Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, May 25, 2015

Russian Arms Sales in the Middle East

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Russia recently announced the lifting of its 2010 ban on the sale to Iran of five S-300 PMU-1anti-aircraft missile systems. Iran had ordered them in 2007, but Russia halted the sale under international pressure.

Israel fears Iran could supply the missile defense systems to Syria or Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s ability to defend itself.

In the past, the Soviet Union was a major arms supplier to the “anti-imperialist” Arab nations, especially Egypt and Syria, from the mid-1950s onward.

Beginning in 1955, the Egyptian armed forces depended heavily on the Soviet Union, which provided Egypt with grants and loans to pay for equipment, training, and the services of large numbers of military advisers. In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union began furnishing up-to-date MiG-21 fighter aircraft and T-54 tanks.

The overall amount of Soviet military aid to Egypt between the Sinai War of 1956 and the 1967 Six-Day War has been estimated at $1.5 billion.

By the early 1970s, the number of Soviet personnel in Egypt had risen to nearly 20,000. They participated in operational decisions and served at the battalion and sometimes even company levels.

However, following the death of Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser in 1970, Anwar Sadat, his successor, expelled Soviet advisers two years later.

The years following the 1973 Yom Kippur War saw Cairo lessen its dependence on East bloc arms and today most of its supplies come from the United States and other western countries.

Syria, however, under both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, continued to rely heavily on Soviet, and now Russian, military weapons. After the June 1967 War, Soviet military aid to Syria grew substantially and the Soviets established a sizable military presence there.

The Congressional Research Service noted in 2008 that Soviet military sales to Syria in the 1970s and 1980s were so extensive that they accounted for 90 per cent of all military arms exports from the Soviet Union, making the Soviet Union the main supplier of arms for Syria.

Russia remained Syria’s main arms supplier after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Moscow absolved Syria of $9.8 billion of its $13.4 billion debt in exchange for making Tartus a permanent Russian naval base in the Mediterranean.

Between 2000 and 2010, when Syria was subject to a European Union arms embargo, Russia and other states shipped at least $2.2 billion worth of arms and munitions to Damascus. Currently, 10 per cent of Russian global arms shipments head to Syria, and contracts are worth about $1.5 billion.

Syria in the past few years has obtained modern anti-tank and anti-air missile systems, including MiG fighter jets, tactical missile systems, and submarines.

Will Iran and Russia now develop a similar relationship? Recent sanctions against Russia may have driven the two countries closer together and the S-300 deal may be an effective way for Moscow to retaliate against the West.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Burundi Survives Yet Another Coup Attempt

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Although not as well-known as Rwanda, which suffered a genocide in 1994, Burundi, the country to its south, is almost its mirror image.

This small east African state of 10.5 million people has also seen endless violence between its Hutu majority (85 per cent) and Tutsi minority (14 per cent) since independence from Belgium in 1962.

Indeed, Cyprien Ntaryamira, its then president, was on the same airplane as his Rwandan counterpart, Juvénal Habyarimana, which was shot down on April 6, 1994 – the event that triggered the genocide in Rwanda.

In fact, the country’s first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by theTutsi-led military a year earlier, plunging the country into a brutal civil war that lasted 12 years, with a death toll of 300,000.

Of the eight people who have served as Burundi’s head of state, five have been either murdered or deposed in a coup.

In August of 2000, an interim peace agreement for Burundi was signed in Arusha, Tanzania, brokered by international leaders, including Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. 

But not all of the warring parties agreed to the deal, which required power-sharing in government between the Hutu and Tutsi and their equal representation in the nation’s army. It took eight more years until the last rebel groups laid down their arms.

Burundi adopted a new constitution in 2005 in which both Hutus and Tutsis were guaranteed representation in government. It also established presidential term limits.

In August 2005 Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, was selected as president by parliamentarians  after his National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy, one of the former Hutu rebel groups, won parliamentary elections a few weeks earlier.

He was re-elected by popular vote in June 2010, but the election was boycotted by the opposition, which complained of fraud. Since then, opposition leaders have cited increasing attacks on their parties and the media.

This year, Nkurunziza announced he would seek re-election in the vote scheduled for June 26, though the constitution limits presidents to two terms. Demonstrators took to the streets to oppose his plans to run for a third term, but his supporters claim that his first term does not count toward the limit because he was not directly elected by voters in 2005. Government officials have made accusations that the demonstrations were in “Tutsi-dominated areas.”

On May13, a group of army officers attempted to overthrow the government while Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for talks with regional leaders. The coup failed, and many of its leaders, including Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, were arrested.

Niyombare, also an ex-Hutu rebel, was fired in February after he expressed objections to Nkurunziza seeking a third term. 

Armed soldiers continue to patrol the capital, Bujumbura, confronting hundreds of angry protesters calling on Nkurunziza to rescind his decision.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Uncivil Societies: the Iraqi and Libyan Examples

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In recent decades the concept of civil society has become a major focus for political scientists analyzing the links between voluntary organizations of citizens, democracy and development. It is an arena for dialogue between different actors in society and helps generate the social basis for democracy.

As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has noted, voluntary organizations such as non-governmental organizations build social capital and generalized trust and tolerance in society, which are crucial for a democratic political system.

But Putnam also introduced the concept of “negative social capital,” invested not towards positive ends but in support of anti-democratic practices. This may, he writes, result in “uncivil societies.”

How does this come about? It involves the contradiction between the bonding and bridging functions of the various social networks in a society.

Network bonding creates a tight and homogenous group, but a deficit of bridging – that is, those factors enabling the group to participate, with other groups, in the larger political sphere – may create a situation where the group is so inwardly-focused that it lacks trust, or even interest, in other ones.

In most non-western states, often clan-based or riven by ethnic or religious tensions, the bonding functions prevail over the bridging ones – resulting in the lack of effective institutions conducive to democracy or the rule of law.

A state that consists of strong internally integrated groups, but without many overarching connections between them, is so fragmented that it is little more than a “virtual” polity.

Elections become contests between rival, highly bonded groups, each with its own political organization, and adversaries never set aside their own interests for the common good.

Given the levels of mistrust, results are often disputed and assumed to be fraudulent. In all too many cases this leads to violence and military intervention.

Sometimes, as in Somalia or Congo, the state effectively disappears and other social structures, such as clans or ethnic tribes, become governing entities.

Two countries now in total disarray come immediately to mind: Iraq and Libya. In both cases, national unity was a veneer manufactured by a brutal dictatorship that, once removed, led to state collapse.

Today, both countries are wracked by warfare between the competing ethnic, religious and tribal factions that inhabit their respective territories.

Iraq is at the moment divided by three groups, corresponding roughly to its pre-war divisions.

In the north, the Kurds have established a self-governing region, independent in all but name. Its boundaries remain somewhat fluid, as some places, like Kirkuk, remain contested between them and Sunni Arabs.

Much of the Sunni Arab part of the country has fallen under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), which is battling both the Kurds and the so-called national government.

The latter, which controls Baghdad and the southern part of Mesopotamia down to Basra, is really now a Shi’ite Arab vassal state under Iranian tutelage.

The most effective forces battling ISIS are not the army, but sectarian Shi’ite militias led by Iranian “advisors.”

Any sense of Iraqi identity is long gone, consigned to history along with Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party regime.

Libya, since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, has unravelled into tribal and geographic splinters, with rival so-called governments in or near its two main cities, Tripoli and Benghazi. Here too extremist Islamists are taking advantage of the vacuum and are gaining influence.

Iraq and Libya have both held elections since their liberation from dictatorship, but they are, in Putnam’s sense, “uncivil societies,” lacking in compromise, trust and tolerance.

 Elections do not solve their deep-seated problems and are, really, quite meaningless. They should not be seen as leading towards some sort of democratic political system.

It may take a long time, and different political and social experiments, to stabilize these societies.

Alternatively, it may become evident that the modern form of sovereign statehood is not a proper fit for them.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Warsaw Pact Was Signed 60 Years Ago

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

This coming May 14th will mark the 60th anniversary of an event few people today know or care about. On that day in 1955, the Warsaw Pact was signed between the Soviet Union and its east European Communist satellites of Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

The Cold War between the western democracies and the Communist world had already been raging for almost a decade, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in place since April 4, 1949.

But the proximate cause for the signing in Warsaw of the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance” was the decision by the western powers five days earlier to allow West Germany, the part of the country occupied by Britain, France and the United States in 1945, to join NATO and re-arm. It had just been granted full sovereignty.

The decision to admit West Germany made its neighbours to the east wary. After all, it had been only a decade since Nazi Germany had devastated the region, resulting in tens of millions killed. The Soviet Union itself had suffered at least 25 million dead. In Poland, an estimated one-quarter of its population had perished.

With the formation of the Warsaw Pact, Europe was split into ideological and military camps. The Pact – always run by Russians -- allowed the USSR to intervene in any of its member states and legitimized, at least from Moscow’s point of view, Soviet control over the countries it had occupied after 1945.

It provided cover for the violent suppression of the Hungarian uprising in the autumn of 1956, after the government of Imre Nagy formally declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.

The policy was made even more explicit by the Brezhnev Doctrine, named for Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader who used it to invade Czechoslovakia and overthrow the Communists who were trying to reform its political system in August 1968.

“When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries,” he declared. Along with Soviet troops, the armies of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland snuffed out the Prague Spring.

Soon afterwards, Albania, which had sided with China in its ideological dispute with the Soviet Union, left the Pact. Romania had increasingly distanced itself from the Pact and Moscow’s leadership by the mid-1960s. Neither country participated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Yugoslavia, though a Communist state, had refused to acknowledge Soviet supremacy. It had broken with Moscow in 1948 and was never a member.

By the late 1980s, the Soviet empire was crumbling, and it would take the Warsaw Pact down with it. Mikhail Gorbachev became the secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, and soon made it clear he would not use the provisions of the Pact to hold onto eastern Europe by force.

It didn’t take long for its members to free themselves of Soviet domination. In October 1990 Germany was reunited, and Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland withdrew from all Warsaw Pact military exercises.

A few months later, this once-powerful military alliance was no more. The defence and foreign ministers of its members met in Hungary in February 1991to disband the Pact, and it ceased to exist on July 1, 1991. Today all of them, as well as the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are part of NATO.

Massive Support for Scottish Nationalists

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The Yes side managed to persuade 45 per cent of the Scottish electorate to vote in favour of separation from the rest of the United Kingdom last fall. Though it lost, the Scottish National Party, which advocates a sovereign Scotland, remains stronger than ever.

In the May 7 British general election, the SNP garnered 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in the House of Commons, an incredible increase of 50 from 2010. And much of the credit goes to Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

The first person in her family to attend university – she studied law at the University of Glasgow – Sturgeon joined the SNP as a student in 1986. After several failed attempts at winning elections, she became a member of the newly-created Scottish Parliament in 1999, and rose to the position of deputy first minister. The SNP won 64 seats in the 129-member Scottish assembly in 2011.

After Alex Salmond stepped down as SNP leader following last year’s referendum, Sturgeon became Scotland’s first minister.

Sturgeon, called “the most dangerous woman in Britain” by the Daily Mail newspaper, became a Scottish nationalist because, she has explained, you cannot guarantee social justice unless you are in control of the delivery.

“With a big team of SNP MPs holding unprecedented power and influence for Scotland, we can make Scotland stronger at Westminster, lock the Tories out of government, put an end to cuts and ensure we invest in our vital public services,” she said, pointing in particular to the National Health Service.

The main victim of Sturgeon’s success has been Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, which used to consider Scotland one of its heartlands. The party’s Scottish representation in the House of Commons fell from 40 in 2010 to just one.

There were huge swings from Labour to the SNP in dozens of constituencies. The SNP won a 50 per cent share of the popular vote in Scotland, with Labour down to about 24 per cent.

So huge was the SNP victory that Mhairi Black, a third-year politics student at the University of Glasgow defeated the man who planned Labour’s entire election campaign, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander. Black, who is 20, has become the youngest MP since 1667.

The Liberal Democrats held 11 seats north of the English border, and the Conservatives only one. After the 2015 vote, they have retained one each.

It is significant that the ideological gap between England and Scotland has widened. While the victorious Conservatives increased their numbers in the English south of the country, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats losing dozens of seats, the left-of-centre SNP dominates Scotland like never before.

Scottish voters want radical reform, perhaps even a complete restructuring of the UK along federal lines. At the very least, Scotland’s own legislature will gain new powers.

Salmon, interviewed by the BBC, suggested that “Cameron will have no legitimacy in Scotland.” Politically, Scotland and England now feel like very different countries. The very future of the United Kingdom as a state is increasingly in doubt.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Saudi Arabia Counters Iranian Aggression

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Iran has been slowly tightening its grip on a number of Middle Eastern countries, three of which border Saudi Arabia. It appears the Saudis have had enough.

One sign of the kingdom’s more muscular foreign policy? Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, Salman bin Abdulaziz, on the throne just three months, in late April rearranged the kingdom’s line of succession.

He replaced Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as his successor with Muhammad bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the kingdom’s powerful interior minister.

The new crown prince, who is the king’s nephew, is considered a hard-liner and has led a crackdown on Islamic militants within the country. He crushed the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out a bombing campaign in Riyadh between 2005 and 2007, and in 2009 he survived an assassination attempt.

Only a day before the reshuffle Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 93 militants for ties to the Islamic State, including two whom it alleges were planning to bomb the American embassy in Riyadh.

The king’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was named second in line to the throne. As defence minister, he has been a vocal advocate of using force against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. He is also linked to a new Saudi initiative to support Syrian rebels, together with Turkey.

Spearheading a coalition of nine Arab states, the Saudis began carrying out airstrikes in Yemen on March 26. The intervention, named Operation Decisive Storm, began in response to the Houthi offensive in the country, whose president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, had fled to Saudi Arabia.

But Operation Decisive Storm hardly lived up to its name. Despite the thousands of missions flown, the hundreds of military-related targets that were hit, and the thousands killed, the political process in Yemen remains at a stalemate.

On April 21, Saudi Arabia wound up the military operation and announced it was launching Operation Restoring Hope, emphasizing political and peace efforts between the combatants in Yemen. Some military operations continue, however.

Saudi leaders have long been frustrated that the United States has not done more to limit Iran’s influence. They sense that Washington would like to step back from its obligations in the Middle East, allowing a resurgent Iran to seek hegemony in the region.

The Obama administration was cool to the formation of an Arab coalition against the Houthi rebels and also sought to dissuade the Saudis from launching a ground operation.

Of course Tehran is not happy with Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has criticized Riyadh’s actions in Yemen, declaring that the kingdom’s traditional caution in world affairs has been abandoned by “inexperienced youngsters who want to show savagery instead of patience and self-restraint.”

 The Iranians have even taken to taunting the Saudis of late. General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said that Saudi Arabia, by “shamelessly and disgracefully bombing and killing a nation,” was “following in the Zionist regime’s footsteps in the Islamic world.” He predicted that “the house of Saud will be toppled.”

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Convoluted Politics of Vanuatu

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Small isolated South Pacific archipelagos rarely make the news, unless they are the victims of some catastrophe. That’s what happened to the 83-island nation of Vanuatu in mid-March, when Cyclone Pam tore through the country. It was the South Pacific’s second strongest cyclone since record-keeping began in 1970.

The storm crippled Vanuatu’s infrastructure: an estimated 90 per cent of the nation’s buildings were impacted, telecommunications were paralyzed, and at least 132,000 people – half the total population -- were affected. 

Some 90 per cent of food crops were destroyed and 75,000 people made homeless. Outer islands like Tanna were cut off from Port Vila, the capital, on the island of Éfaté, for many days.

President Baldwin Lonsdale said the “monster” storm had “wiped out” all development of recent years and his nation would have to rebuild “everything.” Lonsdale, who happened to be at a UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, issued an appeal to the global community to help his shattered nation.

Australia, New Zealand, and France (which still governs the French overseas territories of New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the South Pacific) began a coordinated response to provide humanitarian assistance. Britain, the European Union and India promised financial aid. Still, full recovery will take years.

Vanuatu was one of the last South Pacific entities to attain independence. Located about 1,750 kilometres east of Australia, its population of indigenous Melanesians are known as ni-Vanuatu.

Though more than 100 languages are spoken throughout the island chain, a creole language, Bislama, is the national language. The languages of the former colonial powers, English and French, also have official status.

Most ni-Vanuatu are Christians, the largest denominations being Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Anglican.

However, on Tanna, whose inhabitants were exposed to the American military and their wealth of supplies, or “cargo,” during the Second World War, a belief in a mythical messianic American figure named John Frum became the basis for an indigenous “cargo cult,” promising material goods from the spirit world through worship and ritual.

John Frum followers believe the cyclone and subsequent aid are a precursor to a major event that will take place next year.

The first Europeans to see the islands were Portuguese; in 1774 the islands were named the New Hebrides by the British explorer Captain James Cook. British and French commercial interests became active in the islands in the 19th century, leading the two countries to administer the islands jointly, under a British-French “condominium,” in 1906.

The first political movement, the Vanua’aku (Our Land) Party, was established in the early 1970s and one of the founders, the Anglican priest Father Walter Lini, became the first prime minister at independence in July1980.

As is the case with many archipelagic countries, some of Vanuatu’s islands harbor strong secessionist feelings. A movement on Tanna proclaimed its independence from the New Hebrides condominium in 1974, but was suppressed.

In January 1980, there was another attempt on Tanna to secede. British forces intervened, allowing the island to become part of the new Republic of Vanuatu six months later.

While English-speaking politicians such as Lini had favoured early independence, French-speaking political leaders preferred continuing association with the colonial administrators, particularly France.

On the eve of independence, the Nagriamel movement, in alliance with private French interests, declared the island of Espiritu Santo independent of the new nation. The Lini government quashed the short-lived “Republic of Vemerana” a few weeks later with troops from Papua New Guinea.

From then until 1991, Lini’s predominantly Anglophone Vanua’aku Party controlled the Vanuatu government. That year Maxime Carlot Korman, leader of the Francophone Union of Moderate Parties (UMP), was elected Vanuatu's first Francophone prime minister. The UMP was the governing party in Vanuatu from 1991 to 1998.

Vanuatu’s chaotic political culture has led to frequent changes of government since then. A record 16 parties and four independent candidates won seats to the 52-member parliament in 2012. Currently, the prime minister is Joe Natuman of the Vanua’aku Party, the country’s third leader since the election.

He offended many ni-Vanuatu on a tour of the areas most affected by Cyclone Pam when he urged citizens to “plant their own gardens and survive” and told them that they had become too dependent on government due to French colonial rule.

Though the condominium is long gone, its after-effects linger, as political parties in Vanuatu continue to reflect the colonial legacy of France and Britain and the religious and linguistic divisions they left behind.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nepal is No Shangri-La

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The powerful earthquake that killed thousands of people on April 25 in Nepal drew the world’s attention to the country. Large parts of the capital, Kathmandu, were in ruins.

A Himalayan country north of India, Nepal has often been seen as an idyllic place. It was perhaps the setting for “Shangri-La,” the mystical, harmonious valley described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton.

Hilton pictured Shangri-La as an earthly paradise. The book enjoyed great popularity, and when the novel was turned into a Hollywood movie by Frank Capra, it was an instant success.

In the 1960s, Kathmandu was on the “hippie trail.” The city was seen as a panacea for the ills of Western culture. Remember the 1975 song “Katmandu” recorded by American rock artist Bob Seger?

The reality is very different. Kathmandu is overcrowded -- the city now has more than 2.5 million residents, or nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population. And Nepal’s 30 million people are mainly poor.

It is an incredibly fractured country: 125 caste and ethnic groups, and 123 languages, were reported in the 2011 national census. The two largest demographic groups are Nepali-speaking hill Chhetri (15.8 to 18 per cent) and Nepali-speaking hill Brahmin (12.7 per cent).

Some 81 per cent of Nepalese are Hindus, with Buddhists, at nine percent, and Muslims at about five percent, making up most of the remainder.

An armed revolution was launched in Nepal in 1996 by Maoist rebels who studied and admired Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong’s works and wanted to implement them.

Their goal was to abolish the country’s 240-year-old Hindu monarchy. The Maoists quickly developed a following by vowing to provide economic and political equality to the country’s marginalized communities.

Their People’s Liberation Army engaged in armed struggle for a decade, killing about 13,000 people, before the rebels laid down their weapons and decided to engage in the political process.

A mass movement demanding greater democracy led to the election of a Constituent Assembly in 2008. It removed the country’s last monarch, King Gyanendra, and declared Nepal a federal democratic republic. It then spent four years trying to write a constitution, but without success.

Between 2008 and 2011 there were four different coalition governments, led twice by the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which received a plurality of votes in the 2008 election, and twice by the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML).

In November 2013 a new Constituent Assembly was elected, in which the Nepali Congress Party won the largest share of seats and formed a coalition government with the second place CPN-UML. Sushil Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party became prime minister in February 2014.

Even so, the threat of crippling strikes by the Maoists still prevents the country from drafting a constitution. Little wonder that Nepalese have been emigrating to neighboring countries, especially India, in large numbers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Armenian Genocide a Century Later

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

April 24 marked the centenary of the start of the genocide of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Historians estimate that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in state-organized violence between 1915 and 1922, some in massacres, others in forced marches to the Syrian desert that left them starved to death.

That this constituted genocide is the official view of Canada and about 20 other countries – though not of Britain or the United States.

On April 12, Pope Francis, at a special mass in the Armenian Catholic rite in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to mark the anniversary, described the mass killings as the “first genocide of the 20th century.”

The Pope was joined by Kerekin II, the Supreme Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian President Serzh Sargasyan, and other dignitaries. “Bishops and priests, religious women and men, the elderly and even defenceless children and the infirm were murdered,” the Pope said. 

This touched off a diplomatic furor with Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Pope’s words and warned him to “not repeat this mistake.” Ankara recalled its ambassador to the Vatican. 

“We will not allow historical incidents to be taken out of their genuine context and be used as a tool to campaign against our country,” Erdogan declared. “The Armenian diaspora is trying to instill hatred against Turkey.”

Last year, Erdogan offered “condolences” to the families of those who died and called the events “inhumane.” But Turkey rejects the use of the term genocide to describe the killings, arguing it was part of a larger war in which ethnic Turks, Kurds, and other Muslims also died. 

In winter 1914 and spring 1915, there was fierce fighting in eastern Anatolia between Turks and Armenians; sometimes the Armenians had Russian help. So in May 1915, a law was passed calling for the “relocation” of the entire Armenian population of eastern Anatolia.

Was the subsequent massacre of the Armenians a genocide? It depends on the definition of the word, which was coined by a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, during the Second World War. 

Ethnic cleansing, massacres, and many other war crimes, while reprehensible, are not the same as genocide, even if they involve large numbers of deaths. What matters is the “intent” to destroy a group as such.

When he died, in 1959 Lemkin was nearly finished writing an autobiography. He described as a formative experience the 1921 trial in Berlin of Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian accused of murdering a former Ottoman minister of the interior, Mehmet Taalat Pasha, one of the architects of the killings. 

Though Lemkin himself later escaped death by fleeing Poland during the Nazi invasion and coming to the United States, the bulk of his family did not. Close to 50 of his relatives perished in the Holocaust.

Lemkin’s life’s work was to make the destruction of a people illegal. His book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944, first coined the term “genocide,” identifying it as “actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” 

Thanks to his groundbreaking work, in 1948 the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

When Lemkin was asked in February 1949, just after the Convention was ratified, why he became interested in genocide, he answered, “Because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians.”

Certainly the evidence is incontrovertible: “Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful Armenian populations,” read a telegram from the American embassy in Constantinople to the State Department in Washington in 1915, with “wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other.”

The American ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, asked the United States government to intervene, but the U.S. was not a participant in the First World War at the time. In his 1918 book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, he wrote that when the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations, “they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well, and, in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact.”

Turkey may today deny this was the case, but most historians agree that the Armenian massacres do qualify as genocide.

Russians Playing Dangerous Game in Middle East

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
I guess President Vladimir Putin of Russia thinks Iran has rejoined the family of nations. How else can we explain his sale of sophisticated weapons to Tehran?

Russia announced on April 13 the lifting of its ban on the sale to Iran of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Iran had ordered them in 2007, but Russia halted the sale under international pressure. 

The 2007 deal on the delivery of five S-300 PMU-1 systems was put on hold by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, following a UN Security Council embargo on arms deliveries to Tehran, imposed over fears that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

Putin now defends his decision to sell the system. Moscow has stated that a preliminary agreement between the P5+1 world powers and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program reached earlier this April makes the ban no longer relevant.

“We froze the fulfillment of this contract unilaterally and now, after there’s been positive progress on the Iranian nuclear path, we don’t see any reason to retain the ban,” Putin stated on April 16. He claimed that the Iranians “are demonstrating great flexibility and clear desire to reach compromises on the Iranian nuclear program.”

The missiles are capable of simultaneously tracking and intercepting dozens of airborne targets at ranges of up to 150 kilometres. They may be delivered to Iran as early as this year.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, on April 14 informed Putin of his “grave concern” regarding the sale. Putin reportedly replied that the S-300 served defensive purposes only and didn’t constitute a threat to Israel’s security.

However, Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s political security division, maintains that it is not a defensive weapon, but rather one “which encourages aggression and the violent methods of the Iranian government.”

Israel fears Iran could supply the missile defense systems to Syria or Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s air supremacy over Syria and Lebanon.

 Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to both Kyiv and Moscow, has said that Israel has benefited considerably from the ties with Russia in recent years. Some Israeli officials fear that this may now be changing as the Kremlin rebuilds its standing in the Middle East.

Israel has now announced it will not send a representative to Russia for the ceremonies marking 70 years since its victory over Germany, set to take place in Moscow’s Red Square next month. 

Are relations between Moscow and Tehran becoming warmer? Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Tehran in January to discuss increasing defense cooperation and arms trade with the Islamic republic. 

Moscow has also negotiated an oil-for-goods exchange with Iran that would involve acquiring some 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day in exchange for Russian equipment and goods. 

Recent sanctions against Russia may have driven the two countries closer together and the the S-300 deal may be an effective way for Moscow to retaliate against the West.

Monday, April 20, 2015

America's Two Greatest Presidents Died in Month of April

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

This month marks the 150th and 70th anniversaries, respectively, of the deaths of America’s two greatest presidents.

Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” died from an assassin’s bullet on April 15, 1865, just six days after the Civil War had drawn to a close with the defeat of the Confederacy. He was just 56 years old.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his fourth term as president, died at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, as the Second World War was drawing to a close. Nazi Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945, Japan on Aug. 15.

Lincoln, the country’s 16th president came from humble beginning, born in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1809.

The family moved to Illinois in 1830, and four years later Lincoln began his political career, becoming a lawyer and being elected to the Illinois state legislature as a member of the Whig Party.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed individual states and territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. It provoked violent opposition and gave rise to the new Republican Party, which Lincoln joined in 1856.

Four years later, Lincoln became the presidential nominee of the party and won the election in a four-way race. His views regarding the immorality of slavery led to secessionism in the south. On April 12, 1861, America’s most deadly war began.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which stated that all individuals held as slaves in the rebellious states “henceforward shall be free.” He won re-election in 1864 and the war ended five months later.

Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., and died the next day.

Two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address of Nov. 19, 1863 and the Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, are without doubt the greatest in American history.

FDR, as everyone called him, was the country’s longest serving chief executive, having been first elected in 1932. He had presided over the Great Depression and most of the war, leaving an indelible stamp on American politics for several decades.

Born in 1882, the 32nd president came from a prominent New York family, and attended Harvard University. He entered politics in 1910 and was elected to the New York State Senate as a Democrat. He was nominated for vice- president by the Democratic Party in 1920 on a ticket headed by James M. Cox of Ohio, but the party lost the election.

He was elected governor of New York State in 1928, and four years later became president of the United States.

 The 1929 stock market crash had led to the Great Depression. Factory closings, farm foreclosures, and bank failures increased, while unemployment soared.

Roosevelt undertook immediate actions to initiate his New Deal and created numerous federal agencies, including the Works Projects Administration (WPA), to aid the unemployed. FDR also brought in Social Security to help the aged.

His programs involved the expansion of the role of the federal government in the economy. Roosevelt’s policies united labor unions, big city machines, white ethnics, African Americans, and rural white Southerners and made the Democratic Party for decades the dominant force in American politics.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, brought the nation into the war. Roosevelt exercised his powers as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and was responsible for the policy of “unconditional surrender,” leading to the complete defeat of the Axis powers.

Both men were deeply mourned. No other presidents have shaped the country’s history, during times of crisis, more than they did.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Iran, Pakistan Share Volatile Border

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

We think of the Sunni-Shia “border” as the one between Iran and its Arab neighbours to its west. But there’s another: the one between Iran and Pakistan, the mainly Sunni state to its east.

Two episodes in the volatile area in early April left eight Iranian border guards and three militants dead.
The border guards were killed in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province. A Sunni extremist group, Jaish ul-Adl (Army of Justice), claimed responsibility for the attack. They have been carrying out a program of harassment, including derailing trains and conducting assassinations.

Sistan-Baluchestan Province is one of the 31 provinces of Iran, in the southeast of the country, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. A significant segment of the province’s population, the Baluch, are Sunni Muslims, who have historically suffered from discrimination.

Iran has accused Sunni militants based in Pakistan of previous attacks by militant groups. In 2013, three members of the country’s Revolutionary Guards were killed by a bomb blast. Jaish ul-Adl said it also carried out that attack.

Pakistan in turn has protested Iranian incursions into Pakistani territory at least twice last year, and has complained about mortar attacks by Iranian forces.

Unlike Iran, Pakistan is already a nuclear-armed state, and is being increasingly drawn into the Middle East’s conflicts. Saudi Arabia wants Sunni-majority Pakistan to join its coalition fighting the Shia Houthis in Yemen and has requested ships, aircraft and troops.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, visited Islamabad to urge Pakistan to reject the request. Pakistan’s own Shia Muslim minority, who comprise upwards of one-quarter of the country’s 200 million people, fears any intervention in Yemen would fuel more anti-Shia violence at home.

Since 2008, Pakistan’s Shia community has been the target of an unprecedented escalation in sectarian violence as Sunni militants have killed thousands of Shia across the country.

The al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Army of Jhangvi), one of many groups organized in reaction to the Shia theocracy in Iran, has taken responsibility for most of the attacks, especially against the mostly Shia Hazara community in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province. The capital, Quetta, has been the site of many atrocities.

Iran and Pakistan definitely remain wary of each other.