Thursday, September 12, 2013

Making Sense of Syria

Tarzie Vittachi, a Sri Lankan journalist who in his final years was the bemused occupant of a high United Nations office, once summed up with his characteristic terse wit, a central truth about international affairs: “Everything is about something else.”

And the “something else” always varies with the telling.

The Vittachi Conundrum and the Rashomon Effect are vivid at present in the coverage of Syria; no two analysts have quite the same story about what is happening and why.

The mainstream media view of the long-suppressed Sunni majority battling a brutal minority regime of Alawite Sh’iah is undeniable; but it is hardly a black and white picture. Most of the freedom fighters (7 of 9 groups engaged in the civil war), are intolerant Islamists, and some are barbaric; the world will not soon forget the grisly image of a rebel fighter eating the liver of a dead opponent.

There is much Liberal outrage and incomprehension about the United States support for that grouping. Anger rises to near hysterical levels at the prospect of American air strikes to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Such intervention could have serious regional and global consequences. At the very least, it will plunge neighboring Lebanon into religious civil war. Hezbollah, the Iranian supported Sh’iah Party of God could carry the fighting to Israel, opening the door to further use of chemical and even nuclear weapons. If there is any substance to talk of Russia striking Saudi Arabia in response to an American attack on Syria, we could be looking at World War III. Even if there is no major military escalation, a violently disordered Middle East will throw major Asian economies into a tailspin and destroy the fragile economic recovery now beginning in Europe and the United States.

There is no shortage of explanations of American policy. Generic anti-war activists and Liberals see the Military-Industrial Complex seeking a new war to replace the one winding down in Afghanistan. (The theory is somewhat dented by the opposition of the US military to a strike on Syria.) Those hooked on Islamic politics think the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia want to break up the “Sh’iah bridge” that the Assad regime provides between Iran and Hezbollah. Others think “Oil politics” is driving the plot, with Russian, Gulf/British and American interests colliding over a planned pipeline that would carry Iranian gas to Europe, via Syria, and Lebanon. Global strategists see an American pivot against all of emerging Asia as the Federal Reserve prepares to unwind its massive deficits.

None of this makes any real sense. There is, in fact, a Three Stooges quality to the grim scenarios shaping up over Syria. A letter to the editor of the Financial Times in London captured it neatly:

"Sir, Iran is backing Assad of Syria.
Gulf states are against Assad.
Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood.
Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against Gen. Sisi. [Egypt's Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi]
But Gulf States are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the United States.
Gulf states are pro-United States.
But Turkey is with Gulf States against Assad;
Yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against Gen. Sisi.
And Gen. Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day."

The only way to bring a semblance of meaning to this situation is to consider its history, and a look at how the term “the Middle East” has evolved is a useful introduction.

The British coined it at a time when they set the world’s geopolitical coordinates. From London, the “Near East” was Eastern Europe, the “Middle East” was centered on Palestine, and the Far East was China, Japan, Korea, etc. (India was too important in the British scheme of things to be bundled into a region.)

That terminology lingered two decades into the swift imperial eclipse after World War II; then the United States mothballed it permanently by introducing the current compass point references to Asian sub-regions: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. The only term to survive that change was “Middle East.” That was because the 1948 creation of Israel had given it a new geopolitical reality. The term now encompasses the tri-continental Islamic rim of the Mediterranean (from Turkey to Morocco), includes all members of the Arab League, and even Iran.

That evolution points to three key elements that must be brought into a coherent framework in order to understand the Syrian situation: (1) Imperial manipulation of the region; (2) Its religious politics; and (3) American policy.

Imperial Machinations

As Britain extended its rule over India in the early 19th Century, it began nibbling away at the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It took the pirate haven of Aden in 1839 and turned it into a coaling station for ships. Over the next century, it bribed and bullied a number of small sheikdoms to enter into treaty relations that separated them from Ottoman rule. In one of them, Kuwait, the British found Abdul Aziz Al Saud (1876-1953) scion of a former ruling family of Riyadh who had sunk to caravan robbing. They helped him reclaim Riyadh and found a kingdom that became Saudi Arabia in 1932.

Meanwhile, during World War I, the British held out the prospect of Arab independence to induce Sayyid Husayn bin Ali (1854-1931), the Emir of Mecca, to initiate a general insurrection against the Ottoman Empire. Britain had no intention of making Husayn “King of the Arabs,” for even as an army led by his son Faisal was taking Damascus, it was secretly negotiating with France and Russia to apportion the spoils of war.

The secret “Sykes-Picot pact,” which became public after the 1917 revolution in Russia set the template for the nations that emerged from the Ottoman territories. Its negotiators gave no thought to the Arabs, for as Kamal Salibi noted in his 1993 history A House of Many Mansions, “there were no strong nationalist fissures” in a population that had been under Turkish rule for centuries.

Predictably, things did not go well for Husayn. He never became the “King of the Arabs,” but his three sons, Ali, Faisal and Abdallah, received pieces of Ottoman territory to rule under British and French supervision. 

Religious Manipulations

While promising Arab independence and negating it secretly, the British were also entertaining the Zionist movement’s claim to a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Presented as it was by the influential Rothschild banking family with its long record of supporting the Empire, it was not a claim the British government could ignore. On 2 November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour said in a confidential one-page letter to Walter Rothschild (the head of the bank in London), that the government viewed “with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

That opened the door to Jewish migration into Palestine and a major shift in its demographics. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ensured that the Zionists would be able to defend their homeland by authorizing a “Jewish Brigade” during World War II. In 1948, when far larger Arab armies invaded the newly declared State of Israel, it had the region's only battle-tested and well-equipped force. In the 1960s, France ensured permanent strategic superiority for Israel by helping it develop nuclear weapons.

Long predating the Arab-Israeli fault line in the Middle East is the Sunni-Sh’iah fissure that reflects disagreement over the choice of the first Caliph (successor) after the Prophet. To understand how the imperial Powers exploited it we have to follow the karmic legacies of Husayn’s sons.

Ali got the Hejaz (the area with Mecca and Medina), but lost it in 1925 as the British maneuvered to put the holy places of Islam under the control of Saudi Wahhabis, a sect so extreme in its interpretation of the Koran that mainstream Muslims considered it haraam. That extremism made the Saudis easy for the British to control, and as its new position of religious authority rapidly rehabilitated Wahhabism, all of Islam came under their sway. The oil money that began to flow in the 1930s gave the Saudi/British combine global influence.

In exercising that influence the Saudis depended on the Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive organization founded in 1928 by a 21-year old Egyptian teacher, Hassan al Banna (1906-1949). Like Ibn Saud, Banna owed his rise to the British: the Suez Canal Company paid for the Brotherhood’s first mosque in Ismailiya, capital of the colonized Canal Zone. The movement was thereafter closely wedded to British interests. At a ceremony marking the end of colonial rule in the Canal Zone, members of the Brotherhood tried to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the face of the hard crackdown that followed, the Brotherhood moved its operational headquarters to Britain and Switzerland, where it has remained ever since. (Banna's seven successors as Supreme Guide have stayed on in Egypt.)

As a university student in Cairo Banna had come under the pan-Islamist ideas of Jemal ud Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), and the Brotherhood aimed to create a global Ummah under a powerful Caliph. It was a retrograde vision the British supported, for it could be easily engaged against any modernizing trend.

Banna saw in the rising Adolf Hitler a potentially valuable ally and wrote him numerous letters offering cooperation. Eventually he won funding from the dreaded Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). During World War II the Brotherhood helped establish the vicious Handzar Muslim Division of the SS based in Croatia. The British charged many of its members with war crimes in 1945, but did not prosecute them; instead, the Arab Nazis went to work in Saudi Arabia as it became the Cold War core of anti-communist Islam. Within a decade, Wahhabi intolerance and Brotherhood violence spread to mosques in 70 countries.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, that international network made the Brotherhood the primary supplier of Mujaheddin fighters. They were funded by Saudi Arabia, Britain and the United States and trained by the Pakistani army. At the end of the Cold War, the Western funding tailed off, but Saudi support continued as the Mujaheddin mutated into al Qaeda and Taliban, and became the brutal protectors of the British-Pakistani drug trade out of Afghanistan.

Faisal, who had freed Damascus from Ottoman rule at the head of an Arab army during WW-I, was the puppet King of French Syria for a few months in 1920. Then the British moved him to a similar role in Sh’iah-majority Iraq. The dominance of the Sunni tribal minority established under his aegis in Iraq survived the end of the monarchy and continued until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Meanwhile, under French auspices, the minority Alawite Sh’iah became entrenched in the power structure of Sunni-majority Syria. The Maronite Christian minority was allied to the Alawite in Damascus; ostensibly to give them a more independent political role the French split Syria to create Lebanon. That embittered the Muslims and created yet another country easily manipulated through religious violence.

Abdallah got Jordan, and his descendants have continued to rule there with strong and sustained British support. 

From the period before the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the present, British-French policy in Arab territories has consistently used religion as a manipulative tool. They empowered minorities and promoted corrupt. unprincipled and vicious leaders. Everywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood fostered an obscurantist vision and promoted a general intolerance and paranoia. Even in Turkey where Kemal Ataturk had established a strong secular tradition, Saudi money, Wahhabi teachings and the conspiratorial Brotherhood have succeeded in channeling the idealism of Muslim youth into self-defeating religiosity.

American Policy

Michael J. Cohen noted in the 1987 Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict that in April 1920, “in the small Italian town of San Remo, Britain and France divided the Middle East into mandates while the American ambassador read his newspaper in the garden.”

That hands-off approach continued for over a decade as the two European Powers moved their Arab pawns around on the Middle Eastern chessboard. Things began to change after American geologists found rich oil deposits in the region and a subsidiary of Standard Oil of California made major strikes between 1936 and 1938. On 14 February 1945, at a meeting aboard the USS Quincy, President Franklin Roosevelt struck a deal with King Ibn Saud, assuring the country’s security in return for preferred American access to its oil.

The beginning of the Cold War (March 1946) and the creation of Israel (1948) transformed American attitudes to the whole region and initiated a period when Washington worked closely with Britain and France to manage “Free World” interests. However, it continued to have anti-colonial red lines: when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in 1956 to reverse its nationalization of the Suez Canal, the United States was a strong supporter of UN action to stop and roll back the aggression.

In the decades that followed, as Middle Eastern oil became a central strategic interest of the United States and Saudi Arabia handed out the world’s richest arms and building contracts to American companies, an important segment of the Washington power structure became supportive of Middle Eastern regimes with medieval mindsets and social mores. Saudi Arabia, in particular, got away with murder as it became a major supporter of terrorism abroad and oppression at home: it abolished slavery only in 1960, did not permit the education of girls until 1966, and still treats women as chattel. Its penal system continues to beat, mutilate and behead criminals, including those convicted of blasphemy.

Over the last two years, as domestic shale oil production has moved the United States towards energy independence its tolerance of benighted regimes in the Arab world has begun to change. As a result, long running dictatorships have come under popular pressure in what Western mass media dubbed the “Arab Spring.” However, that Spring has turned into an increasingly bloody Summer as extremists shaped by the Muslim Brotherhood and its various subsidiary organizations became leading political players.

It is a safe bet that the official hand-wringing in Britain and France at this turn of events has not stopped their traditional support for fascist forces in the Arab world. Nor is it likely that the corrupt elements in Washington profiting from existing arrangements have fallen in with official policy. That “house divided” aspect of American political reality explains its current confusion over Syria.

The Road Ahead

The latest Russian initiative to head off an American strike on Syria points to an interesting aspect of the emerging scene in the Middle East. Despite the Russian defence of the Assad regime, Moscow and Washington have a shared interest in changing existing realities in the region. And the consonance of their interests might extend to regime change in Saudi Arabia. That is not much of a stretch if we recall that most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudis, and Riyadh has been quite openly behind the Chechen terrorist uprising.

Two recent developments signal that the Saudi elite is seriously concerned about this situation. One is the sudden decision to give $100 million to the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre. The other is the equally unexpected return from the dead of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, widely thought to have been killed in a 2011 bomb explosion. At a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin he is said to have promised rich arms contracts and to guarantee the forthcoming Sochi Winter Olympics from Chechen terrorist attacks. The media have reported this within the Syrian context, but it is probable that Bandar had more existential Saudi concerns, such as staving off an attempt at regime change in Riyadh.

The Saudi attempt to appease Russia points to intriguing developments in Washington. 

The Saudi envoy in Washington for 22 years, Bandar developed very intimate relations with the Washington nexus of oil, arms and military/espionage interests. The nickname, “Bandar Bush,” captures his intimacy with the family that has been for two generations at the centre of the unconstitutional shadow government established in the United States by the Ismay-Churchill coup of 1946. The presidency of the senior Bush saw the Iraq war segue the world from the Cold War to the “War of Civilizations.” The stolen presidency of the junior Bush saw the 9/11 attacks inaugurate the “Homeland Security” era under the “Patriot Act,” with widespread violations of fundamental constitutional provisions.

The effort by Bandar Bush to win Russian backing points to the threat that the new US Middle Eastern policy poses to the interests that underpin the unconstitutional American shadow government.

In the past, a few choice assassinations would have resolved this situation. That might still happen, but I think the American military/intelligence establishment has swung away from the Bush-centered power nexus. Edward Snowden's decision to flee the farm is probably indicative of that, as is the “wrong name” on the papers sent to the Chinese authorities to extradite him from Hong Kong.

To sum up, the grim and confused situation in the Middle East could be the most tangible indicator of a historic American shift back to fully constitutional government.

The "something else" that Syria signifies could be the exact opposite of all the dark readings of the situation.

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