Syria: Another chemical attack?

Syria is preparing another chemical attack, so says the Trump White House, warning of dire consequences if the Assad regime carries that out. I talked about this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

I don’t have any direct information one way of the other, but let’s consider some background.

–The awful April chemical attack that killed about 70 people in Idlib province appeared designed to drive civilians out of a town before a government offensive. Terrorism, in other words. It worked, by the way.

So where does the Syrian regime need to use chemical weapons to clear out an area now? The White House didn’t say. As the Al-Jazeera map above illustrates, Syria has been reduced to a patchwork of competing enclaves, and there is heavy fighting going on in several parts of Syria, including near the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. So it’s conceivable that one of these pockets might be a target. But there’s no obvious place where a chemical attack would serve the purposes of the Assad regime.

–Now let’s look at the cynical possibilities, once again with no evidence to back them up: If Syria carries out a chemical attack, the US could retaliate the way it did in April, bombing a Syrian air force base. The attack accomplished little on the ground, as Russia was warned beforehand and got the Syrian forces out of the base before the onslaught of dozens of cruise missiles, and the base was back in operation within days. But Trump got what he wanted–a “message” to Assad and the world, for whatever that’s worth. Not much, in my view–the era of “messages” is long past. Their targets have to believe that there’s something painful and punishing behind them, and usually there isn’t.

So let’s say it’s all bogus, “fake news,” there never was going to be another Syrian chemical attack, and there isn’t one. Then the Trump administration can proclaim that it prevented an attack with its warning. Win-win.

I’ll keep looking, but it’s unlikely that any evidence one way or the other is going to turn up, unless the attack actually happens. As I said in the broadcast, that’s a horrible way to confirm a news story.

Escalate Syria fight? Yes, say Trump officials

Two White House officials want to escalate the American involvement in Syria, a way of fighting a proxy war against Iran. This comes as the US shot down a Syrian warplane for the first time in the six-year Syrian civil war. I discussed the implications with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh a few minutes ago.

The report of the recommendation for escalating US involvement in Syria comes from a prestigious New York University think tank, which puts out a daily newsletter about security. The report also says that Defense Secretary James Mattis opposes the idea, and it’s not the first time he’s stood in the way of a White House effort to ratchet up the Syria conflict.

So “Mad Dog” Mattis is the voice of reason in this administration? That’s something to think about.

The shooting down of the Syrian warplane has led Russia to threaten to close down the hot line the US and Russia use to inform each other about air operations, so that they can stay out of each other’s way. The Russians have already declared that they consider American warplanes operating west of the Euphrates River in Syria as potential targets. That means about two-thirds of Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo.

It’s not certain that Russia will end its coordination with the US or start firing at US warplanes and drones. Russia has little interest in expanding the conflict in Syria–it just wants to keep the Assad regime in power there. But in a war situation, anything can happen, even by accident. This is no game of checkers–this is life and death.

I understand that the US sees Iran as the major troublemaker in the Middle East. So does Israel. The problem comes when only one countermeasure–military force–is considered. As then-President Obama put it in this context, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The problem, if it needs defining again, is that there are no good guys in Syria–only bad guys and worse guys. As the fight against ISIS progresses, and ISIS loses territory, there’s a free-for-all to take control of that territory. The competing sides include the Assad regime, US-backed rebel forces, Iranian-backed forces, local rebels, and I probably left out a few.

The multi-sided fighting is closing in on US bases in several locations. That’s what led to the shooting down of the Syrian warplane. Here’s an article by top Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef about the dangers involved in this developing situation.


Syrian refugee camp in Turkey

So–is that the fight the White House officials want to get more deeply involved in? Or would it be better to step back, help the refugees, help the rebuilding effort when it begins, and try to win the respect of whoever survives this tragedy?

It’s time to find something to replace the hammer. Stepped-up humanitarian aid would be a more effective, long-term tool. Let’s understand that Iran, and more so ISIS, are ideas as much as they are military forces. Ideas can’t be smashed with hammers.

Saudi Arabia hits Qatar over terror–a pot and kettle thing

Saudi Arabia breaking with Qatar because Qatar supportsĀ  terrorism? That’s like the Mafia breaking with Chicago because there’s crime in Chicago. I discussed this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

There’s another expression I remember from my days in the US 40+ years ago, probably politically incorrect by now–“That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

There’s no doubt that the Saudi-orchestrated move of Muslim states cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar is a significant development, showing how the realignment of the Middle East is complicated, violent and contradictory all together.

It certainly complicates US President Trump’s simplistic idea that all the “reasonable” qatarrapMuslim countries will be glad to unite and fight the radicals like al-Qaida and ISIS, a kind of international war on terror. Nuances in the Middle East, well, nuances in general, appear lost on this administration.

What everyone is ignoring is that the main backer, purveyor, spreader of extreme Islamic ideology and terrorism is Saudi Arabia. Since the 1970s, the Saudis have been actively exporting their extreme version of Wahhabi Islam, based on the twin ideals of reverting to 7th-century practices and exporting that ideology around the Muslim world through funding mosques and schools called madrassas. Saudi Arabia’s home religion is the basis for al-Qaida and ISIS.

It’s not the basis of the Muslim Brotherhood. There’s a debate in the Trump administration now about whether to declare the Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. That’s a separate issue, but it’s worthwhile noting that the Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in the 1920s as a political grouping, not a terror organization.Its branches around the Muslim world vary in their practices–and Qatar-sponsored Hamas in Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot–is definitely a terror organization, with dozens of suicide bomb attacks in Israel to prove it.

My own experience with the Brotherhood in Egypt is of a political Islamist group, not bomb-throwing terrorists. It failed to run Egypt properly in the year it was in power there, and that led to mass demonstrations against its president and the military coup that ousted it.

Parenthetically, why is it that these days people write about the military overthrowing the government in Egypt in 2013 without mentioning the millions of people on the streets demanding a change, as if one morning the military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, woke up, drank some coffee and decided, well, I think I’ll stage a coup today? Strange.

Likewise, anyone building an anti-terror coalition around Saudi Arabia really needs to know what they’re dealing with. Saudi Arabia still funds those extremist Wahhabi mosques and schools, nurturing the next generation of Islamist extremists and terrorists. So the Saudi-Qatar bust-up really is a matter of pots and kettles.

Massacre of Christians shows Egypt’s internal security crisis

This happened just 100 miles from Cairo. Not in the Sinai desert, not in the western desert near Libya. On Friday, gunmen killed 30 Coptic Christians on their way to a monastery in Minya province south of Cairo. ISIS claimed responsibility. I talked about the significance of this a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh.

It’s emerging now that the attack was not just a matter of terrorists opening fire on the bus. Passengers say gunmen boarded the bus, stole jewelry from the women, ordered some men off the bus and then opened fire on the Christians. You can see in the photo above that there are bodies outside the bus. So there were no police anywhere in the vicinity.

Today’s news is that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi fired the security director for the Minya region. Because there was no security on the road to the monastery or forces guarding the roads around it, the terrorists escaped.

That shows the real problem–that such heavy security is needed so close to Cairo. El-Sisiegypt-map-1024 responded by bombing what he said were terrorist camps in Derma on the coast of neighboring Libya, but residents say the bombs hit houses and killed civilians. It looks like a distraction–it appears that the real security problems are inside Egypt.

And so el-Sisi continued his crackdown. Yesterday he signed a tough law governing NGO’s, both foreign and domestic, requiring them to file their reports with the government before releasing them, among other things–threatening large fines and even prison terms for those who violate the new regulations. This means charities, democracy advocates, food programs and all the rest.

El-Sisi wants quiet and stability above all else, clearly above human rights. So far, at least, there is little evidence that masses of Egyptian people are ready to revolt again for the third time this decade. The top priorities for most Egyptians are getting food on the table and finding work. Democracy, demonstrations and all the rest are far down their list of priorities, and el-Sisi is building on that to maintain order.

What we in the developed West need to understand is–that’s not entirely a bad thing. A strong, stable Egypt is essential in the current, sometimes violent realignment in the Mideast, regardless of what happens internally. You’ll hear me say that we need to back el-Sisi, even if we have to hold our noses while we do it.

Can Trump avoid the “peace process” trap?

How serious is President Trump about restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? I talked about that a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

(I’ve changed my recording techniques so that you can hear me better now...)

Trump is winding up his quick trip to Israel and the Palestinian areas after talks with leaders of both sides. The local media are buzzing with speculation about renewed peace talks, saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is prepared to start where the last talks left off in 2008.

Well, that’s ridiculous. The talks didn’t “leave off.” Abbas walked out and slammed the door, rejecting a perfectly acceptable Israeli peace offer that gave the Palestinians exactly what they’d been demanding for decades. As a result of that fiasco, Israelis elected a prime minister who doesn’t really believe in the prospects for peace and spends most of his time explaining why Israeli needs assurances that the Palestinians won’t give even before talks resume. Like Abbas, who is in the 12th year of his four-year term, that prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is still in office. The difference is that Bibi keeps winning elections.

It’s always tempting for a US president to wade into the Israel-Palestinian conflict, expecting to resolve it and score a diplomatic victory, sometimes to distract from domestic crises. It looks fairly easy–the outline of the deal has been known for years–but the Palestinians have turned down a viable state twice. So there’s no point in restarting the “peace process.”

Whether Trump understands that or not, it’s clear that his focus is elsewhere. Before flying to Israel, he signed a huge arms deal with Saudi Arabia, and notwithstanding all the kind words about Israel, his real interests are in the Arab world. He sees Islamist extremism as a tangible threat to the US, and he sees the relatively moderate Sunni nations, headed by Saudi Arabia, as they keys to controlling it, as he made clear in his speech in Riyadh on Sunday.

So chances are that the Trump administration won’t make a major push to get the Israelis and Palestinians off dead center, and deep down, that’s exactly what his close friend and buddy, Bibi Netanyahu, wants..

ISIS surrenders Syrian city, preparing for guerrilla war

US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are in control of Tabqa, a key Syrian city, after the surrender of ISIS forces that held the city. I discussed this development a few minutes ago with host P.J. Maloney on KQV Radio in Pittsburgh.

This is important for three reasons:

  • Tabqa controls the main road into Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in Syria, about 50 Tabqa air basekilometers (30 miles) to the east. That’s the next target of the rebel forces. When ISIS captured Tabqa in 2013, it took control of a main Syrian government army base, giving ISIS large quantities of weapons and ammunition.
  • As part of the surrender, ISIS dismantled its explosives that threatened to destroy the Tabqa dam, flooding a large area and depriving many of drinking water, electricity and irrigation for agriculture.
  • Probably most importantly–this shows that fanatic as ISIS might be, its forces will not fight to the death. They have other ideas. As in Iraq, where they’ve been losing territory–they’re likely to regroup outside the cities and pursue a guerrilla war.

The takeaway from this is the same as it’s always been: There will be no decisive military victory over ISIS. The days of generals riding up on horseback, handing over their personal weapons, signing a surrender agreement, and sending their solders home doesn’t work in the 21st century.

We need to get with the program and realize that “winning” against ISIS requires a humanitarian effort more than a military one–starting with helping the millions of refugees who are suffering terribly in camps outside Syria and in makeshift accommodations inside the country.

The US is the number one world contributor of aid to the refugees. That’s worth noting and praising–but the corner will be turned only when the emphasis is on humanitarian aid, not military action. That will be the day that the US can start rebuilding its reputation in the Mideast after decades of misguided military operations that have killed tens of thousands, destroyed countless buildings and hundreds of villages, and alienated an entire generation of people over here.

Syria “safe zones”–Russia wants out

Four “safe zones” in Syria–that’s the plan for starting to wind down the civil war. I talked about the idea with host P.J. Maloney a few minutes ago on KQV News Radio in Pittsburgh.

This emerges from peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan that bring together many of the parties to the Syria conflict. The sponsors of the safe zone plan are Russia and Iran, backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which backs the rebels.

The safe zones would mean an end to much of the fighting in Syria–if this works. The main issue is who enforces these safe zones, who stops the fighting. That’s because whoever enforces the plan controls the zones.

The three sponsors want to take their plan to the UN Security Council for endorsement, and that means it would need the agreement of the other permanent members, including the US, Britain, and France. They’re looking for clarifications, mainly about that question of who would wield the power in the four zones.

What’s behind this is that Russia appears to be looking to wind down the fighting–a clear signal, probably unintentional, that it wants to find a way out of the Syria mess. Russian involvement has been costly and complicated. The Russians want to preserve their military bases near the Syrian coast, but otherwise they have little actual interest in Syria–yet they’re up to their ears in backing Assad militarily. That has costs beyond the monetary–that’s the same Assad who used sarin gas against his own people and brought world condemnation down on himself just last month. There are those who charge that Russia was involved in the attack, a charge Moscow denies.

It would be silly to say that Russia cares about issues like human rights and battlefield niceties, but it’s struggling for its international standing, and being associated with a gas attack doesn’t help.

Another lesson that can be learned from all this, and perhaps the most important lesson, is that even Russia, with a material stake in the game (its bases), is looking for a way out of the military conflict. So it would be stupid for some other power, say the US, to come wading in now under the guise of controlling the safe zones. The US government says it’s actively engaged in working out the details of the plan–but that’s coming from the Pentagon, not the State Department (if there still is a State Department).

There is, of course, a precedent. In 1954, France was kicked out of Vietnam by local rebel forces. The US marched right in to replace the French. We all know how that turned out.