The Syrian civil war irony: Russia, US reversal of roles?

By Claude Salhani

One of the many facets of the civil war in Syria is what appears to be ironic role reversals between Russia and the United States.

Russia’s military participation in the Syrian conflict comes in the form of help for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It should not be overlooked that some analysts are trying to spin this off as Russia standing up for the defence of Christianity as it takes on the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).

The United States and its Euro­pean allies are trying to come up with a comprehensive strategy on how to fight the jihadist extrem­ists.

Politics and what motivates political trends in the region can be confusing in the best of times. Throw in the complexity of the Syrian civil war with its multitude of political alliances, the plethora of armed factions — foreign and domestic — and the general per­plexity that surrounds the Syrian conflagration and it is easy to understand the West’s reluctance to commit boots on the ground. Continue reading

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Russia, US should be careful who they arm in Syria

by Claude Salhani

Syria’s main opposition group has called for foreign allies to supply rebel forces with ground-to-air missiles to counter deadly air raids on rebel-held sections of Aleppo. With Russia backing one side in this never-ending civil war and the United States backing another, it is easy to see a repeti­tion of the Afghanistan crisis and its dire consequences in Syria.

As a brief reminder, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, the Cold War was at a peak. So as not to ap­pear that the United States was directly involved in the crisis, US involvement in Afghanistan was channelled through the CIA. The US spy agency, according to some records, supplied the anti-Soviet mujahideen some 500 Stinger missiles. Other sources say a more accurate figure would be closer to 1,500-2,000 missiles along with 250 launchers. Continue reading

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Who holds the key to the Syrian enigma?

by Claude Salhani

A 40-minute conversa­tion US Secretary of State John Kerry had with Syrian opposi­tion leaders at the end of September was recorded and leaked to the New York Times. It reveals a treasure trove of information as to the mindset of US diplomacy regarding the Middle East and sheds more light on the inertia shown by US President Barack Obama’s administration on Syria.

As Kerry pointed out, very few within the Obama administration are willing to use force and the US Congress would not likely authorise any such action.

“A lot of Americans don’t believe that we should be fighting and sending young Americans to die in another country,” Kerry said during the conversation in New York. Continue reading

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Trump advocates grand theft of Arab oil

Donald Trump, the controversial Republi­can Party candidate for the White House, advocates stealing Iraqi and eventually Syrian oil if he were to become the 45th president of the United States.

“The world should pay us for defending them,” said Trump during the first presidential debate with Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.

“We should have taken their oil” were the very words from the man who wants to become the next president of the United States, unbelievable as it may appear.

This was not the first time the New York billionaire businessman has said the United States should simply grab Iraq’s oil as payment for US involvement in the country’s conflicts.

“We cannot be the policeman of the world. We cannot protect the whole world,” Trump said. Continue reading

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Israel’s lesson from the Lebanon 1982 invasion: Keep out

Claude Salhani

A high-ranking Israeli official on a visit to Washing­ton said Israel must be “sober and realistic” in addressing the current situation in its “dangerous neighbour­hood”.

Moshe Yaalon, a former Israeli Defence minister and military chief of staff, told a panel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that, amid the chaos and civil wars tearing the region apart, Israel’s response should follow a few clear principles in what he described as an “ongoing earthquake”.

The political violence unfold­ing in the Middle East is shaking the foundations of a number of Arab countries. Yaalon, who is a visiting fellow at the institute, cited as examples the situation in Egypt, Syria and Yemen and cautioned that Israel should not intervene in internal Arab affairs, as it had done in Lebanon, so long as Israel was not directly threatened. The real threat to Israel is no longer the Arab states, which it went to war with four or five times in as many decades.

Israel, said Yaalon, must draw on lessons learned in Lebanon following the June 1982 inva­sion and subsequent occupation of the country and of Tel Aviv’s meddling in the internal affairs of its northern neighbour, as was demonstrated by the support of Christian militias and gambling on Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Chris­tian coalition to take over the Lebanese presidency. Gemayel was assassinated and Israel was dragged into the Lebanese civil war.

Israel, said Yaalon, must re­main “neutral,” as it has been in the Syrian conflict. Democracy means more than just having elections, he said.

It is always somewhat ironic that Israel — the cause of many of the region’s troubles — is seen by the West as “the only democratic country in the Middle East” de­spite such undemocratic prac­tices as the continued occupation of the West Bank, the collective punishment of an entire region and the mistreatment of Palestin­ians. Where is the justification for banning Palestinians from driv­ing on certain highways that are reserved exclusively for Israelis and, of course, foreign visitors?

The belief that Jeffersonian democracy can be taken off the shelf and adapted to cultures that have had no prior exposure to truly democratic traditions is wishful thinking.

Syria, Iraq and Yemen are large­ly the creation of colonial powers making decisions on demarcation lines and drawing up borders by tracing straight lines in the sand. Such a creation did not give these countries a solid foundation upon which to build sound democratic systems.

At no time was any considera­tion given to the fact that these redrawn borders separated clans, tribes and families. At the same time, these adjusted borders gave rise to an increase in tensions between opposing ethnicities, religions and tribes that found themselves living on the same side of a border, where previously their ancestors roamed unhin­dered by imaginary frontiers.

The lack of continuity in Washington’s policy strategy was and remains the greatest disad­vantage to promoting democracy in the developing world. The conflicts raging in several Middle Eastern countries are not isolated sideshows but part and parcel of a sustainable strategy by opponents of freedom and democratic ways of life.

Lack of continuity of a sustaina­ble political strategy in the Middle East by consecutive US adminis­trations — both Republican and Democratic — has been one of their greatest shortcomings.

Washington’s lack of a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Syria, for exam­ple, is well explained in a recent episode of the popular TV show Homeland. During a debriefing upon his return from areas under control of the Islamic State, a CIA undercover operative is asked how successful was the US strategy in fighting the terror group?

“What strategy?” the CIA agent replied.

When asked what he believed was needed to solve the problem, the field operative said: “Two hundred thousand boots on the ground and an equal number of teachers for an indefinite period of time.” A senior CIA officer fires back: “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Until the day peace really breaks out in the Middle East the whole region will continue to live pre­cariously and in a bad neighbour­hood.


Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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Iran seen provoking tensions with US at sea

By  Claude Salhani

As tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria abated slightly, tensions between Iran and the United States continued to build, risking an all-out confron­tation between the US Navy and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Naval units of the IRGC have sys­tematically harassed US Navy war­ships in the Gulf at least 30 times since January. This represents a 50% increase when compared to the same time period of 2015. In each case, an Iranian vessel or ves­sels approached the US warships within weapons range.

According to a report by US Navy Commander Jeremy Vaughan, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute think-tank, IRGC boats have approached US vessels at a distance that could have compro­mised the security of the vessels and the sailors and US Marines who serve aboard those ships.

“On at least three occasions, they closed to a distance that could make a collision more likely or could render US ships nearly de­fenceless to a boat packed with ex­plosive charges,” wrote Vaughan, who served on a number of deploy­ments aboard ships in the Gulf.

Recent altercations include Ira­nian IRGC-Navy craft interfering with the USS Nitze, a destroyer, in late August and the USS Firebolt, a coastal patrol boat, in early Sep­tember.

“Incremental erosion by Iranian vessels of the safety zone sur­rounding US ships and a bias by some US commanders towards restraint have thus created a situa­tion in which Iranian warships are operating at distances that would have been in the past, and should be at present, considered impru­dent,” Vaughan wrote.

He said that “quiet and indirect diplomacy” is needed to prevent “an accident or an incident” in­volving US and Iranian naval forc­es that could adversely affect the broader US-Iran relationship.

The US Navy officer said if the trend continues it could set the stage for a wider confrontation be­tween Iran and the United States. If the harassment continues, it is only a matter of time before a confrontation takes place, the out­come of which would drag the re­gion into another Middle East war, endangering the stability of Gulf states and possibly affecting the flow of oil through the Gulf. That, in turn, would have a serious effect on the world’s economy.

The Americans managed to steer the Iranians clear of their armada in the Gulf. However, given the number of incidents, all it takes is one confrontation to get out of hand for the whole situation could escalate.

In 2015, there were 300 close en­counters between the IRGC-Navy and US Navy vessels, culminat­ing in a highly provocative rocket launch near the USS Harry S. Tru­man aircraft carrier, Vaughan wrote.

In January, the IRGC-Navy seized ten riverine command sail­ors who had strayed into its waters and directly overflew the Truman with an unmanned aerial vehicle. In the last month, IRGC-Navy forc­es approached four US warships, drawing so close there was a dan­ger of collision. The USS Squall, a patrol craft, fired warning shots at the Iranians.

“Navy commanders are taught that the use of force in self-defence requires the presence of all three components of the “threat trian­gle”: capability, opportunity and intent, Vaughan said.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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What planet is Syria on?

By Claude Salhani

The Syrian government has produced a video advertisement in a feeble attempt to attract tourists — and their hard currencies — hoping to convince them to spend some of their time and much of their money in Syria.

If the situation was not so tragic, this story could pass for comical but, alas, this is no laughing matter. It makes one wonder what those responsible were hoping to achieve. Did they really believe they could attract tourists to a country plagued by the presence of terrorists along with all the associated activities that this encompasses?

Either way, clearly those responsible are far removed from reality and are living on another planet.

True, vacationing in Syria guarantees the visitor daily sunshine and warm weather. At the same time there is a good chance of possible light showers of artillery shells, mortars, the occasional sprinkling of internationally banned chemical agents, possible kidnappings and demands for ransom along with the usual inconveniences of war.

The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad had the audacity to produce a promotional video spot advertising the country’s miles of sandy beaches along the warm waters of the Mediterranean. The short clip — 1 minute, 43 seconds long — is titled Syria Always Beautiful and was produced by the Syrian Tourism Board.

Understandably, the Syrian government is in need of hard cash, given the poor state of the economy after five years of civil strife that has left the country in dire economic straits. The near destruction of a number of major cities, such as Hama and Homs, and, of course, the country’s principal commercial centre, Aleppo, where battles continue to rage.

Many of the country’s tradi­tional tourist sites have been taken over by terrorists. Treasures of the past, historic vestiges of humanity, were purposely destroyed by gunmen of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Of course the ad makes no mention of the tragic civil war that has turned what was once a beautiful country into an insane inferno.

The video depicts sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the warm waters of the Mediterranean while others ride jet skis, very likely not far from where Russian forces have established a foothold.

Nary a word of the 400,000- 500,000 — many of them civilians — killed in the war. Not a mention of the 4 million-5 million Syrians who have emigrated to Europe, Turkey or neighbouring Arab countries. Not a word about the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been rendered home­less by the war or of those who have been scarred physically or emotionally by the violence.

The attempt to attract tourists to Syria when the country is practically overrun by terrorists makes one wonder what the government was banking on. What are the odds of a foreign tourist visiting Syria these days, taking into account the realities on the ground?

Consider this: The presence of Syrian armed forces on the war footing, the dispatch of Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon, revolutionary guards from Iran, the occasional car bombs explod­ing in various parts of the country, the presence of Russian troops assisting the Syrian government fighting opposition forces.

The Syrian opposition, which includes conflicting sides from a wide variety of factions, precari­ous alliances that pop up like a nasty outbreak of acne, foreign fighters who include various Islamist groups and fighters who have flocked to Syria from Europe, the Caucasus and other parts of the world to support the revolt.

With that in mind, what are the chances of finding anyone brave enough or rather ignorant enough to spend vacation time in Syria today, no matter how beautiful it may have been at one time?

In essence, the ad illustrates perhaps the schism that exists between the government in Syria and those governed. This differ­ence of views and opinions is what lies at the root of the agreements that eventually led to the condi­tion that took the country into the civil conflict it is living through.

This video advertisement is a microcosm of Syria, showing all that is amiss in the country.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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Why the Islamic State is doomed and bound to collapse

by Claude Salhani

The global fear of the Islamic State (ISIS) may be somewhat overplayed. To be sure, there is a clear and present threat emanating from the organisa­tion and it may well be ten times more lethal than al-Qaeda, as the director of the FBI recently warned, but ultimately, it will fail because it has no clear vision and no sense of direction outside of terror and the use of fear.

No society can survive under such conditions for very long. Look at the Soviet Union, nuclear-armed and one of two world super powers. Its reign lasted a mere 70 years, a blink of an eye in the history of the planet.

History is still the best road map of the future and in looking at philosophies that have been successful throughout the ages it has always been those that offered adherents room to expand their ideas, be it in the field of sciences, the arts or even in religion. If you look at the religions that have fared well over the ages — Christianity and Islam, for example — those faiths have contributed greatly to the advancement of the sciences for their communities.

ISIS, on the other hand, “offers no hope to the populations it controls”. The only thing ISIS has to offer is the “relentless fury of destruction and an obsession with perpetual war against enemies real and imagined, coupled with extreme religious interpretations of daily life”, Sam Ben-Meir, a professor who teaches world religions at Eastern International College in Jersey City, wrote for the Augusta Free Press.

“ISIS is failing and will fail not only because it is a brutal and short-sighted organisation that rules through fear and totalitarian control of day-to-day life but because it is a denial of the creativity of the human mind — it is an intellectually starved group that is devoid of ideas, of anything resembling theological or philosophical content.”

Indeed, ISIS and its interpretation of what Islam is and what it should be is far removed from the true faith as practiced by the vast majority of the 1.25 billion Muslims.

Still, despite its nihilistic approach to a religion that most scholars interpret as one of peace rather than the neo-fascist approach chosen by ISIS, the group has attracted thousands of followers, many whom left the comforts of Europe for the wild existence that is the Islamic State. Ben-Meir labels this “void”, that “great intellectual emptiness, that simplicity where its members do not need to think” but simply get to act out their frustration and anger in a bizarre world where they make up the rules to suit their fantasies.

In short, if one was to psychoanalyse the lives of a good number of ISIS’s adherents, it could well be concluded that these volunteers who fight for the Islamic State are acting out a life-sized version of their favourite video game fantasies and along the way they get to reinterpret the rules of the game that includes their version, interpretation and understanding of scriptures.

Look at Islam’s influence on its followers and the positive contributions it made during the reign of the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Ottomans and even during the violent reign of the Mamelukes, who nevertheless contributed to the building of great mosques in Egypt, in Iraq, and of course during the time of the Moors who contributed greatly to the advancement in astrology, mathematics and medicine. Now compare that to the medieval brutality and backwardness professed by ISIS and judge for yourself.

At the end of the day, again with history as a guide, societies that have fared well and continue to do well are the ones that offer their citizens advancements in all fields. ISIS’s version of Islam will follow the path of other totalitarian systems. Where is communism today? Where are the once powerful fascist powers of the past century? What remains of the Iraqi Ba’ath? Much of the top echelon of what was once the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, it is believed, has found its way into the ISIS hierarchy.

For the moment ISIS remains a threat to the civilised world but its hatred of all that does not conform to its liking will ultimately help bring about its demise.

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Is Iran upping the Shia-Sunni divide?

By Claude Salhani

Political tensions in the Middle East are at a dangerously high level as the United States and Russia are facing off over the Syrian conflict, pitting the two powers against one another in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War.

Further upping the ante, Iran revealed the creation of a “liberation army”. A move that complicates a murky situation in the region and will undoubtedly raise alarms in Saudi Arabia and other predominantly Sunni Gulf states.

As complex issues go, the civil war in Syria is about as complex as they come. Not only has it involved Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Turks and various other minorities in the region, it has brought in proxy armies and militias to the region.

The conflict has dragged in countries such as Syria’s neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and even countries that have no direct borders with Syria but are concerned in one manner or another. Such is the case with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The war in Syria has brought in fighters from Europe and North America into the conflict.

Some of them have taken the Middle East’s hottest dispute back to their adopted homelands, as we have seen in France and Belgium.

The Syrian conflict has all along been marred by uncertainties and surprise alliances, such as the CIA reportedly arming and training one particular group of Syrian rebels while the US military was reported to be backing a rival group.

Amid this uncertainty, the Syrian war has been consistent about one thing: Just when the situation in the Levant appears to be getting more complicated along comes a new development that further muddles things. As Patrick Cockburn, from the Independent newspaper and old Middle East hand who specialises in Iraq and Syria, recently wrote: “The complexity of the conflict is well described as three-dimensional chess played by nine players with no rules.”

The latest revelation comes from Iran, with Tehran recognising its role in trying to export its Shia revolution to the Arab world. In an unusual approach of openness in matters relating to the military, Iran admitted that it formed a “liberation army” to support its combat operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

This new force is believed to number about 200,000, according to Al Jazeera and will come under the command of a veteran Iranian officer, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who is the commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force.

In addition to dispatching the new force to support allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Iran plans to provide training for other groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Kurdish fighters. Iran said the force would include Afghan Shias who would be sent to fight in Syria.

In that respect, there is really nothing new here as Iran was openly supporting fellow Shias in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The Iranians have funded, trained and armed Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic resistance group known as Hamas, although the latter is Sunni.

The great novelty here is that Iran feels bold enough to flaunt its military muscle and assert itself as the regional power it aspires to be. Even prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah, dissolved the centuries-old Persian empire and put the mullahs in power, Tehran saw a role for its military in the region.

How will the region and indeed the Western powers react to such a development? A well-trained and combat-experienced fighting force not overly concerned by the number of casualties it sustains can certainly influence the course of action in the region.

What will likely be the retort from the West? Tehran’s timing of course is near perfect. With about five months left in the Obama administration, the US president is hardly about to enter into a confrontation requiring him to dispatch US troops. The newly found Iranian-Russian friendship will likely be perceived by Iran as a green light to follow its ambitions.

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The cruel image of war

By Claude Salhani

If truth is the first casualty of war, children are a very close second.

The advent of the modern media — the constant bombardment of information, the 24-hour channels and the internet with hundreds of websites offering news from all perspectives along with social media — has rendered many people almost immune to the harshness and the realities of war. Chronicling the violence of conflicts has become so common that we hardly flinch at the monstrosities unfolding on our television screens, laptops, smartphones and tablets.

However, every so often there emerges an image — a single image — that makes us pause and reflect. A particular photograph that succeeds in capturing a fraction of an instant, the fraction of a second in the immense drama, giving us a very brief aperçu into the insanity and the cruelty of war. If you have any doubts about how cruel war can be, especially on children, take a good look at the image of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh.

This image of another Syrian boy, identified as Omran, shows him moments after he was rescued from the rubble of a building in Aleppo that was destroyed by aerial bombardment by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad or Russian warplanes.

What is particularly gripping about this image is the look on the boy’s face. Omran’s eyes are focusing off into space. He is quite possibly reliving in his mind the horror of what he just lived through; playing back memories of events that just occurred, reliving the horrendous sound of warplanes sweeping over the city, the sound of rockets fired, the explosions, a tremendous bang, death knocking on his door, the smoke, the dust, the building collapsing around him. The cries of pain from the wounded around him and the eerie silence of those killed.

The young boy who has become overnight an iconic symbol of Syria’s tragedy has the same look in his eyes found in many soldiers after a particularly vicious battle. As with the previous image of the tortured Syrian youth, there will be many calls for an end to the violence, regretfully a call that will very likely also be ignored.

Earlier in the Syrian civil war, there was the unforgettable image of Aylan Kurdi, an innocent 3-year-old Syrian whose body washed up on the shore of Turkey. That image moved the world to tears and led to cries for greater efforts to stop the war in Syria, a war that has driven nearly a quarter of the country’s population into exile, claimed the lives of some 450,000 people and maimed possibly more than 2 million others.

Well, the war did not stop, the fighting continues and now there emerges another iconic moment from the madness of this conflict, now in its fifth year.

Much like the picture of the boy who drowned, the heart-wrenching pictures of young Omran, showing him moments after his rescue, his face and body covered with dust and dirt, will undoubtedly raise new calls for cessation of the fighting and killing.

Worldwide reactions to Omran Daqneesh’s picture tell us something fundamental: Even after hundreds of thousands of deaths, the picture of one single casualty in Syria’s bloody war can still move us. That’s probably the only glimmer of hope in the tragedy.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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