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Strange bedfellows

Oh what a tangled web we weave:

The BBC have been airing a series of programmes this week about Syrian refugees. In the main, presenter Mishal Husain has been doing a balanced job. Until this morning when it became subtly apparent where most of her sympathies probably lay.

During an interview with Mohammed Freish, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Lebanese government and a member of Hezbollah, Ms Husain questioned the minister about his statement that the interests of Hezbollah and the West coincided with regard to IS. His slightly guarded reply was that they did, to a certain extent, and then went on to remark that IS had killed more Muslims than Israel. Pressed on whether this meant that IS was a ‘bigger’ enemy than Israel he said no. OK, so far so reasonably balanced but then it occurred to me that in her intro Ms Husain had said that Hezbollah was regarded by the US as a terrorist organization, omitting to add that most of the individual EU members also share this view. She failed to question the minister on the Hezbollah assertion– voiced a couple of weeks ago– that Israel was supporting IS in their fight against the Assad regime/Hezbollah and didn’t explore whether this unlikely but intriguing possibility meant that various extreme Sunni factions in Saudi Arabia and Qatar which do support IS—with or without the blessing of their respective governments—are therefore allied with Israel. Somewhat bizarrely— not picked up by Ms Husain– the minster initially referred to Israel as Israel, then ‘the Zionist experiment’, the usual way that Hezbollah refer to Israel, then used the ‘I’ word again towards the end of the interview. By the tone of her voice, it appeared the La Husain approved of Hezbollah not giving up the armed struggle against that country whose name some Arabs are unable to bring themselves to utter but to be fair she did not actually come right out and say so.

It was left to the BBC’s foreign affairs editor, Jeremy Bowen, to restore some degree of impartiality and balance. He pointed out that President Obama had semi-publicly come to the conclusion that Assad had to go, and that both Iran and Hezbollah had stated that support for the Syrian government did not necessarily equate to support for Assad himself. Given that Assad is the Syrian government, this was definitely hair splitting but Bowen let it pass.

The situation is of course far more complicated than the outline above. The Qatar government more or less openly supports IS whilst  strenuously appearing to toe the official Saudi line of possibly/maybe putting boots on the ground in Syria to aid the Free Syrian Army in its doomed, two-front war against both IS and the Assad regime. Qatar also supports Hamas—a Sunni organisation—in its ongoing and increasingly futile punch-up with Israel. To put the icing on a very complicated foreign policy cake, Qatar also had an official trade mission in—wait for it—Israel—until 2011, when the Netanyahu government sent it packing because of Qatar’s support for Hamas. Incidentally, this is the country that is hosting the 2022 football World Cup. In the unlikely event that the Israeli football squad makes any progress in that completion, I’m sure the Qatar government will welcome them with open arms.


When we practice to deceive:


Saudi foreign policy is equally schizophrenic. A Sunni state, they support the now almost non-existent Free Syrian Army (mainly Sunni) against both IS (extreme Sunni) and the Assad regime (Alawite plus anybody else who will support it—Russia for example). In the meantime, certain elements in Saudi support IS. Given the democratic credentials of the Saudi government, it seems likely that this support is being given the nod by the Saudi government. This in turn means that Saudi is standing four square with the US against IS whilst supporting the latter, an organization which the US is bombing at the moment and despite protestations to the contrary will soon be actually fighting—just as soon as it becomes even more obvious than it is now that no Arab country will enter the field against IS. This apparent contradiction in Saudi policy is not a new situation. Saudi quietly supported those Iraqi elements who were fighting the US liberating/occupying forces (take your pick) whilst also officially supporting the US–led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is right now being pushed kicking and screaming by an American-led coalition of sorts into defending itself on the ground against IS -and Jordan will no doubt defend their border should it become necessary. Since any IS attack on Jordan would be uncomfortably close to Israel that opens the interesting possibility of Jordanian and Israeli troops fighting alongside each other instead of against each other. That situation—or at least something similar—almost occurred in 1970 when Syria invaded Jordan in support of the various Palestinian factions that were having a punch-up with the Jordanian government. Jordan asked the US for help but as they were busy losing in Vietnam at the time they enquired whether Jordan would accept help from ‘another nearby country’. Through no doubt gritted teeth, Jordan indicated that it would and so Israel, not overly-keen to have a war with Syria, put on a show of strength, using the air force, that left the commander of the Syrian armoured column pushing deep into Jordanian territory in doubt as to what would follow if he did not turn round and head back to Syria. Following urgent consultations with Assad senior, that is exactly what he did.


Runners and riders:

At this point, I strongly suggest that you make yourself a mug of something stimulating. Done that? OK then, here we go.

Turkey—a member of NATO—is vehemently opposed to the Assad regime. They used to be a friend of Assad’s, until Assad decided to have a civil war. At that point, Turkey remembered that they had an unresolved long-standing dispute with Syria concerning Hattay province and so decided to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The rest of NATO sort of supported the FSA, so that was all fine and dandy apart from the fact that the NATO support consisted of a few surplus popguns . Time passed and with it any chance that the FSA could win the war against Assad. He, Assad, was/is also supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The only effective fighting forces in the Syrian war became Hezbollah (essentially an Iranian puppet), deniable Iranian forces (which every man and his dog knew were there because personnel killed by Israeli airstrikes whilst attempting to transfer Syrian chemical weapons to Hezbollah to keep them away from UN inspectors) were given state funerals– and Kurdish fighters. Turkey is happy to support the first two because Iran was an important trading partner—until other NATO member countries imposed sanctions on Iran due to their attempts to develop nuclear weapons. Supporting Kurdish forces in Syria was a no-no because of internal problems with Turkish Kurds– however, since reaching an understanding of sorts with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey seems content for Syrian Kurds to be armed and trained by other NATO member countries. As always though, there is a complication, after all this the Middle East. Turkey now has a growing internal problem with Syrian refugees and Turkish president Erdogan harbours Islamist sympathies which draw him towards IS—if only they’d stop beheading people, specifically citizens of NATO member countries who are getting very fed up with IS and would like somebody—anybody– to take them on.


Iran also has a bit of a problem. As a Shia power, they are ideologically opposed to IS. The previous Iraqi government (under former PM Maliki) was a Shia-dominated administration so it was natural that they would aid Maliki against IS—a Sunni extremist group, in case you have become a little confused.  Inconveniently, this briefly put them on the same side as the Great Satan, until devil-in-chief Obama realised what was actually going on and removed the democratically-elected Maliki in the hope of replacing him with an even more democratic government. Once an American-installed ‘more inclusive but not exactly democratically elected’ Iraqi government was in place, Obama was able start limited military action against IS and politely inform Iran that their assistance was no longer required. Although this scuppered Iranian plans to consolidate control over a rather large swathe of land from Southern Iraq through to Assad-controlled Syria, they are consoling themselves with the fact that Russia, intent on waving two fingers at NATO,  has just agree to supply them with nuclear processing plants.

Russia had been looking a clear winner in all this. By diplomatically supporting Assad they had ensured that whatever the outcome of the Syrian civil war they would retain their Mediterranean naval base at Tartus. By invading and then annexing the Crimea, Vladi Putin ensured that he still had a Black Sea naval base from which to send ships to his Mediterranean naval base. Putin is obviously a born gambler—and one who does not know the meaning of ‘quit while you are ahead’. Having apparently abandoned plans to invade eastern Ukraine, he now thinks that he can get away with it after all and has sent the tanks across the border to support the Ukrainian separatists. NATO has noticed and– unluckily for Putin– has some spare troops, having recently announced a victory in Afghanistan and pulled all the combat troops out.


The EU had a couple of problems which might have encouraged Vladi Putin to take a flyer on invading the Ukraine but these are now being solved, or at least swept under the carpet. A warmer than usual October and early November means that the EU–oh OK, Germany– is less worried than it might have been about the supply of Russian gas this coming winter. With the row with the UK over immigration about to be fudged, to the relief of all parties concerned, the individual EU countries can now start to really worry about returning Jihadist fighters from Syria/Iraq.  Worry ye not, chaps—the occupant of the ‘last chance saloon’ has provided you with the solution to your woes. Dear Reader, remember the returning NATO troops from Afghanistan? Having now been on leave for couple of days, NATO governments are worried that the lads—and lasses—might be getting a bit bored. As they haven’t quite got around to arranging the war in Syria/Iraq yet due to the inconvenience of having to seek re-election at some point, what could be better than military manoeuvres in Poland and the Baltic states? A luke-warm cold war would be great for military budgets, provide a wonderful excuse for further erosions of civil liberties and have the fantastic side-effect of having war-weary and deeply suspicious populations in the EU actually being grateful when instead of a re-run of World War Two, NATO sends combat troops to Syria. Of course, there is always an outside chance that Putin might not understand what he is supposed to do now but then by getting a bit ahead of himself and invading the Ukraine, he has given the EU a reason to impose further economic sanctions on ‘friends of Putin’ and Vladi might suddenly find that he is not as popular as he thought he was. Still with me? If so you are way ahead of both the British Foreign Office and the US State Department.


America has spoken and what Americans said was they were a bit peed-off with Obama. His problem is how to work with the Republicans who now control both Congress and the Senate. Once again, Vladi Putin has ridden to the rescue. Hell, everybody knows that he’s nothing but a communist at heart and if there is one thing guaranteed to get Republican support it’s a confrontation with the commies—Russian commies– the Chinese don’t really count these day; they are virtually capitalists and anyway one American carrier group has more fire-power than the entire Chinese navy. Although glad to see the boys—and girls but probably best not refer to them as girls in case they think it’s demeaning– back home, most Americans are not fooled by talk of victory in Afghanistan. They can see that they did not actually win in Iraq and those who have heard of Libya know things did not work out quite as planned there either. It was all a bit too complicated for the State Department to work out but a confrontation with Russia? Easy money. ah yes, money. The military/industrial complex is already licking their lips. Having previously decided that Russia was now no threat, the Pentagon eyed up China.Must have a threat. No threat, no promotion and maybe even job cuts. Not able to get enough money to fight a war on two fronts, they reluctantly decided to abandon Europe and redeploy to the Pacific Rim. Now the situation is changing—well it has already changed to be honest but the State Department needs some time to take it all onboard. From a certain perspective, this is a perfect situation. Obviously the redeployment from Europe will now go on hold. More sophisticated weapons will be needed to confront Putin and hurrah!—those weapons can be tested in Syria/Iraq. This will have the effect of keeping the Iranians quiet and America will once again be the undisputed leader of the free world. The US economy will pick-up as production increases—that will be one in the eye for China—the developed countries’ economies will in turn pick up and everybody will love America again. The American voters might even forgive the Democrats and elect Hillary in 2016.


There are just a couple of problems with all this—I’ll talk about those in the next article.


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