Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Increasing Chaos in Libya

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s been more than three and a half years since the brutal Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi met his end in a drainage pipe outside his native city of Sirte.

But things in that nation have become so bad since then that there must be many Libyans who miss him! Rival coalitions backed by militias are now battling for control over Libya and its vast resources, in what has become a lawless and failed state.

Some three thousand people have been killed by fighting in the past year, and nearly a third of the country’s population has fled across the border to Tunisia.

Libya’s parliament, the House of Representatives, elected in June 2014, and its government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, have only limited authority. The government currently operates out of the eastern city of Bayda, while parliament meets in the eastern city of Tobruk.

The Libya Dawn movement, a coalition of militias and political factions formed from the blocs that lost the elections, has gained control of the capital, Tripoli, and established a rival government, the so-called New General National Congress.

It includes extremist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia, which has been linked to the assault on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi in 2012.

The two rival factions denounce each other as traitors, terrorists or war criminals. Extremists have taken advantage of this political vacuum, and the Islamic State (ISIS) has now established a beachhead.

This came to the world’s attention in the most appalling way recently, when 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded. The killers identified themselves as followers of ISIS.

Last October, the Islamic Youth Shura Council in the eastern city of Derna, a hotbed of Islamism, pledged allegiance to ISIS. In turn, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has recognized the Libyan “provinces” of Barqa (Cyrenaica), Tripolitania, and Fezzan as belonging to his “caliphate.”

ISIS seeks to eliminate the Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian borders to form a province similar to the one they are building in Syria and Iraq. An even more ambitious plan touted by some involves crossing the Mediterranean to attack Italy.

Libya has already suffered many atrocities, including an attack this past January on the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli, frequented by westerners, which killed 10 people. More recently, ISIS followers killed 38 people in Qubbah, a small town near Bayda.

Last summer, Libya Dawn’s Islamists seized the international airport in Tripoli, in the process destroying one and a half billion dollars’ worth of aircraft. In November, they were involved in the bombings of the Egyptian and United Arab Emirates embassies.

Egypt is a key backer of al-Thinni’s internationally recognised government, and Egypt and the UAE support an anti-Islamist militia led by Khalifa Haftar.

Both countries have mounted air strikes against the Islamists, and Egypt has also called for a UN-backed military intervention in Libya. On the other hand, Libya Dawn is backed by Qatar and Turkey.

Haftar has emerged as the most high profile individual fighting Libya Dawn’s Islamist militias. A former general who fell out with Gadhafi and went into exile, he returned to Libya during the civil war in 2011, and he now heads the self-declared Libyan National Army.

Haftar’s force has taken much of the eastern half of the country, in an offensive known as Operation Dignity, which has been endorsed by the House of Representatives. He was the target of a suicide bomber outside his home near Benghazi last June; it killed four of his guards
Both sides have vast amounts of weaponry left over from the Gadhafi years, including some military aircraft.

Economically, too, the situation in Libya is disastrous. Oil revenues are virtually the country’s only source of income. Prior to 2011, oil output stood around 1.6 million barrels per day. Now, production hovers around 200,000 to 300,000 barrels per day.

Last year, Libya depleted $27 billion of its reserves, which now stand around $81 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“Libya has the same features of potentially becoming as bad as what we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria,” Bernardino Leon, the United Nations envoy to Libya, said in an interview with the New York Times. “The difference is that Libya is just a few miles away from Europe.”

Libya, once an Italian colony, has never had any real sense of national identity and is fast becoming, as British diplomat Jonathan Powell stated, a “Somalia on the Mediterranean.” Perhaps a tyrant such as Gadhafi provided the only glue that held it together.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Another Chance for Democracy in Sri Lanka

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Every now and then, a bit of good news breaks through the gloom that usually characterizes reports from much of the non-Western world. Such is the case of the recent presidential election in Sri Lanka.

The country has been though decades of brutal civil war, culminating in massive war crimes on the part of the Sinhalese-controlled government against Hindu Tamil rebels trying to establish a separate state, Tamil Eelam, in the north of the country.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the insurgents known as the Tamil Tigers, were often little better when it came to committing atrocities.

The conflict was triggered by anti-Tamil riots in 1983 that claimed hundreds of lives. Governments came and went, and fighting was punctuated by cease-fires that were broken by one side or the other, as the insurgency continued with relentless ferocity.

Things changed in 2005, the year Mahinda Rajapaksa won the presidential election. He pursued the war against the Tamil Tigers with renewed ferocity and finally defeated them in May 2009. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed.

At least 100,000 people died in the 26-year conflict, including as many as 40,000 in the last month alone, according to the United Nations. As well, approximately 300,000 civilians were displaced during the final phase of the war.

Not surprisingly, in January 2010 Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected by a big margin.

Given the nature of internal conflicts of this sort, it is remarkable that, despite the atrocities which accompany such guerrilla warfare, the country never succumbed to outright military rule or civilian dictatorship.

Nonetheless, the accession to power by the man who finally defeated the Tigers seemed to bode ill for democracy. Rajapaksa cultivated a more authoritarian style of rule, relegating parliament to a secondary role, and appointed his relatives to key positions.

He arrested his main rival in the 2010 election, General Sarath Fonseka, who a year later was sentenced to three years in jail for “corruption.” Also, in early 2013 Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was dismissed for allegations of financial and official misconduct. In reality, she was removed when she resisted Rajapaksa’s centralization of power.

When parliament approved a constitutional change allowing Rajapaksa to seek an unlimited number of terms, it seemed that Sri Lanka was well on the road to becoming an authoritarian state.

In August 2013 Navi Pillay, then the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, accused Rajapaksa’s government of eroding democracy and the rule of law after a week-long visit to the country.

Shunned by most western countries, including Canada, his government increasingly turned to powers such as China, Iran, and Russia for foreign investment and diplomatic support.

Despite anger at rising prices, corruption and one-family rule, Rajapaksa remained so confident of his popularity that he scheduled a president election for this past Jan. 8, two years before the end of his second term.

Hard-line Sinhalese groups like the Buddhist Power Force (BBS) mobilized to support Rajapaksa.

But the Hindu Tamil and Muslim minorities that make up over a quarter of the population were less enthusiastic. Rajapaksa also lost the support of another Buddhist group, the National Heritage Party (JHU).

And worst of all, he was caught unawares by the desertion of former allies in his own Sri Lankan Freedom Party, who described his regime as a “soft dictatorship.” One of them, Rajapaksa’s health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, announced he would run against the president.

And the impossible happened. Despite his overwhelming advantages, Rajapaksa was defeated, winning 47.6 per cent of the vote to Sirisena’s 51.3 per cent. Sirisena, running under the banner of the United National Front, won the strong electoral support of Tamils, Christians, and Muslims.

Some Tamil activists have become increasingly unhappy in recent weeks as a result of what they see as delays in releasing prisoners and returning seized lands. The Tamil-dominated Northern Provincial Council unanimously passed a resolution this month seeking an international investigation into accusations of genocide against Tamils during the country’s civil war.

The new administration has indicated that it will mount its own investigation into possible wartime atrocities and mount criminal prosecutions against the perpetrators of the worst crimes. The UN Human Rights Council has agreed to defer the release of its own inquiry until September.

So apart from giving the country a renewed sense of democracy, under Sirisena there might be the possibility of some genuine national reconciliation.
Henry Srebrnik

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Long Arm of Iran in the Middle East

Henry Srebrnik [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Back in 2010, Iranian Ayatollah Mohammad Bagher Kharrazi called for a “Greater Iran” that would assume hegemonic control over much of the Middle East and Central Asia, stretching from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. 

“If I am elected as president, I will return the lands of Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which were separated from Iran” by the Russians, he announced three years later, when planning to run for president.

This was too much even for the Council of Guardians, Iran’s ideological watchdog, which rejected his candidacy. Iran’s government also disavowed his statement. 

Nonetheless, since the ascension to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran has been slowly building an empire in the Middle East. 

Its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah has taken Lebanon hostage, and is now helping Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Syria. The Shi’ite government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad is effectively an Iranian puppet.

In chaotic Yemen, the Houthis, also allied to Iran, have taken the capital, Sanaa. The United States has closed its embassy in Yemen following an attack on an American Embassy car on Jan. 19 at a Houthi roadblock.

The militants’ slogan, which is chanted at rallies and painted on walls in Sanaa, includes the phrase “Death to America,” mimicking the one often heard in Tehran.

A man who did run for the presidency of Iran in 2013, Ali Akbar Velayati, last year declared that his hope is for the Houthis to become to Yemen what Hezbollah is to Lebanon, a Shi’a faction in control of an Arab state. 

Velayati, who also served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, is an advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, so his words must be taken seriously. And Kayhan, the Iranian newspaper controlled by Khamenei, has predicted that the Saudi kingdom would not survive the Houthi rebellion in Yemen.

Tehran has also had a hand in trying to destabilize some of the small Sunni-ruled Gulf states, in particular Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority population. Throughout the Arab world, regimes fear Iranian subterfuge on behalf of their brand of radical Islam.

Of late, Iran has even taken to bragging about this. General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the powerful Quds Force, the foreign wing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, on Feb. 11 announced that Tehran’s regional influence was growing.  

“Today we see signs of the Islamic revolution being exported throughout the region, from Bahrain to Iraq and from Syria to Yemen and North Africa,” he declared.

Partly as a response, Sunni terrorist groups have mounted their own campaigns in the region. The Islamic State (ISIS) controls about 90,000 square kilometres in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Suleimani seemed unfazed by ISIS and al-Qaeda, though, maintaining that the jihadists are “nearing the end of their lives.” After all, the Quds Force was able to keep Baghdad under Iranian control, and Shi’ite militias backed by Iran are increasingly taking the lead in Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State. In Syria Bashar Assad has held on to power thanks to Iran’s support.

As Liel Leibovitz, a senior writer for Tablet magazine, observed recently, American policy has lately swung toward embracing the idea of an unreconstructed Iran as a key U.S. ally in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and beyond. 

“Since the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS began last fall, “Iran has achieved all but public U.S. support for its control over the Iraqi military and for the survival of the Assad regime in Syria,” noted columnist Caroline Glick in a Feb. 12 Jerusalem Post article.

She asserted that President Barack Obama is clearing the path for a nuclear armed Iran that controls large swathes of the Arab world through its proxies. Last November, Obama wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khameini, suggesting that U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the Middle East could be possible should an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program be signed.

 “But partnering with Tehran would require Washington and its friends in London and Paris to accept the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of a fully sovereign state with legitimate interests,” write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, authors of the 2013 book Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That would be a major mistake. Iran is a devious and powerful state, far more adept at destabilizing the Middle East than are groups like ISIS. They don’t engage in gratuitous acts of barbarism such as the beheadings of hostages, which create outrage around the world. 

Tehran doesn’t take on western powers directly, but acts behind the scenes and through proxies – while continuing to work on acquiring nuclear capabilities.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why is the West Enraging Russia?

Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax] Chronicle Herald 

A cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian fighters went into effect on Feb. 15, but no one knows whether it will last. Previous ones have been broken, and in any case some fighting continues.

The United States has apparently been considering sending “lethal aid” to Ukraine should the war resume, which some military analysts believe is the only way to deal with what they see as belligerence from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The incoming U.S. defence secretary, Ashton B. Carter, has said he is inclined to provide arms to the Ukrainians.

But this is madness. If anything, the belligerence comes from the other side. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich recently said that a U.S. decision to arm Ukraine would not only escalate the situation but “threatens the security of the Russian Federation.”

Of course it does. This is part of Russia’s “near abroad,” an area for centuries under Moscow’s control (and in large parts of Ukraine, remember, inhabited by ethnic Russians and Russophiles). 

The western boundaries of Russia have since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 been pushed back to where they were in the 17th century. What if the U.S. kept losing state after state, with California and the southwest deciding perhaps to rejoin Mexico – aided by Moscow?

When the USSR fell apart, and the internal Soviet boundaries of the republics suddenly became international frontiers, trouble was bound to follow. 

This is true anytime, when a region that breaks away from a bigger state itself includes a minority that is ethnically related to the larger one. Remember the anglo-Quebec slogan at the time of the 1995 referendum on separation in Quebec? “If Canada is divisible, Quebec is divisible.” 

In other words, non-francophone areas might have chosen to break away from an independent Quebec and remain in Canada.

In 1991, when the Soviet state collapsed, Ukraine should have been subject to plebiscites to determine whether its people wanted independence, or to join Russia, or to split into two states. The eastern regions now in revolt would no doubt have chosen to unite with Russia, and the same is true for the Crimea.

The rest of Ukraine could have become a smaller, but homogenous – and peaceful -- country. There’s nothing wrong with a political divorce for peoples who don't want to stay together, where one feels oppressed by the other! 

Why is territorial integrity such a sacred cow? After all, these Soviet republics weren’t even sovereign states, and their borders were often changed; they were the products of Communist manipulation. The same issues we see in Ukraine also plague Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova, among other former parts of that defunct Communist empire.

Yet now we see the western powers attempting to force Russians who had been living in these regions for centuries and considered themselves, in effect, really part of Russia, to now remain part of Ukraine -- a country which they never considered themselves part of. Why are Donetsk and Luhansk all of a sudden more “Ukrainian” than “Russian?”

Whatever became of the principle of self-determination? Why is it suddenly so important for NATO to make sure that frontiers that a mere 24 years ago were simply internal Soviet boundaries are now so sacrosanct that it is willing to risk war with Russia?

 “This is not about Ukraine. Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary-general of NATO, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. 

But Russia has always been a great power! Would anyone deny that status to the U.S.? Why the attempt to humble the Russians?

Since it makes no geopolitical or ethnic sense, is it a wonder Vladimir Putin sees this as little more than American imperialism designed to weaken his country? 

Remember, this all started, not with Russian intervention in Ukraine, but with last February’s overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

We might forget, but Russians remember, that they have been attacked from the west numerous times in their history, including major invasions by Napoleon and Hitler, the latter killing many millions of people. Nor did the Cold War do much to improve their opinion of America.

When the Russians intruded into the western hemisphere by aiding Communist Cuba, it almost led to a world war in 1962. Now Washington is threatening Russia in its own back yard.

It might be time to heed a piece of advice from John Mearsheimer, co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago: “Any time a great power armed with thousands of nuclear weapons is backed into a corner, you are asking for really serious trouble.”

France and Germany, who oppose arming Ukraine, have heeded this warning.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The North Caucasus Cauldron

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 

While the crisis between Russia and Ukraine has been the focus of much of the world’s attention, there are simmering brushfires in other areas of the former Soviet Union.

In the North Caucasus, still part of the Russian Federation, five Muslim-majority ethnic republics, with a combined area of 97,200 square kilometres and a population of more than six million, remain restive and a worry for Moscow. All but Ingushetia border Russia proper.

One of them, Chechnya, has been the scene of two major wars since 1994, leaving tens of thousands dead, and resulting in the displacement to southern Russia of 400,000-600,000 people, predominantly from Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan. 

Despite the official claims of peace, both republics remain major centres of violence. Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia have also experienced jihadi-inspired turmoil. 

The revival of traditional Sufi groups and the rise of radical Salafi (or Wahhabi) Islam, especially in Dagestan and Chechnya, was brought about by “the perpetuation of corrupt ruling elites, the absence of political pluralism, severe economic hardship, youth unemployment and high levels of income inequality,” according to Domitilla Sagramoso and Akhmet Yarlykapov, two scholars specializing in the study of the region.

Indeed, they argue, the impact of “growing Islamization of the region’s political life and the increased religiosity” has created a “significant cultural and political cleavage between the North Caucasus and the rest of Russia.” 

The works of radical ideologues, the presence of militants from the Arab world, and travels to Muslim countries by young Caucasians, have inspired many to embrace imported jihadi creeds. A network of extremists continues to advocate the establishment of an Islamic state governed by sharia law in all of the North Caucasian republics.

Much of this radicalization is fueled from outside the country. French scholar Giles Kepel has used the term “petrodollar Islam” for the vast infusion of wealth from Saudi Arabia. The long-term strategy is proselytism of Islam -- especially Salafi Islam.

In Dagestan the Salafi ideologue Akhmed-hadji Akhtaev founded Al-Islamiyyah and by the late 1990s the organization controlled numerous mosques and religious schools; it also sent students to study in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries.

The percentage of ethnic Russians in the republics has dropped from 26 per cent in 1989 to about nine per cent today; in Chechnya, it went from under 25 per cent to less than two per cent.

In 2011, two nationalist Russian groups, the Russian Public Movement and the Russian Civic Union, launched a campaign to have the entire region cut off financially. 

Under the slogan “Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” they demanded that the Kremlin cease supporting the economies of the region, which have suffered greatly due to the political instability. (Each republic receives more than 50 per cent of its budget from Moscow.)

Russia may have beaten back Chechen attempts at independence or its takeover by Islamists, but at a price. 

As British academic Richard Sakwa has pointed out, Russian president Vladimir Putin has allowed the republic to be governed by “strongmen” such as Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, in power since 2007. 

In effect, he writes, Chechnya has achieved “secession without independence.” Dagestan and Ingushetia also, in the words of Anna Matveeva, an expert on the region, are “drifting away by default.” There are now even border guards between southern Russia and the North Caucasus. 

Kadyrov is a strict Muslim who urges Chechen women to wear headscarves. He also encourages polygamy and has imposed restrictions on the sale of alcohol. He even supports so-called “honour” killings.

Kadyrov has also overseen the construction of hundreds of mosques, including one in the centre of Grozny capable of hosting 10,000 worshipers.

The president denounced the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo, at a mass rally Jan. 19 in Grozny, the capital of the republic.

“We resolutely announce that we will never let anybody insult the name of the Prophet without punishment,” Kadyrov told the crowds.

Thanks to the ongoing unrest in the republics, and the periodic terrorist acts by Chechens in Russian cities, including Moscow itself, there has been a concomitant rise of anti-Caucasian sentiments among ethnic Russians, occasionally boiling over into attacks on Caucasians living in Russia proper by ultra-nationalist Russian gangs.

But Kadyrov has proved useful to Putin. By his adherence to Islam, he undermines the ideological attraction of Islamism. He also supported Russia in its war with Georgia in 2008, and delivered an astounding (and of course unbelievable) 99.76 per cent of the vote in Chechnya for Putin in the 2012 Russian presidential election!

So Putin continues to support Kadyrov and other Russian-installed rulers in the Caucasus, knowing that the alternative would be worse.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Is There a Future for Ethno-Religious Nations?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Some nations were originally founded upon a sense of religious “chosen-ness,” the idea that God or Providence had selected them to be a force for good in the world.

And the geographic space they came to inhabit was seen as a “promised land” given them by their deity. It became a “sacred homeland.”

This produced a strong sense of what we today would call national consciousness, an identity very different from that of, say, someone Belgian.

Anthony D. Smith, a scholar of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics, has examined this form of nationalism in his book Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity, published in 2003.

From the moment of God’s covenant with the Israelites in the Old Testament, the idea that a people are chosen by God has had a central role in shaping national identity in the western world, he writes. And sacred belief remains central to national identity in many places, even in today’s modern world.

Clearly, this has been the basis for the modern Jewish form of nationalism known as Zionism, since even secular Jews had to base their claim to an ancient homeland where they had become a minority over the centuries by reference to the original biblical claim to the land.

While the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox forms of Christianity were more universal in outlook, the Protestant Reformation saw the formation of renewed Old Testament forms of identity.

Calvinists, in particular, saw themselves as the elect of God. They saw their conquest of new territories as divinely inspired.

The Congregationalists and Presbyterians who settled in colonial New England in the 17th century constantly made the analogy between America and Ancient Israel. The chosen people, they declared, is closer to God than any other and is held to higher standards.

In the words of John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, “we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

In his 1988 book God Land: Reflections on Religion and Nationalism, the late Irish writer Conor Cruise O’Brien described this outlook as “providing nationalism with divine legitimation.” The Constitution would become a sacred document.

To this day, American nationalism retains a sense of “manifest destiny,” and the idea of the country as the “indispensable nation.”

Two other Calvinist outposts, Protestant Ulster and the Afrikaner settlements in South Africa, are examples of the concept of “holy nationalism.”

Both groups of settlers considered themselves new chosen peoples in new promised lands, with the God-given right to take over areas inhabited by Irish Catholics and various African tribes, respectively, just as the Israelites had conquered the land of Canaan.

In a study published in 1992, God’s Peoples: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster, Queen’s University historian Donald Harman Akenson found a common thread in the views of Ulster Scots Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed Church Afrikaners, and the Jews of Israel.

Each of these peoples, he suggested, were committed to an Old Testament-like covenant with God that promised them the land they had struggled to get if they made the commitment and sacrifice necessary in such a covenant. This religiously-based fervor resulted in some of the world’s most obdurate political conflicts.

However, Akenson suggested that the covenantal mindset was gradually dissolving in South Africa and Northern Ireland, and recent events have borne him out.

In 1994 Afrikaner-based apartheid gave way to majority black rule in South Africa, and Ulster Scots-Irish Unionists are slowly reconciling themselves to power-sharing with Catholics in Northern Ireland, as mandated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement signed by most of the province’s political parties as well as by the British and Irish governments.

Akensen contended, though, that the Israelis would remain adamant in their determination to fulfill their ancient covenant -- the template for all the others. They remain the last ones standing, but we don’t know if that will last either.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Obama's Foreign Policy: Ignore Friends, Placate Tyrants?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

President Barack Obama cut short his trip to India to fly to Riyadh on Jan. 27 to pay homage to the rulers of Saudi Arabia, following the death of King Abdullah. Secretary of State John Kerry called the late king “a man of wisdom and vision.”

In actual fact, Abdullah, in the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, presided over a state “whose domestic policies are almost cartoonishly repressive and whose international influence has been strikingly malign.”

Those who hope the new monarch, King Salman, will prove to be more progressive will soon enough be disabused of that notion.

On the other hand, Obama was too busy to join the huge Paris rally on Jan. 11 attended by some two million people, including more than 40 world leaders, which followed the massacre at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket a few days earlier.

Obama has also announced that he will not be meeting Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister comes to Washington to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3.

Netanyahu has said his priority is to urge the United States and other powers not to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal that might endanger Israel.

This is something Obama doesn’t want to hear. Indeed, he has indicated he will veto any action by Congress to strengthen sanctions against Tehran.

Is he hoping that reason might prevail over the apocalyptic religious visions harbored by the mullahs – visions which require, among other things, destroying Israel and vanquishing Sunni Arab rivals? The current talks will in the end legitimize Iran as a nuclear state.

Since the ascension to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran has been slowly building an empire in the Middle East, through armed force and terror. Its Lebanese Shi’ite proxy Hezbollah has taken Lebanon hostage, and is now helping Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Syria, long an Iranian client.

The Shi’ite government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, which rules those parts of the country not under Kurdish or Islamic State control, is effectively an Iranian puppet. Like his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, he is a member of the Hizb Al-Dawa, the Islamic party long under Iranian tutelage.

In chaotic Yemen, the Houthis, also allied to Iran, have taken the capital, Sanaa. President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has resigned and the country is close to disintegration.

Iran has also had a hand in trying to destabilize some of the small Sunni-ruled Gulf states, in particular Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority population. Saudi Arabia has blamed Iran for inciting upheaval in the small country starting in 2011.

Partly as a response, Sunni terrorist groups, sometimes bankrolled by the Saudis, Qatar, and other Sunni states, have mounted their own campaigns in the region. The Islamic State controls about 90,000 square kilometres in parts of Iraq and Syria, and is gaining support elsewhere.

Alarmed by the Houthis’ expansion, Sunni separatists in the south of Yemen have started to seize territory and are working with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The demise of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya has turned that country into a failed state, with various Islamist militias fighting each other in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi. Militants have also become active in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

And Hamas, despite three major wars with Israel since 2008, remains stronger than ever in Gaza, which it has governed since 2007.

In 2009, soon after taking office, Obama made a major speech at Cairo University, asking the Islamic world for a “new beginning” in its relations with the United States.

But for all of his “make nice” foreign policy, Obama will probably leave office with a Middle East in much worse shape, and less friendly to the U.S., than it was when he won the presidency in 2008.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Do Cry for Me, Argentina

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

As Marcellus, one of the sentries at Denmark’s royal castle in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” might have said, “Something is rotten in the state of Argentina.”

The puzzling death of a prosecutor on Jan. 18 has fed speculation that he might have been murdered while gathering evidence in a high-profile terrorist attack more than two decades ago.

In 2004 Alberto Nisman was assigned to investigate the 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that left 85 people dead. He eventually traced the plot to Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

On October 25, 2006, Nisman formally accused the government of Iran of directing the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building, and Hezbollah of carrying it out.

But the Argentine government, not wishing to get involved in a diplomatic contretemps with Tehran, kept dragging its feet, instead signing an agreement with Iran to create a joint commission to investigate the bombing.

Nisman kept at it, though, and was set to testify to Argentina’s Congress on his report alleging that Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, and other officials had covered up Iran’s connection to the bombing of the building.

They were accused, in a 300-page document, of setting up a “parallel diplomacy” to sign a “secret pact” with Iranian authorities that would lead to the exchange of Argentine grains for much-needed Iranian oil, and even an arms deal, to ease the country’s energy crisis and lack of hard currency.

But now, instead of presenting his findings to legislators, Nisman has been found dead in his apartment with a gun nearby. Government officials rushed to declare it a suicide.

But few believe it. Diego Guelar, a former Argentine ambassador to the United States, told CNN en Espanol that the suicide explanation is “ridiculous.” Patricia Bullrich, head of the legislative committee that invited Nisman to testify, agreed.

“In the days before his death on Sunday, the prosecutor was very active, very focused on the presentation he was going to give before Congress, in the evidence he was going to present and his mind made up about going forward with it,” Bullrich stated. “It's hard to believe that he would have taken his own life.”

Nisman himself had told a reporter a day before his death, “I could end up dead from this.”

Following news of the death, some 2,000 protesters took to the streets near the presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, waving Argentine flags and holding signs proclaiming “Yo soy Nisman” (“I am Nisman”).

“The executive power is consolidating its dictatorship,” remarked protester Luciano Florio. “The judicial system cannot work independently when prosecutors are being killed.”

The 1994 attack, along with a 1992 suicide bombing of the Israeli embassy, which killed 29 people, remains an unhealed wound within Argentine society, particularly for its 180,000-strong Jewish population.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Palestinian Plan to Join International Criminal Court Roils the Waters

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In an article I published in the Calgary Herald in November 1999, I wrote that “it is conceivable that some international tribunal may some day indict an Israeli leader for war crimes.”

Might this soon come to pass? On Dec. 30, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute, paving the way for membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.

Palestinian chances of joining the ICC improved in 2012 after the United Nations General Assembly voted to upgrade their status to that of a “non-member observer state.”

These are not easy days for Israel. The summer war with Hamas in Gaza, whatever the military outcome, was largely negative from the standpoint of international opinion.

In Europe, more and more countries are moving towards recognition of a Palestinian state, even in the absence of a peace treaty with Israel, recognized borders, the final status of Jerusalem, and other critical issues. The legislatures of Great Britain, Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have all urged their governments to take this step.

In the United Nations, only the American veto on the Security Council prevents even more drastic international sanctions of various sorts.

Membership in the ICC could see the Palestinians pursue Israel on war crimes charges. The ICC can prosecute individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed since July 1, 2002, when the Rome Statute came into force. Israel is not a member of the ICC and does not recognise its jurisdiction.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by asserting that “It is the Palestinian Authority, which is in a unity government with Hamas, an avowed terrorist organisation that, like ISIS, perpetrates war crimes, that needs to be concerned about the International Criminal Court in the Hague.”

The move to join the ICC is part of a strategic shift by the Palestinian leadership to pursue statehood in the international arena after years of failed U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel. At the same time, Abbas also signed applications to join 20 other international conventions.

All of this follows the narrow rejection of a UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories by late 2017. Eight members of the 15-strong Security Council voted for the Jordanian-sponsored resolution, while the U.S. and Australia voted against. Five countries abstained. (It needed nine votes to pass.)

Permanent members China, France and Russia voted yes, while Britain abstained. Nigeria, which had been expected to vote in favor, changed its position at the last minute -- thus preventing its passage.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the resolution’s failure “should teach the Palestinians that provocations and attempts to force Israel into unilateral processes will not achieve anything.”

Lieberman’s gloating may be premature. The composition of the Security Council has now changed, with newly-elected members Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Spain – none particularly enamoured of Israel -- replacing Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea and Rwanda for two-year terms.

Since South Korea and Rwanda abstained, while Australia was opposed, the same resolution may get nine votes if re-introduced in 2015, necessitating the embarrassment of an American veto.

As for Abbas’ plan to join the ICC, given Washington’s displeasure with the decision it could prove counterproductive. “There will be immediate American and Israeli financial sanctions,” declared Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

A U.S. State Department spokesman warned that it would only “push the parties further apart.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu will be facing the Israeli electorate in March, and is certainly in no mood to compromise.

Monday, January 12, 2015

What Can We Learn from Paris Terrorist Attacks?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The three days of terror in Paris are over. The gunmen who murdered 12 people at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have been killed by the French police. The victims, mostly journalists, included the Jewish caricaturist Georges Wolinsk and two police officers.

A second suspect, who killed another  police officer in a separate incident, and then held numerous hostages in a kosher supermarket, murdering at least four of them, has also been killed. There may be others, as yet unknown, who were involved in this. 

It also brought all of France to a standstill.

These were not random attacks. Charlie Hebdo was singled out for its satirical attacks on Islamist extremism, while the Jewish store was undoubtedly selected because of the religion of its owner and customers, especially on the day preceding the Jewish Sabbath, when there would have been many shoppers inside.

The magazine had already been firebombed in 2011 and had enhanced police protection for awhile – but there is only so much that can be done to guard places against attacks that come without any warning. It is simply impossible to protect everyone at all times, or to keep potential terrorists under surveillance indefinitely.

This will of course benefit those on the right in France. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s National Front, tweeted an image of his daughter Marine Le Pen, now the party’s leader, with the slogan “Keep Calm And Vote Le Pen.”

Marine Le Pen remarked that she had been warning of the dangers of Islamist fundamentalism for years. “It is the Islamists who have declared war on France,” she told a French network.

While France’s next presidential election isn't due until 2017, some polls are already showing Le Pen as the most popular candidate in first round voting.

Why should we be surprised? When a liberal political order cannot protect its citizens, eventually people turn to more drastic measures.

The Charlie Hebdo killers might as well have had signs on their backs reading “we are terrorists.” Both were known to the authorities and indeed, one had already served time in prison. They were on an American “no-fly” list. Yet nothing could be done until their massacre at the magazine. In the end, they were killed anyway.

It’s all well and good to worry about “Islamophobia,” but this kind of thing can't just keep going on, whether in stores, offices, caf├ęs, train stations, and so on. Vigilance can only take you so far. 

Constitutional protections may end up victims of enhanced security measures, with civil liberties falling by the wayside. And a frightened public won’t care.

That happened in South America in the 1960s-70s, when radical left groups were kidnapping and killing people. As society became ever more destabilized, eventually a full scale coup, and the complete loss of civil liberties, was the result, in countries like Argentina and Uruguay.

So over-solicitous liberal worries about “rights” may, ironically, end “rights” for everyone! We must find some middle ground.