Foreign Correspondent

Trump: The sudden anti-war champion?

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy -- but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

Last week President Donald Trump surprised the world, and much of his own staff, by announcing plans to pull more than 2,000 US troops out of Syria. Then he said he would cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan in half.

Trump confounds everyone with his latest foreign policy — but the US should never have been in Syria or Afghanistan in the first place. Photo Antiwarcom

In response, Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and special envoy to Syria Brett McGurk resigned. Conservative Republicans denounced Trump. The foreign policy establishment in general went bonkers, claiming Trump was endangering national security.

Some liberals and progressives were confused. They want to see a withdrawal of troops from unjust wars but were concerned with Trump’s impetuous and unilateral methods.

So let’s set the record straight. The US never should have invaded Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan in the first place. The US is not bringing democracy to the region. It wages wars of occupation to further Washington’s rapacious economic and geopolitical designs.

Yes, Trump failed to consult with allies, ignored his closest advisors, and left the Kurds in the lurch.

But have no illusions. Even if future President Bernie Sanders negotiated a phased troop withdrawal from the region, he would come under vicious attack by big business Democrats and Republicans. That’s what President Barak Obama faced when he pulled US troops out of Iraq in 2011 even though he was implementing a legally binding agreement reached between President George W. Bush and the Iraqi government.

For the ruling elite in Washington, there’s never a good time to end a war. They voluntarily pull out combat troops only with the installation of permanent, pro-US regimes, and that isn’t about to happen in Syria or Afghanistan.

Trump’s policy, however mangled, actually reflects a popular American consensus against the never-ending wars of aggression.

Monica Toft, a professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told me Trump is playing to his political base.

“People would like the troops to come home,” she said. “But you don’t do it in such a rash manner.”

Will the US really pull out?

Pentagon officials, caught off guard by Trump’s tweet on the Syria withdrawal, quickly announced contingency plans to continue the Syria war through other means. It may launch commando raids and missile strikes into Syria from bases in neighboring Iraq. Trump endorsed this policy during a surprise visit to Iraq on Dec. 26. So we’ll have to see what the administration’s policy will be in practice.

Winding down the 17-year-old Afghanistan war is even more complicated. Trump said he would cut the troops to 7,000, but that was only after he increased the troop strength to 15,000 in 2017. So, the announced withdrawal will leave only about 1,500 fewer troops than the 8500 stationed there when Trump took office.

I think the US lost the war in Afghanistan long ago. The country is ruled by corrupt, drug-dealing warlords. The Taliban controls much of the country outside the major cities, and can carry out armed assaults at will on the capital Kabul.

When the Obama administration surged100,000 troops into Afghanistan in 2009, it couldn’t win the war. So 7,000 soldiers certainly can’t. The only question is which US president will be in office when foreign troops are forced out. It remains to be seen if Trump will accept being blamed for “losing Afghanistan.” In reality the country was never his to lose.

What happens to Rojava?

Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria apparently began with a phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Dec. 14. Erdogan promised his troops would eliminate the remnants of the Islamic State that still hold territory along the Syrian-Iraqi border. But first he would wipe out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led armed movement allied with the US fighting in northern Syria (Rojava).

Several days after the phone call, the Pentagon agreed to sell Patriot Missiles to Turkey in a $3.5 billion deal that profits US arms manufacturers.

Turkey characterizes the SDF and its allied political movements as separatists and terrorists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey. In reality the SDF calls for a decentralized federal state with autonomy for Rojava within a Syrian state.

Turkey has its own political agenda in Syria. It cobbled together an armed militia called the Free Syrian Army that consists of some 2,000 castoffs from various right-wing political Islamist groups. These Sunni groups are closer ideologically to the Islamic State than to any version of civil society.

So Erdogan is unlikely to pursue the Islamic State with the same vigor as his war on the Kurds. Turkey hopes to defeat the Kurds and use its control of northern Syria as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the government of President Bashar al Assad. Syria has a long-standing territorial dispute with Turkey and fears Erdogan will annex part of northern Syria.

Turkish control of Rojava would be a disaster, according to Brace Belden, a San Francisco resident who fought with the Kurdish forces. He was surprised by Trump’s tweet.

He doesn’t call for US troops to remain, however. “From the beginning I opposed an alliance with the US. The timing surprised me, but the betrayal was inevitable.”

He said the US should pressure Turkey through diplomatic means not to invade Rojava. Instead of selling a new missile system to Turkey, Trump should cut off all arms sales if Turkey attacks Rojava, he said. The US also has a responsibility to provide money to rebuild areas of Syria flattened by US bombs.

The SDF faces a serious crisis but has a number of options. Their leaders traveled recently to Paris seeking support from the French government.

SDF leaders said they might have to release some 3,200 Islamic State prisoners and 2,080 of their family members now being held in SDF detention. It was a thinly veiled threat to Trump and the Europeans that they can’t take the SDF for granted.

SDF leaders are also holding negotiations with the Assad government. Belden said they discussed relinquishing control of oil fields near Deir Ezzor, a part of Syria controlled by the SDF but not part of Rojava.  

“There are some indications that the PYD [Democratic Union Party, the political leadership of the SDF] is dropping its demands for federalism because that’s unacceptable to Assad,” said Belden.

The SDF is also urging the Russians to prevent a Turkish attack. Deterring such an offensive would benefit both Russia and Syria, according to Prof. Toft.

“A Turkish attack would open another front in this war,” she said. “Stopping a Turkish incursion is in Russia’s interest as well.”

Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios

Assuming the US actually pulls troops out of Syria, it will set off a complicated set of reactions. The SDF could reach an agreement with Russia and Assad that blocks a Turkish invasion and allows Syrian government troops back into northern Syria.

The worst-case scenario would be a Turkish occupation of Rojava and a continued splintering of the Syrian nation.

As for Afghanistan, the Trump administration could learn from its mistakes in Syria and plan a quick but phased withdrawal. As Rep. Ro Khanna (Dem-California) wrote, “There should be a short timeline for bringing home our troops to allow for a smooth transition. We should engage in direct talks with the Taliban and seek a negotiated settlement, involving regional actors such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, and India.”

Trump learning from his mistakes and acting diplomatically? Fat chance. But, hey, the US will have to withdraw from the region sooner or later. It may just start on Trump’s watch.

The US empire is learning that the only thing harder than starting a war is ending it. 

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears regularly in 48hills. His book The 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.


Sex, Russia, and impeachment

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

NEW YORK –America’s largest city is abuzz over the latest revelations about Donald Trump’s crimes. I’m here on A book tour discussing Iran, but audiences want to know if Trump will be impeached.

Court documents filed in the case of Trump’s long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen show The Donald paid off two women with whom he had sexual relations. Prosecutors consider the payments, totaling several hundred thousand dollars, to be illegal campaign contributions because they were explicitly used to prevent scandal during the 2016 presidential race.

There are plenty of reasons to impeach Trump; Russia may not be one of them.

Top Democratic Party leaders admit those payments constitute impeachable offenses, but have so far not called for impeachment. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (Dem-NY), who will head the House Judiciary Committee in January, has become the master of equivocation.

“Well, they would be impeachable offenses,” he told CNN. “Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question.”

Case for impeachment

In my opinion, Trump is guilty of a number of high crimes and misdemeanors. He has escalated the undeclared wars in Syria and Yemen. He obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey and lied about meetings his advisors had with Russians.

Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction, has been building a grass-roots movement for impeachment over the past two years. (Solomon is also co-author with me of the book Target Iraq.) He said Trump regularly violates the Constitution’s emoluments clause. The Trump family directly benefits from foreign governments renting rooms in Trump hotels in Washington DC., among other shading business dealings.

“Trump has been violating these clauses since his first day as president,” Solomon told me.

I think pursuing impeachment is one legitimate tactic by what is emerging as a broad anti-Trump movement. For now, the Republican-dominated Senate is not likely to convict Trump. By voting for impeachment in the House, but losing in the Senate, the Democrats could end up strengthening Trump. But new evidence may yet emerge. And even a House vote to impeach would force Trump to focus on defending himself, and potentially reduce his ability to wreak havoc on the government.

Last year 58 members of the House voted to debate impeachment. Democrats now hold a majority and the party base remains very angry at Trump’s corruption and despotism. The House could start impeachment hearings at anytime and enjoy considerable popular support.

Russia Connection?

You noticed that I didn’t mention Trump’s collusion/conspiracy with Putin as one of the impeachable offenses. I think liberals have overplayed that connection, and it’s likely to backfire.

To date, there’s no evidence that Trump cooperated with Russia to illegally influence the 2016 elections or adopt pro-Russian policies as a quid pro quo for favorable business dealings.

Yes, the Russians spent a few hundred thousand dollars to set up fake social media sites to attack Hillary Clinton and support Trump. But, despite the liberal outcry, it had relatively small impact.

Trump won by less than 80,000 votes in three key states. The Democrats lost because Trump appealed to alienated white voters and the Clinton campaign tilted right rather than mobilizing new voters with a progressive program.

Yes, high level Trump officials met with Russians in hopes of getting dirt on Clinton. And Trump’s campaign advocated easing Russian sanctions and establishing better relations with Putin.

But those activities are just as easily explained as political maneuvers rather than conspiracies. Trump was looking for whatever support he could get. During the campaign he sometimes professed an isolationist foreign policy that included improving relations with Russia. For their part, Russian leaders hoped for an end to Hillary Clinton’s liberal interventionism.

If Putin and Trump had a secret deal, why did Trump immediately appoint ultra-conservative interventionists to key cabinet posts, who then cranked up hostility with Russia?

For too many Democrats, Putin bashing also serves a convenient political purpose, according to Alan MacLeod, a researcher at Glasgow Media Group.

“If Russia is to blame, there is no need for introspection, nor to cede political ground to progressives,” he told me. “Instead it can be business as usual. There is no need to change policies, reflect upon a poorly run campaign, … or to understand why their policies failed to inspire the American public.”

Attacking Trump from the right

Insisting on a Putin-Trump conspiracy also promotes Russia as a dangerous enemy, and allows Democrats to attack Trump from the right on national security issues.

Nancy Pelosi, who will become speaker of the House, summed up the mainstream Democratic Party view succinctly earlier this year.

 “It seems that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer,” she said. 

The new Russian boogie man not only challenges the United States in eastern Europe and the Middle East, it threatens our democratic elections, according to leading liberals.

Earlier this year Rep. Nadler and other Democratic House leaders called for increased sanctions against Russia. Nadler proclaimed, “If we do not take any action, the American people may not trust the outcome of the next election.”

 As it turns out, Russian midterm election interference never materialized.

In reality Russia is a lesser imperialist power compared to the United States, or even Britain and France. It seeks hegemony in a limited number of places, such as the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and more recently, in parts of the Middle East. Putin heads an authoritarian government that oppresses the Russian people. But Russia is no more threat to the people of United States than any other lesser imperialist power. We face far greater threats from the neocons currently occupying the White House.

I view Russian interference in US elections the same way I see its espionage. Both countries carry out illegal spying on one another. Occasionally a spy is caught. One side self righteously denounces the other, but no one believes espionage will topple either government.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 58% of the American people favor improving relations with Russia while only 38% want more sanctions. So in both factual and practical terms, the Democrats should stop braying about the Trump-Putin conspiracy and focus on the White House’s real crimes.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48Hills. His 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 onFacebook; and visit his webpage.

Senate tumult reflects popular discontent with Yemen War

On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (pictured) and Mike Lee co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Photo by Gage Skidmore

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT I’m on a low-budget book tour, sleeping in spare bedrooms and munching granola in the kitchens of progressives all along the East Coast. Many had felt beaten down and pessimistic from two years of Trumpism. But I now sense some optimism and a renewed fighting spirit.

Just look at the surprising battle in the Senate over US participation in the Yemen War. On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (Dem-Vermont) and Mike Lee (Rep-Utah) co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Trump tried to quash the effort, but 63 Democratic and Republican senators defied the administration and voted to discharge the bill from committee so it can be voted on as early as the first week of December.

On Nov. 28, Senators Bernie Sanders (pictured) and Mike Lee co-sponsored a War Powers Resolution calling for an end to U.S. participation in the conflict. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Senators were reacting to Trump’s failure to take decisive action against Saudi leaders responsible for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

But the Senate tumult also reflects the overwhelming American sentiment against the Yemen War, according to Cole Harrison, executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action and a friend.

“Saudi Arabia has one of the most hated regimes in the Middle East,” he told me. “It’s a repressive dictatorship. The murder of Khashoggi was just the spark that lit a fire.”

Humanitarian crisis

In March of 2015 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen. They claim the Houthis are controlled by Iran and part of an Iranian plan to dominate the region. In fact, the Houthis are an indigenous political Islamist movement allied with, but not controlled by Iran. The Saudi military promised a quick victory, but the war has dragged on for over three and a half years.

In June of this year Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an offensive to seize the important port city of Hudaydah, declaring it would be a “turning point” in the war. Instead the offensive bogged down in a war of attrition, with no victory in sight.

International relief organizations now consider the Yemen War the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The country faces a devastating cholera epidemic. An estimated 14 million Yemenis are on the brink of starvation and 85,000 children have already died of hunger. The Royal Saudi Air Force intentionally targets civilians according to a UN report and human rights groups.

“The human rights community has played a key role in exposing Saudi atrocities,” peace activist Harrison said.

Grassroots groups are also building opposition to the Yemen War. Four activist organizations took out full page ads in local daily newspapers urging support for the War Powers Act resolutions.

Eric Eikenberry, Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Yemen Peace Project, one of the groups sponsoring the ad, said, “Many in the administration … inanely think that other countries will bear the brunt of both blame and accountability. With a potential famine impacting millions, we can only hope that Congress acts with more foresight, and more humanity.”

A few Republican senators have also come out against the war, such as resolution co-sponsor Senator Mike Lee.

“This is a war of bipartisan creation,” he noted. “A Democratic president has gotten us involved in a civil war in Yemen. We now have a Republican president, and that war has continued.”

Potential presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have spoken out against the war. Representative Ro Khanna (Dem-California) introduced a War Powers Act resolution in the House, but Republicans used parliamentary maneuvers to block its consideration. Democratic Party leaders have promised to allow debate on the anti-Yemen War resolution when they take control of the House in January.

Passage of the War Powers Act resolutions are far from certain. While Democrats won the majority in the House, conservative, mainstream Democrats will head key committees such as foreign affairs, intelligence and armed services.

“Some good new Democrats were elected from whom we can expect a more progressive stand on foreign policy, but plenty of absolutely terrible Democrats were elected too,” according to Howie Klein, founder of the Down with Tyranny blogspot, which specializes in analyzing the House of Representatives. (Disclosure: Klein’s website carries Foreign Correspondent.)

Don’t rely on Congress

While the House and Senate debates are significant, don’t hold your breath waiting for Congress to stop the war. Because the House can’t vote on the resolution during the lame duck session, anything  passed by the Senate would have to be re-introduced next year. Trump could veto the measure, thus requiring a two-thirds vote in both houses to override.

That’s why building a grassroots movement is so important. Peace activist Harrison admits that the anti-war movement is quite small these days. But he has seen increased activism on the issue of Israel and Palestine, and expects to see more interest in opposing Trump’s other Middle East policies as well.

A recent opinion poll shows 75 percent of Americans oppose the Yemen War and 57 percent oppose all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Increasing numbers of people are seeing the connection between Trump’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies, according to Harrison.

“The United States wastes trillions on war when we could use those funds for vital domestic programs,” he said.

As I continue my book tour talking about The Iran Agenda Today, I’ll keep readers posted on the growing anti-war sentiment and prospects for building a wider movement.

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 U.S. Policy ­is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Israel loses politically in Gaza battle

The Israeli blockade severely limits the import of medicine, gasoline and other essential goods into Gaza. Children and other civilians suffer. Photo by Reese Erlich

Earlier this week the Israeli military and armed groups in Gaza clashed in the worst fighting since their 2014 war. Israeli planes bombed Palestinians, killing seven, wounding 26 and destroying numerous office and apartment buildings. Palestinian groups fired rockets and mortars into Israel, killing one civilian and wounding 18. Both sides agreed to an uneasy ceasefire, but the key political issues are unresolved.

The Israeli blockade severely limits the import of medicine, gasoline and other essential goods into Gaza. Children and other civilians suffer. Photo by Reese Erlich

Israel dominated the fighting militarily, but Palestinians nonetheless celebrateda victory because they forced Israel to back down and agree to a ceasefire.

In a tacit admission of political defeat, Israeli politicians bickered among themselves. The Israeli defense minister resigned and right-wing politicians clamored for the head of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, complaining he had ended the conflict too soon.

Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center,told me that months of Palestinian protests at the Israeli border, combined with resistance to the most recent attacks, have produced empathy for Palestinians.

“It’s hard to see what’s happening without sympathizing with the occupied people and being outraged about the U.S. support for Israel,” she said.

Some Gaza history

Gaza consists of a small strip of land along the Israel-Egypt border, 25 miles long and five miles wide. Gaza is packed with two million residents.

It was created in the wake of the 1948 war that established the state of Israel and drove out many of its Arab residents. Gaza was ruled by Egypt until seized by Israel in the 1967 war, during which Israel also took the West Bank and the Golan region in Syria. Israeli settlers and military personnel occupied Gaza but faced such strong political and armed resistance that Israel was forced to withdraw in 2005.

If peace talks for a two-state solution ever succeed, Gaza and the West Bank would become an independent Palestinian state, living in peace alongside Israel.

In 2006 Hamas, a conservative political Islamic party, won parliamentary elections in both the West Bank and Gaza. Israel and the United States rejected the election results and assisted Fatah, the other major Palestinian party, in taking control of the West Bank a year later. Hamas took power in Gaza.

Israel has imposed a harsh blockade controlling sea, air and land access to Gaza. It limits the amount of food, medicine and fuel that enters, and curtails the export of Gaza’s agricultural and manufactured products. Palestinian fishing boats can’t even venture further than a few miles offshore without facing attack by the Israeli Navy.

“It’s similar to the daily reality of prisoners,” said Palestinian activist Kiswani. “Nothing can get in or out. They live in fear of being bombed. But people are still organizing.”

Every week since March, Palestinian youth have demonstrated at the Israeli border. Israeli soldiers killed at least 214 Palestinians, mostly with live fire, and wounded over 18,000.

Nevertheless Israeli authorities portray their country as the victim. Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon argued that Hamas intentionally targets civilians while Israel bombs only military sites.

“There is a side that attacks and fires 400 rockets toward civilians and there is a side that protects its civilians,” he said. “Every member country in the Security Council ought to ask itself how it would respond after a barrage of missiles is fired at its people.”

Ellen Brotsky, a Bay Area activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, told me that’s a phony argument. The Israeli military knows Gaza “is an open air prison with civilians all over. It’s not possible to separate out civilians in any bombing, and the Israelis know this.”

Recent clashes

Before the recent fighting, the Israeli government and Hamas had reached an informal ceasefire. Feeling international and domestic pressure from nine months of border protests, Israel had allowed Gaza to import diesel fuel, food and medicine. It allowed Qatar to bring in three suitcases stuffed with $15 million in cash to pay Gaza’s civil servants. Qatar supports Hamas politically and has provided economic aid in the past.

Then Israel got cocky. It sent a commando squad into Gaza to assassinate a Palestinian military leader, according to Hamas. Israel claimed the raid was designed to install surveillance equipment in the home of the Hamas leader.

Palestinian security discovered the Israelis and a firefight broke out, killing one Israeli officer and seven Palestinians. Israeli leaders portray such deadly raids as routine. But as Yousef Munayyer, executive director of US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, tweeted, “Imagine if Palestinians crossed into Israel and killed … Israelis. All hell would break loose. But Palestinians are expected just to accept this.”

Hamas and Islamic Jihad responded to the raid by firing some 460 rockets and mortars into Israeli cities close to the border. They also fired an anti-tank rocket at a bus carrying Israeli soldiers, seriously wounding one.

Israeli officials have long assured the Israeli public that their U.S. designed Iron Dome system will intercept enemy rockets midair. But press accounts indicate Iron Dome only stopped about 100, having been overwhelmed by the sheer number in the Palestinian assault.

Israel deploys a huge variety of other hi-tech weaponry in an effort to halt Palestinian resistance. But it hasn’t worked.

When Israel stopped goods from arriving by land, Palestinians dug smuggling tunnels to nearby Egypt. When Israel cut off sea access to prevent arms smuggling, Palestinians created a cottage industry of homemade rockets and mortars. When Israel’s hi-tech sensors discovered tunnels being dug into Israel from Gaza, Palestinians sent kites and balloons with incendiary devices to burn Israeli fields.

I am opposed to intentional attacks on civilians by either side. But the recent fighting in Gaza demonstrates once again that Israel can’t win the war militarily. As I’ve reported before, Israeli and Palestinian leaders know the broad outlines for a peace settlement. The only question is how long will Israeli leaders reject meaningful negotiations?

“Israel cannot military solve the situation with Palestine,” said Jewish Voice for Peace activist Brotsky. “There has to be a political solution which recognizes the land belongs to Palestinians as well.”

In 2016 Al Jazeera TV sent an undercover reporter to investigate the illegal activities of the Israel lobby in the United States. Reactionary Jewish-American groups pressured the Qatar government, funder of Al Jazeera, not to air it. But a digital version is now online. It’s worth checking out.

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

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.