Foreign Correspondent

Murder of Saudi journalist builds opposition to Yemen war

The Arab Spring spread through Saudi Arabia and continued for years in the mostly Shia Muslim, eastern part of the country. When the current Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman came to power, he escalated the war in Yemen and cracked down on dissent at home. Photo by Reese Erlich

The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has backfired on the Saudi royal family by focusing new attention on its vicious war on Yemen.

The last few weeks have seen startling new reports on civilian atrocities and growing support for a House of Representative resolution invoking the War Powers Act to stop the war. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-San Jose) now has 73 cosponsors for a resolution that would stop US participation in the Yemen slaughter.

The Arab Spring spread through Saudi Arabia and continued for years in the mostly Shia Muslim, eastern part of the country. When the current Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman came to power, he escalated the war in Yemen and cracked down on dissent at home.
Photo by Reese Erlich

The Khashoggi murder has fundamentally shifted opinions on Capitol Hill about US-Saudi relations, Rep. Khanna told me in a phone interview. He likened it to one partner in a marriage having an affair.

“The marriage may last but it will never be the same,” he said. “It’s opened people’s eyes.”

Murder expressly in the Orient

On October 2, the Saudi regime, headed by Mohammad bin Salman, murdered opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Saudi officials had a premeditated plan to kill Khashoggi, dress a Saudi operative in his clothes and then have him walk around the city to leave the impression he was still alive.

In reality, Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered with a bone saw, according to Turkish government sources. While tens of thousands of Yemenis have died as a result of the Saudi invasion of Yemen, it took the death of one man to focus world attention on Saudi atrocities.

Partially in response to the Khashoggi scandal, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called for all sides in the Yemen War to begin UN-sponsored peace talks within 30 days. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that the Houthi movement, which is fighting Saudi Arabia, begin the ceasefire first. Past United States calls for ceasefires and peace talks went nowhere because the Trump administration is determined not to disrupt relations with Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration provides intelligence to the Saudi military fighting in Yemen and helps refuel its fighter jets. The United States currently has dozens of soldiers deployed in Yemen, ostensibly to combat terrorism. Earlier this year the New York Timesrevealed that about a dozen Green Beret commandos were stationed in Saudi Arabia along the Yemen border to train the Saudi military in interdicting Houthi missile attacks.

As I’ve reported previously, the Trump administration could end the war within days. US technicians fuel and maintain Saudi fighter planes manufactured by Boeing. Trump could order the technicians to stop work, as provided in the Boeing contract.

“If the United States stopped fueling the planes, the war would end,” noted Khanna.

Who’s fighting and why?

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) invaded Yemen in 2015 claiming to support the legitimate government of Yemen’s Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In reality, Hadi was installed by the United States after an Arab Spring uprising and today acts as a Saudi puppet. He lives in Saudi Arabia, not Yemen.

The Houthis, a conservative political Islamic movement, control the northern part of Yemen. Iran supports but does not control the Houthis. The Houthis havekilled civilians by firing artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities and launching rockets into southern Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

But the Saudi/UAE coalition is responsible for far more death and destruction. In an online interview from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, radio reporter It’s Ali Alshahari told me coalition planes have destroyed massive amounts of infrastructure and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. The two occupying powers have blocked access to the country’s ports, which stops even humanitarian aid such as food and medicine.

“The people here are suffering from malnutrition due to the imposed blockade,” Shahari said. “This is a catastrophe.”

The United States, UK and France provide the deadly munitions responsible for civilian deaths. Lockheed-Martin sold the guided missiles to Saudi Arabia that caused the deaths of 40 children and 11 adults in the infamous August attack on a school bus.

Most of the mainstream media say some 10,000 Yemenis have died in the war, but that figure comes from a two-year-old UN estimate. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project(ACLED), a research institution funded in part by the US State Department, indicates that from 2016 to the present, some 56,000 Yemeni civilians and combatants have died. The total since the beginning of the war will likely be 70-80,000, according to a ACLED spokesperson.

A new report by the World Peace Foundation shows that the Royal Saudi Air Force intentionally attacks food storage facilities. Report author and Tufts Professor Martha Mundy explained, “There is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanaa.”

Bump from Trump

Obama and now Trump have supported the Yemen occupation to defend US so-called national interests, part of the larger fight against Iran. The United States accuses Iran of seeking to militarily dominate the region from Lebanon, through Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.

My — how the kettle calls the pot black. The United States has dominated the Middle East in the post-World-War II era and seeks to maintain its power in an alliance with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. It has massive military bases in Bahrain and Qatar

The US Navy keeps the sea lanes open for US and allied oil corporations. And, by sheer coincidence, oil and munitions companies make billions of dollars in profits.

Funny how “national interests” are of great interest to the rich but not to the nation.

The Saudis had predicted a quick victory in Yemen but are now bogged down in a never-ending war that costs at least $5-6 billion a month. Fallout from the Khashoggi murder has made the war even more problematic.

Neither Obama nor Trump ever formally declared war in Yemen, and the fighting there has nothing to do with combating terrorism. Even the Republican-dominated House in November 2017 voted by a whopping 366-30 margin to stop United States participation in the Yemen war. In March a similar measure failed in the Senate by a vote of only 55-44.

If the Democrats win the House, and particularly the Senate, they could put tremendous pressure on Trump to reverse his disastrous Mideast policies.

Rep. Khanna emphasized that his War Powers Act measure has significance beyond the Yemen war. “The bill is a reassertion of Congress’s role in foreign policy,” he said. “It’s a reorientation of US policy away from interventionism.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in The Progressive. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

What the Khashoggi case tells us about terrorism

A dissident Saudi journalist was murdered in Istanbul, famous for its Blue Mosque. Photo by Reese Erlich

ISTANBUL — In 2013, an Iranian national living in Texas was sentenced to 25 years in prison for planning to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, D.C. The State Department alleged that Iran’s Al Quds force masterminded the terrorist plot. Although the bombing never took place and Iran denied any connection with the conspiracy, 92 US senators signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to “crush Iran’s central bank” in retaliation.

A dissident Saudi journalist was murdered in Istanbul, famous for its Blue Mosque. Photo by Reese Erlich

On October 2 of this year, according to Turkish intelligence sources, Saudi authorities murdered dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its consulate here in Istanbul, Turkey. Many Turks are convinced that the reported torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi was an act of terror aimed at intimidating Saudis from organizing opposition to the regime. Yet on this occasion, no high-level US official labelled it a terrorist plot. No senator has called for crushing the Saudi central bank.

Hmmmm. Once again, US leaders label violence carried out by enemies as terrorism. The same violence carried out by allies is ignored or downplayed.

Death in Istanbul

Khashoggi, a permanent US resident writing a Washington Postcolumn, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never left. At first, Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, denied any foul play. But they later floated a story about how Khashoggi may have been killed in an interrogation gone terribly awry, and Trump offered up unsubstantiated speculation that he was killed by a “rogue agent.”

But that version doesn’t hold up either. Before the murder, Saudi leaders sent a 15-man hit squad to Istanbul that included several of the crown prince’s top security officers and an autopsy expert carrying a bone saw. Turkish media reported that audio recordings show Khashoggi was horribly tortured, murdered, and then dismembered.

It’s likely the assassination was ordered by the highest level Saudi leaders, including the crown prince. Saudi royals have regularly used terror to intimidate enemies. In 2013, I reported on their repression of mostly Shia Saudis in the eastern region of Qatif.

But both Democratic and Republican presidents largely ignore such brutal repression. They built a close alliance based on what are deemed to be US national interests—in reality, vast profits for US oil companies and weapons manufacturers, and support for US geopolitical policy in the region.

Saudis back terrorism

The Saudi leadership supported terrorist groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, for example, and funded Chechen terrorist attacksin Russia in the 2000s. I’ve reported on how Saudi Arabia providedmoney and arms to the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, something Hillary Clinton also admitted, as revealed in a leaked memo.

While ignoring Saudi support for terrorism, the Trump Administration is happy to pegIran as the world’s “most prominent state sponsor of terrorism.”

“We will defeat radical Islamist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, expand our agile counterterrorism toolkit to prevent future terrorist threats, deter emerging threats, roll back Iran’s global terrorist network, and ensure our country’s continued safety,” Trump has said.

The Trump Administration falsely links Shiite Iran with Sunni-based terrorist groups. In fact, Iran fought ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, and is no more linked to ISIS than Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Iran has been just as much a victim of terrorism as a perpetrator.

Iran as victim of terrorism

Last month, twenty-nine Iranian soldiers and civilians were killed in the southwestern city of Ahvaz when men dressed in Revolutionary Guard uniforms opened fire on crowded parade ground bleachers. The Iranian government blamed ISIS for the attack and fired missiles into an ISIS controlled area of Iraq.

In 2017 ISIS attacked the Iranian parliament and the Imam Khomeini shrine in Tehran, killing twelve and wounding forty. Once again, ISIS was held responsible.

Undoubtedly, Iran has used terrorist tactics to advance its religious and geopolitical goals. Just this month, Belgian and French police arrested an Iranian diplomat and civilian couple for plotting to bomb a Mujahideen-e-Khalq event in Paris. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq is a right-wing cult opposed to Tehran. The invited guests at the event included Trump advisor Rudy Giuliani and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Iranian authorities strongly deny any Iranian involvement in the bomb plot. A trial has not yet been scheduled.

Iran does support groups that have used terrorist tactics, including the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Many in the Middle East, however, view these groups as national liberation organizations fighting Israel. They see them as distinct from Al Qaeda and ISIS, which intentionally kill civilians as part of their strategy to ethnically cleanse the region and establish a dictatorial Islamic caliphate.

I don’t think anyone’s hands are clean when it comes to supporting terrorism. But on balance, Saudi Arabia has done more to promote terrorism than Iran. And don’t even get me started on US support for mujahideen in Afghanistan, contras in Nicaragua or terrorist groups in today’s Syria. But for that, you’ll have to await a future column.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears twice monthly in 48Hills. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policyis now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Assassination of Philippine leader 35 years ago holds lessons for today

Ninoy Aquino is idolized as an apostle of nonviolence in the Phillippines

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Filipinos remember a disaster that hit their country 35 years ago.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Philippine leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The leading crusader against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was brutally murdered after he stepped off a plane in the Manila airport August 21, 1983.

His murder set in motion the People’s Power Revolution of 1986, which brought his wife Cory Aquino to power. Their son Benigno Aquino III served as elected president from 2010-16.

Ninoy Aquino is idolized as an apostle of nonviolence in the Phillippines

In the years since his death, Ninoy has become almost a saint in the Philippines, an apostle of spirituality and non violence.

But in a never before published 1981 interview I did with him in Boston, Ninoy emerges as a far more complex character. While professing non-violence, he admitted ties with a group that bombed tourism hotels in Manila. While professing to be a man of the people, he revealed himself as a coldly vindictive and profane politician. Aquino’s legacy continues to impact contemporary Philippine politics as seen in the election of right-wing authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte.

Marcos Years

Ferdinand Marcos was elected Philippine president in 1965 but imposed martial law in 1972 and ruled as a brutal dictator for 14 more years. The United States backed Marcos almost to the very end. US corporations had major investments in the Philippines, and the Pentagon maintained two important military bases there as well. As always, US military and corporate interests were more important than democracy or human rights.

Ninoy and Cory Aquino both came from wealthy and powerful families who had fallen out with Marcos. Ninoy was arrested in 1972 for opposing the dictatorship and spent over seven years in prison. In 1980 Marcos allowed him to travel to Houston for heart surgery.

Then Aquino landed a fellowship at Harvard University where he met with many Filipino exiles and students. He told me of an incident that revealed Aquino wasn’t the saint his supporters would later claim. A business administration student refused to meet with Ninoy, saying Marcos might see it as black mark on his parents.

“Fuck you,” he said to the student, still seething as he recalled the incident months later. “What about your black mark with me? What if I come to power? I have all your names and I will remember you.”

“I stared out the window,” Aquino told me, “and for the first time at Harvard, I cried.”

“Ninoy was an old-school politician, but he couldn’t abide by the injustice and impunity of the Marcos regime,” Rene Ciria-Cruz told me in a recent interview. Ciria-Cruz was a Marxist and anti-dictatorship activist in the 1980s, who is now U.S. bureau chief for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In 1983 Aquino returned to Manila with a plane full of supporters and journalists. Ninoy was shot as he walked onto the tarmac. Marcos’s military officers were later convictedof planning the assassination.

“I met him before he went on his fateful trip home,” continued Ciria-Cruz. “He had fantasized about flying his plane, filled with bombs, into the presidential palace. We thought it was just macho posturing. But it also became clear that he was approaching his fight not as a personal rivalry with Marcos but with a real concern for the country.”

Leftist Opposition Movements

Aquino was interested in talking with me because just months before our interview, I had interviewed members of the New People’s Army, which was led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The communists had become a growing political force because of their staunch opposition to Marcos. The CPP carried out a Maoist strategy of people’s war in which the peasants in the countryside would surround the major cities and bring down the regime. The NPA aimed its armed actions against politicians, businessmen, the military and police, although civilians were inevitably killed.

The Aquinos, on the other hand, were social democrats who called for nonviolent struggle to restore democratic institutions and reform the crony capitalism of the Marcos regime. Unable to participate in elections, however, the soc dems — as abbreviation happy Filipino activists called them — turned to armed struggle as well.

Clandestine groups known as the Light a Fire Movement and the April 6 Liberation Movement set off bombs in hotels to discourage tourism and hurt Marcos’ economy. They intended only to destroy property, but one U.S. tourist was killed and 33 other civilians were wounded.

The Marcos administration accused Aquino of leading the Light a Fire Movement, which Ninoy publicly denied. In December 1980, Imelda Marcos, the president’s politically powerful wife, met with Aquino in New York. In my interview Aquino let slip his support for the terrorist tactics.

Referring to the bombings, Aquino told me Imelda Marcos was “candid enough to admit that we have caused damage to tourism and foreign investments.” I asked him who was the “we.”

“All the opposition groups I suppose,” he replied rather lamely, knowing that his allies were bombing the hotels. He had let the cat out of the bag. Aquino went on to admit that he had the ability to stop the bombings if the Marcos regime made concessions.

Anti-Marcos activist Ciria-Cruz said Aquino was connected with Light a Fire, “but he was most likely not the leader who determined and knew all the details.”

Several Light a Fire leaders later became prominent officials in the Cory Aquino administration.

Aquino Legacy

The soc dem effort at armed struggle failed militarily, with some of the leaders getting caught smuggling arms through the Manila airport. But after Ninoy’s assassination Cory Aquino took the reins of the anti-Marcos opposition. By February 1986 mass demonstrations and a rebellion in the military forced Marco to flee to the US and brought Cory to power.

She carried out many of Ninoy’s policies, according to Ciria-Cruz. “Cory’s publicly declared goal was to reestablish liberal democracy and its institutions, to be merely a transition government, and that was it.” She didn’t fight to eliminate poverty or develop an independent foreign policy.

“I think Ninoy would have done the same thing,” Ciria-Cruz continued. “I didn’t detect any predisposition for groundbreaking social reforms from both of them. Other traditional politicians disenfranchised and marginalized by Marcos became resentful of the US, if not openly nationalistic, which led to the willingness of some politicians to remove the US bases after Marcos was ousted.”

Nino’s son Benigno Aquino III carried out many of the same centrist policies and did little to fight poverty, establish full rights for workers or implement land reform. Corruption remained rampant.

Right Wing Back in Power

In 2016 right wing populist Rodrigo Duterte took advantage of popular discontent with the centrists. Like Trump, he talked tough about helping ordinary people by cracking down on drugs and corruption.

Duterte arrested over 50,000 peopleon minor offenses such as public intoxication or using drugs.  He has jailed one senatoron trumped up corruption charges and is trying to arrest another.

Critics have compared Duterte to Marcos. David Borden, a leader of the US-based Stop the Drug, told me Duterte has created “a dangerous situation for anyone who criticizes the president, and he is a danger for democracy.”

Filipinos are increasingly opposed to Duterte’s policies. The lasting legacy of Ninoy Aquino may well be the need for another Filipino uprising against a dictatorial ruler.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His new bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his  webpage.

Chairman John Bolton takes over North Korea

Hey, somebody's got to do the job!

PYONGYANG –North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced today that he was resigning and appointing John Bolton as the country’s new supreme leader.

Kim, apparently acting under duress, declared, “I’ve made important concessions on our nuclear weapons program but nothing seems to satisfy the USA. So let’s see if Bolton can do it any better.”

Hey, somebody’s got to do the job!

Prior to his ascension to power, Bolton was Donald Trump’s national security advisor known for his hardline anti-communist views.

Chairman Bolton, as he now prefers to be called, attended the Pyongyang press conference dressed in a blue Mao jacket buttoned at the collar. In an apparent concession to Korean custom, Chairman Bolton shaved his famous walrus mustache, noting that no previous North Korean leader had such prominent facial hair.

Bolton agreed to continue certain other North Korean customs. After the Pyongyang press conference, he was feted by 100,000 synchronized dancers packed into Rungrado May Day stadium. Others in the adoring crowd held up placards displaying the visage of Donald Trump, hair flapping in the wind.

Over a booming but antiquated public-address system, Bolton declared, “I plan to reunify the two Koreas under my rule in order to promote peace, prosperity, and free-market capitalism,”

The crowd erupted in spontaneous applause and unfurled banners of smiling workers, peasants and financial advisers.

Bolton announced that the name of the new country would be the People’s Capitalist Democracy of Korea. The White House had originally decided on “The Trumpian State of Korea,” but didn’t want to offend local sensibilities.  

Bolton’s ascension to power came as the logical outcome of his policies. By raising demands impossible for North Korea to meet, regime change was the only remaining option. And who better to lead the new regime than John Bolton?

Bolton also announced the removal of South Korea’s elected president, Moon Jae-in, who had objected to Bolton’s policies for some time.

“US troops based in Seoul will continue to maintain peace and stability under my rule,” said Bolton. “We will hold free elections throughout the Korean peninsula sometime soon. A few miscreant South Korean politicians who have tried to obstruct progress will face justice at special US courts established in Guantanamo, Cuba.”

The surprising turn of events took place against a backdrop of acrimony within the Trump administration. Trump held a famous face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12. Both sides agreed to denuclearization, but never agreed on a definition of that term, a flaw criticsnoted at the time.

A senior White House official said Trump never was able to spell denuclearization, “and certainly never comprehended its meaning.” Trump relied on personal rapport with the leader he once called “little rocket man.” Trump never developed a clear set of demands on North Korea, following the same approach he used in the Middle East and other world hotspots.

On the other hand, Bolton and other hard liners demanded that North Korea destroy all nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and nuclear production facilities before negotiations could even begin. Kim’s definition of denuclearization meant freezing Korea’s current number of atomic bombs and missiles.

Earlier this year Kim made concessions by halting nuclear and missile testing, and blowing up a nuclear test site. On September 18, he agreed to dismantle a missile test facility and launchpad. He also proposed to dismantle the Yongbyon plutonium processing facility.

In return Kim wanted the US and South Korea to sign a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War. The war ended in 1953 with a ceasefire, not a formal treaty.

The United States has been reluctant to sign such an agreement. “If we ended the war,” Bolton had declared before he became chairman, “the US would have had to pull its troops out of South Korea. That’s the last thing we wanted.”

Bolton acted at a time when North and South Korea seemed to make significant progress during a Sept 18-19 meeting in Pyongyang. Both sides favored a peace declaration ending the Korean War, improved economic ties, and were pleased with a promise by Kim to visit Seoul. It would be the first such visit since the two Koreas were partitioned by outside powers after World War II.

Bolton said regime change came just in time.

“Had I not acted,” said a triumphant Chairman Bolton, “North and South Korea might have resolved important issues by themselves.”

Foreign Correspondent Reese Erlich occasionally dabbles in satire, of which this is an example. This column appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy has just been published by Routledge Books. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his  webpage.

The complex politics of Myanmar …

I sneaked into Myanmar on a tourist visa because the military junta running the country made it almost impossible to travel as a journalist. So I thought I was the only foreign reporter in the capital of Yangon in July of 1995.

I was relaxing one morning when BBC TV ran a bulletin that famous opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from house arrest. I scrambled into a taxi and went straight to her house in a wealthy neighborhood of Yangon. I envisioned being the first reporter to interview her. I had the scoop of the century!

Myanmar’s leader has done nothing about the massacre of the Muslim minority

When I arrived, however, her front yard was filled with dozens of diplomats and reporters. Most had flown in from Bangkok that morning when the government relaxed visa requirements.

I joined the scrum of reporters asking her questions. Suu Kyi had genuine poplar support as a democracy advocate in this country once called Burma. She stood against the country’s brutal military rulers. She was also a darling of the United States and Britain because of her advocacy of free markets, anti-communism and other pro-western policies.

Most significantly, neither Suu Kyi nor her supporters that I interviewed understood the complexities of Myanmar’s 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Her father had been a leftist and nationalist leader in the fight against British colonialism. That revolutionary nationalism helped free the country. But nationalism of the Buddhist majority applied against ethnic and religious minorities was to take the country in a repressive direction.

Suu Kyi was jailed and released several times until her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was allowed to field parliamentary candidates in 2015. The NLD won the election and Suu Kyi became Myanmar’s de facto leader. But she hardly mentioned minority rights.

The generals exercise real power in Myanmar. They claim the Rohingya, who live in the western state of Rakhine, are really Bangladeshis, despite the fact they have lived in Myanmar for centuries. The government denies Rohingyas’ the right to vote or hold elected office, and restricts their access to healthcare, education, and jobs.

Brutal attacks

In 2016 and then again on August 25, 2017 an armed Rohingya militia attacked police and army posts, killing dozens of security personnel. In the following days the military viciously attacked Rohingya civilians, eventually driving hundreds of thousands out of the country. In numerous documented cases, the military beat, raped and murdered civilians.

Right-wing nationalist Buddhist monks, with government cooperation, incited their followers to attack Rohingya villages, killing some civilians and driving out the rest. So much for the concept that Buddhism is somehow immune from the extremism affecting other major religions.

In August this year a UN reportdescribed the military actions as “genocide” and called for an international tribunal to put the generals on trial.

Despite these atrocities, Suu Kyi defends the military’s actions. She also justifies the jailing of two Reuters reporters who exposed the massacres but were convicted on trumped up charges of violating the British colonial era Official Secrets Act. Last month they were sentenced to seven years in prison.

Alice Baillat, research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs now living in Bangladesh, told me Suu Kyi’s political options are constrained by the powerful military. However, “she has not used her moral authority, popularity and power position, however limited, to stem or prevent the unfolding crisis and protect the civilian population.”

Armed attacks

Rohingya politics are complicated as well. For two years an armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) has been attacking police and military targets in Rakhine state. ARSA’s leader Ata Ullah was born in Pakistan and lived in Saudi Arabia.

The International Crisis Group wrote, “The insurgent group, which refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin (Faith Movement), is led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia and is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in modern guerrilla war tactics.”

James M. Dorsey, senior fellow S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told me that as a Sunni Muslim group, ARSA has received political support and some relief supplies from militant groups such as Laksha Taiba in Pakistan.

He noted, however, that ARSA is not a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda or ISIS, nor does it seek to create an Islamic caliphate. But, he warned, continued government repression could push some Rohingya in that direction.

“If you’re Rohingya, gravitating to militancy is 1 + 1 = 2,” he said.

Other ethnic groups in Myanmar have their own armed militias, noted Simon Billenness, executive director of the International Campaign for the Rohingya based in Boston.  ARSA, he told me, attacks primarily military targets and doesn’t intentionally kill civilians.

“ARSA has more in common with the ethnic armed forces than it has to any international terrorist group,” he said.

US Policy

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have wrestled unsuccessfully with Myanmar policy. The country has valuable gemstones and sits in a volatile area bordering China, Bangladesh and Thailand. The last few presidents have tried to break Myanmar’s close economic and political ties with China, and bring it into the US sphere of influence.

The Obama administration lifted economic sanctions after the military gave up some power, even as attacks on Rohingya began. The Trump administration re-imposed sanctions on individual generals and threatened more stringent, unilateral sanctions.

In my opinion, unilateral US sanctions are wrong in principle and unhelpful in practice. Who is Trump to denounce human rights violations against Muslims while denying them entry to the United States and keeping them jailed indefinitely in Guantanamo? US unilateral sanctions, while ostensibly defending human rights, in practice aim at replacing hostile regimes with ones friendly to the US.

“If Donald trump comes out swinging with sanctions, he won’t get a lot of Chinese and Russian support,” said analyst Dorsey. “If there was a multilateral effort to improve immediate living conditions with  ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) at the core, it could create a tolerable situation.”

The Trump administration should immediately help fund the UN’s requested $951 million to help the Rohingya living in refugee camps. I don’t expect much positive from the dotard Donald, but at least he can help fund refugee relief.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in October. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.


What 15 years of war has brought us: Angry Iraqis

Women and children suffer after a fortune in US military spending. Photo by Reese Erlich

Militant protests continue in the oil rich city of Basra despite a harsh government crackdown. Thousands of Iraqis are demanding jobs, restoration of basic utility services and an end to government corruption. The protests quickly spread to other southern Iraqi cities and Baghdad.

Iraq has faced major electricity shortages since the 2003 US invasion. In Basra salt water flows from faucets because of filtration system breakdowns. Transparency International lists Iraq as  one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Women and children suffer after a fortune in US military spending. Photo by Reese Erlich

In the first two weeks since the protests began July 14, over a dozen protestors died, hundreds were wounded and 750 arrested, according to the Gulf Centre for Human Rights.

Angry protestors closed the port of Um Qasr and even shut the Iraq-Kuwait border for a time, according to Yerevan Saeed, a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute.

Saeed, a colleague with whom I worked during reporting trips to Iraq, said the protests reflect widespread anger throughout the country.

“Everyone, from Basra to Kurdistan, is frustrated with the current politicians,” he told me. “The political elite are corrupt. That brings everyone together at the moment.”

Iraq has been in turmoil since the 2003 US invasion. Far from bringing democracy and prosperity as promised by US officials, the occupation resulted in rule by a corrupt, wealthy elite. As many as 7000 US troops continue to occupy Iraq, 15 years after the initial invasion. And Iraqis are pissed — as seen in the results of parliamentary elections in May and a recount finalized in August.

A coalition headed by anti-US, nationalist cleric Muqtada al Sadr won a plurality of 54 out of 329 seats in parliament. A pro-Iranian coalition headed by Hadi al Ameri took 48. The US-backed coalition led by Prime Minister Haider al Abadi came in third with 42 seats, a big blow to the Trump administration.

Sadr, a Shia cleric with conservative views on social issues,  formed an alliance with the secular Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Both agreed to focus on jobs, fighting corruption and combating outside domination of Iraq – whether from the US or Iran.

To some extent, they share a common social base among workers and the poor. For example, voters elected a woman ICP candidate Suhad al-Khateeb, a teacher who organized in the poor neighborhoods of Najaf, an otherwise religious and conservative city. It will be interesting to see if the left can expand its base in the months ahead.

Iraqi politicians now face the difficult task of forming a new government. Although a solid majority voted for parties opposed to US domination, a pro-US candidate could emerge from back room chicanery, according to Saeed.

“I think we’re months away from a new government,” he said.


Shock and Awe – the movie

Two recent films about Iraq are worth catching. Shock and Awe dramatizes the struggle of Knight Ridder reporters and an editor to expose the George Bush administration’s lies leading to the 2003 Iraq War. It has an outstanding cast that includes Rob Reiner, Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson.

The Knight Ridder wire, which provided news to 31 dailies, was one of the few mainstream outlets to challenge the assertion that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The film uses video from speeches and press conferences to skewer Bush, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney. It’s great to hear the editor character played by Rob Reiner declaim that “We will not be stenographers for the Bush Administration.”

Of course the left media and the massive anti-war movement had a far better analysis than anything in the Knight Ridder articles. But Knight Ridder was certainly the best of the US mainstream media.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Shock and Aweis good cinema. The good guys remain good throughout and the bad guys stay evil. So there’s little dramatic tension. It got rotten reviews and stopped playing in theaters soon after release. Nevertheless I would recommend streaming it as a refresher on the close collaboration of the US ruling elite and the mainstream media.


Nowhere to Hide

The documentary film Nowhere to Hide, which will air on PBS, has the opposite problem. It’s compelling cinema but without a clear political focus.

Norwegian-Kurdish filmmaker Zaradasht Ahmed gave a small camera to Nori Sharif, a hospital medic, and told him to film his life for the next three years. Nori lived in Jawala, a mostly Sunni area of central Iraq known as the Triangle of Death.

The documentary opens with Nori expressing his joy that the American troops are finally pulling out of Iraq at the end of 2011. He’s happy the US is leaving and optimistic about an independent Iraq, not a view often seen in US media.

First we meet his family, a lively bunch of dancing kids, a wife and in laws. We get a hint of things to come when Nori interviews a crane operator who was kidnapped twice by Al Qaeda and has been disabled as a result.

We later experience the ISIS onslaught through Nori’s eyes. “Who creates this violence and why?” he asked plaintively. “No one understands, not even me.” Another time he told the camera, “I don’t understand this war. It tears you to pieces.”

And that’s the film’s biggest weakness. The documentary maker could have included other sources to explain the big picture: the US desire to control oil, establish military bases and dominate the region. Instead, we’re left with the impression that Sunnis, Shia, Yazidis and others are just doomed to fight one another.

The film does powerfully portray, however, what the war looks like from the perspective of an ordinary Iraqi. We see the brutality of the US-sponsored police, the sudden arrival of ISIS and how Nori’s family flees Jawala with only a few hours notice.

One of the children asks how long will they be away? Her mom answers, “Only a few days.” We know this isn’t true, and we feel as helpless as the family. Despite the hardships, however, the family manages to express some optimism.

“Right now we cannot tell when or how the war will end,” Nori said. “In the end the will to build will win over the forces of destruction. Because life must go on.”

PBS airs Nowhere to Hideas part of its POV series on August 27.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His bookThe Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump in Afghanistan

Afghan girl who lost her arm in a bombing and fled with her family to Kabul. Photo by Reese Erlich

President Donald Trump is back on the stump, trumpeting his alleged triumphs since the 2016 elections. Somehow, he never mentions Afghanistan.

For years, Trump has denounced endless foreign wars, including Afghanistan. He tweeted in 2012, for example, that Afghanistan is “a complete waste….Time to come home!”

Once in power, however, Trump filled top advisor and cabinet positions with generals and neocons who advocate permanent occupation of Afghanistan. He suddenly became interested in the country’s estimated $1 trillion in rare earth minerals vital to manufacturing high tech products such as cell phones.  

Afghan girl who lost her arm in a bombing and fled with her family to Kabul

Then one year ago Trump announced plans to send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan. At the time, I and many other commentators said a few thousand more troops couldn’t possibly shift the tide of war when 100,000 failed under Obama.

And, sure enough, the military situation has gotten worse for the US and its corrupt allies in Kabul. The US intensified its air war. The Taliban retaliated with devastating attacks on Kabul and other major cities. On August 10, in only the latest example, the Taliban attacked and held the key city of Ghazni for several days.

To date 2,372 US troops have died and more than 20,000 have been wounded.

An estimated total of 110,000 Afghans have died in the conflict.

US taxpayers have spent over a trillion dollars on the war so far, not counting the billions in future veteran’s benefits.

Kathy Kelly — co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Non Violence, which supports humanitarian work in Afghanistan — told me her group has long advocated that all US and allied troops should pull out, and the US should pay reparations for its war of destruction.

“This is a failed war, as are all wars,” she said.

Life in Kabul

During my first reporting trips to Afghanistan in the aughts, I stayed in inexpensive guest houses, walked to interviews when practical, and visited sources in their homes. Those days are long gone.

Dr. Hakim Young, a physician originally from Singapore, has seen dramatic changes during his 14 years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Today any government building could be attacked by insurgents, even the military and intelligence headquarters in Kabul.

“We avoid government, political and religious buildings,” he told me from Kabul. “We vary daily movements and schedules.”

Even talking or walking with a westerner can put local Afghans in danger because of popular anger at foreign occupation.

So they try not to be noticed by dressing in local clothes.

“It helps that I look like an Afghan,” said Dr. Hakim, “and speak their language.”

He said among Afghans in general, “the mood is one of stress, trauma, uncertainty, insecurity, frustration, anger, distrust and hopelessness. This mood is reflected in the continual outflow of Afghans seeking asylum elsewhere.”

Warlords in and out of government

Afghans don’t support the Taliban or the Islamic State, the two main insurgent groups. But it’s not like the United States has provided a viable alternative. The United States is allied with brutal, drug dealing warlords.

Recently General Abdul Rashid Dostum was back in the news. He’s a warlord with a long history of human-rights abuses, and was accused of beating and raping a rival. Oh, did I mention, he’s also Afghanistan’s first vice president.

Last year, he fled to Turkey in the middle of the night. Dostum’s supporters among the Uzbek ethnic minority have recently engaged in violent demonstrations against the government. In a surprise move, Dostum returned to Kabul in July and was greeted by major government leaders including President Ashraf Ghani. It seems unlikely that Dostum will face trial for the rape, let alone for decades of human rights abuses.

“There are multiple warlords in Afghanistan and the Taliban is just one of them,” Kelly said. “There is no functioning government right now. It’s a failed narco state.”

It’s little wonder that the people of Afghanistan want the US and its corrupt government partners to leave.

Grassroots Peace Movement

The Helmand Peace Convoy, now called the People’s Peace Movement, presents a few rays of hope these days. In March, unknown bombers killed 17 civilians and wounded 55 in the southern province of Helmand. So a group of elders, relatives of injured civilians, and civil society activists set up a peace tent in protest.

They called for a ceasefire between warring factions, opposing the policies of the US, the Taliban, and the Afghan government. Encouraged by the positive response from the public, they marched 400 miles to the capital of Kabul.

Dr. Hakim said people are generally supportive of the protestors. “The Movement has shifted the mood a little,” he said.

“We need to remain optimistic in taking tiny positive actions. The alternative would allow the exploitative, violent actors to worsen the multiple crises gripping Afghanistan.”

When the marchers reached Kabul, among other actions, they held a sit-in at the US embassy.

“If the US can topple a regime in 15 days,” the movement wrote in a statement, “then why has it not been able to bring peace in the past 17 years?”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears in 48Hills every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Why Trump will lose the trade war with China

When I first reported from China in 1980, bicycles outnumbered cars on Beijing’s major streets, and the tallest building in town was a 25-story hotel. I visited a small village that had one black and white TV, which everyone watched at night.

Today China’s major cities are jammed with modern factories, skyscrapers, and large public transportation networks. The Chinese government’s “socialist market economy” led to unprecedented prosperity, as well as massive corruption and intensified class divisions. China now has the second largest economy in the world after the United States.

280 turbine wind farm in western China produces electricity, part of China’s ambitious green energy program. Photo by Reese Erlich

The Trump administration, and many high-ranking Democrats as well, see China as a vicious competitor. They claim the Chinese government unfairly subsidizes its domestic industries and steals U.S. intellectual property. So Trump launched a massive trade war.

I think he’s going to lose.

The administration imposed $34 billion in tariffs on Chinese products, and threatened to order a total of $500 billion. China responded tit for tat, imposing its own tariffs aimed at regions full of Trump supporters. Agribusiness corporations from Trump country in the Midwest are taking big hits, with a 15% drop in soybean futures and another 14 percent in pork.

Trump has now proposed to pay $12 billion in government subsidies to farmers and ranchers negatively impacted by the trade war. But soy bean losses this year alone are nearly $12 billion, according to Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska).

Many farm-state Republicans criticized the subsidies. Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee) said, “You have a terrible policy that sends farmers to the poorhouse, and then you put them on welfare… It’s hard to believe that there isn’t an outright revolt right now in Congress.”

A Trump supporter

But Trump supporters say they are willing to wait out the trade war if ultimately the United States can export more. Jim Weston is co-owner of a small Los Angeles company buying and selling poultry, which was founded by my father in 1942. We’ve remained friends over the years, and I was surprised to learn that Jim supports Trump’s policies.

“I thought we needed a businessman who will disrupt things,” Jim told me. US chicken imports were banned in China after the Obama administration slapped tariffs on Chinese steel pipe imports. The Trump administration is now pressing China to allow poultry imports once again.

Jim noted that China’s stock market and currency have gone down since the trade war began. “We’re all hoping China will back down. If it doesn’t back down, it doesn’t matter. We’ve done without them for 100 years.”

There’s a distinct possibility, however, that China won’t back down and the trade wars with China, Mexico, Canada and Europe will contribute to a major recession. Trump has introduced uncertainty and instability into the US economy, according to David Kotz, an old friend, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism.

“US businesses are having a hard time figuring out the effect of the trade wars on them,” he told me. “Uncertainty can lead to postponing investments, which could plunge the economy into recession.”

Who controls economic development?

During my first visit in 1980, China was an isolated country with few outside visitors and almost no foreign investment. Dozens of people would stop on the street to stare at me and the other westerners. Even in a big city like Beijing, people hadn’t seen foreigners before.

Chinese officials realized the country would need outside help to modernize. US, European and Japanese companies tried to impose the traditional third world model on China. They wanted to bring in machinery and technology, and have Chinese workers assemble the parts. Then the foreign corporations would sell the products and rake in the profits.

US administrations demanded “free trade.” But that meant freedom for US corporations to sell to the Chinese market. In a rare admission of guilt, a New York Times analysis article explained, “The system of global free trade … was set up as a kind of permanent win for the United States. Openness exploits the sheer size and development of the American economy so that its goods and services can dominate internationally.”

But China didn’t play by the old rules and took steps to protect its sovereignty. Foreign investors had to partner with Chinese companies and share their technology. Until a few months ago, foreigners could own no more than 49 percent of a company, making sure China controlled important economic decisions. Foreign corporations were never happy with the arrangement, but they acceded in order to have access to the vast Chinese market.

“Unlike in most developing countries, the US government cannot exert its will over the Chinese government to allow US business to do whatever it wants,” noted Kotz.

Initially, China focused on low cost, low-tech industries. It manufactured shirts and plastic toys. Over time, however, it created vibrant automobile, computer, electronics, cell phone, and many other modern industries.

In 2008 I visited a huge wind farm located in a vast desert of western China. Low mountains loomed in the distance and wind picked up considerable speed. A Chinese company had manufactured and installed 280 modern wind turbines. China has developed a green power industry at a time when the US government denies the existence of manmade climate change.

China’s critics say it has succeeded because the government subsidized selected industries. So what? U.S. agribusiness receives billions in government subsidies. Many modern U.S. high-tech industries—from satellites to the Internet—were originally developed by the U.S. government and then handed over to private enterprise for free. U.S. manufacturers regularly receive massive tax breaks to locate to a particular state.

I don’t care whether a government subsidizes certain industries. I want to know who benefits from the subsidies: corporate fat cats or ordinary people.

Stealing jobs?

In recent decades many US corporations have moved production to China, Indonesia and other third world countries. They seek greater profits by paying lower wages and having access to local markets. Kotz said US jobs in garment and textiles, for example, aren’t moving back to the United States because “US wages won’t go down to third world levels.”

But the US government can promote policies that will provide good paying blue and white collar jobs. Kotz proposes four components:

  • * government jobs programs to hire workers at a living wage
  • * promotion of a green economy using renewable energy, efficient mass transit and energy efficient buildings.
  • * well-funded worker retraining and education for those displaced by jobs moving overseas.
  • * increase the minimum wage to the level of a living wage.

Such policies have little chance of adoption anytime soon. It will take a lot of grassroots pressure, not to mention the defeat of Republicans in November. But one thing is certain: waging trade wars with China, the EU, Canada, and Mexico will only make conditions worse for everybody.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy will be published in October. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Netanyahu, Putin, and Trump — jockeying for power in Syria

President Bashar al Assad (Photo by Reese Erlich)

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT Russian bombs rained down on towns of southern Syria as an estimated 320,000 civilians fled for their lives. Over the past several weeks tens of thousands walked to the Jordanian and Israeli borders hoping to escape the onslaught.

Rula Amin, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, based in Jordan, told me the displaced people left their homes with few belongings and are sleeping in the desert. “They need shelter, food, drinking water — and mostly, they need protection.”

President Bashar al Assad (Photo by Reese Erlich)

“We appeal for an immediate cessation in hostilities and for a safe, unimpeded access to the displaced population that desperately needs assistance,” she said.

The crisis began in June when Syrian President Bashar al Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian allies, sought to recapture southern Syria, which has been under rebel control for five years. Russia negotiated the surrender of some rebel groups in early July. It’s not yet clear, according to the UNHCR, whether significant number of civilians can return to their homes.

Five countries are currently fighting in Syria. Russia, Iran, the United States, and Turkey have stationed troops. Israel regularly drops bombs and fires missiles.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will discuss Syria at their Helsinki summit July 16. The Trump administration is pressuring Russia to reduce the Iranian role in Syria, but will not likely succeed, according to Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Iran is there to stay,” he told me. “Russia is not going to kick Iran out.”

A visit to Daraa

To understand the current crisis, let’s go back to 2011 when I reported from the southern Syrian city of Daraa. I tagged along with some Ukrainian TV journalists on an official tour of the city where the uprising had begun. Government minders claimed the Syrian people supported Assad and that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States had instigated the rebellion.

We visited an elementary school where adorable children recited their lessons in unison. Then, seeing the foreign reporters, many began chanting, “Freedom, Freedom,” the slogan of the anti-Assad opposition. Teachers led other students in chanting “Syria, Syria,” to show support for Assad.

The Assad officials blanched as the civil war divisions were on full display for foreign reporters. “The political chasm has reached the schools,” my government translator said. “First graders are now politically motivated.”

For roughly that first year, the Syrian government faced a popular uprising from a broad spectrum of religious and political opposition, part of the Arab Spring. Foreign powers did not create the rebellion, but they were very happy to take advantage of the regime’s lack of popularity to push their own agendas.

CIA steps in

By 2012 the CIA coordinated with Jordanian, gulf states, and Israeli intelligence to fund rebel groups known collectively as  the Free Syrian Army. The United States set up the secret Military Operations Command in Amman, Jordan, and by 2013 was providing an array of arms, ammunition and supplies to the FSA.

The CIA spent $1 billion per year arming rebels in southern Syria. The Pentagon spent another $500 million per year in northern Syria. Washington claimed to be training only “moderate rebels.” But the US-backed militias had no popular support. In several incidents US-trained rebels turned their weapons over to al Qaeda affiliated insurgents.

Nabil al Sharif, a former Jordanian media affairs minister, told me, “This whole program of aiding moderates has failed miserably.”

Israel’s role

As darkness fell one night in 2014, I drove along a dirt road and stopped at a spot in Israel overlooking the Syrian border fence in the Golan. Israel had seized the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and illegally annexed it in 1981.

On the night of my visit, artillery and machine gun tracer fire illuminated the fighting among three opposing armed groups: the Syrian Army, the FSA and the Al Qaeda affiliate known as al Nusra. At that point Israel was backing the FSA against the other two forces.

Israel always claimed it was neutral in the Syrian civil war; it only provided humanitarian aid and treated wounded Syrian civilians. In reality Tel Aviv backs rebels who can be used to help Israel keep permanent control of the Golan.

Rainfall from the Golan area is critical to replenishing the Jordan River and supplies one-third of Israel’s drinking water. “The Golan is key for Israel’s water supply,” noted Professor Landis.

Building on the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Israeli leaders now want the United States to formally recognize its annexation of the Golan, which is seen as illegal by other countries.

“This is a moment of tremendous weakness for Syria and Israel wants to take full advantage,” said Landis.

Initially Israeli leaders backed the FSA to keep Assad from coming back to power. When the military tide turned in Assad’s favor in 2015, Tel Aviv sought to prevent Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah from establishing a military presence close to the occupied Golan.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Israeli think tank The Forum for Regional Thinking, wrote “Israeli policy-makers would be content with a Syrian regime takeover of southern Syria, as long as Iranian proxies are kept from the border fence.”

Backroom deals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met three times over the past six months with Putin to work out a deal on Syria. So far the Israelis have continued to bomb Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, and the Russians have not responded militarily. I think that’s angered the Iranians.

The Iranian military sees its presence in Syria as a deterrent against a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It continues to arm Hezbollah with Iranian made missiles.

”This is part of Iran’s homeland security,” said Landis.

Of course civilians in Syria don’t care much about Iran’s internal security, nor that any of the other intervening powers. Nobody has clean hands in Syria. The outside powers push their own interests to the detriment of the Syrian people.

We’ll see if anything significant about Syria comes out of the Putin-Trump summit. But don’t hold your breath. While foreign powers continue their squabbles, Syrian civilians pay the price.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: A political landslide in Mexico

AMLO has drawn huge crowds to CDMX's Zócalo, like this one in 2014. Now, he's secured the presidency.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT When I was writing an article about street vendors in Mexico City, I saw firsthand how the country’s ruling party operated. Vendors eke out a living selling trinkets and food on street corners. A group in one part of Mexico City had held a series of militant demonstrations opposing a violent police crackdown aimed at driving them out of that neighborhood.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gave a few of the movement’s leaders government jobs, had them call off the demonstrations, and then quietly displaced the vendors as originally planned. Since 1929 the PRI has honed the art of repression and cooptation. The PRI, along with the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), had hoped to use those tactics during Mexico’s July 1 presidential elections. It didn’t work.

On Sunday democratic socialist Andrés Manuel López Obrador received a stunning 53 percent of the presidential vote, compared to 22 percent for PAN’s Ricardo Anaya  and 15 percent for PRI’s Jose Antonio Meade. A leftist coalition, led by Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), won a blowout 300 of 500 seats in the House of Deputies and between 56-70 in the 128-seat Senate.

Lopez Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, presented a  progressive alternative to the corrupt leadership of the past. He drew support from blue collar workers, peasant farmers, small business people, a sector of the intelligentsia, and some big business people alienated from the major political parties.

AMLO called for free education, pensions for seniors, and improving the country’s petroleum infrastructure. He also called for a massive tree planting project that he said would create 400,000 jobs.

“AMLO focused on a few key programs aimed at increasing Mexican economic independence from the US and generating jobs,” Bruce Hobson told me. Hobson is an American political activist and analyst who has lived for decades Guanajuato, Mexico.

Lopez Obrador also benefited from widespread voter anger at the establishment political parties.

Student Eugenia Gonzalez, said “In truth, I don’t think any of them are worth much, but it’s better (to pick Lopez Obrador), who is a useful vote against the PRI.”

To Have and Have Not

AMLO’s election represents a victory of the have nots over the haves. A wealthy elite in Mexico enjoy extravagant lifestyles in homes surrounded by high walls. Yet, of the country’s 127.5 million people, a staggering 46 percent live below the poverty line

Drug cartels control swaths of major cities with the cooperation of government officials. The last two presidents, PAN’s Felipe Calderon and PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, promised to end the narco violence, only to see it increase. Since 2006, over 200,000 people were killed in the drug wars and some 30,000 disappeared.

The most infamous case remains officially unsolved, the 2014 disappearance and murder of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero. An international human rights report implicated federal officials in the disappearances and subsequent cover up.

AMLO put forward a great slogan: “bicarios si, sicarios no,” which means “scholarship students yes, contract killers, no.”

Move to the center

During the campaign AMLO downplayed his socialist politics and moved towards the center in an effort to pick up alienated PAN and PRI voters. He promised to appoint wealthy capitalist Alfonso Romo as his chief of staff and Harvard-educated economist Graciela Márquez as his economy minister.

AMLO also formed an electoral alliance with the far right, evangelical Social Encounter Party (PES), which on first view, seems an odd alliance. PES opposes abortion, gay marriage and homosexuality. But AMLO comes from a Catholic background and didn’t campaign on women’s rights issues. The coalition with PES may have given AMLO a few extra percentage points in the presidential race and in the legislative elections.


In 1993 I appeared on a Mexico City radio station to discuss NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. A pro-NAFTA businessman assured the audience that jobs would increase and the economy would improve overall. In reality, inflation shot up, and since implementation of NAFTA in 1994, poverty grew  exponentially.

Farmers were driven off the land because of cheaper imports from the United States. Some U.S. and Canadian companies opened factories along the border, but the new jobs never replaced those lost to cheap U.S. imports.

“NAFTA devastated countless Mexican lives,” said activist Hobson.

Nevertheless, the new Lopez Obrador administration will face a belligerent Trump, the continent’s 800 pound gorilla. “AMLO has clearly expressed that he wants better economic and political relations with the United States based on equal partnership and respect,” said Hobson. “This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Trump and AMLO can agree on some NAFTA changes, albeit for different reasons. Trump wants to raise hourly wages for auto workers in Mexico to $16/hour in order to encourage U.S. companies to keep more jobs at home. AMLO supports wage increase for Mexican auto workers.

However, NAFTA negotiations and Trump’s absurd demand that Mexico pay for a border wall will remain major areas of conflict.

New president’s future

On election night AMLO announced efforts to develop a peace plan, in consultation with UN human rights and religious organizations, that would help lessen drug cartel violence.

Javier Bravo, a history professor and MORENA activist, told me it won’t be easy.

“Corruption is very deeply rooted in our political system,” he said. “AMLO doesn’t have a magic wand to change everything at once. It will be a long process.”

Hobson said the rank and file will have to keep up the pressure for democratic and socialist policies within MORENA. Lopez Obrador exhibits some of the traits of a Latin American caudillo, or all powerful leader, he said.

Leftists within MORENA want the party “to undergo a cultural change so that leadership should be more collective,” he said.

Hobson wants MORENA involved not just in electoral politics but to become rooted in the movements of indigenous people, women, gay/lesbian/trans, labor, counter-culture youth, and environmentalists.

Imagine for a moment if Bernie Sanders had won the 2016 presidential election. That would have been a tremendous step forward for the country, but only a first step towards fundamental change.

That’s the admirable position now faced by the left in Mexico.