Rouhani stretching “moderate image” thin

Iranian president Rouhani has enjoyed his “moderate” image for an extended amount of time. This aura endowed him with tremendous credit. Much of it due to the “echo chamber”  pushed by the Obama administration, leading up to the nuclear deal. No doubt, this portrayed image contributed significantly to the consensus in going forward with the nuclear deal.

Many journalists have followed the line loyally, writing up articles and papers terming Rouhani the “moderate” and the “reformer”. See for instance USA Today article stating “moderate Rouhani wins major victory“, or CBS calling him  “a moderate cleric” or CNN describing “Rouhani, a moderate, who played a victory for the moderates“.

There were some profilers who mistrusted the “moderate” image of Rouhani, raising factual contradictions, among them the fact that Rouhani has always served as a loyal servant of Iran’s Islamic revolution dedicated to the preservation of its repressive theocratic regime, is the founder of Iran’s nuclear program and actively functions in the defense of Iran’s illicit nuclear and ballistic pursuits. One example of such a profile of Rouhani can be seen in the paper entitled Hassan Rouhani: Ideology and policies.

Rouhani tries his utmost to preserve his moderate image, reaping the public opinion privileges and political leverage entailed, regardless of his achievements and actions.  In his most recent UN General Assembly address, he stated: “moderation is the inclination as well as the chosen path of the great Iranian people”, hinting that he is the answer to their aspiration. Some in the press picked up on this ploy, like the article in the New York Post titled Iran prez’s laughable pose as lover of peace.

The problem is that even Rouhani himself challenges his own moderate image. Iran News Update, in a piece titled Rouhani speaks at missile unveiling further undermining his moderate image, brings attention to some Rouhani sentences like “we will promote our defensive and military power as much as we deem necessary. We seek no one’s permission to defend our land”. The piece justifies “widespread criticism of Western leaders’ efforts to characterize Rouhani as a relative moderate within the Iranian regime”. Reuters in its report notes that Rouhani, when undisguised, snubs the US and the international community by stating Iran will strengthen its missile capability.

It would seem that the double talk and double game Rouhani is playing has been stretched very thin, perhaps too thin. The seams are fraying.

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Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Another Iranian-backed terror cell in Bahrain

As reported in various news agencies, Bahrain recently announced that they busted a terror cell, which has clear links to Tehran. This is not the first time that a terror cell linked to Iran is uncovered in Bahrain.

According to the statement released by the Bahraini interior ministry, Bahrain uncovered a terror cell consisting of at least 10 people, seven of which have been arrested. It was also reported that 127 kilos of high-grade explosives, chemicals, automatic weapons, grenades, detonators and additional ammunition were seized. The terror unit was led by Hussein Ali Ahmed Dawood, who is believed to have found sanctuary in Iran. He is alleged to be the leader of the Ashtar Brigade, the terrorist wing of the Al Wafa Islamic movement, which claimed previous terrorist activity and bombings in Bahrain. According to the release, Dawood has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in three terrorism-related cases, in addition to a sentence of 15 years imprisonment in relations to another case, and he has clear links with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Already in March of this year it was reported that Bahrain arrested a terror cell linked to the IRGC, Hezbollah and Iraq Brigades. That cell plotted to assassinate senior government and community figures. According to a separate report by al-Arabiya, women played a role in these Iran-backed Bahrain terror groups.

There are a few lessons to be learnt here:

  • Tehran is still active in the terror cell operating business, and even in countries in its “back yard”.
  • Even after they are uncovered, Tehran is not ashamed to give safe sanctuary to these terror operatives.
  • Due to this long-term subversive activity in Bahrain, it is not surprising that Bahrain was one of the first to join the Saudi axis in the Gulf-Qatar crisis.
  • While women are scrutinized and even blocked from sports and being teachers (if they suffer infertility or facial hair, for instance), they are cleared for being terrorists.

But most important of all, the use of terror cells, just as the use of proxy military organizations such as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, exemplifies Tehran’s aspirations to “export the revolution” to other countries through non-state proxies.

 

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Tehran’s selective terrorism

Iran is an active partner in the fight against ISIS, and as a result boasts that it is a “champion against terrorism”. But, observing its record on the sponsoring of terrorism reveals that they do not have a problem with terrorists, they have a problem with terrorists who are not on their side.

The July 2017 state department country reports on terrorism 2016 defines Iran as “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2016, as groups supported by Iran maintained their capability to threaten US interests and allies. The Iranian IRGC – Quds force – along with Iranian partners, allies and proxies, continued to play a destabilizing role in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen” (pg. 12 and pg. 304). The report names the terror agents on behalf of Iran, among them the Hezbollah, Iranian affiliated Shia militia forces, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, cyberterrorism and even extended support to al-Qaida operatives.

Tehran’s selective definition of terrorism is also evident in their own words, like the distinction they make between ISIS and the Taliban. As reported in Tasnim news agency, a senior advisor to Foreign Minister Zarif, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, differentiated between ISIS and the Taliban, claiming that the Taliban is an “Afghan group totally different from Daesh”. His message was clear – while ISIS is a terrorist group, the Taliban are just militants fighting a cause. They may be different organizations with different ambitions, but for the victims of the Taliban, there is no difference.

Only recently Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats over a terror cell, convicting 21 people of belonging to a terror cell that had been formed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The recent boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and affiliates was due to Qatar’s support of terrorism and “deep ties with Iran”.

In the final analysis, Tehran isn’t hiding its support for terrorist organizations, it conveniently defines them as non-terroristic. Problem solved according to Tehran. Except that the problem isn’t solved: Many of these organizations are designated by the West as terrorist organizations and as proxies of Tehran. All these countries should therefore recognize Tehran for its support of terrorism. It should be that simple.

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Tehran, King of the Meddle East

It would seem that Tehran’s audacity has gone up a notch. If in the past Iran hid its support of terror organizations and its meddling in the region with slogans like “advisory function only”, currently it has no problem openly bragging about these roles.

In Iran News Update, both the commander of IRGC Quds force, Qassem Suleimani, and president Rouhani, are quoted acknowledging Iran’s meddling in Iraq and Syria, and their support of Hezbollah. The Iranian PressTV also reported the words of Syrian Defense Minister praising Iran and the Hezbollah for their contribution to the military success.

On Iraq and Syria, Suleimani is quoted claiming the following: “the IRGC’s sole Sukho fighter jet squadron was placed at Iraq’s disposal instantly. Thousands of tons of weapons were given to them by [Iran]..Iran’s defense ministry was making weapons for Iraq round the clock and sending them..The Lebanese Hezbollah played a major role in the victories of Iraq and Syria..I kiss the hands of Hassan Nassrallah”.

Rouhani is quoted stating: “We supported the people of Iraq and Syria…who provides the salary and weapons of these people? All the weapons Iraq needed. It is the same about Syria. The government’s economic branch is providing the money…a major effort was carried out [during my first term]”. Rouhani also took pride in the mass production of arms during his term in office.

Brigadier General of the IRGC, Hossein Salami, also commenting on these issues, bragged the use of Hezbollah and the transformation of Iran into a regional power with global influence including in the Eastern Mediterranean. They describe their open support for Hezbollah, despite the fact that the Hezbollah is recognized as a terrorist organization. They seem to have the lost the need for concealment.

Something is cultivating this “swaggering attitude”. Perhaps it is to be connected to the victories over ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the perceived weakness of the US in this context. As reported in Fars news, they see a zero sum game here – the liberation of territories = the failure of the US. Despite the fact that the US is involved in some of the fighting, they still see any grab of territory from the hands of ISIS as an Iranian alliance victory. No doubt the Russian involvement has also endowed them with confidence and a feeling of legitimacy.

While in the past Tehran claimed “advisory roles” only, denying support of radical groups, and playing the Rouhani moderate peace-seeking line, the West was over-eager to buy in to this sweet talk. When Tehran feels that it is released from its limitations and can now admit its actions openly, the Western former “advocates and believers” are exposed naked.

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Tehran’s Duality on Terrorism & Democracy

With the recent twin terror attacks in Iran, hitting at the parliament and the mausoleum, Iran revealed a new rhetoric on terrorism, which is reserved only for them.

When President Trump condemned the twin attacks, extended condolences yet suggested that Iran shares some of the blame for the terror attacks, by stating “those who sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote”, Iran responded with a vengeance.  Foreign Minister Zarif in a tweet rejected the notion entirely while terming Trumps’ words “repugnant”. As reported in firstpost, Zarif continued to give his own explanation for the attack rationalizing that the attackers targeted the “seat of democracy”.

For decades the Iranian regime has preached that Europe and the Western world are to blame for the terrorist attacks perpetrated against them. Even in the face of the most recent London attack, the supreme leader related to the events claiming that Europe has brought the Islamic state terrorism on itself through its intervention in the Middle East. In his tweet (June 5) he stated “this is the inferno they set up and has now backfired on them”. Why is it legitimate to analyze thus in the European context, yet repugnant in the Iranian context?

Furthermore, to interpret the attacks in Iran as targeting “the seat of democracy”, is bordering on delusional science fiction. Iran is a Democtatorship. It is a country which holds presidential elections but which allows a non-elected body to disqualify candidates in advance if they do not represent the values of the Islamic Revolution. It is a country which has publicly elected officials in government and in parliament but they are subordinate to the unelected regime, and specially the unelected Supreme Leader and his military backing, the IRGC. It is a country in which opposition leaders who tried to bring about change are under house arrest without trial. Whether Zarif likes it or not, Iran is a ruled by a theocracy, a “deep state” of power that is unelected but chosen by the regime itself.

To twist things even further, the supreme leader recently dismissed any chance of reconciliation with the US due to the fact that the US is the cause of instability in the ME and founded upon terror and cruelty – never mind the fact that the West and most Arab states claim that it is Tehran which is the cause of instability in the Middle East now.

 

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Zarif’s hypocrisy soars to new heights

Let’s face it – Iranian FM Zarif is a serial liar and a hypocrite way beyond the expected demagoguery of a slick politician. His easy demeanor and his charming smile are the perfect cover-up for an endless stream of lies over the past 4 years which include:

  • The nature of the regime: “a government which follows its people, not the other way around” – while it is obvious that Tehran’s government begins and ends with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is not elected by the peopleof Iran.
  • Freedom of speech in Iran: “we do not jail people for their opinions” – the hundreds of political prisoners (activists, journalists, lawyers, oppositionists, minorities etc…)  in Iranian jails or graves are living (dead) proof that Zarif is lying.
  • The holocaust cartoon contest: “it’s an NGO that is not controlled by the Iranian government” – Zarif knows full well that in Iran, the regime controls every cultural aspect and has repeatedly shut down concerts or exhibitions which did not suit its agenda…if the regime did not support the contest, it would not exist.
  • Meddling: “for us, peace and non-interference in domestic affairs of other countries, their national sovereignty…are important” – Tehran is currently meddling in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, to name a few.
  • Military involvement in Syria: “Syria’s fate should be determined at the polls and not by weapons” and “Iran has no troops in Syria, but only advisor[s]. We do not have troops involved in fighting there” – but meanwhile, Tehran sent in tens of thousands of Hezbollah, Shiite militants and the IRGC soldiers to fight for Assad.
  • Military support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen: the accusations (that Tehran is supporting the Houthis militarily), according to Zarif are “completely baseless” – how does he explain the numerous intercepted Iranian arms shipments and the admissions of Iranian support by Houthi leaders themselves?
  • The Parchin ” nuclear clean-up”: “we said that the activities in that site are related to road construction” – the satellite pictures leave no room for doubt that there was a huge clean-up at Parchin which was probably used to test nuclear detonators.

And now, the latest addition to Zarif’s string of lies: “I do not see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”. Really? Let’s rewind to September 13th, to an article written by Zarif entitled ” Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism”, one of the most viciously anti-Saudi Arabia article ever written which exemplifies the regime’s attitude towards Saudi Arabia. The title of the article is anti-Saud to begin with since Wahabbism is a central theme to Saudi Arabia just as the Shiite Revolution is to Iran. But Zarif is not content to talk only about Wahabbism. In this article Zarif calls the Saudi rulers “callous and capricious rulers unfit to rule the sacred lands”, they hold “petty, malicious, and sectarian extremist” policies which “beget, foster, and spread terrorism”, they owe their allegiance to “serving their imperialist and Zionist patrons” and are responsible for “the most pernicious and abominable acts of atrocity in the history of nations and to infest them with extreme levels of hatred”. All of these vilifying statements appeared in only one article…other barbs by Zarif towards Saudi Arabia are easy to find – just google “Zarif Saudi Arabia”.

But Zarif’s lies are not only dependent on his own views. Zarif knows all too well that nothing in Iran happens without the consent of Khamenei. It is Khamenei who sets the tone and draws the red lines. He will decide whether policies between Iran and Saudi Arabia are hostile or not. So, what does Khamenei think of Saudi Arabia? Here are a few “gems”: The rulers of Saudi Arabia are “disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the US”, are “small and puny Satans who tremble for fear of jeopardizing the interests of the Great Satan (the United States)”, are “blasphemous and faithless”, are “heartless and murderous”, “unwise”, “backstabbers”, responsible for “continuous infanticide” and “genocide” etc…Does khamenei also think that there aren’t “any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other”? Definitely not.

And this is only rhetoric. We haven’t even reached the actual points of conflict.

How about the fact that Tehran and Riyadh are already fighting each other in two proxy wars? In Syria, where Tehran openly supports Assad while Riyadh covertly supports Syrian rebels and in Yemen, where Riyadh openly supports the Yemenite government while Tehran covertly supports the Houthi rebels. Yes, up until now, there are no cases in which Iranian troops are fighting Saudi troops but both sides prefer it this way knowing full well that an open frontal war will be devastating to both sides and could lead the world to a third world war.

And what about the endless meddling of Tehran in Saudi Arabia in the other Gulf states? Tehran openly and covertly supports local Shiite factions and militants in the Gulf states in efforts to overthrow the Sunni governments – this strategy is at the base of Tehran’s efforts to “Export the Revolution”. Whenever such local militants such Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia or Isa Qassim in Bahrain are busted for subversion, spying or terrorism, Tehran makes it a point to blast these countries for not adhering to human rights (a classic “pot calling the kettle black” situation). Bahrain is a particular sore point for both sides since Tehran continues to treat Bahrain as its “14th province” openly inciting the Shiite majority to overthrow the legitimate rulers. The Gulf States have united in denouncing Iran as an interference in internal affairs

And then there’s Hezbollah…Khamenei praised Hezbollah as “shining like the sun and are a source of honor for the Muslim world” with very good reason. In its efforts to “Export the Revolution”, Hezbollah plays a key role since it is not formally part of Iran and therefore can act as Iran’s proxy in numerous conflicts which Tehran wants to keep officially away from. Tehran has now added Shiite militias manned by Shiite extremists from the region to become another proxy military force in its conflicts. Riyadh, on the other hand, has succeeded in getting the support of the Arab League to denounce Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

But the animosity that Tehran holds for Riyadh is not limited to battle-fields. Just last week, Tehran tried to convince Kurdistan to oust the Saudi consul since it wasn’t sure to Tehran “what the Saudi Consulate is doing in Kurdistan?”. The response from the Kurds was to deem the call from Tehran an “irresponsible interference” and the Saudi consulate will remain.

The list of verbal, diplomatic and military attacks by Iran and its proxies on Saudi Arabia and its proxies goes on and on and is beyond the scope of this article. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has always been simmering under the Sunni-Shiite divide but has boiled over due to the wars in Syria and in Yemen and due to the nuclear deal which has visibly strengthened Tehran’s diplomatic and military power in the region. In this context, Zarif’s claim that he does not “see any reason Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies toward each other” means that he is a liar or psycho-schematically blind. Such statements should be thrown in to the large bucket of calls by Iran to unite Islam to confront the West when, in fact, Tehran really wants to unite Shiite Islam and “Export the Revolution” to other Muslim countries.

If Tehran really wishes to have a good relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, it should understand one simple guide-line; “practice what you preach”. You should not call Saudi Arabia “baby killers” for the casualties in Yemen if you are “killing babies” in Syria. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of not giving local Shiites their rights to stand up to the government while Sunnis are being oppressed in Iran. You should not blame Saudi Arabia of meddling and interfering while being the biggest meddler in the region. You should not accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism while you support terrorist organizations. You should not criticize Saudi Arabia for verbally slamming you while you issue such vile rhetoric at the Saudi rulers. You should not claim that Saudi Arabia is increasing the Muslim divide while you are constantly trying to export your Shiite Revolution to other Muslim countries.

 

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Who’s winning in the Middle East?

Looking at what is going on in the Middle East, it is becoming harder and harder to differentiate between the leaders who are pulling the strings and those whose strings are being pulled. Some might say that it doesn’t matter since the end result is the same and others might claim that there is a symbiotic relationship between the players and the played in which the roles are fluidly changing all the time.

The players in the region can be lumped into 6 distinct groups:

  • The active superpowers: countries who view the countries in the region as bases for proxy wars in their never-ending power struggles against each other – namely Russia and the USA.
  • The regional enemies: countries in the region which are leading “alliances” of other countries in the region – namely Iran and Saudi Arabia.
  • The regional followers: countries who are following the lead of the regional enemies – these include Lebanon, Iraq and Syria supporting Iran and the Gulf/Arab states supporting Saudi Arabia.
  • The war zones: countries in the region which are ravaged by regional, civil and/or proxy wars – namely, Syria, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.
  • The leading fence-sitters: countries who are looking to increase their influence in the region mainly for economic purposes – namely China and the EU.
  • The opportunistic supporters: countries in the world willing to ally themselves to the regional enemies for economic, political, sectarian and/or religious purposes – Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, Argentina, Cuba etc…

Let’s start with the active superpowers. It’s quite obvious that that Moscow has the upper hand over the US in the region for now: the retreat from Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran, both led by President Obama, have antagonized regional allies and have definitely weakened Washington’s influence in the region while Moscow, under President Putin, on the other hand, has definitely stepped up its game to fill the vacuum. But this balance of power will soon lose its stability as President-elect Trump will take office. While Obama focused his efforts on changing the status quo of allies in the Middle East by forging the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will most probably try to return to the US’s historical allies, Saudi Arabia. But for now at least, the balance of power is definitely in Moscow’s court.

As to the regional enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s quite obvious that, much like its big brother ally, Moscow, Tehran has the upper hand for now. With a nuclear deal which brought Iran out of its pariah status, with new found friends and allies, with trade delegations flying into Tehran to cash in on its market and with Bashar al-Assad on his way to winning the “civil” war in Syria, Tehran is definitely on a roll. Sure, nothing is perfect: Tehran has antagonized many, if not most, of the Arab countries, is watching on the sidelines as the Houthi rebels in Yemen are being crushed and worst of all, is still suffering from a weak economy. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, lost the warm support of the US, watched as the Syrian rebels it supported were defeated, is suffering from an all-time low in its economy and seems threatened by the possibility that Iran might one day build a nuclear bomb which will be aimed at Riyadh.

But the regional enemies would probably not be so adamant to fight out their fight in the war zones were it not for the regional followers which support them. In the case of Iran, Lebanon is a satellite state while Iraq and Syria are on their way to becoming satellite states as well. These are states which are content to follow in order to maintain strategic alliances. They might send a few troops to a war zone but they are mostly there for moral, economic and political support. Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric would fall flat were it not for the support of the Arab League and the express support of many other Arab countries but these supporters are not yet ready to place their own soldiers in danger yet.

The war zones, specifically, Israel, Syria and Yemen, are where the conflicts surface beyond diplomatic tiffs or hate-filled and hate-inducing rhetoric. These are the areas where the agendas of the active superpowers and the regional enemies clash and explode and where people suffer the most: soldiers and civilians get hurt and killed, civilians live in fear or become refugees and life, on the whole, is on pause for most of the civilians. The leaders in these zones are playing for the visions they have of the countries that they lead and for their own political lives. In all three zones, foreign intervention from the active superpowers and the regional enemies is a basic part of the wars: Iran, for example, supports the Assad in Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The US, on the other hand, support the rebels in Syria, Israel and the Yemenite government. It’s all a big game in which civilians are used as collateral and winning is much more important than peace.

The fence-sitters embody the biggest question marks in the outcome of the conflicts in the region. China and the EU, for example, are trying to maintain alliances with Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Russia and with the US. They don’t want to take sides because taking a side might mean a lost opportunity. They want to profit from the situation. The EU will be selling passenger planes to Iran while China will supply Tehran with fighter jets. Money is the main impetus here and there is always a lot of money to be made from conflicts. For now, they are content to watch the active superpowers and the regional enemies fight it out without taking any side 100%. Oh sure, they feel bad about the victims of the war zones but not bad enough to really do something about it. But the fence-sitters are extremely important due to the potential of their loyalty – imagine if China were to openly ally itself with Iran – but it is exactly this potential which makes them more powerful. The active superpowers and the regional enemies are doing all they can to woo the fence-sitters to their sides but for now, the fence-sitters are doing what they do best: sit on the fence and gain power. For now, they are neither winning nor losing the game and retain their power by simply playing both sides.

And finally, there are the opportunistic supporters. Some are close by such as Turkey or India but some are much further away such as in Latin America. These countries are in the game for one of two reasons: making money or weakening a mutual enemy. Most of these supporters are not really interested in the conflicts in the war zones nor are they seriously worried about the outcome of these wars. They might have been lumped in with the regional followers or the leading fence-sitters but their level of involvement is so varied that it would not do justice to the other groups. They might choose one side or they might choose not to choose. They win if the regional enemy or the active superpower that they are supporting wins. Simple.

So here’s the score for now:

  • Active superpowers: Russia beats US with a wide margin but everyone is waiting for Trump.
  • The regional enemies: Iran beats Saudi Arabia with a wide margin but the game certainly isn’t over yet.
  • The regional followers: One would think that the regional followers of Iran are winning but since two out of three are ravaged by war, winning doesn’t have too many benefits.
  • The war zones: The government forces in Syria and in Yemen seem to be winning while Israel still has the upper hand.
  • The leading fence-sitters and the opportunistic supporters: All countries which are making money or increasing their powers are winning regardless of the outcomes in the war-zones.

And then, there are the ultimate losers – the victims in the war zones and the citizens of the regional rivals whose economies are being extinguished by the costs of war. They are the ultimate pawns for the game played by the active superpowers and the regional enemies. They cannot win unless one side gives up and they can only hope that their side will win.

 

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The nuclear deal and the fall of Aleppo

When the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the West looked worriedly on but did basically nothing. Oh yes, President Barak Obama did force Bashar al-Assad to desist from using chemical weapons but, on the whole, the war zones were empty of any Western influence. Assad warned the Western powers to stay out of the war while rolling out the red carpet for Tehran to take over the dirty business of a war which had ceased to be an internal “civil” war and now included Tehran’s own agenda in the area, namely supporting Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, in an effort to Export the Islamic Revolution to Syria. Tehran was only too happy to pour in Hezbollah, IRGC and Shiite militant troops while joining Assad’s warning to the West to stay clear of the region. For three years, the war trudged on with no clear winners and many losers.

In 2014, ISIS began its rampage, claiming to set up an Islamic state which would span from Syria to Iraq and inadvertently, the issue of the West’s support to ISIS in its infancy became the perfect cover-up: Tehran and Assad were killing terrorists who were backed by the Western powers and their proxies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Every horrifying act of terrorism by ISIS only strengthened this narrative even though the West had stopped supporting ISIS long before it began its rampage in 2014. But Assad and Tehran weren’t only fighting ISIS – in fact, most of the war efforts were focused on eliminating any form of opposition against Assad. These efforts took a heavy toll on the Syrian civilian population and led to a massive wave of Syrians fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe but the West still remained politely out of the war.

Meanwhile, the West was trying to clinch the nuclear deal which would, supposedly, keep Iran’s nuclear program in check. But the issue of the nuclear program seemed secondary to most of the EU representatives who eagerly awaited the cash in on the huge potential of the soon-to-be-opened Iranian economy. As the negotiations on the nuclear deal dragged on, the situation in Syria became worst for all sides and still, the West kept its distance, this time out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal. So while suited diplomats from all over the world haggled over the percentages of Uranium enrichment in fancy board rooms in Europe, Syrian men, women and children kept on suffering and getting killed.

The nuclear deal was finally signed in June 2015 and within four months, the red carpet was once again rolled out by Assad (and Tehran) to Moscow, Tehran’s newest and most powerful ally. Russian planes began bombing Syrian rebels while claiming, as before, that it was there for one reason and one reason only: eradicating terrorists. Moscow’s entry to the war was the beginning of the end for the Syrian rebels. It wasn’t only the issue of the Russian air force, it was the fact that such a superpower openly entered the war while the Western powers maintained their distance, demoralizing the Syrian rebels. All this was done while Assad, Tehran and Moscow continued to hypocritically warn the West to stay out of Syria.

Since day one, Tehran has claimed that the only solution to the war in Syria would be a political one and not a military one while at the same time, Tehran and Moscow have invested in the war in Syria tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and the millions of refugees. This glaring discrepancy was once again ignored under the grand goal of eradicating terrorists and the West, once again, sat on the sidelines. As pictures, videos and information regarding the dire situation of the Syrian population leaked out to the world, the pressure on the West to take a stand increased but, once again, nothing. The danger of an escalation which might lead the West to fight against Russia was left the West frozen in indecision.

And then, the siege on Aleppo began and suddenly, the inaction of the West became more unbearable. Most of the troops involved in the siege of Aleppo were not even Assad’s: they were Shiite militants and Hezbollah troops which Tehran had organized. The city was split into two distinct areas: the Western part was pro-Assad while the Eastern part was anti-Assad. As the noose around the rebels tightened, the Russian planes kept on bombing. The war of conflicting narratives sounded like two distinctive echo chambers: One narrative spoke about “liberating Aleppo from the terrorists” while the other narrative spoke about “conquering Aleppo by Tehran and Moscow”. As the siege on Aleppo became more critical, the accusations from the West increased but apart from words, the West didn’t do a thing for fear of “rocking the boat” and being accused of supporting terrorists.

And then, Aleppo fell, or was “liberated”, depending on your point of view and this time, the war of words reached a much higher level. The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, slammed Tehran and Moscow for having “no shame” in fighting Assad’s war and victimizing millions of Syrians in the process while the Russian ambassador to the UN pointed out that the US wasn’t “Mother Theresa” and was far from being a neutral “player” in the war. What he should have done is tell Power that Moscow and Tehran are not alone in having no shame and that the US should take responsibility over the fact that it shamelessly abandoned the Syrian people to a fate in the hands of Moscow and Tehran. History might not forgive the Iranians and the Russians for what they did in Syria but it won’t forgive the West either for what it didn’t do there either or as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

 

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Aleppo is liberated / Aleppo has fallen

The city of Aleppo has been liberated or has fallen, depending on whose side you are on. It’s a victory against terrorist or a massacre inflicted on innocent civilians. It is the triumph of the legitimate leader of Syria (together with his Iranian and Russian allies) for the benefit of the Syrian people or the triumph of illegitimate leader of Syria (together with the foreign meddling of Iran and Russia) for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad’s government. Aleppo is open to interpretation since the narratives surrounding it are bipolar in nature: Each side is claiming that it is in the right and the other side is in the wrong. These two separate “echo chambers” create a situation in which two separate and totally different realities seem to be occurring at once.

Whatever the case may be, the city is totally ruined as can be seen from this video the civilians of Aleppo have paid the price: It is they who were wounded or killed, who starved, who are forced to move to another city. Sometimes, the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” is spot on. Looking at this picture taken last week in Aleppo following the ceasefire is just such a picture: the victors in the truck could be liberators or they could be terrorists but the civilians trudging their way out of Aleppo certainly don’t look like terrorists and the destruction of Aleppo is clear to all. It might be worth your while to keep this picture in mind as you read this article. You might also want to view this video taken by citizen of Aleppo from his window over the past few years…It’s easy to notice that the rebels don’t look like the hardened terrorists which Assad, Tehran and Moscow are claiming they are.

The fact that even according to Syrian sources, most of the fighting in Aleppo was done by Russian jets and Iranian-backed Shiite militants is one that says a lot about the conflict itself. As such, the battle of Aleppo is as far from a civil war as it could be: This wasn’t a battle between warring Syrian factions but a battle between the foreign supporters of Assad against the Syrian rebels who have lost their own foreign support for a long time.

Meanwhile, Tehran is jubilant over the “freeing”/”liberation”/”victory” of Aleppo: while the Iranian media is ecstatic Rouhani has congratulated Assad claiming that “the victory in Aleppo… constitutes a great victory for the Syrian people against terrorists and those who support them” to which Assad thankfully responded that Iran had stood “on the side of the Syrian people and government in its most difficult moments, and we will never forget it”.  Some Iranians have taken the fall of Aleppo to mean much more: “The liberation of Aleppo indicates the defeat of the political and military power of the (global) arrogance (the US)”.

Both leaders are sharing their versions of the truth and are denying any questions regarding the legitimacy of Assad’s government who has not held a true democratic election since he became president in 2000 and who imprisoned activists who called for democratic elections in 2001 and in 2011.  Nor is either leader questioning the illegitimacy of the “terrorists” who were beaten in Aleppo, Syrian rebels who challenged Assad’s rule since 2011 by calling for the release of political prisoners and demanding democratic reform. No, it is much easier to portray all rebels as terrorists and Assad as the legitimate leader of Syria because in this manner, there is no need for acknowledging the fact that Assad’s government doesn’t really have the backing of the Syrian people. Tehran isn’t helping the Syrian people, as it might like to portray itself, it is helping Assad.

Some voices in Iran are more cautious regarding the jubilation surrounding the liberation of Aleppo and Tehran’s involvement in Syria in general: “the killing of 300 thousand people and the displacement of 12 million others in Syria will only lead to hatred and violence” towards Tehran and the celebrations over the “liberation” of Aleppo are only “two nights’ joy” compared to the worries Tehran will have for the “next 30 years”.

What is certain is that Tehran seems to have successfully exported its revolution to Syria with tens thousands of Iranian troops, Shiite militias and Hezbollah forces fighting in Syria under the direct supervision of Qassem Suleiman, the chief of Tehran’s Qods forces in coordination with Moscow. And much more important than this, the Syrian civil war, together with the nuclear deal, has led to the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow which has redefined the balance of power in the Middle East.

For now, the US and Russia are content to fight each other on the issue of Aleppo in the confines of the UN: The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power asked if the “axis of resistance” had “any shame” on the suffering that their actions have cost while the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, quipped back that she certainly wasn’t “Mother Theresa“. The US, nor any other supporter of the Syrian rebels, is not willing to turn Aleppo into a Sarajevo, the city which ignited World War 1 and the fleeing people of Aleppo will have to accept the fact that they are totally alone against the axis of resistance.

For now, the Syrian “rebels” and the Syrian civilians who happen to live on the “wrong side” of Aleppo are trying to restart their lives elsewhere but they are definitely still in danger. Thousands are still waiting for a safe passage and every day, there are new cases in which Shiite militants are murdering Syrian “rebels” before they can get out. The videos of Syrian civilians calling out for help form Aleppo have spread all over the world but no help can be expected in a country which has allowed only foreign influences who are backing Assad but which isn’t allowing any foreign influence which might be construed as being against Assad.  The graffiti written by the fleeing Syrians on the ruined cityscape say it all: “Good by”,  “we shall return one day” and “Under each destroyed building is a family buried with their dream. They were finished by Bashar Al Assad”. For the estimated 50,000 Syrians still waiting to flee the oncoming forces of the axis of resistance, the next few days will be crucial and will literally become a matter of life or death following a “complete meltdown in humanity“.

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