Extraordinary Saudi visit to Baghdad confirms new geopolitical realities

In my last article on the Middle East peace process, the potential success of the Astana talks was explored. The conflicting priorities between the main players – Russia, Turkey and Iran – were described, despite all the difficulties, as ultimately supportive of a new stable solution in the region. Saudi Arabia, it was clarified was silently supportive of the process, resigning itself to its withdrawal from the Syrian scene. This surprise visit by Jubeir to Baghdad, clearly heralds a new positive rather than disruptive approach to the Iraqi scene, and is a strong confirmation that the factors in favour of the Astana process are consolidating rather than dissipating. The visit will  help the Saudi-Iranian relationship (something the Russians are pushing hard), but will also encourage the Iraqi government to move on from the bunker mentality adopted by al-Maliki during his rule – a potentially very positive prospect.

This is an important development in the light of the difficulties expected after the battle for Mosul is over

The Road after Mosul

Mosul post- DAESH risks becoming the new vortex of instability in the Middle East with Iranian, U.S. and Kurdish forces vying for control of the area. It will be interesting to see how Gen. Mattis can hope shape a new strategy in his visit to Baghdad. Likely as not, the U.S. will seek to use the marginalisation of the Sunni sector to increase its profile.

So far the Iraqi government has deliberately avoided agreeing to a formula which will empower the Sunni Arabs in Mosul in the post-DAESH era and it intends to restore the regime which was in place before the DAESH takeover in 2014. Iran will use its influence with Iraqi groups, especially with the followers of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to restore Mosul’s pre-DAESH administrative regime. This will give Iran safe land access to Syria so as to complete its Shiite Crescent design for the Middle East. However, this plan will eventually clash with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) desire to maintain its control in the newly gained territories in Mosul’s predominantly Kurdish districts. This Iranian-inspired policy in Mosul is also contrary to the Sunni Arabs’ plan for self-rule in the province, especially with the plan of the Mutahidoun bloc of Osama al-Nujaifi.

The issue of the participation of the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU) was a serious complicating factor in the preparations for the battle for Mosul. While the U.S. and non-Shiite groups wanted to exclude the PMU from the Mosul operation, Iran and Iraqi Shiite groups within the government insisted on their participation. The PMUs maintain between 60,000 and 90,000 men under arms on a rotating basis. Indeed, the concept of al-Hashd al-Shaabi was launched not by the state but by a so-called al-wajib al-kifai fatwa issued in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite leader. The Popular Mobilization Committee was headed by Jamal Jaafar Mohammad, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, a former Badr commander. Mohandis is now the right-hand man of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, which is highly influential in shaping Iraq’s regional future.

The reaction to U.S. involvement in the Mosul operation by forces outside the Iraqi government has already made itself felt even under Obama. As soon as al-Abadi had agreed terms with Obama, al-Maliki launched the Islah (Reform) bloc to exert pressure not just on al-Abadi, but also on Kurds, and Sunni Arabs. In addition, Iranian backed militias made numerous threats against the U.S.. Qais Khazali, the leader of Asaeb Ahlul Haq, and Muqtada Sadr, the head of Sarayah Selam militias, stated that U.S. troops in Iraq are legitimate targets for attack. Militia commanders, including Hadi al- Ameri, who is the leader of the powerful Badr group, issued many statements openly defying the views shared by al-Abadi and the U.S. on the participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Mosul operation.

It is very likely that there will also be further confrontations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the control of the disputed territories in the northern and eastern parts of the province. On July 30, 2016, Barzani had staked his claim: “Liberating Mosul is impossible without the Peshmerga”. He added that although the Peshmerga will take part in the operation, they would not enter the city of Mosul. It was then that he proposed that 50,000 Peshmerga would participate in the battle. Ultimately though only 10,000 Peshmerga turned up . Almost immediately (by August 25), there were acrimonious exchanges between al-Abadi and Kurdish leaders. Karim Nouri, a top commander of the Badr forces, demanded the total withdrawal of Kurds after the battle, while Shaikh Jafar, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and top military commander, responded by categorically refusing to bow to this pressure.

It is expected that the Iraqi central government will emerge from the battle against DAESH victorious, thus gaining much military and political power on the ground in and around Mosul. If the past is any guide, the centralising character of this régime will determine events, with all the negative consequences that can be expected to ensue from this. The only factor that could possibly help this situation is the complex multi-level Turkish-Iranian relationship. This could bring a balance of interests between the Sunnis, Kurds and the Iraqi government. In fact, only in the context of a broad give-and-take between the two regional powers could the looming disputes over the control of Kirkuk’s oil resources be resolved without naked conflict.

However, the way the cards will fall will partly depend on whether the US (Gen Mattis) will seek to implement a palliative (strictly anti-ISIS/DAESH) or disruptive (anti-Russian) strategy. Judging from the navel-gazing going on in Washington, although the Pentagon will try to secure a ‘Sunnistan’ base for itself in the region, it will not be expansionist. Also, if the factors that are uniting regional players around the Astana process continue, despite its presence on the ground, the US will be marginalised.

Keith Ellison in the coming insurgency against Trump

Here’s the interesting thing about Islam,” Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman currently running for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, said. It was a sunny, gelid afternoon just after Christmas. “The Prophet Muhammad—peace and blessings be upon him—his father dies before he’s ever born. His mother dies before he’s six. He’s handed over to a foster mom who’s so poor, the stories say, her breasts are not full enough to feed him. So he grows up as this quintessential orphan, and only later, at the age of forty, does he start to get this revelation. And the revelation is to stand up against the constituted powers that are enslaving people—that are, you know, cheating people, trying to trick people into believing that they should give over their money to appease a god that’s just an inanimate object. And those authorities came down hard on him! And his first converts were people who were enslaved, children, women—a few of them were wealthy business folks, but the earliest companions of the Prophet Muhammad were people who needed justice. I found that story to be inspiring, and important to my own thinking and development.”

Read full article here

The nihilism of Egypt’s military, and the collapse of the country’s institutions

Recent leaks aired on Mekameleen TV help us to understand the utter political bankruptcy of the current Egyptian régime.

The first leak, broadcast on 31st January, involved a phone call between junta leader Sisi and Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry regarding Egypt’s participation in the Lausanne Syrian Conference last October. The second leak aired on  10th February, involved a phone call between Sameh Shoukry and Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho, regarding the border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and issues related to the handing over of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia.

These leaks demonstrate the total capitulation of a once powerful nation at the heart of the Arab world. Since the January 25th Revolution, the unparalleled repression that has beset Egypt has taken the country into a cultural and political abyss.

The institutionalisation of abdication

The first leak reveals the extent to which the current system of repression has undermined the very ability of Egypt’s institutions to perform. Irrespective of any personal diplomatic capacity or professional intentions on the part of Sameh Shoukry,  while speaking to Sisi on the phone, it became blatantly obvious that institutional competency as a whole is a victim of the general decline in standards.

Egypt’s invitation to attend the Lausanne conference on the part of Iran, was clearly a sensitive matter given that the US had sought to deny Egypt a place at the table on the basis of its irrelevance to the Syria issue. However, Shoukry was instructed by Sisi to announce that it had been John Kerry who had proffered the invitation, without any regard for the Iranian foreign minister’s position, clearly demonstrating a total capitulation on the matter to US interests.

These events help in understanding other absurd diplomatic incidents such as Egypt’s vote in favour of the Russian draft bill in the UN Security Council regarding Syria last October, allowing for the continuation of the bombing of Aleppo, and its withdrawal under pressure of the UN draft bill condemning Israeli settlements, at the end of last year.

In the second leak, Sameh Shoukry is heard agreeing with Netanyahu’s lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho, on the border demarcation agreement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, supposedly an issue par excellence regarding Egyptian sovereignty.

There is no longer a reason of state behind Egypt’s diplomacy. But the problem goes much deeper, and the risk to Egyptian society is an institutionalisation of despair.

The military degradation of the Egyptian mind

The insidious qualities of the Egyptian military and its capacity for boring through all moral and institutional social structures in the country with its nihilism, is the subject of an Al-Jazeera documentary:

 

 

Our present monetary condition: continuing repression

Keynes’ principal insight into the functioning of the economy was about the problem of effective demand. The problem of the “classical” view of the economy that supply would always create its own demand (“Say’s Law of markets” pace J. S. Mill) is that cybernetic problems can create market failures.

As Axel Leijonhufvud is wont to tell us, there are basically two such situations that arise in the General Theory. First, a fresh act of saving is not an effective demand for future goods. Second, the wishes of the unemployed for consumer goods do not constitute an effective demand. But he also tells us that there is a third effective demand failure that can be very important. This is when the financial system is in a state where for most entrepreneurs it is not possible to exert an effective demand for today’s factors of production by offering future goods. That is, it is not possible to make a deal by saying: ‘I have this investment project that will pay off in the future and I want to trade that prospect for the factors of production today necessary to produce those future goods’. And that’s where we end up if the financial system is totally clogged up with bad loans.

There are basically three reasons: (1) Deregulation, especially the repeal of Glass-Steagall (2) the incorporation of investment banks and limiting the liability of the directors (3) Central Bank CPI targeting whilst the banking system went around the back of authorities to leverage on long-term assets, which were securitised to give them a false quality of liquidity, whose prices were not under the control of the authorities. Since the failure of these investments, there has been little change in monetary policy, except to institute unprecedented financial repression, crushing small savers and allowing banks a dream positive-carry free ride, whose serious distributional consequences Leijonhufvud points out, but which also feeds into funding the increasing government debt used to finance what ends up being a carousel.

 

 

Netanyahu comes to Trump meeting under pressure to kill Palestinian state

Allison Deger writes

In two days time, there will likely be some clarity over President Donald Trump’s ever-evolving stance on Israeli settlements, and whether or not he will pursue moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. 

After exchanges of mutual admiration, over social media, in relation to Israel’s wall as a harbinger of the U.S. policy with Mexico, Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are due to meet in person tomorrow for the first time since inauguration. They are expected to discuss the future of U.S.-Israel relations, and key points that could dash Palestinian aspirations for statehood. Read full article here

 

Ignore the tough talk – Trump’s Iran policy will be much like Obama’s

 

Gareth Porter writes

The first public pronouncements by President Donald Trump’s administration on Iran have created the widespread impression that the US will adopt a much more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic than under Barack Obama’s presidency.

But despite the rather crude warnings to Tehran by now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and by Trump himself, the Iran policy that has begun to take shape in the administration’s first weeks looks quite similar to Obama’s.

The reason is that the Obama administration’s policy on Iran reflected the views of a national security team that adhered to an equally hardline stance as those of the Trump administration.

Flynn declared on 1 February that the Obama administration had “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and suggested that things would be different under Trump. But that rhetoric was misleading, both with regard to the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran and on the options available to Trump going beyond that policy.  Read full article here

The last neocon out, and one Islamophobe less in Trump’s cabinet

After John Bolton’s disappearance, Elliott Abrams is now done for. Goodbye to the last two neocons in play in regard to potential appointments.

Now the drama starts with the actual cabinet appointees as Michael Flynn, NSC chief, resigns. Goodbye to bad rubbish. Keith Kellogg takes over the NSC as ‘acting head’: at least he doesn’t foam at the mouth.

Trump might have stuck with Flynn as the revelations over his contacts with the Russian Embassy came out, if it hadn’t been for Trump’s loss of face over the ‘Muslim ban’.

Who comes out of all of this a hero – or heroine? Sally Yates: who warned the White House about the illegality of the Muslim ban and about Michael Flynn. Where is she? Fired of course.