Commentary on the economic , geopolitical and simply fascinating things going on. Served occasionally with a side of snark.
Monday, February 10, 2014
War Watch February 10 , 2014 -- US Inexplicably Accuses Iran of Backing al-Qaeda in Syria ..... US Aims to Spin Syria as ‘Matter of Homeland Security’ ...... Another day of death dealing in Iraq...... Senators Seek Vote on Open-Ended Afghan War Afghan Jirga Got to Vote on Agreement, Why Not Congress?
The Geneva II peace talks have resumed with closed-door meetings today after a 10-day recess, and with the concurrent watchmakers’ convention finally over, the delegates were no longer forced to hold their meetings in Montreaux, but were able to get hotels in Geneva itself.
UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi oversaw another day of talks between Syrian government negotiators, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, and a group of opposition figures from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
The SNC was quick to issue a warning about the resumption of talks, saying it would be a “waste of time” to think there might be a third round if there was no major progress made this time around.
The fact that the two sides even got to the point of meeting in the same room was itself some progress though, as the first round of talks mostly saw Brahimi ferrying messages back and forth to the groups in separate rooms, and it was only at the very end that the two sides met face-to-face.
The Assad government wants a Geneva II deal to center on the growing al-Qaeda domination of the nation’s north, while the SNC wants a deal where they are enshrined as the new government.
The tiny village of Ma’an is of no small strategic import in Syria, and is the latest focus of rebel fighters trying to cut off government supply lines. The latest sacking of thevillage has taken a heavy toll on the Alawite locals.
The latest estimates are at least 40 locals have been killed by the rebels, with roughly half of them deemed “fighters” for taking up arms when the rebels tried to enter their homes, and the other half simply women and children killed as part of the ongoing sectarian blood-letting.
Members of Syria’s Alawite minority are everywhere and always at risk of attack from rebels, since the religious sect is the same one President Bashar Assad belongs to. The value of Ma’an, which lies along the nation’s main north-south highway, means locals are at even greater risk.
If Sunni Islamist rebels retain the village is the long run, it can be expected that they will eventually depopulate the village one way or another, as they have considered Alawites presumptive Assad government loyalists.
A brief ceasefire in the Old City neighborhood of Homs has been extended, and will last an additional three days according to the United Nations, who says the deal will allow even more shipments of humanitarian aid to people who have been trapped inside for upwards of a year now.
While the extension of the ceasefire is surely welcome news, it isn’t clear that there will be many civilians left in the neighborhood by the end of the ceasefire, as Red Crescent aid trucks have been evacuating as many as they can carry, and after611 left yesterday got another 300 today.
Most of the population of Homs’ inner city had fled over the course of fighting, but those who waited too long, an estimated 2,500 of them, got caught in the Old City when the military began sieging the rebel-held area.
During the Geneva II peace talks, the Syrian government agreed that they would let any civilians who want to flee out, and promised aid for them. Keeping open the window will hopefully allow the bulk of what’s left a chance to get out.
Syria peace talks resume; warring parties still far from agreement
February 10, 20148:02AM ETUpdated 1:32PM ET
Opposition says negotiations can't continue while regime steps up violence, while gov't maintains Assad won't step down
The talks come on the heels of a rebel attack in the Alawite village of Maan, which the Syrian government has called a "massacre" and will likely use to bolster its claim that anti-government rebels are closely aligned with Al-Qaeda.
The first face-to-face meetings between the two camps adjourned 10 days ago, having achieved little beyond getting the warring sides into the same room. Fighting across the country has escalated since the first round of talks, with nearly 2,000 people killed, according to activists at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
"The negotiations cannot continue while the regime is stepping up its violence against the Syrian people," opposition spokesman Louay Safi told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with U.N.–Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. "It is not acceptable that the regime will send its own delegation to talk peace while it is killing our people in Syria."
Brahimi began holding separate closed-door meetings with the government and opposition delegations to try to set an agenda for the coming week.
While the opposition insists the aim of the talks is to agree on a transitional governing body that would replace President Bashar al-Assad, the government's delegation wants to focus on halting "terrorists," the term it routinely uses for the rebels fighting to topple him.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the issue of Assad's stepping down was not on the agenda. "Please tell those who dream of wasting our time here in such a discussion to stop it," he said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said on Monday that the talks in Geneva aren't likely to lead to any substantive progress toward solving Syria's crisis.
"Anyone looking for a deal that will end fighting is likely to be disappointed. We learned that the Geneva process is not about dealmaking — it is about name-calling and grandstanding," he told Al Jazeera.
He said that if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry decides to take a prominent role in peace negotiations, he can "shame the Assad regime and Russia (Syria’s ally) some more and eke out a few more concessions."
In an eight-page document obtained by Reuters, dated Feb. 7, that Brahimi gave to both delegations, he asked them to make a commitment at the start to deal with the two main issues: stopping the fighting and working out discussions on a transitional governing body.
"The two issues are among the most complex and sensitive, and both subjects need treatment over several sessions and long discussions," the document said. "But the future of this political process and the possibility of its success require a clear declaration from the outset that the two parties have the full and strong political will to deal with these two issues, with all that they require — courage, persistence and tenacity and openness to reach successful solutions to all the issues, no matter how complicated and thorny."
‘Massacre’ in Hama
The second round of talks comes on the heels of a rebel attack on Sunday in Maan, an Alawite village in Syria's central Hama province.
Syrian state media described the attack as a "massacre" perpetrated by "terrorists." Mekdad said "many women" were among those killed in "cold blood."
"This shows a systematic approach by these organizations and those who support them regionally and internationally that they want this for Syria — (that) these massacres are the future for the Syrian people," he said.
The Syrian army accused the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front of carrying out the attack. However, the media office of the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham confirmed that its fighters collaborated with another group to kill about 50 pro-government fighters who were residents of the village and denied that the Nusra Front was involved in the attack.
Groups of foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line Al-Qaeda-style ideologies have played an increasingly prominent role among those fighting forces loyal to Assad.
The raid on Maan is likely to bolster efforts by the government delegation to convey its narrative in Geneva that the three-year-old uprising is dominated by Al-Qaeda-linked groups that see Alawites, a Shia Islam sect of which Assad is a member, as apostates who should be killed.
The SOHR, for its part, said that reports indicate the attack on Maan resulted in the deaths of at least 40 people — half of them civilians, including women, and the other half village fighters defending their homes.
Separately, a deal was clinched last week for a three-day truce in opposition-held parts of Homs to secure the evacuation of hundreds of trapped civilians and the entry of humanitarian aid convoys.
The United Nations said that humanitarian teams were able to evacuate more than 800 people overall from Homs and deliver food and medical supplies to areas besieged by fighting for nearly two years.
The U.N. announced on Monday that the cease-fire in Homs would be extended for three days.
Earlier, the Red Crescent said it were "deeply concerned" by threats to the lives of its volunteers and staff.
"It is absolutely vital for all parties to the conflict to facilitate the work of all humanitarian and health care personnel," said Abdul Rahman al-Attar, president of the Red Crescent. "They must respect the Red Crescent and Red Cross emblems displayed on tents, buildings, vehicles and clothing and spare those bearing them."
The conflict in Syria has killed 130,000 people, driven millions from their homes and devastated whole districts of Syrian cities — particularly Homs, a center of protest when the 2011 uprising against 40 years of Assad family rule first erupted.
When the Obama Administration is criticizing Iran about Syria, it’s usually to do with putative weapons shipments to the Assad government, and usually is followed with griping about Iraq constantly searching Iranian planes and not finding those weapons.
The latest allegation takes the cake though, as the Treasury Department is accusing Iran of “assisting al-Qaeda” in sending jihadist fighters to Syria to attack the Assad government.
The allegation seems to center around a single “facilitator” who purportedly lives along the Iran-Afghan border and has provided passports to al-Qaeda recruits, with the assumption that they’re being used to flock to Syria, and with the added assumption that Iran is letting them do so.
That the Assad government is literally Iran’s closest ally on the planet and that al-Qaeda is openly hostile to Iran’s Shi’ite government are both unchanged, and of course that means Iran backing al-Qaeda against Syria is literally the last thing they’d do. The Treasury Department didn’t reconcile that fact with anything, but rather just stated the allegation, like so many others, as a matter of course.
On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson dubbed the Syrian Civil War an “issue of homeland security for the United States,” while other officials express concern that Syria is nearing a “worst case scenario” for the US.
That worst case is a stalemated civil war, where al-Qaeda factions have control of significant territory and access to recruits they can use to launch attacks abroad, including at the United States.
Which is funny, because the US has long presented a protractedstalemate as its overt goal is Syria, arming the rebels enough to keep them in the fight and eventually force talks where the US could get a favorable settlement for themselves.
A stalemate the administration was convinced was worthwhile is now plainly a calamity, but with much of the administration’s leadership still grousing about their failed push to sell a US invasion of Syria, it may well be that spinning Syria’s status quo as a disaster, albeit one that is in no small part a product of US policy, might give them another chance to push for war.
Although attacks and airstrikes continued in Anbar, the main source of militant casualties was an accidental bomb explosion at a bomb-making class in northern Iraq. Also, there were assassination attempts against the speaker of the house and a Turkmen political leader. At least 45 people were killed and 97 more were wounded in the attacks.
By now it clear that the Afghan President Hamid Karzai has kept his word that there will surely be a political transition in Afghanistan following the elections slated for April 5.
The innuendos by American commentators and media reports, amply supplemented with conspiracy theories by Karzai’s Afghan adversaries, had put a question mark on the sincerity of Karzai’s pledge and had prophesied that he intended to hold on to power for as long as he could. Today, that malicious propaganda stands exposed as canard. The six-week long campaign work for the election by the eleven candidates in the field formally began last weekend.
Meanwhile, the US has decided not to hold any more opinion polls in Afghanistan, ostensibly to give an impression of strict neutrality. But in reality, the US manipulation is shifting into high gear. The launch of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah’s election campaign in a blaze of publicity with a high-voltage interview with Christiane Amanpour of the CNN speaks for itself.
The American opinion-makers are creating an impression that Abdullah is the ‘frontrunner’. He is of course media savvy, is close to American think tanks and has a pro-western outlook. From the US viewpoint, Abdullah robustly backs the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement.
However, there are some boulders impeding his victorious march. Abdullah lacks a Pashtun identity and remains unacceptable to the Taliban while his links with hardline elements in India are viewed with suspicion in Pakistan. Equally, there is not only an ethnic polarization in Afghanistan, but also overlapping regional tensions, which makes it difficult for Abdullah to forge a pan-Afghan identity. The recent abortive attempt to assassinate the charismatic leader of western Afghanistan Ismail Khan and the murder of two of Abdullah’s election agents soon after in Herat underscores intra-Tajik tensions. (Ismail Khan is opposing Abdullah in the April election.) Again, the ‘Panjshiri’ camp to which Abdullah belongs is also faction-ridden today.
Having said that, Abdullah makes no bones about sharing the US’ visceral antipathy toward Karzai, and when he runs into the formidable coalition that Karzai has assembled over time, sparks are bound to fly in the coming weeks. This is where the need arises for Washington to cut down Karzai to size.
Washington will pull all stops to scatter Karzai’s coalition. Already, a campaign has begun that Karzai has been diabolic in his dealings with the NA. His detractors cite as evidence that the memoirs of former US defence secretary Robert Gates contains reference to a private conversation with Karzai who made an odd remark blaming the ant-Taliban forces in Afghanistan as equally responsible for perpetrating violence in the country. The campaign aims at creating discord within Karzai’s coalition (which includes some powerful personalities who belonged to the NA).
While the controversy is still simmering, Karzai has been dealt a blow by Washington from yet another angle – this time around, undercutting his nascent contacts with the Taliban.
Now, it’s an open secret that Karzai has striven in the recent years to keep a line of communication open to the Taliban despite the absence of any formal peace talks. Karzai’s policy of reconciling the Taliban has not been a spectacular success, but in his reckoning, without accommodating the Taliban in some form of settlement, enduring peace will elude his country and the senseless bloodshed and destruction cannot be ended.
While the Americans have tried to portray Karzai as a maverick personality opposing the signing of the BSA, the Afghan leader has been nurturing his own alternate road map for post-2014 Afghanistan. This road map envisages getting rid of US occupation of his country and transforming the political calculus into an exclusively intra-Afghan affair without Uncle Sam’s involvement.
Karzai envisages a constructive engagement with the Taliban through the traditional Afghan methods of consensus making, leading eventually to the return of the Taliban as a participant in national life. Indeed, there is no surety that he would succeed, given the Taliban’s intransigence, but his policy is the only show in town in the absence of any peace talks taking place – the CIA’s clandestine dealings with the Taliban notwithstanding.
Unsurprisingly, there is a tug of war going on between Karzai and the Americans. The heart of the matter is that despite paying lip service to an «Afghan-led», «Afghan-controlled» peace process and so on, Washington will not relinquish its stranglehold over Afghan politics. Washington’s excessive interference ensures that any settlement would serve the US regional strategies.Thus, the US intelligence has been keeping an eagle’s eye on Karzai’s dealings with the Taliban.
This is where the April election in Afghanistan becomes a ‘flashpoint’. The Obama administration has concluded that despite all the tricks in the trade – threats, cajoling, arm-twisting, ‘psywar’ – Karzai refuses to blink apropos the BSA, which means that the April election in Afghanistan has assumed an extraordinary significance for the US’ future regional strategies. Indeed, any kind of understanding, howsoever nebulous or tacit, that Karzai may reach with the Taliban would impact profoundly on the April election.
Therefore, a sensational report that appeared on Wednesday in the New York Times, based on briefings by the US officials and laying bare the secret contacts between the Taliban and Karzai becomes highly topical. According to the report, the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Dubai recently.
Whereas, the US should have been pleased that Karzai is making headway with the Taliban, the Obama administration actually seems to be annoyed. And it has proceeded to undermine Karzai’s «Afghan-led» and «Afghan-controlled» track with the Taliban.
The New York Times article says nothing new in content. Karzai’s contact with the Taliban is as ancient as the hills and his aides even acknowledge it. Its main purpose appears to be to give an impression that Karzai is a sly person. And that effort seems to have succeeded with wire services the world over lapping up the report. On the one hand, by tarnishing Karzai as being hand in glove with the Taliban, seeds of doubt are being sown in the minds of his Northern Alliance partners as regards his intentions.
On the other hand, Washington has effectively torpedoed the nascent intra-Afghan contact by embarrassing the Taliban (whose posturing has been that they won’t deal with Karzai) and thereby preventing them from entering into any more direct talks with Karzai before the April election.
To be sure, Washington doesn’t want any substantive «Afghan-led», «Afghan-controlled» peace talks except under its auspices. Most important, it does not want any serious dealings with the Taliban to take place before Karzai retired and a proxy has been put in power in Kabul who would duly put his signature on the dotted line on the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement, formalizing the establishment of the US-NATO military bases in Afghanistan…
The Afghan War will nominally “end” at the end of December, at least for campaigning purposes. US troops will remain there and in combat roles “through 2024 and beyond” per a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) they are pushing Afghanistan to sign.
Senators aren’t too happy with the idea, arguing that theyshould be able to at least vote on it before launching a decade-plus of additional military presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan loya jirga voted on the BSA late last year.
The plan has been for the deal to be portrayed as an “executive agreement” between the US and Afghan Presidents, meaning no parliamentary approval would be necessary. Given the enormousunpopularity of the war, voting for another decade of it in everything but name could also be a tough sell, even for the hawkish Senate.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D – OR) was critical of the lack of a vote, saying it amounted to “military on auto-pilot.” President Obama has seemed less and less interested in Congressional authorization in recent months, however, and that sugg3ests such a vote probably won’t happen.