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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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Looking Back at 30 Years of Commissioned Service

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I was going to write about the situation in Syria tonight but that will wait until tomorrow because June 19th is the 30th anniversary of my commissioning as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army. That was a long time ago. I had enlisted in the California Army National Guard in August of 1981 at the same time that I entered the Army ROTC program at UCLA.

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California Army National Guard 1982

Like most of my life I can admit that my military career, 17 1/2 years in the Army and another 14 1/2 in the Navy has been to quote Jerry Garcia “a long strange trip.” It has been eventful and it is not over. One interesting thing is because I spent about 10 years of my career in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve in a drill status I still am able to serve, probably until I reach age 58 or maybe even 60. If so my career will span early 40 years. Judy tells me that she doesn’t think I will retire until I am 60 which would be just under another 7 years.  That being said I can still crush the Navy Physical Fitness Test. I am still in the game.

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Berlin Wall (East Berlin) 1986

It is interesting what I have seen and where I have served. My career began back during the early days of the Reagan build up during the Cold War, not long after the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which was the catalyst for me volunteering even though the truth of the matter was that I wanted to serve in the military since I was a child. I was a Navy brat, my dad was a Chief Petty Officer and I loved that life.

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Germany 1984

I wanted to join the Navy out of high school but my parents convinced me to try college first, which I did, meeting my wife Judy my freshman year at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton California. After that it was California State University at Northridge where I began the serious exploration of commissioning programs. I was actually accepted into the Air Force Program but turned it down, Judy told me that she wouldn’t marry me if I joined the Navy and the Navy ROTC program informed me that I would have to change my major to hard science, math or engineering to enter the ROTC program. So I asked who I could work with and they pointed me down the hall to the Army.

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Marriage to Judy 25 June 1983

That was the beginning. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away. When I was commissioned in 1983 this college history major was commissioned into the Medical Service Corps, the administrative and operational side of the Army Medical Department. That made a lot of sense, or maybe it didn’t but it did save me from a career as an Ordinance Corps Maintenance Officer or Adjutant General’s Officer Corps paper pusher, both tasks that the Army trained and assigned me to do as a Medical Service Corps officer.

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Company Commander 557th Medical Company (Ambulance) 1985

As a Medical Service Corps officer I attended my Medical Officer Basic Course, the Junior Officer Maintenance Corps, the NBC Defense Officer Corps, the Air Force Air Load Planner Course and the Military Personnel Officer course.

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Academy of Health Sciences 1987 with LTC Ike Adams who was largely responsible for redirecting my career and calling to be a Chaplain

I served as a platoon leader, company XO, company commander and Group level staff officer in Cold Wr Germany. I then served as the Brigade Adjutant for the Academy Brigade of the Academy of Health Sciences, where I also helped draft the personnel instruction regarding personnel infected with the HIV virus.

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Army Chaplain School August 1990 with LTC Rich Whaley and CPT Bill Blacky

I left active duty to attend seminary in 1988 and joined the texas Army National Guard, initially as an Armor Corps officer serving as the Adjutant for an Armored battalion, until the State Chaplain found out and demanded that I be transferred to the Chaplain Candidate Program which I entered in 1990. I was at the Chaplain Officer Basic Course in August 1999 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the war ended just before our unit was to be mobilized for service. Technically Chaplain candidates can’t be mobilized, but one of the full time Guard personnel technician Warrant Officers in Austin kept me on the rolls for mobilization purposes as a Medical Service officer. But like I said the war ended, I graduated from seminary and was ordained and became a chaplain in 1992. I completed the Chaplain Officer Advanced Course and after completing my Pastoral Care Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1994 took a chaplain job in Huntington West Virginia where I transferred to the Virginia Army National Guard and once promoted to Major transferred to a local Army Reserve unit.

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Exchange Officer with German Army at Panzer School 

That was a turn of events that got me mobilized to support the Bosnia mission in 1996 and allowed me to serve supporting a number of units and military communities in Germany. Upon my return to the states and no civilian employment I served as the final Federal Chaplain at fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania. When that assignment ended I went back to West Virginia.

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Mt Fuji Japan and Panmunjom Korea 2001

Just before Christmas 1998 I got a call from my bishop telling me that the Navy was willing to consider me for active duty. Remembering Judy’s admonition that she would not marry me if I joined the Navy I did it without asking her. Not a smart thing, she was quite pissed because had I bothered to consult her she probably would have said yes, but the way I did it devalued her. Likewise she was sort of looking forward to the time I hit 20 years in the reserves so she wouldn’t have to lose me all the time to the military.

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Korea DMZ PT Session

Long story short. The Navy took me and I took a reduction in rank to come on active duty. One day I was a Major in the Army Reserve and the next a Navy Lieutenant. I was given a choice of assignments. I wanted to serve on a ship. I was given the choice of Marines or Marines. So I chose Marines and after completing the Navy Chaplain Office Basic course I reported to the Second Marine Division where I served as the “relief pitcher” for the division Chaplain, whenever someone got in trouble or was transferred without a relief in place I went in like a baseball relief pitcher. I deployed with 3rd Battalion 8th Marines to Okinawa, Japan and Korea. I was at Camp LeJeune on 9-11-2001 and in December 2001 reported to the USS Hue City CG-66 in Mayport Florida deploying shortly thereafter to support Operation Enduring Freedom.

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USS Hue City Operation Enduring Freedom

In October 2003 I reported to the Marine Security Force Battalion (now Regiment) and travelled the world in support of those Marines, spending between 1-3 weeks a month on the road. That was an amazing assignment because it gave me a global perspective of the Navy Marine Corps mission traveling frequently to the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Guantanamo Bay Cuba and various locations in the United States. While in that billet I completed the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and my Fleet Marine Force Officer qualification and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. After that I went to EOD Group 2 and from there was sent to Iraq as an Individual Augment to support advisors to the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions, 2nd Border Brigade, Highway Patrol and Police in Al Anbar Province working under the authority of the Iraq Assistance Group and II Marine Expeditionary Force Forward.

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Iraq 2007-2008

I came back from Iraq in pretty bad shape but consider it the pinnacle of my operational ministry as a Chaplain that I would not trade for anything. Since I have written much about it I will not say more about it in this article. From EOD I was transferred to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and after being selected for Commander in 2010 was transferred to Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune as the command chaplain. This tour was as a geographic bachelor and every couple of weeks I drove back to Virginia.

Now in a couple of months I will be reporting to be the Ethics Faculty and Chaplain at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.

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Various scenes top to bottom with General Peter Pace, teaching Marines at Normandy, with Secretary of State Madeline Albright 2005 Spain, with German office in Jordan 2007, Scottish Highlands with US Marines and Royal Marine Commandos 2005, Jordan River 2007, Belleau Wood France 2004, Guantanamo Bay Cuba 2003 or 2004

There have been highs and lows in my career and a few times that I thought that I wasn’t going to survive. But of all the things that I value in serving this country are the people that I have served with, Army, Navy, Marines and others including allied officers. I have met a lot of wonderful people, quite a few of whom I still stay in contact with despite the distance and years.

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With FAST Marines in Bahrain 2004 or 2005, Easter Sunday 2002 aboard USS Hue City and aboard USS Hue City with USS John F Kennedy CV-67 in background.

While I value my service in the Army, because it is a big part of my life I echo President John F Kennedy who said “I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: ‘I served in the United States Navy.'”

Until tomorrow,

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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Red Lines… Syria and Sarin and United States Military Intervention: A Warning from History

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Updated August 23rd 2013: Since this article was written back in April of this year the situation in Syria, not to mention the rest of the region has continued to get worse. This past week there appear to be credible new reports of the Syrian government using chemical weapons against their own people. It appears that the US and other powers are cautiously moving military forces into the region closer to Syria and that Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Israel could be drawing closer to involvement in the war. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians of all ethnic groups and faiths are fleeing the country, primarily to Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon is beginning to collapse and Israel launched air strikes into Lebanon after being hit by rockets fired by the Assad regime’s ally Hezbollah. This is all taking place as Egypt is perched at the abyss of civil war, and much of North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is in the throws of war, civil war or the collapse of any governmental order.

Needless to say it is not a good situation and the United States as well as many other governments and international bodies are trying to find a way through the eye of the needle to keep the multitude of problems from coalescing into a truly disastrous regional conflict which could effect the political, economic and military security of countries in the region and yes, like us on the far side of the globe. 

Carl von Clausewitz wrote: “No one starts a war–or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so–without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” 

Personally I don’t think that there is anyone who has a clear understanding of what they think their country should do or accomplish in Syria of the Middle East. 

That being said here is what I wrote in April.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

For the past number of weeks various news agencies and governments have reported the use of Sarin nerve gas by the Bashir Assad led Syrian government against rebels in that country’s civil war. The use of such weapons would be in defiance of international law and the law of war. The confirmed use of such weapons has been defined as a “red line” by the Obama administration. Israel, NATO and Turkey have all warned of the danger of the use of such weapons. Sarin has been banned and almost all nations have signed the 1993 treaty, but Syria is not one of them and reportedly has one of the largest stockpiles of Sarin in the world.

Today US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated:

“the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”

Last week both Britain and France wrote the Secretary General of the United Nations that they had evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against their own people. The Russians, a long term traditional ally of Syria have accused the West of attempting to “politicize” efforts to determine whether chemical weapons have been used and compared such efforts to the pre-Iraq War hunt for alleged Iraqi WMDs.

It is a dangerous time. The United States and NATO have deployed a number of Patriot Missile batteries to Turkey, which is harboring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and a small number of US troops are in Jordan assisting with refugees and working with the Jordanians on other security matters. Lebanon is becoming involved in the conflict due to the activities of Hezbollah and Israel has stepped up its security along its border with both Syria and Lebanon. In Syria the civil war has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives with hundreds of thousands more displaced or living as refugees in other countries.

It is a human rights disaster and in a perfect world the international community would come together to right the situation. That will likely not happen. Instead I expect that hawks in the United States Congress and press and potentially Israel and its Washington lobby will force President Obama to intervene in the Syrian Civil War, perhaps unilaterally or as part of a relatively small coalition. Both Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein made statements today on the need for intervention.

The fact is that as terrible as the situation is that an even worse situation will most likely develop should such a limited intervention take place to secure the chemical and possible biological weapons stored by the Syrian regime. Before Iraq I would have probably been on the bandwagon urging intervention, but I did learn something from Iraq. The fact is that though our intelligence agencies may believe that Sarin has been used in small quantities we need to be absolutely sure before any intervention is made. Some in the Defense Department are concerned because of what happened regarding supposedly good and solid intelligence. As such the Miguel Rodriquez of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs noted:

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. …

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making …”

I know what Sarin and other nerve gasses can do. I trained extensively as an Army Medical Service Corps Officer in NBC (Nuclear Chemical and Biological) weapon defense. The Soviets called Sarin GB and it was something that we trained to defend against during the Cold War. Back then we trained extensively to defend ourselves against chemical weapons, we practically lived in our MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) suits and protective masks. We trained to decontaminate personnel and equipment, we trained on knowing how such weapons were used, fallout patterns and half-life of the agents. We trained with atropine injectors in case we were contaminated and we learned that the triage of wounded was different when they were contaminated with chemical agents.

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However, since 9-11 and our counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan the general preparedness of most units in this type of warfare has been neglected because those wars did not require them.  With the exception of highly specialized units organized with the mission of Chemical, Biological and Nuclear weapon defense and response in the Continental United States few units are trained to the level that we were in the Cold War and even then most of us expected that if such weapons were used in the quantities amassed by the Soviets that most of us would die.

That being said we had damned well be absolutely sure that we know a lot more than we know now before committing a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman to the mission of securing these weapons. Securing them in the existing environment in Syria would take tens of thousands of troops and based on the geography of Syria, the potential for Iranian intervention and the use of these WMDs against our troops by Syria should we intervene.

The question that I would ask anyone advocating military intervention now is “what is the cost in lives and treasure you are willing to make to do it? and what is your endgame?” The fact is that in two “low intensity” counterinsurgency campaigns we have lost over 6500 US troops killed and over 50,000 wounded not counting the hundreds of thousands afflicted with Traumatic Brain Injury and and PTSD. How many more would be sacrificed in a campaign in Syria and what will be the long term cost to them, their families, the military, national security and the economy?

The easy answer for the Hawks in Congress, the Beltway pundits and lobbyists is to send in the military. I think that it is a reflexive response now, send in the troops, damn the costs. That is easy for them to say because “the troops” are less than 1% of the US population. They can win elections without our vote. Sending in the troops looks strong and patriotic and people applaud when they see us on television doing a great job. But it is unrealistic. The military has been worn down by nearly 12 years of war. Equipment is wearing out, troops are tired, suicide rates skyrocketing, medical costs increasing. Add to this the fact that operational units are being squeezed by the budget fiasco forced by Congress in 2011 known as the sequester. But few will say this and that is as close to criminal negligence as one can get on the part of those advocating intervention in Syria.

I am offended by the knee jerk reactions of Congressmen and Senators as well as their enablers in the media and the beltway who seem to be advocating US involvement in yet another civil war in a Middle Eastern country. What is the legal basis for such an invasion or intervention? What is the human cost and what is the economic cost and who pays the bill?

Smedley Butler, Marine Corps Major General and two time Medal of Honor winner said it well when writing about the costs of war in his book War is a Racket following World War One, which by the way was the last time that US troops faced Chemical weapons:

“But the soldier pays the biggest part of this bill.

If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit  any of the veterans’ hospitals in the United States….I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.”

In another part of his book Butler wrote:

“In the government hospital at Marion, Indiana 1,800 of these boys are in pens! Five hundred of them in a barracks with steel bars and wires all around the outside of the buildings and on the porches. These have already been mentally destroyed. These boys don’t even look like human beings. Oh, the looks on their faces! Physically they are in good shape but mentally they are gone.” 

There are thousands and thousands of these cases and more and more are coming in all the time…

That’s a part of the bill. So much for the dead-they have paid their part of the war profits. So much for the mentally and physically wounded- they are paying now with their share of the war profits. But others paid with the heartbreaks when they tore themselves away for their firesides and their families to don the uniform of Uncle Sam- on which a profit had been made….”

Before any military actions are taken against Syria someone had better ask the hard questions that were so buried and ignored in the build up to the Iraq War. What is the cost? What is the legal basis? What is the endgame? If those questions cannot be answered in a satisfactory manner then not no American military forces be committed and not a dime spent.

Yes the situation in Syria is a tragedy, but intervention would likely make it even more so. As terrible as this conflict is, it is a Syrian affair. Yes we will have to deal with whatever comes out of it, but is American military intervention to secure the Syrian Chemical weapons the wise course of action, especially in light of how much that we do not know?

How many more coffins containing the bodies of US military personnel need to be shipped back from yet another war? Oh wait, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the bodies of soldiers killed by chemical agents are contaminated and most would not come home because of that risk. Somehow I don’t think that a military cemetery in Syria would be as well maintained as those in France, Belgium and Luxembourg where so many Americans lay in final repose following the First and Second World War. I know this because I have seen the British military cemetery in Habbaniyah Iraq.

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Yes this is a big deal for all of us. It is much too important to be made without a full accounting before a single American Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman is committed to action.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Padre Steve’s Primer on the Muddle East

“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

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 Mujahedeen.

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 depot we knew to a quagmire despite Saddam’s crimes against his own people who thought we would help them.  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 last year.  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.

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. But then 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.

This brought about spontaneous uprisings all over the Middle East with Libya and the long time pain in the ass Muammar Gaddafi being the current center of the action. However Yemen and Bahrain both are in trouble, Algeria, Jordan and Syria 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.

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 world powers, as well as the despots who ran these countries are to blame.

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 will bring about a peaceful and democratic “Arab Spring” 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.

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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Danger in the Arabian Gulf: The Fires of Protest Spread to Bahrain

Protesters attacked in Bahrain (AP Photo)

It is weird when you see a place that you have been many times explode into massive protests, violence and potential revolution. That I have been to Bahrain many times and it is strange to see what is going on there. My first couple of times I was assigned to a ship, the cruiser USS HUE CITY on port calls while deployed in the Arabian Gulf. Later I would make frequent trips there as chaplain for the Marine Security Forces.

In the days following the downfall of Tunisia’s President Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak the flames of revolution have spread across the Middle East. Protests have taken place in Yemen, Libya, Jordan and Bahrain and the situations have become violent as security forces attempted to put down the protests. Even Iran is beginning to boil over as protestors who feel cheated by the results of the contested 2009 elections rise up against the Iranian regime. However, the situation in Bahrain is the most troubling if one looks at the potential impact on US strategy in the Arabian Gulf and always tense situation with Iran.

Bahraini Shia women with black flags. The Black flag is commonly flown in Shia neighborhoods and villages in Bahrain (AP Photo)

As I said before I have been to Bahrain many times. It is one of the most socially progressive countries in the Middle East and unlike most other Arab nation’s alcohol can be purchased in stores and not just upscale hotels that cater to foreigners, businessmen, military personnel and diplomats. It is a wealthy nation which though not prosperous as Qatar or the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has managed to diversify its economy with a per capita income of $25,420.  It is a frequent vacation destination of many well off Saudis and has over 230,000 expats from other countries who call Bahrain home. According to a United Nations report Bahrain has 807,000 residents including the expats.

One thing that I remember about Bahrain is that the wealth is not very evenly divided. For the most part the Shia population is incredibly poor and their villages stand in stark contrast to the wealth of the Sunni. This is one of the biggest causes of the tensions which have brought about the protest movement which was ignited by the success of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain Army units deployed in Manama (AP Photo)

The population of Bahrain is divided between the Sunni ruling class which comprises approximately 30% of the population and a less well off Shia population. The Khalifah family has ruled the country since driving out the Persians in 1783. It became a British protectorate in 1861 and the Kingdom attained its independence in 1971 and became a constitutional Monarchy in 2002 with some elected representatives.  The current King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah is a graduate of Cambridge University and the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. He has reigned since March of 1999 when his father died.

Iran considers Bahrain a rebel province and is viewed as a threat by Bahrain has sought over the years to foment dissent in Shia community which believes that it is discriminated against by the Sunni rulers.

NAVCENT Headquarters in Bahrain (Navy Times Photo)

Bahrain is a vital part of the U.S. strategic presence in the region as a counter to the Iranian threat. It hosts the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT). It is a frequent port of call for U.S. and Allied Navy ships that operate in the Arabian Gulf.  As such the current instability and violence is a matter of grave concern for the United States and its Allies in the Gulf.

As I said I have been to Bahrain numerous times in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. I would stay in hotels with the best security which happened to be the 5 Star locations and dine at various Irish, British or Arab restaurants mostly with fellow Marine or Navy Officers or expats.  The difference between that world and the Shia villages and neighborhoods is amazing the contrast between the vast wealth of some and the absolute poverty of the other troubled me because I could see that it was a ticking time bomb. The Shia population also has limited political rights and is often targeted by the police.  They are certainly infiltrated by Iranian agents who I would guess are helping to stir things up.

The violence that has overtaken Bahrain does not surprise me. The Bahraini military is primarily composed of Sunnis from other Arab countries and has little love for the Shia. They are basically a mercenary force absolutely loyal to the government. There will be no Egyptian style coup in Bahrain. Since the population is small and the Army, police and other security forces wedded to the government I expect that the protests will be put down and that the regime will survive.  It will not be pretty and could well have an impact on U.S. Forces in Bahrain.

Back after 9/11 military dependents were sent home and force protection increased. A couple of years ago dependants were allowed back in but I think that we will see them extracted again. The security forces at the base are robust and work closely with the Bahraini security forces. I would expect that whatever Marine Expeditionary Unit is in theater will be on alert and that additional Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams could be flown in to reinforce the base.

The broader ramifications of a continued violent crackdown on the protestors will be felt throughout the region. With the success of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts people in many parts of the Arab World are now boiling over as protests and revolts against the old authoritarian regimes spread. As the situation continues to build I expect the probability of more regimes being overthrown with very unpredictable consequences. What may be true for Egypt may not be true anywhere else. What is for sure is that the Middle East that existed in December will look far different by the end of this year and that could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on just how it all shakes out and the possible impact on American and NATO operations in the region as well as impact on American overseas counter-terrorism operations especially in Yemen.

We can only wait and see and hopefully influence peaceful and democratic change in the area, but revolutions in countries that repress their populations tend not to be peaceful.  Egypt so far is an exception to that. If you believe in prayer I recommend that we pray hard my friends.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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