Monthly Archives: September 2017

The US is “disappointed” (but clearly not surprised) that Barzani went for the referendum

The state Department is by far the largest most complex part of American bureaucracy. But even so, the size of the new US “consulate” in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is astonishing. It will cost $600 million, and  be built on 200,000 square meters on the Irbil-Shaqlawa Road. This structure will be second in size only to the actual US Embassy in Baghdad which cost $750 million, and was built on 420,000 square-meters, an area the size of the Vatican.

There are currently 30 consulates, six honorary consulates, and six foreign trade offices in Irbil. The latest to open in Kurdistan was the Japanese consulate on Jan. 11. None anywhere near the size of the US project. Iran’s view was expressed by IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Hossein Rajabi when he said that ” the opening more than 30 consulates is not normal”. The upgrading of the size of the US presence in Irbil, followed by the confidence with which KRG President Masoud Barzani went ahead with the referendum, has in diplomatic speak “absolutely nothing to do with US plans to control the dominance of Iran in Iraq” (the unintended consequence of the 2003 war).

Turkey is an ally of the KRG but has taken a harsh stance on the referendum together with Iran and the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, Masoud’s nephew, and KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, is dismissive of the idea that Turkey’s stance is anymore than a negotiating position on their relationship. This view appears to be be in line with the typical pragmatism of Erdogan’s government, reflected in the equally relaxed attitude of his Economy Minister, Nihat Zeybekci.  However, as the KRG begin intense negotiations to regain Turkey’s confidence, they may be underestimating both their clout, and the events of the referendum on the geopolitical situation.

Keeping the Harbur border crossing open isn’t what it seems. Firstly, Turkey’s main practical problem currently is how to trade directly with Baghdad, both given the change of control at the Iraq border, and given that trade with the Iraqi government is worth three times more than Turkish trade with the KRG.  Secondly, unintended consequences being a big political feature of our new 21st century, it looks inevitable that Turkey will continue to keep its military on full alert and present in large numbers on the Iraqi/KRG border.

Barzani’s gamble to save his own political future will have lit 100 fires, and as yet the KRG is still just a large tribal organisation run by a traditional blood clan. At the moment it looks like Turkey together with Iran will work to freeze Barzani’s ambitions. Russia’s position will be to trade its backing for the Turkish-Iranian position in exchange for Turkish backing for the status quo in Syria. This has now been clearly signalled since Putin’s visit to Ankara.

 

 

Mahdi Akef: lived in the open, buried in secret

Drawing source: Arabi 21 ‘A Prisoner across all Ages’

Under the leadership of Muhammad Mahdi Akef, in 2004, the Muslim Brotherhood published the first truly comprehensive reform programme for Egypt and, in 2005, Akef led the Muslim Brotherhood to its largest electoral victory prior to the 2011 Revolution.

Following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in the July 2013 coup, he was arrested at the advanced age of 85 years and held, like many of Egypt’s 40,000 political prisoners, under absolutely brutal conditions. According to his family, he was diagnosed with cancer last year, and despite declining health, was nevertheless held incommunicado in Junta prisons. Despite the fact that he was acquitted of all (the trumped up) charges against him in January 2016, yet continued to be detained, for another 20 months, away from his family, as his health declined visibly, until his death.

Akef was widely celebrated for refusing to be nominated for a second term as the Brotherhood’s guide, vacating the post in 2010 after the election of Muhammad Badie. He remained one of the few leadership figures who appealed to a wide cross-section of Muslims. His repeated court appearances over the past four years, white-haired, and wrapped in a white blanket posed a strange contrast with the heavy security around him. Needless to say, his family were denied a public funeral by Sisi, who also forbade the “absentee prayer” from being said in mosques in his honour. As Palestinian scholar, Kamal Khateeb, tells us: when Akef fought alongside Palestinians for their rights in 1948, his jailer was still only a ‘black spot on his father’s back’.

Over the course of these four years not a single Western government issued a statement opposing his incarceration or appealing for his release. These governments continue to support the tyranny of Sisi despite its ferocious stench, for profit. The murder even of their own citizens means little to them beside the draw of the filthy lucre. Yet their politicians and intellectuals continue to bore the world with their insistence on ‘Western values’…

Pushed into reacting to Astana by the US and its allies, Taḥrīr al-Shām now marginalises itself

Hard on the latest agreements at Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the de-escalation zone Hayʼat Taḥrīr al-Shām (or “Levant Liberation Committee”, ex-Jabhat al-Nusra, ex-Jabhat Fatḥ al-Šām) rejected the deal and  launched an unannounced attack on Assad régime positions yesterday in the Hama environs. Other factions joining the attack included the “Islamic Party of Turkistan” and Jeish al-Ezza or “Army of pride,” Jeish el-Nasr or “Victory Army”, Jeish Idlib al-Hor or “Idlib Free Army” and Al-Firqah al-Wastah or “The centre organisation.”

Taḥrīr al-Shām spokesman Abu Anas al-Shami said that the move was intended to signal to the parties in Astana that they had no weight on the ground, and specifically that they reject Turkey’s plan for the Idlib zone. What seemed to be the overriding consideration driving the attack is a desire by Taḥrīr al-Shām to re-unite all the different remaining jihadi factions behind it, and to give itself credibility by showing-off its military strength.

But frustrated opposition activist Maaz Hamwi in Idlib countered with the observation that “these battles have now proved a total military failure, as the Syrian army and the Russians now return in force with widespread bombing, with the probable aggravation of the further displacement of innocent civilians as a consequence”.

His words were echoed by Russian army spokesmen claiming major hits against Taḥrīr al-Shām’s positions with 850 fighters killed and the destruction of considerable amounts of equipment. Moving against the agreements between Syrian opposition leaders and Turkey, Taḥrīr al-Shām is doomed, despite its backing from the US and its allies (Israel, Saudi and the UAE) intent on undoing the efforts expended at Astana to bring peace.

The announcement of the Turkish peace keeping force which arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Thursday night, received an overwhelming vote of confidence from local Syrian residents and their leadership, who are relieved that the overlordship of Taḥrīr al-Shām over Idlib and its environs has now effectively ended.

While the Turkish force is emphasising its peace-keeping role, it plans with Russia to counter aggression from jihadi groups as it occurs. The overwhelming power that the Turkish and Russia militaries present together in that particular area is unlikely to be challenged. The attack on Assad régime forces was only possible due to their perceived weakness, as well as their unpopularity with the residents of North-Western Syria. It is significant that a number of the jihadi fighting groups have now offered to join the Turkish effort, thus undoing in short measure the efforts of CIA-proxy Taḥrīr al-Shām to give itself credibility.

It would appear the previous plan to announce ‘Operation Euphrates Sword’ against YPG Kurdish forces in Afrin by the Turkish military has been cancelled and replaced with a plan to encircle Afrin from the South with Turkish forces and the East with SDF forces, instead. The new plan would appear to achieve Turkish objectives for the time being without further complicating relations with the US.

Astana talks bringing fruit; the US sowing discord (so what’s new?)

4 de-escalation zones have been agreed between Turkey, Iran and Russia, with each country putting troops on the ground to monitor cease-fires in these zones. The most significant agreement, and the one that took longest to negotiate (between Turkey and the opposition)  was over the Idlib zone because of the reluctance of the Syrian opposition to agree to any kind of Iranian presence. But the deal is done and so far scepticism over the durability of Turkish-Iranian  cooperation has been gainsayed as I predicted it would be last February.

The US is, however, attempting to stage a comeback by backing new Kurdish statelets in Syria and Iraq, while the state department makes deceptive statements that merely speak to the department’s policies. It is disingenuous to believe that with all the covert forces in the West opposed to Iran, and such as are opposed to the growing independence of Turkish foreign policy, are not grasping at the opportunity to create new fronts against both states on the basis of the opportunities the various Kurdish factions provide. Israel’s declarations about the KRG referendum indicate that such forces within the US military-industrial complex (and the Gulf area under US influence) are active in this respect.

If successful, those elements will guarantee a new round of severe fighting in the  Middle-East, but that is all it will guarantee, since it is unlikely that such statelets will be economically viable in and of themselves, irrespective of the funding they receive, without support of their neighbours. If they are perceived as Israeli, Saudi, or Emirati proxies, then that will definitely be lacking.

From the Pit of Hell, Assad’s Cerberus snarls at the dispossessed and displaced

Merve Şebnem Oruç reminds us what Assad’s regime is like: Twenty-four-year-old Ahmet, who lives near the Syrian border in the Reyhanlı district of Turkey’s southern city of Hatay, tells the story of one of his close friends, Abdullah. Ahmet says that when Abdullah and he were students in Damascus, Syrian intelligence took Abdullah away in a raid on a mosque when the first mass protests kicked off. That day, intelligence officers gathered people, who were present in the mosque courtyard, by mercilessly bludgeoning their faces.The only thing wrong that Abdullah did that day was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His family and friends did not hear from him or receive any news about his situation for more than two weeks.

Seventeen days after this unfortunate incident, an appalling phone call came from Abdullah, saying, “I’m completely naked; I’m coming by taxi; can you get me some money to pay for the fare and to buy me some clothes?”

When Abdullah finally arrived at the door of the house where he and Ahmet were staying, his desperate appearance, his dramatic weight loss, broken arms and swollen eyes, showed that he was subject to unspeakable torture. Abdullah later told Ahmed that he was held in a 10 square-meter cell with some 26 others. When I first heard this story, I couldn’t believe it. I had to ask Ahmet “How this could be possible?” A total of 17 days, full of torture, in a very small cell where 27 people had to literally sit on top each other… It is really hard to imagine.

Almost one year later, Abdullah was arrested once again and his mother immediately started going from door to door to find her son. Finally, a regime correspondent told her, “I’ll bring you your son but you have to pay me $50,000 first.” The family sold their entire savings and gave the money. When Abdullah’s mother excitedly arrived at the prison to see her son, the guards threatened her and told her, “You can only see him, you can’t talk to him. If you say even a word, we’ll kill him.” In her meeting with Abdullah, the only thing they shared was tears. Read full article here

Aung San Suu Kyi is a liar

 

Aung San Suu Kyi claims that the ethnic cleaning in Rakhine against the Rohingya is a media exaggeration – in her words, “fake news”. BBC’s South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head, on the other hand, says he saw a Muslim village that had just been set on fire, apparently by a group of Rakhine Buddhists.

Head says: ‘I am part of a group of journalists invited by the Myanmar government to see the situation on the ground in Maungdaw. The conditions for us joining this trip are that we stay in the group and do not go off independently, and we are taken to places the government chooses for us. Requests to go to other areas of interest, even nearby, were rejected as being unsafe.

We were returning from a visit to the town of Al Le Than Kyaw, south of Maungdaw, which is still smoking, suggesting houses have been recently set alight. The police said it was the Muslim inhabitants who burned their own homes, although most fled after militants from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked the police post in the town on 25 August. While there we saw at least three columns of smoke in the distance to the north, and heard sporadic automatic weapons fire.

On our way back we saw a large column of smoke rising from a cluster of trees in the rice fields – usually a sign of a village. We got out and raced across the fields to reach it. We could see the first buildings in the village ablaze, but only just. Houses in these villages burn to ash in 20-30 minutes. It was obvious the fires had just been lit.

As we walked in, a group of young, muscular men carrying machetes, swords and sling-shots were walking out. We tried to ask them questions but they refused to be filmed. However, my Myanmar colleagues did speak to them away from the cameras and they said they were Rakhine Buddhists. One of them admitted he had lit the fires, and said he had help from the police.

As we walked further in, we saw the Madrasa (Islamic religious school) with its roof only just on fire. Flames licked up the sides of another house opposite; within three minutes it was an inferno. There was was no-one else in the village. These men we saw were the perpetrators. Household goods were strewn across the path; children’s toys, women’s clothing. We saw one empty jug reeking of petrol and another with a little fuel left in it in the middle of the path.

By the time we walked out, all the burned houses were smouldering, blackened ruins.

UN probe blames Assad for sarin attack on Khan Sheikhun

UN investigators maintain that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons more than two dozen times during the country’s civil war, and that they have solid evidence that a Russian-built plane used by Assad’s air force conducted the sarin-gas attack in this last Spring that killed at least 83 civilians and sparked a retaliatory U.S. strike.

The 6th September report says: ‘The extensive body of information gathered by the Commission indicates that a Syrian Su-22 conducted four airstrikes in Khan Shaykhun at approximately 6.45 a.m. on 4 April. Photographs of remnants taken at the sites along with satellite imagery corroborate eyewitness testimony identifying the impact points of the four aerial bombs. Eyewitnesses and early warning reports identified the aircraft as a Su-22, which only the Syrian air force operates….

‘… The Commission identified three of the bombs as likely OFAB-100-120 and one as a chemical bomb. Interviewees consistently stated that this latter bomb produced less noise and less smoke than the other three, and that it released a gas which spread over a distance between 300 and 600 meters. Photographs of remnants provided to the Commission by interviewees further indicate an aerial chemical bomb was employed. Further, weather conditions at 6.45 a.m. on 4 April were ideal for delivering a chemical weapon. The wind speed was just over three kilometres per hour, with no rain and practically no cloud cover. Under such conditions, the agent cloud would have drifted slowly downhill following the terrain features at the location (roads and open spaces), in a southerly and westerly direction.’

In their 14th report since 2011, U.N. investigators said they had in all documented 33 chemical weapons attacks to date. Twenty seven were by forces of the regime, including seven between March 1 to July 7. Perpetrators in six other and earlier attacks have not yet been pinpointed. The U.N. investigators interviewed 43 witnesses, victims, and first responders linked to the attack. Satellite imagery, photos of bomb remnants and early warning reports were used.

At the time of the Khan Sheikhun attack I reported that Assad was undoubtedly responsible, and that media reports led by Seymour Hersh and promulgated by such as Robert Parry and David Morrison were completely mistaken. These reports fed off false information spun by a campaign by Western intelligence services, helped by the strong voice of the Kurdish diaspora within alternative media, to discredit Turkey, which also took place during the Ghouta attacks.

The journalists of the alternative media themselves are motivated by antagonism to US imperial adventures, and this is possibly a factor clouding their judgement in this particular case.

Savage Egypt: a tightly wound coil waiting to “spring”

Since July 2013, when Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s first freely elected president, torture has returned as the calling card of the security services, and the lack of punishment for its routine practice has helped define the authoritarianism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration.

Al-Sisi’s pursuit of political stability at any cost has granted the country’s chief domestic security institution, the Interior Ministry, a free hand, perpetuating the same abuses that fueled the 2011 uprising.

The Interior Ministry’s regular police and its National Security Agency have used widespread arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture against perceived dissidents, many of them alleged members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Sisi’s primary political opposition. The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an independent human rights group, has identified 30 people who died from torture while being held in police stations and other Interior Ministry detention sites between August 2013 and December 2015. In 2016, the ECRF reported that its lawyers received 830 torture complaints, and that another 14 people had died from torture in custody.

HRW REPORT

The US and European nations now face a quandary, either to continue backing Sisi’s murderous rule and become more and more associated with it as time goes on (as if they aren’t already), or insist that the country reforms, in which case a suppressed rage in the country will duly spring up to cause widespread chaos. This will happen anyway – eventually. Reconciliation will not be possible.