IPS Blog

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/8)

Not Just a Wife, But a Slave; Not Just a Slave, But an Advertisement

Because Naghma, whose name means melody, was not chosen by the groom, she will most likely be treated more like a family servant than a spouse — and at worst as a captive slave. Her presence may help the groom attract a more desirable second wife because the family, although poor, will have someone working for it, insulating the chosen wife from some of the hardest tasks.

Painful Payment for Afghan Debt: A Daughter, 6, Alyssa Rubin, the New York Times

Christian Influence in Politics as Disgraced as George Bush

The cavalier militarism and the justification of torture during the Bush years, along with the strident in-group-ism of the last four decades, prodded many evangelicals to re-examine themselves and their actions. George W. Bush may have fractured the Christian coalition that elected him.

The New Evangelicals, Marcia Pally, the New York Times (December, 2011)

So Much for “the Lady”

Outside of the actions of the dictatorship, under Ne Win, Saw Maung and Than Shwe, I believe the worst thing that has happened for Burma since 1962 has been the rise of Suu Kyi, together with her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. This award enshrined an accidental and half-hearted advocate as a national leader. It is a handicap that has hobbled the country for the last twenty years.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s Robert Mugabe, Roland Watson, Dictator Watch

They’ve Yet to Meet the Enemy, But They Think It’s Us

First, we hear that [the Department of Homeland Security] is in the process of stockpiling more than 1.6 billion rounds of hollow-point ammunition, along with 7,000 fully-automatic 5.56x45mm NATO “personal defense weapons” plus a huge stash of 30-round high-capacity magazines. Incidentally, those are also known as “assault weapons”, but are not the limited single-fire per trigger-pull semi-automatic types that we civilians are currently allowed to own. By some estimates, that’s enough firepower to fight the equivalent of a 24-year Iraq war.

Why The Heck Is DHS Buying More Than A Billion Bullets Plus Thousands Of Guns And Mine-Resistant Armored Vehicles?, Larry Bell, Forbes

At Least George W. Bush Waged War in the Open

Obama’s morally and constitutionally questionable reliance on drones puts him in the tradition of cautious Eisenhower Republicans. President Eisenhower himself preferred using the CIA to orchestrate coups, in places like Iran and Latin America, to doing nothing or sending troops. What spooks were to Ike, drones are to Obama.

Chuck Hagel nomination: Obama rebukes Bushism, Michael Lind, Salon

The Genocide Gene

World War II ended 68 years ago [but it's] as if the Germans, even the very young, to whom tales of the Nazis must feel as if extraterrestrials were at work, still shudder when they think about what their grandmothers and grandfathers were capable of. As if they were afraid that certain patterns of character and behavior could be passed on to future generations.

‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement, Roman Leick, Spiegel Online

How a North Korean Attack on South Korea Might Unfold

Seoul is only 30 miles from the DMZ.

Seoul is only 30 miles from the DMZ.

For over twenty years, it has been evident that North Korea lacked the capacity to successfully conquer the Korean Peninsula through military invasion. Economic stagnation after (among other things) the fall of the USSR led to military deterioration, and it appeared that North Korea’s giant military was a powerful deterrent to invasion and an instrument of internal control, but nothing more. In the present day, South Korea has twice the population and forty times the economic power of the North, and by most metrics its military forces far outclass those of the North. However, one contingency seems to be missing from the discussion: what if the North Koreans grew desperate enough to attempt to conquer only the portions of South Korea closest to them, since after all, those are the most valuable parts?

According to at least one North Korean defector, the North Korean military intended for at least some of its tunnels, dug under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), to connect with the Seoul subway system. To an extent, this is a bit comical, evoking cartoon slapstick (picture an invading force storming into the subway, only to be blindsided by a speeding train) or perhaps the members of Spinal Tap, wandering about backstage, unable to find their audience (this apparently happened to KISS once). With that said, it illustrates a stark reality of Korean geography. The Seoul area lies only about thirty miles from the Demilitarized Zone. This is often mentioned in the context of Seoul’s vulnerability to massed North Korean artillery, missiles, and rockets. As the tunnels demonstrate, it is at least theoretically possible for large numbers of North Korean soldiers to reach Seoul’s outskirts on foot, and initially undetected.

The Seoul metropolitan area (including the port city of Incheon, site of General MacArthur’s famous landing) is surrounded by a densely populated province, Geyonggi-do. This province, and especially the cities it surrounds, contains nearly half of the country’s population and is overwhelmingly the center of South Korea’s commerce, finance, and industry. Immediately to the east lies Gangwon-do, a sparsely populated rural province, noted for its abundant agricultural land. Both of these prizes lie immediately to the south of the DMZ. Thus, the scenario: if North Korea continues to deteriorate (and there is no guarantee that this will happen, but it is likely), might Kim Jong Un’s government decide that the tiny chance of success of seizing large portions of the peninsula’s most valuable territories beats the sure thing that their regime will crumble beneath them in their own lifetimes?

The plan might go something like this: the North spends several months gradually moving substantial forces close to the DMZ, and stockpiling supplies, including perhaps fuel synthesized from coal (if the North Koreans cannot do this, the Chinese can). When the attack comes, North Korea’s massed artillery and missile batteries will open fire not on Seoul’s residential areas, but on every known South Korean military base in the area, plus a few farther afield. Bombers and ground-attack aircraft (including many scores of obsolete fighters) will launch massed airstrikes on military targets, while fighters attempt to distract the South Korean air force (they cannot defeat them) from defending their air space and retaliating. Shortly thereafter, armor and infantry of the Korean People’s Army will surge southward through the DMZ, attempting to smash through South Korean (and possibly American!) military units and proceed south.

Crucially, the North Koreans have attempted to compensate for their decaying military capabilities by reinventing huge parts of their military as asymmetric-warfare specialists. The North Koreans are thought to have about 200,000 special-operations troops (with better food, equipment, and training than most of their comrades, with a particular emphasis on indoctrination), along with “several” conventional army divisions repurposed as light-infantry units. Besides simply sneaking through the DMZ, these soldiers can be delivered en masse from helicopters, transport planes such as the AN-2, hovercraft, submarines, small boats, and any undiscovered tunnels. They are known to possess copies of South Korean uniforms and equipment, and are trained and equipped to sow chaos and disorder. Surely they are well-aware of the efficacy of roadside bombs.

The Kim regime may be hoping that, once their troops penetrate into built-up urban areas, South Korea’s massive technological advantages and air superiority will be less relevant. The North Koreans are notably known to be involved in cyber-warfare and GPS jamming, in attempting to level the playing field. Similarly, Pyongyang might count on both the United States and the remnants of South Korea being in no financial, political, and/or military position to mount a counter-attack, partially due to fear of provoking the Chinese, and they may have a point.

So would it work? Almost certainly not, unless the North Koreans have been able to upgrade their command and control capabilities to the degree necessary to pull off such a coordinated operation with any degree of surprise. If they lose the momentum, they would be routed by superior South Korean forces, and the ensuing conflict would instead lead to the fall of the government in Pyongyang, not Seoul. Even if the initial phases of the campaign went according to plan, the loyalty of the North Korean forces might easily crumble upon coming into close personal contact with the glitz and vibrancy of Seoul and the lush bounty of Gangwon-do. Before (or as) the disparities between the two countries reached a tipping point, this strategy might have been viable; now, it might just enable defection on a massive, perhaps terminal scale. Even with a party-line blaming their problems on foreign sanctions, both military personnel and civilians defect from North Korea on a regular basis as it is. On top of that, could the North Koreans control such a large and restive civilian population?

Might it still happen? Yes, for reasons outlined above. Pyongyang might prefer to take a chance, rather than succumb to a pathetic certainty. Also, the scenario might become more likely if the North Koreans, from their perspective, felt pushed to the wall by the escalating saber-rattling between both sides, regardless of who started it. The phenomenon of “groupthink” (which does not mean thinking or acting as a group, rather it essentially refers to teamwork gone wrong) is notorious for occurring in tense, cohesive, homogenous, insular groups. Those characteristics do seem to fit the government in Pyongyang.

It is wrong (as usual) to dismiss Kim and his cohorts as irrational or crazy, but it is highly possible they might be delusional enough, due to ignorance or pathologies like groupthink, to make a very bad decision. The South Koreans (and the Americans, who have no direct national interest in the matter) should not make it any more likely for them to do so. Rather than brinksmanship around the topic of nuclear weapons, they should take care not to leave Pyongyang with only one drastic option: an enormous “limited” war.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

Purge of the Marabouts: Salafists Target Tunisia’s Islamic Heritage

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

1. From Timbuctou to Tunis, marabout desecration

Marabout at Tozeur, in the Tunisian Sahara

Marabout at Tozeur, in the Tunisian Sahara

Fueled with Saudi and Qatari money and arms as they are throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Salafist Islamic radicals on the move in Mali hijacked the Tuareg-armed insurrection giving it a decidedly Islamic fundamentalist tinge which the rebellion did not originally have. Among their main targets was the historically vital city of Timbuctou.

In early times Timbuctou was a key transit point for the trans-Sahara caravan trade. It remains a key center of African Islam with an extraordinarily rich heritage of Sufi (Islamic mystics) shrines and written documents going back a thousand years. Its manuscript collection is acknowledged as one of the richest treasure troves of human culture anywhere.

One of the goals of the Islamic radicals that temporarily seized and held Timbuctou was to destroy as much of that heritage as possible, understood by Salafists with their stone-age concepts of Islam, as heretical. Countering such destructive activity has become a pretext for big power intervention, be it the United States in Afghanistan or France in Mali (although both countries have more significant, ulterior motives).

The Salafist militias radicals sought to snuff out Timbuctou’s rich regional Islamic heritage – destroying mausoleums (called marabouts [i]), purging Sufi holy men and destroying as much of the city’s precious manuscript collection as possible. In the short time that they ruled Timbuctou, the Islamic militants instituted a typical regime of Wahhabist-like Sharia law with its usual retrograde practices (the subjugation of women, outlawing singing and dancing, stoning women to death for violating Salafist versions of sexual misconduct, i.e. the usual Taliban-like/Saudi-like nonsense).

Fortunately, much of Timbuctou’s manuscript heritage was saved, hidden away from the Salafist inquisitors. But much damage was still done. During the months Salafist militias ruled more than 300 of the town’s marabout shrines were destroyed. Islamic radicals also were able to burn two buildings to the ground housing extensive leather-bound manuscript collections, some dating back to the 13th century. Considered not merely an attack on African history and culture, the Salafist purge of Sufi documents has been described as “an assault on world heritage comparable with the demolition of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan in by the Taliban in 2001” – not an unfair comparison.

2. At least 40 Tunisian marabouts desecrated; transitional government seems unconcerned.

Timbuktu Sufi manuscripts

Timbuktu Sufi manuscripts

But then, Salafists and their Saudi Wahhabist allies have long been on a campaign to purge the diversity in Islam worldwide, including in Tunisia where until recently Salafist influence has been weak to nonexistent. While Malian Salafists were doing their best to wreak havoc on indigenous African Islamic traditions, their soul brothers and sisters in Tunisia, in solidarity, were doing likewise and have been since the rise of the Ennahda Party to political prominence in October, 2011. The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia is due largely to the tacit – and often open – support and encouragement they have received from important elements of the current transitional government.

Defended by the Ennahda, their actions suggest that Tunisia’s Salafists are little more than the brownshirts of the Arab Spring. While publicly criticized by the U.S. State Dept and media, still the United States has a long and sordid history of allying itself under certain circumstances with Islamic fundamentalism. During the Cold War the U.S. sought alliances with Islamic fundamentalists to counter secular Arab Nationalism. The policies of Islamic fundamentalism – be it Ennahdha or the Salafists in Tunisia, or the Moslem brotherhood in Egypt – dovetail nicely with U.S. sponsored neoliberal capitalism. In the same veins, Islamic regimes partner with the U.S. military in its strategic goals – be it in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or now it seems, in Tunisia. In Tunisia, the main goal of the Salafists is freeze the radical possibilities of the Arab Spring in its tracks, to help the United States and its regional allies to “manage” the region-wide upsurge and to prevent the establishment of broad-based coalitions, in Tunisian and eleswhere, that could lead the region on a path of sorely needed structural changes.

In Tunisia, besides targeting the country’s media, women’s rights, trade unions – virtually anything that “reeks of democracy” – desecrating the few remaining Jewish cemeteries and trying to hijack the curriculum of the Tunisian university system with their own medieval versions of Islam, Tunisian Salafists have been especially intolerant to the country’s own unique tolerant Islamic heritage which extends back nearly 1,500 years.

In January of this year, a marabout in Sidi Bou Said, one of Tunisia’s most famous, was trashed and burned in an arson attack.[ii] Tunisia’s president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned the Sidi Bou Said attack as a “criminal act,” arsonists as “trying to undermine the country’s culture in its historic dimension.” Nor was the Sidi Bou Said arson the first incident of its kind. The Sidi Bou Said marabout trashing was serious enough to draw worldwide attention. But it was hardly the first incident of its kind. Marabouts all over Tunisia – more than 40 of them – had been attacked and destroyed in the months prior to January, 2013. While not on the scale of Mali, Tunisian manuscripts and other cultural jewels, again like Mali, some dating back nearly 1,000 years have been destroyed. Despite Marzouki’s outrage, very few of the marabout-trashing perpetrators have been tracked down or arrested by the Tunisian authorities, suggesting that protecting this part of the country’s national heritage is a low priority.

Sidi Bou Said is something akin to the “Aspen” of Tunisia – a lovely town north of Tunis sitting on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean and one of the country’s primo tourist sites. There is a strong Salafist–Islamic fundamentalist presence in the area, which is also a stronghold for the Ennahda party. The day before, five ultra-conservative Muslims were arrested, charged with having burnt down another marabout in the Tunis region.

Targeting marabouts has emerged as an integral part of the Salafist revival in Tunisia, one tolerated by, if not coordinated with the goals of, Tunisia’s ruling Ennahha Party.[iii] Salafist elements in Tunisia, with their stone-aged, factional vision of Islam, consider such shrines, the veneration of holy shrines and ascetics as “un-Islamic.”

Present-day Tunisian Salafist opposition (much of it emanating from Saudi-trained Wahhabist imams) to the marabouts is based upon their narrow vision of the Islamic religion that charges the marabout system as being polytheistic. The more mystical Sufi tendency, which helped spread Islam, not only to Africa, but to as far east as Indonesia, is seen as nothing short of heresy, as is all of Shi’ite Islam and it is mercilessly attacked.

3. Rich history of Tunisian (and North African) marabouts

It is something of a half truth to claim that Islam came to North Africa “by the sword” alone. Military conquest only began the process of conversion. If Christianity has its Jesuits, Franciscans and the like who tried to compensate for Spanish (and other European) military colonial brutality with “good works,” Islam has its Sufi mystics, those wandering aesthetics whose connection to local populations was much stronger than the generals’. Hermits, scholars, their example was critical in the eventual conversion of many in North Africa. To honor them, locals built what the media calls “mausoleums” but what are better known through North Africa as “marabouts.”

The Sufi mystics so-honored with marabout shrines were ultimately much more effective than the Christian missionaries that preceded them in North Africa in the 3rd to 7th centuries. The latter’s influence rarely extended beyond the Magreb’s urban trading centers on the Mediterranean. To the contrary, Sufi influence, overtime – it took several centuries – struck deep into the North African countryside and desert in a way that the Christianity of earlier centuries was never was able to penetrate. It is through them in large measure, that Islam spread first to North Africa and then across the Sahara to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad and Northern Nigeria.

While many marabouts are distinctly Moslem holy places dedicated to the memory of Islamic Sufi mystics (like the one in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, that was just firebombed), marabouts honoring women are not unknown. Jewish holy men, highly respected local rabbis, have also been so venerated. In gratitude for their kindness and wisdom, in areas where the Sufis lived and worked, locals built simple but enduring structures over their teachers’ graves that have come to be called “marabouts.”

Marabouts are found everywhere in North Africa from Senegal to Libya. Not the sites of formal pilgrimages (reserved for Mecca and Jerusalem), they are more places of reflection, of inspiration. Distinctly local sacred sites, marabouts commemorate the memory of people who led, according to a particular vicinity, exemplary lives. People come with offerings, to pray, ask for the safety, success of loved ones, etc. While over the years there have been different attempts in all North Africa countries to discredit if not purge the marabout societies that have been organized to maintain the marabouts, they have been tenaciously preserved by their supporters.

Although such shrines – or something similar – are found elsewhere in the Moslem world (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), the marabout tradition remains an integral part of North African Islam and has a distinct regional cultural touch. Marabouts are classic examples of what might be called “religious syncretism”, the tendency of new proselytizing religions to integrate former (in this case) pre-Islamic themes into their theological fold. By way of example, in the same way that North African Islam merged with some aspects of pre-Islamic regions, Mexican/Central American Catholicism embraces many aspects of Aztec-Mayan religious practices.

Marabouts are also an example of both the flexibility of Islam to embrace and absorb other religious traditions and the general tolerant manner in which North African Islam has often been practiced, with respect for and acknowledgement of people living “sacred lives,” regardless of gender or even religious background!

North African Islam acknowledges, as do all Muslims, that there is only one God and that is Allah, but maintains tradition of respect, if not veneration for people who have led exemplary lives. Historically, at different times in the past, when more Sunni-Salafist, fundamentalist elements have come to power, as at the time of the 13th century Almohads, marabouts and marabout societies have been the target of fierce purges (along with the Jews), as nasty as the Catholic Inquisition, which they managed to survive.

The ones in Tunisia tend to be small whitewashed cubical structures with topped with a dome. Inside are graves, perhaps a lamp, very simple. Most often they are no bigger than an American tool shed, although they can be larger. Locals have given loving, tender care to these graves, uninterrupted, for centuries.

While not treated as “saints” – which would violate Islamic belief in the oneness of God, Allah, still the holy people buried in marabouts are revered, the graves themselves the sites of local pilgrimages where people come frequently to pray and give offerings, visit in times of crisis. Curiously in North Africa, while most marabouts honor Sufi mystics, there are others that honor rabbis, some holy women.

The care and concern that Tunisians have for their marabouts should not be under-estimated. Many of these sacred tombs have been cared for by extended families for centuries. One friend, whose family hails from Beja in the Tunisian northwest, related how his family had cared for a marabout for more than 800 years. The psychic damage done by destroying such sites cannot be measured in monetary terms.

[i] Actually It is not fair to call Salafist goals”medieval.” Medieval Islam in Tunisia was far more theologically flexible, even “modern looking” in its day than Salafist thinking today.

[ii] In English, marabouts are usually described as “mausoleums.” Marabouts are tombs of venerated holy people, mostly it seems, Islamic Sufi teachers, mystics, but they can commemorate others as well.

[iii] While Ennahda is, technically one of three parties in the ruling three-party coalition, the other two parties are much weaker, almost paper parties. To a very great degree it is Ennahda that runs the show.

Ntaganda: What? No Bail Bondsmen in the Hague?

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda

Notorious Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who surrendered himself to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, has been transferred to the Hague for his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Known as the “Terminator,” Ntaganda is being charged with war crimes including rape, murder, the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery.

At the arraignment, journalist Marlise Simmons reported that Ntaganda seemed uncomfortable but still sparked surprise amongst observers by requesting his release until the start of the trial—highly unlikely for a warlord who has been fleeing the courts for years.

The ICC issued the original warrant for Ntaganda’s arrest in 2006, but the Congolese government had declined to apprehend him, claiming he was instrumental to the fragile “peace” in the country.

Ntaganda continued to perpetrate well-documented crimes against humanity in plain view of government officials, foreign diplomats, and UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo. He was filmed, for example, commanding rebel forces in Kiwanga, where rebels massacred 150 people less than a mile from a UN peacekeeping base in November 2008.

A peace deal in 2009 made Bosco Ntaganda a general in the Congolese army. Eventually, however, he became unsatisfied with the situation, defected, and with other military defectors formed the rebel group M23 in April 2012. For the past year he has been accused of committing the same crimes he is wanted for by the ICC, perhaps on an even grander scale.

But the union was not to last. A recent splintering of the M23 last month brought renewed conflict in eastern Congo between rival M23 factions. Ntaganda lost ground with his group and, according to the breakaway rebel leader Colonel Kahina, was shot at last week.

With the group turning against him, did Ntaganda see no way to save his own life but to surrender himself to the ICC?

The repercussions of Ntaganda’s surrender will also impact Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda. Kagame has been accused by many of capitalizing on sales of precious minerals funneled through Ntaganda’s various rebel groups, and Ntaganda’s ICC trial may well produce incriminating evidence against Rwandan officials. If Ntaganda can fork over evidence against his former patrons, he may well secure a lighter sentence for himself.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

The Assassination of Dr. King and the Suppression of the Anti-War and Peace Perspectives

April 4th is an anniversary that I suspect many people in the U.S., including those in government, would prefer that people ignored. On that date 45 years ago, James Earl Ray, supposedly acting alone, murdered Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee — silencing one of the great oppositional voices in U.S. politics.



Unlike the celebrations organized around the birthday of Dr. King, with which the U.S. government severs Dr. King from the black movement for social justice that produced him and transforms his oppositional stances into a de-radicalized, liberal, integrationist dream narrative, the anniversary of the murder of Dr. King creates a challenge for the government and its attempt to manage the memory and meaning of Dr. King. The assassination of Dr. King raises uncomfortable questions — not only due to the evidence that his murder was a “hit” carried out by elements of the U.S. government, but also because of what Dr. King was saying before he was killed about issues like poverty and U.S. militarism .

Read the rest of this post at http://www.ajamubaraka.com/

Ajamu Baraka is an IPS associate fellow.

Changing of the Guard All Too Common in the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

Described by journalist Graeme Wood as a “black hole of governance at the center of the continent,” the Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict and coups since its birth. In the most recent unrest, President Francois Bozize (who himself led a coup to become president) was ousted by rebel forces that have been slowly pushing for a full takeover of the C.A.R.

Michel Djotodia, national defense minister turned rogue, entered the capital in late March with rebel forces and declared himself president. There were reports of heavy gunfire throughout the day the following Sunday as a United Nations official in Bangui called the situation “confusing and very tense.”

Characterized by fragile political and economic systems together with a weak military, the C.A.R. has repeatedly fallen victim to takeovers. Scholar Louisa Lombard, who has studied the country extensively, claims that “factionalism flourishes because heading up a rebel group is a good way to be taken seriously” in a country with weak political and civil institutions.

Seleka, the rebel movement that has taken responsibility for this most recent ousting, is a coalition of groups from around the country disenfranchised with the country’s kleptocratic government and its cronies. But after the ousting, Seleka lost control of itself. Unable to deal with the ensuing chaos, regional peacekeeping forces were called to stop the looting of businesses, U.N. offices, and hospitals. Although there are still areas of resistance from pro-Bozize forces, things are slowly returning to normal as Central Africans acclimate to this latest unscheduled changing of the guard.

How long until the next one?

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

This Week in OtherWords: Tax Day Special Edition

This week in OtherWords, we’re running a Tax Day special edition. Sam Paltrow-Krulwich talks about the “gay tax” her family must pay until the nation fully embraces marriage equality, Scott Klinger highlights the declining share of tax revenue that American corporations contribute, and Gerald Scorse calls for parity between the taxes on income from wealth and work.

Speaking of taxes, here’s a friendly reminder: OtherWords is a free and non-profit editorial service funded by tax-deductible donations from people like you. Please consider making one today.

Here’s a clickable summary of our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Transplanting Taxes from Corporations to the Rest of Us / Scott Klinger
    American taxpayers are increasingly picking up the tab for unpaid corporate taxes.
  2. The Gay Tax / Sam Paltrow-Krulwich
    Marriage equality is about civil rights — and tax justice.
  3. Futile Military Financing / Chris Toensing
    Almost all the $3.1 billion in yearly U.S. aid to Israel is now slated for weapons.
  4. New Health Care Taxes: A Poor Prescription / Gerald Scorse
    Hitting the rich on Medicare blurs the case for a major tax reform.
  5. We’re Watching a Great Depression Re-Run / Donald Kaul
    Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today’s major political dilemmas.
  6. A Wall Street Powerhouse Attorney Talks Sense / Sam Pizzigati
    Taxes can do more than simply raise revenue.
  7. A Recipe for a Sounder Diet / Jill Richardson
    There are ways to make healthy food affordable that don’t require abusing farmworkers.
  8. Fracking Free Speech / Jim Hightower
    The gagged townspeople of Sanford, New York are suing their town board over the infringement of their First Amendment rights.
  9. Under-Taxing the Rich Is Uncivilized / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins We all pay for those cuts down the road.
  10. Taxing Economics / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Bulgaria’s Labor Perpetually in Crisis

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

In the early 1990s, I helped put together a delegation on the topic of women and workplace in East-Central Europe. Several U.S. groups invited the delegation to the United States, with support from the German Marshall Fund, to meet with women’s organizations, trade unions, and a variety of Washington-based organizations.

It was not an easy task to identify women for the delegation. Many unions wanted to just pick the participants and didn’t understand my request for several candidates and their CVs. Also, there were two types of unions in the region: former official unions and new unions affiliated in some way with the political opposition. In those days, they didn’t get along very well. The U.S. government, and most U.S. organizations, only worked with the independent unions. So, it was challenging to put together a delegation with representatives of both sides.

I pushed hard to include representatives from the former official unions. As I wrote in a 1993 report, “The former communist trade unions have been doing a reasonably good job of democratizing themselves, and they still command the lion’s share of workers’ support. This despite several years of money and effort on the part of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government to strengthen the ‘alternative’ unions. Now the international unions are having to adjust their strategies and open doors to the very unions they initially spurned.”

It seemed like the people who might benefit the most from a trip to the United States would be representatives from these former official trade unions. And it would have been educational, to say the least, for U.S. trade unions and government staff to meet with “the other side.” But for a mixture of external and internal reasons, a mixed delegation didn’t happen.

Still, I learned a great deal from my meetings at these former official unions. Some of the best discussions that I had on these topics, for instance, were at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Sofia, thanks to the help of Snezhana Dimitrova who was working with the international affairs division.

Twenty-three years later, I returned to the CITUB building and met in her office. CITUB still owns a big building in the center of Sofia. But whereas many other offices in Bulgaria’s capital have been remodeled and modernized, the CITUB building has none of the fancy furniture and outfitting that USAID recipients enjoy. It looks much as it did during the communist period, though without the bustle or the security. There was no guard in the booth in the lobby on the day I visited, and I pushed through the turnstile without having to announce myself.

Indeed, it has not been an easy time for CITUB. It has seen its membership base decline from 2.5 million to 300,000. However, it is still by far the largest union confederation.

“We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova explained to me as a major reason for the decline in membership. “There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.”

The economic reforms, from a trade union perspective, were largely disastrous. “From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized,” she continued. “Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.”

We also talked about the relationship between CITUB and the other major trade union organization (Podkrepa), the role of strikes, and the economic prospects for Bulgaria. Economic crisis in Europe? “Here in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova told me, “we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.”

The Interview

Can you tell me how you got involved in your current work at the union?

After university, I started as a translator in the international department of the Trade Union School because my languages are Slavic: Czech and Russian. At that time, we had a lot of contacts with trade unions in Slavic countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia – so I had a lot of work then. After that, I started to learn English, because we had a trade union school with many people coming from Latin America, United States, United Kingdom, Australia. Because I was in the international department, I started to translate English too, but my English is not fluent.

The transformation of society begins with trade unions. We had a lot of contacts with friends in the United States, from Western countries, and we began to have exchanges with them. We had a lot of groups from the West, like British coal miners, who were having a lot of problems with the Thatcher government because it was cutting jobs. It was interesting to work here at that time because of these contacts. There was more freedom. It wasn’t like in the Center of the Communist Party, which was much stricter.

The Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR) is a research institute at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Bulgaria. CITUB is the successor to the 100-year union tradition. The Confederation brings together 35 federations, trade unions, and associations and a number of associate members. The main subject area for ISTUR is to analyze the processes associated with social and economic reforms in Bulgaria in the transition to a market economy and prospects for trade union policy and industrial relations. Research is being conducted at three levels: theoretical, applied and as ordered by public organizations.

The Institute employs 12 researchers representing different specialties: economics, sociology, political science, psychology, and computer science.. ISTUR maintains a network of outside contacts with relevant research institutions, universities, social partner organizations, state administration, and NGOs. Now we are only 12 people, so I have to do a lot of work. I’m the national coordinator of Eurofound, the librarian of our small collection of books, and I also translate.

CITUB was the only trade union for a long time. And then Podkrepa began in the late 1980s. What was the relationship like between the two union confederations?

Podkrepa started out very well. It was a new trade union. It was accepted by the population as a break from the old. Many of the trade unions in our confederation went over to Podkrepa. I couldn’t say why. We have a very wise leadership here.

I expected one large trade union to emerge here in Bulgaria, but that didn’t happen. All the time we were the largest trade union organization, but of course the membership is not the same as in 1989. We are the better trade union than Podkrepa. I can’t say why they lost their initial advantage. I suppose maybe it’s poor leadership. They had everything. They were new. They were supported by western countries. They received material support.

But we remain the largest. We have about 300,000 members. Podkrepa has 60,000. In 1989, our membership was 2.5 million, because membership was obligatory. All workers had to be members of trade unions.

In the beginning, because CITUB was thinking in terms of the old-style trade unions, the relationship with Podkrepa was not good. Now, with compromises by both sides, it is good. Over the last 10 years, we’ve coordinated our strikes with Podkrepa, and they’ve coordinated theirs with us.

CITUB has proven that it is a new organization with new vision. Our leader is a relatively young man: Plamen Dimitrov. He started activity in trade unions as Varna district coordinator, executive secretary of CITUB, and vice president of CITUB.

Why has there been such a big decline in union membership?

We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria. There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.

Bulgarian workers are losing jobs, and they have lower pay. Compared to other European countries, we are at the bottom in terms of wages. Also, pensions are very small. If pensioners didn’t live with their families, they couldn’t pay for electricity and heating.

As a trade union, CITUB attaches great importance to collective bargaining as an essential tool for the effective protection of the rights and interests of employees. Since 1995, CITUB is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation, which is an institutional partner of the European Commission. Representatives of CITUB participate actively in the work of the European Economic and Social Council.

In Bulgaria, we have many trade union organizations. The labor code defines the criteria for trade union representativeness at national, branch, and sectoral levels. According to this labor code , only Podkrepa and CITUB are national representatives of workers. Other trade union organizations are present only at the enterprise level. They can’t negotiate at the national level. This kind of trade union has no power. Wages more often depend on the ministry, at the national level. Because of that, it is necessary to have a bigger trade union that can negotiate with the ministers. But still, more aggressive and more charming union leaders are appearing at the enterprise level, perhaps because they are not satisfied with either CITUB or Podkrepa.

Have there been a lot of strikes?

There were many strikes, especially between 1991 and 1993. There were meetings, rallies, political strikes, economic strikes. And sometimes the government resigned because of the strikes. After this political turmoil, they strike only for wages, to improve working conditions. They strike because they don’t want to lose their jobs if the enterprise closes. You can read about every strike at Eurofound, where we are the correspondent for Bulgaria. You can read about what happened, the results, and who was the leader, whether CITUB, Podkrepa, or another organization.

Have there been any particularly successful strikes?

The railways wanted to stop increasing wages. They threatened to cut jobs. Both CITUB and Podkrepa negotiated with the management. We had a strike. Now the railways make reforms but without cutting jobs, and they even increased the wages a little bit.

How would you evaluate the economic reforms that have taken place here in Bulgaria?

From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized. Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.

Sold to whom?

Most enterprises were sold to domestic buyers. But Balkan Airlines was sold to foreigners and then closed down. We are now without an airline. We had access rights in airports in London, Vienna, Paris. But we’ve lost those rights. I fly now only with Turkish airlines.

Are there any positive signs economically?

They are now developing the tourist industry. And agriculture has started again. The agricultural produce grown here is a hundred times better than what we are buying from Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Are there positive signs for growth in union membership?

There is no potential for growth. This is normal, not to be a big organization. It’s better to be a strong organization, to organize people whether they are members or not. If we negotiate something for a branch, the deal is valid for all people working in the branch, not just the members of trade union organizations. It’s better to give all the people the possibility to increase wages and not just your trade union members. It’s easier at the national level to negotiate with the minister to increase the wages for all branches, for all enterprises.

Where would you put CITUB along the political spectrum?

Normally, trade unions are closer to the left wing. But here in Bulgaria, I couldn’t say. First, the trade union supported the economic reforms, and the reforms were made by the right wing. That meant that we supported the right-wing party. But then CITUB decided to be an independent trade union and not to support a particular party. Now, the union supports the party that has programs similar to ours in terms of economic development, wages, and jobs. Now we support the party that wants to increase wages and create new jobs.

All parties are the same. They implement only a small part of their programs. Most people don’t believe in the parties. Only the people on the left and the right vote for particular parties. Most people don’t vote. They don’t know whom to choose.

The current government is popular. The leader speaks with ordinary people. He makes jokes. Women like him: not me, but other women.

How do you evaluate the future prospects for Bulgaria?

I can’t see anything positive. Most young people want to work abroad. For example, the young people who win the medals from math or science Olympiads, when they return to Bulgaria, they get offers from American or British universities to study there. And they agree immediately, without thinking that they could study and work here.

A friend of mine told his children to stay where they are. One is in Belgium, the other in France. Mothers don’t want their children to come back here: because it is difficult to get a job, especially a job with a good salary, even for people who are educated. As for people in the villages, there aren’t any jobs, good or otherwise.

What about foreign investment?

Everybody knows that it’s good to attract foreign capital. We have no capital. We are not a rich country. Only the trade unions can protect the rights of workers in this situation. If foreign investors want to cut jobs, the trade unions negotiate how many and and under what conditions. We negotiate so that they pay six months of wages, and we make sure that pensioners get their pensions.

Can you explain the pension situation here?

The minimum retirement age in Bulgaria has been increased by 4 months as of Sunday, January 1, 2012, as part of a controversial retirement reform package. The same measure will be applied on the first day of each of the upcoming several years until the retirement age in Bulgaria reaches 65 years for men and 63 for women. Up until the new pension reform was approved in December 2011, Bulgaria’s retirement age was 63 years for men and 60 years for women.

There are three kinds of pensions: the government pension fund, an obligatory fund for people born after 1960, and private pension funds. In terms of the private pension fund, you can pay into this fund for an additional pension. The employer can also pay for an additional pension to the worker, particularly if the trade union negotiates this arrangement. In the beginning, this private fund was interesting because it was very new. It was also important because the government pensions in Bulgaria were very low. The trade union believed that it was important to have this additional pension, especially if the employer was paying into it.

What kind of international cooperation do you now have at CITUB?

For instance, at ISTUR we are working with Turkish trade unions with women in trade unions there on career development. This project, led by Italians, has EU funding, and we participate as lecturers.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s own membership in the EU?

I am optimistic about Europe. I still think that membership is a good thing. But I think that most people here had high expectations that wages would increase automatically and everything here would be closer to the living standard for Europe. That didn’t happen, so they are disappointed.

We lost our former markets in the region. Russia was a big market. It accepted everything that we produced. Now with the EU, we can’t sell them our products in the same way. So, it’s quite difficult.

People in Europe talk about the economic crisis. But here in Bulgaria, we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.

Sofia, September 27, 2012

Despite Funneling Money to the Corporations That Run the Nuclear Labs, the Administration Finds Itself in Their Debt

Dienekes was a Spartan soldier noted for his bravery. Herodotus wrote of him in The Histories (via Wikipedia).

It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, ‘Good. Then we will fight in the shade.’

A reporter using the name Dienekes produced a paper in February titled Broken Promises: The White House, Special Interests, and New START that the Los Alamos Study Group featured on its website. Perhaps, he identifies with Dienekes because he feels vastly dwarfed by the forces of the Iron Triangle (his description: “the relationship between congressional committees, federal agencies, and special interest groups seeking to benefit from public policy”) against which he pits himself. Meanwhile, this reader can’t help but observe that in the event of a nuclear war, the survivors will be living in the shade of nuclear winter.

Here’s the central question that Dienekes invokes.

Why did the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) approve an under-the-radar process for transferring money each year to the nuclear weapons labs of the Department of Energy (DOE)? Why did the DoD do this when it has its own labs and [it] partners with the nuclear labs as needed, already funding [the latter] with about $900 million annually? Normally fiercely protective of their budgets, why did the heads of these agencies move so swiftly in June 2009 to implement what was a mere proposal made only three months earlier by a DOE-sponsored think tank? … Why, given the considerable negatives, was the new funding stream created?

The seeds of the answer can be found in another question he asks.

Was it just a coincidence that these agencies signed a formal charter setting up the funding scheme nine days before the nuclear lab directors appeared on Capitol Hill to give their expert testimony on the administration’s New START treaty?

Dienekes created a timeline to exhibit “evidence that the private contractors running the DOE nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia) got the coveted interagency charter by helping the president win a major foreign policy victory.” He elaborates.

The administration needed support from the CEO lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia to win ratification of New START. The public record shows the labs got $357 million in stimulus dollars. In addition, the White House hiked investment to a level, in constant dollars, nearly 70% more than the Cold War average, causing a former NNSA administrator to say he would have, “killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.” And DoD agreed to kick in nearly $6 billion over a five-year period to modernize nuclear weapons infrastructure. But this was not enough to satisfy the CEO lab directors. They wanted more.

The corporations (Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, URS, Battelle and Lockheed Martin) that run the nuclear labs coveted non-nuclear missions with binding long-term financial commitments from multiple federal agencies. Why? Because they foresaw a smaller nuclear stockpile as a result of the administration’s arms control initiatives, and without new projects to replace old warheads, this meant less workload, greater excess capacity, and higher overhead costs – all of which would spark more calls for downsizing. [They] will lobby for greater commitments to expand missions, increase workloads, build new facilities, and move more public money into the pockets of private firms. Unfortunately, such commitments will likely be made off-the-radar within the Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of the National Laboratories, basically a top-level pressure group designed to serve the interests of the Iron Triangle.

But, “expert testimony” aside, why else did the administration feel it needed to accede to the demands of the CEO slash lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia? Aren’t the labs subordinate to the federal government and dependent on it for funds? Dienekes reminds us of what happens “when the Oval Office embraces the Iron Triangle.” In the White House, “a gathering of administration officials and corporate contractors indulged their sizeable appetites for political gain, commercial profit, and personal advancement.”

Though he doesn’t spell it out, what I think Dienekes means is that corporate contractors contribute money to Democratic campaigns. If they’re not kept happy, they’ll cut off funding. It’s a pity that when ownership of the national laboratories was privatized (Los Alamos in 2006, Lawrence Livermore in 2007), the Department of Energy couldn’t foresee — or wasn’t concerned with — how much influence the corporate contractors would exercise over not only their own funding, but national nuclear-weapons policy.

Syria: Chess Match Turned Free-for-All

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime—Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents—Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.

Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The détente will align both countries with much of Washington’s agenda in the region, which includes overthrowing the Assad government and isolating Iran. Coupled with a Turkish push to resolve the long simmering war between Ankara and its Kurdish minority, it was a “Fantastic week for Erdogan,” remarked former European Union policy chief Javier Solana.

It was also a slam dunk moment for the Israelis, whose intransigence over the 2010 incident and continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands has left the country more internationally isolated than it has been in its 65 year history.

Israel’s apology might lay the groundwork for direct intervention in Syria by NATO and Israel. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top commander, said that a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the regime.”

According to the Guardian (UK), Netanyahu raised the possibility of joint U.S.-Israeli air strikes against Syria, which Israel accuses of shifting weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is no evidence that Syria has actually done that, and logic would suggest that the Assad regime is unlikely to export weapons when it is fighting for its life and struggling to overcome an arms embargo imposed on it by the EU and the UN. But Tel Aviv is spoiling for a re-match with Hezbollah, the organization that fought it to a standstill in 2006. “What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a former U.S. diplomat told the Guardian.

There is some talk among Israelis about establishing a “buffer zone” inside Syria to prevent Islamic groups becoming a presence on the border. A similar buffer zone established after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon turned into a strategic disaster for Tel Aviv.

Admiral Stavridis suggested that a more aggressive posture would almost certainly not include using U.S. ground troops. According to former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, a more likely scenario would be for NATO air power to smash Assad’s air force and armor—as it did Mummer Khadafy’s in Libya—and “if ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria at some stage, Turkey can undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.”

The Gulf monarchies—specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—have increased arms shipments to the anti-Assad insurgents, and France and Britain are considering breaking the embargo and arming the Free Syrian Army. If this were a normal chess game, it would look like checkmate for Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. But this game is three-dimensional, with multiple players sometimes pursuing different goals.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring what one American official called “a cataract of weaponry” into Syria, but the former apparently double-crossed the latter in a recent leadership fight in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella organization for the various groups fighting against the Damascus government. Qatar derailed Saudi Arabia’s candidate for the SNC’s prime minister and slipped its own man into the post, causing the organization’s president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to resign. While most the western media reported Khatib resigned because SNC was not getting enough outside help, according to As-Safir, the leading Arabic language newspaper in Lebanon, it was over the two big oil monarchies trying to impose their candidates on the Syrians.

Qatar ally Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American, was anointed prime minister, causing a dozen SNC members to resign. The Free Syrian Army, too, says it will not recognize Hitto.

Khatib also objected to the Qatari move to form a Syrian government because it torpedoed last June’s Geneva agreement that would allow Assad to stay on until a transitional government is formed. The Qatari move was essentially a statement that the Gulf monarchy would accept nothing less than an outright military victory.

Qatar is close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia favors the more extremist Islamic groups, some with close links to al-Qaida, that the U.S. and the European Union have designated as “terrorist.” Tension between extremist and more moderate insurgents broke into an open firefight Mar. 24 in the northern border city of Tal Abyad. The secular Farouq Battalions, which favor elections and a civil government, were attacked by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, that wants to impose Sharia Law and establish an Islamic emirate. Four people were killed, and the leader of the Farouq Battalions was severely wounded.

The Nusra Front has also tangled with Kurdish groups in Syria’s northwest, and its militias currently control much of the southern border with Iraq, Jordan, and the Golan Heights that borders Israel. It was the Nusra Front that recently kidnapped UN peacekeepers for several days and attacked Iraqi soldiers escorting members of the Syrian military who had fled across the border. There have also been clashes between secular and Islamic forces in the Syrian cities of Shadadeh and Deir el Zour.

The Turkish government backing of the Syrian insurgency is not popular among most Turks, and that has to concern Erdogan, because he is trying to alter the Turkey’s constitution to make it more executive-centered and to himself become the next president. Although he is currently riding a wave of popularity over the Kurdish ceasefire, that could erode if the Syria war drags on.

And without direct NATO-Israeli intervention there does not appear to be any quick end to the civil war in sight. Assad still has support from his minority ethnic group, the Alawites, as well as among Christian denominations and many business groups. All fear an Islamic takeover. “If the rebels come to this city,” one wealthy Damascus businessman told Der Spiegel, “they’ll eat us alive.”

The longer the war goes on, the more the region destabilizes.

Fighting has broken out between Shiites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon, a Sunni-extremist fueled bombing campaign is polarizing Iraq, and Jordan is rent by an internal opposition that poses a serious threat to the Hashemite monarchy. Even Saudi Arabia has problems. A low-level but persistent movement for democracy in the country’s eastern provinces is resisting a brutal crackdown by Saudi authorities. As National Public Radio and GlobalPost reporter Reese Erlich discovered, some of those regime opponents are being given a choice between prison and fighting the Assad government, a strategy that the Saudi government may come to regret. It was jihadists sent to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan who eventually returned to destabilize countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and who currently form the backbone of al-Qaida-associated groups like the Nusra Front.

Aaron Zelin, Middle East expert and Fellow at the Washington Institute told Erlich that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan are being funneled into Syria.

Chess with multiple players can get tricky.

Turkey wants regional influence and Assad out, but it does not want a neighbor dominated by the Gulf monarchies. It may also find that talking about Turkish “power” doesn’t go down well in the Middle East. Arab countries had quite enough of that during the Ottoman Empire.

The Gulf monarchies want to overthrow the secular Assad regime, isolate regional rival Iran, and insure Sunni supremacy over Shites in the region. But they don’t agree on what variety of Islam they want, nor are they the slightest bit interested in democracy and freedom, concepts that they have done their best to suppress at home.

The French and British want a replay of Libya, but Syria is not a marginal country on the periphery of the Middle East, but a dauntingly complex nation in the heart of the region that might well atomize into ethnic-religious enclaves run by warlords. That is not an outcome that sits well with other European nations and explains their hesitation about joining the jihad against Assad.

Even the Israeli goal of breaking out of its isolation, destroying Hezbollah, and strangling Iran may be a pipe dream. Regardless of Turkish-Israeli detente, the barriers that keep Palestinians out of Israel also wall off Tel Aviv off from the rest of the Middle East, and that will not change until there is an Israeli government willing to remove most of the settlements and share Jerusalem.

As for Hezbollah, contrary to its portrayal in the Western media as a cat’s paw for Teheran, the Shite group is a grassroots organization based in Lebanon’s largest ethnic group. It is also being careful not to give the Israelis an excuse to attack it. In any case, any Israeli invasion of Lebanon would automatically rally international sentiment and Arab public opinion—Shite, Sunni, Alawite, etc.—against it.

If Assad falls, Iran would lose an ally, but Teheran’s closest friend in the Middle East is Baghdad, not Damascus. And despite strong American objections, Teheran recently scored a major coup by inking an agreement with Pakistan’s government to build a $7.5 billion gas pipeline to tap Iran’s South Pars field. The pact will not only blow a hole in western sanctions against Iran, it will play well in the May 11 Pakistani elections. “The Pakistani government wants to show it is willing to take foreign policy decisions that defy the U.S.,” says Anthony Skinner of the British-based Maplecroft risk consultants. “The pipeline not only caters to Pakistan’s energy needs but also logged brownie points with the many critics of the U.S. among the electorate.”

In the end, the effort to knock Syria off the board may succeed, although the butcher bill will be considerably higher than the current body count of 70,000. But establishing a pro-western government in Damascus and inflicting damage on Iran is mostly illusion. “Victory”—particularly a military one—is more likely to end in chaos and instability, and a whole lot more dead chess pieces.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

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