Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

They Said It:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.
Many are strong and rich, and would be just,
But live among their suffering fellow-men
As if none felt: they know not what they do.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Prometheus Unbound,” 1818-1819.



Nearly thirteen years ago, while George W. Bush was running for reelection against John “I-swear-we-destroyed-all-of-Assad’s-chemical-weapons” Kerry, we penned one of our least accurate forecasts of all time.  Figuring that Bush would interpret reelection as a sign that his “war on terror” was deemed by voters to be unpopular but necessary, we predicted that the leader of the free world would try to live up to the title and would take the war to the terror masters.  In a piece titled “Bush Unbound,” we put it this way:

No one seems to have figured out that the reason this particular election is so terribly important is that if George W. is reelected the “war against terror” will get very much hotter, very much faster than it will if John Kerry wins.  Some liberal doves seem to sense this when they say they are frightened by the prospects of a second Bush term.  But for the most part, these statements seem to be nothing more than political hyperbole, rather than reflections of specific concerns brought on by thought.. . .

Those who believe that Kerry and Bush are on the same page when it comes to determining how to deal with militant Islam are, we believe, wrongly assuming that Bush has been chastened by his experience in Iraq and will, as a result, act more cautiously in the future.  We think those who believe this are either badly misreading George Bush or are simply engaging in wishful thinking. . . .

We believe there is a strong likelihood that the Iraqi war has not rendered preemption dead, but has in fact made it much more likely.  In fact, we simply cannot imagine that President Bush will spend his second term sitting on his hands watching as Iran and North Korea build nuclear weapons. And we cannot help but assume that if he finds that he cannot prevent these two states from becoming nuclear powers with non-military measures, then he will, to paraphrase his own words, militarily “confront the threats before they fully materialize.”

Nor can we imagine that Bush will sit back and watch quietly as Iran aggressively supports the insurgency in Iraq, thus threatening what is certainly the most important foreign policy initiative of his first term and what is likely to be the historical centerpiece of his entire presidency.  We think that a better bet is that he will move and move hard against Iran following his reelection.

Needless to say, we were wrong.  And in retrospect, it’s too bad, really.  Back then, Iran was a dangerous, but weak and economically depressed paper tiger.  Today, Iran is still dangerous and economically depressed, but is not nearly as weak as it was then.  Additionally, Tehran now has the benefit of the billions of dollars that the Obama administration provided it in exchange for . . . well . . . who knows what.  Those billions can be and are being spent on weapons, training, operations, etc.  Whatever the case, the Iranian mullahs saw what happened to Saddam and Gaddafi – neither of whom had a successful nuclear weapons program – and decided that wouldn’t happen to them.  So, the Iranians have spent the last thirteen years working on their insurance policy – Obama’s nonsensical “legacy” notwithstanding.

Why should you or anyone care?  Well, as you know, last Thursday, the President of the United States decided, belatedly, to enforce the “red line” drawn in the tainted Syrian sand.  In the summer of 2013, Barack Obama told the Assad regime that it could kill as many of its own people as it wanted, as long as it did so using conventional means.  Using chemical weapons, however, was prohibited and would draw an American military rebuke.  Last week, Donald Trump delivered that rebuke.

We’re certain that you’ve seen, heard, and read countless analyses of the Trump attack on Syria, which means that you are, by now, aware that it was either a terrible miscalculation; a tremendous victory for human rights; a prelude to a war his voters neither wanted nor will stand for; a reassertion of American global responsibility, squandered under Obama; an unnecessary provocation of the Russian bear; a wag-the-dog, desperation ploy to bump up the President’s flagging poll numbers; or any of a thousand other possible turn of events.  And to be fair, it may indeed be any or many of those things.  But that’s not all it is.  It is also, a flash in the pan, which is to say that it was a small, deliberately narrow attack that will be all but forgotten in a week’s time, unless the Trumpers follow-up intelligently and appropriately.

The 64 million dollar question, obviously, is “what would constitute intelligent and appropriate follow-up?”  And the answer to that question is, even more obviously, a bit complicated.

What we can say, right off the bat, is that neither last week’s military action nor the follow-up to it has anything whatsoever to do with Syria.  For all intents and purposes, Syria no longer exists.  Yes, the wicked and vile Assad regime is still, technically, the sovereign over an internationally recognized state.  But that is a mere technicality.  At present, the country-formerly-known-as-Syria is nothing more than a vast battleground, the setting in which hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of lunatics are attempting not just to kill one another, but to establish, once and for all, the legitimate form of Islam and a state in which it can thrive.

Now, if you think it’s unfair for us to call the people fighting in Syria “lunatics,” allow us to clarify.  There are, we’ll concede, some non-lunatics involved.  The 20-plus million refugees from the war and the Kurds are the most obvious non-lunatics.  In the case of the refugees, they are predominantly innocent people who just want to go home and live in peace.  Likewise, all that the Kurds want is to go their own way and live in peace and prosperity.  They have been trying to do so for decades, of course, but have been thwarted by the likes of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Bashar Assad and his even-more-loathsome father, and Kamal Ataturk and his successors.  The Kurds are a people without a home, reviled and oppressed in four countries.  It is no coincidence, we should note, that the only truly successful region of post-war Iraq is the autonomous region of Kurdistan.  Similarly, the only truly effective Iraqi warriors in the fight against are the Kurdish Peshmerga.  The Kurds want out of the traditional Middle Eastern sectarian mutual-suicide pact, and they see the civil war as their best chance yet.

The Russians and the Chinese are also not lunatics, but we’ll get to them in a bit.

For now, though, let’s talk about the lunatics.  If you have nothing else to do someday, you should feel free to browse through the archives on our web site.  If you do, you will find – among countless other “themes” –a number of stories detailing the millenarian nature of contemporary radical Islam.  Radical Islamists, of both the Shiite and Sunni persuasions, are obsessively concerned with the “end times” and with the role that they will play in bringing about the last “grand battle” for the soul of Islam and control of the earth.  We’ll spare you any more long quotes from our own past work, and note, simply, that we are hardly the only observers to have noted this about the Muslim radicals.  Indeed, the radicals themselves openly embrace and promote their chiliastic beliefs.

Back in November, 2013, a few short months after Barack Obama drew his infamous “red line” and then refused to enforce it, Robert Spencer, a controversial but learned scholar of Islam, penned a piece for David Horowitz’s Front Page magazine.  In it, he described the nature of the regime in Tehran and the fire with which Obama was playing, both in terms of Syria and the nuclear weapons negotiations with the mullahs.  He put it this way:

According to Islamic tradition, the dispute between the majority Sunnis and the Shiat Ali (Party of Ali) began upon the death of Muhammad in 632.  The Sunnis contended that the prophet of Islam had made no provision for a successor as political, military, and spiritual leader of the Muslim community, and that therefore the Muslims should choose the best man among them as their leader.  The nascent Party of Ali, on the contrary, claimed that Muhammad had designated his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, and that the successor of Muhammad had to be a member of the prophet’s household.

What’s more, far from being a mere functionary, this successor would bear some of Muhammad’s prophetic spirit, as well as infallibility in deciding disputed questions.  Ali was finally chosen as the fourth caliph in 656, but in 661 was assassinated.  Hassan, his eldest son (and successor, as far as the Shi’ites are concerned), was murdered in 670 on the orders of the Sunni caliph Muawiya.  Then the Sunni/Shi’ite split became definitive and permanent when Ali’s younger son, Husayn, was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680.

The Shi’ites were, thus, founded in loss and defeat, and these became the ongoing distinguishing features of Shi’ite history and piety.  After the beheading of Husayn, the Shi’ites continued a succession of Imams, members of Muhammad’s household and his prophetic heirs.  Each one in turn, over two centuries, was poisoned on orders of the Sunni caliph.  According to the traditions of Twelver Shi’ism, the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the twelfth of these Imams, a boy of five years old, disappeared under mysterious and disputed circumstances in the year 874 – but remained alive.  After his disappearance, he communicated to the world through four agents, the last of whom died in 941.  At that point the Twelfth Imam went silent, entering the period of “Great Occultation.”

In his last communiqué to the world, via one of these messengers in 941, this mysterious figure consoled his followers with prophecies regarding his eventual reappearance . . . .

The Shi’ites began to teach that the Twelfth Imam would return at a time when the Muslims were oppressed as never before, and suffering worse than ever.  The Imam, in the company of Jesus (re-imagined, as in Sunni Islam, as a Muslim prophet), would finally end the horrific persecution of the true believers, taking up arms against their enemies and conquering and Islamizing the world.

Almost two years later (and almost exactly two years ago), Graeme Wood, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, penned a long and much acclaimed piece for his magazine detailing the ideology of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS.  “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” Wood write, “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”  He continued:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic.  Very Islamic.  Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe.  But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.  Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do.  But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. . . .

For certain true believers — the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles — visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need.  Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State — and the world — might look.  Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine.  But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda.  These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo.  It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains.  It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp.  The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam. . . .

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. . . .

After its battle in Dabiq . . . the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul.  Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus.  An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem.  Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus — the second-most-revered prophet in Islam — will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

Given all of this, it should come as a surprise to exactly NO ONE that the war in Syria is not your average, run-of-the-mill civil war.  It is something else altogether; something bigger, something badder, and something far more complicated.  Note here that Bashar Assad is nothing but a figure-head, the ostensible leader of Syria, but, in truth, he is a puppet of the Iranian mullahs – the very same mullahs we expected George W. Bush to dispatch after his reelection.  They control him; they pull the levers of the state; and they are waging war against the Sunni insurgents, including and especially the Islamic State.  In 2014, Mariam Karouney, a Middle East correspondent for Reuters, explained that Syria has particular significance, both for the Mullahs and for the Sunni radicals.  They all believe that this is IT, that this is the time and the place, as foretold by antiquity.

Conflict in Syria kills hundreds of thousands of people and spreads unrest across the Middle East.  Iranian forces battle anti-Shi’ite fighters in Damascus, and the region braces for an ultimate showdown.

If the scenario sounds familiar to an anxious world watching Syria’s devastating civil war, it resonates even more with Sunni and Shi’ite fighters on the frontlines – who believe it was all foretold in 7th Century prophecies.

From the first outbreak of the crisis in the southern city of Deraa to apocalyptic forecasts of a Middle East soaked in blood, many combatants on both sides of the conflict say its path was set 1,400 years ago in the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and his followers.

Among those many thousands of sayings, or hadith, are accounts which refer to the confrontation of two huge Islamic armies in Syria, a great battle near Damascus, and intervention from the north and west of the country. . . .

“If you think all these mujahideen came from across the world to fight Assad, you’re mistaken,” said a Sunni Muslim jihadi who uses the name Abu Omar and fights in one of the many anti-Assad Islamist brigades in Aleppo.

“They are all here as promised by the Prophet.  This is the war he promised – it is the Grand Battle,” he told Reuters, using a word which can also be translated as slaughter.

What this means is that if Trump intervenes in Syria, no matter what he does or how successfully he does it, he will be aiding one faction of lunatics, one sect of mentally unstable millenarian fanatics who see this shitty, little conflict in this shitty little land as the most important thing that has happened in over a thousand years.  That’s the very definition of a “no win” situation.

Last week, after the bombing had begun, our old friend Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, penned a short piece warning that broader intervention in Syria would be a tragic mistake, “because Iranian- and Russian-backed Shi’ite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis . . .”  And while we agree that this is an appealing strategy, we’re not sure that it’s a long-term solution.  The problem is that this isn’t just about Iran, the Gulf States, and Turkey.  It isn’t even just about those combatants plus Russia.  Because they see it as the holy war to end all holy wars, jihadis from all around the world have flocked to Syria, threatening a far larger, possibly global conflagration.  Yesterday, David P. Goldman – a.k.a. “Spengler” – clarified the global nature of the battle today:

It isn’t Iran that we would be fighting: It’s an international mercenary army that already includes thousands of fighters recruited from the 3 million Hazara Afghans now seeking refuge in Iran, from the persecuted Pakistani Shi’ites who comprise a fifth of that country’s huge population, and elsewhere.  As I reported recently in Asia Times:

The IRGC’s foreign legions include volunteers from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Shi’ites are an oppressed minority often subject to violent repression by the Sunni majority. IRGC-controlled forces include the Fatemiyoun Militia recruited mainly from Shi’ite Hazara refugees from Afghanistan, with reported manpower of perhaps 12,000 to 14,000 fighters, of whom 3,000 to 4,000 are now in Syria.  Iranians also command the Zeinabiyoun militia composed of Pakistani Shi’ites, with perhaps 1,500 fighters in Syria.

The manpower pool from which these fighters are drawn is virtually bottomless.  The war has already displaced half of Syria’s 22 million people, and Iran plans to replace Sunnis with Shi’ite immigrants in order to change the demographic balance.  The Sunnis side of the conflict has become globalized with fighters from the Russian Caucasus, China’s Xinjiang Province, as well as Southeast Asia.

The US State Department last year estimated that 40,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries were in Syria; Russia cited a figure of 30,000.  Whatever the number is today, it would not be difficult to add a zero to it.

Unfortunately, that’s only the half of it.  He continues:

Russia and China . . . blame the US for opening the Pandora’s Box of Sunni radicalism by destroying the Iraqi State and supporting majority (that is, Shi’ite) rule in Iraq . . .

A seventh of Russia’s population is Muslim, and 90% of them are Sunnis. China has a restive Muslim population among the Uyghurs in its far West, and all of them are Sunnis.  Moscow and Beijing therefore support Shi’ite terrorists as a counterweight to Sunni jihadists. . . .

Christina Lin, a former senior US Defense Department analyst and fellow at SAIS (and frequent Asia Times contributor), told The Diplomat in an interview today:

As a recent Israeli intelligence report documented, there are thousands of Chinese Uyghurs fighting in the ranks of al-Qaeda affiliates and ISIS in Syria, namely in the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) based in Idlib — an al-Qaeda stronghold.  The August 30, 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in  Krgyzstan, planned by TIP in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, signals increasing threats to Chinese citizens and interests overseas if Syria becomes a terrorist safe haven . . . Beijing will likely step up its military support to the Syrian army.  Chinese military advisers are already on the ground in Syria, according to media reports.

Like we said, this is complicated.  Attacking the Syrian regime is, quite simply, a non-starter.  It would accomplish nothing and would serve only to make the rest of the world extremely unhappy with us.  Doing nothing sounds appealing and might actually work, but only for a while.  The Obama administration’s dealings with the Iranian mullahs have made sitting pat impossible.  The Iranians are now flush with American-provided cash and are still working their way toward nuclear weapons.  Of course, the closer the Iranians get to joining the nuclear club and the more aggressive they get in Syria, the likelier it becomes that the Sunni powers in the regions will compensate and engage in a mad scramble to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.  It is worth remembering in this context that the only existing “Islamic Bomb” belongs to the Sunni government of Pakistan.  And while the drop in oil prices may have reduced the Saudis’ stash of crisp American dollars, they still have enough money to buy almost anything they want, including, perhaps Pakistani weaponry or know-how.

The obvious answer would seem, at least on the surface, to get to work undermining the Iranian regime.  “Regime change” in Tehran has always been key to progress in the Middle East, which is precisely why we thought that Bush would have the sense to undertake the task way back when.  He didn’t, of course, and now someone else has to deal with the repercussions.  The problem here is that any effort to destabilize the Mullahs would have to bear fruit quickly and would have to be pretty opaque so as to preclude awkward Russian and Chinese reactions.  With all due respect to the folks in our intelligence community, we’re not entirely sure that they’re up to the task of moving against the mullahs, while maintaining a low-profile, AND while carrying out their personal vendetta against the president whose covert and possibly illicit plans they’d be implementing.

So, where’s that leave us?  Sadly, it leaves us with something completely out of Left field.  As some of you may recall, in our foreign policy forecast piece this year, our final prediction, our “Out-of-Left-Field-Prediction,” we suggested that it was not outside the realm of possibility that “Trump and Putin will cement their working friendship by dividing up the Islamist world.  Trump and the United States will take – and be given – responsibility for reigning in the Shiite Islamists, while Putin and Russia will be given a free hand to deal the Sunnis as they see fit.”  In his piece yesterday, Goldman suggested something similar (but with the specifics reversed).  This is it, as far as we can tell.  This is the only possible solution at present to a very ugly and very sticky situation.  To do anything less would be to risk possible global war.  To do nothing at all would be to risk possible global war.  To do anything more – rashly or ham-handedly – would be to risk possible global war.

Like most observers, we think that President Trump was right to act against Syria last week, not because we think that the provocation was any more heinous than previous incitement, but because he had both the opportunity and the motive to show the world that he is not Barack Obama and that America will not sit idly by while its destiny is forged by others.  It is no coincidence, of course, that the attacks took place while Trump dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Jinping was one of two men who constituted Trump’s target audience.  Public pronouncements about pictures of children on TV, Trump and his military advisers acted when they did in order to deliver a message.

Whether that message will be well received is unknown.  Likewise, whether Trump has the cunning and patience to carry out the next step of this necessary plan is also unknown.  He’s long billed himself as the world’s greatest negotiator.  Now is the time for him to put his ample money where his even more ample mouth is.

Know this, though:  any actions undertaken by this administration that stray too far from the path outlined above should be seen as negative.  Obviously, we’ll have to cut him a little slack here and there, given our lack of knowledge regarding tactical realities.  Still, any significant variance from the broader plan will serve as evidence of strategic miscalculation.  Given the situation he inherited from each of the last two presidents, Trump’s window for success in the Middle East is agonizingly narrow.

Godspeed, Mr. President.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.