Thursday, July 17, 2014

Rumors of War

I have read a few articles this year which reflect on the outbreak of World War I a hundred years ago this August and wondering aloud whether the current circumstances have some parallels to that awful year (this link is to one of the more balanced pieces, by Walter Russell Mead in the Huffington Post).  The analogy begins with the reasonable (the Middle East being the "powder keg" that the Balkans were back then), goes to the stretched (the US being like the British Empire of 1914), and then to the ridiculous (where is the Germany of 1914? the Tsarist Russia? revenge-seeking France?)  The US does not have great rivals with powerful alliances; they are not to be found among the likes of China or Russia, or lesser powers like North Korea or Iran.

Still, one has to shudder at the news of the downing of the Malaysian Airlines passenger flight near the border area between Ukraine and Russia--could this be our century's Franz Ferdinand moment?  I don't think so, but it is a very dangerous event.  It is not clear what happened, definitely not clear who is responsible, and I doubt anyone will claim this: it is definitely criminal, whether intentional or accidental.  One would hope that it would make President Putin of Russia think twice before sending any more toys over to pro-Russian separatists who may not know how to manage them properly.   One would also suspect that President Putin would know that there will be footprints visible from the satellites in the sky and would never have authorized such a heinous deed.   Nevertheless, there are going to be some very outraged parties--justifiably so, and apparently including American families--who are going to want answers, and then justice. The repercussions will not end soon, nor cleanly.  I would still expect that if we are in a pre-war state, though, it is more likely a Cold War II (with both China and Russia, maybe?) and not a World War III.

Israel-Hamas:  The nth Intifada
Sorry, but I find this round a bit boring and predictable.  My take is the following:  certain radical elements in the Hamas camp did not like the alliance with the Palestinian Authority to seek a peaceful deal with Israel. They chose to attract attention through a cowardly, heinous deed and kidnapped and killed three young Israeli guys.  Israel's government, headed by a man who pretends to want a deal but does not really (Benyamin Netanyahu), had already denied any possibility of negotiating with a counterparty including Hamas; all this gave him a great excuse to ratchet up tensions, draw the usual Hamas rocket fire (a good test for both sides' weapon and anti-weapon systems), and the usual Gaza incursions.

Is it unfortunate that this new provocation in the Ukraine-Russia spat will supersede the Israel-Hamas one? Probably not for Abu Mazen, the harried Palestinian leader who will try once again to get everyone to the table.  Obviously Hamas can not sit at the table, but they can and will provide a veto to any agreement, which allows the two sides to negotiate--if there is anything to talk about and any will to do so.

Iraq: It's Just a Hard Place
No "between", as the obvious pun--I admit to having used it myself--would suggest.  Iraq is a place where the US has options ranging only from horrendous to unthinkable, while the current one, staying out of it, is leading to despair and feelings of helplessness before what could become a mass slaughterhouse, even worse than in the darkest days of the insurgency there in 2005-2007.

Every day brings new evidence that the regime we left behind, despite rising from reasonably fair Parliamentary elections, is incapable of dealing with the menace that has arisen from the lawless areas in the western part of the country bordering on anarchic Syria.  The group known as ISIS, or ISIL, which has combined sharp military tactics with fanatical Islamist ideology and brutal repression, has gained control of large sections of the country, ones with Sunni majorities that never fully accepted the loss of power to the national Shiite majority after the US invasion of 2003.  In the wake of its wave of conquest have come reliable reports (some from the movement itself) of mass executions and extreme application of its version of Islamist Sharia law.

The Iraqi army has lost control of its borders, of many towns and cities, large and small, the entire northern Kurdish area (which Kurdish militia have pre-emptively reclaimed to prevent ISIS invasion), and it seems the army is demoralized and unable to fight ISIS effectively.  Its defensive front is falling back toward the outskirts of the capital, Baghdad, and the Shiite leaders, political and religious, have mobilized sectarian militias to fill the gaps, stop the onslaught, and protect Shiite shrines in those disputed areas..

It is critical that the disintegration of the Iraqi government forces stop before ISIS reaches the city: a battle for Baghdad would be catastrophic, street warfare with casualties in the hundreds of thousands, as the recognized, walled divisions within the city between Sunni and Shiite areas would disintegrate and provide for a chaotic scramble, a raging mess of all against all with no predictable outcome except bloodshed.  I have no doubt that ISIS does aim to take Baghdad--it pledges allegiance to the al-Qaeda vision of a global caliphate which hearkens back to medieval Baghdad as the center of the Islamic world--though it may wait outside the urban center, foment rebellion within the city, and wait for resistance to crumble. I have to say that ISIS' military tactics, formed in the crucible of the brutal Syrian civil war, seem quite sound.

So, what does the US do?  President Obama is criticized for his inaction, but he really does not have any good aggressive moves to make.  The US forces are completely out of Iraq because former President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki could not agree on the basis for any continuation of US presence. Obama is obliged to follow that result, unless he cuts a new deal to re-enter the country (the last thing he would want to do, and the American people are with him on that, though they would certainly prefer a positive outcome to all this Middle Eastern chaos).

Secretary Kerry correctly presses Iraq to solve its political problems--any solution to which will probably cut out al-Maliki from holding onto his current role.  His party gained the most votes in recent Parliamentary elections, but his support is basically confined to a portion of the Shiite population, no longer acceptable to the (mostly Sunni) Kurds or the Sunnis in the battleground areas.  An emergency unity government of all the religious and geographic groups is a necessity, and al-Maliki is too divisive to be the leader of it. The new Parliament took a step forward recently and named its Speaker (by tradition, a Sunni), so there may yet be a political formula which will keep the Sunni leaders from simply handing over their areas to the Islamist force in their midst.

On the ongoing strife in the Middle East, I recommend this CNN article from last month on the 20th-century origins of the current fighting in Syria and Iraq.

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