The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
AgreeDisagreeLOLTroll
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Troll, or LOL with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used once per hour.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter
🔊 Listen RSS

The plot to supposedly murder Jamal Khashoggi, as apparently proved by Turkish audio and video evidence shown to US officials, is a grizzly mixture of savagery and stupidity: Jack the Ripper meets Inspector Clouseau. Neither element is surprising because violent overreaction to minor threats is a traditional feature of dictatorial rule. As seems to be the case with Saudi Arabia today, Iraq under Saddam Hussein made immense efforts to eliminate exiled critics who posed no danger to the regime.

It is the purpose of such alleged assassinations and kidnappings to not only silence dissident voices however obscure, but to also intimidate all opponents at home and abroad by showing that even a hint of criticism will be suppressed with maximum force. But it is in the nature of dictators that their judgement is unbalanced because they never hear opinions contrary to their own. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990 with disastrous results. Saudi Arabia started its war in Yemen in 2015, with similarly catastrophic results, and now appears to think that it can get away with brazenly assassinating Khashoggi, as apparently proved by Turkish investigators. Saudi Arabia firmly denies any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and says he left the consulate safely that afternoon.

It is important to watch how long the torrent of criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia will last. President Trump has been muted in his comments, emphasising the need to keep on terms with the Saudis because of the $110bn contract to sell them arms. Some of those most accustomed to kowtowing to Gulf monarchs, like Tony Blair, are comically reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia despite the compelling evidence of the murder produced by Turkey. The best Blair can do is to say that the issue should be investigated and explained by Saudi Arabia “because otherwise it runs completely contrary to the process of modernisation”. Even for Blair this is surely a new low, and it could also be a dispiriting straw in the wind, suggesting that political elites in the US and UK will not be shocked for long and criticism will be confined to the alleged killing of Khashoggi.

This is an important point because the killing (as suggested by the Turkish investigators) is by no means the worst act carried out by Saudi Arabia since 2015, though it is much the best publicised. Anybody doubting this should read a report just published which shows that bombing and other military activities by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is deliberately targeting food supplies and distribution in a bid to win the war by starving millions of civilians on the other side.

There is nothing collateral or accidental about the attacks according to the report. Civilian food supplies are the intended target with the horrendous results spelled out by the UN at the end of September: some 22.2 million Yemenis or three quarters of the population are in need of assistance, 8.4 million of whom are not getting enough food to eat, a number which may increase by 10 million by the end of the year. “It is bleak,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council. “We are losing the fight against famine.”

But there are those in Saudi Arabia, UAE and their allies in Washington, London and Paris who evidently do not feel any regret and are intent on creating conditions for a man-made famine as the best way of winning the war against the Houthis who still hold the capital Sana’a and the most highly populated parts of the country. This is the conclusion of the highly detailed report called “The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War” written by Professor Martha Mundy for the World Peace Foundation affiliated to the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The report concludes that “if one places the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that the coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanaʿaʾ.” It adds that the bombing campaign aimed directly at food supplies appears to have begun in 2016 and is continuing and becoming more effective.

Some aspects of the food war are easy to chronicle: on Yemen’s Red Sea coast no less than 220 fishing boats have been destroyed and the fish catch is down by 50 per cent according to the report. It cites one particular incident on 16 September when 18 fisherman from the district of Al Khawkhah were seized, interrogated and released by a coalition naval vessel which then fired a rocket at “the departing boat carrying the fishermen, killing all but one of them”. The report of this incident has been denied by the coalition.

The Saudi-led coalition began its intervention in the Yemeni civil war in March 2015 on the side of the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and against the “Houthi rebels” whom the coalition claims are backed by Iran. As Saudi defence minister at the time, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the driving force behind the intervention code named “Decisive Storm”. The coalition air campaign is aided by US aerial refuelling and logistic support while UK military personnel are stationed in command and control centres.

At first, the targets were largely military, but this changed when the coalition failed to win the quick military success its members had expected. Professor Mundy says that “from August 2015 there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.”

Copiously illustrated with maps and charts, the report shows the impact of bombing and other military activities on the production and availability of food to the civilian population. Lack of electricity to pump water and fuel for farm vehicles have all been exacerbated by the airstrikes. Mundy says that “livestock production has been devastated as families in need sold animals and also found it increasingly difficult to access markets”.

When the farmers do reach a market, their troubles are not over. Coalition air strikes have become more lethal with the beginning of the siege of the Red Sea port of Hodeida by Saudi and Emirati-led forces in June. Some 70 per cent of Yemen’s imports enter the country through Hodeida, which has a population of 600,000. On 2 August the main fish market in the city was attacked along with the entrance to the public hospital where many people were gathered. In July, King Salman of Saudi Arabia issued a general pardon to all Saudi soldiers fighting in Yemen.

The lack of international protests over the war in Yemen, and the involvement of the US and UK as allies of Saudi Arabia and UAE, helps explain one of the mysteries of the Khashoggi disappearance. If the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, why did they expect to carry out the assassination without producing an international uproar? The explanation probably is that Saudi leaders imagined that, having got away with worse atrocities in Yemen, that any outcry over the death of a single man in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was something they could handle.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
🔊 Listen RSS

“People in Idlib hate all those with power over them,” says Ahmad Abu Omar, 33, a history teacher living in the province, the last opposition enclave in the west of Syria.

He says that the three million people of Idlib fear a return of government forces, but are almost equally hostile to the armed opposition groups now ruling Idlib because they have spread violence and chaos. He sees Turkey and Russia, who this week started implementing their ceasefire agreement to prevent a government offensive into the province, as acting solely in their own interests.

Abu Omar, in an exclusive interview with The Independent from Idlib city via Whatsapp, describes the mood as war weary and disillusioned. The province south west of Aleppo was once a stronghold of the armed opposition after the original uprising of 2011. Hostility towards the government in Damascus is still intense, but so is antipathy towards its opponents. “At the beginning you could see the youth rushing to fight [against government forces],” says Abu Omar. “But now nobody cares about fighting and religious belief can no longer motivate people to fight for those in control here [the armed opposition].”

Abu Omar, who does not want his real name published because of fear of retribution, was speaking as Russia and Turkey were implementing the terms of agreement reached by president Vladimir Putin and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Sochi in September. The terms of the deal show the extent to which Turkey and Russia are now the dominant powers in northwest Syria. They have established a demilitarised zone 15-20 kilometres wide to separate opposition and Syrian government forces which is being monitored by Turkish and Russian patrols. Opposition heavy weapons such as tanks, rocket systems and mortars have been withdrawn, along with 1,000 fighters.

Other provisions of the agreement include the withdrawal of the most militarily effective opposition group, the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, by 15 October as well as the opening of the M4 and M5 highways linking the government-held cities of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia.

The city’s residents are sceptical about the motives of local and foreign players in Idlib, but they are grateful that a new round of the fighting has been averted for the moment. They see themselves as facing a choice of evils. Abu Ahmad Bakour, 47, who tries to eke out a living as a day labourer in Idlib, says: “We don’t understand what is happening in our region, but we are all happy that there is no fighting and no bombardment.”

He dislikes the continuing rule by opposition militias, said to number some 90,000 fighters, as much as the prospect of a return of Syrian government authority. “If we people are asked whom we would prefer to rule us, then we would say the Turkish rather than the Syrian government,” he says. Mr Bakour is fearful of the Iranian militias on the government side whom, he is convinced, would kill Sunni Arabs like himself and “put us in mass graves” if they ever recaptured Idlib.

He is trenchant in his criticism of the many opposition groups that have held Idlib city since 2015 and the rest of the province for even longer. “We are tired of war and of the militant groups that use the name of Islam to control us,” he says. “They are just stealing money and strangling the people by what they do.”

Abu Omar agrees with Mr Bakour’s rage against both the Syrian government and the armed opposition, though he does not go along with his preference for Turkish rule. He says that less than 10 per cent of people in Idlib are pro-Turkish and that the rest “realise that Turkey is playing for the region for its own benefit”.

People in Idlib are not starving, but they are very poor, particularly in the cities and towns where there is little work. In Idlib city, there are many, like Mr Bakour, who sit in the squares and roundabouts hoping to be hired as day labourers, which will earn them the equivalent of about $2 for a day’s work. Others wait beside the road selling fuel, much of which comes from the Kurdish-held oilfields in eastern Syria. Nobody is building anything so there are no construction jobs, but some skilled workers and professionals, such as doctors, nurses, electricians and car repairmen, earn good money providing essential services. The best jobs are with aid organisations that pay between $200 and $700 a month in dollars.

Idlib shares a border with Turkey, but it is not isolated from the rest of Syria despite many government checkpoints in and out of the province. Sieges in the wars in Syria and Iraq seldom amount to a complete blockade of people and goods entering or leaving. This is because checkpoints act more like privatised customs posts. Government and opposition pay their forces too little to live on so their men depend on bribes. It will be a blow to the armed opposition if they lose the revenues from their control of the M4 and M5 highways under the Turkish-Russian agreement.

“Many agricultural goods, especially olives, tomatoes and potatoes, are exported to regime areas and industrial goods, including canned goods, pharmaceuticals, clothes and shoes come back,” Abu Omar says. He says that Syrian goods and produce are mostly cheaper than that those coming from Turkey. This flourishing two-way trade means that when fighting has closed the roads in and out of Idlib, prices in its markets have gone down rather than up because output can no longer be exported to the rest of Syria. When trade is free flowing, tomatoes sell in Idlib for the equivalent of 70 US cents a kilogram, but, when the checkpoints are closed, the price drops to 30 cents. Olive oil likewise costs $6 a litre normally, but when there is fighting the price is half that in Idlib.

The Syrian war has largely been a war of sieges and blockades of which Idlib is the last. All sides have found it profitable to allow trade with their worst enemies, even when Isis controlled the east of the country. This spring the main M4 east-west highway was crowded with road tankers bringing crude from the Kurdish-held oilfields in the north east to the government refinery at Homs.

The Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement in Idlib is holding, though the Syrian government speaks of it as a temporary arrangement. But it is Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan who decide what will happen in Idlib and neither of them wants the deal to collapse. Almost unnoticed, the remnants of the armed opposition, once promoted by the West and regional powers as the future rulers of Syria, is losing any autonomy it still retained and, if it has a future, it will be as auxiliaries to the Turkish army. Mr Assad has not yet entirely won the war, but the opposition have certainly lost it.

Meanwhile, people in Idlib distrust all sides and with good reason, but, as Abu Omar says, they “are happy with any solution that stops them again becoming the victims of displacement, destruction and war”.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Syria, Turkey 
🔊 Listen RSS

Russia has completed delivery of a S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in a move likely to change the balance of forces in the skies over the Syrian battlefields.

“The work was finished a day ago,” Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin in a meeting broadcast on television.

The decision to supply the sophisticated anti-aircraft system came in response to the shooting down of a Russian Ilyushin reconnaissance plane with the loss of all 15 on board by Syria on 17 September in an incident 22 miles off the Syrian coast for which Russia holds Israel ultimately responsible.

The friendly fire loss of the Russian plane is unsurprising since three of the world’s most powerful air forces – Russia, US and Israel – are frequently flying in or close to Syrian air space. In addition, there are Turkish and Syrian planes, backed up, in the case of Syria, by a ground-to-air defence system. With five air forces operating in close proximity some mishap always appeared inevitable.

Israel has expressed regret at the death of the Russian air force personnel and is concerned that the S-300s may make it more risky for its planes to continue a campaign against Iranian facilities in Syria. The missiles have the capacity to track dozens of targets at a distance of hundreds of miles. The state-owned manufacturer Almaz-Antey says they can also shoot down cruise and ballistic missiles.

Israel has long sought to prevent the delivery of the S-300s to Iran and Syria. Iran did buy the system in 2007 but it was only delivered in 2016.

“We have not changed our strategic line on Iran,” said Israeli education minister Naftali Bennett, a member of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet. “We will not allow Iran to open up a third front against us. We will take actions as required.”

Mr Putin has succeeded hitherto in maintaining good relations and a high level of cooperation with Syria, Turkey and Israel, despite their conflicting objectives in Syria.

Relations between Israel and Russia have been frayed by the 17 September shoot down when the Russians claimed that Israeli F-16s had used the reconnaissance flight of the Russian plane off Latakia to make an attack.

More is at stake than future Israeli air operations over Syria. US military power in the northern tier of the Middle East – notably in Syria and Iraq – stems primarily from the massive destructive power of its air force and its ability to use its planes and missiles at will.

This strategy worked successfully in the campaign against Isis in both countries in 2014-18 when local ground troops – the Kurds in Syria and government security forces in Iraq – defeated Isis thanks to US air support. Any radical improvement in Syrian air defences reduces US military options.

The US could not confirm yesterday that the S-300 missile batteries had been delivered. But the Russian Defence Ministry has published a video of the launcher, radar and command and control vehicle being unloaded.

Moscow will also support and upgrade Syrian electronic defences.

Syria hopes that Israel will be less free in future to carry air attacks on Syrian territory. Syria’s deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said that: “Israel, which has gotten used to carrying out attacks under various pretexts, will now have to weigh and rethink before attacking again.”

The S-300 missiles will at the very least make Israel more cautious and less likely to take for granted Russian acquiescence in Israeli operations against Iran in Syria. It has also deployed the even more advanced S-400 missile batteries to its own bases in Syria.

Israel gives advanced warning to the Russians of any of its air actions in or close to Syria which has allowed some 200 attacks since the start of 2017 to be carried out in relative safety.

A Russian complaint about the shooting down of the Ilyushin reconnaissance plane is that only one minute’s warning was given. This was too short a period for them to alert the Syrians as to what was happening. An explanation for this could be that the Russians and Syrians must inevitably inform their Iranian allies about Israeli intentions leading Israel to keep the warning time as short as possible.

The shooting down of the Russian aircraft and the delivery of the S-300 is a sign that the military balance is changing to the advantage of the Syrian government.

Since the end of 2016, President Bashar al-Assad has recaptured the most important armed opposition strongholds in East Aleppo, East Ghouta and Deraa, leaving only one, the large opposition enclave in Idlib untaken. He can now focus more time to pushing back against Israeli military operations affecting Syria.

Israel and the US continue to speak of the build up of Iranian influence either directly or through local proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. But Iranian influence probably peaked in Syria and Iraq in 2015 when governments in both countries were under intense military pressure from Isis and needed all the foreign help they could get. Israeli attacks will not stop, but they will be riskier.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel, Russia, Syria 
🔊 Listen RSS

Changes of government in Iraq are often fiercely disputed and frequently violent. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the young King Faisal II was machine gunned in the courtyard of his palace in Baghdad and his body later strung up from a lamp post.

Few of his successors met peaceful ends up to the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and political transitions in the following years have provoked extreme rancour inside Iraq and intense political pressure from foreign powers.

In contrast to this bloodthirsty tradition, the choice of the veteran Kurdish politician Barham Salih as president by the Iraqi parliament and his selection as prime minister of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an independent Shia Islamist politician, was peaceful and low key.

The formal handover ceremony took place at the presidential palace in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where Mr Salih was saluted by an honour guard and received by outgoing president Fuad Masum.

The appointments were a long time coming – it is almost five months since the general election on 12 May – but, when they did come, they were welcome or, at least, accepted by almost all the main political players. Mr Abdul-Mahdi now has 30 days to put together a government and is likely to succeed in doing so.

The political climate is very different today from the last change of prime minister in 2014 when Haider al-Abadi took office after the Iraqi army had been routed by Isis, whose fighters were only an hour’s drive north of Baghdad.

Isis still carries out sporadic killings and bombings but on nothing like the scale of the past. Violence is at its lowest level in Iraq than at any time since 2003. The turnaround is really even more radical in that Iraq is no longer being engulfed by wars, crises, revolutions and sanctions as it has been over a period of almost 40 years since Saddam Hussein seized supreme power and invaded Iran.

Cynics in Baghdad contend that the lack of serious political strife is explained by the fact that Mr Salih and Mr Abdul-Mahdi are well-entrenched members of the Kurdish and Shia political elite that replaced Saddam Hussein 15 years ago and has misruled the country ever since.

Both men have held senior government posts in the past, leading to expectations that the politicians that chose them will get their normal share of ministries, jobs and contracts.

“Has any state as corrupt as Iraq ever really been reformed?” asked one political commentator with a long experience of Iraqi politics.

The pressure for reform of the kleptocratic state is greater than ever before. Popular discontent was underlined this summer by the mass demonstrations in Basra protesting the lack of electricity and water, supply failures that culminated in the drinking water becoming so poisonous that thousands of people were admitted to hospital after drinking it.

The electoral success of Muqtada al-Sadr, the populist nationalist cleric whose Sairoon Alliance topped the poll in the general election in May, showed the growing primacy of social and economic issues over sectarian solidarity.

Mr Sadr is well aware of the scepticism among many Iraqis who believe that his movement’s zeal for reform would evaporate once its leaders took office as ministers.

To counter this, he said on Thursday that his bloc would not nominate “any minister whatever” for the new cabinet, giving Mr Abdul-Mehdi one year to carry out reforms or face “an uprising”, a threat which carries more weight since the burning of government and party offices in Basra.

“We have succeeded in pushing for an independent prime minister … and have encouraged him to form a cabinet without being put under pressure from parties or sects,” tweeted Mr Sadr. “We have issued our instructions not to nominate any member of our bloc to assume a ministerial post in the upcoming cabinet. We have agreed to give the premier a one-year ultimatum to prove his success and take serious steps to build Iraq and shun autocracy.”

Such reforms will be difficult to carry out because it is not only the elite that plunder Iraq’s oil revenues. At least $4bn a month is spent paying some 4.5 million state employees who often hold their jobs because of party or religious allegiance.

The choice of president and prime minister already shows that there is some change in who holds power in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. Mr Abdul-Mehdi is not from the Shia Dawa party that has provided the last three prime ministers, but from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), a religious party that has had close links with Iran. Mr Salih comes from the much-divided Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that rules the east of the Kurdistan Regional Government territory.

Both appointments show a shift towards Iran and away from the US. This is significant because the US was hoping to see Mr Abadi, with whom it had cooperated successfully against Isis, stay on as prime minister. At one moment, he had seemed to say that he would go along with US sanctions against Iran.

Although Mr Abadi was prime minister when Mosul was recaptured from Isis and the oil city of Kirkuk reclaimed from the Kurds, he gained little credit for it among Iraqi voters.

The reduction in violence allowed them to focus on the mass theft of state resources under Dawa which has failed to improve, or even maintain, the infrastructure.

The choice of Mr Salih is a sign that the influence of Masoud Barzani, long the most powerful Kurdish leader, has been reduced by his referendum on Kurdish independence last year. This precipitated the advance of the Iraqi security forces on Kirkuk and other territories disputed with the Kurds. Part of Mr Salih’s party, the PUK, cooperated with government forces.

All Iraqi governments are, to a greater or lesser extent, fragile because of religious and ethnic differences, but the new government is a sign that Iraq is stabilising after four decades of violence and division.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
🔊 Listen RSS

Over the past half century, critics have often predicted the fall of the House of Saud or emphasised the fragility of its rule. They were invariably proved wrong because the Saudi monarchy enjoyed limitless oil revenues, had the support of the US, and avoided becoming a front-line combatant in Middle East crises.

Saudi strengths and weaknesses may have been long debated but the Kingdom’s vulnerabilities have seldom been so starkly on display as they were last Tuesday because the coincidence of two very different events. Before a rally in Mississippi, President Trump stated – brutally and without qualification – the dependence of the Saudi monarchy on US support and the price it must pay for such backing.

“We protect Saudi Arabia,” Trump told the cheering audience. “Would you say they’re rich? And I love the King, King Salman. But I said ‘King – we’re protecting you – you might not be there for two weeks without us – you have to pay for your military’.” Outbursts by Trump tend to be more calculated than they sound and he only humiliates allies in this way when he knows he can get away with it.

Trump’s contemptuous reference to the instability of Saudi Arabia was given greater significance by another dramatic event which happened a few hours earlier some 6,000 miles away in Istanbul. The prominent Saudi journalist and critic of his country’s government, Jamal Khashoggi, failed to emerge from the Saudi consulate where he was doing some paperwork relating to his divorce and impending marriage.

Khashoggi has not been seen since. The Turkish authorities, no doubt delighted to be able to present themselves as defenders of journalistic freedom, say he is still inside the consulate. Saudi officials claim that he left the building, though surveillance cameras prove he did not do so on foot, so, if he did leave, it was presumably in a diplomat’s car, possibly in the boot. Khashoggi’s fiance was left waiting disconsolately outside the consulate gates.

The best that can be hoped for is that the blast of international criticism over the incident will lead Khashoggi to reappear, perhaps denying that he was ever detained. This was the bizarre experience of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri in November last year when he disappeared during a visit to Riyadh and resigned his post on television before reappearing thanks to French government pressure.

The fate of Khashoggi, whatever the outcome of the present furore, carries an important message about the present state of Saudi Arabia. If he has been forcibly detained, as the Turkish government says, then it is a self-harming act of stupidity. It elevates him from being a minor irritant to a cause célèbre and a continuing mystery about his whereabouts ensures that the story is not going to go away.

It is early days yet but the Khashoggi disappearance has released a torrent of negative publicity about Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was wholly predictable. It is a curious fact about publicity that horrendous events – like the Saudi-led war in Yemen that has brought five million children to the verge of starvation – has failed to make its way to the top of the international news agenda. The slaughter is too great and the place too distant and ill-reported for most people to take on board and react to the horrors underway there.

Something on a smaller scale, like the disappearance of a critic of the Saudi government while his fiance waits for him in the street, is much easier to understand and respond to. Often, the all-too-common disappearance of journalists has the simple objective of silencing them and intimidating others. “Let them hate us so long as they fear us,” is the point being crudely made.

But the crown prince had hoped for a more positive image in the international media and his expectations have seldom been disappointed. Take a look at the piece by The New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman in November last year about the four hours he spent with him: “We met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh,” he writes. He describes Saudi Arabia as being in the throes of its version of the Arab Spring that ‘”will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success – but only a fool would not root for it.”

Khashoggi was one of those fools who balanced between reasoned criticism and outright dissent. Going by Friedman’s account of Saudi public opinion he was a lonely voice because “not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive.” But could it be that this impressive display of unanimity might have something to do with the fact anybody expressing a hint of criticism – like economist Essam al-Zamel – may find themselves clapped in jail on charges of terrorism and treason.

Hagiographic journalistic reports on Saudi Arabia may be more difficult to retail in future in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Already, some longtime backers of the country are jumping ship. One of them, Elliott Abrams, is quoted as saying that “the Saudi government is either keeping him [Khashoggi] in the consulate building or has kidnapped him and taken him to Saudi Arabia.” He warns that the reputation of the current Saudi government could “be harmed irreparably.”

The proposed economic reforms in Saudi Arabia have always sounded like wishful thinking. Deep scepticism is the correct approach to government-backed radical change in any country dependent on revenues from oil and other natural resources. Anticorruption campaigns simply redistribute the spoils to a new gang of well-connected predators. Much of the population has got too used to getting well-paid patronage jobs in return for little or no work. Domestic industry and agriculture cannot compete unless heavily subsidised. The system is too convenient to too many to be uprooted: opposition to corruption and patronage gets a thumbs up so long as it involves no personal sacrifice of any kind.

Saudi economic problems are serious, but not necessarily disastrous. More destabilising for the Kingdom is the extent to which Saudi Arabia is now demonstrably operating beyond its real strength in the region as its its more adventurous foreign policy over the last three years backfires.

The list of failures is impressive: Saudi-led bombing in Yemen since 2015 has not defeated the Houthis, but it has produced the greatest manmade famine on earth; increased help for the Syrian armed opposition the same year provoked Russian military intervention and has brought President Bashar al-Assad close to victory; the quarrel with Qatar has weakened all the Gulf monarchies; confrontation with Iran is a conflict that can never be won.

As Mikhail Gorbachev discovered after the first heady days of trying to change the Soviet Union, reforms are more likely to capsize an existing systems of government than improve it.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Saudi Arabia 
🔊 Listen RSS

The shadowy figures of Kurdish fighters can be just made out on film as they ambush and kill three pro-Turkish fighters in a night time attack in Afrin in northern Syria. The Kurdish enclave was invaded and occupied by the Turkish army and their Syrian armed opposition allies earlier in the year. Sporadic guerrilla warfare has been going on ever since.

This skirmish took place a few days after an attack on a military parade by gunmen a thousand miles away from Afrin in Ahvaz in southwest Iran that killed 25 people. Film shows soldiers and civilians running in panic as they are sprayed with bullets, leaving 25 dead, including 11 conscripts and a four-year-old child. The killings were claimed by both Isis and Arab separatists from the province of Khuzestan whom the Iranians accused of acting as catspaws for the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

These incidents matter because they may be the harbinger of the next round of confrontations, crises and wars engulfing the Middle East. The most recent phase of conflict in the region saw the rise and fall of Isis and failed campaigns to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iraq. But Isis, which three years ago ruled a de facto state with a population of five or six million, has been largely crushed and confined to desert hideouts. President Bashar al-Assad – whose fall was confidently predicted after the uprising in 2011 – is firmly in power, as is the Iraqi government that suffered calamitous defeats at the time of the Isis capture of Mosul in 2014.

But the round of conflicts just ending may soon be replaced by another with different players and different issues. The guerrilla action in Afrin is a single episode in the escalating confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria which will involve the US and Russia. The Middle East is always dangerous because, like the Balkans before 1914, it is full of complex but ferocious conflicts that draw in the great powers. The risk is always there but is more dangerous under President Trump because he and his administration view the Middle East through a paranoid prism in which they everywhere see the hidden hand of Iran. President George W Bush and Tony Blair had similar tunnel vision during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when they blamed everything that went wrong on a remnant of Saddam Hussein supporters.

The exaggeration of “the Iranian threat” by the Trump administration this week at the UN General Assembly in New York was very like what was being said about Iraq fifteen years earlier. The National Security Advisor John Bolton threatened that “the murderous regime and its supporters will face significant consequences if they do not change their behaviour. We are watching, and we will come after you.” The US military intervention in Syria, previously targeting Isis, will in future be directed against Iranian influence.

US policy in Syria and Iraq has been likened to playing chess while mistaking the knight for the bishop and thinking that castles move diagonally. The US has decided to retain a military force in northeast Syria in order to thwart Iranian ambitions, but the country most affected by this is not Iran but Turkey. The US can only stay in this part of Syria in alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose de facto state, which they call Rojava, Turkey is pledged to eliminate.

Turkey has been nibbling its way into northern Syria over the past two years and is now deploying troops in Idlib province in cooperation with the Russians. A shaky alliance with Turkey as a leading Nato military power is one of the biggest Russian gains of its military intervention in Syria which it will go a long way to preserve. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now threatening to extend the Turkey advance east of the Euphrates river in order to slice up the Kurdish statelet.

This would mean the extinction of the last remaining gain of the Syrian uprising of 2011. Rojava was the unexpected creation of the Syrian Kurds and their YPG militia that allied themselves with the US against Isis during the siege of Kurdish city of Kobani in 2014. They provide the ground troops and the US the airpower.

The US-backed Kurds are greatly overextended, holding a swathe of northeast Syria, half of whose population are Arabs hostile to Kurdish rule. It is not a place where American troops can stay forever without becoming somebody’s target. Prolonged US presence invites disaster as with the American ground operations in Lebanon in 1982-84, Somalia in 1992-95 and in Iraq in 2003-11. “There will always be people in the Middle East who think that the best way to get rid of the Americans is to kill some of them,” noted one observer with long experience of region.

Denunciations of Iran as the root of all evil by Trump, Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley are simple minded to the point of idiocy. Haley responded to the Ahvaz massacre by telling the government to “look in the mirror”. Bolton last year promised the exiled Iranian opposition group, the very weird cult-like Mojahedin-e Khalq, that by 2019 they would be ruling Iran. This week he was saying that there would be “hell to pay” if Iran stood in the way of the US.

The blood-curdling rhetoric may be arrogant and puerile but should be taken seriously because it reflects the same attitude of mind that preceded past US interventions in the Middle East: the enemy is demonised and underestimated at the same time. There is credulity towards self-interested exiled groups who claimed that US intervention would be easy (Iraqi opposition groups were privately cynical in 2003 about how far they were misleading the Americans on this score). Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE have an interest in luring the US into fighting Iran, though they are not intending to do much fighting themselves.

The twists and turns of US policy in the Middle East has in the past mystified knowledgeable observers who attribute bizarre actions by the White House to stupidity and ignorance of local conditions. But US policy was often more rational than it looked – so long as one understood that it was determined by American domestic politics and the main purpose was to persuade the US voter, particularly in the run up to important elections, that their president had not mired them in a bloody and unsuccessful war.

The reputation of every US President since the 1970s, with the exception of President George Bush senior, has been damaged to a greater or lesser degree by conflict in the Middle East or North Africa. There is Jimmy Carter (Iran), Ronald Reagan (Lebanon, Irangate), Bill Clinton (Somalia), George W Bush (Iraq, Afghanistan), Barack Obama (Syria, Libya). It would be surprising if Trump turns out to be an exception to the rule.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Iran 
🔊 Listen RSS

A ceasefire seldom gets a good press. If it succeeds in ending violence or defusing a crisis, the media swiftly becomes bored and loses interest. But if the fighting goes on, then those who have called the ceasefire are condemned as heartless hypocrites who either never intended to bring the killing to an end or are culpably failing to do so.

Pundits are predictably sceptical about the agreement reached by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday to head off an imminent offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces directed against rebels in Idlib province. This is the last enclave of the armed opposition in western Syria which has lost its strongholds in Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa over the past two years.

Doubts about the accord are understandable because, if it is implemented, the anti-Assad groups in Idlib will be defanged militarily. They will see a demilitarised zone policed by Russia and Turkey eat into their territory, “radical terrorist groups” removed, and heavy weapons ranging from tanks to mortars withdrawn. The rebels will lose their control of the two main highways crossing Idlib and linking the government held cities of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.

There is a striking note of imperial self-confidence about the document in which all sides in the Syrian civil war are instructed to come to heel. This may not happen quite as intended because it is difficult to see why fighters of al-Qaeda-type groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham should voluntarily give up such military leverage as they still possess. The Syrian government has said that it will comply with the agreement but may calculate that, in the not so long term, it will be able to slice up Idlib bit by bit as it did with other rebel enclaves.

What is most interesting about the agreement is less its details than what it tells us about the balance of forces in Syria, the region and even the world as a whole. Fragile it may be, but then that is true of all treaties which general Charles de Gaulle famously compared to “young girls and roses – they last as long as they last”. Implementation of the Putin-Erdogan agreement may be ragged and its benefits temporary, but it will serve a purpose if a few less Syrians in Idlib are blown apart.

The Syrian civil war long ago ceased to be a struggle fought out by local participants. Syria has become an arena where foreign states confront each other, fight proxy wars and put their strength and influence to the test.The most important international outcome of war so far is that it has enabled Russia to re-establish itself as a great power. Moscow helped Assad secure his rule after the popular uprising in 2011 and later ensured his ultimate victory by direct military intervention in 2015. A senior diplomat from an Arab country recalls that early on in the Syrian war, he asked a US general with a command in the region what was the difference between the crisis in Syria and the one that had just ended with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The general responded with a single word: “Russia.”

It is difficult to remember now, when Russia is being portrayed in the west as an aggressive predatory power threatening everybody, the extent which it was marginalised seven years ago when Nato was carrying out regime change in Libya.

Russia was in reality always stronger than it looked because it remained a nuclear superpower capable of destroying the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 just as it was before. It should be difficult to forget this gigantically important fact, but politicians and commentators continue to blithely recommend isolating Russia and pretend that it can be safely ignored.

The return of Russia as a great power was always inevitable but was accelerated by successful opportunism and crass errors by rival states. Assad in Syria was always stronger than he looked. Even at the nadir of his fortunes in July 2011, the British embassy in Damascus estimated that he had the backing of 30 to 40 per cent of the population according to The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which should be essential reading for anybody interested in Syria. Expert opinion failed to dent the conviction among international statesmen that Assad was bound to go. When the French ambassador Eric Chevallier expressed similar doubts about the imminence of regime change he received a stern rebuke from officials in Paris who told him: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

Such wishful thinking and flight from reality continues to this day. Miscalculations by Washington, Paris and London have provided Putin with ideal political terrain on which to reassert the power of the Russian state. The agreement signed by Russia and Turkey last Monday deciding the future of Idlib province is a token of how far Russia has come out on top in Syria. Putin is able to sign a bilateral agreement with Turkey, the second largest military power in Nato, without any reference to the US or other Nato members.

The accord means that Turkey will increase its military stake in northern Syria, but it can only do so safely under license from Moscow. The priority for Turkey is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish statelet under US protection in Syria and for this it needs Russian cooperation. It was the withdrawal of the Russian air umbrella protecting the Kurdish enclave of Afrin earlier this year that enabled the Turkish army to invade and take it over.

As has happened with North Korea, President Trump’s instincts may be surer than vaunted expertise of the Washington foreign policy establishment and its foreign clones. They have not learned the most important lesson of the US-led intervention wars in Iraq and Syria which is that it is not in western interests to stir the pot in either country. Despite this, they argue for continued US military presence in northeast Syria on the grounds that this will weaken Assad and ensure that any victory he wins will be pyrrhic.

Everything that has happened since 2011 suggests the opposite: by trying to weaken Assad, western powers will force him to become more – not less – reliant on Moscow and Tehran. It ensures that more Syrians will die, be injured or become refugees and gives space for al-Qaeda clones to reemerge.

Russian dominance in the northern tier of the Middle East may be opportunistic but is being reinforced by another process. President Trump may not yet have started any wars, but the uncertainty of US policy means that many countries in the world now look for a reinsurance policy with Russia because they are no longer sure how far they can rely on the US. Putin may not always be able to juggle these different opportunities unexpectedly presented to him, but so far he has had surprising success.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Syria, Turkey 
🔊 Listen RSS

An Iraqi joke says that their country must have the most environmental government in the world since the same political leaders are always recycled, however dismal their past performance and low expectations that they will do any better in future.

The biggest change in the next Iraqi government will be that Haider al-Abadi, appointed prime minister after the Isis victories of 2014, is unlikely to be heading it. He has conceded that he will not last in office after protests engulfed Basra in southern Iraq and led to important religious and political leaders withdrawing their support and calling on him to resign.

Mr Abadi’s fate had been in the balance since he did unexpectedly badly in the general election on 12 May when his coalition came in third. Weakened by the result of the poll, he needed to bring on side those who had done better such the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but he ultimately failed to do so.

Although Mr Abadi will not be the next prime minister, most of the top political players will be the same as those blamed by many Iraqis for misruling the country in the 15 years since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. A quota system dividing senior posts between Shia, Sunni and Kurds combined with the sharing out of ministries between the parties, favours permanent political stalemate and ensures a complete failure to tackle rampant corruption or to provide essential services such as electricity and water.

Mr Abadi had hoped that the defeat of Isis and the recapture of Mosul after a nine-month siege last year would win voters’ backing. The Iraqi armed forces followed up victory at Mosul by retaking Kirkuk along with territory long disputed with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Security in Iraq has much improved since the defeat of Isis and over the last six months it has been the best since 2003. But Iraqis did not see Mr Abadi as the sole architect of military success and the low 45 per cent turn out in the election underlined their disillusionment with the entire political elite. Mr Sadr and his Sairoon group got the most seats by campaigning for progressive economic and social policies, followed by the Fatah alliance led by the paramilitary leader Hadi al-Amiri. Mr Amiri has withdrawn from consideration to become prime minister.

Mr Abadi, strongly supported by the US, might have clung on if he had kept the backing of the Sadrists, but they felt that their support had been taken too much for granted in the past. They wanted Mr Abadi to resign from the ruling Dawa party and endorse their reformist programme. Other politicians whom Mr Abadi needed to conciliate accused him of seldom consulting them and operating through a narrow clique of advisers.

Although the main players in Iraqi politics are much the same, the overall political environment has altered radically. Isis had been advancing on Baghdad when Mr Abadi first became prime minister and people feared massacre and displacement. But the defeat of Isis meant less concern for personal security and heightened resentment against the corruption and incompetence of the government, despite oil revenues that in August alone this year were worth $7.7bn. Mr Abadi could claim credit for defeating Isis, but many Iraqis felt that this was almost his only identifiable achievement.

The protests in Basra, at the heart of the area that produces most of the crude oil, were the most widespread and destructive since the fall of Saddam Hussein. They showed grievances boiling over in the majority Shia community. During this summer, which was hot even by Iraqi standards with temperatures rising to 50C, there was an electricity shortage in southern Iraq so air conditioning did not operate and there was too little drinking water.

The breaking point for many in Basra came when there was not only a lack of water to drink but thousands of those who did drink it became ill with diarrhoea and stomach complaints. There were fears of a cholera epidemic. Salt water was mixing with the fresh water because of broken pipes, reducing the effectiveness of the chlorine in killing bacteria. Hospitals said they had treated 17,500 patients, though this was denied by a government official who, showing a lack of sympathy that enraged people in Basra, said that the figures for those in hospital were much exaggerated and “only 1,500 people have been poisoned”.

Peaceful protests grew violent with 27 people killed as government and party offices, with the exception of Sairoon, were set ablaze as well as the Iranian consulate. Mr Abadi went to Basra but could not get a grip on the crisis. This was a final blow to his hopes of remaining prime minister. Mr Sadr withdrew his support and called on him to resign. The vastly influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a statement saying that the next prime minister should be a new one.

The parties will eventually choose a new prime minister and a national unity government, in which all the big players will get a share of the political cake, but it is unlikely to be any more effective than Mr Abadi’s outgoing administration.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Kurds 
🔊 Listen RSS

Before his election as president it was understandable that Donald Trump’s critics should have vastly underestimated his ability as a politician. It is much less excusable – and self-destructive to effective opposition to Trump – that they should go on underestimating him almost two years after his victory.

Every week there are more revelations showing the Trump administration to be chaotic, incompetent and corrupt. The latest are the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times in which one of his own senior officials’ claims to be working against him and Bob Woodward’s book portraying the White House as a sort of human zoo.

The media gleefully reports these bombshells in the hope that they will finally sink, or at least inflict serious damage, on the Good Ship Trump. This has been the pattern since he announced his presidential candidacy, but it never happens. Political commentators, overwhelmingly anti-Trump, express bafflement at his survival but, such is their loathing and contempt for him that they do not see that they are dealing with an exceptionally skilled politician.

His abilities may be instinctive or drawn from his vast experience as a showman on television. Priority goes to dominating the news agenda regardless of whether the publicity is good or bad. Day after day, hostile news outlets like The New York Times and CNN lead on stories about Trump to the exclusion of all else.

The media does not do this unless they know their customers want it: Trump is an American obsession, even greater than Brexit in Britain. A friend of mine recently met a group of American folk singers touring the south coast of Ireland who told him that they had often pledged to each other that they would get through the day without mentioning Trump, but so far they had failed to do so.

This tactic of dominating the news by deliberately headline-grabbing behaviour, regardless of the criticism it provokes, is not new but is much more difficult to carry out than it looks. Boris Johnson is currently trying to pull the same trick with outrageous references to “suicide vests” but his over-heated rhetoric feels contrived. MP David Lammy’s jibe about Johnson as “a pound-shop Donald Trump” is apt.

Trump is never boring: it is a simple point and central to his success but is seldom given sufficient weight. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s supporters complained that Trump got excessive amounts of free television time, while her speeches were ignored or were given inadequate attention.

The reason was not any pro-Trump bias – quite the contrary given the political sympathies of most people in the media – but because her speeches were boring and his were not. He has the well-developed knack of always saying something the media cannot leave alone.

An example of this is his tweeted retort this week to a claim by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon that he could “beat” Trump in a presidential election and is tough and smarter than him. This silly boast was not much of a news story, until Trump’s tweeted: “The problem with banker Jamie Dimon running for president is that he doesn’t have the aptitude or ‘smarts’ and is a poor public speaker and nervous mess – otherwise he is wonderful.” Not many politicians or journalists could put so much punching power into a single sentence.

Trump is regarded with a peculiar mixture of fear and underestimation by opponents across the board from the Democratic Party leaders to the EU heads of state. They believe – rightly – that Trump is a monster and hope – wrongly – that this means he will one day implode. This would be deeply convenient for them all because, until this happens, they do not have to act themselves. Trump will hopefully pass away like a bad dream. There is no need for the EU leaders or prominent Democrats to devise and explain policies that would divide them.

Sometimes this policy of sitting on your hands and doing nothing until your opponents make a mistake is the correct one. But it carries the grave risk of creating a vacuum of information that will be filled by your enemies. During the presidential election it was easy to deride Trump’s vague promises to bring factory jobs back to the US, but he did not have to say much about this because Hillary usually said nothing at all.

Trump is at war with the institutions of the US government. This is unsurprising: US presidents have invariably been frustrated by the sense that they reign but do not rule. A convincing explanation for the fall of Richard Nixon is that different branches of the bureaucracy used Watergate to frustrate his grab for power and get rid of him.

They may yet succeed in Trump’s case. Many Americans want to witness a sequel to Watergate with Trump in the starring role. But this is almost impossible to do without control of Congress and the ganging-up of bureaucrats against an elected president will not be palatable to a lot of voters.

The anonymous senior White House official of the New York Times op-ed says that he is part of a group within the administration pledged to thwart “Mr Trump’s more misguided impulses”. This is the latest emergence of “adults in the room” who are going to prevent the US government abandoning policies essential to its existence.

The problem is that these “adults” are promoting policies that are often just as dangerous as anything Trump has in mind, if not more so. For instance, Trump has periodically said that the US ought to pull its 2,000 troops, which are backed by the US Air Force, out of northeast Syria. This would be a sensible move to negotiate because the US has a weak hand in Syria and could not determine the course of events without a full scale war.

Trump is not “an isolationist” in the classic sense, but his instinct is to avoid wars or situations that might lead to one. Talking to Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin may not produce anything very substantial, but it does make war less, rather than more, likely. Yet, such is the bitterness of divisions in the US, that liberal commentators were furiously denouncing Trump as a traitor for meeting either man in terms that Senator McCarthy would have recognised 70 years ago.

It is easy to sympathise with their rage. Trump is the worst thing to happen to the US since the Civil War, but miscalculating his strengths and weaknesses is not the way to deal with him. His near miraculous ability to survive repeated scandals reminds me of what the diplomat, politician and writer Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote about Charlie Haughey, the Irish political leader, who was notorious for surviving against the odds in similar challenging circumstances. “If I saw Mr Haughey buried at midnight at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart,” wrote O’Brien, “I should continue to wear a clove of garlic around my neck, just in case.”

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump 
🔊 Listen RSS

The current protests in Iraq are the most serious seen in the country for years, and are taking place at the heart of some of the world’s largest oilfields. The Iraqi government headquarters in Basra was set ablaze, as were the offices of those parties and militias blamed by local people for their wretched living conditions. Protesters have blockaded and closed down Iraq’s main sea port at Umm Qasr, through which it imports most of its grain and other supplies. Mortar shells have been fired into the Green Zone in Baghdad for the first time in years. At least 10 people have been shot dead by security forces over the last four days in a failed effort to quell the unrest.

If these demonstrations had been happening in 2011 during the Arab Spring then they would be topping the news agenda around the world. As it is, the protests have so far received very limited coverage in international media, which is focusing on what might happen in the future in Idlib, Syria, rather than on events happening now in Iraq.

Iraq has once again fallen off the media map at the very moment when it is being engulfed by a crisis that could destabilise the whole country. The disinterest of foreign governments and news outlets has ominous parallels with their comatose posture five years ago when they ignored the advance of Isis before it captured Mosul. President Obama even dismissed, in words he came to regret, Isis as resembling a junior basketball team playing out of their league.

The causes of the protests are self-evident: Iraq is ruled by a kleptomaniac political class that operates the Iraqi state apparatus as a looting machine. Other countries are corrupt, notably those rich in oil or other natural resources, and the politically well connected become hugely wealthy. However big the rake-off, something is usually built at the end of the day.

In Iraq it does not happen that way, and among the angriest victims of 15 years of wholesale theft are the two million inhabitants of Basra. Once glorified as the Venice of the Gulf, its canals have turned into open sewers and its water supplies are so polluted as to be actually poisonous.

Protests erupted earlier this year because of the lack of electricity, water, jobs and every other government service. The injustice was all the more flagrant because the oil companies around Basra are exporting more crude than ever before. In August this totalled four million barrels a day, earning the government in Baghdad some $7.7bn over the course of the month.

Few things epitomise the failure of the Iraqi state so starkly as the fact that, despite its vast oil wealth, Basra is now threatened by a cholera outbreak, according to local health officials. Basra hospitals have already treated 17,500 people for chronic diarrhoea and stomach ailments over the past two weeks, after they became ill from drinking polluted water. Salt water is mixing with fresh water, making it brackish and reducing the effectiveness of the chlorine that would otherwise kill the bacteria. There is plenty of bacteria around because the water system has not been updated for 30 years and sewage from broken pipes is mixing with drinking water.

Iraqi governments are not much good at coping with crises like these at the best of times, and this one strikes at a particularly bad moment because the two main political blocs are failing to form a new government in the aftermath of the parliamentary election on 12 May. The new parliament met for the first time this week, failed to elect a speaker and decided to take 10 days off, but is now to meet in emergency session on Saturday to discuss the crisis in Basra.

But even if a new government is formed under the current prime minister Haider al-Abadi, or some other figure, it may not make much difference. The party that unexpectedly polled best in the election was the one following the nationalist populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which was allied to the small Iraqi Communist Party, thereby emphasising its secular, non-sectarian and progressive policies. On the other hand, critics claim that in the past government Sadrist ministers have been just as corrupt as those of the other parties. The problem is not just individual corruption but the political mechanism as a whole: ministries are shared out between the parties which then use them as cash cows and sources of patronage jobs. Mudher Salih, a financial adviser to Abadi, explained to me in Baghdad earlier this year how this works, adding that “unless the political system is changed it is impossible to fight corruption”.

This system of jobs for the boys, regardless of personal merit or professional qualifications, has damaging consequences for ordinary Iraqis. Many of those who have climbed onto the gravy train over the past 15 years would not know how to improve matters even if they wanted to. One former governor of Basra is reported to have handed back a large part of its budget because he said he could not think of anything on which to spend the money.

Why is this happening now? The Iraqi government, backed by the US, Iran and many other allies, won its greatest victory last year when it recaptured Mosul from Isis after a nine month siege. Paradoxically, this success meant many Iraqis were no longer preoccupied by the threat posed by Isis to themselves and their families. They focused instead on the ramshackle state of their country – the lack of roads, bridges, hospitals and schools, as well as the shortage of electricity and water, in a place where summer temperatures reach 50C.

Many Iraqis say they favour radical or even revolutionary change but the status quo will be difficult to uproot, however unsatisfactory it may be. It is not only the elite who plug into the oil revenues. Some 4.5 million Iraqis get salaries from the state and they – and not just crooked billionaires – have an incentive in keeping things as they are, however toxic.

Iraq will most likely continue to be misruled by a weak dysfunctional government, thereby opening the door to various dangers. Isis is down but not entirely out: it could rally its forces, perhaps in a different guise, and escalate attacks. Divisions within the Shiah community are growing deeper and more rancorous as the Sadrists – whose offices, unlike those of the other parties, have not been burned by demonstrators – grow in influence.

A festering political crisis will not be confined to Iraq. The outside world should have learned this lesson from the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. Rival Iraqi parties always seek foreign sponsors whose interests they serve as well as their own. The country is already one of the arenas of the escalating US-Iran confrontation. As with the threat of a cholera epidemic in Basra, Iraqi crises tend to spread swiftly and infect the whole region.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr