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Originally published in the “Valley News”

It is a simple fact that many “countries” in the Middle East are not really nation-states as they are understood to be in the West, but rather often unhappy agglomerations of ethnic, tribal, sectarian and even national groups having little in common.

Instability in the Middle East can be measured by the extent of tribal, sectarian, ethnic and national frictions in any “country” in the region.

The borders of many Middle East “countries” were drawn by European colonial powers for their own convenience and profit, without much if any consideration for the human realities with which they were dealing.  The result of this colonial legacy, coupled with the ongoing Arab Spring liberation, is the exacerbation of the conflicts and frictions that have existed for centuries, but which heretofore have been mostly repressively controlled.

Of all of these “countries”, Syria is among the most difficult and complicated.  Syria is 90% Arab and 10% Kurds and Armenians.  Sunni Moslems make up about 75% of the population with Alawites, a minority sect of Shia Islam, at about 15% and Christians around 10%.

What makes Syria different is that the minority Alawites govern the majority Sunni population, not necessarily very kindly or gently.  Because the Alawites have been in charge since Hafez Assad took power in a military coup in 1970, they have effectively consolidated their grip on the country.

The Alawites control the military and intelligence services in Syria.  In addition, under both Hafez Assad and his son Bashar, they have judiciously included important non-Alawites in government and commerce, creating a larger power base than would normally be operated by a 15% minority.  There are important Sunnis and Christians who have economic or political stakes in the success of the present Alawite-dominated government.  In effect, the Alawites have power and the guns, an extremely well armed, well-trained and effective army.

The prime international supporters of Alawite Syria are Russia and Shia Iran.  The Iranians support them as the only other Shia regime in the region, one that supports the Iran-centered Hezbollah and Hamas organizations against Israel.  Syria is an important Iranian ally.

Russia has supported Syria since just after the 1956 Suez crisis when the USSR contracted to sell them military weaponry.  The USSR and now Russia have since then been suppliers of arms to Syria.  Clearly, their ongoing rejection of any UN sanctioned military action against the Assad regime is based on that relationship and the importance with which it is viewed in Russia.  However, that pro-Alawite stand has hurt the Russians with the region’s majority Sunni world, which will make that policy increasingly disadvantageous to Russia.  It could change.

There have probably been 10,000 killed in the ongoing Syrian insurrection.  Because of the Alawite/Sunni issues, the great fear is that the insurrection could easily become a sectarian civil war, something that could spread to and have major negative ramifications in the greater Muslim world.  So far, that appears not to have happened.

In Syria, as in some other Muslim “countries”, towns and neighborhoods often have developed along sectarian lines.  An Alawite town may sit next to a predominately Sunni town just down the way from a Christian town on the banks of the Euphrates.

When un-uniformed “militia” attack a Sunni town and kill Sunni women and children, the cry goes up in the Sunni community that it was a government-backed or sponsored Alawite militia, whereas it is equally possible that it is tribal or family feuds playing out.

And the simple fact is that there is no way of knowing exactly what has happened.  Was it really a government-sponsored attack, or a tribal feud, or is it a provocation by others who want to create sectarian conflict, as we have so painfully seen in Iraq?

The point here is that it is exceedingly difficult to sort out who is doing what to whom.  American policy makers have little notion of precisely what the “Free Syrian Army” stands for other than the fall of Assad and the Alawites.  And what would that fall bring? Certainly not stability!

The situation is vaguely analogous to Libya where we try to figure out what the 150 tribes and tribal coalitions stand for, or further, what the valley-bound tribal residents of Afghanistan would accept (if anything!) as a central government.  Our Middle East experiences should have shown us by now that US military involvement without sufficient understanding of local realities can be disastrous.

In Syria, one side will ultimately crush the other.  Any peaceful resolution seems remote.

Getting into Syria would be easy.  Getting out, or getting anything positive out of it, simply may not be possible.

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

Article published Nov 6, 2011

Currently, the Arab world seems to be in nearly complete ferment, not necessarily heading for liberal democracy as we know it but probably toward self-determination, the result of which, if fulfilled, is likely to add to stability in the region.

Even though the process of getting to self-determination is likely to be exceedingly rough — take Libya, for example — it is inexorably under way. Every country in the region will be profoundly affected, most emphatically including Israel, which in the long run could face an even more united, less accommodating Arab world. Even today there is talk in Egypt of doing away with the 1979 peace agreement with Israel.

Recently, more than 110 members of the United Nations General Assembly announced their support for a Palestinian state. It is possible that in the coming months, the General Assembly will vote to recognize Palestine as a state defined by its pre-1967 borders. Such a motion would not be subject to Security Council veto and would have far-reaching ramifications for both countries.

And through all of this, Israel and the United States are talking about restarting Palestine-Israel negotiations. However, the likelihood of their taking place seems daily more remote.

The Palestinians, backed by the Arabs, and Israel, backed by the United States, remain equally resolute in setting up preconditions that the other side cannot or will not meet. Mutual recognition, establishing borders, negotiating the right of return and the ongoing Israeli settlement program are prominent among those issues.

To further complicate matters, UNESCO has just voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member state. Such a motion will not be subject to Security Council veto and is also likely to have a direct effect on Palestine’s ongoing attempts in the General Assembly to become a member state.

These could be ominous events for an Israel intent on maintaining the status quo. Remember, absent a two-state solution, the threat is to Israel’s Zionist roots of Jewishness and democracy, not to Palestine, which after half a century of statelessness has nothing much left to lose.

In addition, at a time when both Palestinians and Israelis need flexibility to reach any kind of acceptable solution, Israeli politics appear to be increasingly in the political grip of the settlers and their supporters, among whom we find Israel’s religiously conservative political right, the most strident of Israeli’s Christian and Jewish American supporters and the increasingly dogmatic Russian immigration to Israel.

For anyone who really cares about the Zionist future of Israel, a quick look is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. It really doesn’t matter who is at fault; everything that is happening, every inescapable trend, every policy in place, every incontrovertible reality represents a virtually iron-clad guarantee that Israel is in the process of giving up its soul — its Zionist democratic and Jewish roots.

Unfortunately for Israel, time is not on its side. Demographics will do it in. The only answer for an Israel that decides to retain both its Jewish and democratic character lies in the two-state solution. As time goes on, however, the ongoing West Bank settlement program and ingrained Arab hostility toward the very existence of Israel make that outcome less feasible — some say, impossible.

So, absent the two-state solution, Israel has two options: giving up its democracy for apartheid, or giving up its Jewishness for a one-state solution. Retaining both seems highly unlikely, and neither would be acceptable for a true Zionist.

Recently, some committed Zionist supporters of Israel are showing subtle changes in attitude toward the future. The media contain daily articles questioning the settlement movement and the Likud’s approach to human rights. Israel’s daily Haaretz has just asked, “Is Israel confusing legitimate criticism of its policies with anti-Semitism to avoid having to make difficult existential decisions?”

Here in America, a new organization called J Street, “The political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” is gaining membership, particularly among younger Americans, while being totally rejected by the Netanyahu government.

Will American Jewry be able to continue to support Israel if it maintains its current political, social and religious orientations?

Is the situation reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel? That would be a sad day, particularly when successful negotiations on four issues — security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem — could save Zionist Israel at the cost of some of the settlements.

That is an impossible goal if Israel continues to refuse to even try. Lose some settlements or lose your Zionist soul.

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Existing U.S.-Iraq bilateral agreements stipulate that we will withdraw all our troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

The Obama administration’s ongoing demand, originated by the Bush administration, that the Iraqi government permit thousands of American troops to remain in Iraq after the existing departure deadline of the end of this year appears to have run into serious trouble in the Iraqi approval process.

Apparently the Iraqis have not made a final decision, but the real issue here is the precise meaning of the American and Iraqi inability to come expeditiously to agreement on an item of considerable importance to both sides.

The sticking point appears to be that we have demanded that all our troops who remain in Iraq must have immunity from Iraqi courts. It is difficult to think that we would agree to a status of forces agreement with any country, including Iraq, that did not provide such immunity, which has existed in virtually all of such agreements we have concluded around the world since World War II.

The problem for Iraq lies in the inherent composition of the country and government. There is apparently a consensus within Iraqi leadership both that the American troops should stay and that they should be granted the requested immunity.

However, our State Department lawyers have determined that immunity from Iraqi courts, even if granted by the existing Iraqi government, would be guaranteed only if formally approved by the Iraqi Parliament.

Therein lies the rub. Even though the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seems willing to grant this immunity, the Parliament is not. The 2010 elections produced a government composed of nine different alliances and parties. It is fragmented and so weak that it cannot conceivably support the grant of immunity to American troops that is an absolutely inflexible condition of the Obama administration. Far too many Iraqis see this grant as a continuation of the “American occupation” and do not support it. Parenthetically, al-Maliki has said from the start that approval of the Iraqi Parliament would be impossible.

Of course, this impasse is a reflection on the entire American experience in Iraq. It says a great deal about any chances we might have thought we had for “success” in that country when we invaded in 2003. And it says a lot about our hopes for future influence there.

However, what it says a great deal more subtly is about Iraq itself. Imagine a country whose parliament is made up of nine groups and parties that received, in descending order, 24.7 percent, 24.2 percent, 18.1 percent, 14.5 percent, 4.1 percent, 2.6 percent, 2.5 percent, 2.1 percent and 1.3 percent of the popular national vote, which was made up of 62.4 percent of the total population.

Given our normal level of participation in American national elections, that is a most respectable and representative turnout.

However, what it should tell you is how incredibly fragmented Iraq really is. Iraq has three very different main population groups: the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, and each of those is politically and at times tribally divided.

Sunnis make up only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Iraqi population, yet during the 20th century they absolutely dominated Iraq’s government and economy. It didn’t help that the last Sunni leader was Saddam Hussein and that he brutally repressed the Shiites (60 percent of the population) and the Kurds (18 percent of the population), making nothing but enemies among them.

Their control and repression were so complete that many Sunnis actually believed they represented a majority in the Iraq population.

And now we have the majority Shiites finally in control — but of what? They are in control of the Sunnis, who deeply resent their loss of control of the country, and the Kurds, who think of themselves primarily as Kurds, not Iraqis, and who are part of a total of about 50 million Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own.

Both the Shiites and the Kurds suffered mightily under the Sunnis. Thousands of Kurds were indiscriminately murdered by Saddam’s Sunni regime. The Shiites have no love for the Sunnis who dominated them murderously for decades. The Sunnis are bewildered by their loss of power, wealth and influence.

The Kurds simply want a home of their own. They all want Iraqi oil.

Iraq is an unhappy country that is sharply divided among three groups with different goals and imperatives, with no one group particularly liking the other.

What form Iraq takes after years of war, insurrection and occupation is difficult if not impossible to predict. Logic, which rarely prevails, might have it that Iraq would split quietly into its three component parts — Shiite, Kurd and Sunni. However, it is unlikely that the transition, whatever it is to be, will be smooth.

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Originally published in The Herald of Randolph

By Haviland Smith

On August 5, Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, did it again.  He let his mouth get way out in front of whatever brain he actually has. In a discussion of the Tea Party on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, he made the following statement:

“The media has got to begin to not give equal time or equal balance to an absolutely absurd notion just because somebody asserts it or simply because somebody says something which everybody knows is not factual, it doesn’t deserve the same credit as a legitimate idea about what you do.”

Apparently Kerry not only wants the media to ignore the Tea Party, he wants Congress to ignore it as well, for he continued with the following comment on Republican appointments to the upcoming joint debt ceiling committee which will (or won’t) decide our immediate economic future:

“And if the joint committee, the joint committee cannot be, I mean John Boehner, please, Mitch McConnell, please, don’t appoint people with a preconceived idea of exactly what they’re going to do. That will not serve the nation. It may serve Party, but that’s not leadership. They need to put people on that committee who are going to work for the interests of our country so we can decide how to deal with our long-term structural problems and put people to work now.”  In other words, they have to do it the Democrats’ way!

There are two ways to look at Kerry’s statement.  To be charitable, the Republicans and their Tea Party, have completely changed the rules in Washington.  Votes on virtually anything and everything are now political, with little care or attention being paid to the wellbeing of the nation or its people.  Everything is now for the party.  My way or the highway!

In that context, Kerry can be seen bewailing the change to a totally dysfunctional congressional environment, while at the same time not accepting any of the responsibility the Democrats have for its existence.

But what kind of naïve ideological claptrap is that?  Kerry, in the eyes of the Tea Party, can be added to the list of Americans who have not found their truth, i.e. that U.S. debt problems have to be solved now, irrespective or what the Democrats and over half the country want, or of any harm that solution may bring to the wellbeing of the country.

National polls now indicate that a solid majority of Americans would like to see more immediate Federal investment in job creation, greater taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and continued support for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – all of which programs are on the Tea Party death list!

Quite apart from the absurdity and unconstitutionality of Kerry’s position, has it not occurred to him that if those polls are true, he and his fellow Democrats desperately need the Tea Party?   In the Tea Party, we have a new political movement that is challenging everything we know about the state of the world and the conduct of government.  Fiscal policy, immigration law, gay and lesbian rights, climate change, the role and intentions of government, tax policy and foreign policy have all come under the scrutiny of the Tea Party, almost invariably producing new policies at odds with Democrats as well as many Republicans, not to speak of science and reality!

If poll results hold where they now are, frightened Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, should want to be sure that absolutely nothing inhibits the Tea Party, or particularly, its leaders.  If you are not a believer in the Tea Party platform, you desperately need the active, involved presence of people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and just now, Governor Perry from Texas.  You need their informational and intellectual shortfalls. They are the Tea Party equivalents to Kerry, but without much feel for history or reality and without his Yale-trained eloquence and respect for English language and grammar.

No, at a time when nothing much of interest is coming from their leadership, Democrats are in desperate need of political help.  President Obama is increasingly viewed as weak and ineffective and Pelosi and Ried seem unable to accomplish much of anything for their party in the Congress.

The best hope Democrats have of holding what they now have, or of even regaining political power in Washington, lies very much in the ability of the Tea Party to display itself as the twenty-first century “know-nothings” who are out of step with facts, reality and, incidentally, grammar.

Without such Republican candidates, the Democrats haven’t much hope.  Eloquence alone never wins the day!

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Originally published in The Rutland Herald and The Barre Times Argus

Over the weekend of July 10-11, it was announced that the United States would suspend, and in some cases cancel, nearly $800 million in military aid to Pakistan. This would amount to almost half of the $2 billion slated for the country’s armed forces.

Let’s get one thing straight right away.  It doesn’t matter what we think of Pakistan, India or Afghanistan.  What matters is  tht we understand regional reality and how that affects our goals there. In that context, we might profitably examine whether or not Afghan/Pakistan realities, in effect, make our goals illusory.

It is difficult to understand precisely what could have rationally motivated the Obama administration to implement this policy. Absent any logical underpinnings, it may well be the result of our anger that we are not getting our way with Pakistan when it comes to what we see as their uncooperative operations on their own territory against that part of the Taliban that resides on their side of the border with Afghanistan.

We are late-comers to the complex realities of the Middle East and South Asia.  Our policies, such as they are, would appear to be based in the domestic political needs of the Bush and Obama administrations, rather than on facts on the ground. More than that, we are deeply involved there for reasons that difficult to understand.  While we all understand our invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, our 2003 invasion of Iraq and our subsequent re-invasion of Afghanistan are far less comprehensible.

Whatever the current facts and prospects, and none of those are any more clear under Obama than they were under Bush, one thing is absolutely clear and critical.  Pakistan sees India as an existential threat.  Those two countries have fought wars in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999, as well as significant skirmishes in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1995, and have almost come to blows on numerous other occasions.

Despite the wishes of Muslims prior to the 1947 partition of colonial India, for a clean line of demarcation between themselves and the other religious groups, that did not happen.

Roughly 50% of the Muslim population of colonial British India remained in what is today India. Since 1947, interfaith violence between Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs has resulted in something between a half million and a million casualties.

Since partition, Pakistan has focused narrowly on what it sees as the existential threat from India. As a result, Afghanistan has become extremely important to the Pakistanis.  They are culturally, religiously, linguistically and ethnically inseparable.

Pakistan sees the Taliban as one way to apply pressure on India.  For that reason, Pakistan military intelligence (the ISI) has long subsidized the Taliban and its activities as a counterbalance to India’s influence in the disputed Kashmir region.

it has been clearly stated by virtually every US official from President Obama to General Petraeus that we cannot “win” in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban has a safe haven in Pakistan. The Pakistanis, for their own national reasons, are unwilling to eliminate that safe haven and we must remember that and as long as all our major military supply routes for Afghanistan cross Pakistan territory, we might wish to better consider their sensitivities.

So, the issue cannot be simply that we are displeased with the reluctance of the Pakistan government to undertake activities that it believes are directly threatening to its national interests vis a vis India.  There has to be something more than that, either a total lack of understanding among US policy makers of the realities in Southeast Asia, or some sort of convoluted belief that denying Pakistan our support will somehow make it easier for us to withdraw from Afghanistan.

And it may be just that! For this thumb in the eye of Pakistan, following on the heels of their open displeasure with our unilateral drone assassinations and our killing of bin Laden without their coordination and on their territory, will certainly change the balance in Afghanistan.

If we thought for a moment, as some American dreamers did, that we had any sort of chance for any kind of “win” in Afghanistan, we have just measurably raised the odds against successfully achieving our own goals by further humiliating the Pakistan military establishment, government and people.

Go figure!

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