Tangled! – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

The paradox of piety observes no disconnect
Nor registers anxiety
As the ship of fools is wrecked
So leaders urge with eloquence
And martyrs die in consequence
We talk in last and present sense
As greed and fear persist
E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill

At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,  joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.

This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflict  that they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.

A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.

But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):

Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.

So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. 

And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now? Clear as mud! 

It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

Libya

We begin with  Libya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s: Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran).  Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle – Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).  

On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).

And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.. 

As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

Syria

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already! 

On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –  hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust. 

And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).

Yemen 

On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence. And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.

Afghanistan

Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …

On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots. 

And on the sidelines,  miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”. 

So, what now? 

More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.

As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also; A Middle East Miscellany

A postscript  from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’

‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

“The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

I fought in the old revolution 
on the side of the ghost and the King. 
Of course I was very young 
and I thought that we were winning; 
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen

Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany