Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Originally published in RURAL RUMINATIONS

President Trump says constantly that he is an extraordinary negotiator (The Art of the Deal).  That may be true, but in considering the relevance of his self-centered praise, one has to understand that his experience as a negotiator was established in the dangerous canyons of New York City,  and the way he discusses his negotiating style makes it clear that he does not feel he has to abide by many rules. That may work in New York and the USA and maybe even in the international commercial world.  The real question is whether it is likely to work in the far more complicated world of foreign policy.


The world is a frightfully complex place.  It is beset by regional, political, tribal, economic, military, and confessional issues.


Take the issue of Syria.  Mr. Trump would like to depose the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.  In pursuit of that goal, he has enlisted the military assistance of the Kurds.  The Turks despise the Kurds, constantly referring to them as “terrorists”.  In fact, the Kurds, who live in a number of countries in the Middle East as well as Turkey, are the largest ethnic population in the world that does not have a country of its own.  All told, they total 35-45 million souls.  The Turks are members of NATO and at least until we brought the Kurds on board on the volatile Syrian issue, were among our best friends in the Middle East.  The Turks are infuriated with this new Trump policy and are rapidly turning against us on many other issues that are important to us.


Or look at Palestine/Israel.  In recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Mr. Trump has created a firestorm of anger, not only in the Islamic world which favors a mutually negotiated solution to that issue, but also in thoughtful countries, most prominently in Europe and in many other countries around the rest of the world. This Trump position on Palestine/Israel, a radical American departure from the past seventy years, is clearly a move to court ideological Americans who strongly support Israel.  It is certainly not the first time US foreign policy has been designed purely to woo American voters, but it has been focused on a region that does not need further foreign meddling causing further tensions.  And that is precisely what it has done.  It may please some of Mr. Trump’s political base, but it has further destabilized an area that desperately needs stability.


Despite the fact that Mr. Trump calls himself a “stable genius” on many issues, most emphatically including foreign policy, he presents as the exact opposite.  He doesn’t like to read and says that for him it is not necessary. So, he insists that all policy papers submitted to him be limited to one page in length. Issues like Israel/Palestine and Syria simply cannot be appropriately covered on one page.  Policy decisions based on insufficient information are always dangerous.


Mr. Trump acknowledges that, rather than reading, he gets his critical information from watching a lot of TV. Apparently his choice of stations is highly focused on the most politically partisan.  In this case, only the word “partisan” is important.  It makes absolutely no difference if it is far right or far left.  Either way, he is not getting the impartial information that is critical to, first, understanding this complicated word and, second, formulating foreign policy.  And this is true both for a “stable genius” and for a blithering idiot!


Assuming that he really is an extraordinary negotiator, he got his expertise in the commercial world.   Clearly that world thrives on uncertainty and instability, the kinds of things that make  businessmen and commercial companies say yes to avoid financial chaos.  That is the exact opposite of what is needed in the world of international relations.   What is needed there is stability and predictability.  Those were the elements that got the world through the Cold War.  Both sides understood that and followed policies that were predictable and stable.  We survived.


So far, Mr. Trump has followed policies that have been unstable and unpredictable.  That’s OK if you are buying a new hotel, or talking about an irrelevant country like Monaco, but it is not the case for places like North Korea, China, Russia and now, additions like Pakistan, which he has recently offended – all of which have atomic weapons.


It would be nice and almost certainly potentially productive to see and hear some more dignified and less inflammatory verbiage both within and emanating from the White House.  It might even make us some international friends, the exact opposite of what our current modus operandi is bringing us.


Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served during the Cold War in East and West Europe, and the Middle East, focused on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  He also served as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office and as the first Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.

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Fifty-one State Department officials have just signed an internal memo protesting U.S. policy in Syria, calling for targeted U.S. military strikes against the regime of Bashar al Assad and urging regime change as the only way to defeat ISIS.


The internal memo was sent throughout the “dissent channel” which is defined as “a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures” and “which will not be subjected to reprisal, discipline action or unauthorized disclosure of its use”. It was established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to ensure that senior leadership in the department would have access to alternative policy views on the war.


The views expressed by the U.S. officials in the cable amount to a scalding internal critique of a longstanding U.S. policy against taking sides in the Syrian war.


It is safe to say that our incredibly counterproductive military involvement in the Middle East during the past dozen years was a outgrowth of the powerful influence held by neoconservatives in the Bush administration.


It is equally safe to say that “liberal interventionist” ideology has played a role in foreign policy under the Obama administration.  Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton is widely described as “hawkish” in her foreign policy views and her administration has always contained liberal interventionists, many of whom have remained there after her departure from State and the arrival of Secretary Kerry.  They still play important roles in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.


However different the origins of liberal interventionism may be from those of neoconservatism, the net result in foreign policy is not that different.  Both ideologies believe in the export of democracy and regime change, policies that have rightly come under attack here and abroad, given the negative results of our recent military activities in the Middle East.


So, the question is, are the State department “51” simply a continuation of our old notions of the export of democracy and regime change?


In all of this and regardless of the motivation behind the “dissent channel” memorandum, the only important question to be asked is, what would be the result?  That assumes we become more heavily involved militarily against the Assad regime which would be an act of war in itself.  What do we do about al Qaida’s Al Nusra front?  With Iran?  With the Russians? With the Chinese?  With the Saudis?  With the Iraqis?  Who is on our side?  Who is against us?


Assuming we can successfully engineer this regime change, whom do we then pick to run the country?  Do we pick the remaining Alawites with their Shia allies in Iraq and Iran?  Do we pick Sunni Syrians with their confessional ties to ISIS and Iraqi Sunnis?  Do we install the military?


Irrespective of what we do, how will the competing confessional groups in the broader region react?  How have they already reacted in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria?  Does America really have a dog in this fight?


Whomever we pick under these circumstances, we will own the responsibility for the Syria of the future, a Syria that will always be contested by the ethnic and confessional forces that rule and roil the Middle East.


It is difficult to determine the precise motivation of these 51 co-signees in favor of military intervention.   However, regardless of that motivation, given our recent history in the region, it seems like a crazy, no-win thing for America to want to do.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald on December 10,2015

There is one basic reality in the Middle East. The region contains a number of “countries” that were created out of whole cloth during the 19th and early 20th centuries by European colonial powers to suit their own purposes. The artificiality of those “countries” makes for a very unstable region.

Those “countries” are not in any sense internally cohesive, and many contain the seeds of their own disintegration. Historically, those “countries” have been governed repressively simply because the tribal, sectarian and national mixtures of residents are sufficiently volatile to require relatively strict repression for the maintenance of cohesion and public order.

The divisions that exist within those “countries” go back decades, centuries and millennia. Internal conflicts now exist where central, often repressive control has disappeared, as in Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Where open conflict has not broken out, some form of repression continues in force, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt (for the moment) and the Gulf States.

The American compulsion to export democracy and concomitant peace to that world has been proven incredibly naïve, largely because the only elements in the region that matter — tribal, sectarian and national — have no experience with democracy and are largely unprepared for and do not seek its introduction.

And in the midst of this instability, we find ourselves required to deal with ISIS. Some Americans believe that we are capable of “beating” ISIS and its allies and support boots on the ground. That may or may not be, but that is not the real issue. The real issue is, what comes after the defeat of that enemy?

An examination of Iraq shows that tribally, Iraq has approximately 150 groups; Nationally, 72-75 percent Arabs (Palestinians, marsh Arabs, Bedouins), 20-22 percent Kurds (Feylis, Yazidis, Shabaks and Kakais), 2 percent Assyrians, 2 percent Turkmen and 1 percent Armenians, Circassians, Persians, Sabians, Baha’is, Afro-Iraqis and Doms; and most important, the sectarian split between Sunni (35 percent) and Shia Muslims (65 percent).

An absence of conflict between all these groups has existed only when Iraq has been governed repressively, and that most emphatically includes the period, 2003-2011, when American troops supplied the muscle. Now that we have largely left, Iraq is settling into a period of internal conflicts between inimical groups.

Let’s assume that we send American troops into Syria and that those troops ultimately “beat” ISIS. What happens then? Syria is not populated by a cohesive or happy bunch. Nationalities present in Syria include Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Circassians, Greeks, Kurds, Mandeans, Turkmen and Turks. Religions include Alawite, Christian, Druze, Mandean, Salafi, Shia, Sunni and Yazidi. There are tribes aplenty, particularly Bedouin.

On the issue of religion, it is worth noting that the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, who have repressively governed Syria for decades, represent about 12 percent of the population, while their rivals, the Sunnis, comprise around 75 percent. This situation is opposite to the one in Iraq where a minority of Sunnis governed repressively over a majority of Shia. The ongoing result in Iraq has been internecine warfare featuring the Shia who clearly seek retribution for decades of mistreatment by the Sunnis. It is not at all unlikely that the same would happen in Syria if the minority Alawites were to lose power to the majority Sunnis.

The way things now stand, with a majority of our 2016 presidential candidates favoring military intervention in Syria, it would seem that American boots on the ground in a struggle against ISIS, even if successful, could have some very unpleasant long-term results.

First, If we destroy ISIS, many of those “volunteers” now fighting with ISIS will more than likely go home and become self-motivated terrorists. The only likely difference between them and folks like the San Bernardino pair is that the new ones will be better trained and motivated and far harder to neutralize.

Then, assuming we are successful, who will govern? Russia, Hezbollah and Iran want Assad. We seem to want anyone but Assad. If we decide to impose a solution, it will be up to us to police it in a hostile and highly unsettled environment, which our boots on the ground will have created. The tribal, sectarian and national frictions that exist in Syria have been there and may remain forever. In short, the success of an American invasion, if we hope to change anything, will depend on our willingness to accept that there will be no predictable end to our occupation.

American boots on the ground is insanity. It’s simple: We can’t afford it. Let it be carried out by the neighbors, with our direct support, but without our direct involvement.


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Originally published in the Rutland Herald

September 24,2015

It is impossible for any sentient human being to look at the flow of refugees and migrants out of the Middle East toward Europe and not be appalled by the entire situation. Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and Syrians, who are Shia, Sunni, both moderate and radical, as well as Christians, are heading toward Europe in rapidly mounting numbers, creating unprecedented pressures on European governments.


Clearly the original cause of this migration is the Syrian civil war, which has now been underway for more than four years. As of January 2015, this conflict had caused somewhere between 220,000 and 310,000 deaths, enough to make any sane Syrian nervous for his and his family’s well-being. In addition to this very real fear, it is now being reported that many Syrians have left because others of their tribe, religion, neighborhood, social or professional group have left, setting an example.


The size of this migration is unprecedented, making the trip additionally dangerous. By now, most of the Europe-bound migrants have learned from those who preceded them that the trip is exceedingly dangerous, thanks largely to the unprincipled human smugglers into whose hands they entrust their lives. Thousands are said to have died during the journey.


Much of the problem, as we see it today, rests in the minds of the migrants. They expect to be welcomed by Europe with open arms and to be treated like human beings. The growing notion that this is not always true has been a shock to them.


And why is that not true? Europe is not used to migrants. The European countries involved are generally politically stable, having worked through ethnic, national, religious and tribal issues over the past centuries. However, they are essentially closed societies. Unlike America, Europe was not built through migration, and the result is likely to be that migrants will be horribly disappointed at what they find in Europe.


The European countries are not built to deal with the speed of arrival and the volume of today’s incoming migrants. In many countries, migrants will be barred from legally working, some for years, while their petitions for asylum are processed. Language problems will add to their difficulties.


Migrants will find themselves in marginal, squalid camps and settlements. Many will find themselves in the continent’s growing migrant ghettos. They will find few jobs in countries that have little need for cheap labor and will live on the fringes of societies that are likely to increasingly resent their presence.


Worst of all, despite many well-wishing welcomers, the migrants will find growing hostility, often from the radical, Muslim-hating right. Germany, for example, has been talking of taking in 800,000 migrants this year. Last year, 47 percent of all racist attacks in Germany took place in the former East Germany, where many if not most of the refugees are being settled, although it is home to only 17 percent of Germany’s population. Germany’s interior ministry has counted 202 attacks on refugee shelters in the first half of 2015, as many as in all of 2014 and there have been reports of dozens more such attacks in July and August.


The long and short of it is that Europe is ill-prepared to take in migrants. The result of this contemporary influx is likely to precipitate a hostile reaction across Europe, ranging from the border fences we have already seen in Hungary and elsewhere to restrictive laws, protracted delays in documenting the migrants, horrible living conditions, even physical attacks and, most sadly, hopelessness.


In fact, in the face of ever-rising numbers, many European countries, responding to pressures from their people, have begun the process of limiting their involvement with the migrants. Germany has reinstated border controls with Austria. Reports from Syrian migrants have been negative about the reception they have received in Belgium, Sweden and France, where one migrant said his asylum application had taken months and in the meantime he was living in misery, homeless and without the right to work.


The solution to the migrant problem does not lie in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. It lies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and any other Middle Eastern country that is adding to the migrant flow. The only way to stop the flow and the misery and unhappiness that inevitably come with it is to stop the migration by fixing the problems that are forcing it. That means, quite simply, creating the conditions that lead to the end of the conflicts.


If we do not succeed in this, we will inevitably see the radicalization of migrants who have lost all hope and wish to strike out against the Europeans they unjustly blame for having caused it. A perfect hunting ground for ISIS.



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Rural Ruminations

by Haviland Smith


Before we adopt a new Syria policy, a quick review might be helpful in better understanding the endless confusion that rules over the situation in that region today.

Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turks make up about 72% of the Syrian population, Shia 13% and Christians about 10%. The Syrian government, its military and economy under Bashar Al Assad are dominated by the Alawites (Shia). Minority Alawites and their allies run everything important in Syria.

The current civil war in Syria began in the Spring of 2011 with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors who are roughly 90% Sunni.

This struggle has been something of a proxy war with Iran (Shia) and Yemen (Shia) the main supporters of the Assad (Shia) regime with outside help from Russia. Arrayed against them in support of the rebels are Jordan, Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Sunni fundamentalism), Turkey and Qatar (both Sunni) along with France, Britain and the US. The sectarian violence has spread to Lebanon where Hezbollah (Shia) has allied itself with the Assad regime and, additionally, fought with Lebanese Sunni groups.

ISIS began life as a fundamentalist Sunni organization. In effect, ISIS is a criminal organization populated by thugs for whom there are no rules of decency. Given sufficient exposure, it is highly likely that ISIS will completely alienate the Sunnis in Northern Syria and Western Iraq, as there is nothing in the Koran (as it is seen by the vast majority of its adherents) that justifies the murderous activities in which they have continuously been involved. Shia Iran is ISIS’ foremost committed enemy. Whose side are we on?

In addition, we have the new Iraqi army which is now being trained by the United States, but which has been referred to as “not so much an army as a vast system of patronage”. The Army, beholden as it is to the Shia government of Iraq, excludes from its ranks any Iraqi who might be opposed to that government. The army is widely said to have been infiltrated by local militias and foreign insurgents, resulting in secular killings and operational failures. It is, to all intents and purposes an inefficient, albeit Shia, operation. Further, current reporting indicates that much of the anti-ISIS opposition comes from Shia militia from Iraq. Do we want our boots on the ground with them?

Then we have the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group (28,000,000) in the world without a country and whose people are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are estimated to represent 15-25% of the total population of Turkey. Even though they are Sunnis, like the Turks on whose land so many Kurds live, they are viewed with grave suspicion by the Turks as ongoing threats to the sovereignty of Eastern Turkey. In fact, they do find time to kill one another on a fairly regular basis. Whom do we support?

So we have this incredible mélange of ethnic and sectarian Middle Easterners involved either directly or indirectly in the Syrian insurgency. It is impossible at any given time, to predict just how they will react to the wide variety of scenarios that exist for the future. They are hardly the sort of allies that the US is used to and from whom we could possibly profit. Who are our friends? Our enemies?

Counterterrorism doctrine promotes police work, intelligence collection and Special Forces operations, never military. No matter what the Administration says, Syria is not a counterterrorism problem. It is a counterinsurgency problem. Some Americans openly promote American troops on the ground in Syria. US military doctrine dictates that in fighting an insurgency the occupying force must have one combatant on the ground for every 20-25 residents of the country involved. Even with all the Syrians who have left their country, there are probably around 22 million left. That would mean a force of 440-550,000 troops. Are we up to that? Who will pay for it?

And then there is the other reality. We have learned from our invasion of Afghanistan that if you overlook the rules and put American troops on the ground fighting against an organization that even the local residents hate, you present those residents with a dilemma. Do they support the invading Americans or do they support an indigenous group that they otherwise would hate? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq give us a pretty clear answer to that question.

These realities will not change simply because our policy makers want them to. And then, what is our goal? Even if we are successful in bringing down ISIS, what then?

We are so over our heads here!







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Originally published in  SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS

With its meteoric military rise, its leadership, management and financing, the newest terrorist scourge facing the world is ISIS.  Operating in what is clearly a political vacuum in northeast Syria and western Iraq and benefitting from the studied indifference of most of the Muslim world, Isis is clearly on a roll.

The chaos in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world is largely the result of a combination of incredibly bad United States military/foreign policy decisions and the concomitant disintegration or destruction of all those elements, both good and bad, that were in place and maintaining order in the region before we invaded Iraq in 2003.

And in the midst of all of this chaos, Americans are coming slowly to the realization that ISIS presents us with real, long run, existential problems and that we probably have absolutely no idea how to deal with this situation at the moment.

Our problem in policy formulation on this issue is also of our own making.  It comes as a result of the same horrendous decision to invade Iraq, for that invasion created two new realities for us.

First, it has made more than half of the U.S. population extremely wary about any further military involvement in the Islam.  We are war-weary to the extent that virtually no policy proposal for dealing with ISIS has failed to mention the guarantee that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground.

Secondly, that Iraq invasion, coupled with our endless stay in Afghanistan, has virtually guarantees that the re-commitment of American troops in uniform will have a unifying anti-American effect on Muslim populations, even though the radical ISIS is viewed with horror by most of those local populations.

If you doubt that, look first at the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2003 which was driven largely by the fact that when the locals were faced with a choice between foreigners (Americans) and locals, they decided to back their own.  Or, look at the way Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, heavily influenced by hostile, unaccepting Shia governments in Baghdad and Tehran, have tolerated, even joined with ISIS in its fight for power.   The fact is that, particularly in Islam, given any need to choose between foreigners and locals, it is a rare thing that the foreigners will be favored.  All one has to do to understand that is read the history of the region.

So, what are our policy options?  The attitudes of both American and Muslim citizens toward the American military establishment, basically rule out the effective reintroduction of U.S. troops into the area, even if we had the necessary resources to do it.  Yet, if ISIS is to be neutralized, it will not be done without ground forces.  It’s not just the ISIS soldiers, it is the larger question of denying them control of the territory over which they now preside in Iraq and Syria.

Then we have Kurdish and Iraqi troops.  The problem there, accepting that they are ill-equipped, ill-trained and relatively ineffective, is that there are historical political reasons to worry about such confrontations.  We have ages old Kurdish/Turk frictions.  Additionally, any Iraqi army of the future is going to be Shia dominated in a struggle with Sunni ISIS.  That scenario bears the strong possibility that a Shia-Sunni conflict ultimately could easily embroil the entire region.

Needing foot soldiers and ruling out all non-Muslims, we are left with the rest of the Muslim world.  Note that none of them have so far rushed into the fray against ISIS, either because they are frightened to be seen to do so, because they prefer them to the alternative, or might even actually support them.  Why else would the Iraqi Sunnis, who are among the more secular Muslims, support a bloodthirsty bunch of zealots who want to install the most conservatively radical sectarian government imaginable? Perhaps as a counterbalance to Iraqi Shia forces?

We need to keep trying to find Muslims who disagree enough with ISIS to fight against them.  Barring such an unlikely find, we need to arm anyone – Kurdish, Iraqi or Shia – who wants to fight against them.  We need to keep US military uniforms completely out of the fray, but we might be well-advised to get ready for a protracted, completely covert or clandestine struggle against ISIS which would involve our intelligence resources as well as our black, paramilitary operational capabilities.

Or we can pretend there is not a real threat and wait until they hit us, which, absent meaningful U.S. involvement, they most certainly will do at some point in the future.

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Originally published in the Valley News

President Obama tells us he is in the process of deciding what measures, if any, the United States will take against Syria. This decision is based on a number of as yet unproven assumptions that are now being investigated by the UN.


Nevertheless, we are told that the Obama Administration will not necessarily wait for the results of the ongoing UN technical inspection of the site in question or for the formal agreement of our allies on a future course of punitive action, but that it feels free to act unilaterally whenever it pleases, with or without Great Britain.


We are told unequivocally that the Assad regime used the gas.  But what if it was the rebels?  The result of the gassing is likely to be American military action.  Who in Syria benefits from that?  Certainly not the Assad regime which, consensus says, already is winning the civil war.  Only the rebels could benefit and then only in direct proportion to the severity of our action.


In the meantime, just to further set the scene, the British have moved warplanes to Cyprus.  The US has four destroyers standing off the Syrian coast.  On the other side of the ledger, the Russians are moving warships to the Mediterranean basin.  Hezbollah has stated its readiness to become involved in any future military action against us.  Iran fully supports Hezbollah.


Our president proposes to “punish” the Syrians for the use of chemical weapons, not to weaken or destroy the Syrian military establishment.  He and his spokespeople have said a number of times that the purpose of what we finally do, whatever that may turn out to be, will not be regime change.


It all sounds sort of like trying to spank a lion.


We have spanked lions in the past, never to our ultimate benefit.  We have seen Pan Am 103 and the bombing of the Berlin nightclub as poignant examples of our inability to foresee or prevent retaliation against us for the kind of activity we are now contemplating for Syria.  And given the realities of geography, all we represent in the Middle East is a target rich environment.  With our diplomatic, business and educational assets spread out all over the region, they have more targets than any angry adversary could possibly need or want.


Obama, stuck with his ill-conceived Syrian red line, has nothing but bad options.  Option number one seems to be a slap on the wrist – something to persuade the Syrians never to use chemical weapons again.  What conceivable good will that do us, or more importantly, those Syrian rebels who do not support Assad?  What they want is American action that will destroy the Syrian regime’s ability to beat them.  A Syria-wide no-fly zone would be to their liking, or pervasive missile attacks on Syria’s military hardware.  Further, there is no reason to think that anything as minimal as this would bother Assad in any way.  Obviously, the deaths of this own people is of little concern.  The only thing that matters to him and his followers is the perpetuation of their own power which will not be threatened by such a slap.


Option number two is to undertake military action that is so destructive that the rebels will be able to defeat the Assad government.  What does that accomplish for us when we have little to no idea of what will follow Assad in power.  Will Al Qaida be in the mix?  Will today’s rebels turn on the Alawites in retaliation for Assad’s ongoing bloodbath.  Will that cause us to consider what we can do to save those same Alawites?


And, worst case scenario, will our action against Syria, whatever it proves to be, result in broader, more intense regional conflict?


Finally, it can be argued seriously that Syria and what goes on there is of no national strategic interest to us.  Those who call it a humanitarian duty to intervene fail to explain why we have not done so when thousands have been killed in their own African countries.   Given recent oil developments in the Western Hemisphere, there is no rational argument for national interest there, but then there never has been simply because oil is a fungible commodity that people who produce it will inevitably sell it to those who consume it.  Finally our decade long involvement in military activity in the region has ended whatever vestiges of influence we have left after decades of bashing the Arabs.


An American dog may well get mauled in this fight!


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Invade Syria?

Originally published in The Barre Times Argus and the Rutland Herald

It is quite clear that here in the US and in the West in general, policy makers are divided on whether or not the west should invade Syria. American “political realists” have pulled out the stops to show the dangers and stupidity of such an invasion, whereas American supporters of “permanent war” led by the same neocons that got us into Iraq are just itching to get us enmeshed in Syria.


The “discussion” of this issue has not always been on the up and up.  In fact, the potential for inserting disinformation into the equation is endless.


In a May 9 article, The Times of Israel ran an article laying out Israel’s suspicion that Syria is in the process of buying six S-300 missile batteries and 144 missiles from Russia.


Syria already has a highly advanced air defense system, one that has caused our military planners to be very circumspect about any sort of military adventure in Syria.  The addition of a Russian system that is capable downing both fighter planes and cruise missiles would represent a significant upgrade for Syria’s already highly effective air defenses.


Clearly, the purpose of the article was to warn the

United States that the sale could hamper efforts for

international intervention in Syria.  Were we being told that we should act sooner rather than later?


This suspicion had previously been reported in the Wall Street Journal.  The critical question here is whether or not any of it is true.


Then we have the issue of the use of poison gas in Syria.  The original accusation was that the Assad regime had been the culprits. Just now, we have learned that the UN says that the US-backed opposition used the gas, not the regime.


Of course, the poison gas would not have been a major issue had it not been for the inept and ill-considered presidential “red line” that has reduced US options in Syria and put presidential credibility at stake.


But we have the allegations of the poison gas and the unfortunate “red line”, so it really does matter.


Further, there have been constant allegations of atrocities committed by the government and the rebels since the onset of the Syrian insurrection.


The Assad regime is 100% sectarian.  Supported by a smattering of Christians and Sunnis, the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, have governed in Syria through fear and repression.  That is about all one can do when representing no more than 15% of the overall Syrian population.  Since the 1970 Assad coup against the Baath regime, the minority Alawites have ruled the majority Sunnis with an iron fist and have allied themselves with Iran and Hezbollah against Israel.


In short, with the exception of Shia Iran, there are few in the region who support the Syrian Alawites.
It is likely that Bashir Assad and the Alawites will only leave Syria in coffins.  They probably see no alternative but to stand and fight.


Like everything else in the Middle East, Syria is part of the detritus of colonialism – a “country” formed for the convenience and profit of the old western colonial powers.


With America set up as the main enemy for the Syrians, there is little wonder that we are besieged by all manner of horrendous stories about poison gas, missile deliveries and atrocities.  But keep in mind that we are looking at a soundly cynical world in which everyone and anyone is prepared to lie to forward their own interests.


Russia has long had a political stake in Syria and still has a naval base there.  The Syrian Sunnis (freedom fighters?) have always chafed under repressive minority Alawite rule.  The Alawites, seeing no reasonable alternative to staying in power, will fight on.  The Iranians see the Alawites as one of their few allies in a predominately Sunni world.  Hezbollah sees the Alawites as their champions in the Hezbollah fight with Israel.  Israel sees the Alawites as a constant irritant.


So, who really is behind the poison gas, the missile story and the atrocities?  To understand that, one has to look at who benefits from what course of action.


The Israelis, Sunnis, Lebanese, Turks, Saudis, Jordanians and some conservative Americans probably would favor US intervention in Syria if only in the name of stability.  These people clearly would try to pin any bad behavior on the Iranians, Shiites Alawites and Hezbollah, true or not, that might encourage US intervention.  Then there are the Russians, Iranians and Chinese who would avoid such an intervention.


But in the end, it will probably be U.S. public opinion that decides and there is a growing group of Americans who are exhausted by our wars of the past dozen years and understand the very real dangers in direct Syrian involvement.


With any real luck, they will prevail.


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Originally published in Rural Ruminations

Iran appears outwardly to be a relatively stable Middle East country.  The Ayatollahs, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, look to be firmly in charge.  The only thing that would appear to challenge that notion of stability are the protests that took place after the 2009-2010 election.

What does the future hold for Iran.  Is it a candidate for democratization or moderation?  For a number of reasons, Iran is worthy of examination in the wake of the Arab Spring

First, despite external appearances, Iran has an extraordinarily pro-western population.  Remember, they are Indo-Europeans, not Arabs.  They have long admired western culture and commerce.  The average Persians on the street have comparatively paltry beefs with America, primarily because, unlike other Middle East countries, they have not seen American troops or weapons on Iranian soil this decade.  They are legitimately angry that in 1953 we engineered the covert overthrow of the only elected government they have ever had and because today’s international sanctions, seen appropriately as American sponsored, severely hurt the man on the street, not the leadership.

On the positive side and whether we like it or not, our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq plus our increased military involvement across the region (Libya and Syria) have greatly benefitted Iran.

Iran sees the Taliban as an enemy, so all our Afghan counterinsurgency operations are of potential benefit to them. However, most important, our ouster of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq has removed Iran’s most powerful and hostile regional enemy and replaced his regime with a pro-Iranian Shia government.

At 636,000 square miles, Iran is the 18th largest country in the world.  It has a population of 75,000,000 of whom two thirds are Persian and two thirds are under thirty-five.  Iran’s rate of literacy is over seventy-five percent and sixty-seven percent of university students are women.  Iran produces one quarter of the world’s oil and is repository for two thirds of the world’s crude oil reserves.  They have all the tickets to be a major player in their region.

In terms of the ongoing impediments to political moderation, Iran is in pretty good shape.  Over ninety percent of Iranians are Shia, while less than ten percent are Sunni.  In terms of nationalities, two thirds are Persian with the largest minority found in Azerbaijanis at sixteen percent.  As Aryans (non-Arabs), tribes play a far lesser role than they do in most of the rest of the Middle East.  Thus, the pressures and divisive problems created by Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism are greatly reduced.

In any examination of discussion of Iran it is extremely important to know some Iranian/Persian history.  Settlements in Iran date to 7,000 BC.  The first Persian kingdom existed in the third century BC and around 500 BC, the Persian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River.  It was the greatest empire of its time and made major contributions to Art and Science.

This kind of history affects peoples’ attitudes.  Iranians have a real sense of who they are.  They are educated, thoughtful, smart, clever and nationalistic and have a very good understanding of how the world works.

Why would the Iranians want to develop nuclear weapons, if, in fact, that is what they are doing?  Largely because ownership of the bomb would be a virtual guarantee that they would not be attacked by any conceivable enemy.  Iranians want the bomb simply because having it, as opposed to using it, is power incarnate.

Additionally, they almost certainly believe that the bomb will bring them the respect they feel is due them as a power in the region. In that context they have everything else they need to gain that respect and influence.

Iran was a player in the Cold War and understands how the West dealt with the Soviet threat. The Iranians understand MAD. They know that if they were to acquire the bomb, any use they might make of it — say, against Israel or some other American friend in the region — would result in the obliteration of their country.

In short, like all today’s members of the nuclear club, they know that the bomb is useful only as a threat. It is essentially useless as a weapon because its use leads inevitably to self-annihilation.

All of that aside, the best reason America has to forget an attack on Iran and undertake a dialog with them is that only an attack by America, with or without Israel, can unite the population behind the regime.  Absent that, they will always represent festering potential trouble for the Ayatollahs.


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This article originally appeared in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times-Argus. It is the third in a series that began with “Middle East: Cauldron of Conflict” which was published in these papers on December 13, 2012.  The series will consider the Arab Spring, the transfer of democracy to the region and the realities as they evolve in the countries involved.

Like so many countries in the Middle East, before the end of the First World War, Syria was ruled by foreigners.  Canaanites, Phoenicians, Aramaens, Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites prevailed in the pre-Christian era, to be followed later by the Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.

The spread of Islam in the 7th Century brought Syria into the Islamic Empire, only to be followed, inter alia, by Crusader, Mongol and Mamluk rulers.  Some stability was finally achieved when Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th Century and remained there until World War One, whence it emerged under French Mandate.

The French granted Syria independence in 1946.  However, this new Syria lacked political stability, undergoing a series of military coups during its early years.  Coerced stability was finally provided in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, seized power in a coup.

Along with its fragmented history and lack of experience with self-government, Syria is afflicted with the three prevalent, negative imperatives of the Middle East:  Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism.

Although tribal and nationality issues have always existed in Syria, they have generally been of lesser consequence.  It is in the sectarian arena that Syrian stability has proven most vulnerable.

Sunni Muslims represent about 74% of the population of 22.5 Million Syrians, with Alawites and Druze (both subgroupings of Shia Islam) at 16% and Christians at 10%.  The problem for Syrians is that the minority Alawites under the Assad family have ruled the majority Sunnis and the Christians with an iron fist, killing whenever they felt it necessary.  In the Hama massacre of 1982, estimates of deaths run from 20-40,000, a figure only to be exceeded in today’s ongoing war of the Alawites against their Sunni enemies.

As the only Alawite (Shia) minority government in the Middle East, the Assad regime has had the full support of Iran.  In fact, Iran has supported all Shia groups in the Middle East, in the Gulf States and Lebanon, for example.  Interestingly, at a time when a Majority Shia population was being repressively ruled by a minority Sunni government in Iraq, the exact opposite was taking place in Syria.

The significance of the friction between Shia and Sunni cannot be overstated.  These two sects are in hot wars wherever the opportunity presents itself, as in Syria and Iraq.  As the primary supporters of Shia Islam (Iran) and Sunni Islam (Saudi Arabia) in the Gulf, and as those two countries in the region that seek regional hegemony at the other’s expense, an ongoing political war exists between them.

Because of demographic realities, the Syrians are in the unfortunate position of being the surrogates for this intra-Islamic conflict.  Iran is most certainly providing broad support to Syria’s Alawite leadership and Saudi Arabia is said to be providing the same to the anti-Assad Syrian rebels.

Perhaps this fact is not, in itself, sufficient cause for major long-term concern.  The problem is that the Syrian conflict, aided and abetted by Iraq’s sectarian carnage, could very easily slip into a regional conflict pitting Iran and her Arab Shia allies against the region’s majority Sunnis.

Whether that happens or not, the major concern facing anyone who is truly concerned about the future of the region, and that should include America, is what will follow the Assad family’s Alawite regime into leadership in Syria. This is the reality that dominates US policy making.

Every entity that serves the Assad regime today has, in doing so, forfeited any conceivable claim to acceptable governance in Syria.  Their hands are simply too bloody and when they do fall, which they most certainly will, they will be lucky to leave Syria on anything other than a slab.  This observation would argue strongly that post-Assad Syria is likely to be chaotic and essentially ungovernable.

At this moment there are reports that myriad anti-Assad rebel forces are in conflict with one another over the considerable booty liberated during the course of the ongoing civil war.  That sad reality offers no viable, desirable candidates for future Syrian governance.

We don’t really know who these people are or what they stand for.  That is almost certainly a contributing factor to the Obama administration’s completely understandable decision to opt for the lightest possible observable footprint in Syria.

Any deeper, more specific commitment to rebel groups that are are essentially unassessable could very well be to a group that will not be able to effectively govern, leaving their more heavily involved backers with a frightful mess on their hands.

Any bet in Syria today is a bad bet.

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