Adiós, Abdullah

Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz

What will happen to Ali al-Naimi now?

Late last year the Saudi Oil Minister plunged the states of OPEC into a dangerous zero-sum game with their new rivals, the Russian energy oligarchs and the fracking states of America. The Saudi strategy of maintaining the OPEC oil quota at 30 million barrels per day and keeping the price at $100 per barrel sent Brent crude into freefall, burning through Saudi foreign currency reserves and alarming more cautious investors (including the largest, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal). This radical plan was designed by al-Naimi with the full support of his ally, King Abdullah. Questions being asked by interested observers at the beginning of the year included: how long can this policy last? How will it end? What if Abdullah dies?

Abdullah is dead. Hospitalised in December, visibly old and ailing, this still came as a surprise. To some, concerned about murky succession rights, it was a nasty shock. Abdullah and al-Naimi’s strategic gamble, their bid to maintain Saudi Arabia’s domination of the global oil market in response to the challenge of innovative, high-cost extractors, is just one example of Abdullah’s management of local and global perils during his decade-long “official” reign (he was the power behind the throne during Fahd’s final incapacitated years). His reaction to adversity swung from caution to impulse. He was canny and could display a Machiavellian touch (he successfully neutralised the Sudairi threat of Sultan and Nayef, for example), but was also inconsistent and sometimes incompetent. A servant of the Saudi system, he was too weak to master the massive regional forces ripping apart his Kingdom.

It is interesting to note that when King Fahd died in 2005 he received indulgent tributes in the West, despite being a disaster for everybody who opposed and supported him: a grotesque wastrel, he almost destroyed the al-Saud clan through his own corruption and decadence, while allowing Wahhabi extremists to run amok at home and abroad. When Crown Prince Nayef expired in 2012, the tone was one of dumb tribute mixed with bored indifference for a man who courted and protected the hard-line Wahhabi establishment, underpinning a global jihadi network that tried to assassinate his own son (the new deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, incidentally). Abdullah’s iniquity did not match these ogres, but he was fully implicated in the same controversies. As Stephen Schwartz recounts in his powerful anti-Saud polemic The Two Faces of Islam, when Abdullah (then Crown Prince) visited George W. Bush in Crawford in 2002, he arrived with the sole intention of compelling the President to call Ariel Sharon (then engaged in a West Bank offensive against Fatah) to account. In the preceding months, the Saudis had refused to comply with a perfunctory request to freeze and seize bank accounts of Saudi citizens involved in terrorist activities abroad or even provide advance passenger lists for flights to the U.S. Furthermore, evidence had just surfaced exposing Saudi funding for the Hamas suicide bombing campaign, and the promotion and glorification of anti-Israeli terrorism in state-controlled media. This culpable intransigence and incitement, fully replicated by Nayef during his tenure as Interior Minister, is not mentioned in any obituary I have read. But it is always worth revisiting, as it begs questions the House of Saud adeptly dodge through energy bribes and legal threats. (It is also worth recalling the saga of Robert O. Collins and Millard Burr’s Alms for Jihad, an important work that detailed Saudi funding for the global terror network, but was pulled from publication by Cambridge University Press after the threat of a libel action lawsuit filed by Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz. Scarce second hand library copies continue to trade for fluctuating, but always high, prices.)

Now Abdullah has died and with the rise of ISIS, the shadows of Paris, the lashing of a liberal blogger and the public beheading of an alleged murderess, he has not been given the same lenient pass granted to Fahd and Nayef. This is an improvement, by any standards. With Union Jacks drooping at half mast over Buckingham Palace (the Windsors are long-standing chums of their al-Saud fellow monarchs), and after Cameron paid his inevitable moist tribute, the Independent felt able to run with the tart headline ‘Britain Mourns a Tyrant’. In fact, of all his predecessors, from Ibn Saud to Fahd, and in comparison to recent rivals Sultan and Nayef, Abdullah was the least “tyrannical” and the best of many bad options, but not necessarily the best option. He was the head of a tyrannical system.

But this is not all he was. Unlike Fahd, he took charge of his state’s affairs, and understood them. Fahd bore responsibility for his catastrophic misrule, but Abdullah took responsibility for his country’s course (it has no cause beyond that of the Wahhabi establishment, to which Abdullah kept some distance). In 2005, I listened to formerly jaded Saudi friends (London residents) express optimism about Abdullah: at least he wouldn’t be laid prostrate after gambling and booze binges; he could even bring political reform to Saudi Arabia. They were doomed to disappointment, but there was something like this during Abdullah’s rule: restricted municipal elections in 2005 and 2011, the extension of certain education and voting rights to women, the hint of a possibility that they might be allowed to drive one day. However, Abdullah’s tentative political tinkering was abruptly reversed by the other disaster to hit the House of Saud after the discovery of fracking: the Arab Spring.

From 2011, everything that could possibly go wrong for Abdullah went wrong. His friend and ally Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in Egypt, abandoned by an American administration keen to court the Muslim Brotherhood (the Saudis had to buy a military coup to roll back that disaster). The Assad regime was hit by a ruinous uprising that gave the al-Saud’s regional and religious arch-rival Iran license to operate within Syrian territory. The Saudi counter-attack was badly mismanaged by Prince Bandar who promiscuously aided murderous Sunni Islamist groups, eventually creating the space and climate for the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis also clashed with Turkey and Qatar when Erdoğan and the al-Thanis backed Muslim Brotherhood brigades in the Syrian civil war. In Bahrain, a popular Shi’ite protest against the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty (encouraged by Iran and, bizarrely, a suddenly active Ahmed Chalabi) became such a serious threat to the Gulf monarchical principal that Abdullah felt impelled to dispatch the National Guard across the King Fahd causeway to quell the rebellion; on Saudi behest, Pearl Square was reduced to rubble. The repercussions rolled back into the Kingdom: Shi’ite unrest and agitation in the Eastern Province continued to cause problems for Riyadh (and will do, according to Toby Matthiesen’s new account of The Other Saudis) . All of this further undermined the special relationship with America, already edgy as the Republic made rapid progress towards energy independence.

In the end, Abdullah’s only real achievement was to outlive Sultan and Nayef. In that limited capacity and through that personal political triumph, he saved the world and his subjects from far worse. That’s something, but it’s also beside the point. Saudi Arabia is a long and lingering global disaster. Abdullah propped it up, as safely as any of the other likely candidates could have. The succession has been secured because the more dangerous alternatives are all dead. The Saudi system remains, however, and the longer it persists, the more damaging and explosive its end will be.

Posted in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Terror Network, USA | Leave a comment

The Political Aesthetics of Euromaidan

Ukraine Arms

Of all the post-Soviet politicians in Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko exploited symbols better than any other. She still does, of course, but her tools are more brutal and necessarily restricted now: the hunger strike, the communiqué and the street banner. During the national drama that erupted at the end 2004 she took a physical stand – not just in terms of the security risk involved in opposing an out-of-control, Putin-backed Party of Regions election campaign, but in the way she used her looks, altered her style, and switched regional allegiance. She did what ambitious Eastern Ukrainian politicians have to do – she learnt the Ukrainian language, to complement if not replace her Russian first tongue. When Yanukovych did this, embarking on years of linguistic struggle, it was a political requirement: necessary for the nationalist vote, particularly in the alienated Western oblasts. For Tymoshenko, learning the Ukrainian language was not simply a necessity, or even a tactic: it was a specific and politically loaded identification.

This was highlighted and underlined by a sartorial masterstroke: her adoption and modernization of traditional Ukrainian dress. Her tailored vyshyvanka and crown of braids were not just stylish selections, they were cleverly coded. Tymoshenko’s image communicated a nuanced political position – a finely-balanced and calibrated centre-right nationalism at some remove from the quasi-fascist ethno-nationalism of Svoboda (formerly the, uh, Social-National Party) and pointing towards European integration, her eventual Batkivshchyna party platform. This blend of folk style and modern couture cuts was an elegant and conscious counterpoint to the Russophile trappings and nostalgia of her Party of Regions enemies.

Tymoshenko’s look exemplified the use of synthetic imagery in the post-Soviet politics of Ukraine, which took on increasing importance as divisions deepened. The Orange Revolution was, in its own way, the primary and innovative event, but Orange was an empty color to begin with, simply reflecting Yushchenko’s official party campaign logo. Once the revolt took hold and expanded, Orange and the Maidan became viral symbols, exported to other anti-authoritarian protests across the former Soviet sphere (in 2011, Moscow protestors explicitly tried to engineer a “Russian Maidan”). This was the ultimate triumph of the political branding pioneered by Otpor, Kmara and Pora – its consummation and peak, in many ways. The origin of Orange was ultimately forgotten, and came to symbolize itself – a purely political and dangerous symbolism. It instilled paranoia in Putin, as it deserved to. All of the protest movements that followed tried to engineer their own symbols and color revolutions but ultimately failed, lacking the grass-roots vitality, mass support and creative joie de vivre of the Ukraine carnival. (They were more effectively and brutally countered, too.)

That was a long time ago. Euromaidan is also color-coded, but the color is not Orange which has been purged as a consequence of associated disappointments. This time the protests are drenched blue and yellow – the colors of the Ukraine and EU flags. These flags dominate because this protest, which is about many things, is finally defined by geography, nationality and European “values”. But, then, there are a number of other flags and banners on the Maidan representing sometimes conflicting and sometimes complimentary tendencies, including:

  • The blue and yellow party logo of Svoboda – the ultra-nationalists;
  • The red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), an association designed to provoke the Russians with its anti-Soviet history;
  • The Crimean Tartar/EU hybrid flags;
  • The Ukrainian coat of arms;
  • Foreign national flags, notably Georgia, France and Britain.

The Ukrainian coat of arms has acquired new significance on the Maidan: associated with and used by active anti-communist and pro-independence movements and parties during the Soviet eras, these jostling flags, banners and model tridents are now de facto anti-Russian symbols. The different nationalist organisations and their ideologies – from Fatherland’s mainstream patriotism to Svoboda’s ultra-nationalism — do not oppose EU integration. They do not share the conservative and reactionary Euroscepticism of their Western European equivalents. The logic is not the same. Ukrainian nationalism defines itself against Russian and Soviet imperialism, and the EU and NATO are the only protections against Russian aggression currently available. Georgia is in a similar position, so it is not surprising, given their close contemporary experience, that a large Georgian flag was prominent among the first Maidan crowds.

There is a chaos of contending interests within the protests, each with their own emphasis: pro-European, nationalist, internationalist, anti-authoritarian, anti-Russian. Some students and professors prefer to emphasize continuity with the Occupy movement, with Cairo, Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro. Some retain solidarity with 2003-5 allies in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus, for example, and do not reject the legacy of Rose and Orange – a smaller rump of older activists and party centrists. There are the ultra-nationalist parties, ready to fight the Russian incursion and protect a narrow Ukrainian identity at the expense of all others, with a pronounced suspicion of Jews. There is, finally, an over-arching sense of shame and anger at the Party of Regions gangster state which means that for all of the protest demands, the resignation and impeachment of Yanukovych is the ultimate unifier.

Russia’s international state TV arm, RT, has enjoyed depicting the protesters as superficial and irresponsible students fawned over by an image-obsessed Western media who choose to ignore the pro-Yanukovych, anti-EU demonstrators with their polite, dour pickets. It employs the same aesthetic, but reverses the judgment value. RT crews portray the Euromaidan clatter of banners and flags as jamboree Jacobinism — a misguided moral derangement incited by foreign elements, exploited by sinister fascist groups, and mindlessly (or by sinister design, or both) celebrated by Western reporters and film crews. Here, the stolid, dirt-poor Russian-speaking peasants are the beating heart of Ukraine, a silent moral majority. This is to play the Euromaidan aesthetic against itself. The Twitter hash tag and the RFE Google+ live blog collapse in the face of tractors and red flags. So goes the thudding Kremlin propaganda machine, cranked up to battle a riot of symbols – a Lenin statue topples, a vivid case of West-stoked hooliganism. This is how it plays out from each side, cleaving Ukraine apart, with demographic and political complexities contained in a narrative that is, in fact, as true as it needs to be, depending on your aims.

It is too simple to say, “It is not that simple.”

Posted in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine | Leave a comment

The Haunting of Yulia


A spectre is haunting Ukraine – the spectre of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Her presence has been largely erased from the anti-government protests that have convulsed Kiev since the 21st November, the day President Viktor Yanukovych formally (finally?) abandoned Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. Tymoshenko is not simply invisible, but conspicuous by her absence. Fatherland party loyalists are among opposition leaders and protesters and a few pro-Tymoshenko portraits and banners can be seen on the Maidan, but that is all. Her short-lived hunger strike did not inspire waves of solidarity or even much interest, to her chagrin. Most galling for her – and ironic, and interesting – is the news that former Orange Comrade Victor Yushchenko has shared a conspicuous platform with her arch-foe Leonid Kuchma in support of the protests (Kuchma once described the choice between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko as “bad and very bad”). Tymoshenko — Orange Icon, Gas Princess — is being sidelined by her constituency and her enemies. Shut away in a prison hospital, prize captive of Yanukovych, she has been cut out of the action — her words a pale echo of former stridencies, relayed by loyal daughter Eugenia and almost lost on the freezing Kiev air.

But she is there – and more potent, in some ways, because of her absence. Why? Well, for one thing, the EU controversy is partly about her. Yanukovych surrendered European ambitions to Putin for two complimentary reasons: direct Russian threats, and calls by EU leaders to release Tymoshenko. Despite his status as Russia’s man in Ukraine, Yanukovych has struck a complicated balance between total capitulation to Russian demands and serious flirtation with EU overtures. To be as pro-Russian as Putin demands would be to surrender key elements of sovereignty – over Crimea, over energy policy, over language rights. However, releasing Tymoshenko to satisfy Europe is completely out of the question. As far as he can, Yanukovych runs Ukraine as a family fiefdom (protestors and opponents call his party circle ‘The Family’) and this particular incarceration is not only political, it is also personal. In partial response to this EU demand he has re-orientated Ukraine into the Russian sphere, an alternative orbit defined by the Eastern Partnership and the Customs Union. This puts Ukraine on a political par with Belarus rather than, say, recent Vilnius Summit hosts Lithuania (where, of course, part of this drama played out). As ever, Andrew Wilson is the best English-language commentator on such events.

There is not exactly a base of mass support for Tymoshenko among the current Kiev protestors. She is considered another embezzling oligarch who subordinated the national interest to personal plunder while in power. She comes from the murky world of the Donetsk industrial and energy barons that she now attacks with such ferocity and is viewed with scepticism and suspicion for this reason. Like Victor Yushechnko, her popular support was damaged by the unedifying collapse of the Orange Coalition. She was wholly implicated in that catastrophe – from the personal antagonism and rivalries that poisoned her alliance with Yushchenko to her fatally mismanaged negotiations with Putin that finally fractured the pro-European front. This joint failure led to mass disillusionment and apathy in the civil society of West Ukraine and the restoration of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions cartel.

Actually, as I have argued before, Tymoshenko’s dubious reputation and failure in office is less important than it seems. She was essentially transformed by her violent feud with Kuchma and the grand drama of 2004; she became a transitional and transcendent figurehead despite her past record and ruthless methods. By fashioning a powerful aesthetic image for herself, she physically embodied a pro-European Ukrainian nationalism that rejected the Soviet past and authoritarian Putinism. Ejected from office, tarnished and scarred, she was the only original Orange partner to maintain fierce and vocal resistance to the Party of Regions power-brokers on an international stage. Her furious Rada interventions throughout 2010 – notably when Yanukovych extended the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean base – were unhinged blasts of invective designed to expose the dangerous sell-out of Ukraine to Russian interests. (Meanwhile Yushchenko – the man Putin and Yanukovych were willing to disfigure and probably kill in 2004 – was compliant and compromised, more interested in undermining former allies than the new regime.) There was no option but to jail her – and for as long as possible. For the opposition, with all its disappointments and alterations since 2005, she remained a significant liability. But who else fought their corner with such intensity?

The most charismatic and effective leaders of the Colour Revolutions that rocked Putin’s world in 2003-5 have since been brought low, their administrations sunk and reputations shredded. Nevertheless, they have formed bonds in a pro-European front against the territorial ambitions of Putin and the venality of his external allies and stooges. This was dramatized by the miraculous appearance of Mikheil Saakashvili on Independence Square on Saturday 7th – flanked by former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat, a key-link in the anti-Putin chain, Saakashvili used language provocatively redolent of the days of Orange and Rose. “I am Ukrainian, I am Georgian, I am European,” he blustered proudly, impressively, “I knew that one day Ukraine would become an example of success, an example of an Eastern European nation integrated into the European family of free, democratic, prospering countries. Today I see that I was right. Ukraine will be able to do this – we will do this together.”

Unfortunately for this winged rhetoric, the former Georgian president has just been ejected from office by an administration slightly more amenable to Putin – another victim of the Russian Restoration (or “political has-been” as Kremlin TV station RT kindly put it). Nevertheless, this intervention made the key point: what happens in Kiev still reverberates in Tbilisi, Minsk, Chişinău, Tashkent, Baku, Bishkek and Moscow itself. As Wilson notes, the Russian opposition defeated in the streets during 2011-12 have been transfixed by the Ukraine protests. Belarusians travelling to Kiev in solidarity were denied entry at border crossings, with traffic officers puncturing their tires for good measure. Euromaidan, like the Orange Revolution before it, is a regional – an international – event.

But the risks are huge and the prognosis bleak. In 2003-5, from Freedom Square in Tbilisi to the massacre at Andijon, the revolts became more violent and chaotic as a result of their success – a logic followed by the Arab Spring. After 2005, dictators and their terror proxies took control of the situation as the West capitulated and receded. Since then, revolution and chaos has spread across the Middle East and South America. Western capitalism has been damaged – functionally and symbolically. The global and theoretical status of democracy itself has been diminished to a frightening degree. The U.S. has retreated from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In this context, in 2013, the pro-Western Ukrainians are left with no champion but a chastened and retracting EU — Washington still largely silent. The politicians who led the Orange Revolution in 2004 have failed and been thrown out of office, leaving a motley crew of chancers and sinister ultra-nationalists to capitalize on anti-Yanukovych unrest – and these people are not necessarily pro-European because they are anti-Russian, even if they are anti-Russian.

Euromaidan is leaderless – its objectives improvised and potentially unlimited, both a strength and a weakness. In domestic terms, its enemies are the Party of Regions and Yanukovych’s governing gang, the Communist Party and the Russian Bloc, and a silent majority in the Russian-speaking Eastern oblasts. This uprising, in cities across Ukraine and not only Kiev, is the result of failure, corruption and misrule – of a country handed back to the worst gangsters they have, the very people deposed in 2004 for their criminality. A new administration is needed to bring Ukraine back to Europe, to both follow and strengthen Georgia and Moldova – an administration that echoes the original Orange compact, with the West out-balancing the recidivist East and the democrats keeping grass-roots pressure on authoritarians and nationalists alike. This is partisan idealism and I am fine with that. Ukraine has unique ties with Russia that can’t be dissolved or ignored – complex trade agreements and energy considerations that EU officials failed to understand or fully consider in their botched negotiations. Russia outplayed Europe in this round, but Ukraine has a different fate and a different future articulated time and time again by the crowds who return to Independence Square – the Euromaidan Ukrainians who will not allow their country to remain a jungle dominated by Russian oligarchs, energy mafias, hired thugs and anti-Semitic fascists.

Posted in Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine | Leave a comment

The Fall of the House of Guli


When did Gulnara Karimova’s reign come to an end? Was it the day she posted a photograph of herself doing a Yogic dog on Twitter, or quivered over the fate of slave children in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan during an on-line spat with the European Director of Human Rights Watch? Was it that weird period near the New Year when she scored a duet with Gerard Depardieu and then found herself accused of trying to bribe a Swedish telecoms company that wanted to enter the Uzbek market? Was it when her own beloved father finally moved in on her empire of assets, disbanding her network of micro-oligarch cronies, personal assistants and bodyguards? Or was it the day she publicly accused her sister and her mother of practicing witchcraft and engaging in Satanic rituals? Or, to ask the same question in a different way, what was your favorite moment?

I am not gloating. For a start: who really knows what is going on here? An extraordinary family meltdown has become entwined with the future (the fate) of a fairly strategically significant Central Asian state in a way that harks back to a pre-nationalist era of clan exiles and blood feuds. But, also, there is more to this peculiar case than mere melodrama. Gulnara is the best and worst of a bad bunch: certainly the most enigmatic and extreme (and entertaining) member of the Karimov family. Her wildness, her inability to know when too much is too much, makes her uniquely dangerous for her family and their associates and subjects, but also more engaging for external spectators. Her father is a clever and scheming butcher and her sister — the witch! — a canny GONGO queen and sharp-operating real estate hustler. Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva has kept relatively clean over the last two or three years, but you will notice that she turned up in the Bilan rich list this year, not Gulnara.

The trouble with Gulnara is that she did not want Uzbekistan — she was not content with glorying over her own patch, although it was a good wealth resource and gave her somewhere to go and something to do when the rest of the world began to freeze her out. Gulnara wanted the world. She was not tribal in a particularly ethnocentric or clannish way: her tribe, the one she probably believes she still belongs to, is the trans-national super-rich elite. Her mistake has been to sin against the façade they pay tribute to with words and charitable donations — the respectability of human rights, democracy and discreet transactions. Gulnara, if she could — and she knew she could never divorce herself from her country which conferred some semblance of legitimacy and revenue however queasy this made her European pals feel — would have stayed content and busy in her Zurich-New York-Tashkent axis forever, or until she actually got bored herself or finally got the chance to be President.

This became a problem: she wasn’t, after all, smart enough. Not, it turns out (and this was obvious as far back as 2011) as clever as Lola, who remained safely inside her own circle of Russian and Ukrainian and Uzbek millionaires and musclemen. Based on a patchwork of cronies and her father’s apparent goodwill, Gulnara started to take the Presidential rumors seriously. It was during this last crazy year that anybody paying attention to Uzbekistan from the outside got any sort of confirmation from the (admittedly rather lovely) Mouth of Guli that she was, in fact, contemplating the top job. To slip into it, perhaps, like one of her attractive fabric ikat dresses. Predictably, this got the background machinery going, the murky sub-state of security and regime fixers who saw a somewhat different future for the country. A different kind of nightmare for everybody else — a less colorful and chaotic alternative, one would imagine.

So for the moment, it seems, Guli’s dim hope of succession is over. There is no reason to believe, in this broiling, whip-lash vicious security state, that she is even physically safe. Her security detail has fled the country. Her business associates are on trial, locked up and in exile. Her domestic organizations are now under investigation and her international bank accounts are being frozen. She is the subject of French, Swiss and Swedish probes for money-laundering and bribery. Worst of all, her TV stations have been closed down and her pop songs and fashion galas wiped from the Uzbek airwaves, which they had dominated for so long. But a moment is not forever, and inter-familial feuds can be deep and terminal, or fickle and conditional. Some observers believe that the whole thing is a deep game anyway, a counter-move by the family to put state rivals off-guard. These rumors pay testament to Gulnara’s own mercurial character: is she as wild as we think, or is she as smart as she thinks? In twelve months time I expect we will finally know for sure. This channel is worth watching.

Posted in Uzbekistan | 1 Comment

Ashraf is not Srebrenica


The world should be haunted by the memory of Srebrenica. Camp Ashraf is a Srebrenica in the making and the world has a duty to act.
Baron Alton of Liverpool

On September 1st, Iraqi Special Forces entered what remained of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) enclave Camp Ashraf, shooting dead 52 mujahedeen at close range. The camp was largely evacuated in 2012 with 2000 MEK members relocated to the canvas settlement of Camp Hurriya (former U.S. Camp Liberty), where they have been harried by Iraqi troops ever since. The MEK leadership, based in Paris, has repeatedly appealed to the U.S. and the UN Secretary General for protection and resettlement of the remaining residents. A selection of Senators, Representatives, Lords, MPs, MEPs, UN officials, Human Rights groups, and European and Middle Eastern politicians have criticized Iraqi actions against the mujahedeen, with many explicitly supporting the MEK in their media appearances. In these accounts, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his officials are the agents of Iran, doing Khamenei’s dirty work, and the words “appeasement” and “genocide” are deployed with abandon.

But this is not quite the full or true story. The MEK are former mercenaries of the Saddam Hussein regime who have been on notice in Iraq since 2003 — and legitimately so. They have no support inside Iran or within the wider Iranian diaspora. Camp Ashraf is (or was) not a refugee camp in any normally understood sense, but a vast paramilitary complex that housed armed MEK fighters in conditions of secrecy and entrapment. The rank and file were cut off from the outside world and rigidly segregated; they had no personal lives, access to external media or liberty to leave. Defectors risked their lives while dissenters were locked up, tortured and “re-educated” in the prisons of Ashraf and Abu Ghraib. To this day, MEK members in Iraq and the Western cities in which they operate continue to display a fanatical and suicidal devotion to their leader, Maryam Rajavi. They lobby democratic politicians with pro-democracy platitudes and propaganda that is plainly at odds with the organization’s totalitarian methods, culture and structure. (Please see my August 2011 essay, ‘Return of the Rajavi Cult’.) Maliki would have ample reason to expel the MEK from Iraqi soil even if he was not an Iranian ally, which he is.

Until recently, the UK, EU and U.S. State Department listed the MEK as a terrorist organization on the basis of its past record of violence, although this was successfully contested in various courts by MEK lawyers. Under these circumstances and with this background, MEK influence on Western policy-making is and should be non-existent, but this is no reason to dismiss their lobbying endeavors or legal victories as an irrelevance. The U.S. delisting reflected decisions in London and Luxembourg but was largely influenced by a phenomenally well-funded propaganda and networking campaign in Washington, paid for by cash funds from previously frozen European bank accounts. An eye-watering Christian Science Monitor article published in August 2011 (Scott Peterson, ‘Iranian Group’s Big-money Push to Get off Terrorist List’) exposed the amounts being spent by the MEK on Congressmen, Senators, Generals and former government employees. The report revealed a starry bipartisan list of dupes and creeps, among them Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Rudy Giuliani, Andrew Card, Tom Ridge, General Anthony Zinni, and so on, in depressing depth. Giuliani, for one, has spoken alongside Rajavi at two pro-MEK rallies in Paris, earning at least $20,000 each time. It is worth noting, I think, that the U.S. roll call is more impressive than its UK counterpart, a cranky gang of Tory backbenchers (Brian Binley, David Amess) and cross-bench Lords (Maginnis, Carlisle, Corbett, Alton).

If you look on the websites of the MEK and its shell-organizations the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) and National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) you can read condemnations of the attacks at Ashraf and Hurriya with support and testimony provided by paid-up politicians. The Iraqi dispersal of Ashraf residents has been brutal and there is no easy resolution to the problem: certainly, a return to Iran is not viable, and the French government has no desire to take in more MEK refugees. But these are only urgent problems for the MEK and its supporters – those paid to be or those dumb enough to view them as a potential and acceptable counter to the Iranian regime. The organization is a totalitarian personality cult every bit as sinister and potentially deadly as the regime it wishes to replace. Its Western tactics and propaganda are false: Rajavi’s ‘10 Point Programme’, lauded by General Hugh Shelton, does not accord with past or even recent actions and is further negated by internal repression and indoctrination described by numerous reporters, researchers and defectors. The MEK plays a similar long game as the proliferating Muslim Brotherhood front organizations in Europe and America such as the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UIOF) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). It deploys an analogous strategy of ingratiation, infiltrating political elites while disguising its true nature and intentions. However, anybody with any background in or working knowledge of the Middle East avoids the Rajavi cult at all costs.

Camp Ashraf is not Srebrenica.

Posted in France, Iran, Iraq, Terror Network, UK, United Nations, USA | Leave a comment

Carnival of Death


There are two kinds of wars in the desert: war of religion and political war. In political war, we make compromises, but in wars of religion, we exterminate everybody.
Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah al-Saud [1]

It’s been a few weeks since David Cameron promised to keep the Syrian Generals safe from indictment or despatch should Bashar al-Assad “fall” from power, and in that time the idea has vanished from all diplomatic and media discourse: the war grinds on regardless and the Prime Minister continues unabashed, as if the words never even passed through his thin lips. Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you think about it at all – the action has been elsewhere: Brussels, for example, or Doha, Ankara, or along the Jordanian border. Meanwhile, the pro-intervention arguments circulating in Washington, Paris and London – arm the Free Syrian Army to topple Assad, strengthen the moderates in the Syrian National Coalition, or at least level both sides and bring them to the negotiating table – look increasingly irrelevant. The battles are overlapping and fracturing and collectively elude any clear International Relations framework or Conflict Resolution prescription. As John Bew wrote in his July 10th New Statesman essay [2]:

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

There is no simple choice left to make, and all arguments about ideology and strategy have run their course: the three leading Western military powers are left with tactics and damage-limitation inadequate to the task at hand or the situation on the ground. The regime has consolidated its urban strongholds, regrouped and gone on the offensive with the aid of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias and the Iranian Quds Force. It has retained and incorporated roving paramilitaries from pre-war Shabiha to the Iranian-backed al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi and multiethnic Lijan militias. Bew, quoting Syrian exile Malik al-Abdeh, describes Bashar as the “strongest warlord in the country” – strange fate for a former ophthalmology student with a retiring manner and well-groomed investment banker wife from West London. We may never know how it got to this: the exact chain of decisions made by Bashar and Maher al-Assad, Hafez Makhlouf, Assef Shawkat (before being blown up by al-Qaeda) or General Kheirbek. But their war has metastasised and burst borders. It has incorporated a theological war – or series of wars – raging in the region and has expanded and intensified them. What we are left with looks like chaos but can be summarised or categorised as follows:

1) “The Axis of Resistance”

The presence of Hezbollah this deep in the fighting and so visible on the ground indicates higher stakes at play than simply the jurisdiction and levers of state. Having said this, it is not surprising that the self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance” will protect its own on ideological as well as strategic grounds, and some of us have been pointing out IRGC and Hezbollah mischief in Syria for over a year. Historically, the battles waged by Hezbollah in Lebanon always had a sectarian edge and agenda, from the destruction of Amal and the Shi’ite Left in the 1980s to the campaign against the Sunni Gulf monarchs that culminated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 [3]. The announcement of Hezbollah’s entrance into the war in May was the precursor to the Assad regime’s crucial strategic victory in Quasir that momentarily jolted Saudi Arabia and Qatar out of their own rivalry (see 3, ‘Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar’). The most important subsequent Quds Force contribution may well be training of the undisciplined government militias that have run rampant in rebel towns [4] and the co-ordination of pro-Iranian Shi’ite brigades being transported in and out of Iraq (see 5, ‘Iraqi Exports’), but we shall see. Syria is an overt and acknowledged Iranian outpost to add to more exotic locales and interests in Latin America, Africa and Central Asia where smuggling and narcotic routes operate under IRGC and Hezbollah auspices. Nevertheless, the war has also exposed the limits of the Revolutionary Republic’s ultimate territorial reach which cannot realistically extend beyond the Levant and Iraq – except under the approaching “nuclear umbrella”.

2) Al-Qaeda in Syria

The proliferation of Salafist groups in Syria is a challenge for journalists and analysts who struggle to disentangle Islamist tendencies, alliances and schisms. Even al-Qaeda affiliates can be problematic. By the end of 2012, press dispatches and wires nominated Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) as the primary al-Qaeda representative in Syria. In fact, the group was a franchise of a franchise: a Syrian offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), home to the post-al-Zarqawi al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent months al-Nusra has been sidelined by the unwelcome arrival of Baghdadi in northern Syria and his unilateral declaration of a merger between the ISI and JN into the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This had the almost instantaneous effect of dissolving al-Nusra, many of its disciplined brigades disintegrating as their leader Abu Mohammad al-Golani resisted Baghdadi’s micro-coup. There followed some inadvertent comic relief when Ayman al-Zawahiri – himself! – tried and failed to reconcile his fractious generals via a conspicuosly ignored communiqué.

Following the fall-out, a recent Reuters article distinguished between a trans-national jihadi ISIS and a Syrian nationalist JN, but this was contested by Iraqi analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi who was able to show that this division is not exact and that the ISIS brigades pose a real threat as they expand into the cities, towns and villages of northern Syria [5]. What remains may be a division of tactics: despite the fearsome reputation of JN, it largely eschewed scorched earth sectarian and sharia policies pursued by AQI in the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq: the last thing they wanted was a repeat of the Iraqi Sunni Awakening on Syrian soil [6]. Baghdadi, on the other hand, is a more brutal character than this and the Syrian tribes are apprehensive about his presence, to say the least.

Outside of this disputatious al-Qaeda merger the remaining Salafist groups have formed two broad coalitions in the People’s Front of Judea tradition: the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the latter being led by Ahrar al-Sham, the strongest jihadi group in Syria. Both coalitions contain regional brigades from major rebel cities including Homs and Aleppo as well as trans-national militias employing fighters from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Despite an occasional overlap and alliance with the FSA/SMC these groups have been responsible for some of the more high-profile atrocities of the war – for example, the famous heart-eating “cannibal” Abu Sakkur belonged to Farouq Brigades (SILF). They have access to generous funding streams and weapons from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, in contrast to ISIS reliance on Palestinian and Gulf backers and self-generated income from smuggling and extortion.

Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS have not joined the Syrian National Coalition but the influence of Salafist groups in the opposition movement as a whole has grown in line with their impact on military gains. In short, they are the most organised, committed and ruthless fighters, often coming to the aid of fractious and uncoordinated FSA/SMC units. Public criticism of Salafists from opposition parties is not welcome as the secular democrat Randa Kassis quickly discovered after she denounced the jihadi turn [7] and was frozen out of the Coalition. The tactical and political folly of this course is clear and some FSA/SMC leaders are already talking about the next war after Assad: a fight to the death between the FSA and the Islamists.

3) Saudi Arabia vs. Qatar

The Saudis are locked in an intra-Sunni struggle with Qatar for control of the Syrian opposition. The Saudis have won the most recent round with the selection of their candidates Ahmad al-Jarba and Michel Kilo to lead the Syrian National Coalition at the expense of Qatari proxy Ghassan Hitto. The Saudi campaign – overseen by intelligence director Bandar bin Sultan and with the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman in tow – has effectively sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood from the Syrian opposition [8]. While the Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood, Qatar has been their biggest recent backer with large-scale funding for Morsi in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the Saudi-Qatar tug-of-war has found arenas in Syria and Egypt, and with massive loans slated for the new military-backed regime in Cairo, Bandar is beating the Emirs old and new. (As a related issue, the sectarian war is simmering away in Egypt: for example, the Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Hassan Shehata was recently killed by a Sunni mob in Giza [9] while Copts now face regular attack [10].)

For the moment, the Saudis and Qataris appear reconciled in an attempt to detach and sideline JN/ISIS and other Salafist groups (some they previously funded) from the opposition military campaign, fearful of handing further victories to their future gravediggers. The GCC is now funding and arming the SMC, the FSA and the Sunni tribes of northern Syria, in line with the declared policies of the West and Turkey. The Saudis have paid for French and Libyan missiles as well as Yugoslav weapons supplied by Croatia and shuttled in Jordanian planes to and from Jordanian territory. Given the Saudi-Qatari public policy, it ought to be pointed out that these weapons have already been spotted in the hands of al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham [11].

It should also be noted, I suppose, that marginalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood deviates from recent U.S. policy in the region as shaped by CIA director John Brennan. Since the President’s overt outreach to the Brotherhood in the 2009 Cairo speech, his administrations and diplomats have supported the organisation’s elevation to power in Egypt and Tunisia. U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson is considered a shameless Brotherhood lackey by many in Egypt, even within the Islamist-inflected military elites [12]. I suspect that Bandar has been following the follies of Obama – appeasing Iran, supporting the Brotherhood – in complete disbelief.

4) Lebanese Overspill

The export of Sunni extremists from Tripoli to Syria and the placement of Hezbollah units on border towns has underscored and aggravated the existing sectarian and factional split in Lebanese politics between pro- and anti-Syrian blocs. Tripoli is the most fractious and dangerous city of all and has been inflamed by the Syrian fighting: anti-Assad Salafist groups, armed and funded by Gulf benefactors, have fought pitched battles against Alawite, Hezbollah and Tawheed militias and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The situation across the country is laced with other distractions including FSA/SMC attacks on Hezbollah border posts, Syrian air strikes and shelling, kidnappings and car bombs, and Lebanese Army incursions into Palestinian refugee camps.

Lebanese and Syrian politics are tied to each other. The timeline of discord runs side by side: Lebanon has been destabilised by the war next door from the moment protests started in Daraa. Only the scale of the carnage and the direction of intervention separate them. Had this trail of subversion and sporadic conflict occurred in isolation we would be discussing the start of a Lebanese civil war. Headlines and reports out of the country are relentlessly negative and foreboding, but one exception is worth mentioning. Michael Totten recently interviewed a group of Lebanese politicians who see a way out of sectarian politics precisely through the Syrian war. For example, Mosbah Ahdab, a Sunni politician from Tripoli [13]:

The post-Assad transition is going to be tough because we have Hezbollah still around. But Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size. They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years […] There will be the real possibility of development. We could have train service all the way down to Cairo.

There is a lot going on here – a concession to sectarian realities as well as implied accommodation with Israel – but what is most striking is the sense of possibility and optimism that a defeat for Iranian proxies would bring to Lebanon. This is a clear strategic aim for the Western powers that would deliver a net benefit for moderates and allies in the region. Lebanon is not a side issue or even a separate war.

5) Iraqi Exports

The Sunni and Shia of Iraq have their own take on events in Syria and it isn’t good for Syria or Iraq or the West. One of the edgier developments is the renewed self-confidence among Sunnis marginalised by the Shia-dominated pro-Iranian Maliki administration which is combining dangerously with unease about recent Iranian and Shi’ite gains in Syria. The ultimate spur for a second Sunni Awakening could be the mass formation of Shi’ite militias and brigades that are being dispatched to Syria under the supervision of Quds Force and Hezbollah. The prominence of Iraqi Shi’ite groups in Syria – such as Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas and Liwa’a Zulfiqar in southern Damascus and Liwa’a Ammar Ibn Yasir in Aleppo [14] – is a hidden narrative with lethal implications for Baghdad. The Iraqi  Shi’ite militants come from various backgrounds, including al-Sadr remnants and Badr Organisation members. Having cut their teeth harassing Allied troops and fighting in the Iraqi Civil War of 2006-8, these Iranian-backed militants have been retrained and deployed as security henchmen for the Assad regime, guarding Damascus airport, securing residential complexes and quelling suburban rebellions. The groups are linked by ideology and iconography: websites and flags bear Hezbollah insignia, portraits of Ayatollah Khamenei and Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and pictures of the Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in Damascus.

Despite nugatory attempts at the behest of the U.S. to stop planes flying over (or from) Iraqi territory loaded with men and munitions destined for Syria, the Maliki administration has aligned itself with the pro-Assad positions of Iran and Russia. The Iraqis have allowed the roads to remain open for weapons transits and the kept borders porous for Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman entering Syria. Meanwhile, pro-FSA flags and chants have been reported in Anbar province while Sunni tribesmen in Iraq facilitate their smuggling routes along the border [15]. Adding to sectarian tensions a resurgent AQI/ISI owe their new post-occupation lease of life to the Syrian war, attacking Shi’ite convoys with gusto and adding their own gratuitous signature to events in the form of beheadings, booby-trapped corpses and the mass machine-gunning of civilians.

6) The Jordanian Bind

King Abdullah II was once a close friend of Bashar al-Assad but is now among his most implacable enemies. Both came to power at the turn of the century, taking control of strategically important and troubled Arab countries after spending their formative years in expensive schools and Western capitals. Abdullah introduced economic reforms and selective modernisation to Jordan while promising further democracy without actually delivering it; as a consequence, the dynastic grip on power is precarious but stiffened by international alliances, a loyal army and Abdullah’s stunning wife. The Assad legacy was more complicated and Bashar’s room for maneuver very slight; his plans to reform the Syrian economy were gradual and careful as he navigated Ba’ath loyalists of the Hafez era and the rural Sunni interests protected by state planning. The spark that lit a civil and regional war started here: agricultural modernisation enforced by the regime – policies designed to open up the Syrian economy to world markets – caused water shortages and subsequent protests in Daraa. There is a deep irony here and I wonder if Abdullah sees it.

Assad was locked in the logic of state security and an anti-Semitic, terror-sponsoring foreign policy because of the dynamics of his father’s power network and the regional thirst for Arab resistance to Israel and the West. This was a very different course to Abdullah, who retained standing with the corrupt and duplicitous Gulf monarchs, criticised Israeli policy only when necessary (without forgetting the trouble the Palestinians once caused his father), and nurtured close diplomatic and military ties to America and the United Kingdom. Jordan’s position in the Syrian civil war is a direct result of this divergence. From the beginning, the Kingdom has kept it borders open and allowed Syrian refugees to remain on Jordanian soil with access to all social services. The influx has become a flood with the growth of two sprawling and anarchic refugee camps that no longer contain the total number of refugees, many of whom have melted into Annan and other urban populations. The strain on jobs and public resources has been immense and tensions continue to rise between Jordanian nationals and Syrian refugees [16].

There is a further fear – shared by the government, the armed forces and the monarchy – that pro-Assad Hezbollah saboteurs and terrorist cells have entered the country ready to take revenge should any aggressive move be made from Jordanian territory. This is delicate and worrying because American, British and French Special Forces have trained rebels from Daraa in Jordan [17] and the U.S. has temporarily stationed 900 service personnel in the Kingdom to man Patriot missiles, fly F-16s and prepare for chemical warfare.

7) Palestinian Ironies

The basic split apparently goes: Fatah in the West Bank are pro-Assad while Hamas in Gaza are pro-rebel. This may be true but it gets more complicated the closer in you get. The position of Hamas is particularly intriguing and it is difficult to know how successful or sensible they have been. The official line fed and led by Khaled Mashal (at least, after relocating from Damascus to Doha) has been strong condemnation of Assad with the result that Iranian funds have dropped significantly. The Hamas leadership bet on an increase in support from Qatar and the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt but with the fall of Morsi and the removal of Sheikh Hamad – the Emir who founded Al Jazeera and spent a third of Qatar’s capital reserves funding the Brotherhood – that calculation looks less secure. This has caused anger and alarm among armed Palestinian factions who have enjoyed and even depended upon the security of Persian cash and weaponry for many years. The leadership of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the paramilitary wing of Hamas, has questioned the wisdom of abandoning the ‘Axis of Resistance’ for Sunni posturing and a flakey alliance with Qatar. Meanwhile, for some in Gaza the pro-rebel position of Hamas has been too weak: unlike other Sunni militants from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Central Asia, very few Hamas martyrs have washed up in Syria and the rulers of Gaza are being out-flanked by more radical Palestinian Salafist groups preaching anti-Shia invective to an increasingly sectarian population [18]. The alliance with Hezbollah and Assad’s lead in the Palestinian cause are now distant memories – nostalgic for some, a source of shame for others.

The intra-Palestinian ironies and agonies over the Syrian conflict are epitomised by the fate of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. This sprawling settlement was once a small Palestinian city in itself with a thriving arts scene and a record of vocal political activism; unlike its Lebanese counterparts, it closely integrated with the Syrian state and society. At the beginning of the war, camp residents stayed neutral until tensions between pro-rebel activists and the state-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command finally dragged them into the conflict. This ended with the invasion of the FSA, who entered the camp in order to destroy the PFLP-GC, while Syrian MiGs bombed them from above. By this time most of the population had fled Yarmouk and the camp infrastructure was in ruins [19].

Navigating such factionalism is a complicated matter. Success is hard, at this stage, to gauge. On the one hand, Hamas appear vulnerable and isolated after recent Muslim Brotherhood setbacks; on the other, they still retain financial support from Qatar and some GCC-based benefactors, and Iranian aid has not actually been terminated. In any future fight with Israel they can still count on Iranian firepower – as they did during Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

8) Kurdish Fringes

Overlapping or interfacing with this already crowded and convoluted situation is the Kurdish Question. Until 2011, the Qamishli riots of 2004 had been the only significant internal test for Bashar, and his enormous and multifaceted Ba’ath security apparatus had broken the Kurds with some force. They kept quiet during the first year of conflict, wary of the Iranian-backed government and the Turkish-backed rebels.  They were finally sucked into the maelstrom last year when regime troops and FSA rebels both strayed onto Kurdish territory and quickly found themselves in combat with the militias.

The Kurds do not belong to either side. Even though some of the smaller parties have joined the National Coalition, the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) refuses to participate. This is partly because it is an offshoot of the PKK and a member of the Kurdistan People’s Congress (Kongra-Gel) and is therefore resistant to all Turkish-backed endeavors. (When the New York Times interviewed a PYD militiaman in July he was sat beside a large poster of Abdullah Ocalan [20].) The PYD is also at odds with the Kurdish National Council, a rival bloc backed by Massoud Barzani’s KDP which hints at a future conflict along Iraqi KDP vs. PUK lines. The Kurds are constantly fractious but for now agree on an overall strategy following the successful Iraq model: autonomy, one step at a time. (Iraqi Kurdistan is looking stronger than ever: as the central government and Sunni/Shia provinces slip back into chaos, the Kurdish Regional Government is signing oil extraction deals with the Turks and rival oil multinationals. It is exciting times, here [21].)

For now the PYD and its armed wing of People’s Protection Units (YPG) is finishing a fight with al-Qaeda and the Salafists that began last year. The jihadis are attempting to destroy Kurdish nationalism in North Eastern Syria in order to make way for their sharia state: a recent SILF statement threatened to cleanse the provinces of “PKK and Shahiba” [22]. On the other side, PYD-YPG leaders are in the process of clearing Kurdish areas of all foreign groups and influences. In Kurdish provinces, Kurdish is now spoken openly; Kurdish history and culture are back in school curricula; and Arabic road signs are being rewritten in Kurdish. In the chaos of war, with the state falling back and armed Islamist groups facing defeat by battle-hardened unisex PYD-YPG militia, a Kurdish enclave is being carved out that may yet form territory in independent Kurdistan.


Ten years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in South Kensington talking to a friend who was born in Yemen but had been raised in Richmond.  During our conversation, I asked her about the divide between Sunni and Shia and whether it meant anything to her. She looked at me like I was mad and said, definitively: “I never think about it.” She has since moved on – working as a lawyer in Abu Dhabi, last I heard – but so has the Arab world. It would be a very different conversation now, I suspect.

Two events – or, more accurately, moments – spring to mind. The first provided by Kanan Makiya during a despairing 2007 interview with Dexter Filkins in which he described the Shi‘ite leadership in the run-up to the Iraqi civil war [23]:

There was this attitude: “This is a war, this is it — the showdown — why don’t we just gird ourselves for it, why not recognise it as a war and fight it to win? Because we can win.

To Makiya’s dismay, the man he believed had “broken the mould of Arab politicians” – namely, Ahmed Chalabi – joined the hard-liners of SCIRI and Moqtada al-Sadr and pushed Iraq into the sectarian implosion now ripping through the region. (Chalabi could be found rallying the anti-Khalifa Shia parties in Bahrain last year.) This double descent – of a man and a country – is indicative, and tragic.

The second moment is the source of the first: al-Zarqawi’s 2004 letter to al-Zawahiri in which he explained his plan to destroy democracy in Iraq by stoking a religious war. “If we succeed in dragging [the Shi’ites] into the arena of sectarian war, it will be possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger,” he wrote, diabolically [24]. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, destabilising the entire region and not just Iraq. He had to bomb the Golden Mosque in Samarra to get his sectarian war in full flow but from that point on there was no turning back. The current Sunni war against all in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and maybe soon Saudi Arabia is a legacy of al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street criminal turned psychopathic terrorist whose life ended beneath two 500-pound, laser-guided U.S. bombs. This carnival of death is his lethal bequest.


1) Second King of the Second Saudi state and the grandfather of Ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, quoted in Lewis Pelley, Report on a Journey to Riyadh (Oleander Falcon reprint, 1978)
2) John Bew, ‘Las Vegas Rules Don’t Apply in Syria’, New Statesman, July 10th 2013
3) Halil Khashan, ‘Hezbollah’s Plans for Lebanon’, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2013
4) Hala Jaber, ‘Hezbollah Trains Assad Attack Force’, Sunday Times, June 6th 2013
5)  Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Begin?’, Syria Comment, July 13th 2013
6) Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake, ‘Jabhat al-Nusra: a Strategic Briefing’, Quilliam Foundation, January 2013
7) Volkhard Windfuhr, ‘Syrian Opposition Group Leader: “The Islamists are Seizing Power for Themselves”’, Der Spiegel, July 16th 2012
8) David B. Ottaway, ‘The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria’, The National Interest, July 2nd 2013
9) Raymond Ibrahim, ‘Shias: the Arab Spring’s Latest Victims’, Middle East Forum, June 25th 2013
10) Raymond Ibrahim, ‘Muslim Persecution of Christians: April 2013’, Gatestone Institute, July 24th 2013
11) Brown Moses Blog, ‘Evidence of Jabhat al-Nusra with Croatian Arms’, March 23rd 2013
12) Josh Rogin and Eli Lake, ‘Ambassador Anne Patterson, the Controversial Face of America’s Egypt Policy’, The Daily Beast, July 10th 2013
13) Michael J. Totten, ‘Dreaming of a Lebanon at Peace with its Neighbors’, The Tower, July 2013
14) See Phillip Smyth’s ongoing series ‘Hizbollah Cavalcade’ at
15) Michael Knights, ‘Syrian and Iraqi Conflicts Show Signs of Merging’, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 7th 2013
16) Taylor Luck, ‘In Jordan, Tensions Rise Between Syrian Refugees and Host Community’, Washington Post, April 21st 2013
17) Julian Borger and Nick Hopkins, ‘West Training Syrian Rebels in Jordan’, The Guardian, March 8th 2013
18) Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, ‘HAMAS and Syria’,, June 21st 2013
19) For an account of this episode see Moe Ali Nayel’s interview with Moutawali Abu Nasser at Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades Information Service, ‘Yarmouk Activist Describes Situation Inside Syria’, March 6th 2013
20) Ben Hubbard, ‘Kurdish Struggle Blurs Syria’s Battlelines’, New York Times, August 1st 2013
21) Joost R. Hiltermann, ‘Revenge of the Kurds’, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012
22) ‘Insurgents Declare War on Syria’s Kurds’,, May 27th 2013
23) Dexter Filkins, ‘Regrets Only?’, New York Times, October 7th 2007
24) Quoted in Peter Bergen, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between Al-Qaeda and America (Simon & Schuster, 2011), p. 164

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Ezra Pound & Salò


I want to go on fighting.
Canto 72

In 1948, the year James Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound remained incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Federal Government asylum in Washington, having been found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound was a vocal anti-Semite whose sympathies lay with the more extreme sections of the Italian Fascist regime in Salò and with the Nazis, as he openly declared in pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio. This endpoint was evident, and expressed, in his poetry, including The Pisan Cantos which won the Bollingen Prize in 1949, awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. These highly accomplished men were perceptive and conceited enough to pen a pre-emptive defence of their controversial choice, made only four years after the discovery of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It stated: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Or, in other words, l’art pour l’art.

Partisan Review, among other organs, invited comment. Karl Shapiro, a Fellow, disagreed with the selection on the grounds that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as a literary work” (1); Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, viewed the award as a  supremely civilised act and a rare example of national magnanimity. George Orwell composed a more subtle position, making two points with direct relevance to contemporary Pound studies, that obtuse critical subgenre. Firstly, he objected to the artificial separation of Pound’s political activities from his poetry, a division never made by Pound himself who considered his adopted economic theories (for one thing) to be central to The Cantos’ purpose, aesthetics and meaning. The tendency to ignore or rationalise the poetry’s politics — the thematic content of The Cantos, in other words — grew among and with Pound’s influential friends, acolytes and protégées after the war, notably Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner and James Laughlin. These entwined artistic and critical circles preferred to emphasise Pound’s aesthetics at the expense of his economic and racial politics, as if The Cantos could exist without Social Credit, history and Jews, and live through their lyrical technique alone.

Pound learned to accept this in his very late years — in the Sixties, when it was most convenient to do so. By this time he could tell Allen Ginsberg that anti-Semitism had been his “worst mistake” and write to Robert Lowell: “that nonsense about the Jews…Olga knew it was shit, yet she still loved me.” (2) This was also the time, non-coincidentally, when he admitted that, by his owns standards and expectations, The Cantos had been a failure. He would tell Daniel Cory: “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.” (3) Nevertheless, as late as 1959, Pound was sending poetry and Social Credit pamphlets to Oswald Mosely’s post-fascist European journal; and in the middle of the Fifties, Pound acolyte John Kasper achieved some notoriety as a segregation activist in the American South, spreading anti-Semitic and racist screeds encouraged by the unrepentant poet. His late disavowal of anti-Semitism made it more convenient for a Jewish Communist like Zukofsky and a Catholic conservative like Kenner to approach their idol with easier conscience and less prickly questions, but the racial instincts and devotion to Social Credit theories (with their distinct flavour of conspiracy theory) remained. Some put this down to mental health problems; others simply accepted Pound’s recantations and overlooked his unseemly actions and associates, dismissing these as anecdotal and historical. Orwell spotted all of this early and immediately skewered it: “He may be a good writer […] but the opinions he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil ones…” (4)

Secondly, Orwell noted a more brazen attempt to fully expunge Pound’s politics: “there has been,” he wrote, “a tendency to claim that Pound was “not really” a fascist and anti-Semite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years.” (5) This was nonsense, of course. As Orwell had no difficulty illustrating in 1949, Pound’s own activities, pre-war and after, exposed this fallacy; more importantly, the poems vividly demonstrated Pound’s commitment to Social Credit ideas and to Italian Fascism. For Pound’s non-fascist supporters this made rationalisation more important and urgent. It could get desperate. For example, William Cookson, in his commentary A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, made an unintentionally acute attempt to redeem Pound’s wartime radio propaganda: “at their core the speeches are a document of anti-war literature. Incidentally, much that he said against “U.S. economic aggression” made good sense and has an affinity with the more recent polemic of Noam Chomsky”(6); he also described the subject of Canto 73 (see below) as being “like a suicide bomber.” Cookson was sharper than he realised, perhaps: there is the distinct shade of anti-capitalist and anti-American politics that unites far-left and right in the subject matter of The Cantos and Pound’s politics; an attachment to crank economics and conspiracy theory that leads, eventually and inexorably, from left or right, into the gutter of anti-Semitism. (If Pound had been writing today, would there be a Bilderberg canto?)

Cantos 72 and 73 are the low point of Pound’s own descent into Inferno in the tragi-comic form of Mussolini’s fall. The poems were both composed in 1943 in Italian, as the fascist dream collapsed in Italy with the Allied invasion and German occupation of the peninsula. Pound fled North, on foot and by train, sleeping in the open and eating with peasants, to link up with the remaining regime loyalists at Lake Garda. After returning to Rapallo he committed himself fully to the Axis cause, writing newspaper articles and manifestos in defence of the new republic. Salò appealed to him, as it did to other early Italian Fascists who had become disillusioned with the ‘Mussolinism’ of the Thirties; there was purity and potential in this new experiment, an uncompromised, activist esprit de corps that revived memories of the old movement. Mussolini was returning to socialism and syndicalism, while squadristi and regime protection rackets tortured and killed with impunity on the streets of Rome and Milan. The intellectuals and thugs were in charge, extremists like Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini: a lethal combination. Pound wrote his two cantos for this regime to use against the Allies: they were propaganda pieces, advanced cases of fascist martyrology and idealism. Pound had apparently been further enthused by the violent, quasi-mystical defiance of Mussolini’s final public speech in Milan, 1944.

72 and 73 are evidence for the prosecution of Pound. In preceding poems he had prepared the ground for this full ideological and aesthetic embrace of the Axis cause. Canto 35, for example, presented a nasty satirical portrait of pre-war Viennese Jewish society. Canto 38 introduced Pound’s new and tragic obsessions: the arms trade and the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas. In Canto 41, the poet explicitly hailed il Duce (or “the Boss”). In Cantos 45, 46 and 51 the mortal enemy was identified: “usury,” the destroyer of civilisations. By 72 and 73 the contemporary forces of usury had been specified: “Geryon, prototype of Churchill’s backers”; “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,/the Jews, the bastards,/swindlers, the whole lot liars…” All of this was in the air, of course, but the Jews were an obsession for Pound at a time when Mussolini’s regime still employed them, a situation altered by the 1938 racial laws (7). While not an overt Nazi sympathiser (though he shared their paganism and susceptibility to the occult) Pound’s anti-Semitism was more pronounced than many of the original Italian Fascists, and was there to be exploited when necessary, as Orwell recalled: “I remember at least one [broadcast] in which he approved of the massacre of the East European Jews and “warned” the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.” (8)

Pound’s full identification with the cause and methods of Italian Fascism is revealed in 72 and 73, exposing his doctrinaire extremism. Pound’s family and backers were aware of their damaging potential, and the Ezra Pound Estate has never been willing to authorise English translations of the poems; they were excised from the New Directions and Faber Cantos until the 1987 edition, when they were finally included as an appendix, in Italian and without notes. Even now, 72 and 73 are considered aberrations, rather than (as they are) exemplars of The Cantos’ dark energy and ideological propulsion. These poems are a logical outcome of the ideas and loyalties laid out in Pound’s epic; they are also a key moment in the poet’s own personal and aesthetic journey, a basic underlying pattern and narrative of his work. They express the despair and defiance of the loyalists of Salò: the men who stuck with Mussolini and imposed fascism in Northern Italy in pure, totalitarian form, without the compromise of private business, monarchy or the Vatican. These two cantos are Salò poems: the driving forces of the Italian Social Republic — defiance and loss, sacrifice and redemption — are played out, embodied in them.

So 72 and 73 not only reveal but explicitly confirm Pound’s intimacy with and loyalty to the actual actors and characters who theorised, built and ran the fascist state. Canto 72 exhumes the spirit of Marinetti, killed on the Russian front, but eager to return to the fight in Pound’s body: “I want to go on fighting/& I want your body to go on with the struggle.” Who, in this poem, is the fight against? “[T]he great usurer Geryon,” Dante’s symbol of Fraud and “prototype of Churchill’s backers.” Pound is the poem’s centre, its vessel, visited by four spirits (or “voices”): Marinetti; the librarian and translator Manilio Dazzi; the Venetian tyrant Ezalino da Romano; and (briefly) the Empress Galla Placidia. The tone is elegiac, as well as defiant: Pound is an interlocutor, weary and at one remove, but these voices also appear to transmit his owns instincts and obsessions. Romano lauds Farinacci — the former Fascist ras and party secretary described by Denis Mack Smith as “vindictive, ambitious…a dedicated believer in political violence” (9) — in terms that match Pound’s own obsessions: as one who has “seen thru the swindle” of the “followers of fattened usury.” He is “honoured by the heroes,” among them the fallen Italian Fascist generals intoned by Romano and listed by Pound, but singled out with approval because of his fanaticism and anti-Semitism. It doesn’t seem to me that Pound is distancing this selection by making it Romano’s; rather Farinacci is elevated, in this poem of loyalty, violence and despair, to a fascist hero, a figure close to Pound’s own ideal: man of action and enemy of usury. The poet is not simply channelling his apparitions, but engaging in ventriloquism: Pound uses them to convey personal obsessions and ideals.

Canto 73 is more explicit. The poet is at the service of the regime. This time Pound invokes Guido Cavalcanti, the medieval Florentine scribe and associate of Dante, to recall a contemporary story of an Italian peasant girl who, raped by Canadian troops, takes revenge by leading them into a minefield. The tone is rapturous: an ecstatic martyrdom in the genre of fascist and Nazi iconography: kitsch, quasi-mystical. She is pictured singing with joy, “so brave a spirit”, holding two Germans by the arm, “singing of love.” This is camaraderie within the Pact of Steel, but the girl has “no desire for heaven”: she becomes “defiant of death” only after her violation by Allied soldiers, that “filthy pack.” These are the shock troops of “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,” the pawns of Jewish bankers and arms dealers, rampaging through Italy, desecrating ancient temples and raping small girls. Her death is an instance of the fascist ideal, and her spirit the expression of its soul: “the child’s spirit/courageously/sang/sang…Glory of the fatherland!/Glorious, it is glorious/to die for one’s country/in Romangna.” This is propaganda, and Pound sells his lyric gift to do it: the poem is ugly, crude, tedious. It remains interesting as fascist and Nazi art, tapping into neo-pagan, neo-Romantic volk iconography of German National Socialism and the neo-classical, militaristic kitsch of Italian Fascism. By the middle of the war years, the divisions, separations and tensions within and between the fascist states and movements had become less distinct or important, and Pound’s poems convey this pan-fascist aesthetic, an ideal clarified by Romanian Iron Guard leader Horia Sima: “We must cease to separate the spiritual from the political man. All history is a commentary upon the life of the spirit” (10). These words could summarise Pound’s ultimate intention for The Cantos.

Pound’s supporters creep from defence of the poetry to absolution of the poet; they appear to take his recantations at face value and over-estimate personal relations. (For example, Zukofsky: “I never felt the least trace of anti-Semitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains.”) I think Orwell was correct to hold the poet to account for his rhetoric and his opinions; he was also right to dismiss the plea of insanity that Pound would adopt to save his own skin. Pound’s broadcasts, wrote Orwell, “did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic”; the poet was a clever propagandist who knew exactly how to play to an isolationist and anti-Allied audience. At Pound’s trial, the Superintendent of St Elizabeths hospital, Dr. Winfrid Overholser, was asked to present his confirmation of Pound’s insanity; however, he did not reveal to the court that his own doctors disagreed with his conclusions and considered Pound to be “merely eccentric and wanted to see him tried and convicted” (11). To accept that Pound was simply “insane” when he composed his polemics, be they Rome Radio scripts or Cantos 72 and 73, is to some extent to accept that all of The Cantos are deranged doodles, a repository of crank conspiracy theories and junk verse, psychological case studies rather than art. Orwell, for one, considered Pound’s work to be “spurious” as poetry, although not because the poet was mad; Robert Conquest did his own forensic demolition job on Pound’s classical pretensions and mistakes, in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority.

For modern poetry, or what is left of it (if anything), The Cantos remain, as Delmore Schwartz described them, a touchstone. Or as Basil Bunting wrote: “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” You don’t need to reject the poetry along with the politics, or make weak attempts to minimise or separate the politics to redeem the poems. It is a fragmented, incomplete, incoherent, incandescent epic of a life that veers (and veered) between intense evil and luminous insight. Because of this, it retains a unique tension, an awful tautness despite the diffuse elements and ranging references. It can be disgusting and invigorating, vile and beautiful; the fracture of form and rupture of language it initiates keeps its many parts alive. Fascism and anti-Semitism are unavoidable forces in The Cantos that must be faced and understood; they do not reduce but complicate and deepen the poem’s power.

1) Quoted in Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin,1974), p.546
2) Quoted in William Cookson, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2001), p.144
3) Quoted in Stock, p.586-7
4) George Orwell, ‘A Prize for Ezra Pound’, Essays (Everyman Library, 2002), p.1363
5) Orwell, p.1362
6) Cookson, p.115
7) See especially Renzo de Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy (Enigma, 2004)
8) Orwell, p.1362
9) Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin,1983), p.81
10) Quoted in George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution — Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, Inc., 1999), p.12
11) Stock, p.538

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