Thursday, March 31, 2011

Brzezinski on the 'Arab revolt'

The Grand Master who first drew the post-cold war chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke with CNN's Amar Bakshi on what he sees ahead in the Middle East in the downstream of the 'Arab revolt'. ZB's assessment:
A. Don't expect a flowering of democratic states. Political awakening may take even extremist forms initially.
B. At any rate, successor regimes will be more responsive to popular opinion. From US' perspective, they won't any longer passively acquiesce with American foreign policy.
C. Popular opinion is quite critical of US due to its support for Israel. Israel-palestine problem is at the root of anti-American, anti-western Arab sentiments.
D. Therefore, long-term implications of Arab revolt for Israel's future are 'ominous'.
E. Which means there is imperative need of a 'grand compromise' that US must broker between Israel and Palestinians.
F. Iran is benefitting from Arab revolt. Therefore, US should be careful not to unwittingly help increase Iran's influence by excessively pushing for reforms. US interest lies in helping increase Turkey's regional influence.
G. Basic flaw in US regional policies was to have neglected the Arab street and to have pursued its interests in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan by accommodating the regimes, which have 'overlapping interests that are often financial'. But there is need to 'pay attention to Arab masses' in the Persian Gulf and not 'ignore the motivating impulses' for people who are now 'beginning to assert themselves in their national decision-making'.
Read the transcript of the interview.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hu condemns western intervention in Libya

At long last, China has come out with outright condemnation of the western military intervention in Libya. What is of great significance is that the criticism has come from President Hu Jintao and China has promptly publicised it. Equally noteworthy is that Hu chose to make his criticism at a meeting in Beijing today with the visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been the most ardent exponent in the western world of the military intervention in Libya. According to the Xinhua news agency report, Hu said history has repeatedly shown that the use of force is not an answer to problems, but only makes them more complicated. "Dialogue and other peaceful means are the ultimate solutions to problems," Hu said.
The Libyan situation has captured international attention and China is greatly concerned about the situation, Hu said, adding that China believes that the UN Security Council's resolution on Libya aims to quell violence and protect civilians. "If military action brings disaster to civilians and causes a humanitarian crisis, then it runs counter to the purpose of the UN resolution," Hu said.
In a reference apparently to the stance taken by the African Union against the NATO intervention in Libya, Hu said, "We have noticed that some countries and regional organizations have raised proposals and suggestions in solving the Libya crisis, which did not lack constructive ideas." He advised Sarkozy that China believes it is in the interests of all concerned parties to positively respond to these proposals. Stressing China's support of political efforts to ease the tension in Libya, Hu said China has called on relevant parties to immediately cease fire, seek peaceful ways to solve problems and avoid more civilian casualties. Hu said China believes that the independence, sovereignty, unification and territorial integrity of a country should be respected and that China is against the use of force in international affairs.
It is noteworthy that Hu spoke at length on the Libyan issue. Quite obviously, Beijing senses that the West is unilaterally expanding the scope of the UN SC resolution and a likelihood of western troop deployment on Libyan soil cannot be ruled out. Hu's stance comes as a big snub to Sarkozy and the Chinese stance makes it impossible for the NATO to gain any clear-cut mandate from the UN SC, as it had managed to secure for its involvement in the Balkans and Afghanistan.
China's clear-cut position should also embolden circles within Russia that are alarmed over the western intervention in Libya to raise their head over the parapet. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been keeping an ambivalent stance so far, which drew pointed commendation from US President Barack Obama personally. Medvedev's overriding priority has been not to let the Libya problem come in the way of spoiling his policy of "reset" with Obama despite the glaring fact that the western intervention in Libya goes against the fundamental tenets of Russian foreign policy that Moscow has been espousing in the past decade. Hu's stance puts pressure on Moscow to speak out unequivocally on the Libyan problem.

Pakistan skating on thin Bahraini ice

The visit by the Bahrain Foreign Minister Shaikh Khaled Bin Ahmed Mohamed Al-Khalifa to Islamabad opens an incredible twist to the unfolding saga of 'Arab revolt' in the Persian Gulf region. The visiting dignitary met President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar. The discussions primarily related to 'defence cooperation'. Shorn of diplomatese, Bahrain wants Pakistan to be a key provider of security and 'Barkis is willing'. Bahrain is very pleased with Pakistan's`principled stand` on the situation in the Gulf state, which was succinctly articulated by Zardari: “Pakistan desires peace, security, and stability in Bahrain. Pakistan… would not like its (region`s) stability to be upset in any way. Pakistan believes that it would be dangerous for regional peace and stability if the system was destabilized one way or the other”.
Bahrain and its mentors in Riyadh have every reason to be thrilled that Pakistan has unequivocally endorsed the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to crush the Shi'ite uprising. Such clear-cut support is hard to come by nowadays. Quite obviously, Pakistan has estimated that no matter what it takes, Riyadh will never allow Shi'ite empowerment to be realized in Bahrain lest it repeats in the oil-rich eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia itself and from Islamabad's point of view, it pays to be with the 'winning side'. There could be many positive spin-offs - greater job opportunities for Pakistani expatriate workers in the PG states, economic assistance from the petrodollar GCC states, oil supplies on concessionary terms, budgetary support for Pakistan's ailing economy and if things go well, a key role in the PG region's security architecture.
But Pakistan is taking a big gamble. Pakistan has a sizeable Shi'ite minority and it is prudent not to take sides in the sectarian strife in another Muslim country when Sunni-Shi'ite tensions are endemic to Pakistan itself. Second, Pakistan is bound to annoy Iran and other Shi'ite countries in the region, apart from the Shi'ite majority community in Bahrain itself. Third, Pakistan may be overlooking the possibility of the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain increasingly getting radicalized as time passes and it may get sucked into a protracted internal strife. US Vice-President Joe Biden's phone call to the Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa on Sunday gives an indication that Washington remains unsure that the Saudi-led crackdown is the best means of preventing a dangerous situation from developing as the excessive force may well drive the protest underground or may trigger even a region-wide Sunni-Shi'ite conflagration. Indeed, the calm in Manama is deceptive. A White House statement said, "The vice president recognized the important steps taken by the crown prince to reach out to the opposition and that law and order are necessary in order for a productive dialogue to proceed." But one can never tell the US intentions in the Bahrain situation insofar as its first priority will always be to safeguard the basing facilities of the US' Fifth Fleet.
Pakistan could be estimating that by aligning itself with the "pro-West" Arab oligarchies in the persian Gulf, it serves the US strategic interests as well. In sum, is Pakistan chewing more than it can chew? The prominent Middle East expert Juan Cole has warned that "Among the Middle East protest movements, that in tiny Bahrain is one of the more momentous".

Monday, March 28, 2011

Syria gets an unexpected hand of friendship

Syrian leadership is receiving a helping hand from two unlikely sources in the region to make an orderly transition of reforms. No, Iran isn't one of them. It's Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkey's role is expected as much as the Saudi role would have come as a pleasant surprise to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkish PM Recept Erdogan spoke to Assad twice over the weekend urging swift reforms. By Erdogan's account, "We advised Mr. Assad that responding to the people’s years-old demands positively, with a reformist approach, would help Syria overcome the problems more easily." Erdoğan said he advised al-Assad to “answer the people’s calls with a reformist, positive approach. I did not get a ‘no’ answer. We have a border of 800 kilometers [with Syria] and we have family relations. We cannot remain silent.”
The Syrian president did not dismiss his calls for reform, Erdoğan said, adding that he expected Assad himself to publicly announce reform plans “either today or tomorrow [Monday or Tuesday].” Erdogan noted that Syria is working on reforms, including lifting emergency rule and restrictions on political parties. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also spoke to his Syrian counterpart following Erdoğan’s phone conversation with Assad, telling Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem that Turkey was ready to contribute to the reform process. Interestingly, Erdogan dispatched Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan to Damascus on Sunday, presumably to share assessment regarding the roots of the disturbances in Syria. Turkey will be greatly worried about the Kurdish separatists or Al Qaeda-type elements exploiting instability in Syria.
But the political bombshell came in the nature of a phone call Assad received from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Monday. According to the Syrian account of the conversation, King Abdullah stressed his country's standing along with Syria to "foil the plot". Syrian news agency SANA reported that the Saudi ruler conveyed "support to Syria in the face of conspiracies targeting its security and stability."
The Saudi move is extremely significant. It couldn't have been made in isolation. A degree of prior consultation by RIyadh with the US cannot be ruled out. Hillary Clinton also openly ruled out a Libya-type western intervention in Syria. The Saudi-US thinking seems to be to build political capital with Assad at a time of trouble and thereby nudge him away from his strategic link-up with Tehran. Given the highly uncertain political climate within Iraq, US would have reason to be worried about volatility in Syria, which is an important gateway for extremist elements entering Iraq. Equally, Saudis would want Syria to retain its level of influence in Lebanon, as any diminution of Syrian influence over Hezbollah may work to Iran's advantage. The present political dispensation in Lebanon is essentially an outcome of Syrian-Saudi concord. Over and above, Saudis (and US) would be apprehensive that Jordan wouldn't be able to avoid taking a hit if there is a violent regime change in Damascus. The bottom line for Riyadh anyway would be to try to leverage the present situation to loosen up Syria-Iran axis. US would concur with any Saudi effort in this direction.

Gorbachev at 80: Vilified at home, lionized abroad

The Russian government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta invited me to appraise the historical legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev on the occasion of the Soviet leader’s 80th birth anniversary. My article titled “Vilified at home, lionized abroad” appeared today in Moscow and can be accessed at the RIS website.

Uprising in Syria threatens Russian interests

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton says she doesn't expect a Libyan-style western intervention in Syria although Washington deplores bloodshed anywhere. Is this a tactical posturing or a strategic stance? Difficult to give a straight answer. These are highly volatile times when the goal post keeps shifting and umpiring is rather arbitrary. In Libya, at least, it turned out to be so. But then, what's on Clinton's mind? In one word - Russia.
Moscow has just about shifted gear in the past 2 years to accelerate the reactivation of its Soviet-era naval base in Tartus in Syria when the prospect of a regime change in that country appears on the horizon. The navies of Russia and Syria were noticeably stepping up their cooperation over the last year or two, which included Moscow modernizing naval facilities in Syria's port of Latakia and Tartous on eastern Mediterranean to accommodate Russian warships. Russian ambassador to Syria, Sergei Kirpichenko, said in April: ""I am certain that we will witness new and significant progress in our bilateral cooperation in the near future." Russian Navy's nuclear-powered missile cruiser, Pyotr Veliky visited Tartous in April in a display of Russian Navy's ambition to show the flag. Pyotr Veliky has been the flagship of Russia's Northern Fleet. (PV also visited Indian Ocean and called on Colombo in April.)
Reports indicated that Russia has modernized Tartous and deploys 50 naval officers to maintain and supply warships that operate in the Mediterranean. Moscow also offered to modernize the Syrian Navy port at Latakia. Tartous, with three berthing floats, could handle up to a dozen naval vessels. Russian Navy regards Syria as a vital base for operations in the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. The naval base in Syria significantly boosts Russia's operational capability in the region because the warships based there are capable of reaching the Red Sea through the Suez Canal and the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar in a matter of days.
That brings us to an interesting point: Is it a 'colour revolution' tacitly supported by the western intelligence that is being attempted in Syria? Strangely, trouble began in the border region with Jordan, which is a staunch security ally of the US and Britain. Clinton could be expected to be 'diplomatic', as she doesn't want Russian feathers to be ruffled over Syria at a time when the Kremlin's continued cooperation in the UN is vital for the NATO's Libyan operations. But it can't be that the US is unaware that if Russia loses its bases in Syria, its Navy's capacity to operate in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (and Indian Ocean) will be seriously impaired. In short, NATO's unassailable supremacy in the Mediterranean, Levant and the Middle East and North Africa can be established if Russian Navy can be somehow "evicted" from Syria. If the uprising spreads in Syria and the regime gets seriously threatened, Russia will be caught in a serious dilemma. It is all but certain that any successor regime in Damascus would seek closer ties with the West. In short, Syria can well become the "Ukraine of the Middle East". Did Moscow make a historic blunder by adopting a passive attitude in the UN security council over Libya in the spirit of the US-Russia reset? The coming weeks will be accentuating the struggle for influence in Syria.

Russia invites Afghanistan to join SCO

Moscow has invited Afghanistan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]. The newly-appointed presidential special presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has been quoted by Russian media as saying, "We fully support Afghanistan’s membership in the SCO.” His suggestion is that Afghanistan could be first admitted as an observer (like India. Pakistan and Iran) and could become a full member eventually. No doubt, Moscow's suggestion is bound to favor with China and the other SCO member states. Probably a consensus is available already. The big question is whether US would allow Hamid Karzai to accept the Russian offer. If Afghanistan becomes a SCO observer/member, US' plans to forge an exclusive strategic partnership between that country and NATO runs into complications. NATO has been hoping to keep a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. The SCO's annual summit meeting is due to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, on June 15.
To what extent Moscow's push to get Afghanistan diversify its external relations has been taken in the context of the Libya developments (where NATO is being projected as the sole provider of security globally) is a related question. Kabulov has said SCO can render help to Afghan economy. But then, SCO is also a security organization.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

China mocks at 'Nobel Obama' over Libya

People's Daily carried a commentary Friday calling into question US motives in the Libyan operations. The commentary anticipates an endgame that involves western troops on the ground. It questions 'Nobel' Obama's unconvincing explanations "under attack from Republicans, foreign policy pundits and even some of his own party men... mindful of the growing disquiet at home about the US role... [and] a growing chorus of criticism from a number of nations including Turkey, China and India". Commentary approvingly cites Vladimir Putin's criticism of the western intervention but pointedly ignores President Dmirty Medvedev's subsequent moderation or Obama's telephonic commendation of the Kremlin's attitude of 'cooperation'.
So, what is on 'Nobel' Obama's mind? PD says: ""Nobel" Obama weighs much more of the American interests and its geopolitical strategies in the Arab world than what the peace prize really means. Libyan turmoil is publicly propped up not only by the US-led Western diplomatic devices but also military intervention. The purpose is not as simple as the "regime change", which the U.S. denied, but focuses on isolating Iran, taking up the entire Arab market and further, spreading the political chaos to Russia and China in order to counterbalance the emerging strengths. Gaddafi is fighting stubbornly, or putting up a desperate struggle. The coalition forces are intensifying their political and military pressures upon the Arab world, forcing the Arab countries to remain neutral while they are shelling Libya. The Western military intervention finally lays bare their hidden intention of creating a false impression of the "Domino Effect" and "Butterfly Effect" in the concerned region, and also unmasks "Nobel" Obama's ulterior motives."
This is a significant escalation of Chinese criticism. A Xinhua commentary today follows up, giving a detailed account of the worldwide criticism of the western intervention.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Russia expects NATO occupation of Libya

A "high-ranking Russian intelligence service source" has been quoted by the Moscow news agency Novosti as saying that preparations are on for a NATO ground operation in Libya in April-May if the ongoing attempts at regime change doesn't have the desired result. The Russian intelligence source said: "Information coming via different channels shows that NATO countries, with the active participation of Britain and the United States, are developing a plan for a ground operation on Libyan territory. From all indications, a ground operation will be launched if the alliance fails to force the Gaddafi regime to capitulate with air strikes and missile attacks." This reiterates the statement by the Kremlin spokesman two days ago that Moscow expected western "boots on the ground" in Libya at some point.
Meanwhile, Pentagon is moving over 4000 marines to the Mediterranean. The Pentagon decision to deploy servicemen from the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group (BATARG) and 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit was made "based on continuing urgent needs in Libya and the region". BATARG commander Capt. Steven J. Yoder was quoted as saying, "Amphibious ships are optimally suited for executing a wide range of missions, from humanitarian assistance to theater and maritime security operations." The NATO is readying the military base in Izmir [Turkey] for the Libyan operations. We may expect a sizeable Turkish contingent in any NATO occupation force. NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe Adm, James Stavridis visited Ankara for consultations on Thursday.
The invasion of Libya is unfolding almost ditto on the pattern in Afghanistan in October-November 2001. Intensive aerial bombardment plus special forces support for Northern Alliance militia as the first stage; NA took on the brunt of the fighting with Taliban; once success was within sight and NA took over Kabul, US ground forces landed (without the knowledge of the NA - then FM Abdullah, in fact, protested about the arrival of US forces in Bagram). Here too, Libyan rebels will take the brunt of the ground fighting while US aerial bombardment will degrade Gaddafi (as it did the Taliban) and once success is within sight and the rebels reach Tripoli, NATO occupation forces will land. Unlike NA, which had an established political leadership, Libyan rebels are an incohate bunch with no leadership and there will be no one to question the occupation.

What is there in Libya for Clinton?

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has emerged as the leading voice of the Barack Obama administration on Libya. She has been most vociferous about the support for 'democratic forces' (rebels) in Libya. She spearheaded the diplomatic campaign for UN resolution. She travelled to Cairo and Tunis to discuss Arab participation. She attended the summit in Paris last Monday to flesh out the coalition to implement Resolution 1973. She began interpreting the scope of R-1973. She is traveling back to London next week for the 'contact group' meeting on Libya. And now, above all, she has announced that US is taking the next step in the war by transferring command and control to NATO. "We are taking the next step: We have agreed along with our NATO allies to transition command and control for the no-fly zone over Libya to NATO."
Furthermore, Clinton went one step ahead and anticipated that it is a matter of time before NATO is put in charge of the entire mission. "All 28 allies have also now authorized military authorities to develop an operations plan for NATO to take on the broader civilian protection mission." (Hey, where is Robert Gates?) Do UAE or Qatar have any problem operating under NATO? No. Because Clinton sorted it out with her Arab counterparts at the Paris meeting. Quite obviously, this isn't Obama Gates' war. Both have taken low-key roles while Clinton is leading and is in full cry.
What is there in Libya for Clinton? Significantly, Clinton is getting strong support principally from two unlikely camps: the interventionists and neocons in US. But what is not obvious in the ongoing discourses - or, more precisely, what is not being openly discussed - is that the Israeli Lobby has been in the vanguard of the campaign for the intervention in Libya. A large NATO presence in Libya is a huge security guarantee for Israel at a time when it faces the spectre of isolation in the Middle East.
The present blueprint of 'humanitarian intervention' is virtually a carbon copy of what was originally mooted by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman in the course of their visit to Tel Aviv in early March. After their return to US, the two senators literally went on a media campaign projecting their blueprint for US intervention in Libya. Both senators have close links with Israel and obviously, they were spearheading an Israeli plan of action which was worked out in Tel Aviv. Now, to begin with, Obama didn't show interest and Gates was even mildly contemptuous of the McCain-Lieberman plan of action suggesting US intervention. But two top politicians in the Obama camp 'defected' to the pro-Israel camp - Senator John Kerry (high-profily chairman of US senate's foreign affairs committee) and Clinton. Obama immediately began backtracking. Did he sense a challenge from Kerry (or Clinton) in the upcoming presidential race with the support of the Israeli Lobby, which hasn't hidden its disenchantment with Obama? Both were Obama's opponents in the 2008 race and both are ambitious politicians. Conversely, is it what is in actuality there in Libya for Clinton to assume the lead figure in the management of the war? Given the pervasive Jewish influence over the US media and Israel's media management skills, these undercurrents lie sequestered from public view.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

'The Bell Tolls for Thee...'

In my earlier post on March 21 'Don't Ask For whom Bell Tolls', I estimated that one unintended byproduct of the western intervention in Libya may turn out to be the ascendance of militant Islam in a wide arc of the Muslim world. I wrote: "The stunning reality is that the bell tolls not only for Qaddafi. Libya is a fragile nation of recent origin and is unlikely to withstand the pressure of foreign intervention. Its tribal, clan politics are a recipe for disintegration. More important, the only unifying force may turn out to be Islamism, which if it rises in the debris of civil war would profoundly impact international security in a wide arc of Greater Middle East stretching all the way to Afghanistan in India’s extended neighbourhood."
Today's Asia Times carries a sensational piece that Osma bin Laden is on the move, that he has been spotted by US intelligence as having bestirred himself and meeting various militant groups including with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Karachi-based Syed Saleem Shahzad who authored the piece has close contacts with Pakistani intelligence sources. It is hard to tell whether the information is aimed at derailing the ongoing talks between the Americans and Hekmatyar. (Gulbuddin seems to have bypassed the Pakistani intelligence and got directly in touch with Americans.) But Shahzad's main thesis is interesting, namely, that bin Laden might switch to a less dogmatic 'united front' approach toward other islamist groups so as to tap into the anti-American fervor that is bound to arise out of the Arab revolt. He doesn't mention Libya, though.
But Alexander Cockburn, editor of CounterPunch, does. He has an interesting post today, based on WikiLeaks cables. It seems the American embassy in Tripoli had been warning state department that eastern Libya, especially Benghazi is a beehive of Al-Qaeda operatives/sympathisers. Again, the so-called Sinjar Records (set of al-Qaeda documents that came into the possession of US intelligence in 2007) independently substantiates the estimation by the WikiLeaks cable. So much so that a former CIA operations officer Brian Fairchild has been quoted as assessing, amid "the apparent absence of any plan for post-Gaddafi governance, an ignorance of Libya's tribal nature and our poor record of dealing with tribes, American government documents conclusively establish that the epicentre of the revolt is rife with anti-American and pro-jihad sentiment, and with al-Qaeda's explicit support for the revolt, it is appropriate to ask our policy makers how American military intervention in support of this revolt in any way serves vital US strategic interests."
Are we coming a full circle? To fight the "evil empire" in the 1980s, al-Qaeda was created. And now the attempt to effect a regime change in Libya may lead to a similar catastrophe. The fact of the matter is that no one has a clue in the NATO camp as to what they are fighting for, who these so-called "rebels" are or what a successor regime is going to look like. As Cockburn says, Barack Obama is being pushed around by the interventionists and neocons against his own better instincts.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Turkey compromises on NATO role in Libya

The Anatolian news agency just reported, citing NATO officials in Brussels that Turkey has agreed to participate in the alliance's naval operation off Libya. A NATO meeting is under way in Brussels. Brigadier Pierre Saint Anand of NATO's military staff told a media briefing that Turkey was sending five warships and a submarine to join a separate NATO operation off Libya to enforce a UN arms embargo. This seems a volte-face by Ankara. Only yesterday, Turkish PM Recep Erdogan, addressing AKP ruling party MPs in Ankara categorically opposed NATO operation. In fact, he attacked French President Nikolas Sarkozy by name for queering the pitch of implementation of R-1973. He alleged Sarkozy was using Libya operation to boost his domestic popularity ahead of 2012 election. “Nobody told him [NS] to undertake such a role. He took this step on his own."
Erdogan also said Libya operations should be under UN umbrella. Although, he hinted Turkey could take part in the following areas: a) No combat role; b) Turkey could contribute by securing the airport in Benghazi; c) Securing the distribution of humanitarian aid inside Libya; d) Deploying ships in the Mediterranean, between Crete island and Benghazi, apparently to help implement an arms embargo on Libya.
Turkey's participation, if confirmed officially, will no doubt significantly enhance NATO capabilities and profile. Turkey has the second largest military within NATO, next to US; it is a Muslim country; and, any expansion of NATO operations in future such as deployment of ground troops in Libya (which is being talked about) will substantially draw on Turkish resources. What prompted Ankara's rethink is unclear. Barack Obama had spoken to Erdogan. If Turkey indeed shifts its stance, it becomes a diplomatic coup for Obama and there is nothing stopping NATO intervention in Libya. Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe is visiting Ankara on Thursday to coordinate with the Turkish military on the alliance's operations in Libya, which indicates Ankara is falling in line.
Quite possibly, some cosmetic formula is being worked at Brussels today out so that Turkish leadership doesn't lose face. NATO will not take “political leadership” of the international coalition in Libya but will have a planning and operational role to enforce a U.N.-backed no-fly zone, the French foreign minister said Wednesday.

Mullah Omar gets a Russian visitor

He can be disarmingly charming. Like any ethnic Uzbek. Plus he has cultivated a great sense of humor, especially the sardonic variety that is a Russian trademark, which sees you through adversities. He was trained in the tricks of his trade at the best professional schools in Moscow. 

A consummate Orientalist - that is what he has been, coming in the long distinctive tradition of Russian diplomacy that places an overriding accent on area specialists. That is probably the best way to describe Zamir Nabiyevich Kabulov, appointed on Tuesday to the new Russian post of presidential special representative for Afghanistan, includes on his impressive resume the ambassadorship in Kabul. But then, Kabulov also has the rare distinction of having met Taliban leader Mullah Omar face-to-face. Read the full article in today's Asia Times...

Monday, March 21, 2011

'Don't Ask for Whom Bell Tolls'

On Libya, it increasingly appears India is getting torn between loyalties - to the strategic partnership with the United States and Barack Obama's promise to support Delhi's bid for a permanent membership in the UN Security Council on the one hand and the wider ramifications of the western military intervention in a UN member country which also happens to be a fragile nation that like many developing countries in the African continent are still grappling with their post-colonial identity. Woven into all this is the great pantomime that is unfolding about the new world order, especially West's angst over its decline and over Asia's rise. The Delhi newspaper Mail Today featured my commentary on the imperative for India to be far-sighted. The text of the article titled 'Don't Ask for Whom Bell Tolls' is reproduced below:

‘Don’t Ask for Whom Bell Tolls’
By M.K.Bhadrakumar

The narrative sounds simple: Arab awakening has reached Muammad Qaddafi’s land, Libya. And, as Omar Khayyam wrote, “The Moving Finger Writes; and, Having Writ, / Moves on: nor all Your Piety nor Wit / Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.”

But the narrative is deceptive. The Resolution 1973 adopted by the United Nations Security Council on Friday provides for “all necessary measures” by the international community to protect civilians in Libya. It is a deeply flawed resolution insofar as it wasn’t backed (as traditional) by any detailed account of the ground situation, was passed in unseemly hurry and its wording lends itself to varying interpretations, while its implementation is left delightfully vague. Clearly, hindsight tells that the West wanted a fig-leaf to legitimize its ipso facto intervention in Libya and to expand its scope to include “regime change” in Tripoli.

Put plainly, the script is already written and only the stage needs to be readied. Yet, two veto-wielding powers, Russia and China, that consider international law and UN Charter regarding inviolability and sanctity of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member countries allowed the precedent-setting R-1973 to pass through. They wanted the western actions to be somehow made as accountable as possible in the circumstances, while factoring in that western intervention in stoking the fires of a Libyan civil war was already a geopolitical reality.

India, too, abstained and its stance rested principally on the plea that peace efforts (specially by African Union) must be given a chance and there ought to be much more clarity about what is happening in Libya, aside the disquiet that outside intervention may only exacerbate the overall situation. Russia and China have reacted strongly to the air strikes by the “coalition of the willing” – US, UK, France and Canada – and demand that the military operations cease forthwith. So has Africa Union. So has Arab League, which despite its domination by “pro-West” oligarchies, fear the wrath of public opinion over the aggression of another Muslim country by western nations. Arguably, West counts on only one major supporter – Israel.

Unfortunately, from a principled position, Delhi has since backtracked by avoiding condemnation of western air strikes or demanding their cessation, and instead counseling restraint on “all parties”. This balancing works in favour of the West. Which is, of course, a great mistake on India’a part. The heart of the matter is that this is a momentous occasion when India needs to carefully ponder for whom the bell tolls.

The stunning reality is that the bell tolls not only for Qaddafi. Libya is a fragile nation of recent origin and is unlikely to withstand the pressure of foreign intervention. Its tribal, clan politics are a recipe for disintegration. More important, the only unifying force may turn out to be Islamism, which if it rises in the debris of civil war would profoundly impact international security in a wide arc of Greater Middle East stretching all the way to Afghanistan in India’s extended neighbourhood.

Furthermore, Libya’s disintegration or division will send reverberations deep into the African continent where, too, modern nation states that emerged in the post-colonial era are struggling with arbitrary boundaries, and nationhood remains under challenge (eg, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania). Nor can we overlook that a fierce race for Africa’s fabulous resources has resumed lately, harking back to the brutal colonial era. China’s entry into Africa, western economies’ fitful recovery, angst over the West’s steady decline, inexorable rise of Asia, energy security – all these form a cauldron from which the alchemy of the Libyan crisis derives. Overarching considerations include the projection of North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the sole global security organization that has the capacity and experience to intervene in “hot-spots” in the future even without UN mandate.

The narrative, therefore, that Libya is a template of the Arab revolution is crafty deception. Washington has put the Libyan operations under its Africa Command. No wonder, African Union hears the footfalls of a blood-soaked era that it thought had disappeared into history books. Delhi needs to be far-sighted about its stakes in the Libyan pantomime.

Russia blows hot and cold on Libya

Russian PM Vladimir Putin has come down heavily on the western sir strikes on Libya. "The Security Council resolution [1973] is deficient and flawed; it allows everything and is reminiscent of a medieval call for a crusade. It effectively allows intervention in a sovereign state." He added, "This U.S. policy is becoming a stable trend," recalling the U.S. air strikes on Belgrade under Bill Clinton and Afghanistan and Iraq under the two Bush administrations. "Now it's Libya's turn - under the pretext of protecting civilians. Where is the logic and conscience? There is neither. The ongoing events in Libya confirm that Russia is right to strengthen her defense capabilities."
The metaphor of the Crusades and the West's dismantling of the former state of Yugoslavia cannot be accidental. FM Sergey Lavrov also phoned Arab League SG Amr Moussa. According to Russian media, Lavrov told Moussa: "We strictly oppose using military force against civilians, this is why Russia joined the international call to end violence against civilians [in Libya]. Nobody could now predict the consequences of the situation in Libya. We hope they will be minimal and will not damage the territorial integrity of Libya and the whole region.” Lavrov seemed to imply that the western intervention in Libya leading to a civil war or the country's disintegration may have serious consequences for several African countries that are similarly placed in terms of the fragility of their post-colonial nationhood. Russian experts have been voicing apprehension in this direction.
However, on a parallel track, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev today appointed a new special representative on ties with African countries. Curiously, his choice fell on the well-known politician Mikhail Margelov who is a quintessential 'insider' (although with a past as a liberal-minded aide to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky) and he currently heads the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma's upper house. Although a specialist on Africa by academic background, his current forte is Russia's relations with the West and he comes out as an ardent enthusiast of the US-Russia reset.
Margelov uses very colourful language; two weeks ago he called Muammad Qaddafi a "demoniac colonel" whose regime is doomed. "Gaddafi's regime is agonizing. It is dead-trapped, as hunters say. Not only Libyans are fed up with Gaddafi, but also the international community." Margelov hoped that the blood of those killed in Libya will put an end to the "eerie list of crimes by the demoniac colonel."
So, Medvedev's decision is quite interesting. I think one major consideration for the Kremlin must have been that the Americans will feel comfortable with Margelov. Equally, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates just arrived in Russia on a 3-day visit. The fact that Gates got away from US when military operations in Libya have just begun shows that Washington prioritises Russian cooperation, Moscow's rhetoric notwithstanding. En route to Russia, Gates appreciated Russia's abstention at the UN SC on Friday and hoped that more such cooperation would be forthcoming. He said Libya is on his agenda of talks in Moscow.
On the whole, Russian line on Libya is zigzagging. Let us hope its stabilizes sometime soon.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Turkey struggles with its Libya stance

My mind goes back to those times in Ankara when we in the diplomatic corps agonized so much over Turkey's role in any NATO operations in the Balkans. Turkey's stance on Libya strikes me as a replay of its stance on the Balkans. In fact, Turkey's "neo-Ottoman" legacy included, Turkey's pretensions were almost the same - that it was a potential bridge between Europe and the Balkans, that it was "more experienced" than Europe in the affairs of the Balkans thanks to Ottoman rule, that Muslim people were involved, that it was in Turkey's neighborhood, etc. In the event, Turkey fell in line and meekly picked up what the West offered - an auxiliary role in the NATO operations. Even for peacekeeping later, the West opted for EU, which of course, meant Turkey stood by largely as a spectator.
The same trajectory seems to be surfacing over Libyan developments. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has significantly fine-tuned his Libya stance. Interestingly, this happened in the course of a speech at a conference of the Jeddah Economic Forum at Jeddah. By the way, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal paid a unpublicized visit to Ankara on Thursday late evening for a few hours. Faisal would have given some thoughtful worldly advice to the Turkish leadership. Wealthy Arabs salt away a lot of 'green money' in Turkey.
Anyway, Erdogan has for the first time appeared to be critical of Muammar Gaddafi: "Gaddafi is contradicting himself. He said he was not officially the leader of Libya. What is expected of a person who is not officially in charge is to hand over [the administration of] Libya to a person who has an official leadership position.” Erdogan didn't make any forthright criticism of the western military attack on Libya, either. All he would say: “Of course, now we want the military intervention to end and stability to be restored as soon as possible in Libya. We are not pessimistic. We should never lose hope. We can stop the unending bloodshed and tears in this region. Believe me, we can do this.”
Now comes the big question: Will Turkey join the western military operations? Traditionally, in such matters Turkish military used to make the final decisions. But the Kemalist era is in a twilight zone and time is in animated suspension in Turkish politics as parliamentary elections are due in June. Turkey seems to be dithering at a crossroads. Late Saturday, Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement that Ankara will make the necessary and appropriate national contribution to implementing the no-fly zone over Libya and measures to protect civilians. “Within that framework the necessary preparations and studies are being made by civil and military authorities in co-ordination." The MFA statement cryptically ended on this note, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. The Turkish media has already begun speculating that Turkey could provide one or two frigates to support an international naval force deployed off the Libyan coast, or it could open its airspace for aerial strikes on Libya.
Of course, much depends on whether or not the western operations - presently involving US, UK, France, Italy and Canada - are eventually brought under the NATO flag. In principle, Turkey has no problem with the no-fly zone concept as such. Nor is it in any position to oppose a NATO operation. My estimation that Turkey will ultimately contribute to any NATO operations in some way. It will be too much of a risk politically for Turkey to dissociate from a major NATO enterprise outside Europe. NATO membership is the anchor sheet of Turkey's strategic thinking. Things have changed a great deal in Turkish foreign policy in the recent years with regard to neighborhood policies - toward Russia, Iran, Israel and so on - but the Turkish military will not be amenable to an open dissociation from a major NATO decision or a NATO project in the Mediterranean.
Of course, Turkey's Libya dilemma somewhat eases with the Arab League's criticism of the western operations. African Union has already called for an immediate cessation of the western operation. Russia and China have been categorical in their opposition to the western air strikes and the unilateral interpretation of Resolution 1973. A NATO move in the face of the growing regional and international opinion becomes problematic. Ankara may just get away with its prevarication and strategic ambiguity - and, who knows, if luck holds, Ankara may even secure a slice of the mediation that may become necessary at some stage to convey a few sensible things to Gaddafi.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Turkey's Libya dilemma

Turkey is dramatically careering away from the Anglo-French initiative on Libya. The growing divergence of opinion in recent days has apparently become a great divide. Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan has voiced support for an urgent ceasefire in Libya and refrain from any western military action. In reality, Turkey could be doing a curious balancing act, estimating that a role for mediation might arise at some point. Thus, Turkey supports a no-fly zone, but opposes "foreign intervention in our friend and brother Libya." Turkey also adds a caveat that its stance is evolving and is subject to the humanitarian considerations from time to time - a safety valve, of course. No signs, either, that Turkey intends to block a NATO operation in Libya, although Erdogan earlier questioned the alliance's locus standii. Zaman has a fine write-up on the nuances in the Turkish position. The present government is buffeted by many pressure - Ottoman legacy in North Africa, western intervention in yet another Muslim country, Arab League stance, huge economic interests in Libya (projects worth 15 billion dollars) and so on. More than anything else, Erdogan will be highly sensitive about the domestic opinion. Turkey is gearing up for parliamentary election. How will Turkish public react if western operations lead to heavy loss of "Muslim lives" in Libya?