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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The battle for the Middle East's future begins in Yemen as Saudi Arabia jumps into the abyss

As a Saudi-led coalition wades into the fight for Yemen – currently under siege from Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran - Robert Fisk examines the much wider-reaching repercussions of this escalating conflict

Saudi Arabia has jumped into the abyss.

Its air attacks on Yemen are a historic and potentially fatal blow to the Kingdom and to the Middle East.

Who decided that this extraordinary battle should take shape in the poorest of Arab nations? The Saudis, whose King is widely rumoured in the Arab world to be incapable of taking decisions of state? Or the princes within the Saudi army who fear that their own security forces may not be loyal to the monarchy?

The “story” of Yemen appears simple. Houthi rebels, who are Shia Muslims, have captured the capital of Sanaa with the help – so say the Saudis – of the Iranians. The legitimate President – Abed Rabou Mansour Hadi – has fled to the Saudi capital of Riyadh from his bolthole in the old southern Yemeni capital of Aden. The Saudis will not permit an Iranian proxy state to be set up on their border – always forgetting that they already have an Iranian-proxy state called Iraq on their northern border, courtesy of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. The real “story” is more important. Perhaps half of the Saudi army is of Yemeni tribal origin. Saudi soldiers are intimately – through their own families – involved in Yemen, and the Yemen revolution is a stab in the guts of the Saudi royal family. No wonder King Salman of Saudi Arabia – if he indeed rules his nation – wishes to bring this crisis to an end. But are his bombing raids on Sanaa going to crush a Shia Muslim rebellion?

An armed member of the Houthi militia stands in the rubble of houses which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike (EPA)An armed member of the Houthi militia stands in the rubble of houses which were allegedly destroyed by a Saudi air strike (EPA)

You can understand what it looks like from Riyadh. To the north, the Shia Muslim Iranian Revolutionary Guards are assisting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government in their battle against Sunni Muslim Isis. To the north-west, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are assisting the government of Alawite (for which read, Shia) president Bashar al-Assad against Isis and al-Nusrah and whatever is left of the so-called “Free Syrian Army”. The Shia Hezbollah from Lebanon are fighting alongside Assad’s army.  So are Shia Muslims from Afghanistan, wearing Syrian uniforms. Saudi Arabia claims the Iranians are in Yemen with the Houthis. Unlikely. But be sure their weapons are in Yemen.

Unprecedented in modern Arab history, a Sunni Muslim coalition of 10 nations – including non-Arab Pakistan – has attacked another Arab nation. The Sunnis and the Shia of the Middle East are now at war with each other in Iraq, in Syria and Yemen. Pakistan is a nuclear power. The armies of Bahrain and the Gulf states include Pakistani soldiers. Pakistanis were among the dead in the first great battle against Iraqi troops in the 1991 Gulf War.

But already, the battle for Yemen is dividing other Arab countries. In Lebanon, the former Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad Hariri has praised the “brave and wise” decision of King Salman to attack. Mr Hariri is not only a Sunni – he is also a Saudi citizen. But the Shia Hezbollah, who oppose Saudi intervention, called the Saudi assault an “uncalculated adventure”. These words were chosen with care. They are exactly the words the Saudis used against Hezbollah after it captured three Israeli soldiers in 2006, a stupid political act which started the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon that year.
The battle for Yemen is dividing Arab countries (AFP/Getty)The battle for Yemen is dividing Arab countries (AFP/Getty)

The Americans do not know what to do. They cannot give the Saudis direct military assistance – their nuclear talks with Iran are more important – and so their soft verbal support for King Salman is supposed to mollify their Sunni allies and avoid antagonising the Iranians. But the closer a nuclear deal comes between the US and Iran, the more forcefully their partners in the Arab world will push their cards. What provoked the Saudis into their extraordinary adventure in Yemen was not the approach of Houthis towards Aden but the approach of US-Iranian agreement at Lausanne.
Hezbollah may call the Saudi attacks a “Saudi-American conspiracy” – an overused phrase which contains some truth – but the reality, evident to every Arab, is that the Saudis, armed (or over-armed, as many might say) by the US, are clearly prepared to use their firepower against another Arab nation rather than the traditional enemy further north. Listening to the rhetoric of the Saudis, you might think that they were bombing Israel.

History may say that the attacks on Yemen are the start of a great civil war between Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East. This would satisfy the West – and Israel – in a belief that the Arabs are at war with themselves. But it may also be true that this is the last attempt by the Saudis to prove that they are a major military power. In 1990, faced with the arrival of Saddam’s legions in Kuwait, they asked infidel America to protect them (to the fury of Osama bin Laden). They are a Wahabi nation, loyal – officially, at least – to the same theology as the Taliban and Isis. Saudi provided 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11. They gave us Bin Laden, who – let us not forget – was also of Yemeni tribal origin. After Yemen supported Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Saudis threw tens of thousands of Yemenis out of the Kingdom. In revenge for their disloyalty. Do they expect Yemenis now to rally to their support?
The last time the Saudis involved themselves in Yemen, they fought Nasser’s Egyptian army. It was a disaster. Now they have the Egyptians on their side. Indeed, they even suggest the Egyptians may stage a landing in Yemen. But to do what? To ensure that Yemen remains a faithful Sunni nation? Will this assuage the Sunni militias battering the Egyptian army in Sinai?

More seriously, will it resolve the coming struggle within the royal family, whose princes do not all believe Yemen must be the cornerstone of Saudi power – nor that Wahabism must be the permanent sectional belief. And who gains from the new Yemen crisis? The oil producers, of course. And that means Saudi Arabia – and Iran.

Midnight: Masked and heavily armed Palestinian soldiers terrorize sleeping Jewish children

Sun Mar 29, 2015 4:59AM
This file photo shows residents of the Palestinian village of Susya.
This file photo shows residents of the Palestinian village of Susya.
Israel is seeking to demolish the ancient Palestinian village of Susya in the southern part of the occupied West Bank under the pretext of doing “archaeological work” at the site.
The regime is trying to obtain permission from a high court to flatten the Palestinian village to prepare that ground for “more archaeological work at the site,” Israeli media reported on Sunday.
Tel Aviv plans to relocate the village residents to the nearby city of Yatta in al-Khalil (Hebron).
This comes as the locals had obtained a temporary injunction against the demolition in 2014.
The Tel Aviv regime calls the Palestinian houses “illegal outposts,” with the Israeli military prohibiting residents from setting up homes in the area.
This is while there is an illegal Israeli settlement near Susya with the same name.
Attorney Kamar Mishraki-Asad, representing the Susya residents, said, “It’s incredible, but with the settlements, it was already ruled that Susya land is privately owned and thousands of dunams of land in the area are privately owned by Palestinians.”

An Israeli soldier stands holding his weapon during clashes with Palestinians protesting against Israeli land grab on March 28, 2015 in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. © AFP

He added that the Israeli military “has rejected any request for construction or planning permits, in order to keep them away from the Susya settlement and to allow the settlers to continue seizing the agricultural lands.”
“For years, the army has forbidden water, electricity and drainage infrastructure to be built, and now claims that expelling the residents is for their own good,” Mishraki-Asad said.
Susya is surrounded by four Israeli settlements as well as several outposts, all deemed illegal under international law.
Although Susya and its residents have much support from their fellow Palestinians as well as international solidarity activists, the villagers still fear that the village will be demolished again by Israeli occupation forces.
More than half a million Israelis live in over 120 illegal settlements built since Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East al-Quds in 1967.
Much of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal because the territories were occupied by Israel in 1967, and they are hence subject to the Geneva Conventions, which forbid construction on occupied lands.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Where are the Turkish, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Israeli or Qatari troops fighting ISIS?

The Enemy of My Enemy

The Enemy of My Enemy
Yemen Allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt Consider Intervention in Yemen, but Likely Only by Air

The forces that do not want a U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, nor any U.S. detente with Iran, are impressive.
Among them are the Israelis and their powerful lobby AIPAC, the Saudis and their Sunni allies on the Persian Gulf, a near unanimity of Republicans and a plurality of Democrats in Congress.
Is there a case to be made for a truce in the venomous conflict that has gone on between us since the taking of U.S. hostages in 1979? Is there any common ground?
To both questions, President Obama and John Kerry believe the answer is yes. And they are not without an argument.
First, the alternative to a truce — breaking off of negotiations, doubling down on demands Iran dismantle all nuclear facilities, tougher sanctions — inevitably leads to war. And we all know it.
Yet Americans do not want another war in the Middle East, with a nation three times the size of Iraq, and its allies across the region.
Nor can Iran want such a war. Had the ayatollahs and mullahs wanted it, they could have had a war with the United States at any time in the third of a century since they seized power.
Yet as Ronald Reagan was taking the oath in 1981, our hostages were suddenly on their way home. With the accidental shoot-down of an Iranian Airbus by the cruiser Vincennes in 1988, the Ayatollah ended his war with Saddam Hussein, fearful the Americans were about to intervene on the side of Iraq.
Why Iran wants to avoid war is obvious. Given U.S. air, missile and naval power, and cyberwarfare capabilities, a war with the United States would do to Iran what we did to Iraq, smash it up, set it back decades, perhaps break up the country.
Some mullahs may be fanatics, but Iran is not run by fools.
Yet even if we have a mutual interest in avoiding a war, where is the common ground between us?
Let us begin with the Sunni terrorists of al-Qaida who brought down the twin towers, and the Islamic State that is beheading Christians, apostates, and nonbelievers, and intends to establish a Middle East caliphate where there are no Americans, no Christians, and no Shiites.
Americans and Iranians have a common goal of degrading and defeating them.
In the Syrian civil war, Iran and its Shiite allies in Hezbollah have prevented the fall of the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad. For years, Iran has helped to keep the al-Nusra Front and ISIL out of Damascus.
When the Islamic State seized Mosul and most of Anbar, the Iranians helped to rally Shiite resistance to defend Baghdad, and are now assisting the Iraqi army in its effort to recapture Tikrit.
Until this week, the U.S. stayed out, as Shiite militias were mauled by fewer than 1,000 jihadis. Wednesday, however, we intervened with air power, thus exposing Iraq’s reliance on us.
This does not contradict but rather reinforces the point. In the war to expel the Islamic State from Iraq, we and Iran are on the same side.
Does Iran wish to displace American influence in Baghdad?
Undeniably. But when we destroyed the Sunni Baathist regime of Saddam, disbanded his army and held elections, we greased the skids for a pro-Iranian Shiite regime. We can’t walk that cat back.
Consider Yemen.
This week, the Saudis sent their air force against the Houthi rebels who had seized the capital of Sanaa, driven out the president, and have now driven south to Aden to take over half of the country.
Why is the Saudi air force attacking the Houthis?
The Houthis belong to a sect close to the Shiite and are supported by Iran. Yet the Houthis, who bear no love for us, began this war to expel al-Qaida from Yemen. And their hatred for ISIS is surely greater than it is for us or Israel, as, last week, 137 of their co-religionists were massacred in two mosque bombings in Sanaa. ISIS claimed credit.
In summary, though the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Shiite militia in Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Alawite regime of Assad may not love us, they look on al-Qaida and ISIS as mortal enemies. And, thus far, they alone have seemed willing to send troops to defeat them.
Where are the Turkish, Saudi, Kuwaiti or Qatari troops?
During World War II, the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine shipped tanks, guns and munitions to a Soviet Union that was doing most of the fighting and suffering most of the casualties in the war against Hitler.
No matter all the “Uncle Joe” drivel at Tehran and Yalta, we were never true friends or allies, and shared nothing in common with the monster Stalin, save Hitler’s defeat.
If President Nixon could toast Mao Zedong, can we not deal with Ayatollah Khamenei?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why The Iraqi Army Is Stuck On The Outskirts of Tikrit

By Mustafa Habib | (Niqash.org) –
(Baghdad) – The offensive to re-take Tikrit from extremists seems to have stalled as troops surround the city but cannot go further. The same thing is happening elsewhere. And there are three main reasons why.
While stopped on the edges of the city of Tikrit, Captain Ahmad Mahmoud says he told the soldiers under his command about the battle of Stalingrad, which started in Russia in 1942 between the attacking Germans and the Russians during World War II and did not end until early in 1943. Despite the fact that the German army, led by Nazi commanders, had surrounded the city they were not able to take it from the Russians over months of prolonged, intensive and close fighting.
Mahmoud and his soldiers are part of a major military offensive in the province of Salahaddin which aims to take back territory currently controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
Earlier in March the Iraqi government sent the Iraqi army, alongside unofficial Shiite Muslim militias and with aid from local Sunni Muslim tribes, into the province of Salahaddin to take on fighters from the Islamic State, or IS. At first progress of the offensive, ostensibly the Iraqi government’s first major campaign against the IS group, was good and within a week the forces were able to re-take the areas of al-Dour, al-Alam and Albu Ajil. But when it comes to the major city of Tikrit, which has been mostly abandoned by residents to the IS fighters, progress has slowed.
And Mahmoud seemed to think the same thing was happening to the Iraqi army in Tikrit as had happened in Stalingrad. The city was surrounded but, as he told NIQASH during a telephone interview, “we are just not trained to fight this way, on the street. Even the Shiite militias, who are known for their street fighting skills, haven’t been able to break into the city and now the Islamic State is launching attacks on the surrounding troops, exhausting the men and inflicting casualties in a similar way to the Stalingrad scenario.”
When the Islamic State controls a city they immediately begin to protect the borders of the territory, planting improvised explosive devices on the roads and in houses, they deploy snipers and they prepare car bombs so they can detonate them if the area comes under attack. The IS fighters who escaped from the nearby towns under attack from the Iraqi army are now all thought to be in Tikrit, where they have organised themselves to hold the city. So far they have been successful in doing this – and they are also using the situation to attack Iraqi forces on the outskirts of the city.
Worryingly the same thing appears to be happening elsewhere too. In the province of Anbar, Iraqi forces have surrounded the smaller, strategic city of Karmah. The troops, some of whom were based in Baghdad, went into battle to try and ensure that the fighting did not get closer to the capital while the Tikrit offensive was on and they managed to capture areas around Karmah.
However due to fierce resistance from IS fighters inside central Karmah, the Iraqi forces were ordered to come to a halt and simply surround the city.
Similar situations have arisen in larger cities like Fallujah and Heet, where the Iraqi army has managed to surround the city but not been able to enter it. Basically it seems that the Iraqi army and their allies have been unable to take one major city back from the extremists so far – they’ve only been able to reclaim smaller towns that are more agricultural or tribal in nature.
Critics suggest there may be three main reasons for this lack of success. It is clear that the IS group has become skilled at street warfare, fighting from house to house and street to street – quite possibly skills their experienced fighters picked up in Syria. In order to defeat the IS group in this arena, there are three things needed that neither the Iraqi army nor the Shiite militias have. These are soldiers specially trained in urban warfare, intelligence and information from inside the cities themselves and the trust of the cities’ residents.
When it comes to urban warfare, the most experienced of the Shiite Muslim militias have done this before, certainly more than the Iraqi army has and in particular when they fought against US troops in Iraq after 2003 and then against other sectarian militias between 2006 and 2008.
“But the Islamic State outperforms us in one very important way,” says Abbas al-Saadi, a volunteer with a militia in Anbar province. “They have people who are ready to kill themselves. They fight very strongly and when they run out of ammunition, they blow themselves up.”
Al-Saadi says that the IS group also booby trap armoured military vehicles they originally stole from the Iraqi army to trick troops.
Intelligence from inside the cities is also in short supply mainly because, if the residents who were cooperating with the Iraqi army have not left for fear of being caught and killed, then they may well have been killed by the IS group.
“We used to have very good sources inside the cities controlled by the Islamic State,” one officer from Iraq’s Ministry of Interior told NIQASH on condition he remain anonymous. “We found out a lot about the Islamic State’s hiding places, their plans and their movements. But we have very few of these left now and most of the information we’re getting has been incorrect.”
It’s going to be tough to convince Sunni Muslim locals still living in the cities controlled by the IS group, an ostensibly Sunni Muslim group, to turn against the IS fighters. Reports about how the Shiite Muslim militias have treated locals in the areas where they drove the IS group out have reached these people and there are also a number of videos online showing Sunni Muslim houses being burned and residents being arrested; often local Sunnis consider the militias just as dangerous as the IS group. Human rights groups have released several reports on this issue and said that civilians should be protected from retaliatory attacks by pro-government forces.
Related video added by Juan Cole: