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Tears for Ramadi

  

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of he certainty of God…among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring, which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” T.E. Lawrence 

Tonight I write about Ramadi, a place where I spent some of the best worst days of my life. A place where like T.E. Lawrence I gave of myself to help the Arabs, in my case the Iraqi tribes, in his those of the Arabian Peninsula. 

  
My life was changed forever in Iraq and in my time there I came to appreciate the Iraqis that I met. 

I am not writing tonight to talk a bunch of military-political analysis, God knows that I do enough of that as it is. As my own life settles down I probably will do this, but with just a couple of observations will avoid that tonight. It will suffice to say that Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar Province fell to the Islamic State over the weekend. The city has been besieged for months by ISIL forces and fell to them, surviving military and police units fled the onslaught accompanied by thousands of residents. The Iraqi Governmnet claims that it will retake Ramadi and the local Sunni government officials are now reluctantly supporting the introduction of the Iranian backed Shia militias which recently recaptured Tikrit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, the people of Ramadi are caught between the Sunni fanatics of ISIL and the the Shia dominated central government in Bahgdad who they neither love or trust and with good reason. 

  
I have no doubt that eventually the Iraq government supported by the Shia militias will re-take Ramadi for the city is far too important to be allowed to remain until ISIL control. But it will not happen overnight and the battle will be fought to the death between the radical Sunni and the radical Shia whose bloodlust and hatred of each other will create an even more catastrophic situation for those who cannot escape the city or who have been forced into refugee camps or into the open desert. 

  
When I think of the appalling decision of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam Hussein, his Ba’ath Party and military, which is the major reason this is now happening I get very angry. I think of the thousands of American Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen, as well as those of our coalition allies and the Iraqis who lost everything by supporting us and I weep. I still see the carnage, devastation inflicted by us on Iraq, as well as that done by the Al Qaida Iraq insurgents and the suffering of the people of Anbar whenever I close my eyes and try to sleep. 

  
We did hope for better days, especially after the Anbar Sunnis rose up against AQI and helped us drive them out. However, that hope was like the desert grass, squandered by the inept, corrupt and insanely treacherous Maliki regime which as soon as it could turned on the Anbar Sunni in 2010 and 2011 and planted the seeds of another, even more viscious insurgency. 

  
Iraq is now ground zero in the war being waged between Sunni and Shia Islam, a war which will devastate the Middle East much as the Thirty Years War waged by warring factions of Catholic and Protestant Christians did to Europe. Like that war it is a war which will go on until the borders are sealed by the blood of hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of Arabs, sadly including the best and brightest of this and maybe the next generation, the very people who like men like me dreamed dreams. 

 

Today the places that were often my home away from home, places that we Americans new as Ramadi Main, Blue Diamond, the Shark’s Tooth, and so many others are under ISIL control. Places like Hit, Haditha, Ar Rutbah. Al Qaim, Waleed, Korean Village, Fallujah, Habbinyah are either under the control of ISIL or besieged. I travelled thousands of miles across Anbar working with our advisors and Iraqis, it is so much a part of me, and so tonight my heart breaks for the people of Ramadi and Al Anbar. 
  
Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Thoughts on the Iranian “Deal”

Iran nuclear talks

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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The Fallacy of “Complete” Victory and the Seeds of Perpetual War and the Way to Peace

“We learn from history that complete victory has never been completed by the result that the victors always anticipate—a good and lasting peace. For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.” B H Liddell Hart

The current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has brought into light the fallacy of the belief that military victories alone can bring peace. One would think that leaders would know this and understand the basic truth of this key aspect of the human condition but it seems that we are doomed in every generation for leaders to ignore this basic fact of human life and civilization.

While one can easily criticize the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs for their unremitting hostility and desire for revenge they are not unique. Europe bears the scars of over 1500 years of Christendom’s own tribal and religious hatreds, many which still simmer underneath the surface of “free and democratic society.” Asia is rife with ethnic hatred and desire for revenge for actions committed by people long dead. Africa, the same except for the most part those in the “First World” be they Americans, Europeans or Asians only care about Africa for its natural resources, otherwise we would have acted to stop the various genocides on that rich, beautiful and diverse but seemingly cursed continent. The inter-Islamic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian Moslems likewise have their hatreds, try as they might Arabs and Persians despite a common allegiance to Islam are mortal enemies with animosities that pre-date their conversion to Islam. Even we Americans are not immune to such hostility in our own country and against those that we label as our enemies overseas.

Despite this there are those that first and always resort to military force or terrorist violence to attempt to fight the “war to end all wars.”

The current episode of violence in Gaza is simple another chapter in what has been an unending series of wars since the establishment of the State of Israel. The time since has been marked by major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1981 the Palestinian Infatada as well as border conflicts between Israel, Fatah, Hamas and Hezbollah that have occurred since. These wars forced exodus of Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral homes, as well as the practical end of substantial Jewish and Christian communities in Moslem dominated nations.

The Israelis have in many cases lived under threat of invasion and destruction by neighboring Arab states for much of their history even while maintaining control of territories that they occupy by brutal force in the name of their own security. In some sense the Israeli position is understandable. They occupy but a small portion of land and threats of extermination, real and propagandistic by Arab and nations and the Iranians cause them to see these threats as existential threats.

The Arabs on the other hand deal with centuries of humiliation at the hand of foreigners, many Christian and European, but also that of the Turk and Persian. The constant drumbeat of military defeats endured by them at the hands of the Israelis and the support of Israel by western nations, some of whom ran the brutal colonial administrations which divided their lands, appointed despots as surrogates and exploited their natural resources has ingrained in them a deep seated need for revenge and respect.

I know from my time in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries that the key to friendship and mutual respect is the simple act of taking time to know and appreciate the culture, history, faith and traditions of other people. I frequently in my dealings with Iraqi officers in Al Anbar Province opened doors by taking the time to learn their history, which goes back several millennia as the cradle of civilization and to be both polite and respectful in dealing with them. Iraqi officers were surprised that I knew the positive contributions of Iraqi military officers to Iraq, including the abolition of child labor, public education, the expansion of universities, universal suffrage and public works that benefited all Iraqis before the takeover of the country by Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. Likewise the fact that I could name the victories of Iraq forces against the British at Al Kut in the First World War, the largest surrender of British forces during the war as well as other victories gained me their respect and friendship as the “American” or “Christian Imam.”

However most Americans have not learned this despite over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was listening to a friend today who was upset that the government of Iraq was urging that Arabs use oil as a weapon against the United States to force the United States to change its policy in regard to the Palestinians. The argument presented on Fox News and echoed around much of the country is that the statement of the Iraqis is an act of ingratitude by a country that we “liberated.”

But that is our fiction that we create to absolve ourselves from the fact that over a period of 20 years American and other Western nations destroyed Iraq and humiliated its people. Yes we overthrew Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, a man that we supported for years as an ally until he crossed a line that we determined that he should not cross when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. To Shi’te Iraqis the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 was liberation, but it was “liberation” that followed the betrayal of them in 1991 where after encouraging them to revolt against Saddam we allowed them to be slaughtered by his Republican Guard.

To the Sunni of Anbar Province who after realizing that the radicals of Al Qaeda who were bringing more destruction to them than the Americans and allied themselves with the United States military in 2007, the Anbar Awakening the withdraw of American forces was an abandonment. They made our exit from Iraq possible and helped break the back of Al Qaeda, and for their trouble they believe that they have been abandoned to a corrupt Shi’te led government in Baghdad.

In light of all of this who can blame the Iraqis for making those statements. How would be we feel if that were to happen to us in the United States, or in Western Europe? Actually we know from history how we would feel. The answer is obvious in our history as well as our current actions and attitudes. We would not rest until those that brought destruction on our country and betrayed our people were defeated.

It is no wonder that Sun Tzu said that “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Likewise Abraham Lincoln asked a question that those consumed by the need to destroy their enemies by military force should ask before ever mobilizing an army for war: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Remember and Pray: Lessons from 9-11-2001 Today

9-11 Memorial Ceremony (US Navy Photo)

Today many of us took the time to remember the events of September 11th 2001. Some were large ceremonies and others small, while many just took the time to remember the lives of those lost, to reflect and pray. Many talked about what they remembered and where they were that fateful day and others remembered the event silently, the pain still too great to express.

The events of 9-11-2001 are now 11 years past yet danger still looms. American military and diplomatic personnel, Federal agents of various police and security agencies, contractors and American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) serve in harms way exposed to violence and terror. The Middle East is ablaze in violence between competing Islamic groups, the Sunni-Shia Moslem divide becomes greater with every day as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon become more violent. The conflict threatens adjoining nations including Israel, Jordan and Turkey. Israel and Iran edge closer to war and extremists do all that they can to incite others to violence by their acts. Today Egyptian Islamic extremists stormed the US Embassy in Cairo and ripped down our flag allegedly in response to a film being produced by an American extremist the Koran burning “pastor” Terry Jones which they believe is blasphemous.

Pundits, politicians and preachers, that Unholy Trinity that seems to find life in the death and misery of others stoke the fires of hate, among the “faithful” of their religions and nationalities. The truth be known I get angry every time these extremists act or do things the are done with the sole intent of bringing harm to others while advancing their dark agendas.  I get tired of those that from places of safety and security provoke violence and urge wars that they know others will have to fight and without any cost to themselves. They make their pronouncements all claiming that God, however they define him is on their side. That is blasphemy, no matter which God you believe in.

The world is a very dangerous place. It is not only a time for vigilance and military preparedness, it is a time for reflection, prayer and peace making.

God of the ages, before your eyes all empires rise and fall yet you are changeless. Be near us in this age of terror and in these moments of remembrance. Uphold those who work and watch and wait and weep and love. By your Spirit give rise in us to broad sympathy for all the peoples of your earth. Strengthen us to comfort those who mourn and work in large ways and small for those things that make for peace. Bless the people and leaders of this nation and all nations so that warfare, like slavery before it, may become only a historic memory. We pray in the strong name of the Prince of Peace. Amen. (From the September 11th Litany published by the National Council of Churches)

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Fear and Loathing in Damascus

Free Syrian Army Fighter

The situation in Syria continues to worsen as the battle for Damascus heats up. Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad reportedly has moved his headquarters to the Alawite Mountains as fighting rages in the Syrian capitol.   The International Red Cross has declared what most of us already believed that the conflict is a civil war and call for the United Nations to intervene under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter grow ever stronger despite the opposition of Russia and China to those calls.

In the 16 months that this fighting has been going on an estimated 10,000-15,000 Syrians have been killed. Thousands more have been wounded, many are missing and the number of refugees in Turkey has risen to roughly 120,000.  Despite the harsh repression of the Syria government, military, security and police against the opposition the opposition continues to grow in strength and is being joined by increasing numbers of senior military officers and soldiers.

Syrian Army Troops fighting in Damascus

On Wednesday the 18th after four days of sustained combat in Damascus the Free Syrian Army struck a blow at the heart of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad. It was a blow that no-one saw coming except the plotters. From a strategic point of view it was a brilliantly executed strike that will inspire fear among Assad’s loyalists and increase the opposition to him.

Bashar Assad and Senior Generals including Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha

Both the FSA and the Liwa al-Islam group claimed credit for a strike using a remotely detonated explosive inside the national security headquarters building in to decapitate the military and intelligence leadership of the Assad regime. Killed were Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; and his “deputy” Asef Shawkat. Shawkat is Assad’s brother-in law and one of the regime’s most feared strongmen.

Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha; and his “deputy” Asef Shawkat (below)

Also killed was Assistant Vice President Hassan Turkmani, a former Defense Minister who served as the head of Assad’s Crisis Management Office. Syrian State TV reported that Hisham Ikhtiar, director of the National Security Bureau, and Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, were among those hurt in the attack.  Al Arabia reported that another key official, Hafez Makhlouf, head of the investigations at the Syrian Intelligence Agency was killed in the attack.

The dead were key members of Assad’s attempt to crush the rebels and maintain his control over Syria. Rajiha was the most senior Christian in the Syrian government. Shawkat who was the husband of Assad’s sister Bushra had been Assed’s enforcer who wielded great power in Syria and with Syrian dealings in Lebanon.  AFP reports that the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called Shawkat’s death “a severe blow to the Syrian regime since he played the main role in operations by regular forces to crush the revolution.”

Syrian Army Tanks fire on Opposition Fighters

With the successful attack the revolution has reached a turning point. It has show the ability to strike at the heart of the Assad regime. Assad is counter-attacking but with the loss of such trusted key players his efforts, which have been a failure to date will be dealt a fatal blow. Even before the attack a number of Generals and other senior officers as well as thousands of troops have defected to the revolution. Rebels find arms and ammunition easy to come by in the corrupt Syrian government. Last week the Syrian Ambassador to Iraq Nawaf Fares defected to the rebels and claimed that he believed that Assad would use his chemical weapons against the opposition if he felt the need to do so.

Syrian Refugees in Turkey

The probable end of this is that the Assad regime will fall and a long term sectarian civil war like that that has plagued Lebanon since the 1970s will ensue. Hezbollah having lost its ally will attempt to retain power in Lebanon and influence events in Syria to their advantage, possibly attempting to gain control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile.

The collapse of Syria which to all before 2010 appeared to be stable by Arab standards despite fomenting problems for its neighbors will bring more instability, uncertainty and violence to the region. Expect that Assad’s loyalists among the Shite Alawite sect will be targeted for revenge by the persecuted Sunni majority. Also expect that Christianity will lose its last place of refuge in the broader Middle East as Syrian Arab Orthodox and Catholic Christians are targeted by all sides as were Iraqi Christians during the Iraq civil war and insurgency.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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