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Syria: A Meeting of the Minds – or Five More Years of War?

by John Brian Shannon | September 27, 2015

A unique opportunity presents itself tomorrow when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia addresses the UN General Assembly and later meets with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

Syrian Crisis Map 2015. Image courtesy of the UNHCR.

The question on everyone’s mind is;
Will that *opportunity* turn into an *action plan* that lowers the death toll, casualties, and displacement of Syrian citizens?

Certainly it would look like a Win-Win for both President Putin and President Obama if they put their political differences aside and announce a plan forward — one that involves working together to ‘beat back’ the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to the point that it no longer threatens the sovereignty of Syria, its long-suffering citizens and neighbouring countries.

Presidents need successful outcomes in order to accrue political capital to boost their political momentum — which they can then use to further their foreign or domestic policy goals.

But for President Putin it is especially important to make the most of this opportunity as the Russian economy is in crisis mode due to the dramatic fall in oil prices over the past months, while President Obama must always work to counter the GOP narrative.

It’s theirs to lose

One way that both leaders could leave the UN in Win-Win fashion is to ink an agreement (a map) showing exactly where in the skies and on the ground that Russia and the U.S./EU nations will and won’t operate in Syria.

Combat Area Operations Agreement

This is a simple way to guarantee that Russian and Western fighter jets don’t accidentally or otherwise, engage each other within Syrian territory. (“You take the North and we’ll take the South. Now, where do we draw the combat operations line?”)

The same applies to ground-based units.

Mutual Agreement to Support Moderate Forces in Syria

One way to drown out the terrorists is to continually work to strengthen moderate forces in the country. Whether combat groups or civilians who want a return to stability and are proactively working toward that end, such people can have a dramatic effect as their numbers are infinitely larger than the ISIS hooligans trying to take control of Syrian towns and cities.

Whether U.S.A.-supported moderates or Russian-sponsored moderates — each of those are enemies to ISIS.

Of course, a constantly updated Who-Is-Who list needs to be kept, so that everyone works off the same page.

Agreement to Prevent Israeli Involvement in the Syrian Conflict

As this would trigger even more trauma for the region resulting in thousands more casualties and millions more refugees, it is important to have a unified policy.

Not only that, but a significant military force must be dedicated to preventing terrorists from crossing into Israel from Syria.

No good will come of trouble along Israel’s northern border and either Russia, the U.S., or a major (and majorly funded) UN peacekeeping/active patrol force must control a 20-mile wide strip of land across the southern Syrian frontier.

It is unthinkable to not do this, as the consequences of multiple attacks across the border would surely complicate and enlarge the war. (What happens if Israeli fighter jets cross into Syrian airspace in full rage mode to hit back at a terrorist Katushya rocket base, and suddenly encounter Russian Air Force or Syrian Air Force fighter jets?)

Internally Displaced and Refugee persons Handling Agreement

A unified approach to handling internally displaced persons in Syria and how to handle those persons wanting to leave the country to become refugees in neighbouring nations, is of paramount importance.

It’s one thing for thousands of people to leave a country by road, it’s quite another when military units are emplaced there expecting a major tank or infantry battle to break out at any minute, along the very path that Syrian citizens are fleeing!

And in the case of large swathes of land full of unmarked landmines left over from previous decades (millions of mines) it is important to prevent civilians from crossing those sections of land.

Both Russia and the Western powers must notify each other of mined areas in well in advance of approaching civilian convoys (whether they are travelling on foot or by vehicle) and obviously, that information must be kept secure from ISIS.

Mutual Support along Common Corridors or near Demarcation Lines

If U.S. forces (for example) get the best of ISIS and they retreat, the very obvious place for them to run is across the line of control into the Russian or Syrian controlled zone. And the reverse is true for ISIS fighters are fleeing Russian or Syrian military units/combat aircraft.

But when preexisting agreements are set up, ISIS fighters will (quite unknowingly) run into a trap — just when they think they’ve escaped their pursuers.

Agreement to Support the Democratically Elected Leader of Syria

Whether some in the West like it or not, Bashir Al-Assad is the democratically elected leader of Syria and significantly, he is the only game in town. There isn’t anyone remotely qualified nor imbued with a power base sufficient to replace him. Like it or not, Assad is going to be the President of Syria for many years to come.

Even ISIS, as successful as it has been on the field of battle couldn’t pull off running a government. Winning a series of paramilitary battles is one thing — governing a country is a different thing altogether.

Regime change isn’t an option in Syria’s case regardless of how appealing that may sound to those in GroupThink office cubicles around the world. What looks good on paper from 5000 miles away can seem truly hallucinogenic to those on the ground in Syria and to those with any experience in the region.

We are stuck with Assad for some time. There is no other option unless the EU agrees to accept 10 million Syrian refugees. Therefore, we better learn how to work with him.

President Obama should be encouraged to instantly fire any federal government employee (including military members) who indulge in the utter fantasy of regime change in Syria. It is so unrealistic a goal, that to waste any time speculating on it should immediately brand the person making the suggestion as sophomoric and functionally illiterate on the topic of Syria.

Where do we want Syria to be in Five Years?

We’ve seen what the past five years have brought.

“If we keep on doing what we have been doing, we’re going to keep on getting what we’ve been getting.” — Jackie B. Cooper

No sane person, no culture, no nation, wants to see another five years of murder, rape, mayhem and destruction for the people of Syria.

Practically any other option is better than that, and we must all reconcile ourselves to the fact that change must come to the Syrian situation. No amount of wishing away the past is going to make the presently-failing plan suddenly begin to work and achieve our goals.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” — Albert Einstein

Therefore, it is time to take-Russia-on as a full and valued partner to a sustainable solution in Syria, knowing that we will be dealing with Bashar Al-Assad for the next decade, and with a view to lowering the total amount of trauma, death, and destruction in that country every day.

If we can’t work together, ISIS wins

If the U.S.A., Russia, and some of Europe’s leading nations can’t agree on mutually-agreed solutions to solve the Syrian crisis, then I respectfully suggest that the present world order has far bigger problems than ISIS.

If the ISIS leadership is allowed to infer that they can defeat great powers by playing them off one-against-the-other it will embolden ISIS far beyond the limited goals they’ve set for themselves in Iraq and Syria.

Differences in approach must be set aside to allow the U.S.A., Russia, the EU, and Syria to work together to marginalize the deviant ISIS group, or we and future generations may experience a never-ending stream of such conflicts.

Related Articles:

Refugees Flooding the EU: Just the Beginning

by John Brian Shannon | June 09, 2015

Q: Why are hundreds of thousands of people fleeing North Africa?
A: Because of the Western inspired, aided, and abetted, Arab Spring (failure)

Hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from North Africa make the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe each year, with thousands dying in the process. Image courtesy of historiana eu

Hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from North Africa make the perilous Mediterranean crossing to Europe each year, with thousands dying in the process. Image courtesy of historiana.eu

The ‘Arab Spring’ was supposed to depose dictators or very nominally democratic regimes in North Africa, and replace them with forward-thinking democratic leaders and democratic societies.

Which sounds great on paper doesn’t it? Especially in the proposal stages one could be forgiven for backing such a plan.

Good intentions towards the north African nations simply weren’t followed-up by EU leaders in the aftermath of the Arab Spring — and that is why hundreds of thousands of economic refugees are landing in Europe now.

I’d expect *millions* more, if conditions in the failed Arab Spring nations don’t improve — even though hundreds have died at sea to date — thousands more still make the crossing every day. It says a lot about the living conditions that these people are leaving behind.

Prior to the Arab Spring, relatively small numbers of people risked everything to cross the Mediterranean.

As the West was the main cheerleader lending military aid and action against north African dictators, and lent moral and financial support to promote overthrowing north African dictators — the West bears responsibility for the situation which is now playing out.

Some call it an *unfolding crisis* and one that looks likely to get much worse every decade. While others call it *poetic justice* the sort that mediocre post-Arab Spring policy is responsible for.

Instead of the EU devising policies to deal with the ever-growing symptoms, it’s time to quickly transform EU policy in the region to a proactive one where there is no need for millions of north Africans to leave their countries for the EU.

See: A Lifeline for European Solidarity (Project Syndicate)

If you don’t think *millions* of people might migrate to the EU as economic refugees, take a look at Egypt’s present population (84 million) which is about the same as Germany’s present population at 82 million.

But in 2050 the population of Egypt will be 121 million people, while Germany’s population in 2050 will be 72 million.

If bad economic conditions in the former Arab Spring nations don’t soon improve, it won’t only be millions of Egyptians flooding the EU, it will also be millions of other north Africans too!

It’s time to take a serious look at creating stable and nominally democratic governments in north Africa (and that’s only half of the equation, obviously) combined with huge employment growth in a region where youth unemployment surpasses 50 percent.

Breeding grounds for future terrorists, much?

Something that could be done quickly but isn’t being done to solve several growing problems at once — is to install millions of solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines in the north African nations to power southern Europe.

We have the technology to run undersea power cables (this is done in many regions in the world) and solar and wind power is now at parity with fossil fuel power generation (assuming the subsidy levels are the same)

Creating hundreds of projects across the Arab Spring countries would stimulate those economies, lower youth unemployment, lower the lure of extremist ideology for poor and unemployed youth in that region, and work to reduce migration to the EU from north African nations.

Perhaps by orders of magnitude.

Trying to design policy to deal with ever-growing symptoms is a fool’s errand, while designing policy to solve many of the underlying north African and related EU problems is the obvious path.

ISIS: Building a Better Middle East Model by Defeating ISIS Together

by John Brian Shannon | September 23, 2014

The truism, “The only constant in the universe is change” is one that nobody can deny. Even the stars change, eventually burning out after shining brightly for 10-50 billion years, depending on the size and composition of the star at its formation.

The same is true with politics. Civilization is constantly changing, individual societies within our civilization evolve — and to hopelessly complicate matters — all of the societies are evolving at different speeds and began from different starting points.

No doubt that all nations are on a path of enlightenment, it’s just that none of them occupy the same position on the path. Some are ‘behind’ us and some are ‘ahead’ of us, to put it in undiplomatic terms.

No matter. We do our best, and sometimes history has been kind to us and sometimes not, thereby making each country what it is today. Each nation is the sum total of its history.

There are no ‘perfect politics’ there are no ‘perfect political systems’ and there are no ‘perfect politicians’ — nor is perfection often found anywhere in the universe. Even so-called ‘perfect diamonds’ have microflaws in them.

The fact that we try to improve, is everything. Where we are today or tomorrow is much less important.

Striving to be better, means that eventually we will be better. And there is that learning curve which makes progress exponential once a certain point is reached.

We Celebrate Political Successes, But We Are Necessarily More Concerned With Political Failures

When faced with political failure at the international level, the result is often war. At best, nations will ‘agree to disagree’ for a time, until enlightened political thought (diplomacy) takes hold and solves the situation, thereby making that problem obsolete.

Within countries, political failure can ultimately lead to civil war. However, things can and usually do go on for some time in a state of fog or brimming discontent before it erupts into civil strife.

The one thing to take away from this, is that unless things are ‘getting better’ — they’re getting worse.

It’s a poor Captain who doesn’t alter course when the boat is being pushed backwards by the sea or the weather. One makes the necessary adjustments and the journey continues. There is no other choice.

“All War Represents the Failure of Diplomacy” — Tony Benn

When we have war it’s because we disagree with other political actors in other countries. This holds true for the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and so on.

When there is a lack of tolerance and insufficient diplomacy, then begins war.

It’s important to remember that all of this isn’t fated to happen. At any point in time, one side or the other is fully capable of changing their position and ending (or preventing) the conflict. A simple phone call can convey a change of heart and many lives can be spared death or the endless misery of lost family and friends.

Politics is Never Static

In the Middle East example, things which were once thought immovable are shifting.

Iran, yes that Iran, is talking to the UK about participating in the effort against ISIS. Arab nations are teaming up with the Europeans and the North Americans to fight ISIS in Iraq.

It’s important to note that while Iraq has invited Western nations inside its borders to assist the fight against ISIS, Syria has (so far) not invited any nation to fight ISIS inside Syria.

It’s a trust issue. Otherwise, Syria would gladly welcome any assistance in the fight against its supreme arch-rival ISIS. To underscore this point, the first IS in the acronym ISIS stands for Islamic State, while the second IS stands for Inside Al-Shams (Al-Shams is Arabic for the word ‘the Syria’) making Syria the prime target of ISIS, as they seek to establish an Islamic State in Syria by deposing the government of Syria.

Would the government of Syria like our help? You bet they would! Their very lives and future are at stake.

So why aren’t we invited inside Syria to fight ISIS? 

In simple terms, it’s a failure of diplomacy. We’ve failed to convince Syria of our good intentions towards Syria and towards the millions of innocent Syrian people (many of whom are now running for the Turkish border at full speed) to escape the ISIS thugs.

The Enemy of My Enemy, is My Friend

Iran sees this truism and looks willing to participate in fighting ISIS to a standstill, if not complete defeat.

Why not to the point of complete defeat? Because without full Syrian involvement, there will be no victory over ISIS, only a never-ending beating them back into Syrian territory.

ISIS controlled areas in Iraq and Syria, September 22, 2014

ISIS controlled areas in Iraq and Syria, September 22, 2014

Iran is giving some good advice to Washington, and that advice goes like this; As ISIS is primarily based inside Syria, the ISIS entity will never be defeated unless a coalition can be invited into Syria for the sole purpose of routing ISIS — and just so that everyone is clear on this, Iran doesn’t mean allowing the coalition to take liberties with the situation and engaging in regime change while we’re in Syria.

The Iranians are experts in the region and they want the end of ISIS as much as anyone — and they feel that to win will require the support of the Bashar Al-Assad government.

It’s too late to begin ‘reinventing the wheel’ by starting with a brand new government in Syria. Iran says we should work with what we’ve got: the Bashar Al-Assad government. We’ll have plenty of time to bicker about other things with Bashar Al-Assad — after ISIS is routed.

Which, even with the support of Iran, the Arab nations, the West, and good luck, all working together in perfect harmony should take about 10 years. Maybe 15.

Pathways to Progress against ISIS

It’s great to have purist debates about how to wage war. However, when the diplomats have failed the war must actually be fought.

Like so many things in life, you work with what you’ve got. Purist debates must sometimes wait.

Right now, in the battle against ISIS, we’ve got Iraq, the United States, Europe, the Arab States, the UK, Canada and Australia as major contributors. There are other nations that want to contribute and we thank them for their contribution as well.

Iran is suddenly looking like it might join the coalition. Let’s hope that happens and soon, as Iran, more than any other country in the region is poised to play a major role and is perfectly placed to do so much good in this fight.

However, Syria has not felt comfortable enough to willingly allow coalition warplanes to overfly their territory, nor to have any country’s troops on their soil.

And, at this point, who could blame them? Even their regional allies didn’t help them in their hour of need, which eventually led to the partial collapse of their nation.

So we work with what we’ve got, which is much, but even all of that together is not the optimum combination to solve this growing and morphing problem.

The present Syria policy vs. what could be

Only because the West couldn’t win the trust and acceptance of Syria (an example of failed diplomacy) we’ve been pursuing a secondary policy inside Syria, until such times as we can gain the approval of the Bashar Al-Assad government to enter the air and land space of the country, in order to help rout ISIS from Syria, which would nicely complement our effort to rid neighbouring countries of ISIS.

This “Plan B” is a good one, as far as Plan B’s go — strengthening militia groups and individuals (warlords) inside Syria that are already engaged in the fight against ISIS.

But it goes without saying that a “Plan A” would be the better choice. Of course, as I referred to above Plan A would necessarily include Iran and Syrian participation — without losing any of the existing coalition members.

That is the difference between what is (Plan B), and what could be (Plan A). Only the failure of the diplomats has prevented us from activating Plan A. For now we’re stuck with Plan B.

Not that we should blame the diplomats for this failure. Diplomacy takes time and it may yet yield worthwhile results.

Iran joining the coalition might help to co-opt Syria toward coalition membership, in fact the Iranian diplomats might just be the ones to clinch that deal for all of us, and for themselves too as they too have an extreme dislike of the ISIS entity.

Benjamin Netanyahu today criticized the Plan B approach in a CBC television interview

Which is fine. We’re all entitled to our opinions.

And few nations (besides Syria, which is by far the main target of ISIS) have as much to lose as Israel, so I don’t blame the Prime Minster of Israel for criticizing the Plan B approach of strengthening the Syrian enemies of ISIS. (Excellent and wide-ranging interview with Benjamin Netanyahu begins at the 3:10 mark — continues to the 17:00 mark)

Apparently, he feels that all groups in the Middle East should be weakened equally — so that all are equally weak in comparison to Israel — and that the policy of strengthening regional forces presently engaged in fighting ISIS inside Syria (and presumably in Iraq too) is a bad policy.

I well understand the Israeli viewpoint that any group with guns and ammunition in the Middle East represents a threat to Israel. In Netanyahu’s view, those same fighters, once ISIS is defeated, could (in Netanyahu’s mind) conceivably turn to fight Israel.

And, in the absence of vision and leadership for the region and by the region, that’s a possibility. But with proper diplomacy and an inclusive vision for the region that all Middle East nations can feel comfortable with, no MENA nation need ever fear any other MENA nation or group.

The PM of Israel is looking at the situation through the prism of what has been, while I look at what could be

Were politics a static environment, PM Benjamin Netanyahu would win this point easily.

But politics is anything but a static environment, it is fluid and dynamic and as time moves forward we can begin to tailor regional politics to the needs of the countries in the region. And that means Israel too.

If one person in a house is unhappy, all will be unhappy. If one country in a region is unhappy, all will be unhappy. Tell me I’m wrong on this. But I know that you can’t. All of us know this truth and especially in a small region like the Middle East it applies equally to all of the nations.

Forming a coalition against a common enemy (in this case ISIS) where all of the members of the region become members of that greater coalition to fight their common enemy and eventually winning, is the best medicine for the failed diplomacy of the 20th century. Which is what started the whole Middle East problem in the first place.

The thinking of the early 20th century created the map we see today in the Middle East and all that has come since, both good and bad. Using 21st century thinking to make obsolete the problems inherited from a previous century, should be the visionary and leadership goal for the region.

To improve the existing paradigm we will need the cooperation and diligent efforts of all of the players in the region. There can be no leaving-out of Syria, nor of Iran. Whatever the new vision is, it must include the 23 million Syrians and the 38 million Iranians, or it simply won’t work, nor would it deserve to.

If Iran and Syria aren’t included in this herculean task of routing ISIS from the region and contributing to the future Middle East vision, eventually ISIS would win on account of their brutal tactics and their expertise at national destabilization wherever they operate.

For the Middle East, the rise of ISIS affords the best opportunity in decades to rise to meet the challenges of our time instead of shrinking back, and to work together to forge a new and better reality for all of the citizens of the Middle East.

Inclusiveness, tolerance, respect, and a common vision must be the way forward for the entire region.

Leaving Syria, Iran, Israel, or any other regional country out of that common and good future — and you are simply using the same old recipe — but attempting to bake a different cake.