Sunday, 8 December 2013

Follow up re. Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s Friends in London

A number of items have been published in the last week that relate to the content of the previous post. The first part of that post dealt with a perception that the people of Syria are the immediate losers in US President Obama’s engagement with Iran.

Tony Badran, writing for Now Lebanon, sees the same aim and danger in current US policy as some other commentators. In his article, Radical Rupture, he writes:
We now understand that Obama’s decisions in Syria over the last two and a half years were all geared toward the deal with Iran. Obama was pursuing a specific vision – a new regional configuration. The sales pitch is that the new framework puts in place a balanced structure of stakeholders, including Iran, thereby stabilizing the region. This in turn would enable Obama to achieve his principal objective of extracting the US from the Middle East.

However, this lofty picture, which is being marketed by the White House’s sympathizers in the media, will bear no resemblance to how things will unfold in reality – how they’re already playing out. That’s because Obama is pursuing a course that radically runs counter to historical US policy. Whereas in the past the US led and consolidated a bloc of allied status quo states against revisionist actors, Obama is now forcing the lead revisionist state down the throat of US allies.

The notion that this framework will create equilibrium is fanciful, as is the prospect that the US will maintain equal distance from Iran and its old partners. In fact, as already evident from its Syria policy and the handling of allies during and in the months leading up to the Geneva deal, the US is likely to elevate Iran’s interests over those of its now-downgraded traditional allies.
Read more.

The Economist magazine disagrees. In an editorial titled Unlocking the Middle East, it argues that in engaging with Iran, “the risks are low, the prize potentially vast—and the alternative is dire.” It imagines a cornucopia of benefits:
Imagine that Iran one day concluded that spreading mayhem ultimately tends to create trouble at home and began to view its neighbours in terms of opportunities rather than threats. That would do more for the security of Israel and Saudi Arabia than any number of weapons agreements. 
The immediate test, and opportunity, will be Syria. Without Iran, Mr Assad would have been ousted long ago. Now Iran is losing men and money there. It also shares, with America, a fear of the Sunni extremism flourishing in rebel-held areas. The West needs to accept that Iran must be at the table in the peace talks due in Geneva. If anybody can bully Mr Assad to offer concessions, it is Mr Rohani. And if Syria becomes even mildly more tranquil, it would calm its neighbours. 
In Lebanon, suppose that Iran ceases using Hizbullah, its proxy, as a constant threat to the country’s stability and to Israel. Or that Iran started to use its influence over the Shia population in Iraq to broker peace, rather than to sow discord. Even if Iran merely started to be less mischievous in Iraq (or for that matter in Bahrain, Palestine and Yemen), the Middle East would become a more stable place. All this would take time—after 34 years America and Iran have a lot of catching up to do. But it is worth remembering that they were once allies.
Read more.

Just one of the counter arguments to the Economist editorial would be that the risk of the US losing influence as it loses trust is potentially very great indeed. In Syria, this process seems well advanced already. Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast reports on How the USA Lost Its Syrian Allies. Comments by Ryan Crocker reported in the New York Times can’t help in that regard:
“We need to start talking to the Assad regime again” about counterterrorism and other issues of shared concern, said Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat who has served in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. “It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
A question raised by the prospect of the US supporting or tolerating the consolidation of a Tehran Bloc is whether Iran would succeed in drawing Afghanistan into its sphere of influence, and how competing forces might react. A relevant story from Reuters: Afghanistan, Iran plan cooperation pact amid tensions with US. Added, a more analytical view from RFE/RL: Afghanistan’s ‘Iran Option’.

The latter part of the previous post dealt with the Stop The War Coalition, a UK movement, prominent members of which have a history of support for Hezbollah, for the Iranian Government, and for the Assad regime in Syria. They experienced controversy recently over their decision to invite Mother Agnes to speak at their annual conference. Mother Agnes is a nun from Syria who blames Syrian rebels for the August 21 chemical attack in Ghouta, and who has been accused of betraying journalists and Syrian civilians to Assad forces. She pulled out after two other invited speakers, Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones, refused to take part as long as she was on the bill.

In Mother Agnes’ absence, Scahill and Jones went ahead with their appearances at the conference, despite the fact that other Assad apologists and conspiracy theory promoters were still on the bill. You can see Owen Jones’ speech on Syria here. He mentions Iran just once, to describe the nuclear deal as “a setback to the neocons,” a testament to the work of the anti-war movement, and a reason for hope on Syria peace negotiations. He doesn’t find time to say anything about the deadly imperialism of Iran’s intervention in Syria, quite a contrast to his vocal opposition to Western intervention. He celebrates the anti-war movement’s part in preventing air strikes against the Assad regime, and lists Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, as examples of “the consequences of Western intervention.”

Wholly ignored in this rhetoric is the fact that Syria is worse off now than Iraq ever was during the US-led war there. The rate of killing in Syria is higher than it ever was in the Iraq War. The toll of violent deaths in Syria will soon outstrip that in Iraq if it hasn’t already; that’s in a period of time shorter by a couple of years, and with no end in sight. The numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, over 2.25 million, and the number internally displaced, estimated at 3.8 million, are greater than the number that fled in the worst years of the Iraq War, estimated at between 1 and 2 million refugees and 2 million internally displaced.

The devastation of Syria, social, physical, economic, is worse than that seen in Iraq. For example, during the Iraq War half of Iraq’s doctors left the country, and in 2011 according to WHO there was only 7.8 doctors per 10,000 people, the seventh-worst ratio in the world, but by June in Syria  the doctor/patient ratio was 1:4,041, that’s fewer than 2.5 doctors per 10,000 people, less than a third of the too low level in Iraq in 2011.

As for Libya, it has its problems, despite democratic elections that saw moderates gain office, but for all that, when people compare the safety of the country that suffered Western intervention to the one that escaped it, guess which one they choose? From a report on UNHCR’s recent work in Libya:
During the month of October, 1,208 Syrians were registered by UNHCR in Tripoli and Benghazi. As of 31 October, 15,274 persons from Syria were registered with UNHCR in Libya.
After the war in Libya, New York Times journalists CJ Chivers and Eric Schmitt wrote a critical article investigating civilian casualties of NATO airstrikes in Libya. They judged that NATO had failed to thoroughly assess the civilian death toll. The reporters’ count of civilian deaths possibly caused by NATO was “at least 40 civilians, and perhaps more than 70” over the entire seven month air campaign, numbers comparable to the number of civilians killed over any one or two days in Assad’s war on Syrians.

And finally, a funny item. I didn’t get round to listening to Jeremy Scahill’s remarks to the Stop The War conference, but I did listen to these extraordinary comments of his from 2006, via Mark Lott. Amongst other things he tries to convince his audience that NATO’s Kosovo war was all about getting oil and gas from the Caspian Sea. Got an atlas there, Jeremy?

Added: See also Amr Salahi’s account of the STW conference, posted at Left Foot Forward blog, titled Stop the War conference: a one-eyed version of events in Syria. He writes, “disappointingly, there wasn’t a single Syrian among the speakers and later one of my companions noted that it was the first time he had sat through an hour of presentations on Syria without the word ‘Assad’ being mentioned.”

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