Al-Qaeda Everywhere: US support for Oppressive Gov’t’s made Bin Laden’s Killing Moot

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The US government has never understood insurgency for the most part. Smart USG officials with whom I’ve interacted have had a firm belief that leadership is a rare quality and that you can attrite an organization by killing its leaders. This theory is patently false. It moreover gives false hope to counter-insurgency officials and fools them into thinking simple tactical steps will be effective.

When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on whom the Pentagon rather ridiculously blamed 80% of the violence in Iraq in 2005, was killed from the air in spring of 2006, many observers thought that al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, his guerrilla group, was doomed. But his successor, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, renamed it the Islamic State of Iraq and decided to experiment with holding territory in Diyala and other provinces under the noses of the US military.

Then in 2011 President Obama appears to have had Usama Bin Laden assassinated (there is nothing in the public record to suggest that at any point there was any order to capture him alive). Al-Qaeda was fading at that point. But Ayman al-Zawahiri, the no. 2 man, just took over the operation. Al-Qaeda and its local ally, the Haqqani group, continued to hit the US in Afghanistan, sometimes quite hard, and sought to destabilize Pakistan. The Yemeni affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, remained vigorous.

The Iraqi affiliate had run into some roadblocks. When Abu Omar was killed in Iraq 2010, again some thought that the group was over with.

But Ibrahim Samarrai took over, called himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and took the fight so Syria, renaming the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or in Arabic Daesh). It went on to conquer most of al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Eastern Syria. In 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came into an internal conflict with ally Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, and this al-Qaeda branch in Syria split into the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda proper, reporting to Ayman al-Zawahiri), and Daesh.

The Nusra Front or al-Qaeda in Syria became the best rebel fighting group against the Baath government of Bashar al-Assad. Since the US backs remnants of the Free Syrian Army (mostly de fact Muslim Brotherhood factions) who have tactical alliances with al-Qaeda on the battlefield, the US became allied with the allies of al-Qaeda, repeating all the mistakes of the Reagan administration in Afghanistan in the 1980s. US weapons given to the rebels often end up in al-Qaeda’s hands, and the few victories the rebels have had, as in Idlib, were spearheaded by al-Qaeda, so that the US-backed rebels can’t be convinced to abandon the alliance of convenience.

As for Daesh, in 2014, al-Baghdadi’s group took over 40% of the land area of Iraq. It could not have done that if the Sunni Arab population of Iraq were not outraged at the sectarian, Shiite fundamentalist government that the Bush administration installed in Baghdad, and which Washington continues to back to the hilt. (There’s nothing wrong with the Shiite majority coming to power at the ballot box; but democracy involves avoiding a tyranny of the majority, which Iraq’s Shiite parties have not avoided).

In 2015 Saudi Arabia launched a war on Yemen to beat back the victorious Houthi Zaidi militia. It ignored al-Qaeda in the south, which promptly took the major port of Mukala and also several other cities. Only in the past month have Saudi Arabia and its allies bothered to try to deal with AQAP, the most deadly of the al-Qaeda affiliates aside from Daesh). Al-Qaeda has withdrawan from Mukala, but there are rumors that it was allowed simply to walk away (the Saudis claim to have killed 800 in fierce fighting but this allegation cannot be substantiated). Saudi Arabia has virtually ignored Daesh in Iraq and some think it is happy enough to see a champion arise for Iraqi Sunnis that ties down the Shiite government in Baghdad, which the current government in Riyadh despises.

So I think we may conclude that the decapitation strategy of dealing with al-Qaeda does not work and has never worked.

Moreover, al-Qaeda has meant different things to different people, and its appeal has changed over time. Zawahiri was hoping it would become the reining ideology in Egypt and Saudi Arabi, the heartlands of Islam. Instead, Egyptians have gone in for a nationalism that despises Muslim fundamentalism. And Saudis have largely remained loyal to the royal family, and opinion polling suggests that if they could have a change, it wouldn’t be in the direction of even greater puritanism.

Instead, al-Qaeda and its affiliates and offshoots have become what Maoism was to peasant revolutionaries of the 1950s and 1960s– an ideological franchise you could pick up and beat the Establishment with where the Establishment was intolerably overbearing. Al-Qaeda is modular, in the sense of offering a model and tool kit. Thus, the al-Qaeda-allied Taliban Movement of Pakistan represented the poorer villagers in places like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Swat Valley, places either neglected or bossed around by the authorities in Islamabad. The Sunnis of Iraqi experimented with the Daesh version of al-Qaeda when they felt oppressed by the Shiite fundamentalist government in Baghdad. Syrian rural and small-town Sunnis experimented with Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) and Daesh when they felt oppressed by the one-party Baath socialist state and its high officials (many of them Alawi Shiites). Some of the appeal of AQAP seems to map onto Sunni discontents in south Yemen; there is no al-Qaeda in the north of the country. In Sinai, neglected and discriminated-against rural clans are fighting the Egyptian army.

But these disparate, largely rural insurgencies also face extreme challenges. They depend on government being weak. Even a slight assertion of Saudi power against AQAP in Mukalla caused it to be rolled up there almost immediately. Daesh has lost enormous territory to Shiite militias and Kurdish guerrillas where those two stood and fought. The Russian intervention in Syria has pushed back al-Qaeda in Syra/ Nusra on several fronts, virtually wiping it out in Idlib and along the Lebanese border.

AQAP and Daesh have attempted to recruit Europeans by pulling off the attacks last year in Paris. But their terrorism focuses on soft targets and has little obvious benefit to them, and has made NATO and Russia de facto allies again, in Syria. The strategy of holding territory and yet engaging in long-distance terrorism against a powerful foe is epically stupid. The only advantage of a terrorist group is that it doesn’t have an obvious return address. The current al-Qaeda affiliates all defied Bin Laden’s advice not to give the enemy a clear target. So they are all in the process of being rolled up.

Al-Qaeda in its various permutations can’t be defeated on the battleground. It can’t be defeated by decapitating leaders (leadership, contrary to what the Pentagon thinks, isn’t that unusual or special).

That is, insurgencies are not mindless nihilism that can be wiped out with some drone strikes or aerial bombardment, some assassinations or “regime change.” They are manifestations of forms of class struggle (though the class may be inflected by sectarian or ethnic identity). Where there is great inequality and injustice, and where the state is weak, there will be spaces for insurgency, and often such uprisings see a benefit in franchising, signing on to the discourse, techniques and prestige of an umbrella rebellion.

Obama’s killing of Usama wasn’t the end of anything precisely because the US has not known how to, or has not always even wanted to, promote social justice in the Middle East. The bizarre and embarrassing commitment of the US government to helping the Israelis keep 4.5 million Palestinians stateless and without rights is an example of this blindness. But so too was Ronald Reagan’s alliance with Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party against the Shiites of Iraq and Iran (the latter having rebelled against decades of heavy-handed US hegemony and a coup that put a megalomaniacal monarch back in power in Tehran). George W. Bush reversed Reagan’s policy, siding with Iraqi Shiites against Saddam and the Baath, which only created new inequities and led to the rise of Daesh. The Obama administration’s acquiescence in the praetorian brutality of the current Egyptian government (in the Sinai and elsewhere) has also not been helpful.

Rather, just as Maoist peasant insurgencies were often best forestalled or foiled by land reform, which turned the peasants into rural middle classes and gave them a stake in the status quo, so rural al-Qaeda insurgencies would be best addressed by fostering social justice policies. Pakistan and Afghanistan never had land reform (pre-modern landholding patterns are typically extremely unequal). FATA in Pakistan needs to receive more investment from the center and should be made a province, with a provincial legislature and prerogatives.

In Iraq and Syria the land is not perhaps as important as government services and government investment in communities, which has often been done on a sectarian basis and very unequally. Egyptian policies in the Sinai are so opaque it is even difficult to know exactly what drove so many there into insurgency, but that someone is making a lot of money with Sinai resources and locals are being kept down and excluded is almost certainly part of it.

The US does not always have good levers to push reform (though it did militarily occupy Iraq for 8.5 years, so you’d think they could have accomplished something). It also has leverage with Pakistan and Egypt. Where it does not, Washington shouldn’t fool itself that “taking X out” is an equally good option, or that targeted assassinations will do more than call forth more resistance to an unbearable and unjust status quo.

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Related video:

CCTV Africa: “Fifth year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden”

The End of American Iraq: Poor Shiites invade Parliament over corrupt Spoils System

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Baghdad is under a state of emergency on Sunday a day after members of the Sadr Trend stormed the Green Zone and invaded the parliament building, briefly imprisoning parliamentarians in the chamber (and some in a basement) before letting them go. Some apparently were beaten as they left. Most of the protesters, though, were relatively peaceful and had been ordered to avoid violence by their leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. As at Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, of which the invasion of the Green Zone was a distant echo, they chanted “peacefully, peacefully” ( silmiyyah, silmiyyah).

When George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 he established blast walls around central government offices, establishing a four square mile Green Zone (i.e. one that was safe and which the US controlled, with the rest of the country being a Red Zone; more or less, that situation never changed). The parliament building and Western embassies were in the Green Zone. I visited it in 2013. You enter through a narrow entranceway and can only really go in by foot (this measure stops car bombs from getting in). The security people who checked us in were international– Ghana and Peru or something. I doubt they would die for the cause. There were Iraqi troops on the outside of the blast walls. Apparently some of them sympathized with the Sadr Trend and let the crowd pull down a couple pylons of the blast wall, after which they streamed in.

Who were the protesters? The Sadr Movement is particularly popular in East Baghdad or Sadr City, a dense slum where a plurality of Baghdadis live. The father of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s secret police in 1998. Young Muqtada survived underground. He reemerged in 2003 to oppose the US military occupation of his country, forming the Mahdi Army, which more than once fought US troops. His was a movement of the poor and the street. After the US withdrew, al-Sadr adopted a lower profile. But now that President Obama has reestablished a US military command in the country, al-Sadr has come back out to protest the renewed US presence and the al-Abadi government, which the US props up.

What were they protesting?

The spoils system.

Now that Andrew Jackson is being taken off the $20 bill and his demerits and virtues are being debated, the spoils system is back in the news. He made enormous numbers of promises to his supporters about the goodies they would get if he won the 1828 election. He came in firing an unprecedented number of people from government jobs and filling those positions with member of his party. Win the election, you get the spoils.

A sitting President, James A Garfield, was assassinated in 1881 over the spoils system (his assassin had supported the party but wasn’t rewarded as he thought he should have been).

Not until the Pendleton Act of 1883 was a nonpartisan civil service commission created, and the spoils system began to decline at least a bit. (In today’s US government, sometimes the SES positions above GS-15 are given to political appointees, and of course the cabinet and sub-cabinet slots are all filled by political appointees; but this is a thin sliver of the upper bureaucracy, whereas most people who work in government offices have a career unaffected by the party in office).

So how is all this relevant to the storming of the Iraqi parliament?

The Bush administration in its years of military occupation of Iraq presided over the installation of an Iraqi spoils system more rowdy and rapacious than anything Andrew Jackson ever imagined. The Bushies and the UN put a parliamentary system in place, so that the parties that form the biggest coalition in the national legislature get to put forward a prime minister, who is appointed by the president. That prime minister then appoints a cabinet, with most cabinet ministers overseeing a ministry. The cabinet appointees came from the parties supporting the prime minister in parliament. Thus, the minister of housing might be from the Da`wa Islamic Party (the Islamic Call or Mission Party), a Shiite fundamentalist group drawn from what’s left of the Iraqi middle class and typically led by laymen rather than clergy. The Ministry of Labor would then be packed with members of the Da’wa Party.

Some of this spoils system is rooted in the Debaathification drive of Ahmad Chalabi, Nouri al-Maliki and other Shiite political entrepreneurs who wanted to fire Sunni Arabs from the Iraqi bureaucracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein. They tagged anyone who belonged to the Baath Party as unsuitable for government service, even down to school teachers. And, it wasn’t just members of the party but people who had relatives who were members of the party. Most Baath Party members committed no greater crime than conformism (or maybe they wanted to travel; you had to be a member to get a passport). So Chalabi et al. got rid of some 100,000 Sunnis from their government jobs at a time when the Bushies ran the Iraqi state factories and other state-owned companies into the ground because they didn’t believe in “socialism.” So the Sunnis were just made unemployed.

When Nouri al-Maliki reigned as Prime Minister 2006-2014, his spoils system became ever more corrupt and exclusive. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq were almost entirely excluded from spoils. Members of al-Maliki’s Da’wa Party got fabulously rich off the country’s oil income. The corruption of his officer corps led directly to the collapse of the Iraqi army at Mosul in 2014, allowing Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) to take over 40% of the country. The sense of deprivation of the Iraqi Sunni Arabs who cooperated with Daesh also drove these events. You couldn’t say he was a successful prime minister.

Iraq is what is called by political scientists a “rentier state.” That just means that the government gets an income (or “rent”) from external payments (in this case foreign purchases of its petroleum). Rentier states famously don’t really need their people so much. In ordinary states like the US, a lot of politics is about how much the government will tax the people, and who will get the benefit of government services. In a Rentier state, there are no taxes. Politics is about how much the state officers have to share their bonanza with the people. Wise rentier states share liberally. Iraq’s elite is not wise.

Al-Maliki’s successor, Haydar al-Abadi, was, like al-Maliki, a leader of the Da’wa Party and continued the spoils system. Other parties complained that Da’wa got the lion’s share of lucrative ministerial appointments (and therefore that the party’s members got the good government jobs).

Muqtada al-Sadr’s al-Ahrar Party (Party of the Free Ones; people complained when I called it the Liberty Party but that is what it amounts to) gained 36 seats in the 2014 parliamentary election and was given 3 cabinet seats. These appointments did not give the Sadrists much patronage.

But al-Sadr has only a tenuous relationship to the party, anyway. His power base is the poor Shiites of the slums, in East Baghdad, Amara, Basra and elsewhere in the Shiite south. Although Iraq is an oil country, you couldn’t tell it by looking. I was there in 2013 and was shocked by how decrepit everything was. It was like a third world country, not like Dubai or Doha. I wondered where all that oil money could be going. If I wondered that, imagine what the slum dwellers think.

So beginning last summer the Sadrists began saying they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more. They accused the party officials heading the ministries, along with many of the parliamentarians of essentially embezzling the country’s vast oil wealth.

By February al-Sadr had presented an ultimatum to al-Abadi to abolish the spoils system by appointing a technocratic cabinet. That is, the minister of health would be a high powered physician or hospital administrator, not a Da’wa Party hack. Sadr brought 200,000 people into the streets of downtown Baghdad demanding this outcome. It wasn’t only al-Sadr making this demand–many members of the smaller parties who felt that al-Da’wa had gotten greedy joined in.

Al-Abadi at length acquiesced and presented a list of technocrats to head ministries. But cabinets have to be approved by parliament. When the speaker of parliament looked like he would go along with al-Abadi and al-Sadr, the parties that dominate parliament voted to remove him and replace him. They weren’t giving up their spoils so easily. But others in parliament did not accept this parliamentary coup, so there are now two speakers of parliament.

The members of parliament are so busy with other things (including international travel and residences abroad) that they can’t easily get a quorum together to vote on al-Abadi’s technocratic cabinet, and it is not clear he could muster a majority for the measure. Parliament was trying to meet on Saturday when the angry people of the slums and run-down middle class neighborhoods made a breach in the blast walls around the Green Zone, which surround the parliament building and Western embassies, keeping them safe.

The Sadrists among them accused the parliamentarians of being thieves and of neglecting services for the poor. They also resent Iran’s influence with the al-Abadi government, and some chanted against Tehran from the floor of parliament.

Al-Abadi is trying to reestablish order and has declared a state of emergency.

But you can’t imagine parliament forgiving him for presiding over this attack on their security, and some doubt he can remain prime minister. More important, the conflict brings into question the whole architecture of Iraqi governance put into place under American rule in 2003-11.

While this uprising of poor Shiites may seem a distraction to Americans of the fight against Daesh in the Sunni north, both situations derive from similar inequities. The spoils system deprived the Sunnis of a fair share in the oil wealth, just as it deprived the Shiite slum dwellers. The Sadr Trend’s relatively peaceful but dramatic breach of the Green Zone and the surrender of the Mosulis two years ago to Daesh are both protests of the deprived against the fat cats.

American pundits will find a way to make all this about sectarianism or Shiism or Islam. It isn’t. Much of what is going on in Iraq is a form of class struggle. It turns out that Neoliberalism and the Rentier State haven’t, as some imagined, made Marx irrelevant. But it is also true that some of the work the Communist and Baath Parties used to do in Iraq back in the 1960s is now being done by al-Sadr’s brand of puritanical slum Shiism.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Iraq parliament stormed | DW News

Posted in Featured,Iraq | 15 Responses | Print |

‘Monstrous’ violence in Aleppo as ‘Regime of Calm’ begins in rest of Syria

by Juan Cole:

The US and the Russian Federation agreed Friday that from Saturday there would be a “regime of calm” in most of Syria. Two areas where clashes have broken out in the past week are East Ghouta east of Damascus and the northern countryside of the Mediterranean province of Latakia (72 hours), and it was agreed that the regime of calm would be implemented in those two places on Saturday. It is not clear why the regime of calm is for such a short duration. It is intended to shore up the cessation of hostilities agreed on in late February, which held until a week ago when fierce fighting broke out in key hotspots.

The US appears to have pushed for the northern metropolis of Aleppo to be included in this ‘regime of calm,’ but was rebuffed by Russia. Unofficial reports on the internet have suggested that Russia and the Syrian regime want to reconquer rebel-held east Aleppo. At least, that was the impression of one seasoned journalist covering the White House press conference Friday morning:

If the regime controlled the lion’s share of both the Damascus and Aleppo metropolitan areas, it would be in a position to virtually dictate the terms under which the civil war was brought to a close. Those are the country’s two major cities and likely a third of the country’s population now lives in them and in their environs (refugees have croweded into them in search of security).

Clashes and bombardments continued on Friday, but note that AFP thought that the death totals were similar in the rebel and regime-held areas:

“Bombardment of the city killed 17 people in rebel-held districts and 13 people in the government-controlled western neighbourhoods . . .”

A lot of Western reporting is neglecting to mention that al-Qaeda and other rebel units are subjecting West Aleppo to heavy mortar bombardment that is killing a dozen or more people every day.

At the same time, it is true that the regime is flying fighter jets to bombard East Aleppo indiscriminately, which is producing high civilian casualties, in what the UN called a a “monstrous disregard for civilian lives.”

Regime airstrikes on a hospital on Wednesday and Thursday left 50 dead.

Rebels in east Aleppo maintain that the regime is hitting civilian targets in order to force them to surrender unconditionally. Deliberate or even indiscriminate bombings of non-combatants are a war crime in international law.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “The United Nations appeals to save the truce and negotiations in Syria”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 3 Responses | Print |

Syria: As fierce Fighting reignites, Aleppo on brink of ‘Humanitarian Disaster’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Syria’s largest city, Aleppo has seen a worrying outbreak of violence in the past week that could fatally undermine the cessation of hostilities that had held between most Free Syrian Army units and the Syrian Arab Army.

The ceasefire did not extend to al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), however, and it appears to be al-Qaeda that led the renewed fighting south of the city and mortar strikes from the rebel-held east on the Government-held west.

Also, the Syrian Arab Army and Shiite militias advanced into rebel-held territory north of the city and continued an effort to surround and cut off the rebel-held Western neighborhoods.

The pro-regime BeirutPress reports that there have been repeated mortar and sniping attacks on the government-controlled West of the city from guerrillas in the east. These attacks have left 18 dead and 50 wounded since Tuesday.

At the same time, what appear to have been Syrian government air strikes with barrel bombs repeatedly hit a hospital supported by Doctors without Borders, killing at least 50 persons, including the city’s last pediatric surgeon. The Syrian government denied the strikes, but only the Syrian air force had been using aerial barrel bombs. Russia and the US also denied dropping bombs onto a hospital.

Some 60 fighters of al-Qaeda and its ally, the Freemen of Syria, were killed by the Kurdish People’s protection Units north of the city on Wednesday. Ordinarily the two might have been ranged against Daesh or the regime in a de facto battlefield alliance, but in this instance they both wanted the same territory.

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Related video:

Euronews: “Fatal airstrikes destroy hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 5 Responses | Print |

Trump’s Foreign Policy is just GOP Boilerplate, only more Confused

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump tried his hand at foreign policy on Wednesday, and the results weren’t any prettier than his incessant forays into domestic policy. He does not know anything serious about either one, but of course his fund of ignorance is far deeper when it comes to the rest of the world. Nor was there much original, except for the way he mixed things up. For the most part, on issues like Iran, Israel and international commitments and obligations, Trump’s positions aren’t all that different from most other Republicans. His opposition to democratization policies is just the old James Baker/ George H. W. Bush realism, hearkening back to a time before the rise of the Neoconservatives in the regime of W.

Trump praised the US intervention during World War II to defeat fascism and to democratize Europe and Japan.

He then went on to denounce all subsequent attempts to defeat other fascisms and democratize anything else. And while George W. Bush-style muscular Wilsonianism is a failure, the US can nudge others toward more democratic practices and better human rights through aid and other indirect means (something Jimmy Carter started with regard to the colonels in Latin America); Trump isn’t interested in that kind of thing, either.

He wants less nation-building and more order. But as Farid Zakaria pointed out, less nation-building can produce less order.

He also showed himself in love with authoritarians abroad, perhaps seeing people like Vladimir Putin as soul mates.

His description of what has happened in the Middle East in the past five years is pure fiction:

“They just kept coming and coming. We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama‚Äôs line in the sand in Syria. Each of these actions have helped to throw the region into chaos and gave ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper. Very bad. It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a western democracy.

We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism, thousands of Americans and just killed be lives, lives, lives wasted. Horribly wasted. Many trillions of dollars were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill that void much to their really unjust enrichment.”

Trump manages to blame President Obama for the 2011 Arab uprisings (which Obama and Hillary Clinton did not support in Tunisia and Egypt until after they were inevitable). The idea that the US promoted “democratization” in those two countries is completely laughable. It promoted dictatorship for decades and then after people massed in the streets, Washington just acquiesced in whatever outcomes the people of the place could arrange. It’s giving military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arms just the way it did his predecessor.

Obama in the Middle East has for the most part (with the exception of Libya) been a defensive realist. He came into office trying to establish relations with the Syrian government, not trying to overthrow it. He sent an ambassador to Damascus. It was the Republicans who wanted to overthrow al-Assad.

Then, how was Obama opposing the gassing of Syrian civilians a bad thing? Is the use of poison gas by the al-Assad regime on its own people one of those strong institutions Trump feels shouldn’t be interfered with?

We already know that Trump believes Arabs should be ruled by dictators. The problem is that as of 2011, most people in the region refused to put up with the dictators, and the dictators were either overthrown or held on by genocidal means. The US didn’t intervene in any way that mattered in Syria or Yemen. Does Trump think Washington should have intervened on the side of the dictators? The rise of ISIL in eastern Syria had nothing whatsoever to do with Obama and there was nothing any American president could have done to forestall it. ISIL grew up in Iraq under American military occupation run by a Republican president, that is, under the nose of 160,000 US troops on patrol.

Trump also complained about the US not doing enough for the Christians of the Middle East. As if Donald Trump ever cared about Christianity in his whole life. But the exodus from Iraq of its ancient Chaldean community was caused by the US Republican Party’s occupation of that country. Not sure what Trump thinks the US did in Syria to cause some of its Christians to flee. Trump seems to support the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has been using heavy military equipment against its own people, and Christians have gotten caught in the crossfire.

Then Trump again went after NATO. His implication that the US pays an unfair share of direct costs for it is incorrect— member countries pay proportionally based on GDP. As for indirect costs of collective defense, Trump seems to be complaining that other countries don’t have the kind of bloated military budget that the US has (nor do they need it; Germany doesn’t have bases in Africa and Asia).

Then Trump went full AIPAC:

“Israel, our great friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East has been snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity. Just a few days ago, Vice President Biden again criticized Israel, a force for justice and peace, for acting as an impatient peace area in the region.”

Biden, who has spent his whole political career championing Israel, was criticizing the Likud government’s reckless colonization of the Palestinian West Bank as a way of preventing the emergence of a Palestinian state, thus creating a permanent Apartheid. This policy can only deeply harm Israel in the medium to long term, and Biden was expressing some tough love. Trump’s meaningless platitudes about Israel being a “friend” and a “democracy” are just boilerplate mouthed by most professional politicians. A country of 8 million that militarily occupies a further 4.5 million stateless people isn’t a democracy, it is an Apartheid regime. A regime like that of Netanyahu that constantly lobbies for the US to go to war (Netanyahu promised us the Iraq aggression was a good idea and wanted us to bomb Iran) isn’t acting in that way as a friend.

Even pillars of the American Jewish establishment, such as Seymour D. Reich, former chairman of the conference of major Jewish Organizations, are beginning to speak out about the increasingly undemocratic policies of the Likud in Israel. Coddling Netanyahu, as Trump suddenly wants to do after earlier talking about being even-handed, is doing no favors to Israel.

Contrary to the image Trump likes to project that his policy ideas take on the Republican Establishment, he isn’t saying anything new. Past Republicans were really devoted to Middle Eastern dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. GOP isolationism and resentment of US spending abroad has usually focused on the United Nations rather than on NATO, but the latter has been slammed when it is insufficiently docile. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld put down France and Germany for their opposition to the illegal war of aggression on Iraq, calling them “Old Europe,” praising instead the eastern European countries such as Poland that were eager to join the coalition of the willing.

Likewise, his attacks on the UN Security Council diplomatic deal with Iran to require that the latter’s nuclear enrichment program remains purely for civilian purposes is indistinguishable from that of all other GOP politicians. And it is just as wrong-headed, since the deal has excellent safeguards against weapons research and has already resulted in the mothballing of Iran’s planned heavy water reactor at Arak, which could have been used to produce fissile material.

Ironically, for a speech decrying the current posture of Washington in the world as a mishmash of incompatible goals, Trump’s speech exhibited the very flaws he discerned in American foreign policy.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: ” Trump’s foreign policy speech dissected”

Winning in Losing: How Sanders pushed Clinton to the Left

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bernie Sanders’ path to the nomination as the Democratic Party standard bearer in 2016 was all but closed off by Clinton’s four big wins on Tuesday. His only hope had been to get close enough to her in pledged delegates to have a substantial number of super-delegates switch to him. (This kind of switch actually took place in summer of 2008 when super-delegates deserted Clinton for Obama). Sanders could not turn a string of primary wins into a victory because he went on splitting the state’s delegates with Clinton. His loss in New York was probably already fatal to his campaign, but the delegate count turned radically against him yesterday. If she can keep her super-delegates, which she now can, Clinton is only a couple hundred away from clinching the nomination (she has on the order of 2,168 with super-delegates, and just needs 2383). Even if she only gets half of California’s 475 Democratic pledged delegates, that would put her over (and she did defeat Barack Obama in California in 2008).

Nevertheless, Sen. Sanders will fight on till the last state and will come to Philadelphia with a substantial number of hard-won delegates. They will lose on the first ballot, but their energy and their presence in the party will shape the party’s platform.

Sanders has already justified his run by having pushed Clinton substantially to the left on key issues. Here are just a few:

1. Fracking: Clinton’s support for the controversial method of drilling for oil and gas has turned lukewarm. She puts so many restrictions on fracking that it is hard to see it making a profit under her. Clinton almost certainly adopted this position because Sen. Sanders campaigned on the environment and pushed her to the left.

2. TTP: She now opposes the mammoth trade bill, which would certainly have strengthened elits and further weakened individual rights.

3. Clinton may not have flip-flopped on the Keystone XL pipeline, but she came to a clear and strong position against it after she began competing with Sen. Sanders.

4. She called for Michigan governor Rick Snyder to resign, after Sanders campaigned on the issue. This stance could make her more appealing to environmentalists.

5. In February, Clinton abruptly announced that she was for breaking up the big banks. Sanders on hearing her speech joked that he was looking into copyright issues.

6. She has also started coming out against the high drug prices charged by US pharmaceuticals, after Sanders campaigned on the issue.

Clinton will continue to need the left wing of the Democratic Party as she campaigns through Nov. 4. The trick for the left will be to find ways of tying her down and making sure she can’t swing back to the center-right of the party after the July convention.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit News from last winter: “Bernie Sanders Influences Hilary Clinton’s Campaign”

Trump: Candidate of American Decline

By Tom Engelhardt | ( Tomdispatch.com | – –

Low-energy Jeb.” “Little Marco.” “Lyin’ Ted.” “Crooked Hillary.” Give Donald Trump credit. He has a memorable way with insults. His have a way of etching themselves on the brain. And they’ve garnered media coverage, analysis, and commentary almost beyond imagining.  Memorable as they might be, however, they won’t be what last of Trump’s 2016 election run.  That’s surely reserved for a single slogan that will sum up his candidacy when it’s all over (no matter how it ends). He arrived with it on that Trump Tower escalator in the first moments of his campaign and it now headlines his website, where it’s also emblazoned on an array of products from hats to t-shirts.

You already know which line I mean: “Make America Great Again!” With that exclamation point ensuring that you won’t miss the hyperbolic, Trumpian nature of its promise to return the country to its former glory days. In it lies the essence of his campaign, of what he’s promising his followers and Americans generally — and yet, strangely enough, of all his lines, it’s the one most taken for granted, the one that’s been given the least thought and analysis. And that’s a shame, because it represents something new in our American age. The problem, I suspect, is that what first catches the eye is the phrase “Make America Great” and then, of course, the exclamation point, while the single most important word in the slogan, historically speaking, is barely noted: “again.”

With that “again,” Donald Trump crossed a line in American politics that, until his escalator moment, represented a kind of psychological taboo for politicians of any stripe, of either party, including presidents and potential candidates for that position. He is the first American leader or potential leader of recent times not to feel the need or obligation to insist that the United States, the “sole” superpower of Planet Earth, is an “exceptional” nation, an “indispensable” country, or even in an unqualified sense a “great” one. His claim is the opposite. That, at present, America is anything but exceptional, indispensable, or great, though he alone could make it “great again.” In that claim lies a curiosity that, in a court of law, might be considered an admission of guilt.  Yes, it says, if one man is allowed to enter the White House in January 2017, this could be a different country, but — and in this lies the originality of the slogan — it is not great now, and in that admission-that-hasn’t-been-seen-as-an-admission lies something new on the American landscape.

Donald Trump, in other words, is the first person to run openly and without apology on a platform of American decline. Think about that for a moment. “Make America Great Again!” is indeed an admission in the form of a boast. As he tells his audiences repeatedly, America, the formerly great, is today a punching bag for China, Mexico… well, you know the pitch. You don’t have to agree with him on the specifics. What’s interesting is the overall vision of a country lacking in its former greatness.

Perhaps a little history of American greatness and presidents (as well as presidential candidates) is in order here.

“City Upon a Hill”

Once upon a time, in a distant America, the words “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensable” weren’t even part of the political vocabulary.  American presidents didn’t bother to claim any of them for this country, largely because American wealth and global preeminence were so indisputable.  We’re talking about the 1950s and early 1960s, the post-World War II and pre-Vietnam “golden” years of American power.  Despite a certain hysteria about the supposed dangers of domestic communists, few Americans then doubted the singularly unchallengeable power and greatness of the country.  It was such a given, in fact, that it was simply too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.

So if you look, for instance, at the speeches of John F. Kennedy, you won’t find them littered with exceptionals, indispensables, or their equivalents.  In a pre-inaugural speech he gave in January 1961 on the kind of government he planned to bring to Washington, for instance, he did cite the birth of a “great republic,” the United States, and quoted Puritan John Winthrop on the desirability of creating a country that would be “a city upon a hill” to the rest of the world, with all of humanity’s eyes upon us.  In his inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”), he invoked a kind of unspoken greatness, saying, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  It was then common to speak of the U.S. with pride as a “free nation” (as opposed to the “enslaved” ones of the communist bloc) rather than an exceptional one.  His only use of “great” was to invoke the U.S.-led and Soviet Union-led blocs as “two great and powerful groups of nations.”

Kennedy could even fall back on a certain modesty in describing the U.S. role in the world (that, in those years, from Guatemala to Iran to Cuba, all too often did not carry over into actual policy), saying in one speech, “we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient — that we are only six percent of the world’s population — that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind — that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity — and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.”  In that same speech, he typically spoke of America as “a great power” — but not “the greatest power.”

If you didn’t grow up in that era, you may not grasp that none of this in any way implied a lack of national self-esteem.  Quite the opposite, it implied a deep and abiding confidence in the overwhelming power and presence of this country, a confidence so unshakeable that there was no need to speak of it.

If you want a pop cultural equivalent for this, consider America’s movie heroes of that time, actors like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, whose Westerns and in the case of Wayne, war movies, were iconic.  What’s striking when you look back at them from the present moment is this: while neither of those actors was anything but an imposing figure, they were also remarkably ordinary looking.  They were in no way over-muscled nor in their films were they over-armed in the modern fashion.  It was only in the years after the Vietnam War, when the country had absorbed what felt like a grim defeat, been wracked by oppositional movements, riots, and assassinations, when a general sense of loss had swept over the polity, that the over-muscled hero, the exceptional killing machine, made the scene.  (Think: Rambo.)

Consider this, then, if you want a definition of decline: when you have to state openly (and repeatedly) what previously had been too obvious to say, you’re heading, as the opinion polls always like to phrase it, in the wrong direction; in other words, once you have to say it, especially in an overemphatic way, you no longer have it.

The Reagan Reboot

That note of defensiveness first crept into the American political lexicon with the unlikeliest of politicians: Ronald Reagan, the man who seemed like the least defensive, most genial guy on the planet.  On this subject at least, think of him as Trumpian before the advent of The Donald, or at least as the man who (thanks to his ad writers) invented the political use of the word “again.”  It was, after all, employed in 1984 in the seminal ad of his political run for a second term in office.  While that bucolic-looking TV commercial was entitled “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” its first line ever so memorably went, “It’s morning again in America.” (“Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”)

Think of this as part of a post-Vietnam Reagan reboot, a time when the U.S. in Rambo-esque fashion was quite literally muscling up and over-arming in a major way.  Reagan presided over “the biggest peacetime defense build-up in history” against what, referencing Star Wars, he called an “evil empire” — the Soviet Union.  In those years, he also worked to rid the country of what was then termed “the Vietnam Syndrome” in part by rebranding that war a “noble cause.”  In a time when loss and decline were much on the American brain, he dismissed them both, even as he set the country on a path toward the present moment of 1% dysfunction in a country that no longer invests fully in its own infrastructure, whose wages are stagnant, whose poor are a growth industry, whose wealth now flows eternally upward in a political environment awash in the money of the ultra-wealthy, and whose over-armed military continues to pursue a path of endless failure in the Greater Middle East.

Reagan, who spoke directly about American declinist thinking in his time — “Let’s reject the nonsense that America is doomed to decline” — was hardly shy about his superlatives when it came to this country.  He didn’t hesitate to re-channel classic American rhetoric ranging from Winthop’s “shining city upon a hill” (perhaps cribbed from Kennedy) in his farewell address to Lincoln-esque (“the last best hope of man on Earth”) invocations like “here in the heartland of America lives the hope of the world” or “in a world wracked by hatred, economic crisis, and political tension, America remains mankind’s best hope.”

And yet, in the 1980s, there were still limits to what needed to be said about America.  Surveying the planet, you didn’t yet have to refer to us as the “greatest” country of all or as the planet’s sole truly “exceptional” country.  Think of such repeated superlatives of our own moment as defensive markers on the declinist slope.  The now commonplace adjective “indispensable” as a stand-in for American greatness globally, for instance, didn’t even arrive until Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright began using it in 1996.  It only became an indispensable part of the rhetorical arsenal of American politicians, from President Obama on down, a decade-plus into the twenty-first century when the country’s eerie dispensability (unless you were a junkie for failed states and regional chaos) became ever more apparent.

As for the U.S. being the planet’s “exceptional” nation, a phrase that now seems indelibly in the American grain and that no president or presidential candidate has avoided, it’s surprising how late that entered the presidential lexicon.  As John Gans Jr. wrote in the Atlantic in 2011, “Obama has talked more about American exceptionalism than Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush combined: a search on UC Santa Barbara’s exhaustive presidential records library finds that no president from 1981 to today uttered the phrase ‘American exceptionalism’ except Obama. As U.S. News‘ Robert Schlesinger wrote, ‘American exceptionalism’ is not a traditional part of presidential vocabulary. According to Schlesinger’s search of public records, Obama is the only president in 82 years to use the term.”

And yet in recent years it has become a commonplace of Republicans and Democrats alike.  In other words, as the country has become politically shakier, the rhetoric about its greatness has only escalated in an American version of “the lady doth protest too much.”  Such descriptors have become the political equivalent of litmus tests: you couldn’t be president or much of anything else without eternally testifying to your unwavering belief in American greatness.

This, of course, is the line that Trump crossed in a curiously unnoticed fashion in this election campaign.  He did so by initially upping the rhetorical ante, adding that exclamation point (which even Reagan avoided). Yet in the process of being more patriotically correct than thou, he somehow also waded straight into American decline so bluntly that his own audience could hardly miss it (even if his critics did).

Think of it as an irony, if you wish, but the ultimate American narcissist, in promoting his own rise, has also openly promoted a version of decline and fall to striking numbers of Americans.  For his followers, a major political figure has quit with the defensive BS and started saying it the way it is.

Of course, don’t furl the flag or shut down those offshore accounts or start writing the complete history of American decline quite yet.  After all, the United States still looms “lone” on an ever more chaotic planet.  Its wealth remains stunning, its economic clout something to behold, its tycoons the envy of the Earth, and its military beyond compare when it comes to how much and how destructively, even if not how successfully.  Still, make no mistake about it, Donald Trump is a harbinger, however bizarre, of a new American century in which this country will indeed no longer be (with a bow to Muhammad Ali) “the Greatest” or, for all but a shrinking crew, exceptional.

So mark your calendars: 2016 is the official year the U.S. first went public as a declinist power and for that you can thank Donald — or rather Donald! — Trump.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Tom Engelhardt

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Late Night with Seth Meyers: “Trump Plans to Reinvent Himself: A Closer Look”

Reinventing Saudi Arabia after Oil: The Prince’s $2 Trillion Gamble

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, 30, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia laid out his vision for Saudi Arabia on Monday in a plan called “Vision 2030.” He wants to get Saudi Arabia off its oil dependence in only 4 years, by 2020, and wants to diversify the economy into manufacturing and mining.

In an interview with Alarabiya, the prince said the future of the kingdom would be based on

1. Its possession of the Muslim shrine cities of Mecca and Medina and the “Arab and Muslim depth” that position gave the kingdom

2. The kingdom’s geographical centrality to world commerce, with 30% of global trade passing through the 3 major sea routes that Saudi Arabia bestrides (not sure what the third is, after the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf).

3. The creation of a $2 trillion sovereign wealth fund through a sale of 5% of shares in Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.

Prince Muhammad said Monday that he thought these assets would allow the kingdom to cease its dependence on petroleum in the very near future.

CNBC summarized other planks of his platform this way:

“The planned economic diversification also involved localizing renewable energy and industrial equipment sectors and creating high-quality tourism attractions. It also plans to make it easier to apply for visas and hoped to create 90,000 job opportunities in its mining sector.”

Saudi Arabia’s citizen population is probably only about 20 million, so it is a small country without a big domestic market. It is surrounded in the general region by huge countries like Egypt (pop. 85 million), Iran (pop. 75 mn.) and Turkey (75 mn.), not to mention Ethiopia (pop. 90 mn.) Without petroleum, it is difficult to see what would be distinctive about Saudi Arabia economically.

The excruciatingly young prince, who was born in 1985, has a BA in Law from a local Saudi university and his way of speaking about the elements of the economy is not reassuring. Take his emphasis on the maritime trade routes that flow around the Arabian Peninsula. How exactly does Saudi Arabia derive a dime from them? The only tolls I can think of are collected by Egypt for passage through the Suez Canal. By far the most important container port in the region is Jebel Ali in the UAE, which dwarfs Jedda. His estimate of 30% of world trade going through these bodies of water strikes me as exaggerated. Only about 10% of world trade goes through the Suez Canal.

As for tourism in a country where alcohol is forbidden and religious police report to the police unmarried couples on dates, that seems to me a non-starter– outside the religious tourism of pilgrimage to Mecca. The annual pilgrimage brought in $16.5 bn or 3% of the Saudi GDP four years ago, but that number appears to be way down the last couple of years. Unless the prince plans to much increase the 2-3 million pilgrims annually, religious tourism will remain a relatively small part of the economy.

He also spoke about the new bridge planned from Saudi Arabia to Egypt as likely to drive trade to the kingdom and to make it a crossroads. But the road would go through the Sinai Peninsula, which is highly insecure and in the midst of an insurrection. And where do you drive to on the other side? You could maybe take fruits and vegetables by truck from Egypt to countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Would Saudi Arabia collect tariffs on these transit goods? I can’t see how that generates all that much money. The big opportunity for overland transport would be to link Egypt to a major market like Iran (pop. 77 mn.), and via Iran, Pakistan and India. But Prince Muhammad and his circle are hardliners against Iran and unlikely to foster trade with it.

Saudi Arabia suffers from the Dutch disease, i.e. its currency is artificially hardened by its valuable petroleum assets. They may eventually not be worth anything if hydrocarbons are replaced by green energy or even outlawed. But in 2016, they are still valuable, and they make the riyal expensive versus other currencies. The result is that anything made in Saudi Arabia would be unaffordably expensive in India (the rupee is still a soft currency). As long as Saudi Arabia produces so much petroleum, it is unclear how it can industrialize in the sense of making secondary goods.

As for the sovereign wealth fund, let’s say the ARAMCO partial IPO actually realizes $2 trillion. Let’s say it gets 5% on its investments after overhead and that all $2 trillion are invested around the world. That would be $100 billion a year, or 1/6 of Saudi Arabia’s GDP last year. It doesn’t replace the oil.

Saudi Arabia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2014 was $746 bn., of which probably 70% was petroleum sales. In 2015 it was only $653 bn., causing it to fall behind Turkey, the Netherlands and Switzerland. It will be smaller yet in 2016 because of the continued low oil prices.

All this is not to reckon with the profligate spending in which the kingdom is engaged, with a direct war in Yemen and a proxy war in Syria, neither cheap. (Both wars are pet projects of Prince Muhammad bin Salman). It also has a lot of big weapons purchases in the pipeline, one of the reasons for President Obama’s humiliating visit last week. It ran a $100 bn. budget deficit in 2015. Saudi Arabia has big currency reserves, but I doubt it can go on like this more than five or six years.

Yemen in particular has proved to be a quagmire, and the Houthi rebels still hold the capital of Sanaa. The only new initiative is that Saudi and local forces have kicked al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula out of the port of Mukalla. This campaign shows a sudden interest in defeating al-Qaeda, which had been allowed to grow in Yemen while the main target was the Shiite Houthis, which Riyadh says are allied with Iran (the links seem minor).

So it seems to me that the Vision for 2030 is mostly smoke and mirrors. As the electric car and better public transport replace gasoline-driven automobiles and trucks, the demand for petroleum will collapse over the next 20 years. A really big extreme global warming event, like a glacier plopping into the ocean and suddenly raising sea level by a foot, e.g., would spread panic and accelerate the abandonment of oil. Saudi Arabia probably cannot replace the money it will lose if oil goes out of style and so is doomed to downward mobility and very possibly significant instability. It has been a great party since the 1940s; it is going to be a hell of a hangover.

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Related video:

CCTV: “Saudi government plans restructure of economy, government”

ISIL Endgame: Obama to send 250 more US Troops into Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama is announcing Monday morning in Hanover, Germany, that he will send another 250 US troops, likely mostly special operations, into Syria, bringing the total to 300.

The 50 troops already there are embedded with the YPG or People’s Defense Units of the leftist Democratic Union Party in Syria’s Kurdish region of Rojava. They in turn are allied with local Sunni Arab tribal levies in a struggle against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

The Kurdish forces in the SDF far vastly outnumber the Arab ones, which is a political problem. Obama and his Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, want the joint Kurdish/ Arab forces, which they support with arms and money and which they have dubbed the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), to take al-Raqqa in eastern Syria, which is the capital of Daesh and the seat of its self-proclaimed “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

That Obama is focusing on this Kurdish-Arab coalition is a further slap in the face to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who are backing hard line far-right Salafi groups like the Freemen of Syria in the Aleppo area, who have been attacked by the Arab/Kurdish SDF, which is to their left.

As for the US embeds, we’re talking about the country’s northeast theater, the yellow part in this tweeted map:

The Arab press is pointing out that the further US troops are targeting Daesh and are not intended to be used to help overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In general, the YPG has been willing to ally with the al-Assad garrisons against Daesh, though this past weekend there were YPG/ Syrian Army clashes in the Kurdish city of Qamishli in the northeast.

The Arab coalition in the northeast consists of only a few thousand troops, whereas the total for the SDF is some 50,000. My guess is that the Arabs comprise about ten percent. (There are also Christian militias– Assyrian and Armenian– in the SDF coalition, and more than one unit of the old ‘Free Syrian Army.’) In the past few months, new small Arab units have joined the SDF, including Division 19, the Eagles of the Desert, and a unit from the city of al-Shadadi, which the SDF liberated from Daesh in mid-February.

If a largely lefist Kurdish force goes down and crushes a Sunni Arab city like al-Raqqa, that step might produce further ethnic tension and be seen as illegitimate. So the Self Defense Forces need a bigger Sunni Arab contingent fighting alongside the YPG. Likewise, frankly the YPG’s top priority is not going south to fight Daesh in al-Raqqa but going due west to capture all the territory possible for the Kurdish federal province, Rojava, that it can.

CNN reported over the weekend that the extra 250 troops are for embedding with the Arabs in the SDF, and with getting the Arab fighters in SDF up to speed (so likely some will be trainers rather than spec ops advisers).

By increasing the strenght of the Arab contingent within the SDF, Obama appears to be readying the locals for an al-Raqqa campaignt that is intended to rub out the so-called ‘caliphate.’

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Related video:

CNN: “President Obama to send more special ops to Syria”

US finally acknowledging al-Qaeda factor in breakdown of Ceasefire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

One of the frustrations of following the Syria conflict from the Arabic press is that when you then turn to the English language accounts, they tend to play down the importance of al-Qaeda or the Support Front (al-Jabha al-Nusra).

In American parlance, there have just been three sides– the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Free Syrian Army, and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). The Free Syrian Army is depicted as democrats deserving US support (only some of them are).

There is a fourth force, however, al-Qaeda, which has been among the more successful fighting groups and which holds key real estate. They led a coalition of hard line Sunni Salafi groups into Idlib city last year. They have a position around Aleppo and inside it.

Even the 33 “vetted” guerrilla groups that are supported by the US CIA via Saudi intelligence often make ad hoc, battlefied alliances with al-Qaeda, and US munitions from other groups flow to the latter.

Al-Qaeda in Syria reports to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, so it is quite disturbing to see American allies coordinating with it.

Late last week Syrian regime planes hit civilian markets in West Aleppo with heavy civilian casualties, in what was likely a war crime. That kind of thing as must shoulder responsibility for the breakdown of the ceasefire. But it is also possible that these strikes were at least trying to hit the Nusra Front/ al-Qaeda.

On Friday, Kerry told the NYT that Russia might indeed be targeting Nusra in Aleppo,

He added that it has proven harder to separate” the militant group from the more moderate opposition groups “than we thought.”

Then US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, said of the Russian air war,

“I’m not going to predict what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen, you know, regime forces with some Russian support as well begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo. … That said, it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities. So it’s complicated.”

While it is too sweeping a statement to say that al-Qaeda holds Aleppo, it is true that al-Qaeda is one of the important groups that holds territory in West Aleppo and around the city, so it is a departure that Warren was being straight with us all.

Al-Qaeda has not signed on to the cessation of hostilities. Worse, it has convinced Free Syria Army factions such as Brigade 13 to join in its offensive against the regime, in which significant territory has been gained by the radicals.

So while it may be that the ceasefire is breaking down, it should be remembered that al-Qaeda played an important role in making it break down.

That continued aggressiveness appears to have impelled the Russians to try to cut the rebels in West Aleppo off for once and for all by cutting their supply line to Turkey.

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Related video:

Russia Insider: “Russian journalists show presence of Al-Qaeda in Aleppo debunking US claims about “moderate rebels”

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