Time to Apologise

The people who make up ISIS are not entirely stupid:

Isis-affiliated fighters “apologised” after launching an attack on Israeli soldiers, the country’s former defence minister has claimed.

Moshe Ya’alon was reportedly referring to an incident when a group linked to Isis in the Syrian Golan Heights exchanged fire with Israeli forces last November.

“There was one case recently where Daesh [Isis] opened fire and apologised,” Mr Ya’alon said.

That’s probably sensible, yes. The scene was captured in cartoon form below:

This was interesting, too:

According to the first Western journalists, who have entered Isis’ territories and survived, Israel is the only country in the world the Islamic group fears because it believes its army is too strong to face.

And the reason Israel ensures it has a very strong army is precisely because of groups like ISIS and those who think like them.

Picking Sides

In an effort to understand what is happening in the Middle East, I recalled the introduction to Part III of this excellent book: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

The Second World War was never merely a conflict over territory. It was also a war of race and ethnicity. Some of the defining events of the war had nothing to do with winning and maintaining physical ground, but with imposing one’s own ethnic stamp on ground already held.

The problem for those pursuing this racial war was that it was not always easy to define a person’s race or ethnicity, particularly in eastern Europe where different communities were often inextricably intermingled. Jews who happened to have blond hair and blue eyes could slip through the net because they did not fit the Nazis’ preconceived racial stereotype. Gypsies could and did disguise themselves as members of other ethnic groups just by changing their clothes and their behaviour –as did Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Romanians in Ukraine, and so on. The most common way of identifying one’s ethnic friends or enemies –the language they spoke –was not always an accurate guide either. Those who had grown up in mixed communities spoke several languages, and could switch between one and the next depending on whom they were speaking to –a skill that would save many lives during the darkest days of the war and its aftermath. In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race.

Those who did not have their ethnicity chosen for them had to make the decision for themselves. This was not always easy. Many people had multiple options, either because they had mixed-race parents or grandparents or because they saw no contradiction in being simultaneously, say, Polish by birth, Lithuanian by nationality and German by ethnicity. When forced to make a choice, their decision was often naively random at best, perhaps inspired by a parent, a spouse, or even a friend. The more calculating chose an identity according to what benefits it might offer. Claiming German ethnicity, for example, could confer exemption from labour round-ups and eligibility for special rations and tax breaks. On the other hand, it could also mean liability for military conscription: the decision sometimes boiled down to whether the Russian front was preferable to a slave-labour camp. The choices that people made regarding their ethnicity would have implications far beyond the end of the war.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem –indeed, it elevated it to the problem –that needed solving.

In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing.  Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel).  Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union.  Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity.  I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second.  Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria.  These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein.  And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another.  My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge).  Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone.  Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule.  One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window.  The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant.  The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren.  No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side.  Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

Perhaps more worrying is the degree to which this might be happening in Turkey.  The Kurds always had a rough time of it, and Armenians would probably have a few rather blunt words to say were any to read this (and justifiably so), but under Ataturk’s secular republic people were Turks first and committed to a Turkish identity and Turkish nationalism – be they Muslim or Christian, conservative, moderate, or secular.  Sure, some of the more conservative Turks might have gotten a bit hot under the collar over pretty girls wandering the beaches at Izmir in pink bikinis, just as the educated, Westernised Turks in Istanbul thought the rural folk in the north and east were ignorant, backward, and best ignored.  Whatever one’s affiliation or religious fervor, everyone was a Turk and the country came first.

The election of Recep Erdoğan has changed all that.  By running on an Islamist platform, he has driven a wedge between the more conservative Muslims and the secularists, non-Muslims, and the rest.  Now it is starting to matter whether you are secular or Islamist, moderate or conservative.  Last evening a friend showed me a photo that had been posted on Turkish social media a few days ago, before yesterday’s bomb in Izmir.  It was of a Turkish woman in her 20s in a headscarf suggesting that the city – which has a reputation as a centre of secularism and having a Westernised population – be attacked because it is full of infidels.  The number of people approving her remarks was well over a hundred.  This would have been unheard of a generation ago, Turks wanting other Turks killed and maimed over religious differences and being prepared to say so in public.

We have already seen what happened in Europe when people who had never wanted labels were forced to wear one and fight each other.  We are currently seeing what happens in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when choosing a side becomes compulsory.  I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.

Another Nutjob in the Pipeline

Whenever the US gets involved in a conflict somewhere in the world there is always, always somebody on the American Right who will come out with some bizarre conspiracy theory involving a pipeline.  It’s always a pipeline.

Before 9/11 when the Taliban were running Afghanistan and blowing up statues of Buddha, the lunatics on the extremes of both Left and Right were saying that the US was supporting the Taliban because they wanted to build a pipeline through the country between Pakistan and, erm, somewhere.  They cited a report showing that Unocal, an American oil company now owned by Chevron, did once consider building a pipeline through Afghanistan but the project got nowhere near even the engineering phase.  They accepted without question, as these people often do, that US foreign policy is determined in part by medium-sized oil companies best known for gasoline retail.  Or at least it is when the Jews go for their lunch break.

Immediately following the American assault on the Taliban which removed them from power, the conspiracy theorists simply switched to claiming the reason for the attack was in order to build – you guessed it – this Unocal pipeline.  Oliver Kamm wrote a decent post covering this switch and the absurdity of it on his blog at the time, and it is worth reading.

I was reminded of this today when I was directed via another blog to this Twitter post:

It’s always about pipelines with these people.  They have this daft idea that pipelines are so valuable it is worth going to war just to build one.  How the US government is supposed to benefit from a pipeline, presumably carrying gas, from Qatar to Bulgaria(!) I don’t know.  Obviously whoever dreamed up this particular theory hasn’t heard much about LNG and the growing spot market, nor US shale gas.

You don’t need to be a fan of Obama or Clinton to find this level of political analysis from the American Right to be as stupid as anything the American Left can come up with.

Turkey enters Syria

The series of proxy wars going on in Syria got a bit more complicated last week when Turkish troops rolled over the border to tackle what Ankara is calling terrorists: both ISIS and Kurdish groups.  Turkey has suffered a wave of suicide bombings in the past few months, almost certainly carried out by ISIS or groups affiliate to their cause, and so have some justification in going after them in their strongholds.  But it’s also likely that Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan will use this as an excuse to deploy proper military units against their old foes the Kurds in their homelands, something which they could not have done previously without provoking an international outcry.

With the men and material at the Turks’ disposal, I expect they will prevail against the Kurds to begin with.  But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more.  The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup.  A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots.  The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat.  They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack.  The most viable Kurdish strategy would be to drag this out as long as possible, practice hit-and-run tactics on vulnerable Turkish supply lines and rear echelon units, and turn it into the sort of guerrilla war which has done so much damage to American units in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years.  But crucial to the Kurds’ success is to secure the backing of a larger power to keep them supplied with weapons, ammunition, medical equipment, and funds.  I suspect a major reason for Ergodan’s decision to kiss and make up with Putin over the downing of the Russian plane in November 2015 is to prevent Russia from fulfilling this role.  It will now be interesting to see who does back the Kurds (if anyone) and how Turkey’s newly purged military performs.

Al-Chernobyl

Gulf Arab leaders are considering a joint civilian nuclear programme, a move that could heighten proliferation concerns in the oil-rich region.

reports the Financial Times.

The decision to order a study, announced at the end of a two-day summit in Riyadh attended by leaders from the Gulf Co-operation Council, comes at a time of mounting Arab concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its growing regional power.

Abdul-Rahman al-Attiya, the secretary-general of the GCC, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, stressed that Gulf countries had the right to nuclear energy technology for peaceful purposes.

To which my response is: who are they trying to kid?  The GCC is a robust enough forum for agreeing on some matters, such as visa free travel for its citizens and the like, but unfortunately the rulers and citizens of the Gulf States usually have egos which match their hydrocarbon reserves for size, thus reducing cooperation on anything substantial to petty squabbling and endless bickering.  One of the more tedious aspects of developing business along the whole length of the Gulf was being told in each country that our regional head office should be located in the country I was currently in, as to be based out of another was a snub which displeased them. 

Take by way of a more serious example the fact that the UAE and Saudi Arabia can’t even agree on where their borders lie, a disupute which has led Saudi to block the route of a pipeline between Qatar and the UAE.  And witness the withdrawal of Qatar and then Abu Dhabi from Gulf Air, the two throwing cooperation to the wind and instead going it alone as soon as the oil price rose to sufficiently fill the government coffers, leaving poorer Oman and Bahrain to run the airline by themselves.  Unless the subject of the day is denouncing Israel the level of cooperation between the Gulf states is woeful, and headlines are more often made by one or other of them announcing some megaproject which threatens to be whiter and more elephant-like than Dubai’s Palm Islands than anything which describes a genuine breakthrough in cooperation. 

And now we’re expected to believe that the GCC are going to cooperate in the building of a joint nuclear programme?  If they ever properly agree which nationality is going to be the chairman, I’ll eat my hat.  If an atom ever gets split, I’ll eat my whole outfit which, sitting watching the blizzard outside, is pretty substantial.

Besides, let’s assume a nuclear reactor does get built in one of the Gulf States.  Is it going to be run along the same lines as the region’s oil and gas facilities, the characteristics of which are corruption, non-accountability, cronyism, political interference, and terrible safety records?  Let’s just say that if I will find myself a few years down the track being reminded of this post and subsequently munching my way through my North Face down jacket, I’ll at least be glad that I am doing so from the very remote location of Sakhalin Island. 

When A Western Expat Meets The Locals

My wife and I were invited to a joint birthday party last night, to which we arrived at 7:30pm.  By 8:30 I was feeling very ill, and was quite astonished by the speed at which everyone was drinking vodka or some very ropey Martini (never mind the label, if that was Martini then I’m the Queen of Sheba).  It didn’t help that the vodka was of poor quality, but even if I’d been drinking Absolut’s finest I’d have been in trouble.  I’m no stranger to drinking with Russians, but this lot were on another level.  By the time we left at midnight some of them were still going strong.  Drinking like this is a spectator sport.

Anyway, for the last few hours I stuck to juices and tea in a desperate effort (which was ultimately successful) to avoid being hungover for the rather important meeting I have with my boss this morning, and in doing so I was able to talk to some Russians about actual stuff, as opposed to being a gibbering wreck with my head down the U-bend.  One of the things I got asked a lot is why I like Russia so much, and why I prefer Sakhalin Island with its terrible conditions and crumbling infrastructure over Dubai with its fancy hotels and (supposedly) luxurious lifestyle.  The answer, as I’ve always said, is the people.

Here I don’t feel much like an expat.  This party took place in a Korean restaurant which I would bet sees about two expats a month, and I was the only non-Russian at the table.  A handful spoke English, but not much was spoken.  Although I am treated as somewhat of a novelty by Russians, I can safely say that in this group of people, I belonged.  I joined in the fun along with all the others and did not feel one bit out of place.  I met some new people, and drank to their health, and left amongst much back slapping and bear hugs and promises to get completely plastered tonight over a game or two of billiards, which I fully intend to keep should my wife feel generous and allow me to go.  I’ve been in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk only about 11 weeks, and already know a gang of locals.

I contrast this with the Middle East, where I was only once ever invited to a local’s home and never to a social function which involved close friends and family.  There were many meals in fancy restaurants (with a depressing lack of ale), but these were all business related.  I suppose in many ways this was my fault, as I made no efforts to learn the language, understand local customs, or learn what passes for the culture in that part of the world.  But I always got the impression that even if I had made a gargantuan effort to immerse myself into the locals, I would never have got very far.  Indeed, I can’t think of any westerner who is close enough to a local to thump on his door on a Friday (think Sunday) morning, invite himself in, embrace his mate’s wife who is making him a coffee, jump on the sofa beside his mate who is watching TV and demand that he gets his arse into gear because the weather is good and we really should do something.  In fact, I can’t think of any westerner who would feel comfortable banging on a local’s door on a Friday morning under any circumstances, unless he had a prior invitation for a specific purpose.  Every westerner I spoke to on the subject in the Middle East said there was always an “Us and Them” feel about the whole situation.  What I found was an unbridgeable gulf between us and them, and although some people worked hard at closing the gap, the gulf remained nonetheless.

Now it’s one thing to identify that a huge gap exists between two cultures, but quite another to identify why.  I’m just an engineer and not a psychologist so I am not stating this as fact, but I reckon the reason is a difference in the thought processes adopted by the religious and the secular which takes the two to such different conclusions of any given situation, and this in turn modifies the general behaviour of each.  I always feel I can understand how a Russian man thinks (leave the women out of this for now), and never find that I am too far off his wavelength.  In the Middle East however, I often found myself talking to somebody whose mindset was a galaxy or two away from mine.  Take by way of example an entry on the UAE Community Blog which in my opinion highlights just how far apart the Middle Eastern mentality is from, well, just about anywhere secular: 

I have posted an entry earlier this year about the “Wellbeing Show” which featured, among others; magicians, tarot readers, Seminars on how to know your future, and a whole lot of other nonsense.

To all of you who are familiar with islamic laws, you know what kind of offence that is. And if you care, please help spread the word and stop this nonsense.

Then in the comments, a reply reads thusly:

Thanks for highlighting this topic. I believe that only weak people go to these astrologers because they are not content with whatever God has given them. They go to the astrologers because it makes them feel better & stronger, although in reality they are being fooled & ripped of their money.

Which is all well and good, until you read the second part of the comment:

No one in his right mind can deny the existence of black magic, it is a fact. And ajwa dates is one of several remedies prescribed by our Prophet peace be upon him to protect us from the evils of magic.

So tarot reading is offensive nonsense which must be opposed, whereby anybody who doubts the existence of black magic must be a nutcase.  It can hardly be said that these sentiments belong only to a fringe minority in the Middle East, indeed they are pretty widespread, and it was this type of thought process, i.e. that certain trivial things are categorically wrong but we’ll put blind faith in others which outsiders find ludicrous, which I believe prevents westerners from really immersing themselves with the locals in contrast to how I am able to get on in Russia.

Imperial Idiocy

A common piece of cluelessness from Gene over at Harry’s Place: 

Israel has always been a thorn in the side of the real imperialists of the Middle East– the big oil companies extracting the wealth of Arab and Muslim countries, and those in government who support them.

Almost without exception, the big oil companies operating in the Middle East are government owned or government controlled.  I’m not sure how a government extracting oil from its own territory amounts to imperialism, but I’m sure there’s an academic somewhere who can explain it all to me.

The Ignorance of Americans

The Israeli assualt on Lebanon has not gone unnoticed by the denizens of the UAE Community Blog, and there have been several threads discussing the conflict.  I use that term loosely, and I don’t recommend my readers click through on the links unless they have a burning desire to read a collection of boiler-plate diatribes against Israel containing such wisdom as:

Every single war Israel launched since its unfortunate inception was a war of choice, except the 1973 war. Israeli propaganda has always trumpeted its wars as existential or wars for survival; that is simply not true. Even the 1948 war was started by Israel (a large scale military campaigns to secure Arab areas and force Palestinians into fleeing commenced in 1947; check historical record). Israel has NEVER been in danger of genocide; This is a vicious, cruel, immoral and murderous war; 

and:

This fighter-civilian “blending” is mostly used as a red herring to demonize groups and people and justify unacceptable violent behavior of states.

You know the stuff.  But the reoccurring theme which I really find ironic is that a group of people in the Middle East whose governments heavily restrict internet access, control the press with an iron fist, force political views on its population from early childhood, forbid criticism of government policy, refuse to recognise the existence of Israel and ban Jews from entering believe that it is the Americans who are completely ignorant of the real situation in the Middle East and they have been brainwashed by the American media which suppresses debate!

Take this for example, written by an American expat:

We, if I may speak for myself and other overseas Americans, will clearly have a broader perspective based on the fact of having lived both within and outside of the US. Contrast this with anyone who will not have had this opportunity. It isn’t to suggest that we are better or more intellegent. It is simply a matter of exposure. We have a wider variety of reference points; not only Gulf News and the sentiments of the local media and local population, but also that of the mainstream US media and population for having been in that setting too.

We simply are able to view things from a broader perspective–as too are a minortiy of States-side Americans, who for whatever reasons are well-informed.

The Gulf News?!!  Local media?!!  And exposure to this is supposed to give Americans a better perspective?  This is like saying that reading back issues of Pravda would give Americans a better understanding of the Vietnam war.

Many commentators express outrage that the Americans support Israel over anyone else in the Middle East.  They are left saddened, angry, and confused as to why Americans would take sides so blatantly.  Now I have argued at length that if somebody feels anger or confusion as to why people do things, then they have not researched the situation properly.  I have read few serious historical or political analyses of a situation when after reaching a conclusion the author has thrown his hands up in despair and expressed anger at his failure to understand.  If they do, they have missed something, a crucial factor somewhere.

Which leaves some of them scrabbling around desperate for answers, and what better answer can there be for America’s support for Israel than one whereby the Americans are as thick as pigshit and have been duped into supporting Israel against their interests by the sneaky, scheming Jews who of course control the US government and all media outlets?  Never has it occurred to them that the Israeli message might be one hell of a lot more palatable than the one the anti-Israel lobby is trying unsuccessfully to flog.  I’m just a dumb Brit, but I’m sure that most Yanks if forced to choose are not going to be rooting for a side which routinely burns their flag whilst chanting “Death to America” on TV, and supports those who fly passenger aircraft into American office blocks.  

Interestingly, I sometimes get accused of being Jewish, presumably because nobody can understand why an aethist growing up in a Welsh farming town who never met a Jew or Muslim until his late teens can wind up supporting Israel over its adversaries.  It doesn’t seem to occur to anybody that I might have come to this conclusion all on my own with pretty good access to the facts and without some nefarious Jewish lobby pushing me into it.  No, the charge I usually face is that I am either Jewish, or I am not in full possession of the facts.

So we end up in a situation whereby Americans – who occupy a country in which fierce debates on Israel and the Middle East rage across its newspapers, TV, and unrestricted websites along with dozens of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in its streets –  are accused of being ignorant of the facts and brainwashed by a government which nobody dares to question; and this accusation comes from a people who all agree on the same thing – which just so happens to be the same as the official government stance – read government-approved newspapers, have their internet access restricted, and are forbidden from taking part in any demonstration which does not support the official government line.

To a Martian, this must cause him to laugh his little green belly off.