Baghdadi Dead; the Role Looking for an Actor

(CNN) ISIS leader al-Baghdadi believed to have been killed in a US military raid, sources say.

Baghdadi had to be neutralized for the same reason a serial killer is taken off the street. We feel elation, even when the FBI estimates that between 25 and 50 serial killers are currently active in the U.S. It’s elation, yet absent the boon of finality. What kind of person was he?

Quoting the (Daily Telegraph) How a talented footballer became world’s most wanted man, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an early impression of Baghdadi is of an unimpressive character:

“I was with Baghdadi at the Islamic University. We studied the same course, but he wasn’t a friend. He was quiet, and retiring. He spent time alone … I used to know all the leaders (of the insurgency) personally. Zarqawi (the former leader of al-Qaeda) was closer than a brother to me … But I didn’t know Baghdadi. He was insignificant. He used to lead prayer in a mosque near my area. No one really noticed him.”

(Cairo Review of Global Affairs) A Portrait of Caliph Ibrahim says otherwise. Quoting,

“…He said Al-Baghdadi always had a serene smile on his face and was “calm and self-possessed.” This person, who had also been in Osama Bin Laden’s coterie, said that Al-Baghdadi reminded him of the late Al-Qaeda leader. The same source told me that Al-Baghdadi is extremely charismatic and that, sitting in a room with him and listening to him talking, “it is very difficult not to be influenced by him, his ideas, and his beliefs.”

Paradoxical? Are we discussing the same person? Was this a person of

  • Unrecognized charisma, until fate thrust him to the fore?
  • Insignificant personality, yet with seeds of “greatness”, whose personality dramatically altered, after maturity, to become charismatic?
  • Artificially acquired charisma, obtained by donning a mantle, or role?

This double vision has precedent. Descriptions of Osama Bin Laden include the same metamorphosis, the nobody who becomes the charismatic leader.

We don’t have to conclude that both Baghdadi and Bin Laden contained the suppressed seeds of twisted “greatness.” Anyone who’s seen good Shakespeare has seen the alternative, artifice. The great actor who was “half a man” off the stage is no myth. And if you aren’t into Shakespeare, there’s (People)  Peter Sellers, a great actor who was, at best, one sixteenth  a man in real life. But on stage, a good actor assumes the greatness of the role.

The alternative: Baghdadi and Bin Laden were good actors. The Salafist and Wahhabi sects are  a case of convergent evolution, with different origins and similar-to-identical practices. Physical emulation is a core principle — how to eat, eliminate, clean, groom, dress,  etc. It’s   analogous to the costuming of the stage actor, and the copying of mannerisms with accomplished acting.  Combined with the elaborate  social  functions of a religious  leader, this is a complete Method Acting description of a part.

The elaborate prescriptions of fundamentalist Islamic sects have created enduring roles for lethal actors.  The elimination of Baghdadi is a job well done, worthy of  congratulation. But before we get too happy at the death of an actor, consider this:

It’s hard enough to kill the actor. But how do you kill off a role? Auditions are already scheduled.





Genocide in Northern Syria

The history of Turkey augurs genocide in northern Syria.

Prior to World War I, the Ottoman Empire was a true multicultural state. In a hardly modern arrangement, the tribes and ethnic groups were co-opted in a representational scheme. There is some similarity in the relationship between the Kremlin and Chechnya, though Ramzan Kadyrov would be a lot harder to replace than an Ottoman governor.

But the center, Istanbul, was weak. In World War I, the actual rulers of Turkey, the Three Pashas, allied with the Triple Alliance, which lost.  The empire fell prey to centrifugal forces exploited by Britain and France. It was dissected into artificial, unstable  states, deliberately incorporating antagonistic ethnic groups. This is the face of the modern Middle East.

The center of the former empire, modern Turkey, contained mostly ethnic Turks, but included Armenians and Kurds. The Three Pashas decided that having lost 90% of the real estate, the remainder would be exclusively Turkish. Armenians were a significant minority in the Turkish heartland, Anatolia.  Preceding the birth of modern Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, Turkey was in violent political flux. At the same time, a tide of dispossessed Muslim refugees from the north strained resources of the preindustrial state, when the primary asset was land. The Armenians lived vulnerably in the midst of this unstable society.

Three factors combined:

  • Ethnic hatred, or the desire for a mono-culture in what remained of Turkey.
  • Overcrowding by Muslim refugees.
  • Political expediency, as seen by the Three Pashas.

In, 1915, in a rehearsal for the Holocaust, the Armenians were rounded up and marched south into the Syrian Desert, to die without food or water at 35°20′00″N 40°9′00″E, the location of modern Deir ez Zor.

It wasn’t hard for the Turks to commit the Armenian Genocide, which today they still do not admit. There were no protests. T. E. Lawrence was the British leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. In  Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the basis of Lawrence of Arabia, he remarks on the passivity and obedience of Turkish soldiers. If directed to be friendly to an Arab village, they were remarkably obedient. If directed to slaughter the inhabitants, their obedience was thorough.

To understand what is yet to come, consider the geography. Most of the area is typical of the Syrian desert, which can support only sparse populations of nomads and livestock. This is why, in 1915, 150,000 Armenians perished at Deir ez Zor. It wasn’t land to colonize; it was land to die in.

The Turks will tell you they need a buffer zone because of cross-border support for the PKK in Turkey. There is something to this. But it should be remembered that the PKK was created by extreme oppression of Kurdish culture, which included the banning of Kurdish dress, language, and even the identity of “Kurd.”

The conflict was well on the way to solution, in the form of cultural accommodation, by Prime Minister Turgut Özal, when he died in 1993. Based on exhumation in 2012,  he was poisoned. The Three Pashas remain alive in the Turkish State.

These similarities with the Armenian Genocide suggest a repetition:

  • Turkey is overloaded with refugees.
  • The secular, inclusive state of Kemal Ataturk has receded, while the observations of T.E. Lawrence remain pertinent.
  • The state is still devoted to Turkish monoculture, with both covert and overt manifestations. Turkey continues to deny the  Armenian Genocide.

So the region is primed for genocide. How will it come off? According to (Reuters) Explainer: Turkey set to redraw map of Syrian war once more,  the initial military target lies between Tel Abayad and Ras al-Ain. This is desert, with two cross-border cities. By itself, this is of little concern.

The northeast corner of Syria is historically part of the Kurdish region that spans Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The 20 mile zone would obliterate it. But as this area is mountainous and not very rewarding, Turkey will first deprive the Kurdish proto-state of its primary natural resources: the fertile, watered river valley of the Euphrates, and  the  oil fields around Deir ez Zor.

Then they will drive the Kurds into the desert to die, as they did with the Armenians in 1915.

(Reuters) Trump threatens to ‘obliterate’ Turkish economy over Syria incursion plan. The threat of U.S. economic pressure  will mean nothing to the Turks.

The history books of the future will have something to say about this. Betrayal and genocide are terrible things to have your name  on.

I’m feeling some shame myself.



North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden; The End of a Road

(Reuters) North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with U.S. in Sweden. Quoting,

The North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, who spent much of the day in talks with an American delegation, cast the blame on what he portrayed as U.S. inflexibility, saying the other side’s negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude.”

This walk-out on working level talks should put the nail in the coffin of wishful thinking, heavily promoted early on by 38North, and some academicians in South Korea. In June 2018, at a  Tokyo panel discussion on North Korea, South Korea’s National Security Advisor, Moon Jae-in, said,

“Now is the time to set aside all those things. Let us see whether North Korea can deliver what the U.S. wants and the entire world wants,” Moon said….“Therefore past behavior should not be the yardstick to judge current or future behavior of North Korea.”

Bad advice, which I rebuked in North Korea’s past no indication, South Korea adviser; The Past is Prologue. These “respected authorities”, and others, failed to deliver the goods when tasked with going beyond academic compilation to the dynamic of prediction.

The media covered the summit circus with handshake photos, floral arrangements, the back seat of Trump’s limo., and a focus that made it look like a PR game. Was this a harmless diversion, or a misdirection of the public’s limited attention? Perhaps it was harmless, but one message was missing: This doesn’t mean anything.

The floral arrangements  have decayed to dust. The shallow scoring of the pundits-of-the-day, about who had better moves on the dance floor, had no relevance beyond a month of collective euphoria. We are back to vile, poisonous, hollow plutonium spheres in the hands of a man who murdered his brother. Even 38North has gone back to chronicling North Korea’s march to become a strategic nuclear power.

I would have none of it. I gave my estimate in Reuters: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible. It is identical with the CIA estimate. Quoting,

The bullet list has tight linkages, implying that the object of regime change is identical as a goal with nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

From the above, you might think I’m a hawk. Wrong! It’s a common mental error to conflate intelligence with strategy. Let’s keep them separate here.  The fact that North Korea is a threat does not imply a military solution. The problem of North Korea is  no more or less solvable than the problem of Iran.

In the next two paragraphs, I’ll lay out why betting on horses is a surer enterprise than wars of prevention.

World War I was the “war to end wars.”  The end to war didn’t happen, so the next time war threatened, in 1938, then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to buy peace with Hitler at the expense of Czechoslovakia with the Munich Agreement. That didn’t work either. While  the Korean War was forced upon us, the Domino Theory from the 50’s on fostered another preventive war, in Vietnam.

The Gulf War of 1991, an unqualified military victory, was questioned as a success, since it left in power a ruthless dictator. The follow-up corrective, the 2003 Iraq Invasion, may have been justified. But  the civil decisions that ensued are the direct cause of an Iraq which cannot resist Iran’s expansionism. Viewed as one conflict, these military actions failed the geopolitical goals.

So up to the present, with all the supposed wisdom immanent the think tanks and NSC, one thing is elusive. Paraphrasing Liddell Hart, how can war create a better peace?

If I were to pick the brain of General Mattis, he might be thinking: Instead of looking for the next war, let it find you. So where does this leave the Trump Administration?

  • John Bolton’s opinion, in common with the CIA, and my opinion, is that Kim will never give up nuclear weapons. But because his office was in the White House, and understood by outsiders to be intimately connected with the Presidency, he should have been discrete with that opinion. And Bolton does not seem to have internalized the history of wars of prevention.
  • Trump, in common with FDR’s approach to Joseph Stalin at Yalta,  attempted to establish a personal relationship with Kim. This doesn’t work, because Stalin and Kim were/are not regular guys. They’re out for themselves. Since we cut FDR some slack, we could do the same for Trump.
  • So in view of the difficult alternatives, do I blame Trump for cozying up to Kim? It depends, not upon his public attitude, but what he really believes.  Schmoozing is what you do with someone you need to work with but don’t really like.
  • The CIA got this right from the get-go. Nevertheless, our culture makes negotiation obligatory before conflict.

Schmoozing is OK. Believing is not.





Uprising Grips Iraq, 65 Killed

(Reuters) Uprising grips Iraq, 65 killed in protests against government corruption.

(Al Jazeera) Iraq protests: All the latest updates spotlights a key player:

Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition had won the largest number of seats in last year’s elections, urged legislators to suspend their parliamentary membership and boycott sessions until the government responds to the protesters’ demands.

“Hurry to suspend your membership without delay,” he said in a statement issued before a parliamentary session on Saturday.

This is the same  individual whose minions were one of the backbones of the insurgency that gripped Iraq between 2004 and 2008. Post that interval, he became the most adroit politician in Iraq, positioning as the “conscience of the nation” without being tarred by political office. His positions have gyrated between violence and conciliation. He has resided in Iran for indeterminate periods. The Iranian and Iraqi religious establishments have close ties, divided mainly by the issue of Velâyat-e Faqih, a very new invention which may in the near future be no issue at all. See Iran history II: two societies.

So I have long harbored the suspicion, which I cannot substantiate, that Muqtada al-Sadr is an Iranian mole, or with more grayness, a buyable personage. He’s not an ayatollah; he may lack the brainpower for the horrific memorization and declamation, but in return for delivering Iraq to Iran, Qom might judge more favorably than Najaf.  Or he might enjoy  being the ruler of a satrap. These are personal suspicions, unsubstantiated by anything in open source.

With Iraq on the verge of disintegration, a triangle of three forces provides a simple visualization. The corners of the triangle are patriotism, grievance, and oppression. The state of practically any nation can be represented by a dot inside the triangle, nearest to the forces most in play. In Iraq today, the dot is almost on the line connecting patriotism and grievance. If the dot moves all the way over to grievance, Iraq explodes.

Sadr is helping this along  by riding the tide of grievance, and promoting the dissolution of the parliament. The fact of corruption characteristic to a tribal society is a boon to his machinations. He doesn’t have to manufacture anything.

If Sadr succeeds in disenfranchising Iraq’s civil administration, Iran may decide to lend a helping hand. Basra looks particularly juicy. It’s near Iran, the residents are well ahead of the curve of discontent. It provides a choke point on the Shatt al-Arab, extending influence well inland, to the entire drainage basin of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Iran’s strategic planners are at least gaming this out. An alternative, or adjunct, would be further strikes against Saudi facilities. At some level, oil starvation becomes less tolerable than compliance with U.S. sanctions. The result could be a general, willful disregard of U.S. sanctions, together with widespread dollar substitution, and weakening of the dollar as the primary reserve currency.

I’ve written about various ways the cookie can crumble. See:

The takeaway: In this region, we don’t have a winning hand, but:

  • Stick tight with Saudi Arabia.
  • Yemen has possibilities, which I won’t discuss here.
  • Have a contingency plan for deployment of ground forces.