Kurdish referendum–just the beginning

The referendum among Iraqi Kurds is non-binding, and it doesn’t mandate any action–like withdrawing from Iraq. So why is everyone (except Israel) so upset? I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The vehement opposition to the referendum is absurd, but it says a lot about the way the world views the Middle East. Absurd because the vote changes nothing. The Kurdish area of Iraq has been autonomous since 1991. Kurds have demanded independence for decades. The vote won’t bring independence–all it does is restate the well-known facts.

So what’s the problem here? Let’s start with the US, where officials are worried that the referendum might make waves that would disrupt the fight against ISIS. As I’ve written before–there’s more to the Mideast than ISIS, but the Trump administration doesn’t seem to realize that.

Others, like the UN, Europe, and Arab countries, worry that the vote could lead to instability in the region. Really? As if there’s stability now?

These arguments point to a conservative view of the region, according to the definition of the word, not the political context it usually receives. “Conservative” as in conserving the status quo. Six years after Arab Spring begin, it should be obvious to even the most casual observer that the Mideast is in a period of transition. There is no status quo. A complete realignment is in progress, erasing the old 1920s borders–in fact or in practice–and redrawing the region into spheres of influence. Iran leads the Shiite Muslim faction, Saudi Arabia leads the Sunnis–and what about the Kurds?

Here’s the thing. The Kurds are a separate ethnic group. They are Muslims, but they’re not Arabs. The Kurdish people are divided among several countries, including Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, but the territory where they live

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is contiguous. That’s to say, you could draw a border around it and have a majority-Kurdish entity.

 

And that’s what’s troubling the people in the region. If Iraq’s Kurds, about 5 million people, move toward independence–could the others be far behind? There are 30 million Kurds altogether, including 14 million in Turkey, which

labels a main Kurdish group there, PKK, as terrorists for carrying out attacks to back their demands for independence.

But bucking the new order is a policy of reactionary failure. As part of the regional realignment, one day there will be an independent Kurdistan. A more logical approach would be to work for a peaceful transition to that, instead of threatening all kinds of mayhem against people just because they express their will at the ballot box.

Also–the world is caught in a bald contradiction here. The UN and most of its members insist on the right of the Palestinians to an independent state. Even Israel has reluctantly come on board with that. Yet the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza number fewer than 4 million people are not a distinct ethnic group. They are a distinct national group, but they are Arabs like most everyone else in the Middle East, except the Jews, the Kurds and some smaller groups. So it’s hypocritical to demand a state for the Palestinians while denying it to the Kurds.

That helps explain why Israel is the only nation openly favoring Kurdish independence. Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan have relatively warm if quiet relations, and there are persistent reports that Israel gets much of its oil from there. Iraqi Kurdistan controls about 20 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves–another reason Baghdad opposes such moves toward independence.

Irony of ironies–among those opposing the Kurdish independence vote are–the Palestinians. They have two reasons–Arab nations oppose it, but much more important to the Palestinians–Israel favors it. How sad.

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ISIS convoy reaches Iraq-Syria border–another US policy failure

You’d think that if the US declares that an ISIS convoy won’t travel through Syria to the Iraqi border, that’s the way it will be. No more. The US caved. I discussed this strange turn of events with host P.J. Maloney on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh a short while ago.

All this started last month, when Lebanon, Hezbollah and ISIS agreed that 600 ISIS fighters and their families could board buses and move from the Lebanon-Syria border area in western Syria to the Iraqi border in the east. The US objected, as did Iraq, understandably. Then the US did something about it. It sent its warplanes in to bomb the road the convoy was using–stranding it in the Syria desert.

US aircraft targeted ISIS fighters trying to escape, while avoiding as best they could, casualties among the civilians in the convoy. A classic standoff.

Russia changed the equation, “asking” the US to halt its operations around the convoy, Syria-Guide-Map.mediumthumbostensibly to avoid unintended clashes as forces from both sides closed in on ISIS-held Dir a_Zour–the destination of the convoy.

With the US military out of the picture, the convoy was free to move again, and over the last 24 hours, I’ve seen reliable reports that it has reached the Iraq-Syria border area as planned.

So the US just folded? Looks that way. This is the result of a focused–some might say blinkered–policy of fighting ISIS to the exclusion of every other policy aspect. You can ignore the Russians, but there’s the chance they won’t ignore you, for example. Then this sort of embarrassment is inevitable.

There’s more to Syria, more to Iraq, more to the Mideast than ISIS. The sooner the US wakes up to that obvious fact, the sooner it will embark on more constructive goals than trapping a few hundred militants in a desert.

Where did today’s Jews originate? Why do we care?

I’ve been seeing pseudo-scientific articles and Jewish hand-wringing over the possibility that many of today’s Jews originated in Europe, not the Middle East. It’s all bullshit.

The basis of this argument is completely without merit. Judaism does not encourage conversion or proselytize. It considers converts equal in all ways to people who are born Jewish. Other religions actively recruit converts, sometimes at the end of a rifle. They consider all their converts to be equal to those born to their religions.

Yet we are allowing ourselves to be judged on the basis of whether our religion’s origins are in a particular place or not, as if our voluntary converts over the centuries aren’t “real” Jews? Absurd.

Christians and Muslims accept the Five Books of Moses as holy. There it says that it is a commandment for Jews to live in what is now Israel. So why does it matter what this or that DNA test shows? What other nation would even consider such a criterion as validating or invalidating its statehood? In the modern world, no one even looks at such “evidence.” Do I care where French people originated? British? No one cares, that is, except us and our enemies. We quail and we quiver, and they laugh.

I even saw a post by an American Jew wailing that she has no roots in the Middle East, so her claim here is much weaker than that of the Palestinians, whose roots, she cried, go back hundreds of years.

Jewish roots go back, measurably, nearly THREE THOUSAND YEARS to the building of the TempleSecond Temple Model, Jerusalem in Jerusalem. Say what you want about whether Abraham. Isaac, Jacob and Moses actually existed–the Temple is an archaeological fact. It was built in 957 BCE. Not good enough? The Second Temple, of which there are enough remains to build a good model, was completed in 515 BCE, “just” 2,500 years ago. Jews lived and thrived here for more than a thousand years.

Many Arabs started moving from Arabia to what is now Israel in the 19th century, when the Jews started moving in–because there was work. Sure, some Arabs were here all along–and so were some Jews. For 30 centuries, there have been Jews living in what is now Israel.

As I have written before–it is time for us to stop reacting defensively to every spurious charge and attack. We are a strong people in a strong position, and we need to start responding from strength, not fear.

Let’s start with ignoring and/or countering the bullshit about whether we belong in Israel.

“Israel blasts Syrian chemical weapons site”

The quotation marks are up there because, of course, Israel isn’t commenting on the airstrike, and there’s no proof that Israel carried it out–so last night “someone” sent warplanes in to blast a Syrian military research facility. The facility has been on watch list for at least seven years that I know of, as a chemical weapons factory. I talked about the airstrike a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

There are reports that the “Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center” near Masyaf in northwest Syria also suppliedMasyaf.8 barrel bombs to the Syrian air force. These are primitive but deadly devices that can be shoved out of  helicopters in civilian neighborhoods–a favorite tactic of Bashar al-Assad’s military.

So there’s no question about why this place was a target. Since US President Barack Obama bullied Russia and Assad into giving up Syria’s chemical weapons in 2014 (it’s still a mystery to me why people think his “red line” policy failed), three years have passed, and no one has been following up on the achievement. That’s plenty of time to replenish supplies, either by manufacturing new chemical weapons or importing them. International observers say at least 20 of the last 25 chemical attacks in Syria since 2013 were the work of Assad’s military.

It’s unlikely that Assad hid chemical weapons in his garage for three years and just recently decided to pop them out. Ready-to-use sarin gas, for example, has a shelf life of only a few weeks, though storing its components separately can extend that.

So bombing the factories where the weapons are made is probably the most efficient way of controlling their use at this point. My question is–if Israel is the one that carried out the airstrike, why Israel? Assad’s chemical weapons don’t directly threaten Israel, and the US carries out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq practically every day.

Is Israel sending a message here? I’ve seen that speculation in some of the coverage. Folks, Israel doesn’t have to send such messages. There’s no-one in the region who doesn’t know what would happen if Israel were attacked with non-conventional weapons.

Or is it that the US is so fixated on the ISIS aspect of this war that it doesn’t have any room in its head for this other stuff? I think that’s more likely, and that, my friends, is a problem.

ISIS fighters might have escaped trapped Syria convoy

About 400 ISIS fighters and their families have apparently escaped a convoy of buses stuck in the Syrian desert by American airstrikes that destroyed the road they were taking toward the Iraqi border.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia/fighting force/terrorist group (depending on your perspective) brokered a deal to transfer the ISIS militants from the Lebanon-Syrian border to the Deir-a-Zour area near the Iraqi border. The militants surrendered after a fight with Hezbollah and other Lebanese forces. Now they’re headed across the desert toward Deir a-Zour in a dozen civilian vehicles, according to the latest report. Another report, though, says they’re still trapped.

Deir a-Zour is controlled by ISIS, so the deal is supposed to defuse the powderkeg alongSyria-Guide-Map.mediumthumb Lebanon’s border by sending the militants to a place where they won’t make much difference. No harm, no foul.

The US doesn’t see it that way. The American official in charge of the war against ISIS tweeted, “Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent.” Iraq’s government certainly agrees with that. Iraq’s Sunni prime minister denounced the transfer, noting that its forces have been fighting ISIS for years, adding that Iraq doesn’t send the militants to Syria. On the other hand, Iraq’s Shiite leaders praised the deal–showing once again how Iraq is split along sectarian lines.

This shows a number of things about the conflict in Syria, where everyone has a different agenda. Syria’s regime wants to stay in power. Iran wants to control as much as it can, using its ally Hezbollah for that end. Lebanon wants ISIS as far away as possible, struggling as it always toes to maintain a fragile balance among the warring parties that make up its society.  Russia wants to maintain the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as a way of ensuring its hold on a vital military base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. ISIS does what ISIS does.

And then there’s the US. Washington is focused on one goal and one goal only–wiping out ISIS militarily. So all the other parties and their interests can take a hike, in the view of the White House.

As before, the question needs to be asked–then what? Is there a policy in place to deal with what used to be Syria, to keep it functioning in some form so that the millions of citizens who have either fled the country or are internally displaced can rebuild their lives? Or counter Iran’s moves beyond threats to cancel the nuclear deal despite another certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran is keeping its part of the pact? , since Washington seems obsessed with Iran?

Of all the parties above, the US is the one with the weakest direct level of interest in Syria. ISIS in Syria doesn’t threaten the US. There are no American military bases in Syria. The US doesn’t have a dog in the fight. That should, logically, free the US to take a longer view–get out of the fighting and concentrate on humanitarian assistance, to rebuild the good will lost over the past two decades by misguided US military operations–instead of taking part in yet another one.

And what about Israel, which borders both Syria and Lebanon? At this moment the Israeli military is conducting one of its largest exercises in years, including a drill featuring Hezbollah militants attacking two Israeli border villages at the same time. There is no doubt that Hezbollah poses a serious threat to Israel. The Lebanese group is armed with thousands of rockets and missiles, and it has gained valuable military experience by fighting alongside the Russians in Syria. Israel needs to be prepared for this, and to show that it’s prepared–that’s what the exercise is about.

But Israel has been smart enough to stay out of the fighting in Syria, though it faces a much more immediate threat, certainly, than the US does. Instead, Israeli doctors and hospitals have quietly treated thousands of sick and wounded Syrians–civilians and fighters. That’s the kind of humanitarian assistance that can bring positive long-term results–besides just being the right thing to do.

Listen up, Washington.

 

Trump’s Mideast policy–a smokescreen?

So President Trump keeps sending his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over here to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s hopeless, but perhaps that’s not the real mission. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Though Trump has called the idea of Israel=Palestinian peace the ultimate deal, his business history is in ties with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia. There is no reason to believe that just because he’s president, his focus has turned on a dime.

So it’s no accident that Kushner always stops off in Riyadh to talk to Saudi leaders when he’s in the neighborhood. It’s also no accident that the Trump administration is trying to heal (not heel) the rift between Saudi Arabia and Qatar–so far with no success, as Qatar moves closer to Iran in response to the Saudi move to isolate the rich little kingdom.

All this makes sense in the context of Trump’s obsession with Iran. In the Trumpified world of black and white, the Iranians are all evil, and anyone who opposes them is all good. Anyone who’s been in the Middle East for more than half an hour knows how simplistic that is, but never mind.

The move that would please the Saudis the most would be the cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump appears intent on making that happen, even if he has to make up evidence of violations to do it. That would be a disaster, as I have written here and here.

Unfortunately, world media continues to fall into its old patterns of concentrating on the hopeless Israel-Palestinian situation. The Palestinians are reveling in the attention after several years on the back burner–justifiably so, since it’s been shown conclusively that despite years of propaganda, the Israel-Palestinian dispute is not the key to regionwide Middle East peace. The Palestinians are even threatening to dissolve their government (again) and are setting deadlines for the Americans to do something or they’ll go to the UN (again).

It would be funny if it weren’t pathetic. The world has passed them by. Maybe one day a Palestinian will publicly regret how his leaders turned down creation of a Palestinian state twice, in 2000 and 2008. That day isn’t here yet.

But though Jared Kushner’s peace missions appear to be a failure–it’s because we’re looking in the wrong place. As usual.