Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, March 30, 2015

Will American Self-Sufficiency in Oil Affect its Foreign Policy?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In recent years, the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made the United States the number one producer of natural gas in the world, and may soon make it first in oil production. The process involves injecting chemicals deep underground to fracture the rocks around oil and gas deposits.

Output from oil fracking in the U.S. has increased from about one million barrels per day in 2010 to more than three million barrels per day at the end of 2013. Total U.S. oil production has risen from 5.6 million barrels a day in 2010 to the current rate of 9.3 million barrels a day, nearly as high as daily oil production in Saudi Arabia.

This has led to a decrease in America reliance on imported oil from volatile and uncertain sources in the Middle East, Venezuela, and elsewhere.

Though the U.S. still gets almost 40 per cent of its petroleum from abroad – about 15 per cent from Saudi Arabia, 13 per cent from Venezuela, and 10 per cent from Nigeria — oil imports have been dropping since 2005, and are down from a high of 60 per cent in 2006. Some analysts predict that the country might become self-sufficient in energy by 2030.

This is an important development, given the extreme uncertainty that has now overtaken many oil and gas producing countries since the start of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010. It would be folly for the U.S. to find itself at the mercy of countries such as Algeria, Libya, and Iraq; even the future of Saudi Arabia and oil-producing Gulf states remains uncertain.

Dependence on Middle East oil has shaped American foreign, national security and defence policies for most of the last half century. Freeing itself from it will enable Washington to craft a foreign policy that isn’t hostage to such considerations.

Peter Zeihan, author of the recently-published book “The Accidental Superpower”, has written that “the U.S. will be energy independent by the end of 2016,” and this “is severing the strongest link between us in North America and the rest of the world. The Middle East is becoming someone else’s problem.”

Indeed, as Loren B. Thompson, a specialist on national security, suggested in a Forbes magazine article published in 2012, America might indeed decide that it has “had enough of being the policeman on the beat in the Persian Gulf.”

Certainly the domestic oil industry is pleased. The American Petroleum Institute is the largest trade association in the nation for the oil and natural gas industry. In the past few years the Institute has been airing a series of television advertisements, mainly on American newscasts, in which spokeswoman Brooke Alexander encourages people to visit their website,

The latest ad asserts that this new technology “is safely recovering lots more oil and natural gas, supporting millions of new jobs, billions in tax revenue, and a new century of American energy security.”

The ad plays off the theme of American nationalism, as Alexander assures us, against a backdrop of red, white and blue fireworks, that “the new energy superpower is red, white...and blue.” It’s quite effective as propaganda.

Not everyone paints such a rosy picture. In actual fact, fracking is highly controversial. Its opponents argue that the environmental impacts include the risks of contaminating ground water, harming wildlife, potentially triggering earthquakes, and other hazards to public health and the environment. In many jurisdictions public protests have led to it being curtailed or banned entirely.

For that reason, the Obama administration has drafted regulations to monitor fracking and set safety standards for how companies can store used chemicals around well sites on federal land. They will cover about 100,000 oil and gas wells drilled on public lands.

Since oil extracted through fracking is more expensive to produce, the recent drop in the price of oil has also hurt the industry.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Israel's Precarious Geo-Political Position

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 

To see how badly Israel’s geopolitical position has deteriorated, we need to go back some four decades.

Back then, Israel could count on the support of three non-Arab states which themselves bordered the Arab world: Persian-majority Iran, Imperial Ethiopia, and Turkey. 

Developed by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, this so called periphery doctrine was a foreign policy strategy that called for the country to develop close strategic alliances with an “outer ring” of non-Arab states to counteract the united opposition of the Arab world to the existence of Israel. 

Thus, nations such as Turkey and Iran were steadily cultivated by the Israeli government. The aim was to forge structures of mutual cooperation bent on countering pan-Arab nationalists and opposing the spread of Communism.

Turkey, then a resolutely secular state that had turned its back on its Ottoman past, sought integration with the economies and democracies of Europe. It was a member of NATO and a staunch ally of the United States.

On the throne since 1941, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, also considered himself a modernizer. An American ally, he tried to forge a national identity that would include the country’s pre-Muslim history and saw himself as heir to the kings of ancient Iran. 

Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 on, was also pro-American. His Christian imperial dynasty claimed descent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. 

In 1950, both Turkey and Iran established diplomatic relations with Israel, and Ethiopia followed suit six years later. Throughout the decade, a strategic military partnership was built with Iran and Turkey, as both states were wary of the pan-Arabism and pro-Soviet policies of Egypt’s Gamel Adel Nasser. Ethiopia, too, feared Nasser’s ambitions in Africa.

In 1958 a series of regular quarterly meetings was initiated among the heads of the intelligence services of Israel, Turkey, and Iran. The Ethiopians collaborated as well. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Iran supplied Israel with essential oil. 

This all now lies in ruins. The entente with Ethiopia was the first to collapse. In 1974, the old emperor was overthrown in a coup led by radical Marxists, under the leadership of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and the country became an ally of the Soviet Union. It turned its back on Israel.

Although the Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991, replaced by a new federal republic, Ethiopian relations with Israel – despite the resumption of diplomatic ties -- are no longer of much importance. 

 A far more serious break occurred in 1979, with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The new Islamic Republic of Iran severed relations with Israel, and its leaders, beginning with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, consider Israel an illegal entity and advocate its destruction. 

Most recently, the previously solid relationship with Turkey has also frayed. The Turkish election victory in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) signaled a change in Turkey’s political and cultural orientation.

The country is now governed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout Muslim. Relations between the two nations began to falter following Turkey’s condemnation of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009.

Tensions grew in 2010 when a Turkish humanitarian convoy, tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The convoy was blocked by the Israeli military, and resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens. 

In 2011, Turkey recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. During last summer’s war between Hamas and Israel, Erdogan’s enmity towards the Jewish state knew no bounds.  

Religion now trumps ethnicity in the Middle East. Pan-Arabism and secular Arab nationalism became a spent force, replaced by various forms of Islamic identity. This means that non-Arab Iran and Turkey are no longer alien to the Arab world butt has enabled them to serve as allies to various Shi’ite and Sunni forces in the region. Iran now supports Arab proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

So Israel now faces Iran-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Turkish-supported Hamas in Gaza, and is isolated as never before.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Endless Debate Over Israel and Palestine

Henry Srebrnik,  [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
“Dispossessed but Defiant: Indigenous Struggles from Around the World” is an international exhibition composed of over 120 photos, on display at the Gallery at the Guild in Charlottetown until March 28. 

The photos deal with the experiences of what the national organizers, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, call three indigenous groups: Canada’s Indigenous peoples, Palestinians, and Black South Africans. The photos speak to “the determined resistance to the invasion and occupation of their lands by each of the indigenous groups.”

The organizers of the exhibition, which is travelling across Canada, were clever to include Palestinians with the other two examples, without mentioning, of course, that white Europeans never lived in, or had any claim to, North America or South Africa, unlike Jews in the case of today’s Israel. 

Indeed, the land that became known as Palestine was itself conquered by Arab armies in the seventh century, after most of its Jewish inhabitants had been killed or exiled by Roman forces a few hundred years earlier. 

This had followed an unsuccessful Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman imperialism – though some Jews continued to live in the land as a sometimes persecuted minority, under Arab and later Turkish rule, over the centuries.

Because of their religion, those Jews in the diaspora never forgot their attachment to their homeland.

There is of course no parallel in this to the European conquests in the Americas or Africa, whose aboriginal inhabitants were dispossessed of their territories by new arrivals with absolutely no historical or religious rights, or previous connection, to these – they were armed conquerors whom the native peoples had never even seen or knew about.

But I doubt this little history lesson will change anyone’s mind.

Apropos of this, I was recently asked to comment on an article by an academic who claims that Canadian journalists ignore the “root causes” of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to offer a rebuttal. Tempting as this would be, no response would likely have any effect on someone with an anti-Israel bias.

We all know the so-called truism that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” By the same token, one man’s propaganda is another man’s “narrative.” We now live in a world of relativism, where even facts don’t usually change people’s minds about major political issues.

When it comes to issues such as Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East, we indeed live in a world of duelling narratives. The author seemed to think he has stumbled upon some new “evidence” of Zionist “perfidy,” such that the Jewish state was by its very nature born in the “original sin” of ethnic cleansing, Palestinian dispossession, and so forth.

The article quoted well-known authors—all notable “anti-Zionists,” for what that’s worth—such as Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappé, and John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. 

The last two writers, in their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, come close to asserting that Jews -- that is, the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- are mainly responsible for much of American foreign policy towards the Middle East.

None of this is news. These people have had their views broadcast and published over various media outlets for years and years. In fact Israeli historians and authors (including Pappé) have themselves documented all of these “revelations.” Any decent university course on Middle Eastern politics includes their work.

Their many, many opponents (whom the writer presumably considers illegitimate “pro-Zionists”) have also had their say. He didn’t consider that other side.

Of course, almost all states have a founding in violence toward, or affecting the dispossession of, another people. This includes our own. To paraphrase Honoré de Balzac: “Behind every great state lies a great crime.” 

Should we therefore dismantle Canada and the United States? Jews have more of a claim to what is now Israel, having originated there, than do European settlers to the Americas. So to accuse Israel as illegitimate or in some way precluded from being a democracy on this ground is ridiculous.

A quick Google search, or a trip to a library, will result in the discovery of thousands of articles and books on both sides of the issue, not only the “facts” proving that Arabs were dispossessed in the 1948 war. 

His piece reads as though his “evidence” actually informs his view of Israel. My own contribution would make not a whit of difference to that author’s position, as his doesn’t to mine.

There’s no doubt, though, that his point of view is on the ascent. Blame it on the zeitgeist.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Will Armenia and Azerbaijan Go to War over Nagorno-Karabakh?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

A low-intensity conflict in the southern Caucasus, involving the now independent nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been escalating of late. It concerns the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While Armenia and Azerbaijan were both full-fledged union republics in the former USSR, Nagorno-Karabakh was an Armenian-majority enclave within Azerbaijan, with the status of an autonomous oblast, or region.

According to the British academic Robert Service, in 1921 Joseph Stalin included the area under Azerbaijani control to try and coax Turkey into joining the Soviet Union. Had Turkey not been an issue, Stalin would probably have left it under Armenian control.

With the Soviet Union firmly in control of the entire Caucasus by the 1920s, the conflict over the region died down for decades. But with the beginning of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the question of Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, only the union republics gained international recognition as independent states. So Nagorno-Karabakh, along with other Soviet entities such as Chechnya, Moldova, South Ossetia, and Transnistria, was out of luck.

On November 26, 1991, the parliament of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic abolished the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its territory was split up and redistributed amongst the neighboring administrative districts in Azerbaijan.

In turn, the region’s Armenians, who comprised three-quarters of its population, declared their independence in 1991 and then, with the help of Armenia, defeated Azerbaijan in a war that lasted until 1994.

The new entity gained additional territory during the fighting, ignoring UN Security Council resolutions on the inviolability of international borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force for the acquisition of territory.

Armenia now effectively controls the narrow strips of land to the west and south of Nagorno-Karabakh, giving the unrecognized state direct borders with its patron Armenia, as well as with Iran.

An estimated 15,000-20,000 people, including civilians, were killed during the fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh is almost entirely Armenian.

Even apart from this, Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis have had a tense relationship, including bloody massacres, that predates Soviet times. The two countries have now both built up arsenals of ever more powerful weapons, and January saw an upsurge of fighting between them, with repeated gun battles and volleys of artillery and rocket fire. Azerbaijan also shot down a drone not far from Agdam, a formerly Azerbaijani city now occupied by Armenian forces.

President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, which has an economy seven times larger than Armenia’s, has announced that he plans this year to spend more than double Armenia’s entire annual budget of $2.7 billion on strengthening his military. His Armenian counterpart, President Serzh Sargsyan (who is originally from Nagorno-Karabakh) countered with his own threats.

Aliyev also made reference to the influential Armenian diaspora, formed largely after the Armenian genocide of 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were slaughtered by the Turks, while others fled.

Today there are major Armenian communities throughout the world, including in Australia, Canada, France, Lebanon, Russia and the United States.

“The truth is that the continued occupation of our lands is not just the work of Armenia,” he remarked. “Armenia is a powerless and poor country. It is in a helpless state. Of course, if it didn’t have major patrons in various capitals, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would have been resolved fairly long ago.”

Neither side seems prepared to step down. As Abdulla Qurbani, a senior official in the Azerbaijan Defence Ministry, told a New York Times reporter, “When water mixes with earth, this is mud. When blood mixes with earth, this is motherland.”

Nagorno-Karabakh’s unresolved status remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in the volatile southern Caucasus region.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Turkey Turns Back the Clock

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on an awesome task: to undo some nine decades of history, and reverse the secularization of his country begun by Kemal Attaturk, the revered first leader of the modern Turkish republic.

Erdogan’s project involves bringing Islam back into Turkish politics, and emphasizing, rather than negating, the glories of the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed following the First World War. At its height the empire ruled over the Balkans and parts of central Europe, much of the Middle East, and large parts of North Africa.

His “New Turkey” summons up its Ottoman legacy and sponsorship of Sunni Islam.

A man with a mission, which began with the first victory of his Justice and Development (AK) Party in 2002, Erdogan, elected head of state last August, is moving full speed ahead, and is today politically almost unchallenged in Turkish politics.

Perhaps, despite the anti-clericalism of the Kemalist ideology, Islam was always “hiding in plain sight,” as it were, especially among the vast majority of the population living in rural Anatolia, outside cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul.

Historian and journalist Can Erimtan has noted that, while Islam was largely replaced by Turkish nationalism to supply a kind of social cement, “this form of ideological adhesive was nevertheless very much dependent upon Muslim solidarity.”

So, “though ostensibly ‘secular’ and unburdened by Islamic reaction,” he writes, “popular life to a large extent depended heavily upon Islam, its rituals, and formal organization.” Erdogan has simply tapped into this reality.

As part of the program of the re-socialization of children, Erdogan has demanded classes on Islam for children entering primary schools.

He has also has directed schools to teach the old Ottoman version of Turkish, written in Arabic script, rather than in the Latin alphabet introduced by Ataturk.  

Erdogan annulled a decades-long ban on wearing headscarves in public institutions and banned alcohol in public places between 10 p.m and 6 a.m. He explained he hoped to save new generations “from such un-Islamic habits.”

Erdogan’s worldview is much more religious and conservative than nationalistic, this may actually help heal the longstanding conflict with the country’s large Kurdish population.

Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, and this may in Erdogan’s mind be more salient than their ethnicity and language. After all, for the Ottomans, whose many subjects included non-Turks (in particular Arabs), religion was the primary marker of identity.

Erdogan has even begun to present himself as a defender of the faith outside of the Middle East.

On Feb. 25 the Austrian Parliament updated the country’s “Law on Islam,” to regulate how Islam is managed inside the country. It includes provisions requiring imams to be able to speak German, standardizing the translation of the Quran in the German language, and banning Islamic organizations from receiving foreign funding.

“We cannot accept any harm to Muslims because of this law and we will make every effort to prevent such harm,” Turkey’s Minister to the European Union, Volkan Bozkır, told the Anadolu News Agency a day later.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has built a new presidential palace complex on the outskirts of the capital, Ankara, replacing Ataturk’s, located in the secular Cankaya district.

Nicknamed Ak Saray, or the White Palace, it has at least 1,100 rooms. Is this a symbolic gesture meant to emphasize the end of the secular republic and the birth of a neo-Ottoman state?

A video of the complex, with the national anthem playing in the background, was posted in late October. But some people noticed that, while the words were the same, the martial drumming and brass instruments made the music sound as if it were being played by an Ottoman-era military band.

Erdogan hopes for a large enough AK win in the coming June 2015 parliamentary elections to enable the legislature to pass a constitutional change creating a powerful presidential system. He is clearly planning for a long stay.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Barack Obama is America's "Post-Colonial" President

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Those people who feel there is something “wrong” with President Barack Obama’s politics can’t quite put their finger on it. So they call him a “socialist” or even “Communist,” and, like former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, maintain that he doesn’t “love America.”

But since they probably haven’t been university students recently, they aren’t familiar with Obama’s real ideology – “post-colonialism,” as fathered by the late Palestinian-American Columbia University professor Edward Said.

Most of today’s “political correctness” has emerged from this brew of Marxism and what we might refer to as “Third World liberationism.” And in terms of foreign policy, it is directed at western regimes – and in particular, to the “settler state” of Israel. On the other hand, brutal regimes such as the one in Iran are still seen as “victims.”

By the time Obama got to college, after spending most of his youth in Hawaii and Indonesia (which is what Guiliani meant by saying Obama was not brought up like most Americans), this dogma had replaced the New Left activism of the 1960s espoused by people like Obama’s own mother.

Since the November 2014 midterm Congressional elections, Obama has become more open in his espousal of this world-view – after all, he no longer has to face an electorate, nor does his party, until 2016 -- and it became more clear that he was a disciple of Said’s.

I was just referring to ideological affinity. But then I did a simple Google search, entering the words Barack Obama and Edward Said, and – lo and behold – it turns out there was an actual personal connection.

It appears that Obama, as a student at Columbia University in New York in 1982, took courses with the leading theoretician of post-colonialism, the academic who authored Culture and Imperialism, The Question of Palestine, The Politics of Dispossession, and his 1978 masterwork, Orientalism. That last book, in particular, has shaped how the world is viewed by a generation of academics, journalists, and other intellectuals.

In Culture and Imperialism, Said wrote that “The United States has replaced the earlier great empires and is the dominant outside force.” For Obama, the idea of “American exceptionalism” has been a ruse designed to mask America’s position as the inheritor of European colonialism.

Obama and Said kept in touch after Obama moved to Chicago, where the future president would become a community organizer. The Obamas attended a Palestinian fundraiser in Chicago in May 1998 at which Said was the featured speaker.

Obama also befriended Said’s protegé Rashid Khalidi, who was at the time a professor at the University of Chicago. Khalidi moved to Columbia in 2003, where he currently occupies the Edward Said chair of Modern Arab Studies. The Obamas attended his farewell party.

A special tribute at the party came from “Khalidi’s friend and frequent dinner companion, the young state Sen. Barack Obama,” reported an April 10, 2008 Los Angeles Times article. “Speaking to the crowd, Obama reminisced about meals prepared by Khalidi’s wife, Mona, and conversations that had challenged his thinking.”

The consequences for American policy in the Middle East have been profound, including the current “cold war” between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice blasted Netanyahu’s March 3 address to Congress, in which he warned that the future of Israel, and the world, is imperiled by a pending “bad deal” with Iran on its nuclear program. 

Rice called his visit “destructive” to relations between the U.S. and Israel. Such invective is almost unheard of when speaking about an ally.

Obama’s politics also harkens back to an older American tradition, that of the influential Communist-organized Popular Front of the 1930s. As University of Connecticut Professor Christopher Vials observes in his recent book Haunted by Hitler: Liberals, the Left, and the Fight Against Fascism in the United States, “Popular Front nationalism was of an aspirational sort.”

Rather than applauding the United States for “offering the best system in the world, it praised the nation mainly for the promise it held for the future.”

Obama loves today’s America less than he does the future one he is helping to create, where subaltern groups who are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the power structure -- African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims -- would gain their place in an America that will have finally transcended its white, largely Protestant ideological past: Hence his fervent pro-immigration stance.

Edward Said did his work well. Who says academics have no influence!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Abkhazia, South Ossetia: Two De Facto States in South Caucasus

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

In 2008, then president Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia decided to conquer two areas, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that had been autonomous parts of Georgia when that country was itself one of the 15 constituent republics in the Soviet Union.

In the complex ethnically-based federal structure of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia had been an autonomous republic while South Ossetia was an autonomous region, both within Georgia.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia had successfully seceded from Georgia after 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and ethnic tensions grew over Georgia’s moves towards independence. In both, there was a mass exodus of ethnic Georgians. (Prior to this, ethnic Abkhaz were in fact a minority within their republic.)

Saakashvili, who rose to power in Georgia after the Rose Revolution that ousted the country’s former leader, ex-Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in 2003, was determined to get the two entities back.

 He began building up his military with American arms, and even hoped Georgia might join NATO and the European Union. He had been encouraged in this ambition by people like Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a “hawk” when it came to relations with Russia.

British academic Richard Sakwa argues in his new book Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, that most western leaders saw Russia as a defeated nation whose interests could be brushed aside, and which must accept U.S. hegemony.

So in early August 2008, Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia. But instead of recapturing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgians soon found themselves at war with Russia.

Saakashvili had miscalculated and had underestimated Russia’s resolve in defending the two breakaway areas. Moscow pushed the Georgians back in less than a week, and soon afterwards formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states.

The Bush administration had acceded to the independence of Kosovo, the former Serbian province, in February 2008. Moscow would cite the Kosovo precedent in pushing the claims of separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In September 2009 an EU fact-finding mission determined that the 2008 conflict was caused by Georgia’s attack on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7-8.

Today the Republic of Abkhazia, with a population of 243,000, controls 8,660 square kilometres, and remains beholden to Russia for its independence.

Raul Khadzhimba, who was elected president last August, said that Abkhazia and Russia “live and develop in common civilization space.” The economy of Abkhazia is heavily integrated with Russia and uses the Russian rouble as its currency.

On Nov. 24, 2014, an agreement was signed between Putin and Khadzhimba to create joint Russian and Abkhazian military forces. This, declared the Abkhaz president, will create more firm guarantees for the sovereignty of Abkhazia, and will provide more opportunities for attracting investments. The accord also made it easier for residents of Abkhazia to obtain Russian citizenship.

The Georgian government denounced it as a step towards annexation. “The signature of the so-called treaty constitutes a deliberate move by Russia in reaction to Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” the Georgian foreign minister, Tamar Beruchashvili, said in a statement.

The Republic of South Ossetia, whose 51,000 people live within an area of 3,900 square kilometres, is also protected by Russian troops. With most Georgians gone, 90 per cent of the population is Ossetian, up from two-thirds when it was part of Georgia.

It is a poor country, and former President Eduard Kokoity admitted that it is seriously dependent on Russian economic assistance. It too uses the Russian rouble.

The current incumbent, Leonid Tibilov, in power since April 2012, is widely considered loyal to Moscow after a career with the Soviet security service.

In the past quarter-century, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia dissolved. Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia, East Timor from Indonesia, Kosovo from Serbia, and South Sudan from Sudan. What so special about Georgia’s territorial integrity, if it’s clear some people prefer to acquire their own states?

As for Saakashvili, who left office in 2013, he has now become chairman of the International Advisory Council on Reforms for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko -- despite being wanted by the new Georgian government on multiple criminal charges of corruption during his time in power.

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.