Yemen starves; Saudi, Iran, and US share blame

Yemen is the world’s worst ignored disaster. A civil war there has caused widespread famine and a huge epidemic of cholera. I discussed the crisis a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

It’s not just a civil war. It’s also a proxy war, with Saudi Arabia backing one side and Iran the other. The US is involved, indirectly but significantly.

As usual in the Mideast, there are no good guys–only bad guys and worse guys. As part of the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, Yemeni President Saleh, a corrupt, hated despot with close ties to the US, was forced to resign. His vice-president, Hadi, took his place. Iran-backed Houthi rebels, representing Yemen’s Shiite minority, ousted Hadi in a coup with considerable popular support. The Houthis controlled the north, so Hadi fled to the south.

Further to the north is Saudi Arabia. Feeling threatened, the Saudis weighed in on the civil war to oppose the Houthis and their Iranian backers. Directing the Saudi effort is the new strongman, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Chances are he figured that what with the billions of dollars worth of weapons Saudi Arabia has bought from the US over the years, he could make quick work of the Houthi rebels. Instead, he entered the proverbial quagmire. He’s stuck in Iran, and the people are suffering.

Waves of Saudi aircraft have been attacking thousands of Houthi targets for two years, accomplishing little besides destruction, death, and chaos. Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries to begin with, and now the situation is critical. Did I say now?  The UN has been terming the humanitarian situation in Yemen “critical” for two full years.

It got even worse this month. The Saudis imposed a blockade on Yemen, ostensibly to 23755422_10155431416228736_3009637840956105140_nkeep weapons out–but it also blocked aid shipments. After a world outcry, the Saudis eased the blockade a bit, but aid officials say it’s still hampering their efforts.

The UN says three million people are in danger of starvation, and 17 million others are in urgent need of aid, out of a total population of 27 million. Also, the water table has dropped significantly, leading to pollution, and inevitably, cholera.  And nearly a million are affected by the cholera outbreak. Without proper medical treatment–and there is little proper treatment in Yemen–cholera is often fatal.

Where does the US come in here? It’s been selling weapons to Saudi Arabia for decades, but it’s hard to criticize that–the Saudis had billions to throw around, and they would have bought their weapons somewhere. This way, goes the theory, the US maintains some control over their use and maintains Saudi Arabia as a close ally.

Now the equation appears to be changing, and Yemen is paying the price. The young, bash, inexperienced Saudi crown prince appears to believe that Washington backs his moves in the Mideast, opposing Iran–and gives him a free hand to meddle in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere. President Trump’s envoy, Jared Kushner, made a semi-secret trip to Riyadh to meet the crown prince, and Trump himself has had extensive business dealings in the kingdom for many years.

If the signal has not been sent from Washington that it’s time for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to scale back his adventures, this would be a good time to send it.

And Yemen would be a good place to start.




Libya: Humpty-Dumpty threatens us

The world–especially the US–is making the same mistake all over the Mideast, fighting ISIS and trying to restore an artificial order from the 1920s, instead of dealing with real issues. Libya is a dangerous example. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The latest news is that the forces in eastern Libya, based in Benghazi, say they’ve expelled ISIS from one of its last strongholds there. That should be good news, but it obscures the real picture. Under the present circumstances, Libya remains a lawless jungle that can quickly become a prime staging area for all kinds of Islamist terror groups. While we’re concentrating on ISIS there, for example, al-Qaida is quietly building up its presence.

When NATO helped overthrow Libyan dictator Moammar Ghadafi in 2011, the assumption was that the hard work is done, now let’s let the Libyan people sort this out, elect a government and get back to their lives in peace and freedom. It’s the same policy error the West made in its view of Iraq, Egypt, and Syria–just get of that awful dictator and everything will turn out rosy.

How often do we have to do that before we figure out that it’s a mistake?

Libya is one of several examples of an artificial country, created by Britain and France middle-east-featured-map-1024x604in the aftermath of World War I. In fact, if you look at a map of the region, just about everywhere you see a straight line, that’s an artificial border from the 1920s that has little or no relation to the actual ethnic or national situation on either side of it.

The straight lines of Libya’s borders are easy to see in the map above. Libya never was a cohesive country. It is, in fact, made up of at least three distinct sections–East, West, and South. There are many other tribal divisions as well as competing militias, but that’s the framework.

Now look at that map again. It depicts who is holding territory today, and where. And glory be, the country is divided roughly into those three sections, with pockets of resistance here and there. As an illustration of how misguided it is to try to put this all back together the way it was–the people in the south are not even ethnic Arabs like the others in the rest of Libya–they’re Africans.

What makes sense today is to put the fight against ISIS, with airstrikes and all the rest, into second place, and work to stabilize the situation that’s already presenting itself on the ground. What could be more logical?

The end result could be a confederation or a loose alliance among the three sections. First, though, there has to be recognition that the three parts have their own legitimate legs to stand on. In this otherwise interesting analysis of US interests in Libya, the government of the East is called “self-styled,” a derogatory term implying that it has no legitimacy. That leads the authors back into the trap of “restoring” old Libya.

The problem is that the UN and leading nations are committed to restoring the traditional borders of the nations they deal with–even if those borders have no actual tradition behind them–only colonial rule. The UN keeps sponsoring peace talks among the factions. That’s hopeless as long as the goal is to disarm two of them and leave all the power with the “legitimate” government in Tripoli. But that’s the way the UN is set up–it’s an organization of member states, and it just can’t negotiate the dissolution of one of its members. So it’s trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We know how that worked out. In this case, it perpetuates the internal conflicts, which is the opposite of the West’s interests.

If we abandon this doomed Humpty-Dumpty strategy, and the state stabilizes in some form around the three entities, then the Islamist extremists can become a common target. They are, after all, everyone’s enemy, not just ours. The key is to get the Libyans to stop fighting each other. That should be our goal.

Syria war winds down–is Lebanon next?

Nothing is ever as it appears in Lebanon. It’s usually worse and more dangerous. The resignation of its prime minister, Saad Hariri, is the latest example. I discussed the situation a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

Usually when a prime minister resigns somewhere, it signals a local political crisis of some sort. Often it’s a disagreement over domestic policy or a change in the mindset of the voters.

Not with Lebanon.

Hariri’s strange resignation shows how Saudi Arabia and Iran are relating to the whole region as a stage, setting proxy groups against each other in ideological and, often, military combat.

Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to deliver his resignation. He read the statement uncomfortably on camera. It certainly appeared to be a Saudi statement, as Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah charged–one of the few times that he’s ever said something credible.

In  the forefront of this turmoil is the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. OK, he’s not the king, not yet, but he’s in charge. He has outsized ambitions of reforming Saudi Arabia’s economy into a post-oil power, moderating his country’s extreme and violent form of Islam, and purging his rivals to make himself the supreme ruler of the Middle East. Economics, reform and ego, in other words.

The first two are admirable. The third is not. The future of the Mideast might well depend on which order he puts those goals in, and the Lebanon story leaves little room for optimism.

The centerpiece of Hariri’s statement was condemnation of Iran and Hezbollah. Yet for the past year, he’s been leading a government with Hezbollah as a prominent member, bringing at least a veneer of political stability to a nation that hasn’t had a parliamentary election since 2009 and couldn’t even agree on who should be president for two whole years.

Lebanon’s political system is at least partly to blame for this, though it’s impossible to distinguish between the system and the society itself. Reflecting the intractable divisions in the tiny nation, Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, its president  Maronite Christian and speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim. The chances of all of them getting along for any length of time are slim–the country has been wracked by conflicts and civil wars over the past several decades. It’s also hosting 2 million refugees from Syria, who suddenly make up a third of Lebanon’s total population.

Now add in the external powers. There’s Israel to he south. Israel has invaded Lebanon several times to fight terrorists and guerrillas who use Lebanon as a staging area. In the last war, in 2006, Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel, and Israel flattened the Shiite section of Beirut with airstrikes.

Since then, Hezbollah has vastly increased its arsenal of rockets threatening Israel, its primary enemy and reason for existence. The internal turmoil caused by the Hariri resignation could trigger another Israel-Lebanon war.

That would be just fine with Saudi Arabia, which is always eager to let others fight its battles (reference Yemen for an example). Saudi Arabia is anxious to have someone cut Hezbollah down to size after its successful alliance with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is well on his way to “winning” his civil war (quotation marks because it’s hard to say you’re winning when your country is destroyed, 400,000 people are dead and millions are refugees).

That’s all but irrelevant to Saudi Arabia. Its only regional goal is to defeat Iran and stop its expansion of influence. Syria appears to be lost, Iraq is not looking so good–so how about a new proxy front–say, Lebanon?

So this is just the beginning.


ISIS nears defeat, but don’t celebrate yet

Iraqi and Syrian forces are closing in on the last ISIS strongholds, a pincer movement from the two sides of their border, but that doesn’t mean the struggle with ISIS is over, or that Syria’s civil war is over, either. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

The problem is the singular US focus on defeating ISIS militarily. Here’s the problem: ISIS is not a military threat to the US–it never has been. Its threat is terrorism and ideology. Defeating ISIS on the ground in the Mideast might tarnish its luster–after all, ISIS declared a caliphate, an Islamic regime to rule the entire region–but its influence remains through the Muslims who have adopted its extreme, violent ideology and its fighters who will head for the hills and carry out what they would call guerrilla missions, but most others would call terror attacks in Iraq, Syria, and other places in the world where ISIS has gained influence and where foreign fighters have returned home..

Now, as ISIS nears defeat on the battlefield, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suddenly wakes up and declares that Syrian President Bashar Assad must not remain in power. Yet Assad’s resurgence after six years of bloody civil war is partly the result of that laser focus on ISIS, instead of a wider view of Syria, and an even wider view of the Mideast and where it’s really going,

The likely outcome now is a weakened Assad, with the support of Russia and Iran, in some semblance of control of Syria, and sectarian tensions and clashes continuing to plague Iraq. The problems of refugees and reconstruction slip farther down the Western list of priorities, while the innate corruption and limited local support of the regimes of the two countries hamper efforts in both spheres.

The US finds itself behind the curve in all those areas. It’s a shame, since the US is the number one contributor to funding humanitarian aid over here.  It’s time the US stopped doing what it does badly–misguided involvement in local military conflicts–and ramps up what it does best–helping the victims. That’s where the long-term benefits lie for all sides.

Hamas pitches, US swings and misses

The US encouraged the competing Palestinian leaderships, Fatah and Hamas, to unite. So they did. They’re forming a unity government in Gaza, ending the decade-long split that had Fatah’s Palestinian Authority ruling the West Bank and Hamas ruling Gaza. Strike one, Washington. Actually, strike two, maybe three. I discussed this a few minutes ago on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh with host P. J. Maloney.

This is about Hamas, the violent, extremist Islamist “resistance” movement, regrouping, luring Fatah into Gaza, and eventually taking over the West Bank as well. Where does that leave the US?

After the unity accord was signed in Cairo this month, suddenly the US discovered that Hamas is on its list of terrorist organizations, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis, and launching thousands of rockets into Israel in three mini-wars since it took over Gaza by force in 2007.

So the US, echoing demands from Israel and European peacemakers, insists that Hamas must disarm and recognize Israel. The Hamas response–haughty rejection, and then sending a delegation to Iran, a diplomatic middle finger to Washington.

As my eighth-grade history teacher said, “We learn from history that we learn no history.” It was the US that encouraged, actually pressured, the Palestinians to hold parliamentary elections in 2006. Hamas won. The US was appalled. Eventually American officials admitted they had made a mistake.

Now Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 13th year of his four-year term. He was elected separately in 2005. The Palestinians haven’t repeated their mistake of calling another election.

So what is Hamas up to? The common analysis is that Hamas has failed miserably in governing Gaza and needs to be bailed out by Fatah, so this is a Hamas defeat.

Not even close.

Yes, Hamas has failed miserably in governing Gaza, deepening the poverty of the people, provoking wars with Israel that brought cruel destruction down on the territory, diverting generous foreign aid to “military” tasks like building and buying rockets and constructing a network of tunnels toward Israel for terror attacks and toward Egypt for smuggling people and goods.

But the people of Gaza blame Israel for all their troubles. They’ve been conditioned to blame Israel for decades, by their leadership and the willing chorus of foreign “activists” who are pledged to help the Palestinian cause, right or wrong. When Israel cut down on supplying electricity to Gaza because the Palestinian Authority stopped paying the bill and asked Israel for the power cut, who got the brunt of the criticism, even from Israeli human rights activists? Not Hamas. Not Fatah. Israel!

So here’s what happens now, if this Egypt-brokered unity deal is actually implemented, which is not a given. The Palestinian Authority comes in and does what it does worst–govern. What it does best is embezzle foreign aid and anger its people. Hamas continues to do what it does best–build up arms and dig tunnels for its next war against Israel, which, it must be pointed out, withdrew completely and unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

That next war will inevitably drag Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in, as partners in Gaza. It will be bloody, destructive, and ugly, and the usual recriminations will follow–against Israel.

What needs to be understood is–this deal has absolutely nothing to do with “peace negotiations” or the “peace process.” Those don’t exist. Abbas and his people abandoned negotiations long ago for a full-on diplomatic war against Israel, which has largely failed. This unity deal is a way to give it a boost, an attempt to restore some of the once-lofty standing of the Palestinians in a world that rightly has learned to pay more attention to bigger Mideast issues–like Syria, Iraq and ISIS.

And Hamas, unlike the US, knows how to play the long game. Abbas is 82 and in poor health. One day he will pass from the scene. Fatah will crumble in disarray. There will be an election in both the West Bank and Gaza. The people will vote for Hamas.

That’s what happened in 2006. Now we’re going to watch it happen again, and the US gave it all a boost. Again. Sad.

Iran deal critics: Give me something that works instead of the failed past

Yesterday is gone, and you can’t bring it back, Decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, as President Trump apparently is about to do, would guarantee only that Iran will resume its drive toward nuclear weapons. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

It’s a failing of world powers, institutions, and parts of the political spectrum–a drive to bring back the “good ol’ days” when everything was so great. Well, the good ol’ days were not all that great, and no one could bring them back even if they tried.

What Trump can do, however, is guarantee the failure of the accord, and then he and his backers can say “I told you so.” It’s a mighty dangerous and costly way to “prove” that you were right and the hated devil Obama was wrong.

Yet a dispassionate examination of the facts shows that the decades-long policy of sanctions and punishment had accomplished all it could by the time the Iran nuclear deal was concluded. This is what I wrote at the time:

Here are four facts that turn the whole Iran debate on its head:

  • If Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon, it will.
  • Sanctions have accomplished all they can accomplish, and maintaining them or strengthening them would be counterproductive.
  • Iran has an educated middle class that already pulled off a near-successful revolt and is the key to Iran’s future.
  • What Iran does is more important than what Iran says.

Here’s the rest of that article, and here’s the one looking at the deal itself.

Decertifying the accord isn’t the same as canceling it–but it sends the same signal to Iran: The US cannot be trusted as a party to the accord, so why make efforts to comply with it?

Chances are we’ll never know how this could have worked. Serious efforts have not been made to use the deal to improve Iran’s behavior.  That failure could bring about a tragedy of epic proportions.

But at least we’ll have someone to blame. That seems to be the goal of politics these days.

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


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.