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Diplomacy Edges Ahead

 Events in geopolitics have a way of stampeding away from what seemed to be a more or less settled position. Game-changing no less, has been in progress in Syria, in Egypt and in Iran, also in the UN and new prospects for tackling the Israel-Palestine blockages.

A month ago, at the time of our 1st September Bulletin, SYRIA looked to be on the point of suffering massive intervention from the US military machine, to ‘take out’ Assad’s capacity to use chemical weapons - and no doubt a lot of conventional armament at the same time. Probably his capacity to resist the rebels at all. We saw what happened in Libya when the UN agreement on ‘enforcing a no-fly zone’ swiftly morphed into something else, foreign warplanes from the west overnight became the rebel airforce, making frequent tactical strikes, even to the point of shooting up Qaddafi’s escaping convoy, delivering him over to humiliation and lynch-law.

A Tomahawk missile strike looked to be exactly the scenario that the friends and sponsors of the rebels, Qatar and Saudi Arabia dreamed of. But memories of Iraq have not faded in the wider world. First of all, an overconfident British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, dreaming of Churchillian status, has for two and a half years been issuing rumbling threats designed to get (American) boots on the ground, yet he did not receive the reception from his country’s lawmakers on which he had counted.

The British PM David Cameron, discovered what a poor card he had to play in supporting an almost immediate US attack of unknown severity, pre-empting the UN experts’ report (just like IRAQ ten years ago), indeed once again just ignoring the absolute impossibility of getting UN backing.

His own Conservative party MPs in substantial numbers did not buy the story that William Hague had to tell, to the point of their flat refusal to authorise this attack, leaving aside the Lib-Dem coalition partners and the main Labour Opposition who piled in to make it an elective rout. It should be said that the British lawmakers acted very responsibly, when their government was failing to do so.

It was a classic of ‘democracy in action’. They really did reflect the mood in the country. After IRAQ this generation of voters have a credibility problem with western intelligence findings, their own and others. The sarin attack was horrifying, but something about the evidence, it was aimed at civilians not rebel fighters; the convenient timing, coinciding exactly with the arrival in Damascus of a UN scientific team under a Swedish leader charged to investigate earlier horrendous attacks, gave pause. Previous individual UN official’s comments had been, as reported in the NYT, that they suspected the rebels were responsible for a gas attack up-country, and it had been reported that some of them did have stocks, seemingly surplus from Libya. At the end of May, the Turkish Security forces said they had arrested in Turkey militants of Al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, who had in their possession a cylinder filled with Sarin. For what purpose did the rebels have poison gas?

It may well emerge over time that both sides are less than squeaky clean on this issue, obscured by the fog of war.
Cameron was quick to see the negative outcome of seeking MP’s approval. He swiftly “got it,” as he immediately told the parliament, when the votes had been counted. The UK is not going to war in the middle-east.

What was Obama to do on Capitol Hill with this well publicised attitude of the Brits in parliament and the nation, not buying Hague’s story. There was some tricky play on the UN Inspector’s role, reminiscent of Iraq. Few doubted that poison gas had been used, but it was made clear that the UN scientists were not in the business of assigning blame. The US, UK and France at this point, saw themselves presenting entirely circumstantial evidence of an horrific event, as being good enough to smash Syria’s government.

New evidence for both arguments seems to be coming in nearly every day and nothing was entirely clear other than that gas was used, but this is no Slam Dunk situation.

For example, the UN inspectors reported that a shell casing with Sarin traces had Cyrillic marks and numerical i/d. Conclusive?

Not at all! Russia identified the casing as a part of supplies to Qadaffi’s Libya of many years ago and it is well known (we raised it some issues back), that when Qatar got the green light from the White House/CIA/Pentagon to supply weapons to the ‘right kind’ of rebel, they immediately airlifted a substantial quantity of the weaponry and munitions of former Libyan president Qadaffi, which they had acquired in anticipation, flying them via Qatari transport planes to Turkey. From there the arms and munitions crossed the border into rebel arsenals – rebels, not necessarily of ‘the right kind,’ as Qatar appears to favour the Islamists. (The secular FSA that the West supports, complained that they didn’t receive anything).

The key point is that as in any trial in a democracy, guilt must be established “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and it just wasn’t!

What Obama then did, we applauded. He decided the least line of resistance was to let the Congress decide. True, he knew that he probably could not get it through anyway, but it was a good decision, faultlessly democratic. How do you ‘sell’ punishment in a case not yet proven, by attacking with sophisticated weapons on a scale which, whatever else, would kill collaterals (as technically non-combatants are now called when dead after an action).

Let’s anyway give him the benefit of not being totally convinced ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt,’ that it was black (Assad’s government) versus white (rebels supported by Qatar and Saudi). Obama would certainly have advisors who would have presented the contrary possibility of the rebels having used the gas, to provoke the ‘red line’ reaction from the US, that it would respond militarily.

What would have finally determined it for Obama, would have been that he had put his name to the intervention plan which his people calculated was about to be rejected by the Congress.

An impasse, then some nimble thinking. What did they really, really want this military intervention to achieve?
Originally the planning seemed to be to do such damage to Assad’s fighting capacity, that he would agree to a peace conference, effectively beaten, having to accept that he would stand down. But the story had moved on, thanks to the keen Russian interest, where it can be said, Moscow appeared to the world for a time, to be more ‘responsible’ than Washington, in pleading for diplomacy to be given a chance.

So faced with this poison gas outrage, in the middle of a distant, civil war which crossed the President’s ‘Red Line’. How should the US react? What would do the job? – Why, to remove the stocks of poison gas, of course (much encouraged by Israel who could project being the victims in any escalating future war with their neighbour, just short of nuclear).

Could it be done? Yes, if Obama and Putin turned to their people in chief executive mode and just said, “Get it done.” And it was time unequivocally, to get it done!

Obama must have been saying to his people, ‘how did we get into this mess? I was elected, amongst other things, to take the US out of a decade of war’! Later, Secretary of State John Kerry talked publicly about perhaps removing the stocks of gas, as if it were a stray thought. As if!

The Russians picked it up (if they hadn’t seeded it in the first place), recognised a Win-Win and said “why not”? So diplomacy has been enabled in the Syria confrontation, with just perhaps, a better chance of a Peace conference taking place.

IRAN: This coincided with a new negotiating climate, with Iran electing a moderate president with obvious sanction from the supreme Ayatollah, to replace the repulsive Ahmadinejad and to address the current deadlock with the USA.

There is now a new agenda where the US and Iran will negotiate meaningfully, on the issue of Iran complying with international norms where nuclear development is involved; and the quid pro quo to remove the sanctions regime in reciprocal steps Within a few days, there is now a bi-lateral change of attitude. Israel is of course protesting that sneaky Iran is trying to deceive the gullible Americans. There will be no shortage of such commentary back in the US, but it will also be remembered that Obama campaigning in his first election, said he would talk to the Iranians and until now he has not done so. There were hopes pinned on the recent UN General Assembly traditionally addressed by heads of government. Obama spoke well, the door is open; and in his turn the new Iranian president also made it clear that his election had pivoted on his being a reformist, prepared to engage and try to find solutions to the long standing quarrel with the USA. UN delegates and the world were not this time to be treated to a tirade from Ahmadinejad, now consigned to the outer darkness of Iranian politics.

Since US Secretary of State Kerry, announced a revival of the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, to seek to clear the obstructions in forming a new state of Palestine, it can be said that Obama in his second term, is now delivering on his promises to at least seek to resolve the issues of Israel /Palestine, as well as IRAN. There President Rouhani is enjoying his sweeping electoral success, but his government’s economic difficulties are being made public. Always the outside world has suspicions of the ageing Ayatollah Khamanei, particularly with regard to the nuclear question, but as of now, it is relevant to realise that Rouhani would never have been elected president if the Ayatollah had not wished it, having cast aside the abrasive and widely loathed Ahmadinejad.

Then there is EGYPT which just over a month ago saw the military move against the Moslem Brothers, thus ending the yearlong Islamist experiment with democracy. There is in place a provisional, partly civilian government, but as of now, the military is clearly in charge and is likely to continue to be so. But more than that, the MB in a blizzard of body blows initiated by the army, has been smashed as an organisation, registration removed as a political party; declared illegal – worse indeed declared ‘terrorist;’ funds seized, criminal prosecutions imminent. Reaction to that has included horrific MB inspired Islamist attacks on the vulnerable Coptic Christians, as in the worse days of recent history, graphically proving the ‘terrorist’ label!

There is a curious coda to this massive turnaround. Whilst the MB have been rolled over, the Saudi–inspired Salafist party in Egypt’s parliament, approved and sided openly with the army and its moves. The MB had always been considered as less than hard line in their Islamic credentials, to the extent that Turkish PM Erdogan, himself running a ‘soft Islamic’ party, was quite comfortable with them, whilst the Salafists, supported by the religious right in Saudi Arabia, were considered by most Egyptians altogether too extreme. Whether this turn of events will boost the Salafists in representation, it is too soon to say. It is not too soon to see however, that Egypt is NOT going to become a theocracy. Not as long as the Army that is continue to receive the annual subventions from the US that obliges them to keep the peace with Israel, a peace made by Sadat, an outstanding Egyptian soldier turned statesman, because its time had come.

We speculate that the ‘temporary’ government replacing the Moslem Brothers, might turn out to have a longer lifespan than suggested. Apart from who else can do it- they know that in any general election held soon, the MB perhaps under another name, would be re-elected. There is so much to do in this, the largest Arab nation, that the people only got a glimpse of, during the hectic times since the original Tahrir Square revolt. One positive outcome would be the formation of a firmly secular political party appealing to the middle classes and intellectuals, and to educated youth, the ‘computerate’ modernists of the original Tahrir Square, who struggled and died, some of them, to achieve democracy. But they had no electoral organisation at all when it came to fighting a political party like the MB, that had generations worth of presence and support in the villages, as well as towns and cities. For democracy to have a chance, it needs a party that could take the nation out of its medieval mindset, unlike the MB, hopelessly ill-equipped to govern a modern nation. It would be a good start, to have a new Constitution declare Egypt to be a secular state, guaranteeing freedom of worship for all. (Syria has this, which is at the root of their revolt and targeting by the jihadists).

The US and the West having little choice but to back the army - for lack of an alternative, have now to determine how they can best assist in the creation of a modern state. There is no obvious model of an ‘army –run’ nation moving towards real representative democracy. But since the army has crushed the MB and overthrown their elected majority, they are in no way going to attract support from the largest element of the voting population and there is little point in resurrecting a soft attitude to militancy. They should strive for a better educated electorate not dependent on leadership of the Islamic clerics. But that will be a long haul and they will need help.

IRAQ The US seems to regard IRAQ as a problem solved, having pulled their military out, but in truth, the violence (Sunni on Shia mostly) has intensified. What was started by Al Qaeda who were not in this country until the US moved in, has been picked up by the Sunni (a powerful minority here) who resent the majority Shiite-led government and army. Mostly it consists of murderous attacks wherever Shi-ite civilians are gathered together and the victims are invariably family groups uninvolved in politics, just doomed by being in the wrong place when the murderers, many of them human bombs, were around. Apart from these tragedies, in government Premier Maliki is constantly ahead of the political competition, playing his cards cleverly and slowly but surely, undermining his rivals for power.

Islamic Terrorism. Sunni militancy is about achieving theocracy, - religious rule on earth via Sharia law, but historical experience suggests all this really means is rule by priests/imams, an idea from which Europe and in this respect from which its cultural offshoot, the USA, has firmly turned away, based on centuries-old experience of religious rule and subsequent holy wars. (In modern times see Iran under the Shi’ite theocrats, who swept to power after the bankruptcy, in every respect, of the Shah’s government ).

Against the background of a more than a millennium-long quarrel over the line of succession after the death of the prophet Mohammed, the division appears absolute, but it is the Sunni, the larger of the two, who inspire the numerous groups of self-styled warriors, disciplined and ruthless, whose modern manifestation came with Osama bin Laden’s band of fighters that declared war on non-Sunni, seeking the eventual submission of all the world to strict observance of their tenets.

It has not been possible to find any middle ground, because these ultra-religionists are also absolutists. It seems clear that the sharp point of ‘the Islamist spear’ is in the undereducated young people who have been captured by the concept of a noble cause, worthy enough for them to die for. We repeat a point made recently about hosting terrorists, which is reinforced by the presence of western jihadists in Al Shabbab’s horrific attack on a Nairobi Mall last month. Experts tell us that at least several hundred such Islamic volunteers go from countries of the West every year, to the different ‘fronts’: Syria, Somalia, West Africa, the Caucasus, but many combat survivors return to their country of citizenship after battle fatigue, or when the novelty has worn off. Of course Immigration officials are well aware of returning jihadists, but if they have citizenship, they cannot be refused entry.

But why is authority so supine? Surely this idea of killing in the name of the religious cause with which they associate, should bar them from keeping their passport when returning for R&R, before flying out again? If there was legislation to make the threat, on their way out, that they could never return if engaged with a terrorist organisation and would lose their citizenship, thus becoming stateless (subject to appeal),it might sober up some characters, ‘high’ on induced lethal idealism and address the constant threat that they represent even in their birth countries.

In this report on INDIA we tell how crowds in Pakistan attended a large Jamaat–ud-Dawa rally addressed by Hafiz Saeed, the man behind the Mumbai massacre who reacted to his message (hatred of India) by thousands chanting “jihad,” the call for holy war. Of course in India, the more extreme Hindus and Sikhs in turn become more bellicose, making war that more likely. It is ironic that within historical terms, a sliver of time since the great social /economic struggle of the Cold War was settled, the new division is an old one returned, that of religion, now on a global basis.

India is a member of BRICS whose impact on the world has not yet been felt, but which does tend to show up the UN Security Council whose permanent members exclude not only Germany and Japan, but has no African or South American nations at all in membership. It was formed exclusively from the winners of WWII that finished 68 years ago! INDIA is however on the G20 which objectively some think might make a better replacement for the world’s supreme authority.

The one leader of PAKISTAN in the last ten years who made a difference was General Musharraf who then expelled the present prime-minister Nawaz Sharif whose corruption was legendary. He also came down hard on Islamic terrorists. Whilst he was there, there was some hope for the nation. Having left office he went abroad and returned this year to take part in the national election for the President. Before he could start to campaign, he was arrested by order of the judges, whose power in his time he had trimmed, his candidacy was disallowed. He is currently in prison awaiting trial on the grotesquely absurd charge of having in some way connived at the assassination of Mrs Bhutto, during his time as president. But Pakistan remains in deep trouble with its shambolic economy (the rich pay no tax, corruption is endemic, islamic militancy a constant). The government has to second regional foreign policy to the Army, whose ISI insists on controlling Afghan policy and that relating to India, and to the hill tribes which they use, whose violence is legendary. (They keep some Islamist militias on the payroll against the time when they might be useful in a knockdown drag-out fight with India). Power lies somewhere between government, the army, and the judges, shifting according to circumstances but being periodically rescued by the World Bank, the IMF; the US government and various salafist Saudi billionaires. Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry is sometimes called the ‘Sunni bomb,’ inferring that it might be available in the defence of Sunni powers, such as Saudi Arabia.

TURKEY Prime Minister Erdogan has been in the eye of more than one storm. His reaction to a middle-class protest in Istanbul re arbitrary planning decisions changing the character of the historic city, was not well judged. Turkey’s elective master has usually displayed a surer touch in the past when he was anxiously working on proving the nation’s democratic credentials, a necessary prerequisite to EU membership, which is still on the agenda. He also seeks to prove that a moderate Islamic party like his is no more a threat to democracy, than say the Christian Democrat parties in some existing EU members. Serious news is that the peace process with the Kurdish PKK which appeared to be his triumph recently, has stalled. This at a time when the Kurds in neighbouring Syria, just across the border from a large Turkish Kurd population, have become semi-autonomous, and ready to fight to protect their interests, against either side in the Syrian Civil war, or against any outsiders like Turkey.

SAUDI ARABIA Despite the shale oil advances in the US, most of the world relies on oil and gas from the desert countries of the Persian Gulf, of which Saudi is the most significant. We have observed that their oil supremacy has enabled an aggressive and disruptive regional policy, not least in Syria, where they have sponsored some of the Islamist fighters anxious to overthrow Shi’ites and replace them with Sunni rulers. In Egypt too they have been seen to be involved, first in the return of the Generals to power and the concomitant collapse of the Moslem Brothers and arrest of Egypt’s first and only elected ruler, Muhammed Morsi.

RUSSIA has demonstrated that it is ‘not the USSR’, by its positive role in the Syrian poison gas situation. They have never stopped calling for a negotiated settlement and for diplomacy to replace military aggression. Indeed in the political fix in which Obama found himself, they acted as a helpful friend. We have always disapproved of the threadbare version of democracy they have in the Russian Federation, but realise that this nation throughout its entire history, has never known democracy, quite the opposite! But we also have always regretted that a Cold War mind-set is still widely held by many Americans, including in Congress. Russia, unlike the USSR, is not a rival of the US economically, militarily or in any way. Nobody is going to invade them (they have equivalent nuclear armament to the US). They are sturdily and proudly independent. Their idea of the rule of law is not ours, but notwithstanding, Russia is a great country not only in size but in history, not least they played by far the most important WWII role in the defeat and destruction of Nazi-ism.

In this issue we look at their post-imperial tendency to bully former satellites, in this case Ukraine and Moldova, not unique amongst former empires. However, ‘warts and all,’ we hope that post-soviet reconciliation might advance, as it has largely done in Europe, particularly Germany. Perhaps their constructive role in the Syrian mess will advance that objective.

TAIWAN This independent sprig of the China tree has long amazed the commercial world for its successful emergence as a trading nation. For some time there has been a dispute, reflected in their national politics, about whether they should eventually re-join mainland China. The KMT the party of the mainlanders, who followed Chiang Kai Shek to Taiwan after his defeat by Mao’s Red Army, are the party who now mainly look to rejoin, but on terms. But the native Taiwanese constitute most of the opposition who are unconvinced that returning to mainland control is sensible. The parliament for this reason is a lively place. We have covered TAIWAN for many years and continue to do so in this months update.

VIETNAM: The nation has been slow in recovering from the global meltdown, not least because it is still saddled with communist doctrines (it remains a police state), one of only five nations in the world who still call themselves communist. It has been unattractive to entrepreneurs and international finance for these reasons, but in order to keep up, Vietnam did join ASEAN where they have perhaps the worst performing economy. ASEAN is integrating its members in stages and in this issue we look at the current economic picture and what it hopes to achieve.

Clive Lindley - Publisher





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