Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hostages by the Thousands (Millions?)

It a horrific strategy. ‘Heartless’ is a profound understatement; it is cruel, genocidal and defies all but the most warped moral codes on earth. Civilians, the more pure innocents the better, are used as human shields or simply surrounded and starved to death as bargaining pawns among warring factions. Even worse when the sacrificial lambs are your own people.

During the rocket barrages from Gaza into Israel, Hamas forces made sure that their launchers and heavy armaments were located near or even at their local schools, mosques and hospitals. As Israel retaliated to take out these positions, Hamas watched as its own young, sick and injured became collateral damage to Israel’s self-defense. World opinion turned against Israel, a nation which has more than enough overreaction and maltreatment of its own Islamic population to justify global opprobrium otherwise, but Hamas was clearly the greater villain. Unconscionable.

Now we are watching civilian populations – by the thousands – become the intentional bargaining chips for factions in Syria and Iraq, vying for political power. The Geneva UN talks aimed at stopping the hostilities in Syria produced little in the way of relief for these people. “On Feb. 3, the United Nations suspended talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of the Syrian opposition. The Geneva talks, which were aimed at ending the five-year-old civil war, had bogged down in distrust and regional politics before they even got underway.

“The UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura, hinted that the initial round of discussions collapsed because the Syrian regime refused to lift the sieges that are slowly starving hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Assad’s regime has been using starvation as a weapon — technically a war crime, when used against civilians — for the past four years.

“As the war has progressed, various rebel factions, like Islamic State and Nusra Front, have also adopted the strategy. But the vast majority of the people under siege in Syria are being starved by their own government. Today, up to a million people are being slowly and deliberately starved to death in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, many of them a stone’s throw away from grain silos full of wheat…

“Assad could lift the government-imposed sieges with a wave of his hand. But his regime has been loath to give up this horrific tactic for one main reason: it works. The regime realized early in the war that instead of waging costly street battles to retake territory, it is cheaper and easier to surround an opposition-held area and starve its residents into submission.

“Assad won’t abandon the sieges unless he comes under sustained international pressure. The external powers that are helping to fuel and prolong the war in Syria — Russia and Iran, which support the Assad regime on the one hand, and the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that support the rebels, on the other — must exert pressure on both sides to end the sieges.” Reuters, February 10th. A few days later, a ceasefire was brokered. But you just have to look at the distractions pulling the obvious parties, who should be involved, away from the good fight, a rescue effort that is desperately needed.

Turkey is obsessed with containing its Kurdish rebels, Saudi Arabia (with her Arab allies) is focused on destroying the Shiite Houthis across its southern border with Yemen and the United States has fallen as Russian strategies – supported by Iran – have bolstered Assad position in Damascus at the expense of U.S. credibility and policies. Further, the Iran-Russia coalition that supports Assad has only escalated hostilities against regional Sunnis. Saudi Arabia (with its allies) and Iran are at each other’s throats. The potential of these natural enemies joining forces against even ISIS is difficult to envision.

Republican candidates are getting increasingly hawkish about the Middle East, demanding that the regional Sunni powers join the US to topple Assad and crush ISIS. Unfortunately, their rather strident anti-Muslim statements have made that task much more difficult, and we haven’t had a single suggestion as to how to convince reluctant Arabs to follow our lead beyond token and minimal efforts. Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem fully to appreciate the complexities of influencing the regional players, and Hillary Clinton is quietly embracing the Obama’s policies, even as Secretary of State John Kerry tells us that we are running out of options.

For those who want to invade Syria and take out both Assad and ISIS, there is a harsh reality that today and in the near future, it would rapidly become a “mostly U.S.” military response… and our track record in such “mostly U.S.” Middle Eastern/Muslim world engagements is awful. We haven’t been able successfully to implement our stated intentions in a decade and a half of trying. In fact, that the region has become increasingly destabilized, and that we are facing terrorist forces more dangerous than ever, seem to be our reward for our misguided, ill-thought earlier efforts.

While it is hard to embrace patience as people are starving, the United States just has not been able to mount the kind of global tsunami that cares, and even the U.N.’s efforts have fallen short. Still, things are beginning to move. Russia, which until recently simply ignored the starvation and civilian misery, seems to be basking in her obvious humiliation of American policies and interests. Hard to ignore the images of starvation, but there are a few rays of light from arising from the smoky ruins.

With Russian acquiescence (the U.S. was irrelevant!) as the real force behind the change, there are slivers of hope for a few (about a quarter of the towns under siege), but everyone is holding their breath as factions pledge to fight on. “Trucks carrying humanitarian aid began to enter four of five besieged areas of Syria scheduled for deliveries on [February 17th] in a U.N.-backed deal to deliver help to thousands of trapped residents, an aid agency source and conflict monitor said…The Syrian government has approved access to seven besieged areas, the United Nations said after crisis talks in Damascus on Tuesday, a week ahead of a planned resumption of peace negotiations between Syria's warring parties.

“The United Nations estimates there are 486,700 people in around 15 besieged areas of Syria, and 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas. In some, starvation deaths and severe malnutrition have been reported.” Reuters, February 17th.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Russia, not the U.S., is the prime non-regional power with the clout in the Middle East. And while Russia has bombed and blustered its way to such primacy, it eventually has to back down even more or risk isolation in a way that will prevent it from achieving its own goals. If it cares. While Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Venezuela have agreed to freeze petroleum output at January levels to try and restore order to oil prices, Putin’s purported ally Iran, freed from sanctions and able to sell oil on the open market, has not accepted this restriction. Yet there is other evidence, however slim, that Russia is backing off some of its bluster beyond its support of the ceasefire.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin said on [February 17th] he is sure that relations between Russia and the European Union will get back to normal sooner or later…‘It will happen sooner or later. Relations between Russia and the European Union will be normalized,’ Putin said after talks at his residence near Moscow with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban…The EU imposed sanctions on Russia in response to Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Some European leaders, including Orban, want to restore trade relations with Russia, testing EU solidarity over the issue.” Reuters, February 17th.

On the other hand, does anyone really trust the conqueror of Crimea and the fomenter of conflict in Ukraine? But without some seriously greater global (and regional) support, which it needs to do “yesterday,” the U.S. is a wet rope twisting in a roiling thunderstorm. It’s hard to foster coalitions, to engage local Muslim powers, during an election year where too many candidates are valued only to the extent of their anti-Muslim sentiments. Perhaps, it will only be after this rhetoric has settled down that we will be able to try again.

I’m Peter Dekom, and this is a miserable place to be when so many people are in such desperate need of food, medicine, shelter and safety.

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