With news of a series of bombings and attacks in Iraq, of kidnappings and reprisals in Lebanon, and an ongoing Civil War in Syria, anyone who looks at the map of the Greater Middle East cannot fail to see a new Great Divide.
The Great Divide has three dimensions.
1. First, it pits the Shanghai Cooperation Council (Russia, China and the Central Asian states, along with Iran as an observer) against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO wants Bashar al-Assad to step down and is attempting to strangle Iran via financial and trade sanctions. Russia and China are supporting the Baath government of al-Assad and are opposed to increased sanctions on Iran.
2. Regionally, the Great Divide ranges on the one side: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and on the other Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council more generally, along with Libya and Egypt. This regional conflict is not exactly along sectarian lines, but sectarianism is an element in it. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Sunni-ruled, whereas Iran and Iraq are Shiite-ruled. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing RPGs and other weapons to the Syrian rebels. Iran is charged with training and equipping not only the Syrian army but also the Alawite shabiha or ‘Ghost Squads’ that carry out massacres of Sunnis in places like Houla (yes, that was a regime massacre). Syria’s Alawite minority, a branch of Shi’ism, predominates at the upper levels of the Baath Party, but the Baath is secular. Lebanon’s Miqati government depends heavily of the country’s Shiites and on their Christian allies, and leans toward al-Assad.
3. Locally and nternally, within each of the regional powers, a conflict is going on between supporters of al-Assad and those who want to see the Baath fall. Again, there is a sectarian dimension here, though it is not the only thing going on. On the whole Iraq’s Sunni Arabs support the Syrian rebels, as do Lebanese Sunnis. Lebanese Shiites largely support al-Assad.
The Great Divide in the Greater Middle East continues to devour its partisans on both sides and to introduce new forms of instability into the region. That it has three levels makes it intractable. In Libya, where one of the levels, the international, avoided deadlock and international actors could act decisively, they certainly shortened the conflict– a development that is unlikely to occur with regard to Syria, at least for the rest of this calendar year. In Libya, moreover, there were no sectarian divides. Only when al-Assad falls will there be hope for a return to relative peace in the region, and that event could be a ways off.
The Neocons, masters of disinformation, keep trying to put it about (and it is in the current Wikipedia article on me) that I somehow was initially supportive of the idea of going to war with Iraq. I was not. I thought it was a horrible idea and would end badly. Basically my position was the same as the French government then, and I said so. I was going through my private email archives for January, 2003, and pulled out some excellent contemporary evidence for my opposition to the idea, below. Early in the history of Informed Comment I had set up an email announcement board, email@example.com, to which I sent extra material that did not necessarily appear at the blog. Most of the messages below are from that board and so were quite public. The politics of reputation is not without an impact on one’s life. This smear (via Wikipedia) last winter caused a conference organizer to be attacked for inviting such a warmonger as myself. Since I took so many lumps for opposing the war in its early years when it was mysteriously popular in the United States, it is ironic that Karl Rove tactics could succeed in turning all this on its head.
It strikes me that with all the unknowns of January, 2003, I also was pretty good at calling the dangers.
Maybe this file will help set the record straight (though what was already on the blog was clear enough).
Sat Jan 18 02:34:32 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Chirac warns on Iraq
French President Jacques Chirac issued a blunt and forceful warning today to the Bush administration that for it to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq without a second, explicit UN Security Council resolution would constitute a breach
of international law. Too right! It is absolutely unacceptable that the Bush administration should act in such a high-handed manner, and can only have bad repercussions on the US throughout the world. It is a horrible idea. Launching a war with a security council resolution is risky enough! But at least then it would have some legitimacy.
From ???@??? Wed Jan 15 02:14:21 2003
X-Mailer: QUALCOMM Windows Eudora Version 4.3
From: Juan Cole
Date: Wed, 15 Jan 2003 01:49:03 -0500
Subject: Re: Iraq
I don’t think there is much doubt that the US will go to war against Iraq this spring. I’d say the chances are 90%. And, I think this was decided on very early in the Bush administration as a plan, but only became feasible given the public mood after 9/11 and given that Afghanistan went so well.
There were two chances to stop it. One was the congressional vote last fall. The other was the Security Council vote in November. Probably only the Congressional vote could have effectively derailed it.
There is nothing in the world to stop Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld from going through with this now. Powell would probably like a second UN resolution, but the administration does not really need that.
Wed Jan 29 02:58:49 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Wednesday, January 29, 2003
Wednesday, January 29, 2003
* Iraqi Vice President Tariq Aziz has warned Kuwait that Iraq would not rule out hitting it if it allows US troops to launch an invasion of Iraq from its soil. Such complicity, he said, would make this action legitimate. (It is not clear exactly what Aziz is threatening to do. However, if it involved the deliberate targetting of civilian populations, it would not be legitimate; it would be a war crime. Aziz should be careful; he may find himself in the docket.)
*Jabir al-Mubarak al-Sabah, Kuwait’s Minister of Defense, said he was not surprised by this threat, and that it revealed the sort of intentions Iraq had toward its neighbors. He pledged that the Kuwait armed forces stood ready to repel any threat. (Kuwait is a nice little country, but I’m afraid its armed forces aren’t exactly up to this, and that it is the American umbrella that emboldens the minister).
*Saddam Hussein asked his generals to be vigilant against traitors in their midst who might sell out to the Americans. He saw the same reports the rest of us did, that the Saudis and other neighbors have been trying to convince someone to make a coup and depose Saddam so as to avert the looming war. (I wouldn’t hold my breath. Saddam is not the resigning kind; he is a genocidal megalomaniac. And all the generals who even thought about a coup are pushing up daisies. Of course, if he and his circle of Tikritis actually cared about the country and the people they have looted and brutalized, they would go into exile. But they aren’t that sort of person to begin with, which is one of the reasons we stand on the brink of war).
*Newsday reports that US Vice President Dick Cheney and special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad have been working to expand the expatriate committee of Iraqi politicians primed to succeed Saddam Hussein from 65 to 100, so as to dilute the influence of the pro-Iran bloc of 15 members from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Khalilzad is said to envisage a situation where policy makers will be drawn from the committee, but technocats from inside Iraq will also be given power if they are untainted by association with Saddam Hussein. Khalilzad is said to recognize that since some 60 percent of Iraqis are Shi`ite, a similar proportion of high government officials will be. But apparently he has come to realize that SCIRI’s support inside Iraq may actually be shallow. Many Iraqi Shi`ites are secularists. Apparently he will be looking for such secular Shi`ite technocrats as a counter-ballast to the clerical SCIRI.
One problem: If SCIRI’s troops, the 15,000-man al-Badr Brigade, plays a “northern-alliance” type role in this new Iraq war, it may well be positioned to garner enormous political power in the aftermath despite the planning on paper going on now. A SCIRI dominated Iraq would be a huge gift to the clerical hardliners in Tehran, and it has long puzzled me why the Bush administration was putting so many eggs in that basket. Now they are backing off, causing a furore. . .
*Bush’s State of the Union address gave specifics about what weapons of mass destruction the US thinks Saddam has and what he would have to prove he has destroyed to satisfy the Bush administration: 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents; mobile biological weapons labs designed to produce germ warfare agents. But the wording was a little unclear, since the president kept saying Iraq had had materials sufficient to produce these quantities of these weapons, but seemed to sidestep the question as to whether it actually had done so. Apparently the anthrax and some of the chemicals were provided to Iraq in the 1980s by the Reagan administration to ensure that Iran did not win the Iran-Iraq war. I suppose that is how this administration is so sure Iraq has this stuff; it has people serving in it who provided the material to Saddam. Anyway, it seems clear to me that Bush is set on war. They are saying now it might not be until mid-March. . .
Wed Jan 29 11:43:49 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Re: Fwd: Iraqi defectors?
Bush specifically mentioned information from Iraqi defectors as the basis for some of his WMD charges.
Since some of the defectors were scientists working for Saddam, they should know what they are talking about. On the other hand, they have a vested interest in overthrowing Saddam, and so may be tempted to exaggerate. As an example, Khidir Hamza insists that Saddam is very close to having a nuclear capability, but al-Baradei says the inspectors cannot find evidence that this is so. Since a nuclear program would require hundreds of scientists and lots of equipment and facilities, and would be awfully hard to hide from al-Baradei.
It seems to me that it would be easy enough to pass the defectors’ specific allegations over to the inspectors for verification, and that way we would know for sure.
Of course, one problem is that there hasn’t to my knowledge been much defection since 1998, and many of the defectors came before then, so that their information is old. There would have been time to move stockpiles and some may genuinely have been destroyed (or not created in the first place, since Bush kept talking about the *potential* for producing them).
This is what I said today:
Bush’s State of the Union address gave specifics about what weapons of mass destruction the US thinks Saddam has and what he would have to prove he has destroyed to satisfy the Bush administration: 25,000 liters of anthrax; 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin; 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent; 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents; mobile biological weapons labs designed to produce germ warfare agents. But the wording was a little unclear, since the president kept saying Iraq had had materials sufficient to produce these quantities of these weapons, but seemed to sidestep the question as to whether it actually had done so.
Thu Jan 30 12:21:18 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: Re: Iraq WMD – Potential or Actual?
Yes, I saw that. I am fairly cynical about all this. Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz and Condi have wanted a war on Iraq for a long time, and the WMD stuff makes a nice pretext. I have concluded it is mainly about power politics; these “American Nationalists” just won’t put up with sass.
Thu Jan 30 13:44:34 2003
From: Juan Cole
Subject: 30 Jan. 2003
*The question was raised on a list of what would happen if the US invaded Iraq and found there were not weapons of mass destruction there. I fear I replied somewhat cynically, but also called it as I see it. If Iraq turns out not to have much WMD, the administration will fall back on its other main argument, that Saddam is a monster who has killed and brutalized his own people and repeatedly invaded his neighbors. We already have had Halabja survivors among the Kurds protest the doubts some Westerners have expressed about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and willingness to use them. They say, basically, *we* know all about WMD. And, given the thousands of Shi`ites the Baath killed in the south, there are almost certainly mass graves that will provide a macabre justification ex post facto for the removal of that regime. Footage of the Iranian vets injured by mustard gas could also be put on television. How wars are justified before they are launched and how they are justified afterwards is frequently different. If there is a relatively quick victory, no one will inquire into the justifications too closely. If it becomes a quagmire, it won’t matter what the justification was: the public will turn against the war anyway if it goes badly…
The intrepid Seymour Hersh reports at the New Yorker that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of the US military gave members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK or People’s Holy Jihadis) training in signals intelligence at a facility in Nevada during the Bush era. The MEK was then and is now on the US State Department’s terrorism watch list, so the Pentagon’s deployment of this group was quite illegal.
The MEK was given a base in eastern Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who used the some 4,000 guerrillas who gathered there to harass the Islamic Republic of Iran. The MEK had its origins in an Islamic-Marxist guerrilla group of the 1970s that fought the forces of the Shah. It joined in the revolution against the Shah in 1978-79 but broke with the Khomeini regime and turned to a massive campaign of bombing and sniping against it. In return, the regime killed some 10,000 suspected MEK members, many of whom it just shot down in the street. The group evolved into a political cult, with insistence on glaze-eyed absolute obedience to the leader, Maryam Rajavi, and cult-like practices such as forced marriages and divorces (not to mention the long history of violence inside Iran).
When the US occupied Iraq, some in the Pentagon adopted the MEK at Camp Ashraf near the Iranian border for use against Iran. The MEK has bought a lot of big American politicians and seems to have promised the Israelis it would recognize Israel if it ever came to power in Iran; figures connected to the Israel lobbies have hypocritically campaigned to have the MEK delisted as a terrorist organization, despite it long and bloody record of attacks on civilians. As recently as this year, NBC quoted unnamed US government officials alleging that the MEK has been assassinating Iranian scientists in Iran.
Hersh reveals a trail of blatant hypocrisy on the part of the US government. “Our” terrorists are not terrorists even if they have blown up non-combatants, but national liberation groups such as Hizbullah in Lebanon are designated terrorists. Government officials have even brandished the word “terrorism” to describe perfectly peaceful protesters and dissidents inside the US, while JSOC was flying dyed-in-the-wool terrorists to Nevada for training.
The USG Open Source Center translated a report in the MEK newspaper regarding the hobnobbing of Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and others with the MEK leadership in Paris recently:
“– On 24 March, the NCRI secretariat website published a report on an international conference held in Paris to address MEK concerns and issues, which was attended by NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi as well as former high ranking officials from the United States and Europe including Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, John Bolton, Patrick Kennedy, and Colonel Wesley Martin.. According to the report, the issues raised included the adoption of a “decisive policy” against Iran’s regime, protection of the rights of Camp Ashraf and Liberty residents, and the elimination of MEK’s “terrorist label.” Rajavi said that “the only way to prevent an Iranian atomic bomb or the occurrence of an unprecedented conflict” was “regime change” by the Iranian people and resistance. On the issue of Camp Liberty, Rudy Giuliani said: “Let us go there. Let us see it with our own eyes.” He added: “Currently the enemy of stopping Iran becoming nuclear is appeasement. This wrong perception has made Iran more determined in becoming nuclear. Let us stop appeasement. Let us stop the efforts for negotiations. Stop writing letters to the ayatollahs. Let us rise up and say as Americans that we are for regime change in Iran and we will take every step necessary to stop Iran becoming nuclear” (National Council of Resistance of Iran in Persian — Website of an exiled political umbrella coalition of Marxist and Islamist organizations — Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO), National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA), People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and Muslim Iranian Students Society (MISS); on US State Department’s list of terrorist groups since 1997; URL: http://www.iranncr.org/).”
As Sheila Musaji points out, lots of American Muslims are in jail for ‘material support of terrorism,’ but American politicians and pundits get a free pass for actively supporting the MEK– which, remember, is definitively on the terrorism watch list.
Note to the US government and the Neocons: George Orwell’s 1984 was a dark political satire, not a blueprint for how you should do things.
Iraq is planning to host the summit of the Arab League in Baghdad next week, in a bid to underscore its reemergence as an independent Arab state and an integral member of the League.
But, you couldn’t say things have gone well for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the run-up to the historic conference.
First, the Shiite clerical leader Muqtada al-Sadr staged a strike on Monday, and his supporters came out to demonstrate in the hundreds of thousands (they claimed a million) in the southern oil city of Basra. The date was March 19, the anniversary of the Bush administration’s invasion of their country, which they were in part protesting. But they were also demanding that al-Maliki supply people with services– electricity, water, etc. They had earlier demonstrated against the idea of the Sunni king of Bahrain coming to Baghdad, given his harsh crackdown on the majority Shiites of Bahrain. But Monday’s rallies focused on domestic issues. Sadr is taking advantage of Iraq being in the spotlight in order to press his demands.
Al-Maliki had charged one of his vice presidents, a Sunni named Tariq al-Hashemi, of himselve being linked to terrorism, and chased him off to Iraqi Kurdistan. But his bodyguards were detained in Baghdad. One of them just died under suspicious circumestances, casting another pall over the summit. Many assume that the Shiite al-Maliki had the Sunni guards tortured.
Then, al-Maliki’s sudden support for the Allawite Shiite president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, is often attributed to his fear that Sunni fundamentalists might come to power there and make trouble in Sunni Iraq just across the border. The US believes that al-Maliki is allowing Iran to send arms to al-Assad and his Baath Party through Iraq, and is pressuring him to stop it.
So on the eve of a conference that was intended to emphasize the Arabness of Iraq and its reemergence onto the world stage, it is being roiled by sectarian demonstrations and bombings, embroiled in regional Sunni-Shiite strife, and slammed for still not being able to deliver basic services.
The United States has been down this squalid road before, in regard to Iraq, and it doesn’t end well for America.
Obama was made to trek to AIPAC (which should have to register as the agent of a foreign state) because it is a very effective lobby and raises money for political campaigns, as well as raising money to punish politicians that do not toe its line on knee jerk support of Israeli policy.
We saw this with Iraq, and now it is the same with Iran. A weak, ramshackle, ineffectual bogeyman is set up, like Saddam Hussein or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Americans are kept talking about the “threat” emanating from that country. It isn’t a real threat. It is manufactured by the Israeli intelligence agencies and promoted by their cells in the US.
With regard to Iraq, we were told that it had among the more powerful armies in the world, that it possessed frightening weapons of mass destruction, that it was a threat to Europe and the United States. None of these things was true.
Here are the top drawbacks to vigorous sanction regime against another country, as demonstrated by Iraq and Iran:
1. One basic problem with a dire sanctions regime like that imposed on Iraq, and now on Iran, is that it can kill a lot of innocent civilians, including children. Because the US interdicted chlorine exports to Iraq and had knocked out its electricity and water purification plants in the Gulf War, it is estimated that the US/ UN sanctions killed about 500,000 Iraqi children in the 1990s. Infants are especially vulnerable to dying of diarrhea and dehydration from gastrointestinal diseases.
2. In turn, this killing of so many children made other Arabs and Muslims angry at the US, and these deaths were also cited by Usamah Bin Laden as one of the reasons he sought to attack the United States. That is, the human toll of sanctions can cause the sanctioning country to suffer reprisals.
Obama’s sanctions on Iran are beginning to have a human toll, making it increasingly difficult for Iran to import wheat from the Ukraine and India. The Obama sanctions are turning into collective punishment of civilian populations, which is illegal. If Obama miscalculates, he could kill thousands of people by provoking a food famine. The resentments of Washington that step would incur, in turn, very likely will hurt the US directly.
3. Onerous sanctions do not remove a regime or cause it to change policies, since the elite can cushion themselves from the effects. The Baath Party in Iraq in the 1990s squirreled away billions of dollars, even as the Iraqi middle classes were devastated and many Iraqis began living on the edge, with insufficient food and medicine.
4. In fact, as the urban middle classes decline, they lose the wherewithal to challenge the government. Authoritarianism is strengthened by sanctions, not weakened.
Iran’s middle classes are already being deeply hurt by sanctions. The idea that they will mobilize to pressure the government to give up nuclear enrichment as a result is a non-starter. Political movements and campaigns need money. In an oil state like Iran, the government gets the oil profits and so is flush. The middle classes are increasingly thrown down into poverty, so they can’t compete with government largesse.
5. A feeling of being under siege also causes populations to rally around even an unpopular government. One suspects that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s most ardent supporters took 75% of the seats in parliament in Iran’s recent election in part as a backlash against US sanctions and pressure.
6. Wide-ranging and deep sanctions can bleed over into being a sort of blockade. Blockades are a casus belli in international law, and very frequently provoke wars. FDR’s decision to stop oil sales to Japan helped precipitate Pearl Harbor.
So, sanctions start off looking like an alternative to war. But they can impose such a massive death toll on the civilian population of the targeted country as to call forth reprisals on the leader of the boycott. Or the blockade aspect can itself provoke a war.
7. Israeli agents of influence attempt to keep Americans talking about anything but Israel’s own ongoing crimes against humanity with regard to the Palestinians. They have special success if the US goes into full-sanction, soft war mode against another country on Israel’s behalf. Now, instead of talking about Israeli predations against the Palestinians, we are being led by the nose by AIPAC and its many media allies to obsess about Iran.
8. Our policy emphases are distorted by fantastic propositions, illusions really. We were told that the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians ran through Baghdad. It was a bald-faced lie, a magician’s piece of misdirection.
How absurd and insincere the proposition was can be seen in how it immediately evaporated from public discourse as soon as the US was induced to occupy Iraq.
9. US interests are directly and very negatively affected by Washington’s collusion with Israel in keeping the Palestinians stateless and without basic human rights.
Make no mistake. It is in the US interest to resolve the Palestine crisis. Israeli occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians was among three major reasons given by al-Qaeda for their attack on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, and this ongoing human rights violation will make more and worst trouble for the US, Israel’s chief enabler in it, as the years go by. Imagine the cost Americans have already borne in loss of our civil liberties as a result of knee jerk support for Tel Aviv’s exploitation of Palestinians and their land.
Moreover, the US antipathy to the Palestinians will increasingly be an obstacle to good relations with countries like Egypt, where public opinion now matters in politics and foreign policy as never before.
10. Because misdirection on this very large scale is a little difficult, the US is thrown by such an endeavor into being a propaganda state, which is bad for public policy generally.
(Most Americans just don’t know the facts on the Palestinians. The Israelis expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and then just stole all their property, offering no compensation. Those Palestinian families have become millions of persons over time. Some 40% of the population of the Gaza Strip, which Israel has turned into a massive slum, is refugee families from what is now Israel. Israel came after them in 1967 and exploited, occupied and colonized them until 2005. Since 2007 Israel has blockaded the Palestinians of Gaza, declining to let them so much as export virtually any of their products, and strictly regulating imports into the strip. Israel has turned Gaza into an enormous outdoor penitentiary. Since Israel is the occupation power for Gaza, this collective punishment of the civilian population there is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which were legislated after WW II to prevent a recurrence of the human rights violations perpetrated by the Nazis.
The UN estimates that 56% percent of Palestinians in Gaza are “food insecure,” that is, one step away from being half-starved. Israel apologists circulate pictures of a mall in Gaza or a nice restaurant to refute this finding. But it is mean-spirited nonsense. There are always a few well off people in a place like Gaza, and there is always some money around. The question is, how many people are being harmed by Israel’s blockade? The Israelis are eating three square meals a day and have a per capita income higher than many European countries. They are keeping the Palestinians of Gaza, most of whom are children, living on the edge of hunger. In fact, 10% of Palestinian children in Gaza are estimated to be stunted from malnutrition.
At the same time, Israel has since 1967 occupied the West Bank, and has increasingly colonized it and incorporated it into Israel, in open defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and of the UN charter, which forbids the acquisition of territory by force. Israel has stolen water, land and resources from the native Palestinians and consigned them to South Africa-style cantons reminiscent of Apartheid.
Worst of all, Israel has kept millions of Palestinians stateless, lacking citizenship in any country, and so lacking any legal protection of their rights or property. Stateless people cannot travel freely and do not have basic rights enjoyed by citizens of a state.
Netanyahu has authorized the building of thousands of new Israeli homes on Palestinian land in the West Bank, and just allowed another 600 deep in the occupied territory. Israeli squatters on Palestinian land are thieves on a large scale, depriving others of their rightful property, and interfering in their livelihoods. This larceny is being actively connived at and implemented by the Israeli government.
Israeli authorities have been arbitrarily kidnapping (it is not properly called ‘arresting’) Palestinian peace activists who peacefully protest these violations of Palestinian rights, and holding them in ‘administrative detention,’ without charges and without trial. Some of these hostages have been going on well-publicized hunger strikes, forcing the Israeli authorities to release them, since there are no outstanding charges against them and their deaths would be bad publicity for Israel.)
Among the flashpoints in the area has been the confrontation between Iran and the United States at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Iran conducted a 10-day military exercise there, warning of its ability to close off the waterway to world trade, thus depriving it of one-sixth of petroleum supplies.
But an unstated element in this Iran-US confrontation is the US backing for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both Sunni powers, against Iran. Bahrain’s citizen population is 58% Shiite, after tens of thousands of Saudis, Pakistanis and other Sunnis were granted citizenship by the Sunni monarch of the islands. The Bahrain monarchy has cracked down hard on the protest movement seeking a constitutional monarchy. Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops to help the Bahrain king, Sheikh Hamad b. Isa Al Khalifah. The United States has a naval base in Manama that serves as the HQ of the Fifth Fleet, which is charged with keeping the oil flowing from the Persian Gulf.
Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu got where he is by advocating a policy in Turkey of “good relations with neighbors.” It was this policy that doubled Turkish trade with the Middle East after 2002, and which led to the reemergence of Turkey as an influential country in the region, after long decades in which it had turned almost exclusively toward Europe.
Turkey is a Sunni-majority country and the current Justice and Development Party government has strong Sunni Muslim constituencies, including the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which is important in Iraq and Syria. But the government has striven, despite significant tensions, for correct relations with Iran. Turkey imports natural gas from Iran and the two countries did more than $15 billion in trade with one another in 2011, up 55% over the previous year. Turkey, like South Korea, is seeking an exemption from upcoming US sanctions on sales of petroleum and gas via Iran’s central bank. Its Halkbank handles India’s purchase of Iranian petroleum.
Sunni-Shiite tensions have flared in Iraq. On Wednesday, a series of bombs went off in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, killing 23 persons; the bombers clearly want to reignite Iraq’s sectarian civil war. At the same time, a political crisis continues to unfold. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi of involvement in terrorist attacks, one of them aiming to assassinate al-Maliki itself. Al-Hashimi fled to Kurdistan and sought to have any legal proceedings against him take place there. An Iraqi court has instead ordered him to Baghdad. He is likely to flee the country rather than face al-Maliki- appointed judges. Al-Maliki’s charges against Hashimi have caused the largely Sunni Iraqiya Party to suspend its participation in his government of national unity. Al-Maliki blames Saudi influence for Sunni Arab violence against Shiites in Iraq.
There is also a latent Sunni-Shiite dimension to the ongoing crisis in Syria. On Wednesday, some 26 persons died across the country as security forces continued to snipe at demonstrators. Some 19 of those deaths occurred in Homs, where there were big anti-government rallies. The ruling Baath Party is dominated at its upper echelons by members of the heterodox Shiite sect of the Allawites, whereas most of the urban centers that have come out against the regime are Sunni in character, and the Muslim Brotherhood plays a significant role in organizing them.
Turkey has taken a strong stand against government repression of the demonstrators, and has come out strongly against the Allawite president Bashar al-Asad. The Justice and Development Party’s Sunni constituencies in Anatolia may be among the drivers of this stance in favor of the Syrian National Council. It represents and about-face; the party came to power in 2002 determined to repair relations with Damascus, in which objective it largely had succeeded before last spring’s uprising. Turkey had done some $2 bn. a year in trade with Syria and was working on a free trade zone with Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Davutoglu is likely attempting to mediate between the US and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other. Unlike the former, Turkey is not spoiling for a fight. Davutoglu’s brilliant strategy of expanding trade with the Middle East has been deeply inconvenienced by the troubles in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s truck trade with the Arab world went through Syria. Al-Arabiya reports in Arabic that Turkey is planning to ship the trucks to the Egyptian port of Alexandria, from which they can take their goods anywhere in the Arab world. But the shipping costs will obviously reduce profits.
Turkish trade policy, which depends on harmonious relations among neighbors, impels it to attempt to tamp down sectarian conflict. Iran and Saudi Arabia, as oil states, do not absolutely require regional trade for their prosperity, and so they have the independence to conduct a struggle with one another if they (unwisely) so choose.
Whatever Davutoglu’s specific mission, which has not been revealed, his general emphasis on tamping down tensions couldn’t be more essential.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq held a rally in a sports stadium on Saturday to celebrate Iraq being free of US troops. He declared a national holiday, and thousands of Iraqis were surprised to receive a text message from him on their cell phones saying “All of us are for Iraq; the glory is to the people!” Who knew? Al-Maliki is the Ashton Kutcher of the Arab world! The prime minister claimed he would preserve political and religious pluralism, but he has thrown the country’s politics into turmoil because he accused a Sunni vice president of terrorist plotting. Members of the opposition party did not attend al-Maliki’s bash.
But not everyone in Iraq is convinced that the US will leave Iraq alone. A Shiite preacher at a mosque in Diwaniya, a southern Shiite province, had this to say, according to the USG Open Source Center:
“In his second sermon, which addresses political issues, [Hasan] Al-Zamili congratulates the world, particularly “brother Christians” on the advent of the New Year. He adds that with each and every New Year, Iraqis’ hopes are dashed. Al-Zamili argues that the only things that a New Year brings are “the privileges, salaries, and allowances” granted to politicians in Iraq.
Elaborating further on this issue, Al-Zamili says: “We have received this New Year with problems and crises. This is the only year that comes when we are free of occupation. The occupiers are now gone, and the sons of the country are now in the driver’s seat. However, unfortunately, they have found nothing except for crises and the igniting of crises. All the new things that we see are crises and problems. Let the whole world know that the United States will not leave Iraq and Iraqi politicians to solve Iraq’s problems. It wants to send a message to the world saying that it was the party that brought things under control (in Iraq). If we were to know the facts, we would find that the United States was instrumental in creating Iraq’s current problems…” (From Buratha News)
Given that US allies in Iraq seem to be delirious with joy to have the US out of that country (the US was allied with these Shiite parties against Sunni hardliners), America is well out of Iraq. It is hard to see how staying longer would have convinced Sheikh Hasan.
As for the US, it should be celebrating not being at war anywhere in the Arab world for the first time since 2003. Happy New Year.