Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

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.

Islamist Extremists Wreak Havoc in Africa

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

On April 2, gunmen from the Somali group al-Shabaab attacked Garrisa University College in Garissa, Kenya, killing 148 people. They warned that new attacks would be coming, and that Kenyan cities “will run red with blood.”

The alleged mastermind of the attack is a Kenyan national, Mohamed Mohamud aka Dulyadeyn, a close friend of al-Shabaab’s leader, Ahmed Omar Abu Ubeyd. Another gunman was Abdirahim Mohammed Abdullahi, a law graduate and the son of a government chief.

The most notorious Islamist terrorist groups in Africa are found in two very different countries, at opposite ends of the continent.

In Somalia, al-Shabaab is a product of the very collapse of the state, while in Nigeria, Boko Haram wishes to impose an extreme version of Islam in the Muslim north of a country torn by corruption, and ethnic and religious conflict.

Somalia is that rarity in Africa, an ethnically and religiously homogenous country; virtually all Somalis are Sunnis and speak Somali. Yet Somalia itself has been without an effective government since 1991, when the last dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, fled the country.

The reason: fierce rivalry among the major clans into which Somalis are divided. Into that political vacuum, a militant Islamist group known as al-Shabaab emerged after 2006, following an incursion by Ethiopian troops. Kenyan forces also sent its forces into Somalia.

In return, al-Shabaab has carried out attacks against both countries. They wreaked havoc on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in September 2013, which resulted in at least 67 deaths; claimed responsibility for two attacks on the Kenyan coast which killed more than 60 in June 2014; and now with the bloody massacre in Garissa.

The militants tried to justify the latest attack by saying that this part of Kenya was “a Muslim land” – it is populated mostly by ethnic Somalis and was in the past claimed by Somali governments.

Al-Shabaab has been recruiting among poor young Muslims in north-eastern Kenya, warning them that the school was part of Kenya’s “plan to spread their Christianity and infidelity.”

Boko Haram has been a reaction to the extreme corruption and religious volatility found in Africa’s most populous country. While fabulously wealthy, Nigeria’s elite shares very little with the masses, especially those in the Muslim north-east, traditionally the poorest and least influential part of the country.

Since the country’s independence in 1960, about $600 billion in oil revenue has flowed into the government’s coffers, yet an estimated $400 billion has been diverted, misspent or simply stolen.

During President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure, 2010-2015, the corruption scandals of government ministers were quietly ignored. Parliamentary reports detailing these scandals were hushed up. High civil servants who exposed them were fired. In 2013, central bank governor Lamido Sanusi identified $20 billion in “leakages” from government oil accounts.

Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country has had a Muslim president.

Since its formation in 2002, the extremist group has killed some 16,000 people and taken over swathes of the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. It has lately even extended its military campaign by targeting neighbouring countries Cameroon and Chad.

In August 2014, Abubakar Muhammad Shekau, its leader, declared a caliphate in areas under Boko Haram’s control, and praised Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

President Jonathan, a southern Christian, seemed impassive in the face of this growing threat -- perhaps the reason he lost the recent presidential election to a former dictator, Muhammadu Buhari, the military ruler of Nigeria between 1983 and 1985.

Buhari waged a “war against indiscipline” that prescribed humiliating punishment for tardy civil servants. He is seen as selfless, disciplined and incorruptible. Perhaps Nigerians feel that only someone like Buhari, himself a Muslim from the north, can “fight fire with fire.”

Monday, April 06, 2015

Tajikistan - Poor and Repressive Country

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

Central Asia is usually defined as consisting of five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  It is a huge part of the world: 4,003,451 square kilometres, with a total population of about 66 million.

All of these countries have struggled since acquiring independence in 1991 and, though some are more repressive than others, in none can we say that democracy has taken root.

With an area of 143,100 square kilometres, Tajikistan is the smallest of the five, and its 8.2 million people are also the poorest. It borders Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Mountains cover more than 90 per cent of the country. 

Prior to their absorption into the Russian Empire in the 19th century, the Tajiks were governed by two Uzbeki entities, the Emirate of Bukhara and Khanate of Kokand. 

Along with other Muslim peoples in the region, the Tajiks fought against Russian, and later Soviet, rule, as part of the Basmachi movement, but were eventually subdued. In 1929 the Soviets created a separate Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. There was some economic and social progress during this time, but the republic remained poor.

Independence in 1991 brought about civil war between militias representing different clans and regions of the country, and resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 people, with another 1.2 million becoming refugees or internally displaced persons.

Tajikistan is largely dependent on agriculture, with cotton the most important crop. The economy has never really recovered from the civil war, and poverty is widespread. State-funded educational and medical services were ended in 2003. Almost half of GDP is earned by migrants working abroad.

Emomali Rahmonov took over as head of state in 1992 and won election as Tajikistan’s first president in 1994. A ceasefire with the United Tajik Opposition – an alliance of Islamic and nationalist forces -- went into effect that year and a formal peace brokered by the United Nations in 1997 brought a final end to hostilities. 

The deal guaranteed the opposition, led by the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), 30 per cent of government positions. The IRP for many religious nationalists was seen as a preferable alternative to former Communist apparatchiks like the president – who got the message. He changed his last name to Rahmon, to de-Russify it, and undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca.

In 1999 Rahmon was re-elected for a second term with 96 per cent of the vote in what was clearly a fixed election. He won a third term in 2006 and a fourth in 2013 (this time with 83.9 per cent) in elections which international observers said were neither free nor fair. 

Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party also won 55 of the 63 legislative seats in the Majlisi Namoyandagon (Assembly of Representatives) elections in 2010. The IRP and Communists each won two.

On March 1, Tajikistan held new legislative elections. This time the People’s Democratic Party won 57 seats; while the Communists held their two seats, the IRP was shut out.

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that half the votes they saw being counted should have been thrown out. They also reported ballot-box stuffing and intimidation. IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri refused to recognize the outcome, while Communist Party leader Shodi Shabdolov called the election “a political farce.” 

The IRP has been the victim of violent attacks by thugs on party meetings, accusations of polygamy, closure of multiple offices, and the enlistment of former members to record video messages warning people not to join the party.

Meanwhile, on March 5, Umarali Kuvatov, leader of a Tajik movement called Group 24, who fled the country in 2012, was assassinated in Istanbul. His movement, a vocal critic of the Rahmon government, was declared an “extremist organization” and banned last October. Two other members were sentenced by a Tajikistan court to 16 ½ years in prison each on March 13.

Though the civil war ended some two decades ago, younger insurgents, some with contacts to Salafi Islamists outside the country, remain a problem. Along with poverty, unemployment, and corruption under an increasingly autocratic regime, none of this bodes well for the country.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Yemen Civil War Draws in Neighbours

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

It seems that after years, indeed decades, of vacillation, Saudi Arabia has finally decided to challenge its rival, Iran, if only via a proxy fight in Yemen.

The rebel Houthi Zaidis belong to a Shia school of Islam and are supported by the regime in Tehran.

Living in the northern highlands of the country, they make up about 35-40 per cent of its Muslim population.

The Houthis began their offensive in September, seizing the capital, Sana’a. Now Saudi Arabia, the very centre of Sunni Islam, which borders Yemen to the north, has launched airstrikes against them. 

The Arab League has called for the establishment of a voluntary, unified military force for a potential ground assault, while Iran has called the escalation a “dangerous step.”

Many are worried about an Iranian takeover of the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti and Eritrea on the African side. It connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, so ships could easily come under fire. Egyptian and Saudi warships are now patrolling the strait.

Yemen has seen other civil wars in its past that led to foreign intervention. Until 1990, Yemen referred only to the northern part of the country. It became independent in 1918, under the Zaydi House of Al-Mutawakkilite. 

In 1962 Imam Muhammad Al-Badr was deposed by a group of Egyptian supported and financed Sunni officers and a republic was proclaimed. A lengthy civil war between Yemeni republican forces, based in the cities and supported by Egypt, and the royalist supporters of the deposed imam, backed by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, ensued.

Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser supported the republicans with as many as 70,000 Egyptian troops. According to official Egyptian army figures, they had 15,194 killed, and Nasser pulled out of the conflict after his loss to Israel in the 1967 war.

The civil war officially ended with a political agreement between the republican and royalist factions brokered in 1970. A republican government was formed in Yemen, incorporating members from the royalist faction.

Meanwhile, the old British colony of Aden in the south became a separate state called South Yemen in 1967. The two countries united in 1990, but many there were unhappy with the amalgamation, and a brief civil war followed in 1994. Today, a southern separatist movement, Heraq, has seized control of some territory. 

Yemen’s President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has fled the country. Washington has shut its embassy in Sana’a and evacuated 125 Special Operations advisors. Houthi forces seized Al Anad air base, which until recently had been used by the Americans. 

The chaos in Yemen has made a mockery of Barack Obama’s statement last Sept. 10 that Yemen was an important U.S. ally and partner in American counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Now, there are even reports of an Islamic State branch operating out of Yemen.

Like many other states in the region, the Saudis realize that they can no longer depend on a war-weary America to counter Iranian aggression.

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.