Egypt, Qatar, others add ground troops to Yemen mess

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

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The Economist – “A downward spiral”:

More troops have poured in since the [Sept. 4 2015] attack [on coalition troops]. Saudi Arabia dispatched more elite forces to join the 3,000-strong coalition force already on the ground, while Qatar, hitherto only participating in air operations, has sent 1,000 soldiers. Egypt, which has long warned of the folly of putting boots on the ground given its disastrous intervention in the 1960s, this week sent in 800 men. Sudanese troops are reportedly waiting to be shipped out of Khartoum. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said his two sons will join the battle.
[…]
Quashing the Shia Houthis is nigh on impossible. Gulf officials and media talk bombastically of preparations to take back Sana’a from them and reinstall Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as president (the Houthis drove him out of the country in March). But Yemen has long been treacherous territory for foreign invaders, and Gulf armies are relatively inexperienced.

Since committing ground troops in August, the coalition has taken control of Aden, the southern port city, and is advancing on Taiz. But it is struggling in Maarib, the gateway to Sana’a, where the extra troops, backed by armoured vehicles and missile launchers, are said to be massing. The fighting will only get harder since the Houthis’ remaining strongholds are in mountainous redoubts.

[…] a rising generation of young, ambitious Gulf royals appears unwilling to pare back their newfound military adventurism.

 
Related Reading: “Saudi Arabia and the US: More military misfires” — my August 13, 2015 op-ed with Stephan Richter for Al Jazeera English.

The war in Yemen has begun in earnest now

After years of slowly building chaos, The Houthi force is moving against Aden, the government-in-the-south has fled the country, and — as of tonight — the Royal Saudi Air Force has launched an operation into Yemen under the GCC (or possibly the Arab League) at the request of the fallen government.

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Flag of Yemen

10 countries are participating in the operation already: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan are all said to be participating, with logistical and intelligence support from the United States.

The involvements of Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Sudan are very unexpected and indicate a much wider operation than anticipated. It also strongly suggests that Saudi Arabia was leaning heavily on every government in the Middle East, North Africa, East Africa, and South Asia to whom it has given a lot of money previously. Saudi Arabia is cashing in every favor for a blistering war against the quasi-Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, unlike with the rather lackadaisical coalition to support the United States against ISIS in Syria. Qatar, which sent no jets at all in the Syria campaign, sent 10 tonight.

Bahrain, which only participated minimally on the first day of the Syria raids, also sent 15 jets. Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy also “owes” Saudi Arabia for brutally suppressing their own Shia uprising in 2011 (during the Arab Spring) with GCC shock troops.

The UAE and Jordan also sent plenty of bombers over Yemen in the initial hours, in a marked contrast from their wavering in the Syria campaign.

This massive undertaking should, in my opinion, also be taken as a clear signal that Saudi Arabia firmly prioritizes the “threat” from Iran and Iranian proxies (which include the Houthis in Yemen but also 100,000 anti-ISIS fighters across Iraq and Hezbollah anti-ISIS units in western Syria) well above the threat from ISIS, despite tough talk on the latter some months ago.

Meanwhile, Iran has countless military advisers and trainers on the ground assisting the huge Iraqi campaign to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, has been providing close-air support and bombers against ISIS all over the Iraqi skies, and reportedly may even have 30,000 regular troops fighting in Iraq directly.

If I’m looking at the facts and figures, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in general — the purported American allies — are doing far less to combat ISIS than Iran, even if you buy the theory that Iran’s support for Assad accidentally helped create ISIS in the first place.

This war in Yemen against the Houthis, which Saudi Arabia has been stirring up violently for years, seems essentially to be more of an indirect war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this doesn’t even begin to touch the actual al Qaeda presence in Yemen.

Inherent Resolve: And then there was one?

Tuesday night the news broke from U.S. government officials that the United Arab Emirates had quietly withdrawn participation in the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria, back in late December.

The United Arab Emirates, a crucial Arab ally in the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, suspended airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in December, citing fears for its pilots’ safety after a Jordanian pilot was captured and who the extremists said had been burned to death, United States officials said Tuesday.

 
This suspension of UAE participation stands in stark contrast with their very bold statements about the necessity of entering the war against ISIS in the first place (as well as with their surprising covert bombing run in Libya last year). It particularly contradicts the country’s “bolder stance” that Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan has reportedly been trying to project as he acts on behalf of his brother, the president, who had a stroke last year.

But the apparent exit of the United Arab Emirates from the coalition could have a greater effect than a mere propaganda blow. It leaves the coalition essentially in tatters as far as the 6-member Syrian campaign was concerned.

That coalition, helmed by the United States, also consisted of five Arab states: the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Qatar — from the beginning in September 2014 — only participated in an undisclosed “support” role without flying any missions. Bahrain, according to reporting by the Boston Globe in November 2014, dropped out of flights after the first day of action over Syria. Just enough to count as a coalition member, I suppose. Jordan suspended flights after their pilot was captured at the end of December. Now we know the UAE did at about the same time.

That leaves only Saudi Arabia still participating (at least as far as we’re aware). Their resolve appears to be far stronger: a suicide attack that left three Saudi border troops dead in early January did not appear to bring a change in course. Nor did the recent death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

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True, the Royal Saudi Air Force is still probably the largest and most plentifully equipped air force of the five countries that joined the United States (or the four that were flying in the September air raids), but the Saudi contribution was already fairly minimal by most accounting. That same Boston Globe report that outed Bahrain’s non-participation found the United States had flown 75% of all missions from September 23, 2014 to mid-November 2014 in Syria and Iraq combined (i.e. even counting the European/Canadian/Australian air campaign participation in Iraq).

Plus, with Saudi Arabia being the biggest ideological force and financial accelerant behind the rise of global hardline Sunni extremism in the first place, it’s hardly comforting or useful to have them by our side in this fight against ISIS.

In any case, unless any of these dropout partners rejoin the fray — and it’s possible Jordan might do so, now that the hostage has been executed — these Syria bombing runs at the heart of the so-called Islamic State will be shouldered by the United States and trailed by an almost imperceptible coalition of one: Saudi Arabia. The irony of the name “Operation Inherent Resolve” could hardly be more obvious.

October 29, 2014 – Arsenal For Democracy 105

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Topics: Media coverage of Nigeria, comparing Mexico’s cartels to ISIS, reform Islam versus billionaire barons. People: Nate, Bill. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: October 26th, 2014.

Discussion Points:

– Why is Western media reporting on Nigeria so bad?
– Is Mexico’s Cartel War a bigger threat than the Syrian Civil War and the spread of ISIS?
– How big money for extremist causes is overriding Sunni Islam’s natural tendencies across the world

Episode 105 (56 min)
AFD 105

Related links
Segment 1

AFD: The Farce that is Nigeria’s Armed Forces
AFD: There was never a truce in Nigeria, just so we’re clear

Segment 2

Al Jazeera America: Mexican drug cartels are worse than ISIL
AFD: Mexico’s war: Still a bigger threat to the US than Syria’s
Global Post: Mexico’s vigilantes are building scrappy DIY tanks to fight narcos
NYT: 43 Missing Students, a Mass Grave and a Suspect: Mexico’s Police
The Daily Beast: She Tweeted Against the Mexican Cartels. They Tweeted Her Murder.

Segment 3

The Globalist: Reform Islam Vs. Billionaire Barons

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And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video blog of our announcer, Justin.

Joe Biden made to apologize for publicly saying fact about Turkey

Folks, let’s talk about how Joe Biden was just forced to apologize for saying a true thing out loud because it was inconvenient for the Turkish government.

Here’s what he reportedly said:

Speaking at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Biden said allies including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates had extended unconditional financial and logistical support to Sunni fighters trying to oust the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“President Erdogan told me,” he said, according to the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, “ ‘You were right. We let too many people through. Now we are trying to seal the border.’

“Our allies poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against al-Assad,” he said, including jihadists planning to join the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda.

 
And here was the angry response from the Turkish leadership:

“If Mr. Biden has said such a thing at Harvard, he needs to apologize to us,” Mr. Erdogan told reporters here.

Mr. Erdogan, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, denied that Turkey’s long, porous border had enabled thousands of militants to cross onto the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. “Foreign fighters never crossed into Syria from our country,” Mr. Erdogan said. “They would cross into Syria from Turkey on tourist passports, but nobody can claim that they have crossed with arms.”

 
Oh, ok, that’s super convincing. Just like Russia trying to claim that all its active duty troops fighting in eastern Ukraine are merely on holiday — like a separatist sabbatical — and can’t possibly be stopped or controlled.

Look, I’m probably way more understanding and favorable toward Turkey and the ruling AKP than most people in the US “commentary industry” — who tend to cherry-pick complaints or instinctively bash Turkey’s civilian leaders and non-secular population without mentioning any historical or modern context for certain actions — but I have my limits.

Along with the infamous “Article 301” of the Turkish Penal Code — banning insults to the nation or national symbols — and denial of the Armenian genocide, this is just part of a pattern of Turkish leaders demanding that the entire rest of the world (including elected US officials) bend around their weird alternate reality where only pro-Turkish things can be said unless you want to be an enemy of the state.

For years, Turkey manipulated its status as a key NATO military power and a friend of Israel to block Washington from doing or saying anything critical of Turkey. That’s deteriorated a bit as Turkey has grown apart from Israel and the protective embrace of the Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, but this episode and the speed of Biden’s apology at the insistence of the senior Turkish leadership prove they’re still somewhat untouchable. Vice President Biden maybe said something impolitic, but it wasn’t false, the issue he cited has been a real problem.

And lest you think this is some kind of “Biden problem” or punishment for “Biden being Biden,” let’s just note that President Obama himself is now more than five and a half years into trying to get out of a promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

I have a great respect for Turkey, the Turkish people, and its history — and I have consistently defended Turkey from unfair and offensive (racist or anti-Muslim) critiques — but the loud efforts at blindly shielding the country from criticism and mentions of past or present abuses or other policy failings are a serious problem that undermine and constantly form a negative backdrop to anything positive Turkey tries to do as it approaches its 100th anniversary since independence.

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Update, Oct 5, 2014: On Sunday, Vice President Biden called the leadership in the United Arab Emirates to make a similar apology to the UAE for including them, alongside Turkey and Qatar, in the blanket list of supporters of extremists in Syria. While Turkey was a bit fast and loose with border and arms controls, they did not intentionally support terrorist groups specifically, unlike Qatar. In contrast with both, the United Arab Emirates has been especially active militarily in fighting Islamist fighters in Syria and in Libya, and they claim to have a strong position against terrorist financing (although many private citizens seem to ignore that). Saudi Arabia — which I’m not sure was explicitly mentioned — has not publicly commented on Biden’s remarks. Qatar, which is openly financing and arming Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front in Syria, did not respond.

Oped | Reform Islam Vs. the Billionaire Barons

My new oped in The Globalist argues that Islam isn’t inherently backward — as is mistakenly often suggested in Western media — it’s being held back by powerful donors who support extreme versions of it and make those the focus of attention. Here’s an excerpt, discussing lack of doctrinal uniformity in Islam versus the unifying force of money to extreme causes:

Sunni Islam alone has a handful of diverging schools of thought, further splintered by the separate followings of various popular current scholars.

Unfortunately the loudest and perhaps best-organized sub-segment of the sect recently seems to be the engine driving extremist groups all over the world. But even that analysis misdiagnoses and misattributes a centralization that is not really there, beyond a superficial level.

The emerging global networks of fundamentalist Sunni Islamic terrorism of the past 5, 15 and 25 years are linked in practice only because they have voluntarily associated with each other and with a specific brand of the religion.

The networks have co-opted or completely supplanted decades-old movements in places as diverse as Mali or Philippines, which had aimed to address local poverty and institutional inequalities (or obtain independence).

This voluntary association between groups, in countries from West Africa to Southeast Asia, has only been made possible by atypically centralized funding sources that provide seed money and setup advice for local franchises before they are able to become financially self-sustaining.

Most of the franchises have not been able to reach self-sufficiency and continue only by the grace of the startup funders. The rest generally continue to receive advice from the funding sources and remain associated with the other groups for brand value and the attention that comes with it.

These funders — not preachers — are the ones who really shape existing local grievances and separatist movements into a globalized, semi-unified ideology. Without them, the decentralization inherent to Islam would continue to reign.

The efforts to create a caliphate spanning the globe aren’t springing up from the grassroots of abandoned and impoverished desert populations. Rather it springs fully formed from the men bearing suitcases of cash and ideological directives on what must be done and said to keep it coming.

This money is coming from fundraisers in Qatar and Kuwait and donors in those countries, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and beyond. If those donor networks were broken and permanently dismantled, it would break apart the emerging coalition of co-associating local movements subscribing to a hardline, Islamic globalism.

 
If you click through, I also cite a specific example of a very progressive, high-ranking Muslim leader in Nigeria.

Iraq PM committed to rival countries bombing Iraq’s neighbors, just not Iraq

The juxtaposition of the new Iraqi Prime Minister’s views, in a BBC interview, on which Arab countries should be bombing other Arab countries produces some pretty amazing (and unsurprising) geopolitical NIMBYism:

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has told the BBC he “totally” opposes Arab nations joining air strikes against Islamic State in his country.

vs.

Mr Abadi said he had sent a delegation to Damascus to inform its neighbour of Iraq’s request for the coalition to target IS in Syria, saying it was crucial to stop “transient border terrorism”.

 
Don’t bomb us without permission — bomb them without permission!

iraq-map-ciaNow, again, it’s not that surprising. I’m sure Prime Minister Abadi doesn’t really want a precedent established that he, the leader of his country, is so weak he must seek help from his neighbors and invite their interference. Moreover, it probably hurts him, as the political head of Iraq’s majority Shia faction, if he welcomes Iraq’s Sunni-ruled neighbors’ armed forces bombing Iraq, even if they’re targeting armed groups in Iraq, and even if those groups happen to be Sunni insurgents this time. (After all, bombing Sunni Iraqis is a job for the Shia-dominated Iraqi Air Force, with as much cruelty and incompetence as possible.)

In his defense: It’s just generally not a great idea to invite neighbors — especially ones with a tense and sometimes bitter history of rivalry (or even past territorial disputes) — to feel welcome to bomb you. In contrast, it’s probably (somewhat) less objectionable to request air support from halfway around the world. It’s one thing to publicly invite the strongest air power in the world to help you because your own air force is under-equipped and terrible and useless; it’s a very different matter to draw attention to the fact that the surrounding Arab states of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait (which hasn’t participated so far) all have vastly superior air forces to Iraq’s.

And, to top it off, the recent unilateral airstrikes in Libya by the United Arab Emirates, following up on their Arab League authorized operations in 2011, might also have made Abadi cautious about opening that door now and laying out the welcome mat for future meddling in Iraq, as in Libya.

But telling them to target insurgents in Syria seems to be another matter for Abadi — and one without a whole lot of additional logic, other than that it’s not Iraq, so it’s not his problem. It might also be that he needs to emphasize his “request” for coalition airstrikes in Syria to strengthen the case that the US-led coalition isn’t violating international law by intervening in Syria without permission because it is simply targeting a Syrian-based threat to the Iraqi state. (I’m a little skeptical of that reasoning, given that most people don’t consider it legal during the Vietnam War for the US to have bombed Vietnamese insurgent / North Vietnamese Army supply lines in Laos and Cambodia, even to defend the South Vietnamese government.)

At any rate, the more things change, the more things stay the same — and that includes Gulf-area countries trying to play each other off each other constantly to try to gain tiny edges momentarily.