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War is the Unfolding of Miscalculations… Assad, Trump, Putin, and Syria 2017

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The die has been cast. Last week the Trump administration signaled that the regime of Bashir Al Assad was not a priority for American policy in the Middle East. The comment was perplexing as the Assad regime has worked with the Iranians, and Hezbollah, both enemies of the United States to crush a revolt against his regime that began during the Arab Spring. Assad’s methods included the use of Sarin nerve agent and relentless attacks on civilians and were condemned by much of the world. In 2013 President Obama attempted to gain political support for military action against the Assad regime but was rebuffed by congressional Republicans as well as anti-war Democrats. The Syrian rebels were joined by radical Sunni Muslims of various Al Qaeda affiliates and later joined by the so called Islamic State. The Syrian army was on the point of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.

From 2013 on President Trump constantly said that military action in Syria was against U.S. national interests, something that continued until last week. Then Assad, apparently emboldened by the Trump Administration’s statement that changing his regime was not a priority for the U.S. launched a aerial attack using chemical weapons against civilians. The images which were shown throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle evidently made an impression on the President. Within hours of suggesting that military action was possible it began.

From Mar-a-Largo where the President is hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping, the President said:

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched… It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

I agree that it is the vital interests of the United States to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons, but why this and why now especially since it did not seem to be a priority less than a week ago?

Right now we know precious little about the action, except that it was sudden and done without any congressional consultation, and little consultation with allies. Will Congress do its duty and demand details before allowing the administration to commit us to another war that in no way is covered by the 2001 authorization for use of force that has been used for all the actions involving the war on terrorism conducted by the Bush and the Obama Administrations, or will Congress roll over and do nothing, thus allowing the executive branch to take the nation to war with no oversight?

The genie of war is now out of the bottle. We do not know what will happen next, the potential branches and sequels to this action are many, and few of them promise anything in the way of peace in Syria. There is now danger that the U.S. will become entangled in a complex war that has no good outcome.

The question, what will happen next is unknown. Can President Trump work with Russia’s President Putin, Turkey’s President Erdrogan, as well as well as other regional leaders to bring something resembling peace to the region? I hope that can happen but I wouldn’t bet on it as history shows that all too often that these things take on a life of their own.  As Barbara Tuchman noted: “War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”

I have a couple of articles that I will post soon about the dangerous nature of what we are witnessing. But for tonight I will pause and try to get some sleep.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

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Yesterday negotiators from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China finished hammering out a tentative deal with Iran regarding that nation’s nuclear program.

There are a lot of opinions about the deal, some positive, some definitely negative and quite a few like mine a wait and see attitude. Now I am hopeful that the deal is a positive first step in assuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. In fact I pray that it does.

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The fact is that we have to try, even if some allies for their own reasons disagree. The Israelis are understandably concerned, especially since the last President of Iran, most of the Mullahs that actually run that country and the Revolutionary Guard have expressed their belief that Israel should not exist. Thus for the Israelis this can be seen as an existential matter. If Iran were to get operational nuclear weapons and use them against Israel that state would suffer greatly. Likewise the Saudis are distrustful of the Iranians, but for different reasons. For the Saudis this is the great conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, a conflict that appears to be gaining steam in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. It is  conflict that has the potential to be the Islamic equivalent of the Thirty Years war, that great bloodletting between Catholic and Protestant Europe. Iran and the Saudis are the leaders of the respective factions of Islam, they are mortal enemies.

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We have to be cognizant of both the Israeli and Saudi concerns. They are legitimate and because they are allies we must take them into account. That being said the most important security needs to be addressed by the United States are those of the United States. Sometimes those are not always the same of allies, even allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. That is something that has to be weighed in this case.

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The cold fact of the matter is that for many years we in the United States have become accustomed to resorting to military force first and neglecting the other aspects of national and international power that could be brought to bear to in achieving our national security and foreign policy goals. Those other aspects include economic power, information and diplomacy which unfortunately have been neglected. Presidents and our Congress have, even in spite of the misgivings of military leaders pursued the military option first.

After the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Bush Administration with the authorization of Congress pursued an almost single minded military solution to those attacks. That response was not only against the Al Qaeda terrorists but against their Afghan Taliban hosts and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

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Those campaigns have worn our military down. The resources spent in those countries, the lives lost, the money spent and the wear and tear on equipment have harmed our national security. But even above that in terms of strategy we eliminated the one natural enemy of Iran which helped hold them in check. We invaded Iraq and left it in a condition that it could no longer be the western bulwark against Iran. We turned down Iranian offers of help after September 11th and in doing so lost opportunities which might have led us and Iran down a different path. Instead President Bush declared Iran and Iraq both parts of an “Axis of Evil.”

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It was a declaration that the Iranians rightly understood as a declaration of war. Legally it may not have been, but the stated strategy enunciated by men like John Bolton and those we call the “Neocons” inside the Bush Administration and in associated think tanks could only be understood by the Iranians in that light. That end state envisioned by Bolton then and even now was regime change in not only Iraq, but also Iran. We have to ask ourselves this question: If another nation did this to us, how would we respond? I dare say that we, like the Iranians would dig in our heels and seek to develop military capacities that could defeat them, or if not defeat them make their “success” so costly that our enemies would not press us.

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Now because of those choices we are faced with a situation where Iran is estimated to be reasonably close to developing a nuclear weapon capacity. It is something that if it happens will result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Israelis already have that capability and the Saudis are reportedly pursuing that capability. Thus it cannot be allowed to happen.

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That being said there are ways to ensure that does not happen. One advocated by those opposed to the deal is a hard line approach including pre-emptive military strikes against Iran, which not only would bring about a regional war but at best delay Iran a few years in procuring nuclear weapons.

The other is the course that has been pursued by the Obama Administration over the course of the past few years. That is the use of economic sanctions and diplomacy. As I said at the beginning this has not been our default policy over the past 12 years. But it is necessary. We are not in a good position to add yet another war, a war with world wide security and economic implications to our plate.

The fact is that due to the wars of the past 12 years as well as budget cuts including the sequestration cuts we are not in a good position to wage another war. We are stretched thin. Readiness thanks to sequestration is declining. The Chief of Staff of the Army stated that only two combat brigades are immediately deployable for combat operations. Could we launch another military campaign? Yes we could. But war, if we believe Clausewitz war is an extension of politics and policy. But we have to ask if would it achieve our overall policy goals? That I am not sure.  Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.”

In fact even if we delivered punishing strikes to Iran the costs could be great, and not just the economic costs.  Our campaign would have to be an air campaign to destroy hardened targets many of which we do not know the exact locations. Our record in such air campaigns is mixed. We spent over 70 days pounding Serbia with little to show for it in actual damage to their military. Likewise Iran is not Iraq, our targets will not be exposed in the open desert. Additionally Iranian A2/D2 (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities pose great risks for US and Allied Warships as well as bases in the Arabian Gulf. If an Iranian Kilo Class submarine were to sink an American Aircraft Carrier it would not be a tactical setback, it would be a major loss of American strategic capability not just in the Middle East but world wide.

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Likewise as I mentioned before we took out the one natural opponent of Iran when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. In doing so we destroyed every bit of infrastructure, military power and civil government structures that any new Iraqi government would need to maintain any sense of a balance of power in the Arabian Gulf.

All that being said do I trust the Iranians? I cannot say that I do. I am a realist. I enlisted in 1981 in large part because of the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy and the hostage crisis. They remain a dictatorial regime which persecutes religious minorities including Christians. They restrict their people from open access to the internet and persecute political opponents. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the most powerful organization in Iran has actively worked to destabilize other countries in the region. Their influence is great especially in regards to Lebanon’s Hezbollah which has launched missile campaigns against Israel and been active on the side of Syria dictator Bashir Assad in that country’s brutal civil war.

However the path of diplomacy must be given a reasonable chance to succeed. In the early 1970s President Nixon started a process of detente with the Soviet Union and Communist China. It was not embraced by hawks. President Ford, Carter and Reagan continued those policies to one degree or another with the final result being the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Warsaw Pact and overthrow of Communism.

This deal is a start. It is not perfect at all. I see issues in it. but it is based on the politics and art of the possible. It has the potential to be a game changer in a region wracked by war and revolution, a region led for the most part by despots in which terrorists often operate freely. I don’t know if it will work, but I hope it does.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Syria: The History and the Really Hard Questions for All of Us

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Today President Obama called on the U.S. Congress to take up and debate an authorization for the use of military force in Syria. From any moral viewpoint his words on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government his words were correct. Likewise his calling to account of the international community, 98% of whom are signatories to treaties outlawing the use of these weapons against anyone to support this action was correct. The fact that he also demanded that Congress come into session and do its job was correct.

In spite of all of that the use of military force to attempt to force a change in the way that the government of Bashir Assad is problematic and fraught with danger. The chances of escalation and the involvement of other nations and non-state actors are great and even a “successful” operation could lead to subsequent events detrimental to the United States, the West, the region and even to Syria and its people.

A big part of this is due to the complexity of Syria itself and its history. Syria is a complicated mosaic of cultures, peoples and religions often at odds with one another. The fact that the Assad regime has remained in power is because of its brutality and willingness to play off the various factions against each other. The Assad family is of the minority Alawite sect of Shi’a Moslems from the western region of the country. One needs to read T. E. Lawrence’s 1915 report on Syria to get a glimpse of the complexity of Syria and to understand that one has to proceed carefully when dealing with any faction. http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1915_syria_the_raw_material.shtml

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The fact is that the best chance for a stable Syria disappeared in 1920 when the French, emulating the British in Mesopotamia (Iraq) overthrew the government of Emir Faisal Hussein. Lawrence wrote a powerful essay about this http://www.telstudies.org/writings/works/articles_essays/1920_france_britain_and_the_arabs.shtml and when one examines the actions of the British and the French in Syria and Iraq one has to look at history. The British were willing to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq because of history, the same is true of why the French are willing to stand with the United States in Syria. The Germans for their own part frustrated by imperial ambitions in the Middle East in the First World War and a failed attempt to support an Iraqi uprising against the British in 1941 have no interest in a war that might bring disorder and terrorism among the many Moslems that reside in their country. The Turks of course have no love for the Arabs and once counted Syria as a valuable part of the Ottoman Empire. Disorder in Syria is dangerous to them but ultimately they could benefit since they have been shouldering much of the humanitarian burden.

The Jordanian royal family has no love for Syria being the descendants of Faisal Hussein while the Israelis see Syria as a mortal enemy. Lebanon which was carved out of Syria after the First World War is hopelessly divided and with Hezbollah, the erstwhile ally of Iran in de-facto control of the country in danger of becoming a front in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Iran being the close ally of Syria has great opportunity to expand its power and should a military strike occur might become directly involved although the more likely scenario is that they would allow their Hezbollah allies to shoulder the burden of strikes against Israel and United States or other Western interests in the region. One cannot leave out the Russians who are behaving much as the Tsarist Regime did regarding the region in the First World War when they signed on to the Sykes-Picot agreement.

If the United States does nothing Assad wins. He shows that he and anyone like him who conduct themselves outside the norms of international law and human rights can get away it it. If we intervene it might strengthen his grip, likewise if our strikes were successful enough to weaken his grip and allow the rebels to take power the results could be even worse since the Al Qaeda ally Al Nursa is the strongest and most militarily effective part of the rebel forces.

In a sense the Obama administration is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t and damned if it does no matter what the outcome. It sucks for him because he is the President and it is his job he will get the blame. This despite the fact that his freedom of action in large part is undermined by the actions of the Bush Administration in the Iraq lead up and invasion. There are always results in foreign policy decisions. The invasion of Iraq has harmed our interests in more ways than its architects ever imagined, it was a foreign policy disaster of the first order that impacts everything that we do today in the Middle East.

That is why before a single cruise missile is launched the United States Congress must debate the action and go all in or stay out. The fact is that if we do this, and I hope, we don’t we have to do it right. We have to understand the consequences and do what we can under our system of government to debate the issue, look at the ramifications, not just in the region but to our own economy and national power.

If we do it the Sequester has to be repealed in all parts, you cannot wage war on the cheap and expect a military that is worn out by 12 years of war to keep taking on more war without funding it. The Tea Party Republicans who are attempting to hold the government hostage through the Sequester and a possible government shutdown cannot have it both ways. It is irresponsible of them to continue this madness until we can get out of Afghanistan and avoid involvement in Syria or other conflicts.

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That my friends is the hard truth about Syria. So before you get too caught up in the opening of the College and NFL football seasons forgetting that a dangerous world exists take some time to ponder and if you have the civic decency to write your Congressman and Senator on the subject. Pro or con tell them what you think and demand accountability. If you don’t do that don’t blame President Obama for what happens because you have failed your country as citizens.

Sorry I guess that might hurt. But we didn’t do that in Iraq. Today the 4486 dead American military personnel as well as all the other dead and wounded, American, Allied and Iraqi alike and those like me afflicted with chronic PTSD demand that you do it now. It is a moral responsibility of the first order of much greater importance than your fantasy football league.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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All In or Stay the Hell Out: Syria, the United States NATO and the Middle East, the Guns of August All Over Again

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The Balkans aren’t worth the life of a single Pomeranian grenadier.”  Otto Von Bismarck

The terrible civil war in Syria appears to be reaching its crescendo as someone, probably the Assad Regime or its allies, or possibly the Syrian rebels are using Chemical weapons to kill non-combatants and rebel combatants. The evidence that the weapons have been used is apparently convincing enough for the UN to send in inspectors and for the US Secretary of State John Kerry to state that it is certain that they have been used.

Now NATO allies as well as representatives of Jordan and the Gulf States are meeting to decide what to do in response. Since most experts believe that the Assad regime is culpable for these attacks the belief is that the United Sates, NATO and the Arab Allies could be preparing for some kind of attack Syria. The Russians, long time supporters of Syria are pushing back against this and the Syrians are promising that any attack will result in a war that envelopes the region.

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What is happening in Syria is a tragedy and must be stopped. War crimes have certainly been committed by all sides in Syria and the direct involvement of Hezbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad regime and Al Qaeda affiliates on the side of the rebels complicate any response. However, that being said the question must be asked “just whose responsibility is to stop it?”

Some say the United States and NATO, others the Arab League while others the various factions of Syrians themselves.

My heart cries out for intervention in Syria if for nothing else but on humanitarian grounds. But the fact is intervention in Syria has to be much more thought out and organized than intervention that we have conducted since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It will not be a cake walk and quite likely will lead to consequences far worse than the average citizen or boneheaded Congressman has never given a cogent thought.

Syria is an incredibly complicated country. It is multi-ethnic and multi-religion. Arabs, Kurds, Druze and others live in patchwork communities and regions even as various sects of Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Salafist Moslems vie for power while the divided Christian minority , Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and others hope to live and remain in their own country.

As far as others in the Region besides Iran and Hezbollah, various Sunni and Shia Iraqi insurgents have crossed over into Syria, while Israel teeters on the bring of being drawn in to the conflagration.

No matter what happens there will be no winners in what is happening in Syria. There is a high probability that the Syrian civil war will overflow the borders of that unfortunate country and drag the region and possibly major world powers into the war. If that happens there are no winners, only losers. The biggest question is who will be the biggest loser?

That being said even tonight there are reports of military movements in the region even as NATO and Arab coalition partners gather to discuss a response. I am resigned to the fact that the Syrian Civil war will overflow Syria’s borders and draw in the powers of many countries. Just who I am not exactly sure at this time. In the US there is a marked tepid feeling among voters about getting involved. That may be a good thing. It may temper our response and make us deliberate the consequences of military action or inaction.

Bertrand Russell once said that “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” I wonder if anyone in any of the nations currently involved or possibly that might be engaged in the war actually things about what Russell said.

The fact is that what is going on in Syria is the proverbial “Tar Baby.” There is no clean easy solution to the situation. Lobbing in a few hundred cruise missiles and launching airstrikes in support of the rebels is unlikely to have a profound strategic affect. Instead, unless NATO and its allies are willing to risk an actual ground war after the missile and air strikes then the fact of the matter is that those strikes will have little long term effect. If a ground invasion happens it will be bloody and not the cake walk that so many in Western Governments, media and populations that rely on a very small number of military professionals to fight their wars think it will be.

If by some chance the United States and its allies get drawn into the Syrian Civil War than all of them had better think of what the consequences of that involvement will be, for the region, the world and our own countries. The fact is that a major war in Syria will drag the rest of the region into it. This is not 2003 Iraq or 2011 Libya. The fact is that Syria is heavily splintered into various regional, ethnic and religious groups, most who have lived among each other for millennia and most of whom hate each other.

I cannot speak for other governments around the region and the world, allied to the United States or not. However I do know that our Constitution has in it the formula of who should committed the country to war and that, despite our recent history is not the President by his executive authority Commander in Chief but by Congress after due deliberation and a vote to declare war.

My thoughts are that if we in the United States are serious about this, that we believe that Syria and Assad need to be taken down then fine. Let us call Congress back to Washington now and have them debate the issue. If they vote for war then they need to do two things, the first is that Congress needs to be called away from its vacation and get to work debating the issue. If the President backed by a declaration of war from Congress and a repeal of the sequester that is gutting the country and the military.

If they cannot do this then let’s stop the bullshit and tell the work that the situation in Syria is terrible but the consequences of going to war without either an end in mind or analysis of the costs involved is criminal. Bismarck said it well in regard to the Balkans and his comments should be taken to heart by the United States and its allies.

The situation in Syria cries out for action, but that action must be action that helps the people of Syria, the region and the world and is not just an action to salve our collective consciousness and say that we did something. Simply throwing some cruise missiles at Syria accomplishes nothing unless there is a plan of what we intend to see happen. William Tecumseh Sherman said: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

My thoughts on this are to make going to war difficult. If the President and his cabinet determines that they believe in consultations with our allies that war is the last and best of the worst case options, the Congress needs to cut short its vacation. Republican and Democrat leaders need to gather and a decision has to be made. If we go to war it can no longer be done under the very loose and terribly vague rules of the War Powers Act because any attack on Syria will certainly escalate beyond a short term military strike done “on the cheap.”

There is no cheap or easy to Syria. If military action is the only way to solve the problem then Congress must convene, make a formal declaration of war and also repeal sequestration. A war in Syria will be costly in blood and treasure and will likely pull in many other countries. The human costs in the region, not just Syria will be beyond imagination while the costs to the world economy will be severe and quite possibly push the world into another recession or possibly depression.

The military power alone of the United States has been used far too many times as our governments under successive Republican and Democrat leadership have opted not to use the full measure of our diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic power to solve problems. Instead we fall back to the easiest and most ready means to satiate our need for a quick solution to complex problems, the military option. Military power alone, especially if it is incapable of ending the conflict and bringing a just peace is not an answer in Syria.

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The fact is that we Americans do not know the world nor do we understand it. Americans have become simple and lazy when it comes to dealing with complex issues. We deal in sound bites and tweets, the more fiery the better even as we stick our heads in the sand as to what is happening in the world. Ask how many people are more interested in the beginning of the College and Pro-Football seasons in the next couple of weeks versus those interested in really important issues of war and peace and you will get your answer on our priorities as Americans. We have no sense of history and are quite ignorant of the world around us and the political, cultural, religious, philosophical, ideological and economic factors that make up our world so our first response is almost always the sword.

If the President and Congress feel that it is absolutely necessary to go to war over the atrocities being committed in Syria let them make that decision, but only after considerable debate, consultations with allies, the United Nations and the Arab League followed by a vote on an actual declaration of war, the repeal of sequestration and a major stimulus to prevent the economy from tanking when the cost of oil goes through the roof and cripples the world economy.

Winston Churchill cautioned leaders “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

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To paraphrase Bismarck, Syria is not worth the life of one American or Allied Soldier unless our governments are willing to do it right. All in or stay the hell out and don’t go in without counting the real and the potential costs.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s 2013 Down and Dirty Primer on the Muddle East

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“When you are up to your arse in alligators it is hard to remember that your mission is to drain the swamp.” Old British Colonial Saying

Note: This is an update to my 2011 Primer on the Muddle East

During the dark days of World War Two when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was making fools of a series of British commanders in North Africa people including senior British military and government leaders sometimes referred to the theater of operations as “the Muddle East.” Some things never seem to change. The Muddle East today is quite frankly speaking in a real muddled state if there ever was one with world leaders and regional leaders muddling about as if they were the New York Mets.

A large part of the muddle goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of the First World War when the victorious Allied Powers redrew the map of the Middle East and made alliances with various local tribal sheiks who many times were crowned king over other tribes who didn’t necessarily want them as king. This along with heavy handed European military actions such as the British using poison gas dropped from aircraft in Iraq and a real lack of effort to better the lives of the newly “liberated” peoples of the region was just the start. Add to the cesspool a bunch of oil presided over by major oil companies, the anti-colonial movements that flourished in the years after World War Two when the French, British and Italians had to divest themselves of their Middle Eastern holdings. The French had to fight a real war in Algeria but finally withdrew leaving Algeria’s new rulers to goof up the country and oppress their people for decades to come.  In the coming years many of these newly independent nations found that life still sucked so in a number of countries military officers overthrew the despised monarchs promising reforms but oppressing their people while blaming all their problems on the Israelis.  They got their asses kicked by the Israelis in a series of wars which did a number of things that made the Middle East Muddle even worse.

First it ensured that Palestinian Arabs ended up under Israeli rule and were used with great aplomb by the Middle Eastern despots to prop up support for their regimes while doing nothing to help the Palestinians other than to put them in camps in Lebanon.  Even when the Egyptians made a peace deal with Israel most of the Arab World ostracized them.  Then in 1979 the Shah of Iran was sent packing by a bunch of Mullahs and in 1981 Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran in one of the bloodier wars of the late 20th Century which finally ended in 1988. Of course the United States was pissed at the Mullahs so Saddam became our favorite Arab despot for a while.  Add to the mix the Soviet Union and the United States arming their favorite Arab dictators who were given carte blanche to continue oppressing their people so long as it didn’t interfere with their support of either party or the oil supply. Finally the Soviets went Tango Uniform in 1989 not long after being forced out of Afghanistan by the U.S. supplied, Pakistani supported and Saudi Arabian fundamentalist financed Mujahideen.

With the Soviets “Tango Uniform” and the Warsaw Pact nations trying to get into NATO the United States was now the uncontested Numero Uno country in the world Saddam presumed upon his late supporters and invaded Kuwait, albeit after thinking that the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq said that we wouldn’t mind.

Well he was wrong we did mind and got a lot of countries from NATO and including a bunch of Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to get on board on a mission to get Saddam’s troops out of Kuwait. It was a kick ass mission and since the United Nations didn’t authorize removing Saddam and because President George H.W. Bush was smart enough to not to drive on Baghdad to kick him out preferring the despot we knew to a quagmire Saddam was left in power.

So we stationed ground and air forces around the Gulf to keep Saddam and Iran in check and even put them in Saudi Arabia which a large number of radicals such as Osama Bin Laden equated to letting the Devil play in Allah’s Holy Sandbox.  So Osama went and set up a base with the Medieval bunch of Pashtun known as the Taliban in Afghanistan stirred up a bunch of shit killing Americans and blowing up stuff including the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers barracks complex in 1996, the USS Cole in 2000 and then 2001 another attack on the World Trade Center which took down the towers with hijacked aircraft and also struck the Pentagon triggered an American response against Bin Laden and his Taliban hosts.  The United States then invaded in Iraq in 2003 and succeeded in taking out Saddam but also succeeded in alienating a good many Iraqis who greeted us with open arms because we goofed up the occupation and pissed a lot of them off by dissolving the Army, Police and Civil Service and letting thugs and opportunists take over. Unfortunately since we didn’t go in with enough troops to secure all the Iraqi bases, their weapons depots and actually take control of surrendering Iraqi units these newly unemployed and dishonored people launched an insurgency bolstered by Al Qaeda and other foreign fighters even as Sunni and Shi’a Moslems began to settle scores with each other. Insurgency and civil war, two great tastes that go great together, but what the heck right?

Of course it took years to get control of the situation on the ground and thankfully the United States forces in Iraq were helped when the Sunni Moslems in Al Anbar Province realized that these foreign fighters were a worse enemy than the United States and switched sides. This turned the tables in Iraq and the insurgency was brought under control and an elected government managed to start to get their stuff together and allow us to begin withdrawing from Iraq. Of course the focus on Iraq gave the Taliban a chance to regroup as the Afghani Government proved itself corrupt, incompetent and not to give a shit about the Afghani people. So the Taliban who had been hated made a comeback and made our lives much harder so that now almost 10 years into the fight we are having a really hard time.  Well enough about us there was plenty more going on in the Muddle East besides the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Let’s see….there was the law of unintended consequences in that by taking Saddam Down and weakening Iraq we took away Iran’s natural enemy and the key to the balance of power in the region. Iran was strengthened and began a nuclear program that everyone with half a brain knows in intended for military use and expanded its influence in Lebanon where the Iranian backed Hezbollah took power.  Now Hezbollah which actually has an experienced military force and probably owns 40,000 or so rockets and missiles a good number of which can hit deep in Israel seems to be ready for war especially because they fought the Israelis to a stalemate in 2008, the first time an Arab military ever did that. Not only did they take on the Israelis but they are also helping Syrian dictator Bashir Assad turn the tide against the polyglot Syrian rebel forces which are being assisted by Sunni foreign fighters from all over the Middle East and the ever present Al Qaida presence.

Then was the effect that the wars in those countries made things harder for us in many other friendly Arab nations.  Of course there is the problem of a nuclear armed Pakistan which is about as stable as a Japanese nuclear reactor after getting hit by a tsunami and plays both sides of the street in the war on terror.  The Palestinians and Israelis continued their love affair and since Fatah which ran Palestinian Authority was so corrupt and gooned up a more militant group, Hamas took power in the Gaza strip. Hamas is a pretty bloodthirsty lot too but not the same level of threat as Hezbollah to the Israelis.  Of course the Israelis have done little to help the situation by their often heavy handed treatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.

The witches’ cauldron of the Muddle East is getting even more muddled on a daily basis as young Arabs throughout the Muddle East are rising up against their despotic rulers and it doesn’t seem that any are safe, those allied with the United States and the West as well as those that have been a thorn in the side of the United States and the West. It just seems that despots and tyrants are no longer in vogue. The uprisings began in Iran after a disputed election where reformers were cheated of power and the revolt crushed by the Revolutionary Guard and other thugs of the Iranian regime. However with the election of “moderate” whatever that means cleric Hasan Rowhani as President hopes are that Iran, despite the machinations of many other clerics and the Revolutionary Guard might be brought to the negotiating table. That being said Iran is reportedly sending about 4000 troops to go help Assad in Syria so go figure.

Elsewhere in the Middle East things continue to boil. In December 2010 the people of Tunisia rose up and overthrew their President for Life Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising followed shortly after by the Egyptians who tossed out long term President and U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak. In Tunisia a “moderate Islamist” regime has been attempting to maintain control of radicals and keep some semblance of balance in that country while in Egypt the Islamic Brotherhood was able to get majorities elected in the Parliament and elect Mohammed Morsi as President. Needless to say both countries are still in turmoil.

In Iraq the Sunni Shi’a divide is as wide as ever and that country is threatening to become engulfed in yet another civil war as sectarian violence increases and the Kurds make more moves toward independence.

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Turkey, the heart of the old Ottoman Empire is now beginning to erupt as secularist elements in the society are protesting the policies of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leading to repeated clashes over the past two weeks between protestors and police.

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Afghanistan though technically not part of the Middle East continues to be a problem for US and NATO consuming intelligence, economic diplomatic and military resources that could be put to play with better effect elsewhere.  What T.E. Lawrence said of the British occupation of a restive Mesopotamia  in 1920:

“We realise the burden the army in Mesopotamia is to the Imperial Exchequer, but we do not see as clearly the burden it is to Mesopotamia. It has to be fed, and all its animals have to be fed. The fighting forces are now eighty-three thousand strong, but the ration strength is three hundred thousand. There are three labourers to every soldier, to supply and serve him.” ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

In Libya the Arab Spring claimed the long time pain in the ass Moammar Gaddafi. That conflict center of the action in 2011 until Gaddafi was overthrown and murdered. Since then Libya has remained in turmoil despite elections, militias run amok and the US Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the US Consulate and CIA base in Benghazi on September 11th 2012.

Yemen and Bahrain, Algeria, and Jordan have or are experiencing demonstrations which look to be revolts in the making and even Saudi Arabia is trying to head off a potential popular uprising.

However the real problem now, the problem that threatens to send the region into a regional war is the revolt in Syria which began with peaceful protests by reformers against the Assad regime. However the hard line response of that regime to the protests spawned a civil war which now threatens to overflow the borders of Syria. France, Britain and the US have stated that they believe that there is evidence that the Syria government has used chemical weapons, in particular Sarin nerve agents against the rebels. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 80,000 people with hundreds of thousands more now living as refugees.

The conflict in Syria epitomizes one of the greatest challenges in the Middle East that many in the West are just beginning to recognize, the Sunni Shi’a divide. That divide is becoming more serious with every passing day as Iran continues to lead and assist Shi’a elements in predominantly Sunni Arab countries, as well as in Iraq where the Arab Shi’a are in the majority. The conflict in Syria is predominantly Sunni versus Shi’a though in that patchwork nation of Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite Shi’a tribe of the Assad clan, various Christian and Druse groups. Lebanon which borders Syria is as divided as its larger neighbor and Hezbollah holds tremendous power in that country.

Yes my friends this is a mess and almost everybody that is anybody in the military and economic power houses of the world doesn’t have their handprints all over at least some part of this mess. All of these own some of the blame for what is going on, both the rulers of the nations in the region as well as world powers who all try to influence the nations and peoples for their own diplomatic, intelligence, military or economic gain. Almost no one is unsoiled by their involvement in the Muddle East over the past 90 years or so and so in a way all of great world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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The region is more volatile than at any time in recent history and events there could easily ignite a regional war with worldwide implications.  That is why the region has been called the Muddle East for decades.  We all hope and pray for the best and that somehow all of this that the promise of a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” will become a reality, but there are better than even odds that things get way worse before they get better. There are just too many wild cards in this deck and the swamp is full of hungry alligators.

With the announcement this week that the US would provide military aid and training to the Syrian rebels and that US forces will remain in Jordan even as US and NATO Patriot missile batteries stand ready in Turkey there is a really good chance that the conflict in Syria will not stay in Syria.

Of course there is always the wild card if what Israel may do in what it perceives to be its security interests against outward foes such as Iran and Syria but also inside its borders and occupied territories, especially if it is attacked or provoked by Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

May God help us all and bring about peaceful change, or as my Iraqi friends simply say “Inshallah, God willing.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Looking into the Abyss: The Middle East November 2012

Israeli “Iron Dome” Missile Defense System in Action (Ap Photo: Tasafrir Abayov)

“You don’t have any communication between the Israelis and the Iranians. You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict. Having countries act on a hair trigger – where they can’t afford to be second to strike – the potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high.”  Dennis Ross

 

As I write this the Israeli Army is beginning the mobilization of 30,000 reservists as the IDF continues to respond with great vigor to the missile attacks conducted by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad on Israeli cities including Tel Aviv. On the sidelines are Hezbollah and Iran while Egypt, now governed by leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood attempts to finesse support for the Islamists while not provoking a wider conflict with the Israelis. To the northeast, Israeli forces have exchanged fire with the forces of Bashir Assad’s Syria which are engaged in their own version of an Arabic Götterdämmerung against their own people.

In the past two days nearly 300 rockets launched from Gaza have hit Israel, killing 3 Israelis. The missiles that hit Tel Aviv were the first to hit that city since Saddam Hussein’s Scuds in the 1991 Gulf War. Over 100 more have been successfully intercepted by Israeli “Iron Dome” missiles. In response the IDF has launched numerous sustained attacks against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups in Gaza, even killing the military chief of Hamas.

The Obama Administration has warned the Hamas forces to cease fire and urged leaders in Egypt and Turkey to help get the Hamas forces to stand down. Representatives of France are attempting to broker a cease fire even as the fighting escalates. The US Senate passed a unanimous declaration of support for Israel and demand for Hamas to cease its missile attacks.

The situation is escalating and could spread, especially in light of the fact that the Arab Spring swept away dictatorships like that of Hosni Mubarak which though they oppressed their own people also used their military and police power to just enough ant-Israel protest to defuse more extreme reactions. The fact that an Islamic Brotherhood government is now in control of Egypt is a wild card that no US administration has had to face since the days before the Camp David accords. Likewise the actions of the IDF two years ago against a Turkish flagged merchant ship attempting to break the Gaza blockade severely damaged Israeli-Turkish relations and crippled a previously strong Israeli-Turkish military alliance.

We are in uncharted waters. The US is tied down in Afghanistan and the burgeoning crisis in the senior leadership of the US military and intelligence services caused by the Petraeus scandal has the potential to cripple senior military and intelligence leadership. Likewise ongoing domestic political crisis brought about by a badly divided electorate and government as well as the Fiscal Cliff the timing could not be worse. Despite a decade of bloody and expensive military campaigns in the region United States now has less influence in the Middle East than it did in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even the early 2000s.

As bad is the situation is the best case scenario is that it can be localized between the Israelis and Hamas in Gaza. As tragic and as devastating as that will be to both Israelis and Palestinians the possibility that the conflict could spread and become a regional war involving Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Syria and the United States is a distinct possibility. Syria is falling apart and in the middle of a brutal civil war. Lebanon is torn between its own historic divisions and heavily dominated by the Iranian backed Hezbollah terrorist group. Egypt is in the throws of its own revolution and in turmoil. Iran sits on the sidelines stoking the fires while making its own threats against Israel as well as its own Arab neighbors and the US forces in the region.

I am not going to try to predict what will happen next. The situation is developing and dangerous. One hopes for the best, that the conflict can be contained and the suffering of innocents minimized, but possibilities of a larger and more disastrous conflict are all too real not to downplay.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Senate Joint Resolution 41: The Blank Cheque of 2012

“The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship.” Telegram from German Imperial Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to Austrian Government 

It seems like it is a rare occasion when either the House or Senate combine to pass any sort of bi-partisan measure. One wishes that when they did that it would be something actually that would benefit the people of the United States. However in recent times it seems that the only time that the Senate or House can agree on anything is when they vote to raise their pay or give their blessing to a new war, of course without actually going on record as declaring war.

In July of 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire sought German backing to go to war against Serbia for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Balkans were boiling over. The Austrians felt that the chaos in the Balkans was an existential threat to their already fragile empire and aimed to shore up their position by crushing Serbia. However, since the Russian Empire supported the Serbs and was a direct threat to exposed areas of the Austrian empire in what is now Poland the Austrians sought a guarantee of German support for their action.

The Germans made the decision to support Austria knowing that if they did that it was likely that war with Russia, and probably France and Britain would ensue. Austria despite its limitations was Germany’s only real ally in Europe. By a series of diplomatic blunders Kaiser Wilhelm II managed to undo all of Otto Von Bismarck’s diplomacy following the German unification. He scuttled the treaty of friendship that the Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I had with Russia and built a Navy that threatened Britain’s interests both against the protests of Bismarck. As Wilhelm’s Germany became more isolated the more it prepared for war and many of its military and political leaders felt that war was not only inevitable but desirable before Germany’s enemies, especially Russia became more powerful.

Now with war threatening Germany was isolated and decided to support the Austrians believing that even if war came that they would emerge victorious. It was a decision that would be fatal for the German Empire as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This week as the situation between Israel and Iran has continued to deteriorate with most experts believing that it is only a matter of time before Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s emerging nuclear weapons capability. Leaders of Iran and Israel have continued to escalate rhetoric as well as conduct clandestine operations against each other. Iran has been isolated by the west and by much of the Sunni Moslem world, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. It believes that the west and the heretical Sunni’s desire the overthrow of its theocratic regime. Israel sees Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons as an existential threat and also faces local border conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah. Israel now has to deal with the threat posed by Egypt which is now led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel’s leaders, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feel that time is very short before Iran reaches the stage where it can produce nuclear weapons. The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have also opposed the development of such weapons by Iran and instituted ever tougher economic sanctions but those nations and entities feel that more time is needed for sanctions to take effect.

Likewise the leaders of Iran including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and leaders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards frequently talk of war with Israel which would lead to the destruction of the Jewish State. In light of Iran’s support for Hizbollah and involvement in the Syrian civil war Israel takes Iran’s threats seriously.

The tensions continue to increase and many believe that Israel could strike in the very near future the United States Senate in a rare moment of bi-partisanship the Senate passed what amounts to a “Blank Cheque” to Israel or the President to take action against Iran. In a vote Friday it passed Senate Joint Resolution 41 by a vote of 90-1. Amid all the domestic political jockeying, economic problems and yes the football season most people didn’t even know the vote occurred. The Senate voted it on the Friday that they recessed until after the November elections. The resolution stated that the Senate:

“strongly supports United States policy to prevent the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability;

rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and

joins the President in ruling out any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”  http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c112:2:./temp/~c1126dTHw8::

The lone vote of dissent was cast by Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul who said: “A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of preemptive war.”

The resolution in effect rules out and shackles any President using any form of diplomacy to deter Iran. Should Iran gain a nuclear capacity it effectively negates any form of deterrence, diplomacy or containment options other than war to stop Iran. In effect it gives the blessing of the Senate to either Israeli or American preventive war against Iran. The resolution is similar in this instance to the guarantee of Germany to Austria in 1914.

At this point I doubt that there is anything that will stop a war from happening. Too much has been invested by too many governments in ensuring that it will happen to stop it. Regardless of who is President of the United States Iran will continue its course until Israel strikes. When that happens all bets are off.

It will be a war designed to prevent a war but it will trigger events that will go well beyond a conflict between Iran and Israel. Others will be pulled in, the United States, NATO, the Gulf States, possibly Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and even Egypt. American and NATO forces in Afghanistan will be in great danger.

One would hope that we would learn from the mistakes of others. The great Otto Von Bismarck commented said “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” Obviously we haven’t learned anything.

Pray for Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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