated cartoon scene since the alleged August 21 chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.  Within two months,  the Syrian regime went from a pariah to a partner of the international community in chemical weapons disarmament while its detratctor, Saudi Arabia, went from a newly appointed patron of the anti-Assad coalition to total isolation, having failed to dictate its regional agenda on Obama and the United States.  To add insult to injury, the US showed overture toward Iran’s willigness to reach an agreement on its nuclear program with a historic phone call from Obama to Iran’s president , and a meeting agenda to discuss the Iranain proposal at the level of foreign ministers.

In the wake of these events, Saudi Arabia reacted strongly by successively excusing itself from speaking before the league of nations and then refusing a 2-year rotating seat at the United Nations Security Council, while its foe, Syrian president Bashar el-Assad, was appearing daily on major news channels worldwide.

It is during one of these appearances, on the Arabic channel Al Mayadeen on October 21, 2013, two months after the alleged chemical attacks, that Assad spelled out Saudi policy in Syria as one which executes Washington’s orders.  Assad could not ignore the recent divergence between Saudis and the US on Syria because while the US took a clear step back by agreeing on the Russian promoted UN resolution to halt threat of bombing in exchange for Syria’s destruction of its chemical arsenal, Saudis were not only voicing frustration, but threatening to go it alone on Syria.  Why then did Assad treat Saudi Policy in Syria as a mere execution of US orders?  A simple explanation could be that the interview being in Arabic, Assad was addressing an Arab audience - including Saudis -  that could view the US link as damaging to Saudis authorities.  A recent poll indicated decline for support to Saudi policies in the Arab world where Saudis have historically intervened.  Given Arabs historical suspicion of the US, making this link does not help Saudi image among Arab citizens.  Another explanation could be that Assad was specifically addressing Saudi paid foreign fighters in Syria telling them that they are fighting for a US led agenda.  This potentially can increase suspicions and infighting, which are rife among rebels in Syria.  A third explanation could be that Assad was sending a signal to Saudis that obeying US has not done them any good and that should Iran repare its relations with the US, all is not lost for a Saudi come back in the Levant.  This is because Saudi power is not monolithic and it hasn’t always been as close to US policies when it comes to the Levant.  One should only remember how Saudis supported a Syrian led solution in Lebanon after the civil war, through the Taef agreements, and probably convinced their US ally of this, while Syria was not exactly the kind of country that the US considered friendly, even at the time.

The Saudi sphere of influence can be divided in different and competing zones when it comes to their narrow interests in the region.  There is the Gulf pole that is often mentioned, Egypt, which has been a traditional ally except for the brief Muslim Brotherhood presidency, and the Levant.  These different and competing zones have collapsed into one when Saudis started pursuing a strong and narrow sectarian agenda after the Iraq war.  But the Levant, and to a certain extent, Iraq, have been resisting such an agenda.  Lebanon, despite 15 years of civil war which saw the collapse of the state, complicated agreements entrenching sectarian politics after the end of the civil war, and the danger zone in which the country found itself recently with the Syria crisis, is still miraculously holding against the spectre of a full fledged sectarian war. Moreover,  the divisions among Lebanese Christians have complicated the Saudi sectarian equation for the country, giving an edge to Shias, rather then Sunnis.  In Syria, where the sectarian agenda is the most forcefully enforced through hordes of foreign fighters, a central state, army, and other institutions, as well as a pro-Assad population hailing from all sects, wary of the sectarian agenda, have all contributed to keep the country together, after nearly three years of war.

The resistance to the sectarian Saudi agenda in the Levant might  soon force a change of heart among Saudi rulers because if the agenda fails - and there are indications it will fail - it will be the end of Saudi influence in the region.  It will also, in return, represent a threat to Saudi rulers from disenfranchised and bitter jihadis. This is what Iran’s foreign minister meant when he, in his first televised interview with Press TV, without naming Saudis, warned that extremism might end up knocking at the door of those who nurture it. 

Having put all its eggs in the same basket by pursuing an agenda linking all its interests and spheres of influence in one political sectarian gamble, Saudi Arabia finds itself today near defeat, thanks mainly to Syria’s resilience and to Iran’s new leadership willingness to end its isolation.  The only event that may reverse defeat is a change of guard in the Saudi internal power scene, as it happened in Qatar, a retreat to a more pragmatic, less suicidal, foreign policy.  While this is unlikely to happen soon, given the structure of this absolute monarchy, it is still a possibility that a rapidly changing political scene will bring in its wake crises and unexpected developments.  A recent pro-Saudi op-ed in the Washington Post is a signal of things to come.  Saudi doctrine will change, we are told, from being protected to protecting itself.  Clearly, all the US has to offer is protection in the form of military bases and this protection will not go away because it is tied to US interests.   But what protecting itself means for Saudi Arabia ?  It means developing, for the first time, the means for a foreign policy independant from the US.  This independance will not happen in the Gulf where peace between Iran and the US and Gulf kingdoms’ rivalries will severely restrict Saudi role.  Any independance for Saudis from US foreign policy will come from their role in Egypt and the Levant where Saudis still command great influence among local politicians, where Israel is commonly loathed and where the Resistance is part of the culture of every citizen.  This is why Saudis mentioned Palestine as an example of a dysfunctional UN.  If Saudis really feel that decades of  following US orders have brought them nothing in matters of influence on the wider Middle East agenda, they may still reverse course on their sectarian agenda and focus instead on supporting the Resistance as a way of regaining initiative and influence in the region, if only they were thinking strategically, and not merely reacting to their misfortunes.  This can potentially have a positive effect on Saudi internal Shia turmoil.  As unlikely as it may appear, this scenario is plausible especially with an Iran turned inward to develop its economy after years of sanctions and an Iranian political class preoccupied mainly by its survival, not by regional hegemony even if this desire and their patronage of the Resistance have served them well in the past.  Saudi support for the Resistance can come in many ways, one of them could be through Lebanese internal politics where they can immediately support a consensus government and stop blocking Hezbollah from playing the political role the Lebanese want it to play.   But for this to happen, a tectonic shift is needed in Saudi internal politics.  One wonders if the US, confident of Saudi subservience, will permit this shift.  In Georges Clooney’s Syriana, a heir to the Saudi throne is eliminated by the US  because of its independance.  That’s the historic conundrum in which many US client countries find themselves in, unable to reform and change course.  Saudi Arabia is a perfect example of acute US dependance.

Assad’s allusion that Saudis were following US orders in their Syrian agenda might have been a challenge to Saudis to build their own.  It is clearly a phase of great instability in the region and as each country will have to redefine its priorities, the Resistance in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon will have to redefine its priorities and external as well as internal alliances.  Some will endure and some will change.  And unless there is a just peace in Palestine and between Israel and the Arab countries that border it,  the Levant will stay the playground for those who seek influence either by challenging the Resistance or by supporting it, without ever being able to get rid of it.  This is the choice facing Saudis today.  Their diminishing inlfuence to shape events in the Gulf will force them to count on the Levant where they can either continue to challenge the Resistance on its turf and face total defeat or change course and gain some leverage[1] and independance.  But one thing is sure, nobody can dictate its agenda for the long term on the Resistance because it is not only a military, but a cultural phenomenon, born out of injustice, much like the Occupy movements.  The arc of History in the ME is bending away from Israel, thanks to the axis of Resistance.  Saudis should seize the occasion, reconcile with the idea of an Iranian leadership in the region, and join the resistance!

[1] In the beginning of the twentieth century,  after the Hashemite Hijazi branch of Saudis were driven out from power by Al-Saud, they established kingdoms in Iraq and the Levant.

Where the anti-Assad coalition went wrong
Syria, the West, and the politics of war and dialogue


"America’s Vassal Acts Decisively and Illegally"

A great post by Craig Murray.

I returned to the UK today to be astonished by private confirmation from within the FCO that the UK government has indeed decided – after immense pressure from the Obama administration – to enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and seize Julian Assange.
This will be, beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961, to which the UK is one of the original parties and which encodes the centuries – arguably millennia – of practice which have enabled diplomatic relations to function. The Vienna Convention is the most subscribed single international treaty in the world.
The provisions of the Vienna Convention on the status of diplomatic premises are expressed in deliberately absolute terms. There is no modification or qualification elsewhere in the treaty.
Article 22
1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter
them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises
of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the
mission or impairment of its dignity.
3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of
transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
Not even the Chinese government tried to enter the US Embassy to arrest the Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen. Even during the decades of the Cold War, defectors or dissidents were never seized from each other’s embassies. Murder in Samarkand relates in detail my attempts in the British Embassy to help Uzbek dissidents. This terrible breach of international law will result in British Embassies being subject to raids and harassment worldwide.
The government’s calculation is that, unlike Ecuador, Britain is a strong enough power to deter such intrusions. This is yet another symptom of the “might is right” principle in international relations, in the era of the neo-conservative abandonment of the idea of the rule of international law.
The British Government bases its argument on domestic British legislation. But the domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them. If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resile from it – which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide.
I hope to have more information soon on the threats used by the US administration. William Hague had been supporting the move against the concerted advice of his own officials; Ken Clarke has been opposing the move against the advice of his. I gather the decision to act has been taken in Number 10.
There appears to have been no input of any kind from the Liberal Democrats. That opens a wider question – there appears to be no “liberal” impact now in any question of coalition policy. It is amazing how government salaries and privileges and ministerial limousines are worth far more than any belief to these people. I cannot now conceive how I was a member of that party for over thirty years, deluded into a genuine belief that they had principles.


'Divisions Among The Arab Left regarding The Syria Crisis'

This is a rough translation of an article appearing in Le Monde Diplomatique, August French edition, accessible only to subscribers. Original title: 'La crise syrienne déchire la gauche arabe'

In August 2011, the Lebanese nationalist leftist daily newspaper Al-Akhbar undergoes its first crisis, since its creation in the summer 2006.   Assistant editor, Khaled Saghieh, resigns from the journal he contributed to create citing  the lack of support from the journal to the Syrian popular uprising of March 2011.  Al-Akhbar has never kept secret its political proximity with Hezbollah, one of Syria’s president Bashar el-Assad principal regional allies, nor hidden its preference for dialogue between the government and part of the opposition over the pure and simple fall of the regime.  However, at the same time, the daily has opened its pages for the Syrian opposition to express itself.  Among those published was Salameh Khaileh, a Syro-Palestinian Marxist intellectual, arrested at the end of April 2012 by the security services.

Last June, the dissent appeared in Al-Akhbar English online version with an article by Amal Saad Ghorayeb: 'Syria Crisis, there is a crowd'.  In it, the Lebanese chronicler adopts a clear line of support for the Syrian regime and critcises ‘third wayers’ who denounce the authoritarian Syrian regime while warning against western foreign military intervention, Libya style.  The same month, another Al-Akhbar collaborator, Max Blumenthal,  resigns denouncing what he calls ‘Assad apologists’ inside the journal editorial team.

What happened at Al-Akhbar is symptomatic of wider strategic and ideological divisions among the Arab Left regarding the Syria crisis.  Some show support for the regime in the name of the struggle against Israel and the ‘resistance against imperialisme’.  Others support the uprising in the name of a ‘revolutionary logic’ and the defence of ‘democratic rights’.  Finally, some express a middle position between a distant solidarity with the uprising demanding freedom for the protests while rejecting ‘foreign intervention’ promoting ‘national reconciliation’.   Diverse sensibilities exist within the Arab Left : there are communists, Marxists, Leftists Nationalists, Radicals, and Moderates.  The Arab Left appears, with the Syria crisis, as a fragmented mosaic.

Anti-imperialism as the analysis grid for the Arab Left

On one side, the unconditional support for Al-Assad is not mainstream among the Arab Left and very few are the voices calling to maintain the regime as it is.   But, on the other side, the unconditional support for the popular uprising is not a dominant position.  It can be found among movements that are at the extreme Left of the political Spectrum ; Trostkyistes, the Lebanese Socialist Forum, the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, Maoists, and the Democratic Voice of Morocco.   These latter movements have built relationships with a fraction of the opposition to the regime, namely the Syrian Revolutionary Left of Mr. Gayath Naisse.  They have participated, since the Spring of 2011, in discrete mobilisations like protests in front of  Syrian embassies and consulates in their respective countries.

Some intellectuals from the independant Left, like the Lebanese historian Fawwaz Trabulsi, support the logic of uprisings.  They demand the fall of the regime.  This current excludes any dialogue.  And even if this part of the Left insist on the necessity of pacifist popular protests, they do not deny to protesters the right to take up arms.  At the extreme Left, the partisans of the revolution diverge from the Syrian National Council on the alliance with Qatar, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia.  They denounce such alliances as compromising the independance of the popular revolution in Syria.

Denouncing the regime and calling for its fall does not prevent the radical Left from being suspicious of the support given to the Syrian revolution by Gulf monarchies neither from dissociating itself from the anti-Assad discourse of a part of the ‘international community’ headed by the United States.  However, their anti-imperialist reflex comes after their support for the revolution.  The priority is given here to the internal situation in Syria : the logic of the uprising of the people against their political regime is what counts first, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

[What has been described so far is the position of a minority situated at the extreme Spectrum of the Arab Left.]

On the contrary, a cautious distance toward the Syrian revolution is what characterises the majority of the Left in the Arab World.  This majority denounces the militaristaion of the uprising, a process it thinks is profiting the radical Islamists and foreign fighters entering Syria.  It fears the confessionalisation of the conflict leading to opposing religious minorities, Alawis and Christians to Sunnis radicalised by repression, seeing in this the spectre of an unending civil war.  This majority also takes into account the balance of regional and international powers : Iran and Syria against Gulf monarchies, Russia and China against the United States.  In this confrontation between multiple international state actors, the majority of the Arab Left does not hesitate to take sides where its affinities are rooted, with Iran and Syria as state actors against Gulf monrachies and with Russia and China against the United States.

Thus, when the union of Socialist and Leftist parties in Jordan, a coalition of six political formations including communists and Arab nationalists, met in Amman in April 2012 to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the 2003 invasion of  Iraq, the Syria crisis, more than the fall of Saddam, was front and center in the discussions, leading to firmly denounce any foreign intervention in Syria, where some of the speakers did not hesitate to draw the parallell  between the military intervention in Iraq and the support the SNC and the Syrian armed opposition enjoy in the West.

In Tunisia, in a communiqué dated May, 17, 2012,  the UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, which is the main unionised force in Tunisia whose executives come partly from the extreme Left, while affirming its support for the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Syrian people, warns against the ‘plot’ fomented by the ‘colonial states’ and ‘Arab Reactionaries’.  Two months before this, the Communist Labour Party of Tunisia (POCT, acronym in French) called, along with Arab Nationalist Movements, to protest the venue, in Tunis, of the conference of the Friends of Syria formed of the SNC and 60 international delegations.

The Lebanese Communist Party has adopted a cautious position.  While opening its Press to opponents of the Syrian regime like Michel Kilo (who is not member of the SNC), it abstained from participating in the daily protests that have been taking place for a year now in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut.  The party is under criticism from the extreme left in Lebanon for its support for Qadri Jamil, head of the Popular Will Party in Syria, and member of the ‘legal’ opposition, who joined the newly formed Syrian government of Mr. Riyad Hijjab in June 2012 as vice PM for economic affairs.

It is mainly a reformist logic that has the favours of a part of the Arab Left : the solution to the Syrian conflict must be political, not military.  The final communiqué of the Arab Nationalist Conference meeting in June, in Hammamet, Tunisia, the gathering of 200 members of Arab Nationalist Leftist  - and to a lesser extent - Islamist formations, reflects this reformist logic.  Their communiqué, trying to please everybody,  recognises the right of the Syrian people to ‘freedom, democracy, and pacific alternance of power’, denounces violence from all origins, thus highlighting the violence of both the uprising and the regime and calling on both to commit to a logic of dialogue based on the peace plan of March 2012 of UN special envoy, Mr. Kofi Annan.

If, for a part of the Arab Radical left, the revolutionary perspective must come first in Syria,  the majority of the Arab Left has renounced this perspective.  This majority does not want the brutal fall of the regime.  For this majority, there is a contradiction in what’s going on in Syria : a cold war that doesn’t say its name.  The fear of the void in a post-Assad Syria reconciled with the US and allied to gulf monarchies is much stronger than the fear of the continuation of the regime.

Moreover, Syria is some sort of Janus to many Leftist militants in the Arab world.  Very few among them deny the repressive and authoritarian character of its regime, but even today,  the defensive discourse of a regime under international sanctions, echoes the profound ideological bedrock of the Arab left which can be found in the third worldist and anti-imperialist paradigm. To some, this ideological paradigm is nuanced by the attachment to the popular character of the revolt, to others, this ideological attachment is, to the contrary, multiplied and amplified by the increasing internationalisation of the conflict.

Not to forget the Islamist dynamic born from the Arab Spring which translates by seizing power, in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, by the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.  These events have provoked a backlash among part of the Left: from now on, Arab revolutions are feared because they may lead to an Islamist hegemony in the Arab world.

What stokes these fears among the Arab Left is the support of Islamist movements to the revolution in Syria: Ennahda in Tunisia, as well as the Msulim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, are fervent supporters of the Syrian revolution.  Thus, the position of a majority of the Arab Left  toward the Syrian revolution reflects the history of their own confrontation with political Islam.  This is why, Arab Leftist parties with commitments to ‘revolution’ and ‘progressism’, and for some, to ‘Marxism’, have, paradoxically, set their preference for a negotiated and gradual transition in Syria, out of fear of the disillusion these revolutions will bring.

Since March 29th 2006