Foreign Correspondent

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.

NAFTA

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.

The North Korea summit: We have been here before

Beyond the images, this summit isn't likely to lead to peace on the Korean Peninsula Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Police wearing Darth Vader helmets and carrying shotguns mounted with tear gas launchers lined up ready for battle. Fifty yards away, tens of thousands students and workers placed iron bars and Molotov cocktails on the street preparing for battle. At the appointed hour both sides charged, with police clubbing and firing tear gas barrages.

Beyond the images, this summit isn’t likely to lead to peace on the Korean Peninsula Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

It was 1991 in Seoul, and I was on assignment for The Christian Science Monitornewspaper covering the widespread protests against the authoritarian South Korean government. Demonstrators protested increasing poverty and the continued US troop presence in their country. Many Koreans saw those troops as an occupying force.

Twenty-seven years later those issues have not gone away. During the June 12 US-North Koran summit, President Donald Trump even called for the withdrawal of the 30,000 US troops at some undetermined time.

“I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. “But that’s not part of the equation right now. I hope it will be eventually.”

Far from being a defensive force, the U.S. troops project US power in the region aimed at challenging China and making sure pro-US regional governments stay in power, according to Christine Ahn, co-founder of the Korea Policy Institute.

“The bases insure US political, military and economic interests,” she told me. “There’s always the threat of a US military incursion to advance corporate interests.”

The withdrawal of troops is just one of many contentious issues that must be resolved in negotiations between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The summit didn’t resolve that or any other issues, although the two sides took a small step forward by simply holding the meeting.

A joint United States-DPRK statement declared, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

But neither side defined what those commitments mean. And the Democratic and Republican hawks in Washington are already trying to make sure there’s no meaningful peace accord. After all, that’s what happened with every previous peace effort.

Over the past 30 years, the United States and DPRK have held numerous talks and agreed to denuclearization several times. But all ultimately failed because Washington hasn’t been interested in guaranteeing DPRK’s security. The North Koreans want to keep some nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a US attack or attempt at regime change. Unfortunately, a very strong faction in Washington doesn’t support any peace agreement and instead seeks to overthrow the DPRK government.  

In the 1990s North Korea had not yet developed nuclear weapons. In 1994 President Bill Clinton negotiated the “Agreed Framework” that guaranteed the DPRK would not build nuclear weapons and, in return, the United States would help North Korea develop nuclear generated electric power.

The DPRK agreed to stay within the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons. North Korea shut its Yongbyon reactor as verified by international inspectors. The United States agreed to facilitate building two light water nuclear reactors, which could generate nuclear fuel for power generation but not weapons. The United States agreed to lift economic sanctions and provide heavy fuel oil to operate the DPRK’s electric power grid.

But Republican and Democratic hawks in Congress thought the president made too many concessions and wanted to sabotage the Agreed Framework. They refused to fund the fuel oil. The Clinton administration also slow-walked the lifting of sanctions.

When the George W. Bush administration took office in 2001, hardliners such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and Under Secretary of State John Bolton opposed the deal. By 2002, the Agreed Framework was dead.

That year Bush declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil,” which also included Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Korea feared it could be the next target for regime change. The DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and began a sprint towards developing a nuclear weapon.

In the mid 2000s, negotiations resumed, dubbed the Six Party Talks. Participants included both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. In September 2005 the parties agreed that DPRK would “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

But the following month, the Bush administration accused Banco Delta in Macau of money laundering, which froze $25 million in DPRK funds. US hardliners saw this as a pressure tactic; North Korea saw it as another example of U.S. bullying.

“The US policy led to North Korea withdrawal from the talks,” said analyst Ahn. The DPRK held its first atomic test in 2006.

Today Trump faces a similar problem because leaders of the opposition party oppose a peace agreement with the DPRK

Seven Democratic Party hawks, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer and Senator Dianne Feinstein, indicated they would vote against any agreement unless the DPRK eliminates all nuclear and biological weapons, dismantles all ballistic missiles, and allows intrusive inspections anywhere in the country.

The DPRK is not going to accept such demands and the Democratic leadership position guarantees no agreement will be reached, noted Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute.

“I am very concerned partisanship undermines our national security,” he told me. “It’s a toxic approach. They should favor diminished tensions and bringing North Korea into the family of nations.”

Today the DPRK has an estimated 15-60 nuclear bombs. It has short and long range ballistic missiles capable of hitting Asia and the continental United States. It’s not clearif North Korea has been able to fit nuclear warheads on the missiles.

In my view, the United States should guarantee the DPRK’s security by signing a peace treaty ending the Korean War, establishing normal diplomatic relations and accepting a limited number of North Korean nukes with guarantees that no more will be produced. We should get busy pulling all US troops out of Seoul.

Official Washington would ask: How can we trust a brutal dictatorship that oppresses its own people and failed to live up to past commitments?

“The government of North Korea is tyrannical,” said Global Security Institute’s Granoff. “But should we be in a state of war with all tyrants?”

Signing agreements with the DPRK “won’t make them a progressive state.” But it will help set the conditions for progress. Political change and eventual reunification of North and South Korea can’t be imposed from the outside, he said. “The process must be led by the Korean people themselves.”

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 on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: The politics behind the Gaza protests

Everything gets recycled and repaired in Gaza. Photo by Reese Erlich

On my most recent reporting trip to Gaza, I stayed with a family living just a short walk from the Israeli border. At dusk we could see a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean and forget the ongoing conflict for just a few minutes.

Living conditions for the family have gotten much worse since my visit. They have electricity four hours a day, medicine is in short supply, and they have to get all their water delivered by truck. Overall unemployment in Gaza is 27% with youth unemployment at a staggering 60%, according to the World Bank.

The Israeli military imposes a stringent economic blockade of Gaza, which limits cars, trucks and gasoline. Gazans turn to more traditional forms of transport.
Photo by Reese Erlich

That high unemployment presents the biggest problem, said family member Jihad Mosalami, a university English professor. “People can’t survive,” he told me in a phone interview.

Many of Mosalami’s students were among the tens of thousands who demonstrated at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. “A few went to the fence to throw stones,” he said. “Others went to the fence to pray.”

It didn’t matter to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers if the demonstrators were peaceful or not. They shot tear gas and live ammunition.

“It was like hell,” said Mosalami.

From March 30 to May 15, Israeli security forces killed over 100 Palestinians and wounded more than 10,000, according to the Palestinian health officials. No Israeli soldiers were killed or even seriously injured.

Palestinians organized the “Great March of Return,” to protest the Israeli military blockade of Gaza. Israeli soldiers control all food, medicine, building supplies and other goods that enter or exit Gaza. The IDF frequently holds up essential goods to pressure Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave.

Everything gets recycled and repaired in Gaza. Photo by Reese Erlich

Israeli authorities claimed they were protecting their border from hordes of Palestinians, some armed, intent on crashing through the fence. In reality, no one got though the double fence and large no man’s land created by Israel. The IDF shot civilians to intimidate them–not out of self defense.

But IDF tactics backfired. Palestinians won the political battle by gaining renewed sympathy for their struggle around the world.

The young generation of Palestinians discovered they “can make a difference, not least of which in bringing global attention to their cause,” Brian Barber told me. He’s professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Washington DC. The protests gave young Palestinians “their first taste of vibrant collective action … as their parents had with the first intifada.”

Why would young people risk their lives to protest the occupation? Let’s take a look at some of the underlying political issues.

What’s the Right of Return?

Sixty-eight percent of people living in Gaza are registered with the UN as refugees who were expelled from Israel in 1948 or their descendants. I’ve interviewed Palestinians who still have the keys to their 1948 houses. Under international law these refugees have the right to return to their towns and villages, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

There are 5 million Palestinians worldwide. As a practical matter, many would not want to return to Israel. Their homes and villages may no longer exist. And many Palestinians “don’t want to live as a minority in Israel,” Zogby told me.

If Israel recognizes a fully independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state, many refugees would return there. Years ago the Palestine Liberation Organization proposed that a limited number of Palestinians should be allowed to return to their villages in Israel while the vast majority would have the right to return to the newly independent Palestinian state.

But Palestinians won’t make any compromises on such a critical issue except in the context of an overall peace settlement. And as of press time, neither the United States nor Israel have shown any interest in peace talks.

One State or Two?

For many years the left and progressives supported the concept of one state in which all Palestinians would be free to return to Israel as equal citizens. The democratic state would champion one person, one vote with no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

Eighty-one percent of Israeli Jews reject a one-state solution, according to a 2017 poll, because the return of millions of Palestinians would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. The one state plan has little support even among progressive Israelis opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

By the 1980s, the PLO began to propose a two-state solution in which the Palestinians and Israelis would have their own states living in peace. Negotiations would determine borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 territory. Different parts of Jerusalem could serve as capitals of both countries. The two state solution served as the basis for the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Successive Israeli governments never implemented the Oslo agreement, however. They continued to build Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and unilaterally built a wall dividing Israel and the West Bank that doesn’t follow the 1967 border line.

In March a Palestinian poll showed 48% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported two states and 50% opposed. But only 28% supported one state.

“I’m not an activist or politician,” said my friend Mosalami, “but I do believe the majority of Palestinians will accept two states. It’s the practical solution.”

But doesn’t Hamas reject two states?

Actually, Hamas is willing to accept the two-state solution. Soon after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, its leaders faced reality. Having one state was not possible and most Palestinians favored two states.

“We accepted that our state should be on the 1967 borders, but Israel rejected that,” then top Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told me. He confirmed that position with former President Jimmy Carter. I re-confirmed that view with two different Hamas ministers during a 2011 trip to Gaza.

Hamas doesn’t emphasize that position because there are no peace talks on the horizon. Hamas leaders want Israel or the United States to put forward a viable two-state option, and then it will respond.

But isn’t Hamas a terrorist organization? How could Israel trust them in negotiations?

Hamas is a political party with an armed militia that functions as Gaza’s security force. It considers itself a national liberation movement fighting occupation forces through armed struggle. But Hamas has also intentionally killed civilians, including bombing buses and restaurants. Using terrorist tactics, however, doesn’t make one a terrorist organization.

Jewish militias fighting the British and Arabs in 1948-49 used terrorist tactics. They murdered and tortured Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, forcing residents to flee. They blew up the KIng David Hotel, killing more than 90 Jews, Arabs, and British soldiers.

Some of the Jewish militia tactics parallel recent events in Gaza. Yuri Avnery, today one of the Israel’s major peace movement leaders, described how he participated in a 1948 Tel Aviv march organized by the Irgun, a militia later incorporated into the IDF.

Civilian Irgun youth marched down a street “where the offices of the British administration were located,” Avnery wrote. “There we sang the national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’, while some adult members set fire to the offices.”

I oppose the use of terrorism whatever the justification. But Hamas is fundamentally different from Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, who use terror to ethnically cleanse groups they oppose–Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, and others. They refuse to participate in elections and use religion as the excuse to give themselves absolute power.

Hamas promotes a conservative religious agenda but is not the Islamic State. I would not vote for Hamas if I lived in Palestine. But Hamas is a legitimate party whose views are part of the Middle East political reality.

Labeling Hamas a terrorist organization gives Israel and the United States an excuse to never hold peace talks. The Israeli government labelled he Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists until Israel agreed to the Oslo peace talks. Then the PLO became peace partners.

Earlier this month Hamas offered Israel a “hudna” or ceasefire. Hamas sources told the website Al Monitor if Israel lifted the siege of Gaza, Hamas would enter negotiations with Israel for a long term ceasefire.

Should Israeli leaders trust Hamas? No. And Palestinian leaders shouldn’t trust the Israeli government. But there is a common need to begin serious discussions to establish a viable Palestinian state. Each side can advance partial measures and verify their implementation before moving ahead.

My Gaza friend Jihad Mosalami said, “They have to negotiate and reach a deal. People in Gaza want a decent life.”

He acknowledged that the current leadership in Washington and Tel Aviv won’t start talks anytime soon.

“We won’t have war forever,” he said with just a hint of optimism. “The war will end and there can be peace.”

On my most recent reporting trip to Gaza, I stayed with a family living just a short walk from the Israeli border. At dusk we could see a beautiful sunset over the Mediterranean and forget the ongoing conflict for just a few minutes.

Living conditions for the family have gotten much worse since my visit. They have electricity four hours a day, medicine is in short supply, and they have to get all their water delivered by truck. Overall unemployment in Gaza is 27% with youth unemployment at a staggering 60%, according to the World Bank.

That high unemployment presents the biggest problem, said family member Jihad Mosalami, a university English professor. “People can’t survive,” he told me in a phone interview.

Many of Mosalami’s students were among the tens of thousands who demonstrated at the fence separating Gaza and Israel. “A few went to the fence to throw stones,” he said. “Others went to the fence to pray.”

It didn’t matter to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers if the demonstrators were peaceful or not. They shot tear gas and live ammunition.

“It was like hell,” said Mosalami.

From March 30 to May 15, Israeli security forceskilled over 100 Palestiniansand wounded more than 10,000, according to the Palestinian health officials. No Israeli soldiers were killed or even seriously injured.

Palestinians organized the “Great March of Return,” to protest the Israeli military blockade of Gaza. Israeli soldiers control all food, medicine, building supplies and other goods that enter or exit Gaza. The IDF frequently holds up essential goods to pressure Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave.

Israeli authorities claimed they were protecting their border from hordes of Palestinians, some armed, intent on crashing through the fence. In reality, no one got though the double fence and large no man’s land created by Israel. The IDF shot civilians to intimidate them–not out of self defense.

But IDF tactics backfired. Palestinians won the political battle by gaining renewed sympathy for their struggle around the world.

The young generation of Palestinians discovered they “can make a difference, not least of which in bringing global attention to their cause,” Brian Barber told me. He’s professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studiesin Washington DC. The protests gave young Palestinians “their first taste of vibrant collective action … as their parents had with the first intifada.”

Why would young people risk their lives to protest the occupation? Let’s take a look at some of the underlying political issues.

What’s the Right of Return?

Sixty-eight percent of people living in Gaza areregistered with the UNas refugees who were expelled from Israel in 1948 or their descendants. I’ve interviewed Palestinians who still have the keys to their 1948 houses. Under international law these refugees have the right to return to their towns and villages, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

There are 5 million Palestinians worldwide. As a practical matter, many would not want to return to Israel. Their homes and villages may no longer exist. And many Palestinians “don’t want to live as a minority in Israel,” Zogby told me.

If Israel recognizes a fully independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state, many refugees would return there. Years ago the Palestine Liberation Organization proposed that a limited number of Palestinians should be allowed to return to their villages in Israel while the vast majority would have the right to return to the newly independent Palestinian state.

But Palestinians won’t make any compromises on such a critical issue except in the context of an overall peace settlement. And as of press time, neither the United States nor Israel have shown any interest in peace talks.

One State or Two?

For many years the left and progressives supported the concept of one state in which all Palestinians would be free to return to Israel as equal citizens. The democratic state would champion one person, one vote with no discrimination based on ethnicity or religion.

Eighty-one percent of Israeli Jews reject a one-state solution, according to a 2017 poll, because the return of millions of Palestinians would eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. The one state plan has little support even among progressive Israelis opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

By the 1980s, the PLO began to propose a two-state solution in which the Palestinians and Israelis would have their own states living in peace. Negotiations would determine borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 territory. Different parts of Jerusalem could serve as capitals of both countries. The two state solution served as the basis for the 1993 Oslo peace accord.

Successive Israeli governments never implemented the Oslo agreement, however. They continued to build Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and unilaterally built a wall dividing Israel and the West Bank that doesn’t follow the 1967 border line.

In March a Palestinian pollshowed 48% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza supported two states and 50% opposed. But only 28% supported one state.

“I’m not an activist or politician,” said my friend Mosalami, “but I do believe the majority of Palestinians will accept two states. It’s the practical solution.”

But doesn’t Hamas reject two states?

Actually, Hamas is willing to accept the two-state solution. Soon after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, its leaders faced reality. Having one state was not possible and most Palestinians favored two states.

“We accepted that our state should be on the 1967 borders, but Israel rejected that,” then top Hamas leader Khaled Meshal told me. He confirmed that position with former President Jimmy Carter. I re-confirmed that view with two different Hamas ministers during a 2011 trip to Gaza.

Hamas doesn’t emphasize that position because there are no peace talks on the horizon. Hamas leaders want Israel or the United States to put forward a viable two-state option, and then it will respond.

But isn’t Hamas a terrorist organization? How could Israel trust them in negotiations?

Hamas is a political party with an armed militia that functions as Gaza’s security force. It considers itself a national liberation movement fighting occupation forces through armed struggle. But Hamas has also intentionally killed civilians, including bombing buses and restaurants. Using terrorist tactics, however, doesn’t make one a terrorist organization.

Jewish militias fighting the British and Arabs in 1948-49 used terrorist tactics. They murdered and tortured Arabs in the village of Deir Yassin, forcing residents to flee. They blew up the KIng David Hotel, killing more than 90 Jews, Arabs, and British soldiers.

Some of the Jewish militia tactics parallel recent events in Gaza. Yuri Avnery, today one of the Israel’s major peace movement leaders, described how he participated in a 1948 Tel Aviv march organized by the Irgun, a militia later incorporated into the IDF.

Civilian Irgun youth marched down a street “where the offices of the British administration were located,” Avnery wrote. “There we sang the national anthem, ‘Hatikvah’, while some adult members set fire to the offices.    

I oppose the use of terrorism whatever the justification. But Hamas is fundamentally different from Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, who use terror to ethnically cleanse groups they oppose–Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, and others. They refuse to participate in elections and use religion as the excuse to give themselves absolute power.

Hamas promotes a conservative religious agenda but is not the Islamic State. I would not vote for Hamas if I lived in Palestine. But Hamas is a legitimate party whose views are part of the Middle East political reality.

Labeling Hamas a terrorist organization gives Israel and the United States an excuse to never hold peace talks. The Israeli government labelled he Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists until Israel agreed to the Oslo peace talks. Then the PLO became peace partners.

Earlier this month Hamas offered Israel a “hudna” or ceasefire. Hamas sources told the website Al Monitor if Israel lifted the siege of Gaza, Hamas would enter negotiations with Israel for a long term ceasefire.

Should Israeli leaders trust Hamas? No. And Palestinian leaders shouldn’t trust the Israeli government. But there is a common need to begin serious discussions to establish a viable Palestinian state. Each side can advance partial measures and verify their implementation before moving ahead.

My Gaza friend Jihad Mosalami said, “They have to negotiate and reach a deal. People in Gaza want a decent life.”

He acknowledged that the current leadership in Washington and Tel Aviv won’t start talks anytime soon.

“We won’t have war forever,” he said with just a hint of optimism. “The war will end and there can be peace.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He has reported on the Israel-Palestine conflict since 1986. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: What will Iran do now?

Hardliners attending Friday Prayers in Tehran want to see Iran pull out of the nuclear deal and kick out weapons inspectors. Photo: by Reese Erlich

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT President Donald Trump announced that the US is pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord–and Iranians are really pissed.

Thousands of Iranians demonstrated in Tehran chanting “Death to America.” Thousands more attended Friday prayers in Tehran to hear hardline leaders denounce Trump’s actions.

Hardliners attending Friday Prayers in Tehran want to see Iran pull out of the nuclear deal and kick out weapons inspectors. Photo: by Reese Erlich

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, an influential Friday prayer leader in Tehran, warned against making deals with the west “since they cannot be trusted.”

While Iran’s hardliners spearheaded those protests, Iranians of all political views united against Trump. Interviewed at the Tehran Bazaar during a recent trip, Massoud Nashebegi anticipated Trump’s action. US animosity towards Iran “is getting worse,” he told me. “It’s because we in Iran stood up to the Americans.”

Foad Izadi, an assistant professor at the University of Tehran, told me in a phone interview that Iranians are angry at imposition of new sanctions despite Iran living up to terms of the nuclear accord, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iranian officials are meeting with European leaders in hopes they will defy Trump’s sanctions. But so far European corporations have started cancelling their investments rather than risk American ire.

“If the Europeans are not able or not willing to oppose Trump,” Izadi said, “then Iran will leave the JCPOA sooner or later.”

In 2015 seven countries signed the JCPOA in which Iran agreed to intrusive inspections of its nuclear power facilities in return for lifting of economic sanctions. The US, Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China reached the accord after years of difficult negotiations. The JCPOA was codified into international law by a unanimous vote of the UN Security Council.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration renounced the JCPOA  and announced unilateral resumption of harsh economic sanctions in 90-180 days, setting the stage for a major confrontation with Iran.

Trump’s actions have rallied Iranians around their government. An Iran Poll survey conducted in April showed that 67% of Iranians want their government to retaliate against the US in response to any cancellation of the agreement. They want Iran to restart portions of the country’s nuclear program suspended since the accord took effect.

And Iran’s leaders are preparing to do just that, although they differ sharply on how.

Some hardliners want to withdraw from both the JCPOA and the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT prohibits signatories from developing nuclear weapons. Once out of the NPT, Tehran could block all international inspectors from entering the country . The US  would then have a much harder time determining if Iran was developing a nuclear weapon.

Izadi said Iran is also considering how to stay within the NPT and JCPOA while sending a sharp message to Washington.

  • Iran may step up the training of nuclear scientists. University level programs have lapsed in recent years, according to Izadi. By encouraging graduate studies in nuclear engineering, future personnel could go to work in Iran’s nuclear power industry, but also be ready to research nuclear weapons technology. Such academic research carried out before 2003 was a contentious issue in the JCPOA negotiations. Iran maintained that academic research didn’t violate the NPT while the US and Israel argued that it was part of a nuclear weapons program.
  • Iran could enrich uranium to 20%, which is well above the 4% level needed for nuclear power but far less than that needed for a bomb. Under terms of the JCPOA, Iran can enrich up to 20% for medical research. Iran had enriched to 20% during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
  • Iran could even enrich well above the 20% level to have fuel for nuclear submarines.

“Having a nuclear powered submarine is not a violation of the nuclear agreement,” Izadi noted. He admitted that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear submarine program. But implementing high levels of enrichment sends “a sign to the other side that Iran is not happy with all these sanctions.”

Most Iranians believe the nuclear issue is only an excuse to attack Iran. Izadi said even if Iran completely stopped its nuclear power program entirely, the US would invent a new excuse, such as Iranian support for “terrorism.” All these assertions are a cover for the US to expand its hegemony in the Middle East, he said.

“One of the primary objectives that the US has in this part of the world is to make sure that the oil that exists here is directly or indirectly controlled by the United States,” he said.

American companies once dominated Iran’s oil production. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, U.S. oil companies lost a major source of profits. Izadi said “the US wants to restore economic, political and military control over Iran as it tried to do in Iraq.”

The Trump administration is pursuing two-track military policy towards Iran. If Iran attacks Israel, the US and Israel would launch a large-scale military attack. Otherwise, Trump will use harsh sanctions to worsen economic conditions for ordinary Iranians in hopes they would overthrow their government and install a US friendly regime.

The Securities Study Group (SSG), a right wing think tank close to National Security Advisor John Bolton, is circulating an Iran position paper to Trump’s national security team calling for regime change.

“The Trump administration has no desire to roll tanks in an effort to directly topple the Iranian regime,” said SSG PResident Jim Hanson. “But they would be much happier dealing with a post-Mullah government.”

Republican neocons tried such policies during President George W. Bush’s first term, and it failed miserably, noted William Beeman, an anthropology professor at the University of Minnesota and an Iran expert.

“The Trump administration is only the latest Republican administration to advocate regime change,” Beeman told me. “Accusations that Iran was developing nuclear weapons was promulgated to convince the American public that this was desirable.”

Republican neoconservatives now play a prominent role in Trump’s cabinet as seen by the appointment of Bolton and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.

“The idea that creating harsh conditions would cause the population of that country to rise up and overthrow their rulers is a longstanding act of faith on the part of the US government,” Beeman said. “Iran is only the latest nation to which this bankrupt strategy has been applied.”

Military conflict with Iran has already begun. Earlier this month Israel accused Iran of firing missiles into the Golan Heights, andIsrael bombedwhat it said were Iranian military facilities in Syria. The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA has sent a signal to the region. The prospects for military conflict have increased — whether in Syria, Lebanon or Iran itself.

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich has reported from Iran since 2000. His nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His book The Iran Agenda Today: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis (Routledge Books) will be published this Fall. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Natalie Portman boycotts Israeli prize; right wing goes ballistic

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Actress Natalie Portman, a strong supporter of Israel, has come under vicious attack for criticizing that country’s leadership. She now joins the club of scholars, journalists, and political leaders who are vilified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his right-wing cohorts.

Portman was born in Jerusalem, and although her family left Israel when she was only three, she became fluent in Hebrew. She is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States.

While studying at Harvard, she became a research assistant for right-wing Zionist Alan Dershowitz. She directed and starred in a feature film presenting the Jewish side of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.

So Portman is an unlikely candidate for vilification by conservative Jews. Here’s what happened.

Last November officials of the Genesis award, often referred to as Israel’s Nobel, announced that Portman had won this year’s prize. The award is partially funded by the prime minister’s office. In response Portman said, “I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage. They are crucial parts of who I am.”

Then in late April she refused to attend the Genesis award ceremony in Jerusalem. In an Instagram post, Portman wrote, “I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu is a ultra right-winger who has ended all peace talks with Palestinians, overseen vicious attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, threatened war against Iran, and is facing numerous corruption investigations.

Portman’s boycott of the ceremony caught a lot of people off guard. “She was a strong supporter of Israel,” Rebecca Vilcomerson told me. “Her action really came as a surprise.” Vilcomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a progressive organization with 15,000 dues paying members and 250,000 supporters. Vilcomerson applauded Portman’s principled stand.

The Jewish right wing, however, immediately began hyperventilating. Oren Hazan, a member of parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, advocated stripping Portman of her Israeli citizenship. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said her refusal to accept the award “has elements of anti-Semitism.” (He did not explain how Natalie Portman, a proud Jew, could be anti-Semitic.)

Ronny Perlman, a peace and human rights activist whom I contacted in Jerusalem, said such attacks have become commonplace in Israel’s increasingly conservative political atmosphere. “Every time someone criticizes the occupation [of Palestinian territory], they are accused of treason and some idiots demand stripping them of citizenship.”

Portman’s stand caused a furor, in part, because Israeli government policies are being sharply criticized in the United States and around the world.

Residents of Ramallah in the West Bank remain angry at the Netanyahou government for expanding Israeli settlements and refusing to negotiate for a Palestinian state. Photo by Reese Erlich

Since late March, tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza demonstrated on the border with Israel. Israeli soldiers fired at unarmed protesters, killing 45 and wounding 5500, according to UN sources. No Israelis were killed.

In early April right-wingers in Likud  scuttled a plan that would have given legal status to some of the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers now living in Israel. Israeli right-wingers, like their U.S. counterparts, want to expel all undocumented workers living within their borders.

In her Instagram statement, Portman seemed to indirectly criticize those Israeli policies. “The mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”

Right-wing Jews also accused Portman of supporting the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). That movement calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, full equality for Palestinians living in Israel and the right of exiled Palestinians to return to their land.

It’s a decentralized movement and tactics vary. Students supporting BDS have called for universities to sell off stocks of companies investing in Israel. Other activists have organized boycotts of Israeli products.

The BDS movement is extremely controversial in Israel and in the American Jewish community because it has picked up support, particularly on college campuses. Critics charge that the BDS movement ignores Palestinian failures to seek peace, among other issues.

For example, the Reform Jewish Movement, which describes itself as favoring Israel living in peace with its neighbors, writes, “We deeply deplore efforts that blame Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for divestment companies working in or doing business with Israel. These efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process.”

Portman made clear she did not support BDS. “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation.”

Jewish Voice for Peace does support BDS, explained Vilcomerson, because it’s an effective, non-violent means to pressure the Israeli government. An international boycott helped get rid of the apartheid government in South Africa, for example.

“It’s a time-honored tactic used by social justice movements,” Vilcomerson said. “We would welcome Portman to be part of it.”

Objectively, Portman’s actions encouraged others to selectively boycott Israel. “The BDS movement created the atmosphere in which her action took place,” said Vilcomerson. “She did something very brave.”

I have a question to those who oppose BDS. Exactly what methods should critics of Israel use, given that both liberal and conservative governments have expanded settlements and failed to set conditions for a Palestinian state?

You can’t engage in armed struggle because that’s terrorism. You can’t throw rocks during demonstrations because that’s violent. You can’t hold peaceful demonstrations because that’s a cover for violence. You can’t boycott and divest because that’s an attack on all Jews. You can’t even refuse to accept an award because that’s anti-Semitic.

In reality, Netanyahu and many other Israeli politicians, don’t want to see any effective opposition that might end the Israeli occupation. That’s why Portman’s protest is so important.

My hat’s off to you, Natalie. Keep up the good work.

—————

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: The missile attacks on Syria

The Assad government continues to use chemical weapons -- and as long as four other countries are trying to control the land, the Syrian people won't be able to decide their own destiny

In 1998, al Qaeda killed 224 people when it attacked US embassies in East Africa. In retaliation, President Bill Clinton ordered a missile strike against what he described as an al Qaeda nerve gas factory in Sudan. For years he insisted that the attack had dealt a tough blow against terrorists. Turns out the chemical weapons factory was a pharmaceutical plant.

Now it looks like history is repeating itself.

The Assad government continues to use chemical weapons — and as long as four other countries are trying to control the land, the Syrian people won’t be able to decide their own destiny. Photo by Reese Erlich

On April 13, the United States, Britain, and France bombed three sites in Syria, which were supposedly key to Syria’s chemical weapons program. Russian sources claimed Syrian airfields were attacked as well.

Western missiles flattened the Barzeh Research Center in Damascus. Washington claimed it was a lab making chemical weapons.

Turns out it was a research facility making such products as antidotes for snake bites and children’s medicine. After the missile strike, the Assad government took foreign reporters to the site. The building was still smoldering but no chemical weapons fumes came from the structure.

Said Said, an official at the center told AFP, “If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.”

Such contrary evidence didn’t prevent the Pentagon from boasting of success. Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., director of the joint staff at the Pentagon, said the attacks are “going to set Syrian chemical weapons program back for years.”

President Donald Trump led the cheerleading, tweeting “Mission Accomplished,” a declaration that immediately reminded everyone of George W. Bush’s failed war in Iraq.

Even by the reactionary standards of Washington, the attack is unlikely to have an impact on Assad’s war plans.

“I can’t believe that the Pentagon seriously thought that this wimpy missile attack would actually serve as a deterrent in the future,” William Beeman, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and an author who has written extensively on the Middle East, told me. “This was a cosmetic strike. The Russians were warned, and it didn’t come close to attacking the full range of suspected chemical facilities.”

So what actually happened? On April 7, the White Helmets and other groups posted videos from the Damascus suburb of Douma showing people dying from what they described as a Syria air force chemical attack. They said the attack was likely chlorine gas and possibly the far more deadline nerve agent, sarin.

Douma is controlled by a right-wing political Islamist group known as the Army of Islam (Jaish el-Islam), which has been accused of using chemical weapons against the Kurds. It has a vested interest in discrediting the Assad regime.

Bob Fisk, a journalist with the British Independent, raised serious questions in his first-hand reporting from Douma. He interviewed a doctor who said people died from a lack of oxygen in underground tunnels, not chemical weapons.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are hoping to gain entrance to Douma and if allowed in should be able to determine if banned weapons were used. The organization does not seek to determine who, if anyone, unleashed the chemicals.

It may be as difficult to determine what happened in Douma as it has been in previous alleged chemical attacks. Both sides have used chemical weapons in the past. Rebel groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate used sarin to attack Syrian troops in 2013, as I described in my book Inside Syria.

UN chemical weapons inspectors have verified cases of the Syrian air force dropping chlorine gas. Assad’s military has been willing to face international condemnation because chemical weapons are a relatively cheap method of killing, wounding, and demoralizing an enemy.

Regardless of what happened in Douma, the United States has no legal or moral right to bomb Syria. The UN Security Council never authorized this or other recent US wars (Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, or previous attacks on Syria). The Trump administration is also violating the US War Powers Act, which prohibits the president from waging war without Congressional approval.

The most recent missile attacks had less to do with chemical weapons than sending a message to Assad: The White House won’t allow you to control all of your country. Assad, with crucial help from Russia and Iran, has been defeating insurgent groups throughout most of the country. Top Washington leaders care little about human rights in Syria but very much want to control the country for geopolitical reasons.

Syria doesn’t have significant amounts of oil, but it does occupy a strategic location bordering Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. British and French empires competed for control of the region before World War II, and modern-day imperialists do the same.

The United States now has more than 2,000 troops in northern Syria and is allied with a Kurdish groupThe Wall Street Journaleditorial page, which often represents the views of the ultra-conservative business elite, now advocates creating a no fly zone in northern Syria, which would effectively carve out that region from Syrian government control.

Russia has its own imperialist interests in Syria. It has built two large military bases in western Syria with leases that could last 100 years. The base agreements give Russian citizens extra territoriality rights; they can’t be tried in Syrian courts for crimes committed in Syria. With Syria as a permanent ally, Russia seeks to block US influence in the region.

Vladimir Putin has “the same goal as Peter the Great,” said Beeman, “a permanent warm water port, an outpost in the Middle East, [and] … a watch post for U.S. activities in the area.”

The missile attacks on Syria lessen the already remote chances of a political settlement in Syria’s civil war. At the moment four countries have troops in Syria: United States, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. All foreign powers will have to pull out if the people of Syria are to determine their own future.

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.

Trump, Tokyo, and the Korean crisis

Trump and Kim Jong Un are both unpredictable, Japanese experts say

TOKYO — My reporting from Japan indicates President Donald Trump has managed to piss off both the political right and left.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent many hours kissing butt with Trump, stroking his ego and stressing the similarity of their conservative political views. Then Trump waived aluminum and steel tariffs for Canada, Australia, and the EU — but not Japan.

Trump and Kim Jong Un are both unpredictable, Japanese experts say

Then Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, catching Japanese leaders by surprise. Japanese of different political persuasions don’t trust Trump and doubt the talks will bear results.

“They are both unpredictable characters,” Koichi Nakano told me. “But Kim has a method to his madness. Trump is driven by ego.” Nakano is a left-leaning professor of political science and dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

Sue Kim, a reporter with the right-wing South Korean daily Chosun Ilbonewspaper, told me South Koreans and Japanese are worried about Trump’s call for a pre-emptive military attack on Pyongyang. “Trump is sending out confusing messages,” she told me. “That’s the scary part for us. What is the end goal?”

President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is scheduled to meet with Kim Jong Un on April 27. Then Trump and Kim are supposed to meet in May or June. Nakano credited President Moon for lessening tensions in the region. Moon was worried that Trump’s aggressive rhetoric might start a war. So Moon invited athletes from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to participate in the Winter Olympics and started a campaign to lower tensions.

“Moon acted boldly, “said Prof. Nakano. “It was quite a diplomatic feat.”

But such diplomatic prowess must continue if Trump and Kim are to actually meet let alone reach an agreement. The United States has sabotaged previous accords, and that was before the DPRK had nuclear weapons.

Back in 1994, the United States signed an agreement that allowed the DPRK to develop nuclear power but not atomic weapons. President Bill Clinton and then President Kim Jong Il, father of the current DPRK leader, made a historic breakthrough that aimed to establish normal diplomatic relations after years of hot and cold war.

The DPRK agreed to stop its nuclear weapons program while western powers agreed to help North Korea construct two light-water nuclear reactors, whose spent fuel couldn’t be used to develop bombs. While waiting for the reactors to be built, the west would provide heavy fuel oil to power the country’s electric grid. The United States pledged to eliminate sanctions and remove the DPRK from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then both sides would establish diplomatic relations.

The DPRK lived up to its end of the bargain. But hawkish Republicans and Democrats didn’t like what became known as the “Agreed Framework,” claiming it would allow North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Congress refused to approve the full cost of fuel oil, thus undercutting the agreement and eliminating the possibility of testing DPRK intentions.

The western allies never built the promised reactors, the Clinton administration only lifted some sanctions, and didn’t take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Washington was ready to scuttle the agreement entirely, blaming North Korea for the failure, of course.

In 2002 Bush came up with his cockamamie campaign against the “Axis of Evil,” which included Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea. An orthodox Marxist-Leninist state, a nationalist dictatorship and a theocratic Islamic regime were somehow in cahoots to destroy the United States. The Agreed Framework was buried.

Had Washington carried out the signed agreement, the current U.S.-Korea crisis could have been avoided. Instead, in 2006 the DPRK tested its first nuclear bomb, claiming it had the right to defend itself from outside attack. The United States still has 28,500 troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and navy vessels carrying nuclear missiles cruise nearby.

North Korea’s dictatorial regime has angered ordinary Japanese in a variety of ways. In the 1970s and 1980s, DPRK soldiers kidnapped Japanese citizens and forced them to become language instructors and spies. For years DPRK officials denied the kidnappings. Now they say all the victims have been returned to Japan or have died. Conservative Japanese politicians say some are still missing and use the issue to stir up tensions.

Similarly, last year The DPRK test fired conventional ballistic missiles over Japan that landed in the Pacific Ocean. While the missiles weren’t aimed at Japan, they nonetheless scared people. Prime Minister Abe won the 2017 parliamentary elections, in part, by playing on fears of a North Korean attack. Abe and other conservatives use concerns about a Korean attack to justify expansion of Japan’s military.

Leftist opponents of Abe say Japan doesn’t need an offensive military. The DPRK threat is exaggerated, according to Nakano. “North Korea is not going to launch a missile attack on Japan,” he said.

The United States faces a similar debate. The Trump administration claims North Korea poses an immediate threat because its missiles may reach the U.S. mainland. In reality DPRK has a limited arsenal of nuclear weapons and is highly unlikely to launch an offensive attack. Any first strike by the DPRK would bring a devastating response by the United States and South Korea, wiping out Pyongyang.

“North Korea is not going to launch a missile and end its regime,” said Nakano. “It sees the missiles as defense against the United States.”

The DPRK leadership sees what happened in other countries, according to Nakano. “If Iraq or Libya had nuclear weapons,” he said, “the United States wouldn’t have attacked.”

Conservative reporter Kim strongly opposes the DPRK regime, but doesn’t think it will act irrationally. “I used to think Kim was a crazy maniac,” she said. “He is controlling, but rational. Above all Kim wants his regime to survive.”

The Trump administration faces some stark choices. The DPRK will not likely give up its nuclear weapons. The best outcome of negotiations would halt expansion of the nuclear program in return for economic aid and normalization of relations with the west. At worst, the talks could fall apart in mutual recriminations and heighten the possibility of war.

The choice is up to Washington.

—————

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.

 

 

 

 

Foreign Correspondent: Inside the US war in Yemen

Demonstrations against the Saudi regime continued for several years after the Arab Spring began in 2011. Here Saudis in the mostly Shia area of eastern Saudi Arabia demand freedom for political prisoners.

One of the most important US Senate votes in decades took place recently, and few people know it happened.

On March 20, Senators voted on whether to stop US support for Saudi Arabia’s vicious war in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Act.

Demonstrations against the Saudi regime continued for several years after the Arab Spring began in 2011. Here Saudis in the mostly Shia area of eastern Saudi Arabia demand freedom for political prisoners.

More than 5,000 Yemenis have died and tens of thousands have been injured since the war began three years ago. The Saudis launched a horrific bombing campaign aimed at civilian infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Saudi Arabia established an air, sea and land blockade, which has cut off supplies of food and medicine. As a direct result, a massive cholera epidemic has broken out. A UN Security Council report showed 22.2 million people out of a total population of 27.5 million need humanitarian assistance, a 3.4 million jump compared with last year.

The war began when the Obama administration gave a green light to Saudi Arabia in 2015. The Trump administration continues the effort, providing intelligence, and selling the Saudis sophisticated weapons, ammunition, and aircraft parts. The US. Air Force refuels Saudi planes in mid-air.

Back in 2015, Saudi leaders proudly proclaimed they would win the war in three weeks. “They underestimated their enemy,” Shireen Al-Adeimi told me in an interview. She’s a Harvard doctoral candidate who was born and raised in Yemen. The Saudis and their coalition partners from the United Arab Emirates “don’t have the ground soldiers. So they launched a massive bombing campaign.”

Saudi leaders argue they are fighting Iranian proxies in Yemen, and Iran seeks to destroy their country. For them, it’s an existential battle. The Pentagon argues that the United States only plays an advisory role and provides “non-combat assistance” and thus isn’t violating the War Powers Act.

In reality, “the war has US fingerprints all over it,” said Al-Adeimi.

Washington could shut down the Yemen War overnight. It’s not widely known, but US contractors are the only technicians loading bombs and maintaining Saudi war planes. They operate under control of the U.S. government.

“If the US doesn’t give permission,” to the contractors, a former US diplomat told me, “it would shut down the Saudi Air Force.”

In the Senate, liberal Democrats and principled Republicans introduced a measure under the War Powers Act to withhold US support for the Yemen War. The Act provides that the president must seek Congressional approval for any military activity abroad lasting more than 60 days.

Progressives like Bernie Sanders and some liberal Democrats wanted to end the undeclared war. Five Republicans also voted for the bill. The Republican senators were particularly concerned with the constitutional issue, according to Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor of The American Conservative magazine.

“They are fed up with successive presidential administrations that say they can wage war without Congressional approval,” Vlahos told me in an interview.

Libertarians and principled Republicans have long opposed US military intervention in the Middle East. Vlahos doesn’t buy the Pentagon argument that US troops are purely advisory. “Refueling jets is more than advising soldiers how to use their guns.”

On March 20, the Senate voted 55-44 to send the bill back to the Foreign Relations Committee, killing it for the time being. While the Senate effort failed, the battle against US intervention continues.

To better understand the Yemen catastrophe, let’s go back to the Arab Spring of 2011. Mass demonstrations had brought down the pro-US dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. Popular uprisings threatened regimes in Syria, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia. In Yemen, the people were determined to overthrow the corrupt, pro-US dictator Ali Saleh.

So the Obama administration and Saudi leaders decided to oust Saleh in favor of his vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Unfortunately for them, Hadi proved to be incompetent and had little popular support. The Houthi movement based in northern Yemen seized the capital of Sanaa and all of northern Yemen. Hadi fled and has spent almost all of the past three years issuing decrees from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Ansar Allah, commonly known as the Houthis, is a conservative political Islamist group based mostly among Shia Muslims. Human rights groups have documented Houthi human rights violations such as illegal use of landmines, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

Ansar Allah receives political and financial support from Iran, and several UN reports indicate Iran provides weapons as well.  Iranian officials I have interviewed deny that Tehran provides military support to the Houthis and, in fact, considers Yemen a very low priority compared to their activities in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In reality, the Houthis are an independent political and military movement not under Iran’s control.

Saudi vilification of the Houthis serves as the excuse for a massive Saudi bombing campaign. It also deflects from Saudi cooperation with the local Al Qaeda affiliate.

For years successive US administrations have used drones to assassinate members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist group infamous for training the “underwear bomber” and carrying out numerous attacks on civilians.  

Washington argues it must keep US troops in Yemen and continue drone strikes to fight AQAP. But the Saudi war in Yemen has helped strengthen AQAP.

Saudi affiliated fighters have joined with AQAP to fight the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda both profess strong, right-wing interpretations of Sunni Islam and use that as a justification to attack the mostly Shia Muslim Houthi movement.

To make matters even more complicated, the Saudi alliance with the UAE is fraying at the seams. The UAE recently decided to back the Southern Transitional Council, a Yemeni group that demands secession for the southern part of Yemen. The STC, with UAE backing, now controls much of the key southern Yemeni city of Aden, causing great anger in Riyadh.     

So the war in Yemen does not pit endangered Saudi Arabia against expansionist Iran, as portrayed in Washington. The Trump administration backs Saudi Arabia as part of its geopolitical battle for hegemony in the region. In addition Saudi Arabia has some of the world’s largest oil reserves, and the region remains an important source of US oil company profits.

The Senate failed to invoke the War Powers Act, but the relatively close vote indicates the level of discontent with the Yemen War. “Forcing the vote was a big deal,” said editor Vlahos. “Most people don’t know about it.”

The United States is now at war in six countries in the broader Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. There will come a day when the American people understand the massive cost in lives and treasure. The day of reckoning will come sooner than the Trump administration thinks.

 

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. The revised and updated edition of his book “The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis” ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Australia solved the gun problem. We can too

A lot of us don't realize our retirement funds are in companies that make guns like the deadly AR-15

 

Progressives aren’t supposed to say this. But none of the major gun control proposals now being debated in Washington would actually stop mass shootings. I know that sounds heretical, or even worse, like an echo of the National Rifle Association line. But it’s true.

An AR-15 style assault rifle, perfectly legal in the US

Let’s take a look:

Ban sales of AR-15 and other assault rifles. Assault rifles are deadly. But other semi-automatic weapons, which would not be banned, are just as dangerous. And even if all semi-automatic rifles were banned, Americans still have access to plenty of deadly ordinance. In 1966 a shooter at the University of Texas used a bolt action and pump action rifles to murder 14 and wound 31.

Better background checks will stop the shooters. Such checks might stop a random shooter or two, but almost all the recent mass killers would have passed background checks. Proposed stricter background checks would not stop gun sales to the severely mentally ill.

Require gun purchasers to be 21. Ask any teens who have had an adult buy them bottles of alcohol how well that works. In a number of recent shootings, young teens stole guns from their parents’ gun cabinets.

There’s a fundamental flaw in gun reform laws currently under consideration. America is flooded with firearms. Potential mass murderers have access to tens of millions of legal and illegal guns. The spousal abuser or the psychopath can find a very deadly weapon with relative ease. So even the most positive, partial reforms won’t solve the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I support significant reform measures — but for political reasons — not because they will have much immediate impact. The NRA’s stranglehold on US politics must be broken. Oregon took a good step recently by prohibiting domestic abusers and those subject to restraining orders from owning guns. Banning assault rifles and high capacity magazines would definitely weaken the gun lobby’s power.

And I think it’s time Americans seriously consider gun reform that would actually stop mass killings. Australians did it and so can we.

The US and Australia share some common history. The British sent settlers to occupy colonial land, although the Australians had to get out of prison first. Both countries encouraged gun ownership by white settlers, Rebecca Peters, a representative of Australia’s International Action Network on Small Arms, told me. “Early settlers depended on killing animals and the indigenous people who lived there before.”

And in modern times both countries had strong gun lobbies paid for by firearm manufacturers. The Australian gun lobby had blocked effective gun control at both the federal and state levels.

For Australians, everything changed on April 28, 1996. That day a young curly haired, blond man brought an AR-15 and another semi–automatic rifle to the popular tourist town of Pt. Arthur in southeastern Tasmania. He fired randomly, killing 35 people and wounding 18. The massacre of men, women and children shocked Australians much like the Parkland, Florida impacted Americans.

But the Aussies did something about it.

Just 12 days after the shooting, conservative Prime Minister John Howard brought together legislators to pass comprehensive, national gun control laws. But what appeared to be a legislative miracle was actually the culmination of years of grass-roots efforts.

Local activists and public health professionals had been educating the public since the late 1980s, said Peters. They found a sympathetic audience among trade unionists and some Labor Party politicians. “We built a solid grassroots movement,” she said. “We didn’t just leap into tragedy mode after a shooting.”

Activists called for universal gun registration, and it was just as controversial in Australia as in the US. The gun lobby argued that the government would confiscate everyone’s guns.

Simon Chapman, emeritus professor in public health at the University of Sydney, remembers the most effective argument gun reform campaigners made on that topic.

“We register cars,” he would say. “We register boats. We even register dogs. So what’s the problem in registering guns?”

So in the spring of 1996, the federal parliament passed a comprehensive measures that included:

All semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns were banned, as were high capacity magazines.

The government purchased existing firearms that had been banned, paying retail plus 10 percent.

All firearms were registered and new buyers were required to prove a “genuine reason” for gun ownership such as hunting or target practice at a shooter’s club.

New gun owners must wait 28 days to take delivery, be subject to a comprehensive background check, and take a gun safety course.

The results were striking. There have been no mass shootings. Gun murders and suicides have dropped precipitously. There are 200 fewer deaths every year as a result of gun control, according to Peters.

And, oh yes, hunters continue to hunt, and target shooters continue to plink. No armies of jack booted police have stormed private residences to seize weapons.

Australia’s stringent gun control laws aren’t likely to be adopted in the U.S. anytime soon. But we can learn something from their political organizing.

Today, the NRA stops even the smallest gun reforms from passing the U.S Congress. But other, seemingly undefeatable lobbies nave been weakened. Look at Big Tobacco and the right-wing Cuba Lobby. The NRA could be next.

Today the NRA faces a formidable enemy. The Parkland high school students have sparked grass-roots efforts among other students and their parents. They’ve sat in at the Florida state house and in the U.S. Senate.

Peters said grass roots organizing defeated the gun lobby in Australia and it can be done in the US as well. “The NRA uses power of intimidation,” she said. “And they often win the public relations war. But they can be defeated.”

Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. The revised and updated edition of his book The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of US and Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich, friend him on Facebook, Reese Erlich Foreign Correspondent, and visit his webpage www.ReeseErlich.com.