26 April 2015

Case 1 for Oh Dearism: ISIS and Izzat al- Douri

If Adam Curtis' expose was too abstract, let me give you two concrete examples involving this humble soapbox.

ISIS and Izzat al-Douri

On June 10 2014, ISIS forces invaded Mosul a city of 2 million inhabitants in one day. It was so easy that the following day they were moving on the Tikrit, which they also took in one day.

The news was  reported breathlessly in corporate media outlets. There were just 800 ISIS fighters and they were so terrifying that when they confronted the Iraqi army, some 30,000 troops simply ran away. The narrative was closer to the tone of Game of Thrones: black-clad hashishin were unstoppable barbarians.

I am no Anthony Cordesman or any kind of military expert but at the time I remember scratching my head and asking the obvious question: How can 800 idiots from the suburbs or Paris, Istanbul, London or Cairo can invade a city of 2 million?

If you click the links I provided to established news outlets, including the BBC, you will see that they all credited ISIS for this extraordinary exploit.

So I began looking around the Web. Within days I knew that the victory belonged to Saddam's elite army units commanded by Saddam's number two, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the infamous King of Clubs.

ISIS boys were there in their black uniforms to appear in their slick video clips and to tweet scary messages. But the heavy lifting was done by the Naqshibandi Army.

In early July, I posted my findings along with al-Douri's picture. It is one of my most widely-read posts.

In the following months, I kept asking how ISIS militants could wage war on several fronts, execute complicated tank maneuvers in complete darkness and use all kinds of weaponry with exceptional skill.

No mainstream media outlet seemed interested in those questions. The narrative of "the monstrous and terrifying other" remained firmly in place.

Fast forward to last week.

Apparently Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri was killed in action at the ripe old age of 72. When the BBC reported the news this is what they said:
Douri's Naqshbandi Order is the main Baathist insurgent group. Despite its secular roots, it is believed to have played a key role in a major offensive by Islamic State last year. 
IS seized swathes of territory in eastern Syria and across northern and western Iraq, in an effort to establish an Islamic "caliphate".
No kidding, was my reaction.

I understood what that short paragraph meant because I knew the background. But if you were someone who was fed the scary and confusing media narrative about ISIS, how could you make sense of this? What exactly is "a key role in a major offensive."

What role and what offensive? Can you be more obtuse?

Moreover, why didn't the BBC try to explain this clearly contradictory statement? Why would a secular Baathist help a terrorist Jihadi organization win major military victories? It makes absolutely no sense.

As far as I know, no mainstream media outlet ever tried to answer that question.

This is what Adam Curtis was referring to.

The news media simply report often contradictory items without ever attempting to link them causally or to provide a causal framework.

And we feel fear and upset but have no understanding.

This is what Michael Moore was talking about in Bowling for Columbine.


Just a day after I posted this here is what got published.
Alongside or within IS’ aim to devise a "pure" Islamic society is a Baathist plan to run a meticulously calculating state able to monopolize power, control territory and eradicate potential threats through brutality and terror. Baathist influences are evident in the nature of IS terror operations — extensive security and spy networks, hierarchical bureaucracies, battlefield tactics and elaborate financial and logistical networks — similar to those used by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his Baathist circles for 35 years in Iraq.
While the presence and strength of former Baathist officers in IS appears contradictory it reflects the influence of the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi (JRTN), a group of Saddam’s former officers and Sunni Arab tribes that formed in reaction to the post-2003 Iraqi order.
Baathist influence continued in ISIS and IS, even if the group's character changed over time. By late 2014, 18 of 19 members of the IS cabinet were Sunni Arab Iraqis with one Iraqi Turcoman, and included former Baathist military officers, former Baathist security officers or Sunni Arab tribes from western Iraq. High-level IS commanders also represent former high-ranking Baathist officers in Iraq as well as Syria. Confiscated documents of former Iraqi Baathist officer "Haji Bakr," an IS leader recently killed in Aleppo, indicate his detailed plans to create a caliphate based on meticulously calculated spy and security networks (although no Quran could be found in the house).
Please tell me that ISIS is a genuine Salafist organization and has nothing to do with intelligence agencies and simply aims to re-create the conditions of Rashidun Caliphs.


21 April 2015

How Not to Inform: Oh Dear!

Adam Curtis is a British documentary maker.

At the end of 2014, he produced an 11 minute segment for the British humorist and commentator Charlie Brooker's program Newswipe.

Here is that clip. Go ahead and watch it. I will wait for you.

If you do not have 11 minutes (or if you are like me and prefer words to images) here is what Adam Curtis says.
So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all, confusing. To which the only response is to say, "oh dear."

What this film is going to suggest is that that defeatist response has become a central part of a new system of political control.
He introduces Putin's adviser Stanislav Surkov, a post-modern artist, whose goal is to confuse people's perception of reality to ensure that they do not understand what is happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.

But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: "It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused."
Curtis then questions whether something similar is taking place in British news media. There are so many issues without a clear outcome or even a causal framework.
British troops have come home from Afghanistan, but nobody seems to know whether it was a victory or whether it was a defeat. 
Aging disk jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that have been revealed there. 
In Syria, we are told that President Assad is the evil enemy, but then his enemies turn out to be even more evil than him, so we bomb them, and by doing that, we help keep Assad in power. 
[George Osborne] tells us proudly that the economy is growing, but at the same time, wages are going down. 
He says he is reducing the deficit, but then it is revealed that the deficit is going up.
He then turns to Quantitative Easing and how it was used to siphon off billions from low income people to be transferred to the 1 percenters.
The government is insisting on taking billions of Pounds out of the economy through its austerity program, yet at the very same time it is pumping billion of Pounds into the economy through Quantitative Easing, the equivalent of 24,000 Pounds for every family in Britain.
But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of Pounds are not going where they are supposed to. A vast majority of that money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five percent in Britain. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history.

It could be a huge scandal, comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite, siphoning off billions in public money. But nobody seems to know.
In short, news is designed to make it impossible for us to understand anything.
It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can't counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.

And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.

19 April 2015

Why Is No One Using the Kurds to Defeat ISIS?

(This is the second part of this post)

A commentator recently asked the same question: "the Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn't the United States sending them the weapons they need?"

He elaborated further:
Over the past few weeks, it’s the Kurds who have been responsible for the world’s only victories on the ground against IS. In January, Kurdish forces in Syria, after weeks of brutal house-to-house combat, finally pushed Islamic State out of the key border town of Kobani. And within just the past few days, Peshmerga fighters who answer to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq appear to have regained the upper hand against IS forces who staged a surprise offensive against the key city of Kirkuk.
As my long time readers know, my answer has been the same since before ISIS showed up on the scene and the initial Islamist groups like the Nusra Front began implementing an early version of the now familiar "broadcasting operatic violence" strategy: Support the Kurds.

It is a no-brainer: using mostly light arms, they defeated ISIS in Kobani. They took back large areas from ISIS and stopped its encroachment. And most observers agree that, with proper equipment, they could liberate Mosul.

Moreover, arming the Kurds has no downside.

They are overwhelmingly secular and they are not about to pass on the arms they receive to Islamist groups (the Kurdish Salafis are a tiny group and they hate ISIS).

And you have a bonus: If they, as a secular force with a large contingent of female fighters, won one or more battles against ISIS, they could expose the new Caliph as a phony.

You see, if the emergence of a new and righteous Caliph was Allah's will, as claimed by ISIS and the editors of Atlantic magazine, Allah would never allow His Caliph to be defeated by a secular army and its female fighters. If it were to happen that could only mean that Baghdadi was not the Chosen One.

Nothing would break the path to redemption for ISIS fighters faster than the knowledge that the Caliph is a phony. And nothing would stop the rush to join ISIS faster than this realization.

Then why is nobody arming the Kurds?

Remember the Sherlock Holmes quote "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

In this instance, the improbable truth is that nobody wants the Kurds to defeat ISIS.

And when you take a closer look you notice that this truth is not as improbable as it appears from a distance.

Sunni - Shia Animosity

As we all gathered by now, the primary source of conflict in the Middle East is the Sunni-Shia chasm.

On the Shia side you have Iran, Iraq's ruling Shia minority, Syria's ruling Alewite minority, Hezbollah of Lebanon, Houthis of Yemen and the sizable Shia minorities in Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia.

On the Sunni side you have everybody else, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Gulf Council Countries, Saudi Arabia, and Sunni encaves in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Besides Iraq, Syria and Yemen, which are open war zones, you see simmering civil unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf countries.

In my contrarian opinion, this deep and passionate Sunni-Shia hatred is overdetermined (in the Althusserian sense of the term) by a massive economic incentive to modify the Middle East map and to create a new Sunni entity that I call Pipelineistan, a term I borrowed from Pepe Escobar (who uses it to refer to Eurasia).

As I argued in 2013, the Syrian civil war, the Iraqi unrest and the rise of radical Islamist fighters could all be traced to Syrian President Assad's refusal to let a huge pipeline go through his territory. I suspect that his decision was strongly encouraged by Russia.

It is a simple equation, really: Qatar is at one end of South Pars natural gas fields and Iran is at the other end. Qatar is already siphoning off 25 times more gas than Iran. The proposed pipeline would have allowed Qatar to increase its production and its energy exports exponentially and would have given Europe a solid alternative to Russian natural gas.

It would also turn Turkey into an energy hub.

When Assad said no, within days, the then Turkish Prime Minister R.T. Erdogan, who was his BFF previously, became his most implacable enemy. And the Syrian civil war was launched. As you know, Turkey has provided all kinds of logistic and material support and allowed its border to be freely used by Islamist rebels, including and especially ISIS.

Reinforcing my hypothesis is Qatar's massive funding of al Nusra Front and ISIS. Despite its non-denial denials, we know that Qatar has been  the financial powerhouse behind these radical fighting machines. When you think about it, it makes no sense for a tiny country like Qatar to spend billions of dollars to finance a bloody civil war far away from its borders unless it has something to gain from it.

Other Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Gulf Emirates has had no issues with Qatar creating a Sunni monster since the Shia Muslims, i.e Iran and Shia minorities in the region, would be on the losing end of this effort.

More specifically, reducing Iran's ability to benefit from the South Pars field would weaken it financially. In Iraq, the Shia minority that reclaimed central power after Saddam's departure would be pushed back. In Syria, Bashar al Assad, who is Alewite, (an offshoot of Shia Islam) would be toppled.

That is what I mean by Sunni-Shia chasm being overdetermined by Pipelineistan.

And this is also why nobody wants ISIS defeated. Not only has ISIS created a vast Sunni country covering both Iraq and Syria but it positioned itself as a ferocious bulwark that keeps Shia expansionism in check and as the Sword of Sunni Islam against Shia forces.

Unfortunately, Kurds complicate this picture quite a bit.

First, their country is in the way of Pipelineistan.

Look at the map.

While it is certain that the Turkish and Iranian sides of the map are wildly overdrawn, the Syrian pocket is likely to be too modest. But even with that caveat you can see that the proposed Kurdish state is solidly positioned between Turkey and Pipelineistan.

And therein lies the problem.

This was why ISIS was so desperate to take a non-strategic town like Kobani.

And this was why Turkey did not lift a finger to save Kobani.

Secondly, Kurdistan straddles four countries which are at the core of the Sunni-Shia divide: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The first two are regional super powers for the Sunni and Shia camps and the other two are the actual theaters where a Sunni-Shia war of proxy is taking place.

The presence of Kurds and their victories and defeats have significant repercussions for the warring parties.

Of these four countries, Iraq and Syria are helpless to stop the Kurds. Iran has other worries at this point in time (not to mention serious financial difficulties).

The fourth one, that is, Turkey is on a position to affect the outcome of the Kurdish struggle and it is implementing a fairly cynical strategy in that respect.

What does Turkey Want?

Contrary to what most pundits claim, Turkey is not fundamentally opposed to Kurdish independence. They certainly were at some point but the current government is fully aware that it is too late to suppress that possibility.

When they initiated the Kurdish peace process some three years ago, what they wanted was to be able to control the process that leads to independence and to push for the creation of a weak and dependent entity.

And where do I get that idea? Well, from the blueprint that is already in place.

As you might be aware, Turkey actively assisted the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Northern Iraq to achieve a large degree of autonomy from Baghdad. Turkish companies have been investing there heavily and 70 percent of KRG's international trade is with Turkey. They enable KRG to sell its oil and natural gas through a Turkish pipeline and help them ignore the loud protests coming from Iraq's central government.

Thus, through its dealings with KRG, Turkey created what some analysts call an undeclared economic commonwealth or others deem, perhaps more accurately, a client state. And this is what they want for the Greater Kurdistan.

The problem is that the Kurds in the other three countries that make up Kurdistan (Turkey, Syria and Iran) are all controlled by the same group, the PKK (the Syrian chapter is PYD and the Iranian chapter is PJAK). And after a long civil war that took tens of thousands of human lives, the PKK is likely to push for something more than a client state.

In that sense, the current stalemate mirrors the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Just like Netanyahu, Erdogan wants a battered, weakened and helpless interlocutor. And just like him, he would like to be able to pick and choose who will lead the other side: You know, "I won't deal with terrorists" dictum to avoid talking to Hamas and PKK.

Interestingly, the Netanyahu analogy also holds for Erdogan's electoral calculus.

On June 15, general elections will take place in Turkey. For the first time in recent history, the opposition votes outstrip AKP supporters and there is a good chance that the party may not be able to form a government without a coalition partner. Even worse, Erdogan, who got himself elected President last year, needs a super majority of 400 MPs to amend the Constitution and to establish a Presidential system. Otherwise, he will be relegated to figurehead status.

If the pro-Kurdish HDP jumps over the 10 percent electoral threshold, such a super majority is an arithmetic impossibility. If, on top of that, the ultra-nationalist MHP wins close to 18 percent of the vote, which is a distinct possibility, the new government will very likely be a coalition government. It might even be formed by the opposition parties. And that would be Erdogan's nightmare scenario.

So Erdogan took a page from Netanyahu's playbook and made a major shift to the right to woo MHP supporters. A couple of weeks ago, he declared that "there was no Kurdish problem" in Turkey and criticized the government for its Kurdish peace policy.

This was so unexpected that it earned him an unprecedented rebuke from the Deputy Prime Minister and one of the co-founders of AKP, Bulent Arinc, who told him publicly to know his place and mind his business. Within days, the jailed leader of PKK, Ocalan made a cessation of hostilities announcement to bolster the government's position.

But Erdogan's signal was already intercepted by the Turkish military.
The military, after a long period of silence, and interestingly only two days after Ocalan’s statement and the criticism of Arinc about Erdogan’s meddling in the government’s commitments to the Kurdish side, strongly rejected any speculation of its cooperation with the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Alluding to Ocalan, the military said the armed forces will never see him as a counterpart in the quest for the resolution of the problem and underlined the determination of the military for confronting and fighting the “terrorist organization” — in Turkish official parlance, the PKK.

And on March 24, again after a long interval, a military communique announced that the armed forces had begun an operation against PKK elements in the Mazidag countryside, in Turkey’s southeast, presumably in a stronghold of the Kurdish movement.
Just like Netanyahu using settlers and ultra-orthodox parties to keep himself in power and to give himself cover to sabotage the peace process, Erdogan's new approach seems be to ally himself to the ultra-nationalistic MHP and make it impossible for him to pursue a peace policy towards Turkey's Kurdish minority.

In that context, ISIS is invaluable as it keeps Kurds on the defensive and and preoccupied in Syria and Iraq.

As one of Erdogan's MPs put it, ISIS is preferable to PKK.

You cannot be clearer.

05 April 2015

Discrimination and Backlash: Two Different Cases

When I wrote recently that "women are the only minority on the planet that are universally discriminated against without any serious repercussions" I got some flack from people who perceive any pro-feminist statement as a misguided Political Correctness discourse.

I was not going to bother responding but then I stumbled upon a perfect illustration.

Discriminating Against Women

In February, the new Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstroem told her Parliament that Saudi Arabia " was a "dictatorship" that violated women's rights and whipped bloggers."

Wallstroem had previously been invited to address the Arab League after her government recognized Palestine last October. When she made those remarks, Saudi Arabia promptly moved to block her speech.

It also stopped issuing visas to Swedish citizens and recalled its ambassador.

The Kingdom also accused Wallstroem of "flagrant interference" into Saudi Arabia's internal affairs. And of course, the top Wahhabi ulema claimed she was disrespecting Islam.

A backlash ensued. Can you guess against whom?
There is speculation that Sweden may lose its ability to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2017, because of the Wallstrom Affair.  Swedish businessmen sent a letter stating that breaking the arms trade agreement with Saudi Arabia would thwart Sweden’s reputation as a trade and strategic partner.  Even Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf asked Wallstrom to compromise.  In the face of such severe criticism, Wallstron, a left-wing politician who took office promising that she would implement a feminist foreign policy, may have to capitulate and compromise.  
As the Guardian put it: "Sweden’s whole industrial establishment was ranged against Ms Wallström."

To put the claimed economic damage in context, Sweden's total exports to the Kingdom were $1.3 billion last year.

That represents just 1 percent of their exports.

The clincher is this:
Strangely, the western media has paid very little attention to this affair, and most western states have failed to indicate their support of Wallstrom.
Je suis Margot, indeed.

Discriminating Against Gays

Recently, the Republican Governor of Indiana Mike Pence passed a religious freedom act. He claimed that this was a legislation that mirrored a federal bill that was signed into law by Bill Clinton, the Federal Religion Restoration Act or FRF.

The Indiana law allows individuals, companies, churches and all kinds of legal persons to refuse a service to anyone if their religious beliefs directs them not to provide that service. (The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act or RFR was designed to protect individuals from government interference in their religious practices).

Gay and Lesbian organizations quickly saw the potential for companies and churches and other parties refusing to serve gay couples. They asked the Governor Mike Pence to either add language to the bill to eliminate that possibility or pass an anti-discrimination legislation for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

He refused to do either.

A backlash ensued. Can you guess against whom?

Within days, businesses like Apple or Angie's List took a firm stand against the law. NCAA, which holds College basketball finals in Indiana issued a thinly veiled threat, as did the NFL. Other states like Connecticut banned state-paid trips to Indiana.

Within a week Mike Pence, despite many prominent conservatives coming to his defense, caved in and added new language to the bill.

I admire gay, lesbian and transgender association for what they did and how they stood up to discrimination. More power to them.

What is interesting and very instructive for me is the fact that when it is about women, the backlash is against the person who points out the discrimination.

But when it is against any other minority, the backlash is against the perpetrator of the discrimination.

Talk about Political Correctness.