America’s Renegade Warfare

Exclusive: Claiming the right to launch preemptive wars and fighting an ill-defined “global war on terror,” the U.S. government has slaughtered vast numbers of civilians in defiance of international law, says Nicolas J S Davies.

By Nicolas J S Davies

Seventy-seven million people in North and South Korea find themselves directly in the line of fire from the threat of a Second Korean War. The rest of the world is recoiling in horror from the scale of civilian casualties such a war would cause and the unthinkable prospect that either side might actually use nuclear weapons.

Since the first Korean War killed at least 20 percent of North Korea’s population and left the country in ruins, the U.S. has repeatedly failed to follow through on diplomacy to establish a lasting peace in Korea and has instead kept reverting to illegal and terrifying threats of war. Most significantly, the U.S. has waged a relentless propaganda campaign to discount North Korea’s legitimate defense concerns as it confronts the threat of a U.S. war machine that has only grown more dangerous since the last time it destroyed North Korea.

The North has lived under this threat for 65 years and has watched Iraq and Libya destroyed after they gave up their nuclear weapons programs. When North Korea discovered a U.S. plan for a Second Korean War on South Korea’s military computer network in September 2016, its leaders quite rationally concluded that a viable nuclear deterrent is the only way to guarantee their country’s safety.

What does it say about the role the U.S. is playing in the world that the only way North Korea’s leaders believe they can keep their own people safe is to develop weapons that could kill millions of Americans?

The Changing Face of War 

The Second World War was the deadliest war ever fought, with at least 75 million people killed, about five times as many as in the First World War. When the slaughter ended in 1945, world leaders signed the United Nations Charter to try to ensure that that scale of mass killing and destruction would never happen again. The U.N. Charter is still in force, and it explicitly prohibits the threat or use of military force by any nation.

It was not just the scale of the slaughter that shocked the world’s leaders into that brief moment of sanity in 1945. It was also the identities of the dead. Two-thirds of the people killed in the Second World War were civilians, a drastic change from the First World War, only a few decades earlier, when an estimated 86 percent of the people killed were uniformed combatants. The use of nuclear weapons by the United States raised the specter that future wars could kill an exponentially greater numbers of civilians, or even end human civilization altogether.

War had become “total war,” no longer fought only on battlefields between soldiers, but between entire societies with ordinary people, their homes and their lives now on the front line. In the Second World War:

–Fleets of warplanes deliberately bombed cities to “dehouse” civilian populations, as British officials described their own bombing of Germany. “As I write this,” George Orwell wrote from London in 1941, “Highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”

–Submarines sank hundreds of merchant ships in an effort to starve their enemies into submission. General Carter Clarke, who was in charge of interpreting Japanese intelligence for President Truman, said in a 1959 interview that Japan surrendered because it faced mass starvation due to the sinking of its merchant shipping, not because of the gratuitous U.S. nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was estimated that 7 million more civilians would die of starvation if Japan fought on until 1946.

–Genocidal mass extermination campaigns killed civilians based only on their political affiliation or ethnicity. Under cross-examination by a young American prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, SS Gruppenfuhrer Dr. Otto Ohlendorf explained patiently to a courtroom in Nuremberg why he found it necessary for the “preemptive defense” of Germany to order the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians. He explained that even children had to be killed to prevent them too becoming enemies of Germany when they grew up and found out what happened to their parents.

Despite the U.N. Charter and international efforts to prevent war, people in countries afflicted by war today still face the kind of total war that horrified world leaders in 1945. The main victims of total war in our “modern” world have been civilians in countries far removed from the safe havens of power and privilege where their fates are debated and decided: Yugoslavia; Afghanistan; Iraq; Somalia; Pakistan; Yemen; Libya; Syria; Ukraine. There has been no legal or political accountability for the mass destruction of their cities, their homes or their lives. Total war has not been prevented, or even punished, just externalized.

But thanks to billions of dollars invested in military propaganda and public relations and the corrupt nature of for-profit media systems, citizens of the countries responsible for the killing of millions of their fellow human beings live in near-total ignorance of the mass killing carried out in their name in these “red zones” around the world.

People in ever-spreading war zones are living under the very conditions of total war that the world recoiled from at the end of the Second World War. Like Orwell in London in 1941, they hear highly civilized human beings flying overhead trying to kill them, human beings who know nothing about them beyond the name of the city where they live and its strategic value in wars that offer them, the victims, nothing but death or destitution.

In the case of drones, the human beings trying to kill them from the other side of the world are so highly civilized that they can hop into cars and drive home to have dinner with their families at the end of their shifts, while another “team member” efficiently takes over the “joy-stick” and carries on killing.

People in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya have been subjected to hunger and starvation under sieges and naval blockades that are as brutally effective as German and American submarines were in World War Two. Millions of people in Yemen face an imminent danger of starvation under the U.S.-backed naval blockade and Saudi and Emirati bombing of Yemeni ports.

In retaliation for one missile fired at Riyadh, the Saudi capital, last week, the U.S.-backed coalition completely closed all Yemen’s ports, tightening the blockade on millions of starving people. The requirements of necessity and proportionality, which have been basic principles of customary international law since the Nineteenth Century, lie buried in the graveyards of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Is the U.S. Guilty of Genocide? 

The U.S. military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq quickly adopted “divide and rule” strategies that targeted Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Sunni Arabs in Iraq. When I pointed this out to a friend who teaches military history in 2005, he asked only, “How else can you do it?” I reminded him that “you” don’t have to “do it” at all.

U.S. and allied forces in Iraq have killed at least 10-15 percent of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and displaced about half of them. Sunni Arabs have been relentlessly targeted for detention, torture and summary execution since 2004, when ex-Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence chief Steven Casteel, retired Colonel James Steele and a CIA team reportedly based on the eighth floor of the Iraqi Interior Ministry recruited, trained and equipped “Special Police” death squads to conduct a reign of terror that tortured and killed tens of thousands of men and boys in Baghdad and elsewhere.

After training by James Steele’s Special Police Training Teams, each Iraqi Special Police unit worked closely with a U.S. Special Police Transition Team (SPTT), and their operations were commanded and controlled from a high-tech command center staffed by U.S. and Iraqi personnel. An SPTT assigned to the notorious Wolf Brigade in Baghdad was from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Nightstalkers,” who usually provide helicopter transport for U.S. special operations but in this case appear to have used their helicopters mainly to fly detainees to their deaths.

After the exposure of their Al Jadiriyah torture prison in November 2005, the Special Police were rebranded as the National Police (and the Wolf Brigade, incongruously, as the Freedom Brigade).  But their torture and killing raged on, under cover of an official narrative of “sectarian violence” which scrupulously ignored the command and control of these forces by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, the CIA and the U.S. military.

At the peak of this campaign in July-October 2006, supported by the U.S. Operations Together Forward I & II, National Police death squads flooded the main morgue in Baghdad with up to 1,600 bodies per month. Thousands more Iraqis were killed and buried elsewhere or just disappeared, while 2 million people were displaced inside Iraq and another 2 million fled the country.

This ethnic cleansing campaign has continued under the U.S-backed Shiite government and has kept driving Sunni Arab Iraqis into armed resistance groups, of which Islamic State is only the latest, creating pretexts for endless violence against them. Kurdish military intelligence reports have estimated that 40,000 civilians were killed in the recent U.S.-led assault on Mosul, by tens of thousands of bombs and missiles dropped by U.S. and “coalition” warplanes, U.S. Marine 220-lb HiMARS rockets and U.S., French and Iraqi heavy artillery. This is still only an estimate, and the true number of civilians killed in Mosul was probably higher.

From 2004 on, the ethnic cleansing of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs has been a deliberate, calculated element of the U.S.’s “divide and rule” policy in Iraq, with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” That is the legal definition of genocide in Article II of the 1948 Genocide Convention. The working title of my book about the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq was From Aggression to Genocide.

As for the killing of “enemy” children, President Obama justified the murder of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen in October 2011, two weeks after the assassination of his father, the Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. In one of Donald Trump’s first acts as president, he authorized a U.S. special operations attack that killed Abdulrahman’s 8-year old sister Nawar and other family members in January 2017 – after Trump, on the campaign trail, had vowed to kill the families of suspected terrorists.

Benjamin Ferencz, the by then 81-year-old American lawyer who prosecuted SS Gruppenfuhrer Ohlendorf and his accomplices at Nuremberg, was interviewed by NPR eight days after the mass murders of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It is never a legitimate response to punish people who are not responsible for the wrong done,” Ferencz insisted. “We must make a distinction between punishing the guilty and punishing others. If you simply retaliate en masse by bombing Afghanistan, let us say, or the Taliban, you will kill many people who don’t approve of what has happened… I say to the skeptics, ‘Follow your procedure and you will see what happens.’ … We will have more fanatics and more zealots deciding to come and kill the evil, the United States.”

But in the courtroom of American politics, hopelessly corrupted by the CIA’s politicized intelligence and manufactured crises and the “unwarranted influence” of the Military Industrial Complex, our leaders chose Ohlendorf’s logic over Ferencz’s. Neither the millions of people killed in 16 years of war, nor its legacy of ruin and chaos in country after country, nor the utter failure of the “war on terror” on its own terms have led to any change in this illegitimate, criminal and, in the case of Sunni Arabs in Iraq, genocidal U.S. policy.

The Geneva Conventions

As well as the unfulfilled promise of peace in the U.N. Charter, the post-World War II effort to prevent the future mass slaughter of civilians led to a major revision of the Geneva Conventions in 1949. That included a brand new convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention, dedicated entirely to the protection of civilians in wartime or under military occupation.

Two additional protocols were added to the Geneva Conventions in 1977, to adapt them to the changing nature of war and to provide even greater protections to civilians.  The First Additional Protocol has been signed and ratified by 174 countries and the Second by 168 countries. The United States has not ratified either of the Additional Protocols, but it is legally bound by them because treaties that have been ratified by large majorities of countries automatically become part of customary international law, which is universally binding.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Conventions in 1999, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) conducted a survey of 17,000 people in 17 countries to see how well people around the world understood “the rules and limits of what is permissible in war” under the Geneva Conventions. The study was titled People on War – Civilians in the Line of Fire.

The 17 countries surveyed included 12 where wars had recently been fought, four of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Switzerland, where the ICRC is based. The introduction to the People on War report noted that 90 percent of the people killed in recent wars were civilians and that, in today’s world, “war is war on civilians.” But the report went on:

“…the more these conflicts have degenerated into wars on civilians, the more people have reacted by reaffirming the norms, traditions, conventions and rules that seek to create a barrier between those who carry arms into battle and the civilian population… Large majorities in every war-torn country reject attacks on civilians in general and a wide range of actions that by design or default could harm the innocent.”

People interviewed in Switzerland and the four Security Council permanent member countries were asked to choose between a firm statement that armed forces “must attack only other combatants and leave civilians alone,” and a weaker statement that, “combatants should avoid civilians as much as possible.”  About three-quarters of respondents in the U.K., Russia, France and Switzerland chose the first statement, which correctly summarizes the rules of the Fourth Geneva Convention, while 26 percent in the U.K. and 16-17 percent in Russia, France and Switzerland chose the weaker one.

When it came to the United States, though, a very different pattern emerged. Only 52 percent of Americans understood that attacking civilians is strictly prohibited, while 42 percent chose the weaker option, twice as many as in the other four countries. The ICRC report noted that, “Across a wide range of questions, in fact, American attitudes towards attacks on civilians were much more lax.”

The survey also asked whether it is lawful to attack “enemy combatants in populated villages or towns in order to weaken the enemy, knowing that many civilians would be killed.” Once again, while only 20-29 percent of people in the other four countries thought this was allowed, that increased to 38 percent among Americans. Since 1999, this question has arisen again and again across America’s war zones, most recently in the U.S.-led massacres of Iraqi and Syrian civilians in Mosul and Raqqa.

During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, U.N. human rights reports repeatedly reminded U.S. officials of their duty as an occupying power to protect civilians, and notified them that U.S. military operations in civilian areas were routinely violating international humanitarian law. John Pace, who headed the U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq during the U.S. occupation, compared U.S. efforts to police Iraq by military force to “trying to swat a fly with a bomb,” a fitting metaphor for the entire “war on terror.”

The People on War survey also found large discrepancies in attitudes to the Geneva Conventions themselves. In countries that had recently experienced war, only 28 percent of people agreed with a statement that the Conventions “make no real difference” to the brutality of war.  But in the U.S. (57 percent) and U.K. (55 percent), twice as many people agreed with that statement.

U.S. War Crimes

We could speculate on why Americans are so exceptionally “lax” in their attitudes toward protecting civilians in wartime. But in practice, the real-world impact of these exceptional attitudes could be overcome if Americans who joined the armed forces received serious training in their responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Tragically, they do not.

U.S. military recruits receive only a 50-minute class on the laws of war, focused mainly on the Third Geneva Convention and the rights of POWs, and a refresher of the same 50-minute class before deployment. A retired JAG officer who taught law of war classes and veterans who have sat through them have all told me that the Fourth Geneva Convention and the rights of civilians as “protected persons” were barely mentioned, if at all.

The lax attitude of Americans toward the killing of civilians and the poor training of U.S. troops in their responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions have combined to make invasion and occupation by American forces especially deadly, dangerous and terrifying for civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and wherever U.S. forces are deployed.

In practice, U.S. forces operate under much lower standards than those of the Geneva Conventions, and civilians whose countries have fallen prey to U.S. aggression do not enjoy the protections guaranteed to them under the laws of war. As I wrote in an article in 2016, this is a classic case of the “normalization of deviance,” a sociological term for the way that powerful institutions like the U.S. military tend to develop weaker, looser norms of conduct than the formal or legal rules that officially apply to them.

Illegal U.S. rules of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan have included: systematic, theater-wide use of torture; orders to “dead-check” or kill wounded enemy combatants; orders to “kill all military-age males” during certain operations; and “weapons-free” zones that mirror Vietnam-era “free-fire” zones. A U.S. Marine corporal told a court martial prosecuting one of his men for “dead-checking” a wounded Iraqi civilian that “Marines consider all Iraqi men part of the insurgency,” nullifying the critical distinction between combatants and civilians that is the very basis of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

When junior officers or enlisted troops have been charged with war crimes against civilians, they have often been exonerated or given light sentences because courts martial have found that they were acting on orders from more senior officers. But the senior officers implicated in these crimes have been allowed to testify in secret or not to appear in court at all, and have almost never been charged.

To make matters even worse for civilians in Iraq, U.S. military and civilian officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, misled the troops they sent to kill and die in Iraq with lies about shadowy connections between the people of Iraq and the young Saudis who committed the crimes of September 11th. In 2006, three years into the war, a Zogby poll of U.S. troops in Iraq found that 85 percent of them still believed that their mission in Iraq was to “retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks.”

A million Iraqis have paid with their lives for these American lies and the war crimes they have served to justify, while the U.S. officials involved are still walking free, and in many cases still climbing the twisted ladder of success inside the U.S. Military Industrial Complex. Colonel Jeffrey Buchanan, who headed a Special Police Transition Team in Iraq at the time of the exposure of the Al Jadiriyah torture prison in 2005, has been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and is currently in charge of hurricane relief to Puerto Rico.

A New Body of Research

After 16 years of ever-spreading and intractable war, a significant body of research is finally emerging to clarify who exactly the U.S. is fighting in its ever-expanding war zones and what drives civilians to join armed groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda or Islamic State.

In the looking-glass world of U.S. propaganda, U.S. forces are “fighting them there” so that we don’t have to “fight them here.” But researchers are learning that, like the Iraqis who rose up to resist the illegal U.S. invasion and occupation of their country, most of the people joining armed groups across Africa and the Middle East are only fighting at all because U.S. and allied forces are “fighting them there,” in their countries, cities, villages and homes.

Researchers have interviewed people who have joined armed resistance groups in countries across the world to ask them about what drove them to join an armed group and take part in guerrilla warfare or terrorism. In 2015, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published the results of interviews with 250 people who joined armed groups in Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza and Libya in a report titled, The People’s Perspective: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict. One of its main findings was that, “The most common motivation for involvement, described by interviewees in all four case studies, was the protection of self or family.”

If most of the people fighting U.S. forces and their allies across the world, from Niger to Ukraine to the Philippines, are just trying to defend themselves and their families against our “counterterrorism” operations, that turns the whole basis of the U.S. “war on terror” on its head. The most effective way to reduce violence and terrorism would obviously be to stop putting them in such an intolerable position in the first place.

Also in 2015, Lydia Wilson, a researcher for the Center for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, was allowed to interview a number of captured Islamic State fighters in Kirkuk, Iraq. Wilson’s fellow researchers included retired U.S. Major General Doug Stone, who managed U.S. military prisons in Iraq during the U.S. occupation and did some of the first serious Western research into the motivations of Iraqi resistance fighters.

It was hard for Wilson to find captured Islamic State fighters to interview, because Kurdish and U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces summarily execute Islamic State fighters that they capture. But the police in Kirkuk were at least putting prisoners on trial before killing them, so Wilson got permission from the police chief to talk to some prisoners who were awaiting execution.

The first prisoner Lydia Wilson interviewed was captured, tried and sentenced to death for exploding at least four car-bombs and a scooter-bomb in Kirkuk. But his interview was not exceptional – Wilson found that his account of his motivations was repeated by every other prisoner. He explained that his first loyalty was to his wife and two children, and that he joined ISIS (as Islamic State is commonly known) to support his family. He told Wilson, “We need the war to be over, we need security, we are tired of so much war… all I want is to be with my family, my children.”

At the end of the interview, Wilson asked the prisoner if he had any questions. By then he knew that General Stone, one of Wilson’s colleagues, was ex-U.S. military, and, instead of asking a question, he just exploded in anger at him, “The Americans came. They took away Saddam but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

General Stone was not surprised.  This was the same outraged speech he had heard from nearly every prisoner since he started interviewing his own prisoners in Iraq in 2007, identifying the poisonous and blood-soaked legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation as the driving force behind their actions.

Lydia Wilson summarized what she learned about the prisoners in Kirkuk in an article for The Nation: “They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death by execution or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family and tribe. This is not radicalization to the ISIS way of life, but the promise of a way out of their insecure and undignified lives; the promise of living in pride as Iraqi Sunni Arabs, which is not just a religious identity, but cultural, tribal and land-based, too.”

The recent killing of four U.S. soldiers in Niger surprised many Americans, but the U.S. has 6,000 troops in 53 countries in Africa, so we should be ready to welcome home flag-draped coffins from seemingly random countries across the continent. But before our deluded leaders reduce the entire continent of Africa to a new U.S. “battlefield,” Americans should take note of a new report published by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment.

This report is based on 500 interviews with militants from across Africa. As its title suggests, the interviewers questioned the militants specifically about the “tipping point” that decided each of them to actually join an armed group such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabab or Al Qaeda. By far the largest number (71 percent) said that some kind of “government action,” such as ”killing of a family member or friend” or “arrest of a family member or friend,” was the final straw that pushed them over the red line from civilian life to guerrilla war. By contrast, religious ideology was generally not a decisive factor in that decision.

The report concluded, “State security-actor conduct is revealed as a prominent accelerator of recruitment, rather than the reverse.” In its section on “Policy Implications,” it added, “The Journey to Extremism research provides startling new evidence of just how directly counter-productive security-driven responses can be when conducted insensitively.”

Across the world, it is obvious, and now well-documented, that U.S. aggression and militarism are causing the very problems they claim to be trying to solve. By design or default, U.S. policy is confusing cause and effect to justify military operations that turn civilians into combatants, fueling an ever-escalating, ever-spreading cycle of increasingly global violence and chaos.

As the world confronts critical problems and demands on its resources, from climate change to poverty and inequality, it can no longer afford to follow the pied piper of American “leadership” that leads only to war and chaos.

U.S. leaders often raise the specter of “appeasement” to guilt-trip reluctant allies into supporting U.S.-led wars. But maybe it is time for world leaders to recognize that the real appeasement they have been engaged in is the appeasement of the United States, by actively or tacitly encouraging it in an illegal policy of militarism and serial aggression that is spreading violence and chaos across the world.

Surely the real lesson of the 1930s and the Second World War, now reinforced by the experience of the past 20 years, is that it is not enough to simply sign treaties that prohibit aggression and war crimes. The world must be ready to actually enforce the prohibition against the threat or use of military force in customary international law, the 1928 Kellogg Brand Pact and the U.N. Charter – by uniting peacefully and diplomatically to stand up to U.S. aggression and militarism before they lead to a cataclysmic total war that will kill tens or even hundreds of millions of civilians, in Korea or somewhere else.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapter on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

Saudi Arabia’s Desperate Gamble

Furious over defeat in Syria, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince is gambling again, arresting rivals at home and provoking a political crisis in Lebanon, but he may lack the geopolitical chips to pull off his bet, says ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

It is always tempting. The Syrian war is coming to an end, and the losses to those who bet on the losing side – suddenly in the glare of the end-game – become an acute and public embarrassment. The temptation is to brush the losses aside and with a show of bravado make one last bet: the masculine “hero” risks his home and its contents on a last spin of the wheel. Those in attendance stand in awed silence, awaiting the wheel to slow, and to trickle the ball forward, slot by slot, and to observe where it comes to rest, be it on black, or on the blood-red of tragedy.

Not only in romances, but in life, too. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has wagered all on black, with his “friends” – President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and Trump himself daring MbS on. Trump, in his business life, once or twice has staked his future on the spin of the wheel. He too has gambled and admits to the exhilaration.

And in the shadows, at the back of the gaming room, stands Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The idea of going to the casino was his, in the first place. If the hero lands on black, he will share in the joy, but if it is red … never mind: Bibi’s home is not forfeit.

Let us be clear, MbS is severing all the various fetters that hold the Saudi kingdom together and intact. Saudi Arabia is not just a family business: it is also a confederation of tribes. Their diverse interests were attended to, primordially, through the composition of the National Guard, and its patronage. The latter henceforth reflects, no longer, the kingdom’s diverse tribal affiliations, but the security interests of one man, who has seized it for himself.

Ditto for the various cadet branches of the al-Saud family: the carefully judged sharing out of spoils amongst the many family claimants is finished. One man is clearing the table of everybody’s smaller stakes. He has snapped the wires connecting the Court to the Saudi business élite – and is slowly slicing away the Wahhabi religious establishment, too. They have been effectively kicked out of the partnership, which they founded jointly with ibn Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia who ruled during the first half of the last century, also known as King Abdul Aziz. In short, no one has a stake left in this enterprise, but MbS – and no one it seems, has rights, or redress.

Why? Because MbS sees the Saudi political and religious leadership of the Arab world slipping, like sand, through the king’s fingers, and he cannot bear the thought that Iran (and the despised Shi’a), could be the inheritor.

Transforming Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia, therefore, has to be transformed from a sleepy, declining kingdom, into an instrument for blunting Iranian power. This, naturally resonates with an American President who seems, too, more and more preoccupied with reasserting U.S. prestige, deterrence and power in the world (rather than adhering to the non-interventionist narrative of the Campaign). At The American Conservative’s conference in Washington last week, editor Robert Merry, a staunch realist and prolific author, mourned that: “There is no realism and restraint in American foreign policy in the Trump era.”

All wars are costly, and money is needed (and is being seized accordingly through MbS’s arrest of his rivals on corruption charges). But Saudi Arabia traditionally (since the Eighteenth Century), has waged all its power struggles via one particular (and effective) tool: fired-up Wahhabi jihadism. And that, in the wake of the Syrian debacle, lies discredited, and no longer available.

So now, Saudi Arabia has to craft a new instrument, with which to confront Iran: and the Crown Prince’s choice is truly ironic: “moderate Islam” and Arab nationalism (to counter non-Arab Iran and Turkey).  Mohammad Abd-el Wahhab must be turning in his grave: “moderate” Islam in his rigorous doctrine, led only to idolatry (such as that practiced by the Ottomans), and which, in his view, should be punished by death (see here).

In fact, this is the riskier part of MbS’s gamble (though seizing Prince Walid bin Talal’s mammoth fortune has grabbed most attention). King Abdel Aziz faced armed rebellion, and another king was assassinated for departing from the Wahhabist principles on which the state was founded – and for embracing westernized modernity (viewed by pure Wahhabis as idolatry).

The gene of Wahhabist fervor cannot be exorcised from Saudi society by simply commanding it gone.  (Abdul Aziz finally only overcame it, by machine gunning its adherents, dead).

But, embracing “moderate Islam” (i.e. secular Islam), and threatening to confront Iran, probably was done with one eye on wooing President Trump to support MbS’s ousting of his cousin, Prince Naif, as Crown Prince – and the other eye on the P.R. potential to portray Iran as “extremist” Islam to a White House whose world view of the Middle East has been shaped by Bibi Netanyahu whispering in the ear of Jared Kushner, and by the prejudices of a circle of advisers disposed to see Iran in terms of one singular understanding, rather than in its diverse aspects. Netanyahu must be congratulating himself on his clever ploy.

Netanyahu’s Coup

No doubt about it: it has been a coup for Netanyahu. The question though, is whether it will turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, or not: whichever it is, it is highly dangerous to throw grenades into combustible material. This U.S.-Israeli-Saudi-UAE project is, at bottom, an attempt to overturn reality, no less – it is rooted in a denial of the setback suffered by these states by their multiple failures to shape a New Middle East in the Western mode. Now, in the wake of their failure in Syria – in which they went to the limits in search of victory – they seek another spin of the roulette wheel – in the hope of recouping all their earlier losses. It is, to say the least, a capricious hope.

On the one hand, Iran’s strength across the northern Middle East is not tentative. It is now well rooted. Iran’s “strategic space” includes Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen – and increasingly – Turkey.  Iran has played a major role in defeating ISIS, together with Russia. It is a “strategic partner” of Russia, while Russia now enjoys broad sway across the region. In a word, the political heft lies with the north, rather than with the weakened, southern tier.

If there be some notion that Russia might be induced to “rein in” Iran and its allies across the region to mollify Israeli concerns, this smacks of wishful thinking. Even if Russia could (and it probably cannot), why should it? How then will Iran be rolled-back? By military action? This, too, seems a stretch.

Israel’s military and security echelon, in the wake of the 2006 war on Lebanon, is likely only to contemplate a war (with anyone other than Palestinians), that is short (six days or less); does not result in heavy Israeli civilian or military casualties; and can be won at a low cost. Ideally, Israel would also expect full American buy-in (unlike in 2006). The Pentagon has little appetite for putting boots on the ground again in the Middle East, and Israelis are aware of this. And Saudi Arabia alone, cannot threaten anyone militarily (as Yemen has amply demonstrated).

Can Saudi Arabia squeeze Lebanon economically and impose political pressure on any Lebanese government? Of course: but economic pressure likely will hurt the Sunni, middle and business classes, harder than the 44 percent of the Lebanese population who are Shi’a.  Generally, the Lebanese have an aversion to external interference, and American sanctions and pressures will be more likely to unite Lebanon than divide it. (This is the old, old story of imposed sanctions.) And at a guess, the Europeans will neither willingly support the de-stabilization of Lebanon nor the abandonment of JCPOA, the 2015 agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

So what may be the outcome? At a guess, Saudi Arabia, already a society with many repressed tensions, may simply implode under the new repression (or MbS might somehow be “removed” before the tensions combust). America and Israel will not emerge strengthened, but rather will be viewed as less relevant to the Middle East.

Robert Malley, the former Middle East adviser in the last administration, warns of the danger of a potential regional explosion: “Fear is the one thing preventing it—but could also precipitate it.”

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.


Did Al Qaeda Dupe Trump on Syrian Attack?

Special Report: Buried deep inside a new U.N. report is evidence that could exonerate the Syrian government in the April 4 sarin atrocity and make President Trump look like an Al Qaeda dupe, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

A new United Nations-sponsored report on the April 4 sarin incident in an Al Qaeda-controlled town in Syria blames Bashar al-Assad’s government for the atrocity, but the report contains evidence deep inside its “Annex II” that would prove Assad’s innocence.

If you read that far, you would find that more than 100 victims of sarin exposure were taken to several area hospitals before the alleged Syrian warplane could have struck the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Still, the Joint Investigative Mechanism [JIM], a joint project of the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons [OPCW], brushed aside this startling evidence and delivered the Assad guilty verdict that the United States and its allies wanted.

The JIM consigned the evidence of a staged atrocity, in which Al Qaeda operatives would have used sarin to kill innocent civilians and pin the blame on Assad, to a spot 14 pages into the report’s Annex II. The sensitivity of this evidence of a staged “attack” is heightened by the fact that President Trump rushed to judgment and ordered a “retaliatory” strike with 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airbase on the night of April 6-7. That U.S. attack reportedly killed several soldiers at the base and nine civilians, including four children, in nearby neighborhoods.

So, if it becomes clear that Al Qaeda tricked President Trump not only would he be responsible for violating international law and killing innocent people, but he and virtually the entire Western political establishment along with the major news media would look like Al Qaeda’s “useful idiots.”

Currently, the West and its mainstream media are lambasting the Russians for not accepting the JIM’s “assessment,” which blames Assad for the sarin attack. Russia is also taking flak for questioning continuation of the JIM’s mandate. There has been virtually no mainstream skepticism about the JIM’s report and almost no mention in the mainstream of the hospital-timing discrepancy.

Timing Troubles

To establish when the supposed sarin attack occurred on April 4, the JIM report relied on witnesses in the Al Qaeda-controlled town and a curious video showing three plumes of smoke but no airplanes. Based on the video’s metadata, the JIM said the scene was recorded between 0642 and 0652 hours. The JIM thus puts the timing of the sarin release at between 0630 and 0700 hours.

But the first admissions of victims to area hospitals began as early as 0600 hours, the JIM found, meaning that these victims could not have been poisoned by the alleged aerial bombing (even if the airstrike really did occur).

According to the report’s Annex II, “The admission times of the records range between 0600 and 1600 hours.” And these early cases – arriving before the alleged airstrike – were not isolated ones.

“Analysis of the … medical records revealed that in 57 cases, patients were admitted in five hospitals before the incident in Khan Shaykhun,” Annex II said.

Plus, this timing discrepancy was not limited to a few hospitals in and around Khan Sheikhoun, but was recorded as well at hospitals that were scattered across the area and included one hospital that would have taken an hour or so to reach.

Annex II stated: “In 10 such cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours.”

In other words, more than 100 patients would appear to have been exposed to sarin before the alleged Syrian warplane could have dropped the alleged bomb and the victims could be evacuated, a finding that alone would have destroyed the JIM’s case against the Syrian government.

But the JIM seemed more interested in burying this evidence of Al Qaeda staging the incident — and killing some expendable civilians — than in following up this timing problem.

“The [JIM] did not investigate these discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario, or to poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions,” the report said. But the proffered excuse about poor record-keeping would have to apply to multiple hospitals over a wide area all falsely recording the arrival time of more than 100 patients.

The video of the plumes of smoke also has come under skepticism from Theodore Postol, a weapons expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who noted that none of the three plumes matched up with damage to buildings (as viewed from satellite images) that would have resulted from aerial bombs of that power.

Postol’s finding suggests that the smoke could have been another part of a staging event rather than debris kicked up by aerial bombs.

The JIM also could find no conclusive evidence that a Syrian warplane was over Khan Sheikhoun at the time of the video although the report claims that a plane could have come within about 5 kilometers of the town.

A History of Deception

Perhaps even more significantly, the JIM report ignored the context of the April 4 case and the past history of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front staging chemical weapons attacks with the goal of foisting blame on the Syrian government and tricking the U.S. military into an intervention on the side of Nusra and its Islamic-militant allies.

On April 4, there was a strong motive for Al Qaeda and its regional allies to mount a staged event. Just days earlier, President Trump’s administration had shocked the Syrian rebels and their backers by declaring “regime change” was no longer the U.S. goal in Syria.

So, Al Qaeda and its regional enablers were frantic to reverse Trump’s decision, which was accomplished by his emotional reaction to videos on cable news showing children and other civilians suffering and dying in Khan Sheikhoun.

On the night of April 6-7, before any thorough investigation could be conducted, Trump ordered 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at the Syrian air base that supposedly had launched the sarin attack.

At the time, I was told by an intelligence source that at least some CIA analysts believed that the sarin incident indeed had been staged with sarin possibly flown in by drone from a Saudi-Israeli special operations base in Jordan.

This source said the on-the-ground staging for the incident had been hasty because of the surprise announcement that the Trump administration was no longer seeking regime change in Damascus. The haste led to some sloppiness in tying down all the necessary details to pin the atrocity on Assad, the source said.

But the few slip-ups, such as the apparent failure to coordinate the timing of the hospital admissions to after the purported airstrike, didn’t deter the JIM investigators from backing the West’s desire to blame Assad and also create another attack line against the Russians.

Similarly, other U.N.-connected investigators downplayed earlier evidence that Al Qaeda’s Nusra was staging chemical weapons incidents after President Obama laid down his “red line” on chemical weapons. The militants apparently hoped that the U.S. military would take out the Syrian military and pave the way for an Al Qaeda victory.

For instance, U.N. investigators learned from a number of townspeople of Al-Tamanah about how the rebels and allied “activists” staged a chlorine gas attack on the night of April 29-30, 2014, and then sold the false story to a credulous Western media and, initially, to a U.N. investigative team.

“Seven witnesses stated that frequent alerts [about an imminent chlorine weapons attack by the government] had been issued, but in fact no incidents with chemicals took place,” the U.N. report said. “While people sought safety after the warnings, their homes were looted and rumours spread that the events were being staged. … [T]hey [these witnesses] had come forward to contest the wide-spread false media reports.”

Dubious Evidence

Other people, who did allege that there had been a government chemical attack on Al-Tamanah, provided suspect evidence, including data from questionable sources, according to the report.

The report said, “Three witnesses, who did not give any description of the incident on 29-30 April 2014, provided material of unknown source. One witness had second-hand knowledge of two of the five incidents in Al-Tamanah, but did not remember the exact dates. Later that witness provided a USB-stick with information of unknown origin, which was saved in separate folders according to the dates of all the five incidents mentioned by the FFM [the U.N.’s Fact-Finding Mission].

“Another witness provided the dates of all five incidents reading it from a piece of paper, but did not provide any testimony on the incident on 29-30 April 2014. The latter also provided a video titled ‘site where second barrel containing toxic chlorine gas was dropped tamanaa 30 April 14’”

Some other witnesses alleging a Syrian government attack offered curious claims about detecting the chlorine-infused “barrel bombs” based on how the device sounded in its descent.

The U.N. report said, “The eyewitness, who stated to have been on the roof, said to have heard a helicopter and the ‘very loud’ sound of a falling barrel. Some interviewees had referred to a distinct whistling sound of barrels that contain chlorine as they fall. The witness statement could not be corroborated with any further information.”

However, the claim itself is absurd since it is inconceivable that anyone could detect a chlorine canister inside a “barrel bomb” by “a distinct whistling sound.”

The larger point, however, is that the jihadist rebels in Al-Tamanah and their propaganda teams, including relief workers and activists, appear to have organized a coordinated effort at deception complete with a fake video supplied to U.N. investigators and Western media outlets.

For instance, the Telegraph in London reported that “Videos allegedly taken in Al-Tamanah … purport to show the impact sites of two chemical bombs. Activists said that one person had been killed and another 70 injured.”

The Telegraph quoted supposed weapons expert Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat and a senior fellow at the fiercely anti-Russian Atlantic Council, as endorsing the Al-Tamanah claims.

“Witnesses have consistently reported the use of helicopters to drop the chemical barrel bombs used,” said Higgins. “As it stands, around a dozen chemical barrel bomb attacks have been alleged in that region in the last three weeks.”

The Al-Tamanah debunking in the U.N. report received no mainstream media attention when the U.N. findings were issued in September 2016 because the U.N. report relied on rebel information to blame two other alleged chlorine attacks on the government and that got all the coverage. But the case should have raised red flags given the extent of the apparent deception.

If the seven townspeople were telling the truth, that would mean that the rebels and their allies issued fake attack warnings, produced propaganda videos to fool the West, and prepped “witnesses” with “evidence” to deceive investigators. Yet, no alarms went off about other rebel claims.

The Ghouta Incident

A more famous attack – with sarin gas on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013, killing hundreds – was also eagerly blamed on the Assad regime, as The New York Times, Human Rights Watch, Higgins’s Bellingcat and many other Western outlets jumped to that conclusion despite the unlikely circumstances. Assad had just welcomed U.N. investigators to Damascus to examine chemical attacks that he was blaming on the rebels.

Assad also was facing the “red line” threat from President Obama warning him of possible U.S. military intervention if the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons. Why Assad and his military would choose such a moment to launch a deadly sarin attack outside Damascus, killing mostly civilians, made little sense.

But this became another rush to judgment in the West that brought the Obama administration to the verge of launching a devastating air attack on the Syrian military that might have helped Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and/or the Islamic State win the war.

Eventually, however, the case blaming Assad for the 2013 sarin attack collapsed.

An analysis by genuine weapons experts – such as Theodore Postol, an MIT professor of science, technology and national security policy, and Richard M. Lloyd, an analyst at the military contractor Tesla Laboratories – found that the missile that delivered the sarin had a very short range placing its likely firing position in rebel territory.

Later, reporting by journalist Seymour Hersh implicated Turkish intelligence working with jihadist rebels as the likely source of the sarin.

We also learned in 2016 that a message from the U.S. intelligence community had warned Obama how weak the evidence against Assad was. There was no “slam-dunk” proof, said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. And Obama cited his rejection of the Washington militaristic “playbook” to bomb Syria as one of his proudest moments as President.

With this background, there should have been extreme skepticism when jihadists and their allies made new claims about the Syrian government engaging in chemical weapons attacks. But there wasn’t.

The broader context for these biased investigations is that U.N. and OPCW investigators have been under intense pressure to confirm accusations against Syria and other targeted states.

Right now, the West is blaming Russia for the collapsing consensus behind U.N. investigations, but the problem really comes from Washington’s longtime strategy of coercing U.N. organizations into becoming propaganda arms for U.S. geopolitical strategies.

The U.N.’s relative independence in its investigative efforts was decisively broken early this century when President George W. Bush’s administration purged U.N. agencies that were not onboard with U.S. hegemony, especially on interventions in the Middle East.

Through manipulation of funding and selection of key staff members, the Bush administration engineered the takeover or at least the neutralizing of one U.N.-affiliated organization after another.

For instance, in 2002, Bush’s Deputy Under-Secretary of State John Bolton spearheaded the takeover of the OPCW as Bush planned to cite chemical weapons as a principal excuse for invading Iraq.

OPCW Director General Jose Mauricio Bustani was viewed as an obstacle because he was pressing Iraq to accept OPCW’s conventions for eliminating chemical weapons, which could have undermined Bush’s WMD rationale for war.

Though Bustani was just reelected to a new term, the Brazilian diplomat was forced out, to be followed in that job by more pliable bureaucrats, including the current Director General Ahmet Uzumcu of Turkey, who not only comes from a NATO country but served as Turkey’s ambassador to NATO and to Israel. [For details, see’s “U.N. Enablers of ‘Aggressive War.’”]

Since those days of the Iraq invasion, the game hasn’t changed. U.S. and other Western officials expect the U.N. and related agencies to accept or at least not object to Washington’s geopolitical interventions.

The only difference now is that Russia, one of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council, is saying enough is enough – and Russia’s opposition to these biased inquiries is emerging as one more dangerous hot spot in the New Cold War.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

How US Blunders Strengthened Iran

Exclusive: By echoing the Israeli-Saudi bellicosity toward Iran, President Trump is repeating the same mistakes of his predecessors and inviting wider Mideast wars that could enhance Iran’s position, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Behind only North Korea, Iran is the country the Trump administration vilifies most. The White House endorses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s injunction that “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.”

Parroting Netanyahu’s claim that Iran is “busy gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East, CIA Director and conservative GOP stalwart Mike Pompeo warned in June that Iran — which he branded “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” — now wields “enormous influence . . . that far outstrips where it was six or seven years ago.”

In an interview with MSNBC, Pompeo elaborated, “Whether it’s the influence they have over the government in Baghdad, whether it’s the increasing strength of Hezbollah and Lebanon, their work alongside the Houthis in Iran, (or) the Iraqi Shias that are fighting along now the border in Syria . . . Iran is everywhere throughout the Middle East.”

Few would deny that Iran’s influence in the region has grown over the past decade. What’s missing from such dire warnings of its imperial designs, however, is any reflection on how aggressive policies by the United States and its allies have consistently backfired, creating needless chaos that Iran has exploited as a matter of self-interest and self-defense.

Consider the case of Hezbollah, a Lebanese-based Shiite organization that Israeli leaders describe as a major threat and almost certainly the target of Israel’s next war. Although the Iranian-backed force intervened actively in Syria to back the Assad government, it disclaims any intent to start a war with Israel.

It does, however, declare with great bravado its intent to deter another Israeli invasion of its homeland. “Israel should think a million times before waging any war with Lebanon,” said its leader earlier this year.

Spurred by Israeli Invasions

In fact, Hezbollah owes its very existence to Israel’s repeated invasions of their country. In 1982, Israel broke a cease-fire with the Palestine Liberation Organization and invaded southern Lebanon with 60,000 troops. The Reagan administration took no steps to stop that invasion, which caused thousands of civilian casualties and turned much of the population against Israel.

With Iranian money and guidance, the Shiite resistance in Lebanon coalesced around the organization that became known as Hezbollah. “We are only exercising our legitimate right to defend our Islam and the dignity of our nation,” the group claimed in one of its ideological tracts. “We appealed to the world’s conscience, but heard nothing.”

Years later, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded that “It was our presence [in Lebanon] that created Hezbollah.” Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin seconded that assessment, saying that Israel had let the “genie out of the bottle.”

In 2006, Israel again invaded Lebanon, this time to wipe out Hezbollah. Israel’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians drew condemnation from international human rights organizations. They also succeeded in strengthening the very enemy Israel sought to annihilate.

“Especially since the 2006 war with Israel, . . . an overwhelming majority of the Shi’a have embraced Hezbollah as the defender of their community,” writes Augustus Richard Norton in his study, Hezbollah: A Short History. “This suggests that outsiders . . . seeking to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon must redress the security narrative rather than take steps that validate it.”

Instead, of course, the United States and its Sunni Arab and Turkish allies promoted the violent overthrow of Syria’s government, drawing Hezbollah forces into the fight for the survival of their longtime ally. While Hezbollah has paid a political and human price for its military expedition, its soldiers have gained tremendous battle experience, making them all the more formidable a foe.

The Iraqi Gift

Washington’s greatest geostrategic gift to Iran was the unprovoked U.S. overthrow of Iran’s arch enemy, Saddam Hussein, in 2003. Iran had lost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in an eight-year war with Iraq, triggered by Saddam’s invasion in 1980. The Bush administration not only killed Saddam, but handed political power to Iraq’s majority Shiite population, which looked to Iran for spiritual and political guidance.

That windfall may not have been entirely luck. The leading Iraqi lobbyist for war, the neoconservatives’ darling Ahmed Chalabi, was later identified by U.S. authorities as a key Iranian intelligence asset. U.S. counterintelligence agents concluded that Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles, who peddled false claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, had “been used as agents of a foreign intelligence service … to reach into and influence the highest levels of the U.S. government,” in the words of a Senate Intelligence Committee report.

But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office shut down the investigation, leaving Chalabi to direct the political purge of Iraq’s government and then become Iraq’s deputy prime minister and oil minister. The Chalabi-led purge targeted Iraq’s Sunni politicians, aggravating the country’s sectarian divide and fueling the insurgency that still plagues the country today. The violence strengthened Iran’s hand in the country, as Shiite militia sought Tehran’s help to defend their communities.

At the same time, popular opposition to the U.S. occupation led to the rise of radical Sunni terrorists. It was from their swelling ranks in Iraq’s prisons that ISIS was born. ISIS made lightning gains across much of western Iraq in June 2014, with the conquest of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul, the country’s second most populous city. With its very existence in jeopardy, Iraq’s beleaguered government welcomed Iran’s immediate dispatch of 2,000 soldiers to help block the ISIS offensive. Syria’s air force also began striking ISIS bases in coordination with Baghdad.

Misguided Pressure

Washington, in contrast, rejected Iraq’s call for air strikes and suggested that its Shiite-led government should step down to placate aggrieved Sunnis. Only in August 2014 did President Obama authorize limited bombing of ISIS to protect minorities threatened by their military advance. Needless to say, many Iraqis were grateful to Iran for its military support at a critical time.

“The Iranians are playing a long game and a waiting game,” said Sajad Jiyad, the director of the Al Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad. “They put their skins on the line. They lost three or four generals plus a dozen senior officers.”

So when a “hamfisted” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Saudi Arabia, recently demanded that Baghdad send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat ISIS, it didn’t go over well with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” his office stated. Abadi called the Popular Mobilization forces “Iraqi patriots,” not mere proxies of Iran, and insisted that they “should be encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region.” Score another few points for Tehran.

ISIS might never have spread into Syria had not the United States publicly promoted the overthrow of the Assad government in 2011, following years of covert efforts by Washington and Israel to weaken the regime and promote sectarian divisions within Syria.

Contributing greatly to the rise of radical Islamist forces in Syria was the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which unleashed large stocks of arms and hundreds of hardened fighters to spread their revolution into Syria.

By late 2011, Sunni-led states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar began financing and arming militant Islamist rebels in Syria, including Al Qaeda and even ISIS. The resulting war killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, uprooted millions of refugees, and laid waste to ancient cities.

The Obama administration proved itself just as deluded as the Bush administration about the efficacy of armed intervention. Describing hopes by the White House that Libya’s uprising would “ripple out to other nations in the region” and fuel anti-regime movements in Syria and Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Syria has served for 30 years as Iran’s closest strategic ally in the region. U.S. officials believe the growing challenge to Mr. Assad’s regime could motivate Iran’s democratic forces.”

Instead, of course, Syria’s conflict prompted Iran’s hardliners to send Revolutionary Guard units and Hezbollah forces to the defense of their ally. With the help of Russian air power, they turned the tide in Assad’s favor, leaving the Damascus regime intact and greatly in Tehran’s debt.

The Yemeni Mess

Echoing longstanding claims by Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration also insists that Iran is a major backer of Houthi tribal forces who swept down from northern Yemen to seize control of most of the country in early 2015. That March, with U.S. backing, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched a scorched–earth military campaign to oust the Houthis, in the name of resisting Iran.

The coalition’s indiscriminate bombing of industrial and other civilian targets, including schools and hospitals, has laid waste to much of the country and destroyed the economy. Its blockade of ports caused mass hunger and triggered the world’s worst cholera epidemic.

“Cynics can argue that the real strategy of the Saudi coalition is to rely on starvation and disease to wear down the Yemeni people,” observed former White House adviser and CIA analyst Bruce Riedel. “The United Nations has labeled the war the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world . . . (Yet) Iran is the only winner, as it provides aid and expertise to the Houthis at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Saudi war effort while the Islamic Republic’s Gulf enemies spend fortunes on a conflict they jumped into with no endgame or strategy.”

Experts point out that Washington picked the wrong ally in this fight. “The Houthis are one of the few groups in the Middle East that has little intention or ability to confront the United States or Israel,” writes Harvard lecturer Asher Orkaby. “And far from being aligned with extremists, the Houthi movement has repeatedly clashed with the Islamic State . . . and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is Saudi Arabia that has long supported Sunni Islamist groups in Yemen.”

To compound the irony, the paranoid sheiks in Riyadh created the very threat they set out to crush with their invasion in 2015. Iranian ties to the Houthis were negligible before then. Remarking on years of attempts to smear them as pawns of Iran, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen reported in a classified cable in 2009, “The fact that . . .  there is still no compelling evidence of that link must force us to view this claim with some skepticism.”

Two former members of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning have recently confirmed that “the vast majority of the Houthi arsenal . . . was seized from Yemeni army stockpiles,” not provided by Iran.

As the devastating war grinds on, however, Iran has provided the Houthis with modest training, advice, and ground munitions. “Iran has exploited, on the cheap, the Saudi-led campaign, and thus made the expansion of Iranian influence in Yemen a Saudi self-fulfilling prophecy,” they observe.

“By catering to the Saudis in Yemen,” they add, “the United States has . . . strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

Qatar and Beyond

In a moment of particular lunacy, President Trump this June tweeted his support for a Saudi-led political and economic blockade of Qatar, a tiny but gas-rich Gulf emirate. Riyadh is aggrieved in part by Qatar’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera, the politically nettlesome broadcaster. Trump’s action surprised and embarrassed the Pentagon, which operates a huge military base in Qatar.

Iran quickly took advantage of this latest Saudi blunder. It opened its airspace to Qatari flights that were barred from crossing the Arabian Peninsula. It shipped food to replace supplies lost by the closure of the Saudi-Qatari border. In gratitude, Qatar restored full diplomatic relations with Tehran after recalling its ambassador two years ago.

“This dispute has pushed Qatar towards other players in the region who are critical: Iran, Turkey, Russia, China,” said Rob Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations at the CIA. “These are players who now have a lot more influence as we diminish our influence in the region. In this way, the blockade has actually undermined everything that the Saudis and Emiratis wanted by pushing the Qataris into the arms of these other regional players.”

Time after time, in other words, the United States and its regional supporters have made a mess of matters with their overt and covert military interventions in the Middle East. It’s only natural that Iran, having long been targeted by Washington and its allies (sometimes for understandable reasons), tries to seize opportunities to defend its interests.

The lesson we should learn is that curbing Iran and promoting U.S. security interests will require less intervention from afar, not more self-defeating forays into the region.

As Chatham House research fellow Renad Mansour recently observed, until the United States overcomes its counterproductive reactions to obsessive fears of Iranian influence, “the Iranophobes will be right about one thing: Iran is the smarter player in the region.”

Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books related to national security and international relations, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Trade (Stanford University Press, 2012).

The Trumped-Up Syria-Sarin Case

As Israel threatens an expanded war against Syria and Lebanon, an emotional justification is the alleged April 4 sarin attack that was blamed on the Syrian government despite huge holes in the evidence, as Rick Sterling reports.

By Rick Sterling

In early 2003, it was claimed that Iraq was a threat to other countries. Despite ten years of crushing economic sanctions plus intrusive inspections, supposedly Iraq had acquired enough “weapons of mass destruction” to threaten the West. It was ridiculous on its face but few people in power said so. Establishment politicians and media across the U.S. promoted the idea. In the Senate, Joe Biden chaired the committee looking into the allegations but excluded knowledgeable critics such as Scott Ritter. This led to the invasion of Iraq.

Today we have something similarly ridiculous and dangerous. Supposedly the Syrian government decided to use a banned chemical weapon, which they gave up in 2013-2014. Despite advancing against the insurgents, the Syrian government supposedly put sarin in a Russian chemical weapon canister and dropped this on the town Khan Sheikhoun which has been under the control of Syria’s version of Al Qaeda for years. To top off the stupidity, they left paint markings on the canister, which identify it as a chemical weapon.

Supposedly the Syrian government did this despite knowing there are many “White Helmet” activists in the town along with their cameras, videos, computers, Internet uplinks and Western social media promoters. Supposedly the Syrian government did this despite knowing that neoconservatives, neoliberals and Zionists are keen to prolong the conflict and drag the U.S. and NATO into it more directly. Supposedly the Syrian government did this despite knowing the one thing that could trigger direct U.S. aggression in the conflict is the use of chemical weapons: the “red line” laid down by Barack Obama.

If the above sounds unlikely, it is. But even if these accusations should be laughed out of the room, as they should have been in 2002, let’s take the claims about the event at Khan Sheikhoun in Syria on April 4 seriously if, for no other reason, than that certainly the consequences will be serious if the exploitation of this incident is not stopped.

What Happened at Khan Sheikhoun?

The report titled “Seventh report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism” was provided to select governments and media on Oct. 26. The world’s media announced the key finding without criticism or question: the sentence that the committee is “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”

About 36 hours later, the report was leaked via the Internet. But the die was already cast as establishment media had “confirmed” Syrian guilt.

Following are key contradictions and inconsistencies in the report produced by the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the U.N. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

–The Investigation Ignores the Essential Element of Motive.

The three essentials in criminal investigation are Motive, Means and Opportunity. All three must be present. Yet the investigation team ignores the question of motive. The Syrian government has every motive to NOT use proscribed weapons. On the other side, the armed opposition has a strong motive to implicate the Syrian government. They have been calling for U.S. and NATO intervention for years. They are losing ground, recruits and allies. Yet these facts are never considered.

–The Investigation Relies Primarily on Biased Sources.

On page 1 the Joint Investigative Mechanism claims they have conducted a “rigorous independent examination.” But most experts and witnesses are biased in favor of the “regime change” policies of Western governments. On page 4 the report says, The Mechanism engaged several internationally recognized forensic and specialist defense institutes … to provide forensic and expert support to the investigation.”

Any “defense institute” connected or contracting with France, U.K. or U.S. will have inherent assumptions and bias since these governments have actively promoted overthrow of the Syrian government.

–The Investigation Ignores Credible but Critical Analyses.

The Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) team makes no mention of the published analysis and findings of numerous researchers, investigative journalists and scientists. For example:

– MIT Professor Theodore Postol has analyzed the Khan Sheikhoun incident. He persuasively challenges the main theory about the crater site and munition.

– American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh has also written about he incident. His information from U.S. military and intelligence officers reveal that the American military knew about the forthcoming attack in advance. He reports the Syrian jet attack was “not a chemical weapons strike …. That’s a fairy tale.”

– Investigative journalist Gareth Porter has written an exposé titled “Have We Been Deceived over Syrian Sarin Attack? Scrutinizing the Evidence in an Incident Trump Used to Justify Bombing Syria.” Porter presents a devastating critique of the sarin-crater theory. He documents how easily false positives for sarin could have been created and how the OPCW has violated their own investigation protocols.

– Researcher Adam Larson has written an exposé titled “Syria Sarin Allegation: How the UN-Panel Report Twists and Omits Evidence”. After closely inspecting the photographs and videos, he questions whether the victims are civilians kidnapped from a nearby village five days previously. Larson’s site “A Closer Look at Syria” has a good index of videos and articles on this and other events.

The above “open source” analysis and information was published well before the current report but apparently not considered. A “rigorous, independent examination” needs to evaluate investigations such as these.   

–Victims Appear Before the Attack.

On pages 28-29, it is reported that “Certain irregularities were observed in elements of information analyzed. For example, several hospitals appeared to start admitting casualties of the attack between 0640 and 0645 hours…. in 57 cases patients were admitted in five hospitals before the incident in Khan Shaykhun….in 10 such cases, patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 125 km away from Khan Shaykhun at 0700 hours while another 42 patients appear to have been admitted to a hospital 30 km away at 0700 hours.”

It is reported that “The Mechanism did not investigate these discrepancies and cannot determine whether they are linked to any possible staging scenario, or to poor record-keeping in chaotic conditions.” Given the importance of determining whether this incident was caused by the Syrian government or staged by elements of the armed opposition and their supporters, why were these discrepancies not investigated further? Clearly it is not possible that victims were transported 125 kilometers and delivered to a hospital in 15 minutes. This is potentially powerful evidence of a staged event.

–‘White Helmets’ Were Warning of a Chemical Weapons Attack Before the Attack.

On page 20 it says “The Mechanism collected information from witnesses to the effect that a first warning of a possible upcoming chemical attack was received by ‘Syrian Civil Defense’ (also known as the ‘White Helmets’) and spotters in Kahn Shaykun…. The witness stated that the alert advised residents to be careful as the aircraft was likely carrying toxic chemicals.”

It seems reasonable to ask: Was the advance talk of “toxic chemicals” a signal to get ready for a staged event? How would a plane spotter know there was a one-time chemical bomb aboard? This is another area that needs more investigation.

–Were Syrian Planes Over Khan Sheikhoun at the Critical Time?

The basic question of whether or not there were Syrian jets over Khan Sheikhoun is unanswered. The Syrian military says they did NOT fly over Khan Sheikhoun in the early morning.

Page 21 documents that the Syrian pilot and log books record that the Su-22 jet was executing attacks at other nearby towns and not closer than 7 to 9 kilometers from Khan Sheikhoun. Radar track data from the U.S. appears to support this, indicating the Syrian jet path was 5 kms from Khan Sheikhoun.

On page 7 it says “SAAF aircraft may have been in a position to launch aerial bombs” (underline added). On page 22 it says, “the witness reported waking up at around 0700 hours on 4 April 2017 to the sound of explosions. The witness stated that there had been no aircraft over Khan Shaykhun at the time and that aircraft had only started launching attacks at around 1100 hours.” (underline added)

There are conflicting testimonies on this issue but curiously no video showing jet fighters at the time of the explosions in Khan Sheikhoun. It is unconfirmed how the ground explosions occurred.

–The Investigation Team Did Not Try to Visit the Scene of the Crime.

On page 3 the report says “The Mechanism did not visit the scenes of the incidents…. While the Leadership Panel considered that a visit to these sites would have been of value, such value would diminish over time. Further, the panel was required to weigh the security risks against the possible benefits to the investigation.”

While it is certainly appropriate to consider security, the actual scene of a crime provides unique opportunities for evidence. The OPCW has previously stated the necessity of having access to a crime site then taking and transferring samples to a certified lab with a clear chain of custody.

If the insurgents still controlling Khan Sheikhoun have nothing to hide, they should welcome the investigation.

Furthermore, Russian authorities offered to guarantee the safety of the inspection team. Yet the investigation team apparently made no effort to visit the site. Why? In an investigation of this importance, with potentially huge political consequences, visiting and analyzing the scene of the crime should be a requirement if at all possible.

–The Material Evidence Comes from Insurgents with No Verifiable Chain of Custody.

On page 23 it says “Samples taken from the crater and its surroundings were found by the Fact Finding Mission to contain sarin.” On the day of the event, insurgents took soil samples and victims to Turkey where they were received and subsequently tested. Without verified origins and “chain of custody”, this data cannot be verified and must be considered skeptically.

As indicated in the report, one theory about the April 4 event is that it was staged to implicate the Syrian government. If that theory is correct, it is predictable that the plotters would have samples prepared in advance, including sarin samples with markers matched to the Syrian stockpile. The Syrian sarin was destroyed aboard the U.S. vessel “MV Cape Ray.” Given the heavy involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Syrian conflict it is likely they analyzed and retained some portion.

–The Report Repeats Discredited Claims about Bomb Fragment and Filler Cap.

On page 26 it is reported that “two objects of interest … were the filler cap from a chemical munition and a deformed piece of metal protruding from deep within the crater. According to information obtained by the Mechanism, the filler cap, with two closure plugs, is uniquely consistent with Syrian chemical aerial bombs.”

This information may come from a Human Rights Watch report, which has been discredited. The “filler cap” was supposedly a match for an external plug for a Russian chemical weapon bomb but was found to not match and to be based on a 1950’s era museum photo. An insightful and amusing critique of the HRW report is here.

The authenticity of the fragments in the crater is also challenged by the lack of a tailfin or any other bomb fragments. A chemical weapon bomb is designed to release and not burn up the chemical and therefore the munition casing should be on site.

–Strange Actions Suggesting a Staged Event.

On page 28, the report notes methods and procedures “that appeared either unusual or inappropriate in the circumstances.” For example they observe that a Drager X-am 7000 air monitor was shown detecting sarin when that device is not able to detect sarin, and “para-medical interventions that did not seem to make medical sense, such as performing heart compression on a patient facing the ground.”

On page 29, it is reported that one victim had blood test showing negative for sarin and urine test showing positive. This is an impossible combination. Also on page 29 it is noted that some of the rescue operations were inappropriate but might have been “attempts to inflate the gravity of the situation for depiction in the media.”

The report does not mention the video, which shows “White Helmet” responders handling victims without any gloves or protection. If the patients truly died from sarin, touching the patients’ skin or clothing could be fatal. Incidents such as these support the theory that this was a contrived and staged event with real victims.

–The Team Is ‘Confident’ in Their Conclusions Yet Basic Facts Are in Dispute.

On page 22, the report acknowledges that “To date the Mechanism has not found specific information confirming whether or not an SAA Su-22 operating from Al Shayrat airbase launched an aerial attack against Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”

How can they be “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017” when such basics have not been confirmed?


The report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) gives the impression of much more certainty than is actually there. Seizing on the false “confidence,” the White House has denounced the “horrifying barbarism of Bashar al Assad” and “lack of respect for international norms” by Syria’s ally Russia. International diplomacy is being steadily eroded.

Most Western “experts” were dead wrong in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Are these same “experts,” institutes, intelligence agencies and biased organizations going to take us down the road to new aggression, this time against Syria?

In contrast with the JIM report, Gareth Porter reached the opposite conclusion: “The evidence now available makes it clear that the scene suggesting a sarin attack at the crater was a crudely staged deception.” That is also more logical. The armed opposition had the motive, means and opportunity.

Rick Sterling is an investigative journalist who lives in the SF Bay Area. He can be contacted at

Israeli-Saudi Tandem Adjusts to Syria Loss

Facing defeat in the proxy war in Syria, the Israeli-Saudi tandem is planning a new front against Hezbollah, presaged by Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s sudden resignation, as ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke explains.

By Alastair Crooke

It seems that matters are coming to a head in the Middle East. For many states, the coming period will likely prove to be the moment in which they determine their futures — as well as that for the region as a whole.

The immediate peg for “crunch time” is Russia’s fast-track proposal of a conference to be held in Sochi, with the near-full kaleidoscope of Syrian opposition invited, which, if all goes as planned, might mean 1,000 delegates arriving in Sochi as soon as Nov. 18.

The Syrian government has agreed to attend. Of course, when one hears of attendance in these numbers, it suggests that this is not intended as a “sleeves rolled-up” working session, but rather as a meeting in which Russian thoughts will be mooted on the constitution, the system of government, and the place of “minorities” – with a chaser that Russia wants fresh elections pretty darned quick: which is to say, in six months’ time. In short, this is to be the “last chance saloon” for opposition figures: come aboard now, or be shut out, in the cold.

This initiative has plenty of push behind it, including President Putin’s personal endorsement, but no guarantee of success. Both Iran and Turkey (the co-guarantors of Astana) privately may have reservations, not knowing precisely what Moscow might unveil. Iran is insistent on Syria retaining a strong centralized government, and Turkey is likely to worry about whether the Kurds might receive too much from Moscow; it will also have reservations about sitting down with the YPD (Syrian Kurds), which it views to be little more than a re-branded PKK, which Turkey regards as a terrorist organization. If Turkey does pull out, it will take an important slice of the opposition with it.

Critical moments in history, however, do have a habit of proving to be less critical than first imagined, but this one effectively marks the beginning of the winding up process of the Syrian war and of the 20-year “New Middle East” project (as devised by the U.S. and Israeli governments). How each state responds, will determine the Middle East landscape for the next years.

Military Mop-up 

Late last week, the Syrian army took the rest of Deir Ezzor city, and with it its rear now secure, the Syrian army is free to continue the 30 or so kilometers to reach Abu Kamal (al-Bukumal) – the last ISIS urban outpost – and the vital border crossing on the Euphrates with Iraq.  It is estimated that there may be 3,500 Da’esh (another name for the Islamic State or ISIS) in Abu Kamal. But Abu Kamal’s “twin” (on the Iraqi side of the border), al-Qaim, was taken by the Iraqi government’s PMU militia forces on Friday. The Iraqi forces are now clearing the city of its estimated 1,500 Da’esh fighters.

The Syrian army, backed up by several thousand recently injected Hezbollah forces, is poised to enter Abu Kamal in the coming days from two directions – and from the south, a co-ordinated thrust north up and into Abu Kamal by the Iraqi Hash’d a- Sha’abi (PMU) militia, will form a pincer.

American-supported SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), however, are also trying to reach Abu Kamal from the east (the U.S., pressured by Israel, would like to seal and close the border crossing). U.S. allied forces can move more quickly, as U.S. officers are seeking to bribe local tribal leaders who formerly had sworn allegiance to ISIS (with Saudi money), to switch sides, or at least to allow the SDF forces to advance unhindered by ISIS (as happened in the environs of Deir Ezzor).

In short, the military outcome in Syria is done (after six years of war), and now comes the political bargaining. How this plays out will determine the relative strengths of the forces that will shape the Middle East in the coming years. The outcome will likely see whether Turkey can be bullied back towards NATO (by threats such as that by General Petr Pavel, head of NATO’s military committee, warning of “consequences” for Turkey’s attempts to buy Russian air defenses), or whether Turkey’s determination to limit Kurdish aspirations will see Turkey position itself alongside Iran and Iraq (who share a common interest).

Turkey’s role in Idlib, in overseeing the de-escalation zone there, remains opaque. Effectively, its forces are positioned more to control the Afrin Kurdish “canton” (rather than monitor the Idlib de-escalation zone). It is possible that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping to use Turkish troops to carve out a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border – in contravention to the Astana understandings. If so, this will place him at odds with both Moscow and Damascus (but will not necessarily imply a return to the NATO camp, either).

Syria’s Future

The bargaining at Sochi will also make clearer whether Syria will be a strong centralized state (as Iran prefers), or a looser federal state as America (and perhaps Russia) would prefer. Sochi will be something of a litmus for the extent to which American influence can shape outcomes in today’s Middle East. At present, it looks as if there is co-ordination between Moscow and Washington for a speedy political settlement in Syria, a U.S. declaration of victory over ISIS, Syrian elections, and an American exit from the Syrian theatre.

The outcome of the conference will also perhaps clarify whether the Syrian Kurds finally will remain with the U.S. CentCom project for retaining a permanent U.S. presence in northeast Syria (as Israel wants), or whether the Syrian Kurds will cut a deal with Damascus (after witnessing the crushing of the Barzani Kurdish independence project by neighboring powers).

If the latter occurs, the argument for retaining a longer-term U.S. presence in northeast Syria would lose force. The Saudis will have either to accept defeat in Syria, or act the party-pooper (by trying to re-ignite the remaining proxy forces in Idlib) – but, for that, the kingdom would need Turkey’s compliance, and that may not be forthcoming.

Iraq too, irked by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments suggesting that the PMU are Iranian – and must “go home” – has already shown signs of re-orientating towards Russia. (It has recently signed an expansive energy and economic protocol with Russia – after having reclaimed control of its borders and of Iraq’s energy resources – and is procuring Russian arms). Evidence of Iraq’s close connections with Syria, Turkey and Iran was very manifest in the quick execution of the put-down to the Kurdish independence gambit.

But the state facing the biggest dilemma in respect to the Syrian outcome is Israel. Alex Fishman, the doyen of Israeli defense columnists, has written that Israel simply has failed to adjust to strategic change, and is locked in a narrow “cold war” mentality:

“The Syrians fire rockets at open areas: Israel destroys Syrian cannons in response; the Iranians threaten to deploy Shiite forces in Syria: Israel announces ‘red lines’ and threatens a military conflict; Fatah and Hamas hold futile talks on a unity government: the prime minister declares Israel is suspending talks with the Palestinans – and everyone here applauds the security and political echelons: – ‘there, we showed them the meaning of deterrence’, [the Israeli leadership repeats].

“But what we are seeing here is a provincial defense policy, a false representation of a leadership that barely sees beyond the tip of its nose, and is busy putting out fires day and night.

“It’s a leadership that sees national security through a narrow regional viewpoint. It’s as if everything beyond Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran doesn’t exist. It’s as if the world around us hasn’t changed in the past decades, and we are stuck in the era of aggressive solutions in the form of reward and punishment as the main political-security activity. The current political-security echelon isn’t solving problems, isn’t dealing with problems, but simply postponing them, passing them on to the next generation”

Missing the Strategic Picture 

What Fishman is pointing to is profound: Israel has gained some tactical victories in the neighborhood (i.e. over the Palestinians generally, and in weakening Hamas), but it has lost sight of the wider strategic picture. In effect, Israel has lost its ability to dominate the region. It had wanted a weakened and fragmented Syria; it had wanted a Hezbollah mired in the Syrian mud, and an Iran circumscribed by Sunni sectarian antipathy towards the Shi’a generally. It is unlikely to get any of these.

Rather, Israel finds itself being deterred (rather than doing the deterring) by the knowledge that it cannot now overturn its strategic weakness (i.e. risk a three-front war) – unless, and only if, America will fully enter into any conflict, in support of Israel. And this is what worries the security and intelligence echelon: Would America now contemplate a decisive intervention on behalf of Israel – unless the latter’s very survival was at risk?

In 2006, Israeli officials recall, the U.S. did not enter Israel’s war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, and after 33 days, it was Israel that sought a ceasefire.

Fishman is right too that attacking Syrian factories and radar positions “out of old habit” solves nothing. It may be sold to the Israeli public as “deterrence,” but rather it is playing with fire. Syria has started to fire back with aged surface-to-air missiles (S200s) at Israeli aircraft. These missiles may not have hit an Israeli jet yet, and maybe were not even intended so to do. The Syrian message however, is clear: these missiles may be old, but they have a longer range than the newer S300: Potentially, their range is sufficient to reach Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.

Are the Israelis sure that Syria and Hezbollah don’t have more modern missiles? Are they certain that Iran or Russia will not provide them such? The Russian defense minister was very angry on his visit to Tel Aviv to have been faced with an Israeli retaliatory air attack on a Syrian radar and missile position – as a welcome gift on landing in Israel. To his protests, his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Lieberman condescendingly said that Israel needed nobody’s advice in respect to Israel’s security. General Sergey Shoygu reportedly was not amused.

Can Israel come to terms with its new strategic situation? It seems not. Ibrahim Karagul, a Turkish political commentator and an authoritative voice of President Erdogan, writing in Yeni Safak, notes that “the foundations of a new disintegration [and] division are being laid in our region. Saudi Arabia’s ‘We are switching to moderate Islam’ announcement contains a dangerous game. The U.S.-Israel axis is forming a new regional front line.”

Karagul continues: “We have been watching the strange developments in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Israel and the U.S. for some time now. There is a new situation in the region, which we know is [principally aimed] against Iran; but has recently taken an open anti-Turkey state, aimed at limiting Turkey’s influence in the region … You will see, the ‘moderate Islam’ announcement will be immediately followed by a sudden and unexpected strengthening of Arab nationalism. This wave will not differentiate between Shiite or Sunni Arabs, but it will isolate the Muslim Arab world from the entire Muslim world.

“This separation will be felt most by the Shiite Arabs in Iraq. With this new block, Iraq and Iran are going to stage a new power showdown [i.e. will react forcefully to counter it]. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s future in power is also most likely going to [become contingent on the outcome to] this showdown.”

An American ‘Buy-in’

To give this project American “buy-in,” Israel and Saudi Arabia are focusing it on Lebanese Hezbollah, which the U.S. has declared to be a terrorist entity though the movement was part of Lebanon’s government, which was headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri until he ominously resigned today in an announcement made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Hariri is a dual Saudi-Lebanese national.)

Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan (in Beirut last week) called for “toppling Hezbollah” and promised “astonishing” developments in “the coming days. Those who believe that my tweets are a personal stance, are delusional … the coming developments will definitely be astonishing.”

Al-Sabhan added that the kingdom’s escalation against Hezbollah could take several forms that would “definitely affect Lebanon. Politically, it might target the government’s relations with the world. At the economic and financial levels, it could target commercial exchange and funds, and militarily it might involve the possibility of a strike on Hizbullah by the U.S.-led coalition, which labels Hizbullah a terrorist organization.” (Comment: this latter point probably was made more in hope, than in expectation. Europe and the U.S. set considerable store on maintaining Lebanon as stable).

Karagul reflects further on this U.S.-Gulf-Israeli initiative:

“The moderate Islam project was tried the most in Turkey. We always said this is ‘American Islam’ and opposed it. The February 28 military intervention is the product of such a project. It was implemented by the U.S./Israel extreme right-wing and their partners on the inside. The Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) is the product of such a project, and the Dec. 17/25 and July 15 attacks were made for this very reason. They were all aimed at trapping Turkey within the U.S./Israel axis.

“But Turkey’s local and national resistance has overcome them all. Now they are burdening Saudi Arabia with the same mission. That is how they are making it appear. I do not think that it is possible for Saudi Arabia to undertake such a mission. This is impossible both in terms of the regime’s character and its social structure. This is impossible because of the ‘Israel/U.S. sauce’.

“The discourse of making the switch to moderate Islam will cause serious confusion in the Saudi administration and grave social reactions. The actual conflict is going to take place within Saudi Arabia. Also, the Riyadh administration has no chance of exporting something to the region or setting an example.

“Especially once it is further revealed that the project is security-based, that a new front line has been formed, that it is all planned by the U.S.-Israel, it will result in a fiasco. This project is suicide for Saudi Arabia, it is a destruction plan; it is a plan that will destroy it unless it comes to its senses.”

Karagul makes the point well: the attempt to make Islam in the Christian “Westphalian” image has a disastrous history. The metaphysics of Islam are not those of Christianity. And Saudi Arabia cannot be made “moderate” by Mohammad bin Salman just ordering it. It would entail a veritable cultural revolution to shift the basis of the kingdom, away from the rigors of Wahhabism to some secularized Islam.

More War?

Where is this taking the Middle East: to conflict? Maybe. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not noted for his audacity: he his noted more for rhetoric which often has proved empty; and Israeli security officials are being cautious, but both sides are preparing against the possibility of what Karagul calls a “great power showdown.” It looks, though – from this and other Turkish statements – as if Turkey will be with Iran and Iraq, and standing against America and Saudi Arabia.

And President Trump? He is wholly (and understandably) preoccupied with the low-intensity war being waged against him at home. He probably tells Netanyahu whatever it is that might advance his domestic battles (in Congress, where Netanyahu has influence). If Bibi wants a fiery speech at the U.N. berating Iran, then, why not? Trump can then call on the trifecta of White House generals to “fix it” (just as he did with JCPOA, passing it to Congress “to fix”), knowing that the generals do not want a war with Iran.

The danger is a “black swan.” What happens if Israel goes on attacking the Syrian army and industrial premises in Syria (which is happening almost daily) – and Syria does shoot down an Israeli jet?

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.

How America Spreads Global Chaos

The U.S. government may pretend to respect a “rules-based” global order, but the only rule Washington seems to follow is “might makes right” — and the CIA has long served as a chief instigator and enforcer, writes Nicolas J.S. Davies.

By Nicolas J.S. Davies

As the recent PBS documentary on the American War in Vietnam acknowledged, few American officials ever believed that the United States could win the war, neither those advising Johnson as he committed hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, nor those advising Nixon as he escalated a brutal aerial bombardment that had already killed millions of people.

As conversations tape-recorded in the White House reveal, and as other writers have documented, the reasons for wading into the Big Muddy, as Pete Seeger satirized it, and then pushing on regardless, all came down to “credibility”: the domestic political credibility of the politicians involved and America’s international credibility as a military power.

Once the CIA went to work in Vietnam to undermine the 1954 Geneva Accords and the planned reunification of North and South through a free and fair election in 1956, the die was cast. The CIA’s support for the repressive Diem regime and its successors ensured an ever-escalating war, as the South rose in rebellion, supported by the North. No U.S. president could extricate the U.S. from Vietnam without exposing the limits of what U.S. military force could achieve, betraying widely held national myths and the powerful interests that sustained and profited from them.

The critical “lesson of Vietnam” was summed up by Richard Barnet in his 1972 book Roots of War.  “At the very moment that the number one nation has perfected the science of killing,” Barnet wrote, “It has become an impractical means of political domination.”

Losing the war in Vietnam was a heavy blow to the CIA and the U.S. Military Industrial Complex, and it added insult to injury for every American who had lost comrades or loved ones in Vietnam, but it ushered in more than a decade of relative peace for America and the world. If the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the U.S. from the danger of war, as our leaders so often claim, the “Vietnam syndrome,” or the reluctance to be drawn into new wars, kept the peace and undoubtedly saved countless lives.

Even the senior officer corps of the U.S. military saw it that way, since many of them had survived the horrors of Vietnam as junior officers. The CIA could still wreak havoc in Latin America and elsewhere, but the full destructive force of the U.S. military was not unleashed again until the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the First Gulf War in 1991.

Half a century after Vietnam, we have tragically come full circle. With the CIA’s politicized intelligence running wild in Washington and its covert operations spreading violence and chaos across every continent, President Trump faces the same pressures to maintain his own and his country’s credibility as Johnson and Nixon did. His predictable response has been to escalate ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and West Africa, and to threaten new ones against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

Trump is facing these questions, not just in one country, Vietnam, but in dozens of countries across the world, and the interests perpetuating and fueling this cycle of crisis and war have only become more entrenched over time, as President Eisenhower warned that they would, despite the end of the Cold War and, until now, the lack of any actual military threat to the United States.

Ironically but predictably, the U.S.’s aggressive and illegal war policy has finally provoked a real military threat to the U.S., albeit one that has emerged only in response to U.S. war plans. As I explained in a recent article, North Korea’s discovery in 2016 of a U.S. plan to assassinate its president, Kim Jong Un, and launch a Second Korean War has triggered a crash program to develop long-range ballistic missiles that could give North Korea a viable nuclear deterrent and prevent a U.S. attack. But the North Koreans will not feel safe from attack until their leaders and ours are sure that their missiles can deliver a nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland.

The CIA’s Pretexts for War

U.S. Air Force Colonel Fletcher Prouty was the chief of special operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1955 to 1964, managing the global military support system for the CIA in Vietnam and around the world. Fletcher Prouty’s book, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World, was suppressed when it was first published in 1973. Thousands of copies disappeared from bookstores and libraries, and a mysterious Army Colonel bought the entire shipment of 3,500 copies the publisher sent to Australia. But Prouty’s book was republished in 2011, and it is a timely account of the role of the CIA in U.S. policy.

Prouty surprisingly described the role of the CIA as a response by powerful people and interests to the abolition of the U.S. Department of War and the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Once the role of the U.S. military was redefined as one of defense, in line with the United Nations Charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of military force in 1945 and similar moves by other military powers, it would require some kind of crisis or threat to justify using military force in the future, both legally and politically. The main purpose of the CIA, as Prouty saw it, is to create such pretexts for war.

The CIA is a hybrid of an intelligence service that gathers and analyzes foreign intelligence and a clandestine service that conducts covert operations. Both functions are essential to creating pretexts for war, and that is what they have done for 70 years.

Prouty described how the CIA infiltrated the U.S. military, the State Department, the National Security Council and other government institutions, covertly placing its officers in critical positions to ensure that its plans are approved and that it has access to whatever forces, weapons, equipment, ammunition and other resources it needs to carry them out.

Many retired intelligence officers, such as Ray McGovern and the members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), saw the merging of clandestine operations with intelligence analysis in one agency as corrupting the objective analysis they tried to provide to policymakers. They formed VIPS in 2003 in response to the fabrication of politicized intelligence that provided false pretexts for the U.S. to invade and destroy Iraq.

CIA in Syria and Africa

But Fletcher Prouty was even more disturbed by the way that the CIA uses clandestine operations to trigger coups, wars and chaos. The civil and proxy war in Syria is a perfect example of what Prouty meant. In late 2011, after destroying Libya and aiding in the torture-murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the CIA and its allies began flying fighters and weapons from Libya to Turkey and infiltrating them into Syria. Then, working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Croatia and other allies, this operation poured thousands of tons of weapons across Syria’s borders to ignite and fuel a full-scale civil war.

Once these covert operations were under way, they ran wild until they had unleashed a savage Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), spawned the even more savage “Islamic State,” triggered the heaviest and probably the deadliest U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam and drawn Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Hezbollah, Kurdish militias and almost every state or armed group in the Middle East into the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda and Islamic State have expanded their operations across Africa, the U.N. has published a report titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment, based on 500 interviews with African militants. This study has found that the kind of special operations and training missions the CIA and AFRICOM are conducting and supporting in Africa are in fact the critical “tipping point” that drives Africans to join militant groups like Al Qaeda, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram.

The report found that government action, such as the killing or detention of friends or family, was the “tipping point” that drove 71 percent of African militants interviewed to join armed groups, and that this was a more important factor than religious ideology.

The conclusions of Journey to Extremism in Africa confirm the findings of other similar studies. The Center for Civilians in Conflict interviewed 250 civilians who joined armed groups in Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza and Libya for its 2015 study, The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict. The study found that the most common motivation for civilians to join armed groups was simply to protect themselves or their families.

The role of U.S. “counterterrorism” operations in fueling armed resistance and terrorism, and the absence of any plan to reduce the asymmetric violence unleashed by the “global war on terror,” would be no surprise to Fletcher Prouty. As he explained, such clandestine operations always take on a life of their own that is unrelated, and often counter-productive, to any rational U.S. policy objective.

“The more intimate one becomes with this activity,” Prouty wrote, “The more one begins to realize that such operations are rarely, if ever, initiated from an intent to become involved in pursuit of some national objective in the first place.”

The U.S. justifies the deployment of 6,000 U.S. special forces and military trainers to 53 of the 54 countries in Africa as a response to terrorism. But the U.N.’s Journey to Extremism in Africa study makes it clear that the U.S. militarization of Africa is in fact the “tipping point” that is driving Africans across the continent to join armed resistance groups in the first place.

This is a textbook CIA operation on the same model as Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 60s. The CIA uses U.S. special forces and training missions to launch covert and proxy military operations that drive local populations into armed resistance groups, and then uses the presence of those armed resistance groups to justify ever-escalating U.S. military involvement. This is Vietnam redux on a continental scale.

Taking on China

What seems to really be driving the CIA’s militarization of U.S. policy in Africa is China’s growing influence on the continent. As Steve Bannon put it in an interview with the Economist in August, “Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road.”

China is already too big and powerful for the U.S. to apply what is known as the Ledeen doctrine named for neoconservative theorist and intelligence operative Michael Ledeen who suggested that every 10 years or so, the United States “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”

China is too powerful and armed with nuclear weapons. So, in this case, the CIA’s job would be to spread violence and chaos to disrupt Chinese trade and investment, and to make African governments increasingly dependent on U.S. military aid to fight the militant groups spawned and endlessly regenerated by U.S.-led “counterterrorism” operations.

Neither Ledeen nor Bannon pretend that such policies are designed to build more prosperous or viable societies in the Middle East or Africa, let alone to benefit their people. They both know very well what Richard Barnet already understood 45 years ago, that America’s unprecedented investment in weapons, war and CIA covert operations are only good for one thing: to kill people and destroy infrastructure, reducing cities to rubble, societies to chaos and the desperate survivors to poverty and displacement.

As long as the CIA and the U.S. military keep plunging the scapegoats for our failed policies into economic crisis, violence and chaos, the United States and the United Kingdom can remain the safe havens of the world’s wealth, islands of privilege and excess amidst the storms they unleash on others.

But if that is the only “significant national objective” driving these policies, it is surely about time for the 99 percent of Americans who reap no benefit from these murderous schemes to stop the CIA and its allies before they completely wreck the already damaged and fragile world in which we all must live, Americans and foreigners alike.

Douglas Valentine has probably studied the CIA in more depth than any other American journalist, beginning with his book on The Phoenix Program in Vietnam. He has written a new book titled The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World, in which he brings Fletcher Prouty’s analysis right up to the present day, describing the CIA’s role in our current wars and the many ways it infiltrates, manipulates and controls U.S. policy.

The Three Scapegoats

In Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he named North Korea, Iran and Venezuela as his prime targets for destabilization, economic warfare and, ultimately, the overthrow of their governments, whether by coup d’etat or the mass destruction of their civilian population and infrastructure. But Trump’s choice of scapegoats for America’s failures was obviously not based on a rational reassessment of foreign policy priorities by the new administration. It was only a tired rehashing of the CIA’s unfinished business with two-thirds of Bush’s “axis of evil” and Bush White House official Elliott Abrams’ failed 2002 coup in Caracas, now laced with explicit and illegal threats of aggression.

How Trump and the CIA plan to sacrifice their three scapegoats for America’s failures remains to be seen. This is not 2001, when the world stood silent at the U.S. bombardment and invasion of Afghanistan after September 11th. It is more like 2003, when the U.S. destruction of Iraq split the Atlantic alliance and alienated most of the world. It is certainly not 2011, after Obama’s global charm offensive had rebuilt U.S. alliances and provided cover for French President Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Cameron, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Arab royals to destroy Libya, once ranked by the U.N. as the most developed country in Africa, now mired in intractable chaos.

In 2017, a U.S. attack on any one of Trump’s scapegoats would isolate the United States from many of its allies and undermine its standing in the world in far-reaching ways that might be more permanent and harder to repair than the invasion and destruction of Iraq.

In Venezuela, the CIA and the right-wing opposition are following the same strategy that President Nixon ordered the CIA to inflict on Chile, to “make the economy scream” in preparation for the 1973 coup. But the solid victory of Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party in recent nationwide gubernatorial elections, despite a long and deep economic crisis, reveals little public support for the CIA’s puppets in Venezuela.

The CIA has successfully discredited the Venezuelan government through economic warfare, increasingly violent right-wing street protests and a global propaganda campaign. But the CIA has stupidly hitched its wagon to an extreme right-wing, upper-class opposition that has no credibility with most of the Venezuelan public, who still turn out for the Socialists at the polls. A CIA coup or U.S. military intervention would meet fierce public resistance and damage U.S. relations all over Latin America.

Boxing In North Korea

A U.S. aerial bombardment or “preemptive strike” on North Korea could quickly escalate into a war between the U.S. and China, which has reiterated its commitment to North Korea’s defense if North Korea is attacked. We do not know exactly what was in the U.S. war plan discovered by North Korea, so neither can we know how North Korea and China could respond if the U.S. pressed ahead with it.

Most analysts have long concluded that any U.S. attack on North Korea would be met with a North Korean artillery and missile barrage that would inflict unacceptable civilian casualties on Seoul, a metropolitan area of 26 million people, three times the population of New York City. Seoul is only 35 miles from the frontier with North Korea, placing it within range of a huge array of North Korean weapons. What was already a no-win calculus is now compounded by the possibility that North Korea could respond with nuclear weapons, turning any prospect of a U.S. attack into an even worse nightmare.

U.S. mismanagement of its relations with North Korea should be an object lesson for its relations with Iran, graphically demonstrating the advantages of diplomacy, talks and agreements over threats of war. Under the Agreed Framework signed in 1994, North Korea stopped work on two much larger nuclear reactors than the small experimental one operating at Yongbyong since 1986, which only produces 6 kg of plutonium per year, enough for one nuclear bomb.

The lesson of Bush’s Iraq invasion in 2003 after Saddam Hussein had complied with demands that he destroy Iraq’s stockpiles of chemical weapons and shut down a nascent nuclear program was not lost on North Korea. Not only did the invasion lay waste to large sections of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of dead but Hussein himself was hunted down and condemned to death by hanging.

Still, after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, even its small experimental reactor was shut down as a result of the “Six Party Talks” in 2007, all the fuel rods were removed and placed under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the cooling tower of the reactor was demolished in 2008.

But then, as relations deteriorated, North Korea conducted a second nuclear weapon test and again began reprocessing spent fuel rods to recover plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

North Korea has now conducted six nuclear weapons tests. The explosions in the first five tests increased gradually up to 15-25 kilotons, about the yield of the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but estimates for the yield of the 2017 test range from 110 to 250 kilotons, comparable to a small hydrogen bomb.

The even greater danger in a new war in Korea is that the U.S. could unleash part of its arsenal of 4,000 more powerful weapons (100 to 1,200 kilotons), which could kill millions of people and devastate and poison the region, or even the world, for years to come.

The U.S. willingness to scrap the Agreed Framework in 2003, the breakdown of the Six Party Talks in 2009 and the U.S. refusal to acknowledge that its own military actions and threats create legitimate defense concerns for North Korea have driven the North Koreans into a corner from which they see a credible nuclear deterrent as their only chance to avoid mass destruction.

China has proposed a reasonable framework for diplomacy to address the concerns of both sides, but the U.S. insists on maintaining its propaganda narratives that all the fault lies with North Korea and that it has some kind of “military solution” to the crisis.

This may be the most dangerous idea we have heard from U.S. policymakers since the end of the Cold War, but it is the logical culmination of a systematic normalization of deviant and illegal U.S. war-making that has already cost millions of lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. As historian Gabriel Kolko wrote in Century of War in 1994, “options and decisions that are intrinsically dangerous and irrational become not merely plausible but the only form of reasoning about war and diplomacy that is possible in official circles.”

Demonizing Iran

The idea that Iran has ever had a nuclear weapons program is seriously contested by the IAEA, which has examined every allegation presented by the CIA and other Western “intelligence” agencies as well as Israel. Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei revealed many details of this wild goose chase in his 2011 memoir, Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times.

When the CIA and its partners reluctantly acknowledged the IAEA’s conclusions in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), ElBaradei issued a press release confirming that, “the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran.”

Since 2007, the IAEA has resolved all its outstanding concerns with Iran. It has verified that dual-use technologies that Iran imported before 2003 were in fact used for other purposes, and it has exposed the mysterious “laptop documents” that appeared to show Iranian plans for a nuclear weapon as forgeries. Gareth Porter thoroughly explored all these questions and allegations and the history of mistrust that fueled them in his 2014 book, Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, which I highly recommend.

But, in the parallel Bizarro world of U.S. politics, hopelessly poisoned by the CIA’s endless disinformation campaigns, Hillary Clinton could repeatedly take false credit for disarming Iran during her presidential campaign, and neither Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump nor any corporate media interviewer dared to challenge her claims.

“When President Obama took office, Iran was racing toward a nuclear bomb,” Clinton fantasized in a prominent foreign policy speech on June 2, 2016, claiming that her brutal sanctions policy “brought Iran to the table.”

In fact, as Trita Parsi documented in his 2012 book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, the Iranians were ready, not just to “come to the table,” but to sign a comprehensive agreement based on a U.S. proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2010. But, in a classic case of “tail wags dog,” the U.S. then rejected its own proposal because it would have undercut support for tighter sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. In other words, Clinton’s sanctions policy did not “bring Iran to the table”, but prevented the U.S. from coming to the table itself.

As a senior State Department official told Trita Parsi, the real problem with U.S. diplomacy with Iran when Clinton was at the State Department was that the U.S. would not take “Yes” for an answer. Trump’s ham-fisted decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA is right out of Clinton’s playbook, and it demonstrates that the CIA is still determined to use Iran as a scapegoat for America’s failures in the Middle East.

The spurious claim that Iran is the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism is another CIA canard reinforced by endless repetition. It is true that Iran supports and supplies weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas, which are both listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. But they are mainly defensive resistance groups that defend Lebanon and Gaza respectively against invasions and attacks by Israel.

Shifting attention away from Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and other groups that actually commit terrorist crimes around the world might just seem like a case of the CIA “taking its eyes off the ball,” if it wasn’t so transparently timed to frame Iran with new accusations now that the manufactured crisis of the nuclear scare has run its course.

What the Future Holds

Barack Obama’s most consequential international achievement may have been the triumph of symbolism over substance behind which he expanded and escalated the so-called “war on terror,” with a vast expansion of covert operations and proxy wars that eventually triggered the heaviest U.S. aerial bombardments since Vietnam in Iraq and Syria.

Obama’s charm offensive invigorated old and new military alliances with the U.K., France and the Arab monarchies, and he quietly ran up the most expensive military budget of any president since World War Two.

But Obama’s expansion of the “war on terror” under cover of his deceptive global public relations campaign created many more problems than it solved, and Trump and his advisers are woefully ill-equipped to solve any of them. Trump’s expressed desire to place America first and to resist foreign entanglements is hopelessly at odds with his aggressive, bullying approach to every foreign policy problem.

If the U.S. could threaten and fight its way to a resolution of any of its international problems, it would have done so already. That is exactly what it has been trying to do since the 1990s, behind both the swagger and bluster of Bush and Trump and the deceptive charm of Clinton and Obama: a “good cop – bad cop” routine that should no longer fool anyone anywhere.

But as Lyndon Johnson found as he waded deeper and deeper into the Big Muddy in Vietnam, lying to the public about unwinnable wars does not make them any more winnable. It just gets more people killed and makes it harder and harder to ever tell the public the truth.

In unwinnable wars based on lies, the “credibility” problem only gets more complicated, as new lies require new scapegoats and convoluted narratives to explain away graveyards filled by old lies. Obama’s cynical global charm offensive bought the “war on terror” another eight years, but that only allowed the CIA to drag the U.S. into more trouble and spread its chaos to more places around the world.

Meanwhile, Russian President Putin is winning hearts and minds in capitals around the world by calling for a recommitment to the rule of international law, which prohibits the threat or use of military force except in self-defense. Every new U.S. threat or act of aggression will only make Putin’s case more persuasive, not least to important U.S. allies like South Korea, Germany and other members of the European Union, whose complicity in U.S. aggression has until now helped to give it a false veneer of political legitimacy.

Throughout history, serial aggression has nearly always provoked increasingly united opposition, as peace-loving countries and people have reluctantly summoned the courage to stand up to an aggressor. France under Napoleon and Hitler’s Germany also regarded themselves as exceptional, and in their own ways they were. But in the end, their belief in their exceptionalism led them on to defeat and destruction.

Americans had better hope that we are not so exceptional, and that the world will find a diplomatic rather than a military “solution” to its American problem. Our chances of survival would improve a great deal if American officials and politicians would finally start to act like something other than putty in the hands of the CIA.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq.  He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.

How Netanyahu Pulls Trump’s Strings

Special Report: It turns out that Hillary Clinton was partly correct: President Trump is a “puppet,” but his puppet master isn’t Russian President Putin but Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

In the final presidential debate of 2016, Hillary Clinton famously called Donald Trump the “puppet” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But what’s increasingly clear is that Trump has a more typical puppet master for a U.S. politician – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since Sept. 18, when the two men met in New York around the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu has been pulling Trump’s strings on almost every foreign policy issue. Arguably, the puppet/puppeteer relationship began much earlier, but I’ve been told that Trump bridled early on at Netanyahu’s control and even showed a few signs of rebellion.

For instance, Trump initially resisted Netanyahu’s demand for a deeper U.S. commitment in Syria by ordering the shutdown of the CIA operation supporting anti-government rebels, along with the Trump administration’s statement that U.S. policy no longer sought “regime change” in Damascus.

Immediately after that announcement, Netanyahu had some success in getting Trump to reverse direction and fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base on April 6. The attack followed what one intelligence source told me was a staged chemical weapons incident by Al Qaeda operatives in the rebel-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, possibly using sarin delivered via drone from a Saudi/Israeli special operations base in Jordan. Yet, although apparently duped by the subterfuge into the missile strike, Trump still balked at a complete reversal of his Syrian policy.

Then, in May, Trump picked Saudi Arabia and Israel as his first overseas trip as president – essentially following the advice of his son-in-law Jared Kushner – but I’m told he came away feeling somewhat humiliated by the over-the-top treatment that involved him getting pulled into a ceremonial sword dance in Saudi Arabia and facing condescension from Netanyahu.

So, over the summer, Trump listened to advice about a possible major overhaul of U.S. foreign policy that would have checked Israeli/Saudi regional ambitions, opened diplomatic doors to Iran, and addressed the Korean crisis by brokering negotiations between the North and the South over some form of loose confederation.

There was even the possibility of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment with tough-guy Trump meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the two countries restoring diplomatic ties, a process that could have given U.S. companies a better chance to compete in the Iranian market.

Those proposed moves had the advantage of reducing international tensions, saving the U.S. government money on future military adventures, and freeing U.S. corporations from the tangle of economic sanctions – exactly the “America First” strategy that Trump had promised his working-class base.

However, instead Netanyahu succeeded in pulling Trump’s strings during their conversations on Sept. 18 in New York, although exactly how is still a mystery to some people close to these developments. One source said the Kushner family real-estate company has exposure to substantial Israeli financing that could be yanked, although Jared Kushner’s financial disclosure form only lists a $5 million unsecured line of credit, held jointly with his father, from the Israel Discount Bank.

Trump also has major pro-Netanyahu donors to his political war chest and his legal defense fund who are strong advocates for war with Iran, including casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who has plowed $35 million into the pro-Trump Super PAC Future 45 and has publicly called for dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran as a negotiating tactic. So, Netanyahu had a number of potential strings to pull.

Going on Rants

Whatever the precise reasons, on Sept. 19, Trump turned his maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly into a war-like rant, personally insulting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” threatening to “totally destroy” his nation of 25 million people, and parroting Netanyahu’s calls for another regime change project aimed at Iran.

Most diplomats in the audience sat in stunned silence as Trump threatened aggressive war from the podium of an organization created to prevent the scourge of war. The one notable exception was Netanyahu who enthusiastically applauded his  success in jerking Trump into the neocon camp.

So, rather than shift U.S. policy away from confrontation, Trump jettisoned the diplomatic strategy although it already had dispatched intermediaries to make contacts with the Iranians and North Koreans. Instead, Trump opted for the classic neocon approach favored by Netanyahu, albeit with Trump dressing up his neocon surrender in some “America First” rhetoric.

The U.N. speech left some of the U.S. intermediaries scrambling to explain to their contacts in Iran and North Korea why Trump had repudiated the messages that they had been carrying. Privately, Trump explained to one that he just liked to “zigzag” and that the intended end point hadn’t change.

Some of these tensions surfaced in late September when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the extraordinary step of announcing the behind-the-scenes contacts with North Korea during a state visit to China.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Tillerson said. “We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout.” Tillerson added, “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang … We do talk to them. ,,, Directly. We have our own channels.”

In reaction to Tillerson’s efforts to salvage the backchannel initiatives, Trump showed that his obeisance to Netanyahu and the neocons outweighed loyalty to either his Secretary of State or the intermediaries who had ventured into dicey situations on Trump’s behalf.

In Twitter messages, Trump belittled the idea of a dialogue with North Korea, tweeting: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”

“Save your energy Rex,” Trump added, before slipping in another thinly veiled threat of a military strike: “we’ll do what has to be done!”

While on the surface, Trump’s repudiation of Tillerson might have been viewed as another “zigzag,” it is now clear that Trump’s “zigzag” explanation was just another lie. Rather than zigzagging, he is instead following a straight line marked out by Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, in Syria, Netanyahu seems to have won more concessions from Trump. The U.S. military appears to be helping the remnants of Islamist forces still fighting the government, according to Russian officials. Their accusation is that the U.S. is secretly aiding the Islamist terror groups with weapons, tactical advice and aerial reconnaissance.

In other words, Trump appears to be continuing U.S. military intervention in Syria – just as Netanyahu desires.

Falling in Line

Trump further showed that he is following Netanyahu’s marching orders with the extremist speech about Iran on Friday, essentially repeating all the Israeli propaganda lines against Iran and burning whatever bridges remained toward a meaningful diplomatic approach.

Trump’s Iran speech was so ludicrous it almost defies serious analysis. It ranks with the reckless rhetoric of President George W. Bush when he pronounced an “axis of evil,” with the incongruous linking of Iraq and Iran (two bitter enemies) and North Korea accompanied by Bush’s bogus claims about Iraq’s WMD and Iraq’s alleged collaboration with Al Qaeda.

In Friday’s speech, which looked like the handiwork of John Bolton, one of Bush’s neocon advisers who was seen entering the White House last week, Trump repeated all the nonsense tying Iran to Al Qaeda, presumably thinking that the American people still don’t understand that Al Qaeda is a fanatical Sunni terror group that targets both the West and Shiites, the dominant Muslim faith in Iran, as heretics deserving death.

The inconvenient truth is that Al Qaeda has long been connected to Saudi Arabia, which has supported these fanatics since the 1980s when Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden was supported in his jihad against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, who were there trying to protect a secular regime.

Though officially the Saudi monarchy insists that it is opposed to Al Qaeda, Saudi intelligence has used Al Qaeda as essentially an unconventional fighting force deployed to destabilize and terrorize adversaries in the region and around the world. [For details, see’s “The Need to Hold Saudi Arabia Accountable.”]

As the Israelis have developed a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia in recent years, they also have expressed a preference for an Al Qaeda victory in Syria if necessary to destroy what Michael Oren, former Ambassador to the U.S. and now a deputy minister under Netanyahu, has described as the Shiite “strategic arc” running from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut.

One of the frequent Israeli complaints about Iran is that it has assisted the sovereign government of Syria in defeating Al Qaeda and its militant allies (as well as Al Qaeda’s spinoff Islamic State), which should tell you a lot about where Netanyahu’s loyalties lie.

A Compromised Media

Yet, as dishonest as Trump’s Iran speech was, the U.S. mainstream media won’t criticize it as harshly as it deserves because virtually all the important journalists and talking heads have swallowed Israel’s anti-Iran propaganda whole. They have frequently repeated the canard about Iran as “the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism” when that title clearly should go to the Saudis and the Qataris if not others.

The West’s major news outlets also have ingested all the sophisticated propaganda against the Assad government in Syria, particularly the claims about chemical weapons attacks while ignoring evidence that Al Qaeda’s operatives and their “civil defense” collaborators have staged attacks with the goal of provoking a direct U.S. military intervention. [See’s “A New Hole in Syria-Sarin Certainty.”]

In his Friday speech, Trump also touted one of the earliest canards about Iranian “terrorism,” the attack by Lebanese Shiite militants on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 killing 241 Americans.

When that attack happened, I was working at The Associated Press as an investigative reporter specializing in national security issues. While the precise Iranian role was not clear, what should have been obvious was that the attack was not “terrorism,” which is classically defined as violence toward civilians to achieve a political goal.

Not only were the Marines not civilians but the Reagan administration had made them belligerents in the Lebanese war by the decision to order the USS New Jersey to shell Muslim villages. Reagan’s National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, who often represented Israel’s interests inside the administration, was the spark plug for this mission creep, which killed Lebanese civilians and convinced Shiite militants that the United States had joined the war against them.

Shiite militants struck back, sending a suicide truck bomber through U.S. security positions, demolishing the high-rise Marine barracks in Beirut. Reagan soon repositioned the surviving U.S. forces offshore. At the AP, I unsuccessfully argued against calling the Beirut attack “terrorism,” a word that other news organizations also sloppily applied. But even senior Reagan officials recognized the truth.

“When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides,” Gen. Colin Powell wrote in his memoir, My American Journey. In other words, Powell, who was then military adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, recognized that the actions of the U.S. military had altered the status of the Marines in the eyes of the Shiites.

(Although this “terrorism” is always blamed on Hezbollah, the group did not officially come into existence until 1985 as a resistance movement against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon which did not end until 2000.)

Opposed to Putin

So, Trump is now on the path to wars with both North Korea and Iran, neither of which Russian President Putin favors. Putin, who played a key role in helping President Obama achieve the Iran-nuclear agreement, now sides with the Europeans in opposition to Trump’s decertification.

Putin also favors a prompt end to the Syrian conflict with the defeat of Al Qaeda and its allies, and he wants peaceful negotiations with North Korea over its desire for security against threatened American aggression. Trump is on the opposite side of all these Putin priorities.

In other words, not only does the Russia-gate hysteria have core evidentiary problems – both on the issues of “hacking” Democratic emails and claims about suspected “Russia-linked” entities paying for an infinitesimal number of ads on social media (including some about puppies and another promoting a critical documentary about Donald Trump’s golf course in Scotland) – but Trump is behaving in ways that are directly contrary to Putin’s desires and interests.

If indeed Clinton were right that Trump was Putin’s “puppet,” then he would have agreed to negotiations to address the North Korean crisis; would have accepted constructive diplomacy toward Iran; and would have ended all U.S. support for the Syrian militants and encouraged a quick end to the bloodletting.

Instead, Trump is moving in opposite directions, lining up with Netanyahu and the neocons, whom some European allies refer to as “America’s Israeli agents.” Although dressing up his capitulation to Netanyahu in tough-guy phrasing, Trump is doing what most U.S. politicians do – they grovel before Bibi Netanyahu.

And, if you have any doubts about that reality, you can watch how often both Republicans and Democrats jump to their feet when Netanyahu addresses a joint session of Congress, an honor that he has received three times, tying him with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Those moments of American humiliation – as almost all 535 members of Congress act like puppets on invisible strings – represent the actual subservience of the U.S. government to a foreign power. And that power is not Russia.

President Trump is just the latest American politician to have his strings yanked by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

A Deaf Ear to Dire Russian Warnings

Official Washington is so obsessed with the hyped Russia-gate allegations that it isn’t picking up on dire warnings from Russia that continued U.S. military interference in Syria won’t be tolerated, as Gilbert Doctorow notes.

By Gilbert Doctorow

From time to time, the Kremlin uses the Sunday evening weekly news wrap-up program of Dmitry Kiselyov on state television, channel Rossiya-1, to send blunt and public warnings to Washington without diplomatic niceties. Last night was one such case and we must hope that the intended audience within the Beltway can put aside all its distractions about Russia-gate long enough to read a real message from Moscow.

The last such message came in the week following President Trump’s April 6 decision to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base to punish the Syrian government for an alleged but disputed chemical attack on a village in Idlib province. TV host Kiselyov used his airtime to spell out Russia’s disdainful response, which he characterized as unprecedented in scope and seriousness.

It was essential to put all the elements of the warning together in one place, as he did, because the Pentagon sought to downplay the elements in isolation, such as Russia’s installation of the Iskander nuclear potential missiles in Kaliningrad, a Russian city on the Baltic Sea surrounded by Poland and Lithuania; or the abrogation of the deconfliction agreement relating to air space over Syria; or the dispatch of still more Russian vessels to the Eastern Mediterranean equipped to sink U.S. Navy ships.

While U.S. generals were saying that the Russians didn’t really mean it, Kiselyov put the whole picture on the screen: an ultimatum to Washington to back off or be prepared for war.

A still earlier message of this kind to Washington aired on the Kiselyov news show in the week following the supposedly accidental Sept. 17, 2016 bombing by U.S. and allied warplanes against Syrian army positions inside the encircled eastern town of Deir Ezzor, which killed more than 80 Syrian soldiers and prepared the way for a renewed offensive by the Islamic State. That bombing scuttled the agreement on a Syrian cease-fire concluded with the approval of President Obama less than a week earlier by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a 14-hour negotiating session.

Lavrov was shown on the Kiselyov program openly accusing U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter of directing “friendly fire” against Kerry and of dangerous insubordination to his boss, the U.S. President, which put in question any possibility of reaching agreements with the Americans on anything.

Who’s in Charge Here?

That last question about who’s in charge in Washington has now re-emerged in the program that Kiselyov presented on Sunday evening. The Americans were identified as the “main obstacle” to the mopping up operation in Syria, at a time when Kiselyov indicated that people could finally see “the light at the end of the tunnel” for the horrific six-year conflict with more than 90 percent Syrian territory now back under government control.

The core of the accusation is that the United States is secretly aiding the Islamist terror groups at the center of the remaining resistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime: supplying the terror groups with weapons, helping them to move around, removing them from hostile fire, and giving them the findings of aerial reconnaissance, maps of where Syrian government forces are operating and even the locations of Russian military detachments.

Things have gotten to the point where the Russians feel that it is not the military capability of the Islamic State that stands in the way of routing the remaining terrorists from Syrian territory but this American assistance to the terrorists. This analysis, said Kiselyov, is not his own idea: it is the official position of the Russian Ministry of Defense as issued through its spokesman this week, Igor Konashenkov.

Kiselyov added: “The Americans deny everything. But the RF Ministry of Defense does not believe their words, relying instead on facts. We recall in the past week how part of the main road connecting Palmyra and Deir Ezzor was taken over by the fanatics. This is the main artery supplying the Syrian forces leading the offensive from Deir Ezzor against the remaining forces of the terrorists in Syria. De facto this was an attack in the rear. This was planned and facilitated by the Americans. In parallel, on 28 September a large group of terrorists numbering about 300 men left the area of the American base in al-Tanf at the Jordanian border. In this area there is a refugee camp numbering tens of thousands.”

According to Kiselyov, the Americans have cut off the refugee camp, not allowing in United Nations or other humanitarian relief convoys, so as to use the camp as cover, a human shield, for the Islamic State fighters whom the U.S. military is supporting.

Striking at ‘Random Events’

According to the warning from Russian defense spokesman Konashenkov, if the U.S. forces see these attacks by mobile units of terrorists whom the Americans are assisting as “unforeseen random events,” then Russian armed forces in Syria are prepared to totally destroy all such “random events” directed against the zone under their control.

Kiselyov asked why is this American behavior happening and whether President Trump made this decision. But the question is rhetorical. Though it may seem “amazing,” Kiselyov suggested that it appears Trump was not a party to this behavior, that it more likely resulted from what the TV host called sloppy management when the military gets out from under political control.

On the territory of Syria, Kiselyov said, “they start wandering around quite on their own” and “flirting” with the terrorist groups.

Throughout the six-year war, the United States and its allies – including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan and Israel – have provided support for Islamist militants and other rebels who have fought in close coordination with and often shared sophisticated U.S. weapons with Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra Front, and at times Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State.

However, whatever the U.S. intentions may be, said Kiselyov, the result is extremely unpleasant both for Russia and for the American leadership as its generals are being pushed toward adventurism.

Konashenkov characterized the area in Syria under American control near the Jordanian border as a “black hole” that is 100 kilometers long. From this “black hole,” the terrorists come out to stage their attacks on Syrian troops and against the peaceful civilian population.

The Sunday program’s feature segment then shifted to a calmer note with the insistence that Russian President Vladimir Putin remains confident in the victory over the terrorists regardless of who is aiding them. To demonstrate this confidence, the show presented footage of Putin’s response to questions put to him at the Energy Forum in Moscow at mid-week. Putin said, “in the end, we all [presumably including the Americans] have common interests in securing Syria and the region against terrorists and that will bring us together for cooperative action.”

In the meantime, however, videos showed the results of Russian air activity in Syria this past week, including more than 400 sorties of Russian planes based in Syria, plus SU-134 and SU-135 bombers arriving from Russian territory that killed a dozen or more terrorist leaders together with 50 security personnel and seriously injured a top official who lost an arm and sank into a coma.

Russian air attacks destroyed the terrorists’ main underground weapons caches amounting to 1,000 tons, according to the report, and an attack by Kalibr cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Mediterranean destroyed Islamic State command installations and vehicles as well as weapons supplies. This attack cleared the way for Syrian troops to begin the liberation of the town of Meyadin.

The program left the dots unconnected, but the Russian threat is clear: Moscow will use its air power to eliminate all forces standing in the way of complete victory including U.S. forces on the ground near the Jordanian border.

The Saudi Visit

The same news round-up had another segment that relates in less direct fashion to the Russian success in Syria: a state visit to Russia by the king of Saudi Arabia, the first in the two countries’ 90-plus years of diplomatic relations. And it was not a simple affair.

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud brought with him a contingent of 1,000 people, including business leaders, ministry officials and senior military officers. They came with a reported 100 tons of baggage, including favorite carpets and other accouterments of the royal lifestyle.

All aspects of this visit were impressive, including the signing of contracts and letters of intent for multi-billion-dollar joint investments in industrial projects in both countries, possible Saudi purchases of Russian Liquefied Natural Gas from yet another mega-project seeking financing and multi-billion dollar military procurement, said to include the latest S-400 air defense system that Russia agreed to supply to Turkey a few weeks ago in exchange for a $2.5 billion down-payment and which Turkey accepted gratefully over NATO objections.

Putin quipped to the moderator of the Moscow Energy Forum, also held during the past week, that nothing is forever, not even the U.S. hold on the Saudis.

Kiselyov placed the visit in the context of Russian foreign policy in the region generally. Putin, he said, is pursuing a policy of seeking peaceful harmony in the Near East that takes into account the balance of interests of all countries in the region, a policy which is paying off: Russia is now the only country in the world to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Iraq and, of course, Syria.

From both segments it would appear that U.S. longstanding domination of the region is unraveling.

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His next book, Does the United States have a Future? will be published during October 2017.

Kurdish Referendum Roils the Mideast

The Kurdish referendum seeking independence from Iraq has created more uncertainty in the turbulent Mideast with Israel appearing to see value in the new chaos, reports ex-British diplomat Alastair Crooke.

By Alastair Crooke

One week after Kurdish leader Masud Barzani held his referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq (with both the referendum and independence being contrary to the Iraqi constitution), the blowback has been fierce, angry and almost universal.

What may have been conceived as a clever ploy by Masud’s eldest son, Masrour, to bolster the Barzani family’s flagging popularity by posing as a nationalist leader looks increasingly like a misstep. (Michel Rubin of AEI, has noted that “some [U.S.] Congressional staff and leaders with whom [Masrour] has met, came away from their meeting convinced that Masrour sought independence more to be heir apparent, in what will become hereditary [Kurdish] leadership, than out of sincere nationalistic concerns.”)

And now, presidential and parliamentary elections — hastily called in the wake of the Oct. 3 death of former Iraqi President and Kurdish political leader Jalal Talibani — have descended into a mess. Rather than settle “the succession” upon his eldest son, Masud Barzani may instead have opened a wider struggle over leadership of the Kurdish people.

Yes, the KRG is reported as being a democracy, but in practice it is run, explains, Michael Rubin, as a (corrupt) family enterprise in which “both the Barzanis (and Talabanis) confuse personal, party, and public funds.” Rubin explains: “Masud Barzani is president and lives in a palace complex in a resort inherited from Saddam Hussein. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. His uncle, Hoshyar Zebari, was Iraq’s foreign minister and is now finance minister. Masud’s eldest son, Masrour Barzani, leads the intelligence service; and his second son, Mansour is a general, as is Masud’s brother Wajy. Barzani’s nephew Sirwan owns the regional cell phone company which, while purchased with public money, remains a private holding. Barzani’s sons are frequently in Washington D.C … [where] Masrour Barzani has acquired an $11 million mansion in McLean, Virginia”.

The referendum showed that Kurdish nationalism is an easy play among Kurds (but no one doubted that). Though perhaps, by rejecting the universal advice to cancel or postpone the provocative referendum, Masud Barzani in advertently has provided his opponents with just the rope they needed by which to hang the U.S.-Israeli “Kurdish project.”

While some in the West may see the Kurdish issue as one of justified national self-determination, that is not how it is perceived by neighboring states: It is seen, rather, as a deliberate “political” IED inserted into the most sensitive radial node of the Middle East, intended to explode the statehood of four major nations: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

A Combustible Region 

This is an area so combustible to explosion precisely because ethnicities there are so diverse and because territorial claims on land — seized several times over in successive waves of ethnic cleansing — are almost impossible to resolve yet regaining those stolen lands remains a passionate objective for those who have been dispossessed.

And it is not the case that the Kurds have been more sinned against (in respect to ethnic cleansing) than they are sinners themselves, as a “Seeking Alpha” business report explains: “the area [northern Iraq] used to be part of major ancient trade route … [which] over the centuries was settled by diverse populations. The last to settle were Turkic peoples during the Ottoman Empire … Kirkuk, in particular, is problematic as it’s claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen with the latter being the most likely to have a legitimate claim.

“The discovery of oil in Kirkuk in 1927 and the following boom, diluted the Turkmen population with migration of Kurds from the north and Arabs from the south. The [last] census of 1957 … showed at the governorate level that the ethnic makeup was 48.2% Kurds, 28.2% Arabs and 21.4% Turkmens, but that the city of Kirkuk was 37.6% Turkmens, 33.3% Kurds and 22.5% Arabs. These percentages changed significantly under [Saddam Hussein’s] regime which enforced Arabisation at the expense of Kurds and other minorities, but saw a process of reversal after 2003 with the return of some Kurds but not so much the Turkmen.”

Cui bono by stirring the pot of rival ethnic claims to territory (and 40 percent of Iraq’s oil resources), plus the potential fracturing of these four states?  Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Wednesday said plainly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that, in his view, the United States is seeking to create a new “Israel” in the Middle East through the Kurdish secession bid.  (And Israel has made it pretty clear in ministerial comments that it welcomes and supports a Kurdish state and sees such to be in the Israeli interest).

Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq have been watching events closely, ever since the U.S. (and some European allies) started to set up the 11 semi-permanent U.S. military bases in northern Syria – in areas in which the Kurds are prominent but not necessarily a majority. However, with the conflict in Syria edging toward conclusion and with Syria resisting plans for a buffer zone along the Golan armistice line and exclusion zones along the Syrian Iraq border, these four states plainly would not be happy about another, even bigger, pro-Western “buffer,” inserted right in their midst.

Barzani, however, is not alone in wanting to reassert his leadership credentials, by playing the “nationalist” card: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faces crucial Iraqi parliamentary elections next year with former PM Nouri al-Maliki close behind and breathing down his neck. Abadi’s tough response to the Kurdish referendum has proved popular with his electoral base and has succeeded in putting some distance between the incumbent and Maliki. Remaining tough on the sovereignty of the state will be crucial to Abadi retaining the premiership.

Iraqi Retaliation

Reuters reports on measures already taken: “Baghdad retaliated against the referendum with an international flight ban on Kurdish airports, while Iran and Turkey launched joint military exercises with Iraqi troops at their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan. [The] Iraqi government has rejected a KRG offer to discuss independence. It demanded Kurdish leaders cancel the result of the referendum or face continued sanctions, international isolation and possible military intervention.

“On Tuesday, Iraq’s central bank told the KRG that it would no longer sell dollars to four leading Kurdish banks and would stop all foreign currency transfers to the region, banking and government sources told Reuters … Earlier, the federal parliament in Baghdad raised the threat of excluding Kurdish members who took part in the referendum, on the basis that it was unconstitutional. The parliament decided to collect the names of those who voted in the referendum as a step towards their impeachment by the Higher Federal Court, Speaker Salim al-Jabouri told a news conference after the session.”

It is likely that the four states – now closely coordinating – will pursue a process of constitutional attrition against the KRG. Baghdad will seek to regain control of the international airports in the KRG (it already controls the airspace); the regional borders; the oil supply – and Kirkuk, overrun by the Kurds in the wake of ISIS’s seizure of Mosul. The four states will squeeze the KRG economically, until the pips squeak, should Barzani try to use the Peshmerga to retain control of Kirkuk and its oil fields.

The strategic shift here, from the past, is three-fold: All the KRG neighboring states are – for the first time – united in a common hostility to Barzani’s initiative (the KRG is landlocked, so this factor is significant).  Secondly, that whereas the Kurdish Peshmerga forces used to have a free run in northern Iraq, in the wake of the 2003 war and the subsequent U.S. occupation, now there has been a major mobilization and arming of the Iraqi Hashd al-Sha’abi (PMU) forces. These forces are ready, willing and able, to take on the Peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) militarily in northern Iraq; and thirdly, Russia – though keeping a low profile on the Iraqi Kurdish issue – does, by contrast, take a strong position on Syrian sovereignty.

Russia, since its arrival in Syria, has been in close touch with the Syrian Kurdish forces (that is to say, the external relationship to the Syrian Kurdish forces has never been a U.S. monopoly). Indeed, Russia has at times used its own forces to protect the Kurds from the Turkish army (i.e. at Manbij). And although Russia does not say publicly what passes between the Russian armed forces and the Kurds, it is a fair bet that the Russians are telling the Kurds to come to terms with Damascus or be militarily suppressed – should they try to interfere with the Syrian Army’s ongoing recovery of Syrian land (and its oil resources).

Bullied by Israel

So, the key question is how far will the U.S., bullied by Israel, go with this project? It seems that the U.S. government is divided on Kurdish independence – and as Michael Rubin suggests in his article, “Will Masrour Barzani be the CIA’s Latest Embarrassment” – and also is somewhat ambivalent about empowering a hereditary Barzani dictatorship.

Rubin writes: “What does this mean for the United States? Privately, both diplomats and intelligence circles seem to understand the dynamics of the Masrour-Nechirvan split and, if it is not too strong a term, the psychopathic trends within Masrour’s behavior.”

This refers to reports from international human rights organization of torture committed by Masrour’s security forces and of prisoners tortured and jailed when they refused to offer Masrour a percentage of their companies among other issues.

On the one hand, therefore, the Barzani “dictatorship” is problematic for the U.S.’s reputation, and Kurdish independence could threaten the break-up of Iraq (which the U.S. is hoping to use to “roll back” Iran). But, on the other hand, Centcom (the U.S. military command for the region) has fallen in love with the Kurdish recruits Centcom is training in Syria, while the State Department worries more about the big-picture alienation of NATO-member, Turkey. In short, there is no clear U.S. interest (beyond that of Israel).

And yet, events seem to fall into another, forming a pattern. Israel is concerned that it finds itself alone in the Middle East (its only sure ally, for now, being Saudi Arabia). Israel misplayed in Syria. It fears the consequential Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria, and doubts that either the U.S. or Russia will do – or can do – much to mitigate those fears. And so, the Israeli leadership is reacting by escalating its bellicosity (threatening to attack factories in Syria and Lebanon, which it says are manufacturing sophisticated missiles, or permanent Iranian military bases, or both).

Iran’s Supreme Leader’s identification of a putative Kurdish state as “another Israel”; Hezbollah’s warning that Zionists should now consider leaving the region; President Bashar al-Assad’s expressed intent to regain all of Syria, and Ayatollah Sistani’s influential ruling against Kurdish independence, all seem a part of this same pattern: one of escalated warning and of new rules of deterrence.

Essentially then, the Barzani “initiative” has become the peg around which a new deterrence paradigm is being set, and that his referendum ploy has already been quietly subsumed into this emerging regional stand-off.

Alastair Crooke is a former British diplomat who was a senior figure in British intelligence and in European Union diplomacy. He is the founder and director of the Conflicts Forum.