Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum (where I am associate fellow) replies this morning to Bret Stephens‘ June 3rd Wall Street Journal column, “The Muslim Civil War: Standing by while the Sunnis and Shiites fight it out invites disaster.”
The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration quietly encouraged the two sides to fight themselves to bloody exhaustion, did America no good, Stephens argues:
In short, a long intra-Islamic war left nobody safer, wealthier or wiser. Nor did it leave the West morally untainted. The U.S. embraced Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Iran, and later tried to ply Iran with secret arms in exchange for the release of hostages. Patrolling the Strait of Hormuz, the USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian jetliner over the Gulf, killing 290 civilians. Inaction only provides moral safe harbor when there’s no possibility of action.
Today, he adds, there comes “the whispered suggestion: If one branch of Islam wants to be at war with another branch for a few years — or decades — so much the better for the non-Islamic world. Mass civilian casualties in Aleppo or Homs is their tragedy, not ours. It does not implicate us morally. And it probably benefits us strategically, not least by redirecting jihadist energies away from the West.” This is not a good thing for the West, but a bad thing, he concludes. Pipes and Stephens are both friends of mine, and both have a point (although I come down on Pipes’ side of the argument). It might be helpful to expand the context of the discussion.
I agree with Stephens that it is a bad thing. It not only a bad thing: it is a horrifying thing. The moral impact on the West of unrestrained slaughter and numberless atrocities flooding YouTube for years to come is incalculable, as I wrote in a May 20 essay, “Syria’s Madness and Ours.” If Syria looks bad, wait until Pakistan breaks down. The relevant questions, though, are 1) why are Sunnis and Shi’ites slaughtering each other in Syria at this particular moment in history, and 2) what (if anything) can we do about it?
Part of the answer to the first question is that Syria (like Egypt) as presently constituted simply is not viable as a country. Iraq might be viable, because it has enough oil to subsidize a largely uneducated, pre-modern population. As an economist and risk analyst (I ran Credit Strategy for Credit Suisse and all fixed income research for Bank of America), I do not believe that there is any way to stabilize either country. In the medium term, Turkey will lose national viability as well. I outlined some of the reasons for this view in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too).
Globalization ruins countries. It has done so for centuries. Tinpot dictatorships that keep their people in poverty the better to maintain political control will break down at some point. Mexico broke down during the 1970s and 1980s; the Mexican currency collapsed, the savings of the middle class were wiped out, and the economy shut down. In 1982 I wrote an evaluation of the Mexican economy for Norman Bailey, then director of plans at the National Security Council and special assistant to President Reagan. I saw a crash coming, and no way to to prevent it.
Three things prevented Mexico from dissolving into civil war (as it did during the teens of the past century at the cost of a million lives, or one out of seven Mexicans). One was the ability of Mexicans to migrate to the United States, which absorbed perhaps a fifth of the Mexican population. The second was the emergence of the drug cartels as an alternative source of employment for up to half a million people, and generating between $18 and $39 billion of annual profits. And the third is the fact that Mexico produces its own food most years. When the currencies of the Latin American banana republics collapsed, there was always enough food to maintain minimum caloric consumption. Not so in Egypt, which imports half its food and is flat broke. Egypt and Syria are banana republics but without the bananas (Daniel Pipes assures me that Egypt does grow bananas, and he personally has eaten them, but they are not grown in sufficient quantity to meet the country’s caloric deficit). Turkey was the supposed Muslim model for democracy and prosperity under moderate Islam. That idea, which I disputed for years, has gotten tarnished during the past week.
Israeli analysts have understood this from the outset. Two years ago (in an essay entitled “Israel the winner in the Arab revolts“) I quoted an Israeli study of the collapse of Syrian agriculture preceding the civil war:
Syria will prove impossible to stabilize, for reasons sketched in my March 29 essay, and explained in more detail by economist Paul Rivlin  in a note released the same day by Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, entitled “Behind the Tensions in Syria: The Socio-Economic Dimension.”
Quoted at length in the Arab press, Rivlin’s report went unmentioned in the Western media – a gauge of how poorly the Western elite understands the core issues. Clinton has been ridiculed for calling Assad a “reformer” (in fact, she said that some members of congress think he’s a reformer). Rivlin explains Syria’s president is a reformer, at least in economic policy. The trouble is that Syrian society is too fragile to absorb reforms without intolerable pain for the 30% of Syrians below the official poverty line of US$1.60 a day. As Rivlin explains: “Syrian agriculture is suffering from the country’s move to a so-called ‘social market economy’ and the introduction of a new subsidy regime in compliance with international trade agreements, including the Association Agreement with the European Union (which Syria has still not ratified). The previous agricultural policy was highly interventionist, ensuring (at great cost) the country’s food security and providing the population with cheap access to food items. It is now being replaced with a more liberal one that has harsh consequences for farmers and peasants, who account for about 20% of the country’s GDP [gross domestic product] and its workforce.”
Syria’s farm sector, Rivlin adds, was further weakened by four years of drought: “Small-scale farmers have been the worst affected; many have not been able to grow enough food or earn enough money to feed their families. As a result, tens of thousands have left the northeast and now inhabit informal settlements or camps close to Damascus.”
Assad abolished fuel subsidies and freed market prices, Rivlin adds. “In early 2008, fuel subsidies were abolished and, as a result, the price of diesel fuel tripled overnight. Consequently, during the year the price of basic foodstuffs rose sharply and was further exasperated by the drought.” Against that background, Syrian food prices jumped by 30% in late February, Syrian bloggers reported after the regime’s attempt to hold prices down provoked hoarding.
The rise in global food prices hit Syrian society like a tsunami, exposing the regime’s incapacity to modernize a backward, corrupt and fractured country. Like Egypt, Syria cannot get there from here. Rivlin doubts that the regime will fracture. He concludes, “Urban elites have been appeased by economic liberalization, and they now fear a revolution that would bring to power a new political class based on the rural poor, or simply push Syria into chaos. The alliance of the Sunni business community and the Alawite-dominated security forces forms the basis of the regime and, as sections of the population rebel, it has everything to fight for.”
We tend to forget that the first stirrings of globalization during the Age of Navigation ruined Latin America, Asia, India, and China. That was the premise of my first “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online on January 27, 2000:
Item: After the conquest of the New World, Spain’s entire capture of precious metals went to India and China to pay for luxury cloth and spices. That did for approximately 90 percent of the indigenous pre-Colombian population.
Item: The African slave trade instituted by the Portuguese and later the British first produced sugar in Brazil and the Caribbean, to be turned into cheap intoxicants for the European market. Tobacco was a second absorber of slave labor. Cotton became important much later. Production of these vices did for a third of the West African population.
Item: In order to sell cheap cotton cloth to India, the East India Company arranged for Indians to grow opium and for Chinese to buy it. All the silver mined in Latin America, which two centuries earlier had passed to China to pay for silks, found its way back to Europe to pay for opium. That did for untold millions of Indians and Chinese.
The loss of life was frightful. The Taiping Rebellion of 1850 to 1864 in the wake of the Qing Dynasty’s humiliation by the British claimed 20 million lives, most of them civilians. Millions starved in Bengal when manufactured cotton replaced the local handwoven cloth.
If we had some bagels, we could have bagels and lox, if we had some lox. Syria doesn’t have enough oil to survive in the region. It doesn’t even have enough water, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman noticed last month, two years after Israeli analysts published the story in depth:
“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.
Because of the population explosion that started here in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to better health care, those leaving the countryside came with huge families and settled in towns around cities like Aleppo. Some of those small towns swelled from 2,000 people to 400,000 in a decade or so. The government failed to provide proper schools, jobs or services for this youth bulge, which hit its teens and 20s right when the revolution erupted.
Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”
If we had a Syrian elite dedicated to modernization, free markets, and opportunity, we could have an economic recovery in Syria. But the country is locked into suppurating backwardness precisely because the dominant culture holds back individual initiative and enterprise. The longstanding hatreds among Sunnis and Shi’ites, and Kurds and Druze and Arabs, turn into a fight to the death as the ground shrinks beneath them. The pre-modern culture demands proofs of group loyalty in the form of atrocities which bind the combatants to an all-or-nothing outcome. The Sunni rebels appear quite as enthusiastic in their perpetration of atrocities as does the disgusting Assad government.
What are we supposed to do in the face of such horrors? I am against putting American boots on the ground. As I wrote in the cited May 20 essay, “Westerners cannot deal with this kind of warfare. The United States does not have and cannot train soldiers capable of intervening in the Syrian civil war. Short of raising a foreign legion on the French colonial model, America should keep its military personnel at a distance from a war fought with the instruments of horror.”
The most urgent thing to do, in my judgment, is to eliminate the malignant influence of Iran, which is treating Syria like a satrapy and sending tens of thousands of fighters as well as material aid to the Assad regime. Attacking Iran would widen the conflict, but ultimately make it controllable. No sane American should want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. As Admiral James Stavridis told the New York Times today, “If you can move 10 tons of cocaine into the U.S. in a small, semi-submersible vessel, how hard do you think it would be to move a weapon of mass destruction?”
Ultimately, partition of Syria (and other Middle Eastern countries) on the model of the former Yugoslavia probably will be the outcome of the crisis. There are lots of things to keep diplomats busy for the next generation. But the terrible fact remains that it is not in our power to prevent the decline of a civilization embracing over a billion people, and to prevent some aspects of that decline from turning ugly beyond description. Among the many things we might do, there is one thing we must do: limit the damage to ourselves and our allies.
Gulf countries pivot towards Israel: Can Arab recognition be foresighted?
The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.
An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?
The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.
So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.
Turkish Newspaper Implicates UAE’s Crown Prince in Covering Up Murder of Khashoggi
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, are close friends and allies, who jointly lead the war against Houthi-led Yemen. On Sunday afternoon, November 18th, a leading Turkish newspaper, Yeni Şafak, reported the two leaders to have also collaborated in hiding the murder on October 2nd in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yeni Şafak headlined “Dahlan ‘cover-up team’ from Lebanon helps hide traces of Khashoggi murder” and reported that on October 2nd, “A second team that arrived in Istanbul to help cover-up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dispatched by Muhammed Dahlan, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed’s chief hitman in the region, … according to an informed source who spoke to Yeni Şafak daily on the condition of anonymity.”
On November 16th, the Washington Post had headlined “CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination”.
Bin Salman and bin Zayed are U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest foreign allies other than, possibly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All four men are determined that there be regime-change in Shiite Iran. This anti-Shia position bonds them also against the Houthis, who are Shiites, in Yemen, where bin Salman and bin Zayed lead the war, and the United States provides the training, logistics, and weapons. Both bin Salman and bin Zayed are fundamentalist Sunnis who are against Shia Muslims. Israel and the United States are allied with these two princes. Saudi Arabia’s royal family have been committed against Shia Muslims ever since 1744 when the Saud family made a pact with the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who hated Shia Muslims. Thus, Saudi Arabia is actually Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, with Sauds running the aristocracy, and Wahhabists running the clergy.
In 2017, in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh, Trump sold, to the Saudi Crown Prince, initially, $350 billion of U.S.-made weapons over a ten-year period (the largest weapons-sale in world history), and $110 billion in just the first year. That deal was soon increased to $404 billion. For Trump publicly to acknowledge that Salman had “ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination” would jeopardize this entire deal, and, perhaps, jeopardize the consequent boom in America’s economy. It also would jeopardize the U.S. alliance’s war against Shiites in Yemen.
Revisiting the Qatari crisis
In 2017 the dispute between Qatar and a number of its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman has considered as the most serious crisis since years and could escalate in the future to destabilise an already turbulent region. The Qatari support to the extremist parties and terrorist entities in the region is the apparent reason, however, conflicting of interest between Qatar and the other states about the Iranian relations, the political Islam and the competition over the regional leadership are the main reasons. Egypt, Oman and the UAE with the leadership of Saudi Arabia withdrawing diplomats, closing borders, announcing a number of Qatari citizens as terrorist supporters and place an embargo on Qatar and most of its interests and businesses in the region.
The primary reason for the Saudi’s camp blockade is the Qatari politically and financially support for violent extremist groups often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which considers as a real threat for the other GCC states in particular because of the ability of these group to create a secretive organisation with extreme religious behaviour. However, Qatar is relatively weaker in terms of politically and militarily than the Saudi’s camp, but it has continued to support its Islamist allies for many reasons: ideological sympathy; a believe that political Islam could reflect into Qatar’s influence in the region; a desire to challenge the traditional regional influence especially Saudi Arabia and its followers. In addition, Qatar has used its owned media tool the Aljazeera channel to magnify the Muslim Brotherhood influence and to criticise leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which has been the major thorn in the relations.
The Qatari-Iranian close tie is the second source of tension which seen by other GCC states as a threat to the stability and even the existence of the Sunni majority states in the Gulf. The growing Qatari Iranian relation is evident in many occasions such as the Qatari voting against the UNSC resolution that calling on Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment project and the signing of Qatari Iranian agreement in counterterrorism cooperation which is a Qatar approach to benefit from the Iranian forces due to the modest Qatari military capability. Moreover, the Amir of Qatar called the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and congratulated him on his re-election on April 2017. Finally, Qatar paid the amount of $700 for Kataab Hezbollah Iraq (Iranian baked militia) for the exchange of a member of the Qatari royal family who has been a hostage in Iraq, (probably falsely) was the act that irritated most of the GCC states and triggering the crisis.
The Trump’s administration policy in the region gives Riyad, Cairo and Abu Dhabi the green light to punish Qatar for its support to the Islamic movement. Trump expressed a passive acceptance to the Saudi and its allies in an attempt to contain the greedy Iranian strategy in the region and to confront the rising of the radical Islam. However, it seems that Saudi and its allies are unqualified for such a containment scheme to Iran the giant regional power. Trump also took credit on Twitter and describe the Qatari Amir as “high-level founder of terrorism.” Thus, the blockade can see as an attempt from the Saudi’s camp to push Qatar back to the line, an opportunity to satisfy their allies in Washington and to shift the public opinion to the Qatari issues instead of many internal issues and shortcoming.
The crisis involved a number of unpredictable stakeholders with huge interests in the region which could turn the situation into uncontrollable in many ways. The blockade camp clearly desires that Qatar recognise how serious they are, rapidly back to the line and admit unambiguously their list of demands which include shutting down Aljazeera, end the cooperating with Iran, stop supporting the Islamic parties and recognise the Saudi leadership in the GCC region. On the other hand, Qatar with its relatively small population 300,000 citizens and fund over $300 billion ensures the state will never face a serious financial issue in the future. Moreover, Qatar is the home of the U.S. air base Al-Udeid which is a critical component of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East. Therefore, Qatar knows that the U.S. has an immediate interest in emphasising the stability and the security in Qatar in particular while the U.S. does not have an alternative to Al-Udeid base to support its strategy in the Middle East. The Saudi’s camp is unlikely to abandon their demands. The crisis shows how much the GCC leaders are threatening and in a confusing situation toward support specific radical Islam movements and relation with Iran. In addition, the blockade camp can maintain the sanctions for a long time rather than take a military action due to its economic cost and the lack of suitable capabilities to conduct such a war. For instance, the Saudi campaign in Yemen now and after three years, shows a significant failure to achieve its strategic goals.
The current situations for both sides show that the crisis could easily continue for more years which is a critical concern to all the stakeholders in the region. Now Iran and Turkey are playing a significant role in supporting Qatar needs of foods and goods to minimise the inconvenient of the embargo. Also, Ankara is considering enhancing its military presence in Qatar which seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia the major regional compotator for the Turkish influence. That also shows a high possibility of an Iranian Turkish large-scale involvement in case of a military confrontation.
The U.S. mission should focus on balancing the support to the Gulf States and their core interests as well as supporting the stability by avoiding encouraging them from adopting a risky diplomatic offensives options that can backfire into the whole region. It seems that the U.S. should adopt nuanced diplomacy to end the crisis which is not that simple for the current U.S. administration. Since the conflicting parties of this crisis will not likely find a comprehensive solution on their own, the U.S. should make it a priority to help them do so before the costs of the dispute continue to escalate in unpredictable ways.
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