DUBAI — Has Moqtada al-Sadr blinked? Or has Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Teasing out what’s going on behind yesterday’s cease-fire is like reading tea leaves in a hurricane. The pieces move very quickly.
But it looks like this yet another negotiated settlement that al-Sadr excels at. The questions now are why did this happen, why did it stop and what does it mean for Iraq’s future?
Some background: On Sunday, the so-called “firebrand” cleric — who is currently in Iran — ordered his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets in Basra and Baghdad and called on Maliki to stop raids against his followers. He also called for the release of his men from Iraqi prisons and an amnesty.
Maliki welcomed this offer, in no small part because the Mahdi Army was poised to trounce government forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and heart of the country’s economy. (Ninety percent or so of Iraq’s revenues derive from the oil pumped through pipelines running through Basra.)
To get the stand-down, two of Maliki’s men, Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Maliki’s Da’wa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization in Iraq, traveled to Qom to broker the cease-fire with al-Sadr — along with the help of the head of Iran’s Qods Force. So much for countering Iranian influence in Iraq.
With this truce offer, al-Sadr has short-circuited President George W. Bush’s fantasized-about final showdown with an old nemesis. But it’s not like it wasn’t predictable. Al-Sadr is very, very good at getting into scraps with the powers-that-be and then talking out an inconclusive end to the fighting that leaves nothing resolved. He did it in 2004 — twice! — and in 2006. Each time, the Americans and their Iraqi allies proclaim victory only to have to beat up on the Mahdi Army again some time later. And each time al-Sadr comes out looking better to his supporters and wavering Shi’ites who are looking for alternatives to the ISCI.
This time, he appears strong and statesmanlike. Maliki, by way of contrast, looks weak. After a week of chest-pounding about no negotiations and ultimatums, Maliki has to go to al-Sadr begging for peace. And what does he get back? Demands from al-Sadr for amnesty and a release of prisoners. Plus, no promises to disarm. As Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly wrote, “This sounds like it’s an offer to Maliki to declare victory and then leave town. Or else.”
The situation in Iraq right now is fluid and chaotic but the violence of the past week clarified one thing: Iraq’s security may be getting better, but it’s a tissue-thin veneer of protection against calamity. As this week’s demonstrated, one word from al-Sadr and Iraq can go up in flames.
American military commanders have known this for a while, although they rarely voice it in public. Perhaps even Bush knows it (although this is doubtful given his statements in the past few days.) He’s called this a “defining moment” for Iraq and claims the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the government forces — allied with the Mahdi Army’s rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — as a sign of strength for Maliki’s toddling government.
At the same time, the Americans would love to tackle al-Sadr. For all the talk of “the honorable Sayyid Moqtada” from American commanders, the young cleric and his militia is responsible for a good number of American deaths. On the other hand, U.S. commanders don’t feel like taking on a 100,000 strong guerilla force. No, it’s the Iraqis who usually step into between and negotiate the settlements. They like kicking the can down the road.
Which – in combination with the weakness of Iraq’s security forces – begs the question: Why was this offensive started anyway? The most commonly agreed upon explanation — among outside observers such as myself — is that Maliki decided it was time to fatally weaken his political opponents. The Supreme Council and the Badr Organization had finally agreed to the timing of provincial elections — in which al-Sadr’s party is expected to do well — right after a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney and before the start of the offensive. Perhaps Maliki saw the last chance to strengthen his and his political allies positions with a quick, decisive victory?
Almost all the press reports say the Iraqi prime minister didn’t consult with the United States, but that’s a bit hard to believe. An operation involving 30,000 troops in Iraq’s second largest city doesn’t go down without the American military knowing full well what’s going on.
So why did the U.S. allowed it to happen? It’s not like it was good for them. A long-drawn out struggle — or an unsatisfying status quo — doesn’t look good in the run-up to Gen. David H. Petraeus’s report to Congress, due in April. It brings up all the security issues and undercuts the president’s assertions that things are going well. It does, however, provide a pretext for demonstrating how precarious the situation is, and thus justifies an extended U.S. troop presence. If the building’s about to explode, you don’t send the firefighters home.
This is pure conjecture, but is it possible that Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to Iraq was the blessing to Maliki’s offensive? Is it possible that Cheney brought the ISCI vice president, Adel Abdul Mahdi, on board for the provincial election law — long sought as a trophy for Bush’s claim of reconciliation — by agreeing to help with a takedown of al-Sadr’s forces? Al Qaeda is already on the run and if the Mahdi Army — the next most dangerous militia, according to U.S. officials — were also neutralized, that would look pretty good come November for a candidate running on Iraq’s success story. Yeah, I’m looking at you, John McCain.
And what happens next? That’s a tougher one to answer. If the fighting truly dies down, we’re back to an uneasy status quo — one that can be upset at any time by a few hotheads on a mortar team. Al-Sadr has been strengthened by this, and Maliki weakened. Instead of a strong prime minister wiping out a political rival, Maliki may be facing a long, hot summer.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 4:00 AM | Permalink
I was at an impromptu dinner party here in Abu Dhabi last night and one of the guests, the mother of a former Spanish diplomat asked me what I thought would happen in Iraq. The other guests around the table grimaced; Iraq is a well-worn and tiresome topic here in the Gulf emirate and many have made up their minds already as what is going to happen.
But despite White House statements that every year is a make-or-break year for that poor country, I really do believe 2008 will be a crucial one for Iraq.
Iraq and the United States face huge challenges this year. But the gains made under the current surge strategy aren’t the only measure of what’s going on in Iraq; it remains a series of delicately balanced accords. If one worsens it can be managed, but more than that and the U.S. would again be overwhelmed. Everything has to go just right for Bush to hand a stable and relatively peaceful Iraq off to his successor.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the issues that will confront George W. Bush in his last year in office — and what lies in store for the next president
The Surge: The surge is coming to an end this summer, like it or not. Five combat brigades — about 30,000 troops — will leave Iraq by the end of July because their deployments are up and there aren’t any more reserves ready to go. There’s just no getting around it. The big question is then: Will there be an increase in general violence once the U.S. presence is back down to around 140,000 troops, about the same number who were in-country during the worst of the 2004-2006 violence?
Some say it’s not the numbers of troops, but the mission, and the U.S. has been far more aggressive getting troops into neighborhoods and protecting Iraqi civilians. That’s led to more intelligence tips and a routing of al Qaeda in Iraq to the northern part of the country.
But the competency of the Iraqi security forces, while improving, is still in doubt. With fewer U.S. troops on the ground, the Iraqis will have to pick up the slack. The White House says it intends to continue withdrawing troops after a brief pause to assess the situation. Which means there are likely to be even fewer troops if things go pear-shaped in the fall.
Sunni Awakening: The Surge was successful because of the so-called Sunni Awakening, which started in fall 2006, before the U.S. increased its presence. Sunni tribes in Anbar – the large Western part of the country – realized they would lose any civil war against the Shi’ites and signed on with the U.S.. In return, they got money and weapons if they turned on the foreign jihadists in their midst. It was a good plan and it’s a big reason for the drop in violence. But it’s starting to fray at the edges.
Sunnis in Anbar and Diyala, to the east, are growing frustrated with the Americans and the Iraqi government and have upped their demands. Diyala Awakening militias have basically gone on strike because the Americans aren’t pressuring Baghdad enough to hire all of the Sunnis back into the Iraqi Army and police forces.
“Now, there is no cooperation with the Americans,” said Haider Mustafa al-Kaisy, an militia commander in Baqoubah, the seat of Diyala’s government. “We have stopped fighting al-Qaeda.”
This isn’t a large-scale movement yet but it could become one as the summer rolls on and the Iraqi government continues to blackball Awakening members for jobs in the security services. With a combination of lower troop levels, lack of competent security forces and 80,000 angry Sunnis, Iraq could be looking at the bad days of 2004-2006 again.
Shi’ite Divisions: First, the good news: Nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced he would extend his Mahdi Army’s six-month ceasefire another six months. Along with the surge and the Awakening movement, al-Sadr’s decision to have his men stand down has led to a huge drop in violence.
But his followers, like the Sunnis, are growing frustrated. When he announced the extension last week, many of his followers were upset.
“This is a huge shock,” said Bassim Zain, a militiamen from Diwaniyah. “We were expecting that Sayyid Moqtada will end the freeze in order to defend ourselves.”
Who are they defending themselves against? Mainly another Shi’ite faction: the armed wing of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which controls many of the police forces across the south and have used its positions to torture and kill their political enemies: the Sadrists.
And just last week, a law heralded by the United States as a step toward political reconciliation was vetoed by the SIIC. The SIIC, the Shi’a political party, favors giving more power to the provinces. The Sadrists favor a more centralized government.
But it’s really about postponing provincial elections. The SIIC currently controls many of the oil-rich south’s local governments, but is widely expected to lose in new elections slated for this fall. By vetoing the bill, they tie the election process up in knots and delay an expected drubbing. And they get the levers of the state to continue their fight against al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. But how long will al-Sadr keep his men from fighting?
The Turks: Finally, there’s the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, which Ankara ended after eight days. The Kurds are furious with the U.S. for giving Turkey the green light to operate in their territory. The Turks are furious at the Kurds and the U.S. for not cracking down more effectively on the Kurdish nationalist group, PKK, which Washington and Ankara consider a terrorist organization.
Neither of these dynamics have changed, and the Turks hardly finished off the PKK in eight days. That means the Turks will likely be back this year, and they’ll eventually run up against the Iraqi Kurds’ pesh mergas. And then you’ll have a real war, with the U.S. right in the middle of it.
Hang on, it’s going to be a very bumpy summer.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 10:15 AM | Permalink
At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.
Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.
But his enemies were legion.
The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?
The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.
It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.
The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.
If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.
The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.
Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.
A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.
There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.
No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:53 PM | Permalink
Here in the Middle East, a region where politics, conspiracies and skullduggery are national pastimes, the American presidential race is keenly observed, if not always understood. Still, there’s a great deal of interest among Israelis and Arabs about who the nominees will be and what that person’s election will mean for the region.
So, let’s take a look at some of the regional attitudes toward the Big Three candidates.
The senator from Arizona isn’t widely known here in the region, but what little opinion there is has settled on a single narrative: he’s no different from President George W. Bush, a staunch ally – Arabs might call him blindly so – to Israel, a hothead and the candidate most likely to get into a shooting war with Iran.
Given their druthers, most Arabs on the street would prefer not to see McCain in office.
“I think there is an instinctive aversion to any Republican candidate,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But she made it clear she was speaking about the so-called “Arab street” and not the governments of the region.
“There’s a substantial difference between the Arab street’s opinion and the Arab regimes,” she added. “I think for Arab regimes, perhaps they’d be uncomfortable with a Democratic candidate.”
The Lebanese are certainly uncomfortable with the Democrats, as evidenced by the unease that met Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus last year.
When it comes to Sen. Hillary Clinton, there’s a sense of relief in the region. Her presidency is seen as a return to her husband’s policies – although that harms her in some circles because of President Clinton’s support for Iraq sanctions throughout the 1990s. Others remember the Clinton presidency fondly for its efforts – though flawed – to hammer out a real peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
No matter; she’s considered a strong supporter of Israel – New York City’s large Jewish population and her Hollywood ties are often darkly fretted over – and her support for Israel during the July 2006 war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah hasn’t won her any friends among the so-called “Axis of Resistance”: Syria, Iran and its proxy militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas. For them, Hillary Clinton is seen as a hawk. Her vote in 2002 authorizing the Iraq war still angers many in the region.
The best thing about Clinton, from an Arab perspective, is that she’s a known quality. But between Clinton and McCain, most observers see little difference.
The one candidate that elicits any kind of excitement is Sen. Barack Obama. An African-American who speaks in soaring rhetoric and who is (wrongly) assumed to have some Muslim ties is irresistible to many.
“I would say there’s a cautious optimism about Obama,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “First of all, they (Arabs) expect a Democratic candidate to adopt a different policy, different means. They’re quite aware that the Democratic Party doesn’t endorse Bush’s methods.”
That said, no one thinks the Obama is going to abandon Israel any time soon. “Arabs know the constraints on every president,” she said.
Nonetheless, some circles in Israel are freaking out over the idea of an Obama presidency. Why? Because last year, in an off-the-cuff remark, he mentioned that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” This led David Adelman, a member of AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, to write a letter asking for clarification on this “deeply troubling” remark of Obama’s.
Obama explained in a debate last year that he was talking about the consequences of Palestinians’ failed leadership, but that hasn’t stopped the “Israel First” crowd from coming out of the woodwork.
He has also surrounded himself with, shall we say, “interesting” advisors – when it comes to Israel:
In each of these cases, his opponents are happily ginning up smear tactics against the Obama, seen in the region as the only person who might make significant policy changes for the U.S. policy. Significantly, the “Obama’s-a-Muslim” meme will not die. Look for it to reappear in a virulent form come the summer if he’s the nominee. When Arab media pick it up – it’s only a matter of time – the fictional association will become a reason for Arabs to support Obama and “proof” for Israel’s allies on the right that Obama is not presidential material.
In the end, Obama’s voting record and more recent statements show him to be — like Clinton and McCain — a steadfast ally to the Jewish state. And Arab expectations and hope for the junior senator from Illinois are likely to be dashed on the rocky cliffs of reality should he find himself in the Oval Office.
“There’s always the sense that African-Americans would be more sympathetic (to Arabs), because they’re oppressed too,” Saad-Ghorayeb said. “But that wasn’t really the case with Colin Powell or Condi Rice, was it?”
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:08 PM | Permalink
There’s a Middle Eastern proverb making the rounds these days: You can’t make war without Egypt and you can’t have peace without Syria. And if Syria’s sitting down at the table, as it’s indicated it will do at next week, it’s a safe bet that the fate of two key parts of the region — the Golan and Lebanon — are up for discussion.
In two of the most intractable problems of the region — Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the Syrian regime has been the immovable obstacle. Because outside the U.S., the Middle East isn’t just defined by the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a Gordian Knot of conflicts involving Israelis and Palestinians, Israel and Arabs, Arab Shi’ites and Arab Sunnis, Arabs and Iranians and the West and Iran. They’re all intertwined, but the common thread in this tangled skein is Syria and the regime of its President Bashar al-Assad.
And in the past 48 hours, there has been signs of movement that might, just might signal some kind of accord that the Syrians will accept. The Golan, the uplands seized by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war, is reportedly on the table at the Annapolis conference which begins Tuesday. This was the precondition for Syria to attend the conference, said its foreign minister, Walid Muallem.
That’s very good news for the Americans, the Israelis and possibly the Lebanese. Why? Because with Syria’s participation — along with Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states at the ministerial level — a success in Annapolis might mean the beginning of a real discussion of a Grand Bargain for the region, not just another fitful start to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The thinking is that if the Syrians are shown some flexibility on the Golan, they might also show some flexibility in Lebanon, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since the end of the 1975-1990 Civil War — a political crisis stoked in large part by Syria and its allies in Lebanon.
Syrian assets in Lebanon, notably Hezbollah, had threatened “unspecified measures” that might have included forming a parallel government, staging a coup, putting the Army in control or occupying government buildings in a campaign of civil disobedience upon the expiration of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term at midnight Friday. Many Lebanese believed any such provocations could lead to a new civil war. But nothing’s happened in the wake of the failure to find a compromise candidate for the presidency
Nothing yet, anyway. Even though Lahoud blustered and postured, promising never to hand over power to the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, a U.S. ally, he more or less did exactly that. He left office on schedule, leaving executive power to fall to Siniora’s cabinet. And while he said the conditions existed for a state of emergency and that the Army should maintain security, he didn’t actually turn the workings of the state over to the military. The commander of the Army even went out of his to announce that he would follow Siniora’s orders.
The opposition raised nary a peep, other than some desultory protests about the illegitimacy of the government. But they’ve been doing that for a year now to no effect. It’s the same old, same old.
Why? I think it’s because Syria told them to stand down while it figured out what to do and what it might get in Annapolis. Significantly, the Syrian-allied Speaker of Parliament has said the next round for selection the president will happen Nov. 30, after Annapolis is concluded.
A look at the region’s history makes this theory click into place in an interesting and compelling way. Syria has two main concerns in the region. Lebanon and the Golan, and both relate to the survival of the Assad regime. During the Lebanese Civil War and the following occupation, Lebanon’s bustling, captive economy was the iron lung keeping the regime in Damascus afloat.
After Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon following former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005, Assad’s regime has faced not only an economic hit but also an internal threat from the regime’s old guard who blame the young president for losing Lebanon, which many Syrians regard as historically part of “Greater Syria.”
Should an agreement eventually be made concerning the Golan, the pressure on Assad to “retake” Lebanon could be lessened. What would be better for a president looking to buttress his credentials as the “Lion of the Golan” than to “liberate” the area from those who took it in the 1967 war?
But there are also reasons to focus on the Golan other than national pride and pan-Arabism. The Sept. 6 attacks in northern Syria by Israeli jets shook both Iran and Syria, which had both just made large purchases of advanced Russian radar systems. That the Israelis were able to get to their target site almost without detection should seriously worry the Iranians, who now realize that their nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — is more vulnerable than previously thought. And that, in turn, worries Syria, which has been banking on a the possibility of an Iranian nuclear umbrella for security. Facing the prospect of a U.S. bombardment of its ally, Syria might have decided it’s time to play ball a bit with the West and move away, ever so slightly from Tehran, adopting the more arm’s length approach taken by former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. This has the added benefit of mollifying those old guard elements, too, as they’ve never been as keen on such a tight Iranian alliance.
Of course, there are wildcards in the mix. Lebanon was a cash machine for Damascus, but increased foreign investment from China, Iran, India and the Gulf States is taking the sting of losing that a bit. And if Syria loosens up on Lebanon, look for even more foreign investment to pour in. Syria wouldn’t actually need Lebanon anymore. There will be some Greater Syria proponents banging on the table but Golan’s a pretty consolation prize for Assad to have won for national honor.
Secondly, Hamas and other Palestinian groups with no interest in a peace deal with Israel are led by officials in Damascus. This makes them either first-class irritants or, let’s be brutal, hostages should Annapolis foster any sort of accord. Should Syria get serious about this process, Hamas is going to find itself in an uncomfortable position.
Lastly, there’s the international tribunal investigating the assassination of Hariri. It’s likely to finger high-level members of the Assad regime, including the president’s brother-in-law, which can cause real problems for the Syrians, in Lebanon but also with the international community. How will a ruling that Syria condoned assassination be dealt with? That’s the wildest card of all right now.
And Lebanon? Syria’s allies in Lebanon are waiting to see what comes from Annapolis. If the conference kick-starts new talks between the Israelis and the Syrians, Lebanon’s problems might suddenly become a lot easier to manage. Unfortunately, the corollary is also true.
So come Tuesday, it’s game on.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:59 PM | Permalink
The most interesting thing about Lebanon these days – given the continuing political upheaval in the region – is what hasn’t happened. And for many Lebanese, the absence of obvious headline-grabbing activity is the calm before a very bad storm.
The country hasn’t gone up in flames, as so many have tiresomely predicted every few days. I don’t care whether it’s the Christian cab driver who is convinced his Shi’ite neighbors will slit his throat the moment things get a little twitchier or the politicians who toss out incendiary accusations against entire sectarian groups, your average Lebanese is convinced that no Lebanese is to be trusted. As I said, in a land of many faiths, the people have no faith in each other.
But what else hasn’t happened? Well, there’s still no presidential candidate agreed upon. President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian stooge, is due to step down later this month but since Hezbollah and its allies walked out of the current government last year, he says he won’t turn over power to an “unconstitutional” cabinet. Since there are no Shi’ites in the current government, and the Lebanese constitution requires representation of all the various sects, he says the government is illegitimate. That Hezbollah and its allies voluntarily removed themselves from the system, in the collective mind of the pro-Syrian faction, is considered beside the point.
Lahoud’s blowing smoke. Because when his term is up near the end of November, that’s it. The Constitution is clear — assuming you read Arabic — so if the president’s term expires without a new president, the pro-Western majority bloc gets to call an extraordinary session of parliament and elect their guy with a simple 50 percent plus one vote. The more pressing problem is that legalities don’t play well in Lebanon. This is a delicately balanced country that operates on consensus, and neither the pro-Syrian bloc, led by Hezbollah, nor the pro-Western government, led by Fuad Siniora, can agree on a consensus candidate. The two sides are far, far apart on fundamental issues: the status of Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, its former occupier, and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons and its current state-within-a-state structure. The fear is that if the pro-Western bloc elects its own majority president, Hezbollah and its allies will form their own shadow government or possibly stage a coup.
The Army, which has so far shown remarkable unity and has been containing Lebanon’s centrifugal forces, is making plans to maintain security and order should there be a presidential vacuum. In my more paranoid moments this sure sounds like planning for a coup to me and it doesn’t reassure anyone when Michel Suleiman, chief of the Army, is talked up by Hezbollah as a “transitional president” for a military government. It also doesn’t help that Suleiman has been making pro-Syrian statements lately and that up to half the army is Shi’ite. No wonder many Sunnis and half the Christians in the nation are worried about their primary loyalty: Is it to the state or to Hezbollah, the separatist Shi’ite militia?
And so there are rumors and stories of the various factions arming up in preparation should the presidential decision go badly.
“The old weapons have been taken out, dusted and oiled up, and new weapons have been bought in alarming quantities,” said Omar Nashabe, who writes on security issues for the opposition Al-Akhbar. “They are ready to burn the country again.”
Even private citizens are getting in on the action. In downtown Beirut this week, two armed drivers argued over the right of way on one of Beirut’s many narrow streets. The argument ended with one of them shot dead.
Hezbollah is preparing for something. Last weekend, the group staged a massive military exercise on both sides of the Litani River, south of which the group is not supposed to wander while armed. So, the fighters didn’t carry weapons when they cross the river. Both Israeli military observers and members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) watched the exercise, which was personally overseen by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah said the maneuvers were in response to similar exercises by the Israelis, who flew jets over Lebanon’s southern airspace in continued violation of UNSCR 1701, which ended last year’s war. “I hope that both friend and foe will realize that the resistance is totally ready to confront all kinds of Israeli threats,” Nasrallah said.
And all kinds of domestic threats as well. The demonstration of Hezbollah’s organization and manpower wasn’t lost on the pro-Western government faction in Beirut. Sure, Siniora dismissed it as a simulation on paper, but Hezbollah’s second-in-command warned of “measures” the group would take should a pro-Western president be chosen. And there are reports that Hezbollah is stronger than ever. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a report that said Israel worries that Hezbollah has rearmed with new long-range rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv, that the group has tripled the number of C-802 shore-based anti-ship missiles and established an air-defense unit armed with surface-to-air missiles. (I’ve highlighted the good stuff, on page 6.)
So to say people are nervous is an understatement. Newspaper columnists have even taken to saying that failure to elect a president in Lebanon — seeing as its tied in with geopolitics involving Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States — could spark a war stretching from Beirut to Tehran. Actually, the Cassandra columnist forgot Afghanistan, so such a war would stretch from Beirut to Kabul.
Will that happen? Hard to say. Lebanon’s poor fate is to be the punching bag for the bullies and battleground for the region’s various rivalries. And it’s been that way for centuries.
I guess a lot has happened after all — but nothing has changed.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 1:09 AM | Permalink
With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.
These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.
Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.
“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”
In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.
Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.
But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.
CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.
The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.
The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.
In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.
Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.
While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:06 AM | Permalink
Looking at the U.S. Presidential contest from afar, I can only shake my head with disbelief. Sure, all of the candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, compete to see who can be a better bootlicker to Israel, but only one makes Israel and its defense — as well as the Global War on whatever — the centerpiece of his campaign. And only this one is truly, profoundly dangerous.
Rudy Giuliani’s bellicosity and Big Man style of governance is a threat to domestic politics, yes. For those of us overseas who have covered our eyes at the cascades of screw-ups that has been the Bush presidency, there is only one frightening thought. If Giuliani wins the nomination and the Oval Office, we ain’t seen nothing yet. Because his foreign policy can be summed up in six words: “Verily, I will kick Muslim ass.”
Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition Victory 2008, he criticized Democrats (falsely) for never using the phrase “Islamic terrorist.” “I don’t know what kind of view of the world they have,” he said recently. “I understand when I say ‘Islamic terrorism,’ I’m not offending all of Islam. I’m not offending all of the Arab world. I’m offending exactly who I want to offend and making it clear to them that we stand against them.”
He chortled as he recounted kicking Yassir Arafat out of Lincoln Center, saying he was “a freeloader.” He bragged of sending back a $10 million check for 9/11 families from a Saudi prince. The prince’s crime? Urging America to “adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.”
He said his posture on preventing Iran from building a bomb included a “promise” that if elected, he would use military force to keep them from building a nuke.
It’s as if Giuliani has decided that Bush’s policies in the Middle East are going great, so we need more of them. But is that – truly – worse than what the Bush White House has done?
Yes. Much worse. Rudy Giuliani makes the George W. Bush of 2001 look positively humble.
Just read the opening sentence of Giuliani’s article in Foreign Affairs describing his foreign “policy.” It’s bracingly unsubtle: “We are all members of the 9/11 generation.”
According to Rudy, America will have to go into more troubled parts of the world. (” Faced with a choice between leaving a troubled zone to anarchy or helping build functioning civil societies with accountable governments that can serve as bulwarks against barbarism, the American people will choose the latter.”) He wants to build a “hybrid military-civilian organization” to embark on ambitious nation building of places we invade. And he writes that cleaning up parts of New York City prepare him for cleaning up parts of the world. (“Disorder in the world’s bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior.”)
He wants to expand the military by at least 10 brigades, build a missile defense system, adopt a take-it-or-leave-it style of “diplomacy” and not talk at all with certain regimes. (Iran, in particular.) He disdains the U.N. (must have been all those unpaid parking tickets when he was mayor) and holds anything that restrains the U.S. in contempt.
He also wants to invite Israel into NATO, a particularly horrible idea. Under Article V of the NATO treaty, an attack on a member nation is an attack on all members, and must be met with a united front which is how German and Dutch troops come to be in Afghanistan. If Israel is a NATO member, what happens when a Palestinian suicide bomber blows himself up in Tel Aviv? Is America at war with the Palestinians then? Is that what Rudy wants?
Apparently, yes., Look at his team of foreign policy advisors led by founder of the neo-Conservative movement Norman Podhoretz, who wants to bomb Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.” Next up is Daniel Pipes, who advocates profiling Muslims at airports and taking a hard look at their membership in law enforcement, the military and the diplomatic corps. He also thinks the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is some kind of trick. Lastly, we have Michael Rubin, who wants to scrap the U.S. ban on assassinations.
These are the guys who were too crazy even for the first Bush foreign policy team.
Rudy also won’t disavow torture. “It depends on how it’s done,” he said, adding he doubted the descriptions of the procedure by the “liberal media” were accurate. “It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it.”
It depends on who does it. So when Saddam does it, it’s bad. When we do it, it’s OK! That a major presidential candidate is getting away with this kind of rhetoric makes me weep for the Republic.
Giuliani is the most dangerous of men: one who don’t know how much he doesn’t know. But he knows that America’s right, dammit, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. His penchant for authoritarianism, his my-way-or-the-highway mode of governance and his notoriously thin skin make him far, far more dangerous than Bush could ever be.
Indeed, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:24 AM | Permalink
So. The Turks voted on Wednesday to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) militants. What now? Probably nothing more than more border skirmishes, a bit of diplomatic posturing and more confusion – as if there could be more – over Iraq.
But it would be unwise to dismiss the Turks’ saber-rattling as nothing more than a school-yard test of nerves. This is a very serious problem for the U.S. since 70 percent of all American air cargo bound for Iraq passes through Turkey, mainly through the Incirlik Air Base, a crucial logistical hub for U.S. forces.
And the Turks clearly know who their friends are. Or at least they’re saying they do. Ankara has said that just because Wednesday’s vote in parliament authorizes cross-border incursions, they’re not imminent. All the big players involved – Iraq, Turkey and the United States went to great pains to play down an immediate invasion. “I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow, but we will act at the right time and under the right conditions. This is about self-defense.”
Still, there’s little doubt that Turkey is royally pissed off and resentful of the United States and have decided to warn the Americans with what they see as a legitimate security measure to protect their borders. More than two dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed by PKK rebels in the last two weeks. “Those who criticize us in regards with the motion, should explain what they’re looking for in Afghanistan,” said Mehmet Ali Sahin, the Turkish justice minister. “Turkey applies the same international law that granted the right and authority to those who entered in Afghanistan in connection with some organizations with which they had linked the attacks on twin towers. Therefore, nobody has the right to say anything.”
Well, Iraq’s Kurds won’t take any movements against them lying down. They have no fond memories of the previous 24 incursions from Turkey over the past 23 years, but this one is different. For one, the Americans are in Iraq now, and the Kurds have an economic success story they – and to some extent, the Americans – want to protect. Yesterday, Kurds in Irbil, in northern Iraq marched by the thousands to protest the Turkish vote. Some threatened “resistance” should there be any cross-border funny business on the part of NATO’s second largest military.
But what would any military action on Turkey’s part look like? Are we looking at a major invasion? Probably not. Here’s why: northern Iraq is very inhospitable terrain. (I know; I’ve walked it.) It’s a maze of mountain passes and gullies, of treacherous peaks and loads of spots for ambushes. It is prime PKK territory. Also, winter is coming on, making a tough area even tougher. Many of the camps with the main body of PKK leadership and hardened fighters are in the Qandil Mountains, among the most rugged in the Middle East and on the Iranian border. Getting there is going to be a major challenge for the Turks. These raids would likely accomplish little by way of military objectives.
But faced with the difficulties of conducting effective precision strikes, the Turks will likely do what all militaries do when confronted with a wily foe: overreact with disproportionate force. That means the establishment of a buffer zone, manned by thousands of Turkish troops. And what happens when you put a foreign invading force on top of a resentful population in Iraq? Ask the Americans.
Of course, the Turks realize all this. This is their backyard after all. So it looks like the real game is not cowboys and indians, but the school-yard test of nerves called chicken.
What Turkey is really attempting to do is to force the U.S., Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government to act against the PKK to pre-empt any action by Turkey. The Turks figure that the KRG and its American backers will choose to crack down on Kurdish rebels if they’re faced with the prospect of a Turkish invasion and the collapse of the Kurdish economic miracle in the north – much of which relies on trade with Turkey and Iran. It would be the lesser of two evils.
But if the U.S. and its allies don’t or can’t tackle the PKK, Turkey will be forced to act. Right now, there seems to be no great thirst for incursions that almost inevitably would lead to a larger and more permanent ground force and the Kurdish insurgency that almost certainly would follow.
Chicken is a dangerous game. The hardest part is knowing when to blink. Do Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds know the rules?
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 11:43 PM | Permalink
Last week I talked about the alternate ways of dealing with Iran in the Middle East, one that didn’t involve violent confrontation. The idea was to bow to reality and negotiate with Iran, smoothing the lines of friction by bowing to some of its demands, while getting some changes in behavior out of the regime in Tehran.
But that’s not what’s happening. The U.S. and the West are backing Iran into a corner, forcing it to push back. This makes it almost inevitable that Iran would foment chaos and instability in the region while surging toward nuclear arms as a means of deterrence.
If this confrontation continues, there are two possibilities, neither of which are good for the U.S. Let’s take a look at them.
One possibility is a large-scale withdrawal by the United States from Iraq, although that would leave Iran as the dominant military power in the Gulf. It has the largest military in the region (even if it’s poorly equipped) and its Revolutionary Guards Corps is capable and trained in asymmetric warfare. It has reach, a deep bench and good weapons. (Exhibit A: Last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel.) So what are we looking at?
First, southern Iraq and its oil fields will likely become an Iranian vassal state in all but name. While Iraqi Shi’ites have been patriotic in the past — large numbers of them died in the battle for the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War — Iran has tentacles in every major Shi’ite party in Iraq. Even Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which exhibits a form of Iraqi/Arab Shi’ite nationalism, is not immune. His militia has been splintering for months now, and there are credible reports that rogue elements under the influence of the IRGC are operating in Iraq.
And al-Sadr has an uneasy alliance with Iran. He’s perfectly happy to take their money and weapons, but by no means is he a lapdog. That means he’s in danger. Should Iran make a solid play for southern Iraq — and there’s no reason to think they won’t — al-Sadr could end up dead, with the blame falling on retreating Americans. That will drive Shi’ites loyal to him bonkers, so look for harassment attacks on the withdrawing U.S. forces to escalate to a full-on rout and scramble for the relative haven of Kuwait. Other Tehran-backed militias would quickly take care of their rivals in southern Iraq and it’s likely that after a short, sharp civil war within a civil war, those parties would emerge triumphant in Baghdad and in the south. The Kurds will be threatened in the north by both Turkey and Iran — who already seem to have a de facto alliance against the upstart Kurds — leaving the Sunnis to fend for themselves against foreign *jihadi* elements in Anbar and other majority Sunni provinces. This effective partition won’t take long.
That positions Iran in a dominate position in the Gulf and should it acquire nuclear weapons, other countries will have to follow suit. Saudi Arabia will nuke up, as would Egypt. Syria would benefit from Iranian nuclear technology or simply be given bombs. Israel would be pressed on all sides and would likely drop all pretense and declare itself a nuclear state. The Middle East — and much of the world’s oil supply — would be hostage to one of the most unstable balances of terror the world has ever known. It wouldn’t take much to spark off a regional, nuclear war. Oil prices will rise and plateau at God-knows-what because of the constant, hair-trigger tension and a world-wide recessions or even depression might ensue as prices rise because of cascading costs in the distribution chains. Food would cost more, business travel would drop, jobs would be lost, public transportation would become more expensive, etc., etc. The era of cheap oil and the lifestyle it affords would be over.
Meanwhile, as oil prices rise, the very Middle Eastern countries staring eyeball to eyeball would reap the benefits and be able to buy more modern weapons. It would be an oily, vicious cycle.
That’s one scenario but, unfortunately, it’s the less likely of the two. It’s predicated on the idea that Iran will be left to do as it pleases in Iraq and no one will interfere. But as has been shown, the U.S. is not going to just up and leave Iraq; It will have 35,000 to 50,000 troops there for the foreseeable future even with a drawdown, as well as its considerable over-the-horizon assets (ships and jets) in the region. This means that the U.S. continues to plan for for a possible military confrontation with Iran. And that means Iran intends to build a bomb.
They can’t not try to build a bomb now thanks to the breakdown in talks over Iraq. There’s some dissension within foreign policy circles whether Iran wants an actual, working bomb or merely the capacity to build one quickly, but neither is the least bit palatable to Israel, the surrounding Arab states, the United States or anyone in the Western world, really.
What might a war with Iran look like? Initial strikes would come from the Gulf in the form of a barrage of cruise missiles and fighter jets from the carrier groups there and the surrounding air bases. The Bushehr nuclear plant is certainly on the hit list, as is the Natanz uranium enrichment center. Struck, too, will be the heavy water plant and radioisotope facility in Arak; the Ardekan Nuclear Fuel Unit; the Uranium Conversion Facility and nuclear technology center in Isfahan. And that will only be the first wave of sortie after sortie striking targets that, after the initial nuclear facilities, will grow to include Revolutionary Guard positions and eventually infrastructure points such as bridges, power stations and oil refineries. It would be an attack designed to bring the Iranian economy — and, hopefully, the regime — to its knees.
The Iranians aren’t defenseless, of course. They have robust anti-aircraft defense systems, so there likely would be casualties among the pilots. And they have good surface-to-ship missiles that can take down tankers and smaller ships stationed in the Gulf. There’s a good chance they would try to choke off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a vast amount of the world’s oil flows. It would only take a couple of hits on tankers in the Gulf for all traffic there to stop.
Warships can be further taken down by swarms of suicide speed boats, tactics the Iranians have been perfecting for just this occasion. While the damage to Iran would be severe early on, the repercussions to American forces in Iraq, the Gulf and even Europe could be as bad. Shi’ites in Iraq, goosed by Iranian-backed militias, could inflict heavy losses on the 160,000 troops there.
The Iranians have already thought of this. On Sept. 1, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei replaced the commander-in-chief of the country’s elite military corps with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaafari, a former IRGC commander from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. By placing their top Iraq hand in charge of their most potent military force, the Iranians are signaling they mean business in the event of an attack.
At sea, a few warships might be lost, with who knows how many casualties. If Israel is involved in the attack, look for Hezbollah in Lebanon to jump in, pummeling the Jewish state’s north with hundreds of Katyushas in a playback of last summer’s war. That will bring Syria, Israel and Lebanon into the fight. If it drags on, Pakistan could fall to an Islamist coup d’etat, again stoked by Iranian agents. Elsewhere, in Europe, South America and North America, members of the al Quds Force — Iran’s elite international paramilitary unit — could wreck their own brand of havoc with terror attacks.
War would rage from the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, a continuous swath of fury and violence. It would be the end of the world as we know it.
Oil prices would skyrocket, well over $100 barrel, China, the U.S. And Europe, the world’s top producers and consumers, would suffer economic pinches as the oil economies ground to a halt. The Western standard of living would rapidly fall, thank to a similar cascade of squeezes that I mentioned above.
This is the likely outcome of a war, and it’s not at all clear the West would win this one. Yes, Iran would be devastated, but the West would stand hated and impoverished, starved for oil. It would take years to recover, and the simmering resentment of the Muslim would would be stoked for another generation.
Is that what the White House wants? As I mentioned last week, negotiations are the best way forward.
Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 6:22 PM | Permalink