Turkey kills 190 Kurdish fighters

Turkey is conducting a contradictory policy, and not for the first time.

This week it launched its first airstrikes against ISIS targets–and in parallel, it’s stepping up its attacks

PKK fighters confronting ISIS

PKK fighters confronting ISIS

on Kurdish rebels known as PKK. This article in Turkey’s main newspaper says the latest airstrikes killed 190 rebels and wounded 300. The problem here is–the Kurdish fighters are the most effective force fighting ISIS.

PKK is dedicated to fighting for independence from Turkey. The two sides have been at war for decades in a conflict that has killed 40,000 people, mostly Kurds. A cease-fire in effect since 2013 collapsed this month. Yet PKK has devoted most of its recent efforts to fighting ISIS, its common enemy with Turkey.

So Turkey finds itself fighting a two-front war–with contradictory goals.

When the EU snubbed Turkey a decade ago, it turned to the Mideast as its new sphere of influence, pinning its hopes on garnering support among Arab nations by noisily ending its fruitful and profitable special relationship with Israel. Results have been mixed at best. Turkey backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and when its incompetent rule was ended, Egypt’s military rulers showed Turkey the door. Turkey ineffectively chose sides in the Syrian civil war and has emerged with little influence there while being flooded with refugees. Then the ISIS threat emerged on its borders, and Turkey finally woke up to that.

It’s too easy to sit in Tel Aviv and tell Turkey what to do, just as it’s too easy to sit in New York and tell Israel what to do. But it’s clear that the Kurdish revolt is part of an old order, and the ISIS campaign is part of a new one. Instead of calling off peace talks with PKK because of attacks against Turkish forces, it would be logical for Turkey to restore its truce and coexist with PKK, while both concentrate their attention on ISIS.

As Israel is showing the world with its extreme, misguided and hopeless campaign to scuttle the Iran agreement–it’s hard for nations to switch gears, abandoning decades-long policies, even if that’s the right thing to do.

The danger is that events will pass such nations by, leaving them weakened and damaged.

Libya is breaking up, and a death sentence shows how

It’s no surprise that ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s son and political heir, Seif al-Islam

son and father

Son and father

Gadhafi, has been sentenced to death. What this article shows, using the death sentence as a jumping-off point, is how Libya has degenerated into fiefdoms, armed camps and spheres of influence in the wake of the NATO-backed civil war that ousted Gadhafi.

The West thought it was on the side of good when it backed Libyan rebels against the crazy, capricious dictator. No one predicted the chaos that would result. The same thing is happening in Syria, and it happened in Yemen, too. Both are deep into civil wars now, and it’s not clear at all whether the old regimes were better or worse for anyone.

The problem is–we in the West look at a map and see countries. From the region itself, though, many of those countries are just artificial lines on a colonial-era map that few regard as real or legitimate.

I’ve been predicting that Libya would break up into three countries. This article indicates it might be even more than three–but most of all, it shows how Arab Spring was just the beginning of a historic realignment of the Middle East to replace, on the ground if not in fact, those artificial lines on that illegitimate colonial map.

The fact that all this chaos leaves a wide opening for ISIS is just one of the aspects of the problem, and there’s no solution anywhere on the horizon. The West and Israel simply have to sit this one out, protect themselves from direct threats and wait until the dust settles. Any direct involvement will prolong the internal conflicts by distorting them and reshaping them into locals-vs-West fights.

That might be the hardest part for the West–staying out of this.

Thanks to my friend Tarek el-Tablawy for pointing this article out.

Russia moves on Egypt while the West…

Russia is acting on Egypt, while the West blathers. Here’s a great example–first steps toward an economic zone to provide jobs and industry.

A refreshing summer dip in the Nile

A refreshing summer dip in the Nile

While the West, when it pays attention to Egypt at all, talks about the Muslim Brotherhood and the lack of democracy, Russia is moving on one of the two areas that really matter–the economy. The other one is oppression of women.

Military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is taking real steps to bring the economy under control, though it’s a giant job even for a dictator and would be absolutely impossible for an elected government. He’s cutting subsidies on fuel and trying to reform the welfare system. He’s moving on the “informal” economy–the estimated 40 percent of Egypt’s economy that goes unreported, and therefore untaxed.

What’s the West doing? Human rights. That’s not even on Egypt’s agenda. While 40 percent of the people subsist (or don’t) at or near the international poverty line of $2 a day per person, most Egyptians are more than happy to ignore human rights if they can get enough to eat for a change. But about all you see in Western media is complaint after complaint about the human rights situation in Egypt, quoting the same 14 Egyptian human-rights advocates.

I’m not saying that human rights are irrelevant or unnecessary for nations like Egypt. I am saying that it’s not the West’s job to try to superimpose them on societies like Egypt’s–or impose democracy, either. This mis-focus is one of the reasons I wrote my book. There’s much more about this in Broken Spring.

New approach to Iran–The Jewish Week

North America’s leading Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Week,  has just printed a shorter version of my prescription for moving ahead with Iran. I hope it’s just the first of many of my articles to appear there.

Craig and me

Craig and me

My good friend Craig Klugman, editor of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, recommended that I write a

shorter piece than this one of more than 2,000 words, to give it a better chance to be printed somewhere…and here it is. The J-G also printed it today.

Thanks, Craig.

The Iran agreement is done—now let’s move on

The agreement over Iran’s nuclear program marks the end of an era. It makes many of the criticisms of the accord, as well as much of the praise, irrelevant—because they look backward.

There’s nothing to gain by looking backward. This is a turning point that leaves us pointing in only one direction: Let’s move on.

That requires us to examine axioms that have underpinned the 20-year-long effort to strip Iran of any ability to dabble in nuclear science, a policy that has now officially failed. They include the actual threat posed by Iran and its refusal to recognize Israel.

Is this accord “a historic mistake,” as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned? Maybe. Should he fight a rear-guard action against it in the US Congress, as he has pledged? No. That’s looking backward, though it’s understandably hard for him to change directions after two decades, even though his policy has clearly run its course.

First, let’s look at the agreement. I know that’s a terribly old-fashioned thing to do, reading a 159-page document that includes technical sections that a layman can’t unravel, but that’s really the first step. If you are inclined to do that, too, here’s the full text.

You can assume correctly that this is far from the first such document I’ve read cover to cover during

Heavy reading

Heavy reading

my 43 years as a news correspondent in this region, as evidenced by this section of my office bookshelf. A thorough reading of this one reveals one of the most detailed and restrictive international accords that I’ve ever come across.

Here’s a quote from the first section of the Iran accord:

Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.

Here’s another one:

For 15 years, Iran will not engage in producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys, or conducting R&D on plutonium or uranium (or their alloys) metallurgy, or casting, forming, or machining plutonium or uranium metal.

And just one more example, a long one, of how extensively the agreement limits Iran’s activities:

Iran will not engage in the following activities which could contribute to the development of a nuclear explosive device:

  1. Designing, developing, acquiring, or using computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices.
  2. Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using multipoint explosive detonation systems suitable for a nuclear explosive device, unless approved by the Joint Commission for non-nuclear purposes and subject to monitoring.
  3. Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using explosive diagnostic systems (streak cameras, framing cameras and flash x-ray cameras) suitable for the development of a nuclear explosive device, unless approved by the Joint Commission for non-nuclear purposes and subject to monitoring.
  4. Designing, developing, fabricating, acquiring, or using explosively driven neutron sources or specialized materials for explosively driven neutron sources. (All the 82’s are in the original—ml)

There are pages and pages of restrictions like that.

A usually thoughtful Israeli TV commentator apparently didn’t have time to do what I just did—read the agreement. Instead, he determined that it’s bad by putting it on a scale. It’s 60 percent sanctions relief (including long lists of companies, people and products that will no longer be banned), but only 10 percent implementation, he moaned. In fact, the detailed pages of strict implementation include this clause on the next to last page, referring to the power to reinstate sanctions if necessary:

  1. UNSCR Termination Day
  2. UNSCR (UN Security Council resolution) Termination Day will occur in accordance with the terms of the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the JCPOA, which is 10 years from Adoption Day, provided that the provisions of previous resolutions have not been reinstated.

In contrast, the whole Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the basis for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, takes up all of six pages. Of course the comparison with the Iran accord is flawed—but it makes a point.

This brings us to a more serious criticism: Iran can begin making nuclear weapons in just ten short years, even if it lives up to the accord. That plays into the assumption that Iran will try to violate the accord any way it can, because Iran cannot be trusted.

There are two ways to look at this criticism. One is to say, we are all in mortal danger, because Iran threatens Israel, supports terrorism and lies about everything. Therefore we must defend, resist and attack, keeping Iran isolated and hostile. It’s a formula leading to war, followed by “I told you so” from the critics who made it happen.

The other way is to say, all that may be true, so how do we go about changing the reality? That’s an example of looking forward, not backward.

Ten years is an eternity in the modern world. Ten years ago, Hosni Mubarak was in firm control of Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi presided over a calm, united and oppressed Libya, George W. Bush was pursuing a war on terror that dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Western economy was bubbling along just ahead of the big pop.

The proper way to relate to the ten-year period is to use the decade to make it worth Iran’s while to maintain an open economy, trade its oil and benefit its citizens through relations with the West—with the full realization, as stated in the just-signed agreement, that violations could set it right back to where it was before.

Before, Iran’s currency, the rial, was being traded at nearly 30,000 to the dollar. Ordinary people could not afford basic products. Unemployment was high. True, the ruling elite found ways to siphon off enough money to live comfortably, but that’s the case in all such sanctions against nations. Among those who suffered were many in the educated middle class, the very ones the West hopes will one day overthrow the ayatollahs.

Naturally, Iranians are ecstatic about the agreement, even dancing in the streets. Their lives are about to improve. What’s puzzling is why that bothers us. Would Iran be more likely to honor an agreement that the people reject and the leaders consider oppressive? Of course not. So let them celebrate.

But let’s not overdo our own enthusiasm. A prominent Western analyst gushed that President Obama’s hidden goal is to make Iran a friend of the US. No, this isn’t about friends, buddies, kissin’ cousins. This is about interests. It’s not a zero-sum game, where if one side gains, the other side loses, which has been the Israeli perception for decades. It’s about everybody moving forward because it’s in their interest.

So let’s move beyond the accord itself and examine some of the other assumptions left over from 20 years of international efforts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability.

Netanyahu took credit for preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons so far and pledged to press

Netanyahu at the UN

Netanyahu at the UN

forward toward that goal. Obviously Iran is a dangerous enemy, and even Obama admitted that “Israel has legitimate concerns about its security” here. Netanyahu darkly implied that Israel might take military steps against Iran, though an attack would certainly trigger a region-wide war and make Israel a pariah state just as Iran is emerging from that sorry status.

Netanyahu and others justify the option of a military strike by pointing to the fact that Iran threatens Israel’s existence.

Except that it doesn’t, beyond its rhetoric. Even if Iran tested a nuclear weapon tomorrow, it would take years to refine it into a warhead for a missile. Then it would encounter the Arrow, a joint US-Israeli anti-missile system that’s the best in the world. And then Iran would suffer Israel’s second-strike capability. Writing from outside Tel Aviv, I can only quote foreign reports that insist Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads and missiles that can deliver them, as well as a fleet of submarines capable of launching missiles with nuclear warheads. So even if everything goes south, even if the critics are right, Israel can deal with it.

Iran’s leaders know that. They are not suicidal. For years they have had the capability of producing a “dirty bomb,” a device that spreads radioactive material with conventional explosives—but they didn’t. Some Israelis in the know call Iran a “rational player,” a description that counters the image of a grave and immediate danger from crazy Islamist fanatics, an image nurtured carefully by a prime minister who has remained in office for six years largely by keeping his people constantly frightened.

There is something fundamentally wrong with Israel’s defensive attitude. It only starts with painting Iran as an existential threat. It extends into charging, with abundant loathing, that Iran (or Hamas or Hezbollah or a whole list of others) does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Perhaps that was a valid issue 60 years, even 50 years ago. It no longer is. Israel does not need anyone’s endorsement of its right to exist, any more than any other nation does. Do we hear French people worrying about whether someone recognizes their nation’s right to exist? Kenyans? Pakistanis? Of course not.

Nor does Israel need anyone’s recognition that Israel is a Jewish state. It is. It doesn’t matter who declares that Israel is a Jewish state any more than it matters who declares that the Vatican is Catholic.

It’s false issues like these that get in the way of moving forward. I would like to think that the people still banging away on these old drums are doing so from a sincerely mistaken view of a world they believe has not changed since 1950. Some would counter that these outmoded slogans are trotted out by politicians who need to force their people into a fortress mentality for their own political needs. The result is the same.

What is really threatening Israel’s existence? Iran? The Palestinians? ISIS? BDS? No, no, no and no. What threatens Israel’s future (though not its existence) is its inability to accept the fact that it is a Mideast economic and military powerhouse that can deal in this region from a position of strength and confidence, not fear. That’s not to say there are no threats at all, that there will not be military and terror challenges ahead. There will be—but Israel can handle them. That’s the key to forward thinking.

Now let’s take a worst case scenario. Soon after the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, Iran begins to violate it. The emasculated world waffles on its obligations and does not crack down on Iran in punishment. Instead, it continues to trade with Iran, developing relations and interdependence.

One bright day, Iran has a nuclear weapon. Its leaders, whether ayatollahs or moderates, understand that even testing it, much less using it, will bring the whole world crashing down on Iran, militarily and economically. Iran loses everything. So it keeps its bomb on the shelf.

There is a precedent even for the scenario of a major treaty that collapses with no discernible harm done to the rest of the world.

In 1973, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho signed a peace accord that ended the war in Vietnam. It had all kinds of clauses about what North Vietnam was allowed to do and what it wasn’t. No matter. After US forces withdrew from South Vietnam, North Vietnam took it over. Everyone knew that would happen. The Nobel people must have known, too, but they named Kissinger and Le Duc Tho recipients of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

Did the world collapse into conflict? Depression? Communism? No, the region realigned itself and went on with its life. So did the rest of us. Last week I found myself shaking hands with a Vietnamese scientist at an Israeli Foreign Ministry function. I had to chuckle. Once this guy would have been considered my bitter enemy. Now here we were, shaking hands in Israel.

Can we learn from looking backward at Vietnam, as a way of looking forward at Iran? Can we put aside our mostly unwarranted fears? Can we convert them into efforts to bring Iran into the 21st century as part of the developed world?

Or will we promote our own hostility to magnify Iran’s, carry out covert and overt attacks, trumpet perceived or imaginary slights—a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy to insure that the agreement will fail, and we will fail along with it?

There’s only one reasonable answer: Let’s move on.

Egypt’s economy is the real story

Forget the Muslim Brotherhood, forget Israel–Egypt’s real problem is its economy. Ruler Abdel Fattah

No tourists, no dollars

No tourists, no dollars

el-Sisi gets that. Many of the measures he’s taking are painful, and some may backfire. Here’s an article by my former Cairo colleague Tarek el-Tablawy about the hardships resulting from the limits on using dollars–and what the government is really trying to achieve with this unusual measure.

I shamelessly accosted Tarek at his desk in the newsroom at least once a day to ask him to explain aspects of the Egyptian economy, and he showed endless patience. Here’s an example of how clearly he explains what should be a dry, boring issue. When Tarek deals with it–it jumps off the page. I tried to do the same with the chapters about the economy in my book.

Egypt vs Islamists in Sinai–guerrilla war

The death toll on both sides in the conflict between Egypt’s military and Islamist militants in the Sinai

Islamist militants in Sinai

Islamist militants in Sinai

desert is in the hundreds just over the past week. On KQV Radio a few minutes ago, I explained why the ISIS element in this is less important than it appears–less important than the current Israeli involvement and possible escalation. The conflict is taking on clear aspects of a guerrilla war. The last element we discuss, in the context of what Israel is doing, is Israeli military censorship. It is mostly just on paper these days, but still exists to try to prevent reporters from disclosing vital military secrets like details of a military action in progress. As I’ve written before, censorship is ineffective now that we’re broadcasting live, live-blogging and tweeting, and the rest of the region controls reporters by threatens and intimidation–that works much better. The fact that Israel has military censorship at all shows that there’s no intimidation of that sort here.