At 11:52AM on Wednesday, December 19th, CBS News headlined “White House orders Pentagon to pull troops from Syria immediately” and reported that, “Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it’s ‘simply not true’ [which Trump, had said there, that] ISIS is defeated in Syria.” CBS News didn’t indicate which political Party Kinzinger represents, but he is a Republican, and he represents the rural Illinois 16th Congressional District, where Donald Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton by a 17% margin in 2016. So, Kinzinger is an anti-Trump Republican on this matter. He’s credible about that, not partisan about it.
Who is telling the truth, Trump’s “We have defeated ISIS in Syria” or Kinzinger’s contrary, and what explains the contradiction between the accounts by Trump and Kinzinger?
As the CBS News report says, “Two weeks ago, Special Envoy Brett McGurk said the end of ISIS will be a long-term initiative, and “nobody is declaring mission accomplished.” CBS’s report, however, fails to note that McGurk is an Obama appointee and has been consistently dedicated to America’s defeating Russia and replacing the leadership in all nations that are allied with (or even friendly toward) Russia, including, most especially, Syria and Iran.
At a deeper level, the question is: Which nations are primarily the cause of the considerable reduction in ISIS forces in Syria? If ISIS has been defeated in Syria, then, nonetheless, is it true for Trump to claim, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” or is the United States not even the main force which has done that?
On 30 September 2015, CNN headlined “Russia launches first airstrikes in Syria” and reported that, “Claiming to target ISIS, Russia conducted its first airstrikes in Syria, while U.S. officials expressed serious doubts Wednesday about what the true intentions behind the move may be.” The next day, on October 1st, PBS bannered “Mike Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, talks about why Russia deployed airstrikes in Syria”, and Morell, who had always been speaking and writing against Russia and against any Government that is at all allied with Russia, said: “President Putin believes that if President Assad were to depart the scene, there would be even more instability in Syria and, with that greater instability, ISIS would have more running room, and you could actually end up with ISIS in Damascus. So that is the primary reason he’s doing what he is doing. Now, the question is why doesn’t he just attack [only] ISIS then because President Assad is under attack from a variety of different groups? ISIS is one, al-Nusra [Al Qaeda in Syria] is one, and the moderate opposition is another. So in order to prop up Assad to keep him in control, to make sure you don’t have more instability, he wants to attack all of those groups, right. But his fundamental focus is on ISIS.” But, then, he argued for U.S. President Barack Obama’s position, against Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria: “If we were to have a transition from Assad to another government that everybody can agree on, then we’re actually going to have more stability in Syria. And I think the President probably argued that as long as Assad is around, he is a magnet for fighters to join ISIS, to join al-Nusra to fight Assad. And you can’t ultimately defeat ISIS and defeat al-Nusra without getting rid of President Assad in the process.” So: Morell acknowledged that Putin’s main target was ISIS, but Morell said that Obama was correct to oppose Russia’s bombing campaign there, because “you can’t ultimately defeat ISIS and defeat al-Nusra without getting rid of President Assad in the process.” Then, he said, of Putin, “this guy is a thug. This guy is a bully.” But he said that, unfortunately, America must deal with that “bully”: “first thing we have to convince the Russians of is that you can’t successfully deal with ISIS and al-Nusra without Assad going away. We have to be able to convince them of that. We really believe that. We really believe that. We really believe that he is a magnet for drawing people to ISIS and to al-Nusra.” He was saying that Assad had caused ISIS, which was trying to overthrow and replace him.
Then, on 9 October 2015, investigative journalist Tony Cartalucci bannered “The Mystery of ISIS’ Toyota Army Solved” and he documented that ISIS had gotten its Toyota pickup trucks from the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, whom Obama called moderate rebels. Whether the FSA had ever had those trucks wasn’t known.
Then, on 14 October 2015, the Financial Times bannered ”Isis Inc: how oil fuels the jihadi terrorists” and reported that, “Oil is the black gold that funds Isis’ black flag — it fuels its war machine, provides electricity and gives the fanatical jihadis critical leverage against their neighbours. … Selling crude is Isis’ biggest single source of revenue. … While al-Qaeda, the global terrorist network, depended on donations from wealthy foreign sponsors, Isis has derived its financial strength from its status as monopoly producer of an essential commodity consumed in vast quantities throughout the area it controls.”
Then, on 16 November 2015, the New York Times bannered “U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria” and reported that, “United States warplanes for the first time attacked hundreds of trucks on Monday that the extremist group [ISIS] has been using to smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria, American officials said. … Until Monday, the United States refrained from striking the fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1,000 tanker trucks.”
Two days later, on November 18th, the Pentagon said at a press conference, that “This is our first strike against tanker trucks” of ISIS.
Moreover, on November 24th, Zero Hedge bannered “’Get Out Of Your Trucks And Run Away’: US Gives ISIS 45 Minute Warning On Oil Tanker Strikes” and reported that the U.S. Government were doing this oil-tanker-truck bombing only for show, because Russia had actually started the serious effort to conquer ISIS in Syria, and so the U.S. needed to do something, for PR purposes.
Yet, further evidence also exists that the U.S. Government supported ISIS against Syria’s Government:
On 24 March 2013, the New York Times bannered “Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.”, and reported that “From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons,” and that “‘A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,’ said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.” The U.S. Government tried to hide its involvement in this, by doing it through allied “Arab governments,” which were named in this news-report: “Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey,” and all four of these Governments (U.S., Sauds, Turkey, and Qatar) were trying to overthrow Syria’s Government. Then, on 8 September 2014, AFP headlined “Islamic State fighters using US arms: study”, and they reported that the U.S. Government was supplying ISIS. On 1 September 2017, Russian Television reported that the U.S. Government was secretly supplying weapons to ISIS and that an anti-Assad fighter had even quit the CIA-backed New Syrian Army because of that.
U.S. President Barack Obama started the U.S. policy to arm ISIS, and it was continued under the current U.S. President.
There is considerable other evidence that the U.S. Government has invaded, and been occupying, parts of Syria, solely in order to replace Syria’s Government by one that would be controlled by the Saud family, who own Saudi Arabia.
It is definitely a lie for Trump to say: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria.”
A big turn in these events had been the failed 15 July 2015 coup-attempt, to overthrow Turkey’s Government, and which Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdogan, says was engineered by the Gulen organization headquartered in the U.S., which is connected to and protected by the CIA. After July 15th, Turkey increasingly has allied with Russia’s Government, against America’s Government.
Later on December 19th, Reuters headlined “U.S. State Department personnel being evacuated from Syria — U.S. official” and reported that, “All U.S. State Department personnel are being evacuated from Syria within 24 hours, a U.S. official told Reuters.”
The present withdrawal of the U.S. Government from Syria is actually due to the success of Vladimir Putin’s and Tayyip Erdogan’s plan (which I described on 10 September 2018, and which they jointly announced a week later, on September 17th) for Turkey to handle the military task of conquering the jihadists in Syria’s Idlib province and of Turkey’s forces then moving eastward from Idlib to compel the U.S. Government to end its occupation of northeastern Syria — that nation’s crucial oil-producing region. If Russia’s troops, instead of Turkey’s, were to do that task, killing U.S. troops, it would risk bringing on a U.S.-Russia war, but, since Turkey is still in NATO, that danger doesn’t exist when Turkish troops and armor (backed by Russian air-power) do that highly sensitive job. Turkey’s forces would likely have needed to kill at least some U.S. troops if Trump didn’t take this decision now to evacuate them; so, he did what he had to do, in order to avoid an extremely embarrassing U.S. military defeat.
Instead of “We have defeated ISIS in Syria,” the truth, from the U.S. Government, would be “We have been defeated in Syria,” or (more precisely) “We have surrendered in Syria.” However, Putin (and Erdogan, and maybe even Assad) will not be crowing about their victory. (Erdogan, however, already is.) In any case, Syria’s Government has successfully resisted the U.S. Government’s effort, since 2009, to replace Syria’s Government by one that would be controlled by the Sauds. When Russia entered that war on 30 September 2015, at the invitation of Syria’s Government, in order to kill ISIS and all of the other jihadist forces in Syria (including al-Nusra and America’s other proxy-forces who were America’s boots-on-the-ground fighters killing and dying there), Obama’s dream, of handing Syria as a vassal-state to the Sauds, was doomed to failure. Trump’s effort to win what Obama could not, has now likewise finally failed.
Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0
Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.
So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.
What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.
The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.
If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.
Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.
The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.
With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.
Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.
In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.
Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.
The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.
Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.
Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.
“Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.
The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”
Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”
Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.
The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.
Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.
Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.
The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.
As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.
What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.
All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.
As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait
IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.
For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.
Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.’
Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’
Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.
But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’.
These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.
But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’
What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.
Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?
For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.
Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.
Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.
Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.
The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.
In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.
With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.
By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.
China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.
Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.
To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.
Author’s note: first published in Firstpost
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