Chechens? Who Are the Chechens?

By Jay Holmes

Last week the prime suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing attack were identified as two Chechen immigrant brothers. Some are suggesting that the recent history of Chechnya may have had an influence in the motives of the perpetrators. A few are suggesting that the bombers may have been operating as part of a Chechen Rebel faction. The latter suggestion is, as yet, unsupported by evidence. Nonetheless, a brief review of Chechnya can be useful in understanding current events.

Created by Kbh3rd, wikimedia commons

Created by Kbh3rd, wikimedia commons

Chechnya is a 7,600 square mile republic within Russia, located in the far corners of Eastern Europe in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains of Georgia. It claims a population of approximately 1.2 million people. This means it it is nearly as large as the US state of Massachusetts but has about a fourth as many people as the Boston metropolitan area. About ninety percent of Chechens identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.

Based on evidence discovered in caves, archaeologists tell us that Chechnya was inhabited by homo sapiens in 120,000 B.C. Adequate evidence has been cataloged across Chechnya to suggest that humans have occupied the area continuously for the past 8,000 years.

Due in large part to geography and in larger part to mankind’s propensity for warfare, Chechnya has a particularly violent history. As various groups have brought pressure to bear against the Chechen people, they have responded by living at higher or lower altitudes as a defensive mechanism. For the most part, the Chechens are a “mountain” people. How far up or down the mountain they have lived depended on their ability to defend their foothill areas and the adjacent high plains margins from other claimants.

In the 1500s, both the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire sought control of the Caucasus mountains. From their mountain enclaves, the Chechens fought with both groups.

In the 1600s, the Islamic religion was introduced in Chechnya. With the hopes of forming an alliance with the Turks, the Chechens converted to Islam. The Russians continued their expansionist policies. The Chechens continued their vertical defensive strategies.

In the 1700s, the Chechens became more organized in their resistance against the Russians. In 1774, the Russian Empire defeated the Ottoman Empire, and Russia attempted to consolidate control over the Caucasus. In 1784, Chechen general Sheik Mansur led a revolt against the Russians. The revolt failed, but he remains a folk hero in Chechen culture.

In 1834, Imam Shamil established a theocratic state in Chechnya and other Caucasus areas not under Russian control. He instituted Sharia law. Only twenty-five years later, the Russians defeated him, further cementing Russian control over the northern Caucasus.

In 1917, as the Communist Revolution took hold across the Russian Empire, Chechens banded together with other north Caucasus ethnic groups and formed the Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples. In 1921, the Soviet army defeated the Confederation and began the phase of Russian/Chechen conflict that continues to this day.

In 1944, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of all of the Chechens that the Soviets could round up—about half a million people. Half of them died during their deportation and exile.

In 1953, after Stalin committed his one act of kindness to the Soviet peoples by dying, the Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland.

After the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, in the new Russian spirit of “freedom and equality for all,” the Chechens tried to secede from the fledgling Russian Federation. When economists pointed out to Russian leader Boris Yeltsen that Chechnya contained valuable petroleum deposits and oil pipelines, Boris realized that Chechnya needed a little less freedom. He refused to allow them to leave the Russian Federation. Proving that all Russian Federation members are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Since Chechnya was refused its independence, the Chechens have fought two wars with Russia. In reality, the two wars are phases of one long war that intensified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The term “two wars” simply refers to periods of heavier Russian military operations inside of Chechnya. Those Russian military operations in Chechnya were brutal and included the large scale murder of unarmed civilians.

In June of 1995, Chechen terrorists, led by Shamil Basayev, conducted a hostage raid on a Russian hospital in Budyonnovsk. They took approximately 1,500 civilians hostage. After a four-day standoff, Russian troops stormed the hospital, and the Chechens escaped with about 110 hostages. Approximately 130 people were killed in the rescue attempt.

On January 10, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists kidnapped about 3,000 hostages in the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Russian troops allowed a convoy of the Chechen rebels and 160 hostages to head for Chechnya. Then they surrounded the convoy in the village of Pervomayskaya. After a five-day standoff, Russian troops launched an assault against the Chechen terrorists. Most of the rebels and about 40 of the hostages were killed.

On January 16, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists hijacked a ferry with 165 passengers and crew from the Turkish port of Trabzon. They demanded that Russian troops stop fighting Chechen rebels in Pervomayskaya. The hostages were released three days later, after Russian troops captured Pervomayskaya.

On October 23, 2002, forty Chechen Islamist terrorists took about 800 hostages in the Moscow Theater. In the ensuing rescue attempt, all 40 terrorists were killed, and about 160 hostages died due to inhaling the gas used by the Russian rescue team.

In 2003, Russia attempted to install another puppet government in Chechnya based on Russian controlled elections. It’s unlikely that Russians themselves believed the results of the sham election.

On September 1, 2004, thirty Islamist terrorists from Chechnya and the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya. They held approximately 1,100 children, teachers, and parents hostage. It is believed the guerrillas were made up of Chechen, Ingush, and ethnic Russian Islamist militants. When a bomb inside the school was detonated, the hostages attempted to escape. The terrorists set off more bombs and opened fire on the fleeing children and adults. At least 330 hostages were killed, including 155 children. Nearly 600 were wounded. Russian prosecutors held Shamil Basayev, the most ruthless of the Chechen rebel commanders, responsible for the incident.

Russia’s New Age Stalin, Vladimir Putin, has attempted to use a divide and conquer strategy by repeatedly trying to prop up one Chechen faction against another. Thus far, the strategy has failed. The struggle is now reduced to a fight between militant Islamists backed by al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups, and the Russian government and their local proxies.

To what degree the Tsarnaev brothers, who allegedly set the bombs at the Boston Marathon, were influenced by events in Chechnya is difficult to measure. Until now, Chechen nationalists have refrained from striking against Western targets. Given the variety of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Chechnya and elsewhere, anything is possible, and though individuals in Chechnya may be connected to the Tsarnaev brothers, it is unlikely that the greater Chechen nationalist movement would have reason to strike against a target in the US or the West. One can only hope that the FBI will succeed in discovering a clear and complete view of the Boston Marathon Bombing and of any participants connected to it.

Iraq — Ten Years Later

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes

Ten years ago this week, a US led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. While it is still a bit too soon to see the long term prospects for the post-Saddam Iraq, we have enough hindsight to make reasonable judgments about the overall effects of the Coalition conquest.

Previously, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and conquered it within two days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein then declared Kuwait a province of Iraq and began a barrage of verbal threats against Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi army was then within short striking distance of Saudi oil fields. That mattered to the West for humanitarian reasons and because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were, and still are, exporting oil to Western nations. Which reason mattered most depends on which Westerner or non-Westerner you ask.

On January 18, 1991, US-led Coalition aircraft and ships began an intense and very effective attack on Iraqi military assets. On February 24, the Coalition attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi elite Republican Guard divisions. By February 27, the surviving Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated, and by the next day, all Iraqi forces near Saudi Arabia had been destroyed or had retreated north. The Coalition ordered a cease-fire.

The Coalition offered Saddam Hussein a truce based on his willingness to destroy all Scud missiles and to allow unhindered weapons and site inspections by the US and/or by inspectors from Coalition nations. Saddam quickly agreed to the terms. However, once the majority of Coalition forces were gone from the region, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN and Western inspection teams. Neither the UN nor the US could verify what WMDs remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein Playing Card public domain

On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated intent of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. A significant part of the US and British justification for that invasion centered on Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 truce. Given that Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens, the US and some Western allies took the WMD threat very seriously.

When the US Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the US used its air supremacy, its superior mobility, and its superior training and leadership to defeat the numerically superior Iraqi military. The 300,000 strong Coalition made fast progress against the 375,000 demoralized Iraqi military, and on May 1, 2003, US President George Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq were over.

While the war against the Iraqi military was, indeed, successfully concluded, the difficult process of occupying Iraq had only started. “Peace” in Iraq would cost the US and its Coalition allies—the UK principle among them—far more in lives and treasure than the war did.

Most participants and observers on both sides of the conflict were confident that a US-backed coalition would defeat the Iraqi military. However, coalition military and political leaders had three critical questions on their minds:

  1. What will it cost us in lives to destroy the Iraqi military and Saddam’s regime?
  2. What will it cost Iraq in civilian casualties and oil production?
  3. What will it cost Coalition members in both domestic and international political capital?

Leaders in Washington, D.C. and London knew the answer to the third question would be determined by the answers to the first two.

According to a variety of US polls, on the morning of the invasion, over 70% of the US population approved the action. A general anger over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which Islamic jihadis murdered approximately 3,000 innocent civilians in the US, fueled that approval. Some of the approval was also fueled by the belief that Iraq still possessed WMDs, intermediate range missiles, sarin gas, and extended range SCUD missiles.

The few adventurous folks who targeted Iraqi chemical weapons facilities on the ground with the assistance of Kurdish allies probably won’t say anything except that they were on vacation some place else that month. The Iraqi war veterans who now suffer from symptoms caused by chemical exposure in the Iraqi tunnels and bunkers usually don’t say much either, and if they did, who would listen?

It was never a question that Iraq had WMDs. As mentioned above, Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens. That is undisputed fact. Three conditions of the of the 1991 truce, as well as a UN mandate, were that Saddam get rid of the WMDs he had, that he not stockpile any more, and that he prove he was in compliance. However, Iraq routinely blocked UN inspection teams sent to verify that he was abiding by the terms of the treaty. This obstruction created the doubt that Iraq had disposed of its WMDs and ceased its WMD programs.

While blocking these inspections, Saddam continued to finance “secret” WMD programs in Iraq with illegally diverted “oil for food” funds that were administered by corrupt UN leaders. Saddam’s scientists and administrators, in their turn, stole most of the diverted money while sending false reports up the food chain to indicate a level of progress in their WMD research and production that did not exist. However, this façade was enough to convince Saddam that his scientists were succeeding in developing WMDs, including nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies outside of the Iraq were seeing some of the same overblown progress reports to Saddam, and this created a confusing picture. In addition to those reports, a variety of other anti-Saddam parties, both inside of and outside of Iraq, were doing their best to tell the West whatever it needed to hear in order to get the West to depose Saddam.

Saddam staunchly denied possession of WMDs to the West and to the UN. Simultaneously, he waged an information war against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria, posturing and puffing up his WMD capabilities. He wanted to scare them. He succeeded.

Saddam gambled. He and most of the other oil-producing Islamic nations pressured the West to stay out of Iraq. Saddam thought that petroleum bargaining chip, combined with the threat that his modified extended range missiles could reach as far as Paris, would keep the US from “pulling the trigger” and launching an attack on Iraq. He was wrong and that bad bet cost him a trip to the gallows and the lives of his two sons.

During the Iraqi War, Coalition forces quickly found the banned Scud Missiles but found little remaining WMD equipment. The few sarin gas artillery shells and the nerve gas manufacturing equipment that were discovered did nothing to overcome most of the public’s perception that “there were never any WMDs in Iraq.”

While Saddam and his regime were easy to dispose of, creating something like a “government” in Iraq to replace the old Baathist regime was far more difficult. The US would pay dearly for the occupation process. In fact, “process” might be the wrong term. Much of the US/UK strategy for the occupation seems to have been based on wishful thinking and a strategy of “spend and pray.”

In a live broadcast interview on April 23, 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Nastios said the rebuilding of Iraq could be accomplished for no more than $1.7 billion dollars in total. He missed by a bit. Before the end of 2003, the cost of the Iraqi occupation had increased to about $1 billion per week. By 2007, the costs had escalated to $2 billion per week.

Visitors to Iraq today would likely wonder precisely where that $2 billion a week went. While the variety of contractors, both US and foreign, will reassure us that every penny was well spent, not being one of those contractor folks, I am a bit less satisfied with the results of the expenditures. If you are a family member or loved one of the nearly 4,500 US troops or 312 British troops who were killed, you might be too busy remembering that fallen soldier to wonder about the money. If you are a family member of one of the 90,000 injured Coalition soldiers, then you might simply be too busy wondering about your own expenses to think about Iraq. But even if the money doesn’t matter to you, and the dead and injured are not directly related to you, it’s still worth wondering why we achieved so little at such a high cost in lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to permanently avoid war in the future. For one thing, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” show, we remain involved in Afghanistan where we are burning more cash and lives to prop up an unlovable hoodlum in the person of Muhammad Karzai. For another, the White House has just stepped up its rhetoric against Iran. So while the Iraq War is over for us, questions about how we managed it remain critical.

Even at the time of the Iraq invasion, my greatest concern was that we were likely to invest heavily in lives and money without demanding anything from whatever group that we would prop up as an Iraqi government. My fears have been realized. How could I have imagined such a thing, you ask? Easily, Viet Nam should have taught us all better. Apparently, it didn’t.

While we spent generously and the Coalition troops fought effectively and efficiently, we have demanded very little from the Iraqi leadership to whom we relinquished control. While the various concerns of the many different Iraqi Peoples deserved consideration, we allowed the Iraqis to muddle along and call the shots while we paid the bills. That was nothing short of insane.

How insane? About a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives insane from the US point of view. The view from the Iraqi side of the equation is much worse. The Iraqi government, the Coalition, and the UN have no idea how many Iraqis were murdered during the chaos that plagued the US occupation. The estimates range from 110,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 figure seems wildly high to me, but 200,000 seems possible. The vast majority of those Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis rather than by Coalition forces. Nonetheless, that’s still a level of human loss that should not be ignored.

If we weren’t willing to take charge during the occupation, then we simply should have shot Saddam when US Army Special Forces troops ferreted him out of his fox hole and then gone home. If we weren’t willing to be seen as being in charge in Iraq while providing some stability for a representative government to form, then we should not have stayed for more than the year that it took to destroy Saddam’s forces and hunt down his key Baathists pals.

In all major theories of war, including the various theories of guerrilla warfare and terror operations, one of the leading critical principles is “the principle of the objective.” Without a clear and viable objective in mind, one cannot achieve anything meaningful in a war.

In my opinion, and I won’t claim that it’s a humble one because I’m an opinionated old SOB and I know it, we failed to identify and pursue a clear objective in Iraq. We succeeded within the year in our original objective of removing the threat against ourselves and our allies by removing Saddam. Those who love to say Saddam never posed a threat to the US have ignored history and must not be paying for the petroleum they consume. But having achieved that objective, we stayed in Iraq while presumably hoping that someone in Baghdad would generously provide us with a plausible objective while we waited for democracy to break out. When we left in 2011, we were still waiting for that democracy. We’re still waiting now, but at least we no longer spend $2 billion a week for the privilege.

To be fair, what exists in Iraq today is probably, from the Western perspective, slightly less horrible than the Saddam regime. From the perspective of most Iraqis, life under the tyrant Maliki is far better than life under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The Sunni backed kingdom of Saudi Arabia might not agree. The Iranians are thrilled to have a Shia in charge in Iraq, but they are learning that not all Shia believe Iran needs to be the one Islamic Caliphate.

And now we can add a couple of new factors to the Iraqi equation. Turkey has decided that those “disgusting subhuman” Kurds in Iraq have oil and are therefore lovely folks. Turkey finds itself talking to the Iraqi government in Baghdad less and less, and holding hands with the Kurds more and more. But let’s not forget another important neighbor of Iraq. Syria is in turmoil, and the violence is increasing. Iraq’s Maliki regime is supporting Iran’s ally Assad in Syria.

The US, NATO, and Turkey are in no hurry to start an air campaign against Assad. Iran backs some anti-Assad fighters as a hedge against the Syrian dictator. However, Iran needs Assad to stay in power and remain a major concern to the West for as long as possible. If the West is busy being concerned with Syria’s recent attacks against Lebanon and Turkey, it is less likely to invest the considerable military assets and massive political capital required for a meaningful military strike against Iran. Iran is free to pursue its nuclear dreams.

Interestingly, Iran turned down its patented “death to America” rhetoric this week and seems willing to talk. How much of that shift is a response to the economic pain of UN and US sanctions, and how much is a strategy to buy time to assemble a nuclear weapon, is tough to guess at this point. If you happen to live in Israel, you can’t be enjoying this card game at all.

Not everyone will agree on whether the 2003 Iraq invasion should have occurred at all. Many who agreed at the time have changed their minds. What most of us can easily agree on is that the White House and Congress mismanaged the occupation. If we are to learn anything, and if the sacrificed Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians matter at all, then we are obligated to examine the Iraq occupation dispassionately and apolitically so that we can do our best to avoid such hideously expensive mistakes in the future.

Turkey–Giving America the Bird

By Jay Holmes

As we looked at last Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Turkey highlights the tensions between our two countries. (See Turkey–America’s Special Frenemy) In the long history of our “frenemy” relationship, the Kurds represent an interesting point of conflict. In fact, it’s played out like an Italian opera, minus the great singing. I’ll give you the short version.

Iraq oppressed the Kurds, even striking them with chemical weapons. Some of those Iraqi chemical weapons that many Westerners claim were all a figment of Bush’s imagination were manufactured by Iraqis in Republican Guards-controlled areas in the Iraqi Kurdish homeland. Saddam hated the Kurds so we liked them. Americans—the kind that also don’t officially exist—made friends with the Kurds. “Friends” as in the sort of friends who go shooting with you and agree to shoot at the same people you are shooting at. Good friends.

Our good friends, the Iraqi Kurds image from US Navy

Our good friends, the Iraqi Kurds
image from US Navy

The Turks didn’t like that much, but they understood the “shooting at Saddam’s pals and destroying his chemical weapons” part of the equation. What the Turks did not want was an autonomous Kurdish state in the post-Saddam Iraq.

At that time, a Kurdish group known as the PKK had been carrying out terrorist strikes against the Turkish government and Turkey did not want those attacks to continue or increase. The PKK assured the US that such attacks would cease, and the US generously passed on those assurances to Turkey. Those assurances were roughly as solid as assurances by Hamas that they won’t attack Israel any more. Ah, well. The best operas do include some comedy.

When it came time for the US to invade Iraq and depose Saddam, Turkey reversed itself at the last minute and refused to allow US troops, welcomed to Turkey as part of the pending invasion, to launch any attacks from Turkey. That decision left the US-led coalition without almost half of the forces that they had intended to use in the invasion. A back stabbing by Erdogan that some politicians in the US seemed to quickly forget.

Thanks to a vast superiority in equipment, quality of troops, and military leadership, the coalition still performed very well against Saddam’s forces and defeated his regime. Unfortunately, it took longer and cost more coalition lives than it would have had the coalition been able to use all of its assembled forces.

Then, something interesting happened. Turkey looked at the rising cost of oil and realized that there are sizeable untapped reserves underneath those quaint Kurdish mud hut villages. Turkey then did what Western oil companies and governments had already done. They started salivating over the idea of Kurdish oil flowing into the West via Turkey. In the Turkish version of the fantasy, less of that Kurdish oil flows out of Turkey into Europe, but what’s a few billion barrels of petroleum between old friends? The petroleum worked its old black magic and Turks and Kurds started getting along.

The US’s primary concern in Iraq was the survival of a central government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Importantly, during Maliki’s tenure, Iraq has doubled its oil exports. The West understands Maliki is a less than ideal leader. From the Saudi king’s point of view, Maliki is an “Iranian agent.” Unfortunately, most of the idealists in Iraq were long dead when Maliki came to power, and in a nation full of intolerable political candidates, he was tolerable from the point of view of the present and previous US administrations.

As part of the reconstruction of Iraq, the Iraqi Interim Government responded to coalition pressure and gave Kurds semi-autonomous status in the north. The Turkish government was dead set against it at the time. Then, Turkey followed the example of US and Western oil companies and negotiated oil deals with the Kurds. Unfortunately for the Iraqi government in Baghdad, Turkey did not include them in their wheeling and dealing with the Kurds.

This presents a problem or two for the US. The obvious problem is that the Iraqi national government is being badly undermined. If the Baghdad government collapses, its replacement may be much worse. The second possible issue is that the US government may, for many rea$ons, have its own strong feelings about precisely who should be scarfing up that Kurdish oil. From the Kurdish point of view, it’s great to have multiple suitors.

Springtime always makes for a great setting in any opera. Ah, yes. The Arab Spring. Is that freedom that I smell in Syria? Some of the Syrians think so. But not all Syrians agree on what “freedom” should look like or who should be in charge of it.

In the political vision shared by Erdogan and Obama, the US would support Turkey in helping Syrians to oust Assad from Syria. The US would maintain the smallest possible visible profile in the conflict, and Erdogan would provide the locals leadership in helping the Syrians to form a united democratic front in Syria. Assad would depart as a passenger in a plane or in a box on a truck, and all would be well. That vision has not become reality.

What was to be a momentous coming of age for Erdogan and Turkey has become an embarrassment. Erdogan sponsored purges of Turkey’s military and intelligence leaders, and now he is handicapped by that. His military and intelligence services still have well trained troops, but their leadership was badly damaged. Some of the very people who could help subtly bring to bear Turkish influence in Syria are rotting away in Turkish prisons for imaginary crimes.

Turkey now houses thousands of Syrian refugees, and they can’t be sure how many of them are terrorists that might soon turn on Turkey. Erdogan’s attempts at rallying the various Syrian factions to cooperation and victory have been a complete failure. That helps explain his cliché anti-Israeli act at the recent Arab summit. He plays to a tough audience at Arab summits and they were not impressed this week. Just as Erdogan gained a position of eminence among the Middle Eastern Islamic nations, his stardom is quickly fading.

In yet one more political irony, Erdogan is now quietly begging the US to “take a more active role in bringing about change in Syria.” The same man that back-stabbed the US lead coalition because he supposedly could not bring himself to attack another Islamic nation now desperately wants the US to send its military to clean up the problem in his front yard. If you laughed as you read that, don’t feel bad. It’s okay. If you can’t laugh a bit when you consider foreign affairs you should avoid foreign affairs altogether or you might find yourself suicidal or in need of medication.

Erdogan’s quiet but desperate whispers to John Kerry were likely answered with charming and not very reassuring platitudes. I can just imagine Kerry smiling as he told Erdogan, “You have our full confidence. You know we’ll do everything we can to help you.” The entire time, Kerry had to be wondering what in the world the US could do to turn Syria into a happy and peaceful place without committing the US to yet another unpopular war.

As a NATO member, the US has sent Patriot air-defense missiles to protect the Turkish border, but it seems unlikely to me that the White House would be willing to get any more involved than that in Syria. After all, we are still busy building the world’s best disguised “democracy” in Afghanistan, listening to that ridiculous toad in North Korea threaten us with nuclear annihilation, and contemplating a possible war with Iran.

In less than four years, we will have a new administration in the White House. Erdogan might manage to stay in power beyond that in spite of growing opposition from many of his once staunch friends. Two things that won’t change by then are the geography or the West’s need for oil. Turkey remains the best route to the West for Central Asian oil. Our overriding need for oil combined with the fact that Turkey is in a rough neighborhood and needs friends means the Turkish-American Opera will be playing more acts for a long time to come. Turn up the music. It might drown out the rhetoric.

Turkey — America’s Special Frenemy

By Jay Holmes

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Turkey has momentarily brought US-Turkish relations to the forefront of US foreign affairs news. Days before Kerry’s visit, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned up the tension in US-Turkish relations by announcing that Zionism is a “crime against humanity.”

President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, image in public domain

President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, image in public domain

Many folks in the West had to wonder precisely how much of a “friend” US President Obama’s “special friend” Erdogan is and precisely who Erdogan’s friends might be. I didn’t include Israel in the list of those who wondered about Erdogan. Most Israelis long ago gave up wondering and decided they could always count on Erdogan to play that easy Anti-Israel card whenever it suited him. He has never disappointed them on that score.

The day before Kerry’s arrival, the Turkish government arrested yet another eleven journalists for daring to question the Erdogan regime. As near as I can tell, Turkey now has more journalists in prison than Communist China does. Of course, that’s a tricky comparison because China enjoys an advantage in dealing with journalist prison populations. China executes them. To their credit, the Turks generally avoid executing imprisoned journalists so they’re bound to accumulate a higher total of jailed journalists as long as they continue to suppress free speech.

Kerry issued a carefully muted disapproval of Erdogan’s words. I can’t fault Kerry for not speaking out more directly because he was in the middle of a diplomatic mission to Turkey—a NATO ally—and he was carrying a sizeable agenda of urgent issues. Beyond that, it’s not Kerry’s job to act on his own opinions. It’s his job to execute whatever foreign policy the US president dictates. Given that Obama has spent the last four years cultivating a “special close friendship” with Erdogan, and given the number of urgent issues shared by the US and Turkey, Obama is not likely to cut his losses with Erdogan too quickly.

In spite of the professional opinions of State Department employees and the US Ambassador to Turkey, President Obama was certain that, with a little influence from the US and the West, he could count on Erdogan to act as a moderate Islamic Democratic leader. The President has consistently held up Turkey as a leader of reform in the Middle East.

Given the turmoil in the Middle East, our addiction to petroleum, and the previous half a century of fairly good relations with Turkey, it’s understandable that the Obama crew might engage in a bit of wild optimism in dealing with Turkey. The White House publicly defined Turkey as a natural economic, ideological, and political gateway between the West and the Middle East. A country that’s supposed to be like leaving East L.A. via Disneyland and finding yourself on a quiet beach in Malibu without any drive-by shootings along the way.

That history of cooperation between the US and Turkey has to be placed in the context of the Cold War. Although Turkey tried to establish a close working relationship with the USSR after World War One, it quickly realized that it was on Stalin’s lunch menu and started looking to the West for friends. By the end of World War Two, the US and Turkey were working overtime to build a strong friendship based on Turkish geography and US cash.

The history of US-Turkish relations since World War Two is a complex one, filled with constant friction and held together by the overriding concern about Soviet aggression. That glue of Soviet aggression is no longer present, and like a passionate young couple, common ground and mutual understanding must be defined for the US and Turkey for the relationship to attain any lasting mutual benefit. The Obama administration sees common ground, but does Turkey see the same thing?

Both the US and Turkey openly agree that Turkey can be that peaceful gateway between the West and the Middle East. Turkey maintains diplomatic and economic ties to Iran and has consistently, and apparently faithfully, done a good job of acting as a diplomatic conduit for Iran and the US. Given that Turkey and its growing economy purchase oil from Iran, it’s no small matter for them to take on that role as a diplomatic third between Iran and the US. Erdogan sees himself as a top tier world leader, and his diplomatic position between Iran and the US gives him credibility both in the Mid-east and the West.

Many analysts point to the current civil war in Syria as a turning point in US-Turkish relations. It’s certainly an important event. In fact, if you live next door to Syria, as the Turks do, and artillery rounds and rockets are finding their way to your side of the border, which they are, then it’s critically important and urgently requires a solution.

More realistically, the strain in US-Turkish relations is at least in part caused by long standing issues. The first sticking point revolves around the fact that about one and a half million Armenians live in the US, and they remember the genocide carried out against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire after World War One. Please don’t hate Armenians just because of those silly Kardashian people. Most Americans of Armenian descent are lovely folks. They and the other millions of Armenian diaspora around the world want Turkey to admit that the genocide occurred. It’s quite clear to everyone except successive Turkish governments that it did occur. That has caused friction between the US and Turkish governments.

Another long-standing conflict between Turkey and the US has been Israel. While Turkey has not generally counted itself among the “death to the Jews” Middle Eastern crowd, it has been sympathetic toward Palestinians and cozy with Hamas. At the same time, the US categorizes Hamas as a terrorist group. Given that Hamas has spent most of its cash and effort over time on terrorist activities, the US is not likely to change its stance.

Then, there are those other, not so well-treated folks who call themselves Kurds. I happen to like the Kurdish people but in international terms, I’m in a minority. Some adventurous Americans, as well as a few nosey Brits, had very cordial dealings with the Kurds back when a nasty old creep by the name of Saddam Hussein was running Iraq.

Parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran were the Kurdish homeland for a period. The Kurds want those parts back. Turkey, Iran, and Syria have no intention of giving that land back any more than the US, Canada, or any other New World nation intends to return this half of the globe to the Native Americans. Note to Argentine President Kirchner: If the Brits gift you the Falklands, you’ll have to find some Native Americans to give it to.

During the Iraq War and the early stages of the subsequent “rebuilding” of Iraq, the vast differences in the US and Turkish view of the Kurds appeared to be a long term problem in US-Turkish relations. Most observers assumed that the PKK attacks on Turkish soil, which the PKK considers to be their rightful home, would remain the defining issue for Turkey in its policies toward Iraq. Problems are not always what they seem to be on the surface. As it turned out, there was a deeper underlying issue that would eventually shape a new Turkish outlook on Iraq. In our next article, we will examine that issue and the other emerging issues that have intervened in the simple view of US-Turkish relations that the present and recent US administrations have tried to implement.

When Does Justice Cease to Matter?

By Jay Holmes

This weekend, two seemingly disconnected pieces of news were announced. One informed us that Libya’s former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, was arrested Saturday at an airport in Mauritania. The other was that convicted Sobibor Nazi extermination camp guard John Demjanjuk died in prison in Germany. While the two events might seem to have little connection, I think they are both related to a central issue of civilization.

John Demjanjuk – image from jssnews.com

I first heard the name John Demjanjuk in 1985 when Israel sought his extradition as a war criminal. Survivors of the Nazi holocaust had recognized Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible, an infamous prison guard who acted with singular cruelty against Jewish prisoners at Sobibor and Treblinka.

My first reaction to the news at the time was astonishment. I wondered just how actively hateful and cruel one had to be to stand out as a villain amongst Nazi concentration camp guards. My second reaction at the time was one of disgust when I heard media pundits debating whether or not it was “worth it at this point” to pursue a WWII war criminal. I wanted to ask the pundits precisely how many days after the murder of an innocent child does the murder become irrelevant? When does the dead child, or in this case the many thousands of victims of Ivan the Terrible’s brutality, cease to matter? What is the shelf life of justice? What is the sell-by date of morality?

In the Demjanjuk case, Israel was able to present enough evidence to gain Demjanjuk’s extradition. He was tried for the brutal murders of prisoners in 1942 and 1943.

Israel found twenty-two surviving witnesses who identified Demjanjuk as a guard who had sadistically and routinely tortured and murdered prisoners, including young children, for his own personal recreation. One of the witnesses was a fellow death camp guard, who in turn came under scrutiny as a possible war criminal after the trial.

Demjanjuk was convicted, and in 1988, he received a death sentence. In most countries, that would be the end of the story save for the line about his death by hanging or stoning, but Demjanjuk wasn’t convicted in “most countries.” He was convicted in Israel—one of those minority nations that has a workable justice system that isn’t directly ruled by hysteria or a drug mafia.

Since he was in Israel, Demjanjuk was entitled to a legitimate system of appeals. Rather than giving in to the rage they must have felt and rubber stamping his case to expedite his execution, the Israeli appeals court granted time for the defense team (paid for by Israeli tax payers) to prepare for each level of appeal.

In 1993, in what struck me as a remarkable case of restraint and adherence to due process, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned Demjanjuk’s conviction for the murders. This was based on the fact that there was some small chance that all twenty-two witnesses might have accidentally confused him with another death camp guard.

At the time, I wondered if any of the SS death camp guards and their Ukrainian volunteers did not deserve execution. I wondered if the small risk of confused identity in this case mattered much.

At the same time, I had to look at the case as proof that, unlike most of the world’s court systems, the Israeli court system had done its absolute best to deliver a just verdict in spite of what must have been the court members’ almost unbearable personal grief.

Although the Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling disappointed me, I felt great admiration for their self-restraint and their ability to put their sworn duty above their deep personal feelings. It was an act of tremendous moral courage. It was an example of precisely the moral courage that the Nazis lacked, and that allowed them to perpetrate such a terrible holocaust against millions of Jews, Slavs, Rom, communists, moral objectors, homosexuals, and Catholics.

So did the Israelis then try and convict him of the war crimes committed by his “alter identity”? No. The courts ruled that for one, his extradition was for the specific charges, and that they would honor the strict conditions of the extradition and release him back to the United States.  And for two, a retrial on lesser charges would, under the circumstances of that particular case, violate the principles of double jeopardy as defined by the Israeli legal system. By then, much of the furor over Ivan the Terrible had died down.

In 1988, the US (another one of those few nations with an imperfect but believable court system) restored Demjanjuk’s citizenship. This was based on the fact that evidence that Demjanjuk was the “other” brutal guard was not shared with his defense team in the original extradition case and subsequent appeals. Because he might have been a different mass murderer instead of the one he was originally accused of being, he got off. But not completely.

In 1999, Demjanjuk faced federal charges that he was a member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary and that he had served in death camps. (Everyone, including Demjanjuk, agreed that he was a member of that dreadful group.) “Both” Demjanjuks had at least that much in common.

In 2004, after five more years of legal process, Demjanjuk, who admitted being a former member of the Ukrainian SS auxiliary, finally had his citizenship revoked again. For the next five years, Demjanjuk could not be deported because no nation with adequate deportation agreements with the USA would accept him.

In 2008, the German justice ministry decided that they could and should try Demjanjuk for the easily provable charges that he had served in several death camps as a Ukrainian SS volunteer. Demjanjuk and his legal team resisted extradition to Germany. On what grounds, you ask? Why, on the grounds the deporting an elderly man with health problems constituted “torture.” That from the death camp goon.

On May 12, 2011, some minute measure of “justice” was given to the memory of the millions of concentration camp victims when Demjanjuk was convicted of accessory to the murder of 27,000 prisoners. He was sentenced to five years in prison with credit for the two years he had already spent.

On March 17, 2012, John Demjanjuk died in an old age home in Germany.

In their desperate need to be relevant on the world stage, Putin and his boys are claiming they have documents proving that Demjanjuk was not Ivan the Terrible. The documents would, I suppose, show that documents previously released by the USSR were forgeries of older documents covered up by them, and that I should now believe the new documents somehow prove something. It hardly matters. Demjanjuk admitted that he was a member of the Ukrainian auxiliary of the Nazi SS. The only confusion would be whether he was “Murderer A” or “Murderer B.” Neither deserved less than what Demjanjuk went through.

The justice was imperfect and inadequate, but it was never superfluous.

So who is the strange man who was arrested at an airport in Mauritania, and why does he matter? He is Abdullah Senussi, Moammar Qaddafi’s brother-in-law. At various times, he was the head of Qaddafi’s terrorist export business and the head of his internal security forces. Senussi had nothing to do with the Nazi plague, but he had a great deal to due with the plague that was visited upon Libya and upon terrorist victims around the world by Qaddafi.

Many believe, including me, that Abdullah al-Senussi was instrumental in the terror bombing of the La Belle disco in Berlin in 1986, which killed three people and injured 230, as well as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which resulted in the deaths of another 270. Also, Senussi was convicted in absentia in France in 1999 for the 1989 terror bombing of the French UTA flight 772, which resulted in 171 deaths.

Senussi’s foreign murder record pales in comparison to his energetic campaigns to annihilate Libyans who opposed his brother-in-law. He even once bragged about his masterful handling of the massacre of 1,700 political prisoners at Libya’s Abu Salim prison in 1996.

The precise number of deaths in which Senussi had a hand will never be known. Compared to the Nazis, the Qaddafi gang was small time in the murder arena. The number of deaths that they inflicted will never be known, but if it was your child or your loved one, then that one is hugely significant.

Lots of folks are interested in getting their hands on Abdullah Senussi. So far, France and Libya have requested that he be turned over to them. Scotland is probably working on an extradition request tonight as I write this article. Germany might contemplate it. The USA and the UK have reasons to speak to him, but might not bother getting in the extradition line. If he is brought to trial, we can expect, at best, an inadequate and incomplete justice. But more justice is better than no justice. I’ll take what I can get.

Without waiting for it to happen, I am willing to predict that some “pundits” will proffer the notion that trying Senussi is somehow contrary to the notion of “healing” Libya. Senussi was part of the very disease that made Libya so sick during the reign of Qaddafi and his murderers. Trying Senussi does not block Libya’s so far mostly imaginary progress toward achieving civilization. Undoubtedly, a few will argue that it’s “too late” and that it’s time to “leave the past in the past, etc.” But I would ask of them the same question that I would ask of those who wanted Demjanjuk “left alone.”

When do the deaths of the innocent children cease to matter?

 

We Drank Champagne and Remembered

I have been out of town for the past several days, and, as it happens, I was with my writing partner, “Holmes,” in Arizona last night when the news went public that Bin Laden is dead. We broke open a bottle of champagne and toasted. Not in merriment or triumph, but in solemn gratitude to everyone who brought this success for all Americans to fruition. The following is Holmes’ comment on this important landmark in our fight against terrorism. . . .

Holmes:

Tonight, I feel a sense of relief at the death of the bestial mass murderer, extortionist, rapist, and common thief, Osama Bin Laden. His death does not signify an end to the war against terror, but it is a significant achievement. I feel a deep sense of gratitude at having been afforded the privilege to serve with the many great Americans and Allies, and the many sympathetic and helpful people throughout the world who have chosen to stand on the side of decency. I remain thankful to every one of them for their commitment and sacrifices.

Tonight, I feel a need to reflect on the loss of thousands of Americans from the 9/11 attacks, and the other attacks perpetrated by Bin Laden’s sick worshipers. I hope that tonight’s news can bring some measure of closure to the thousands of loved ones who suffered losses on that terrible day.

Tonight, in particular, I find myself thinking of New York City Fire Marshal and part-time member of the United States Army Special Forces, Ronnie Bucca. Ronnie had served as a member of the renowned New York City Fire Department “Rescue 1” and had been involved in daring rescue operations that seem too far-fetched for Hollywood movies. After suffering a broken spine in one such rescue in Manhattan, Ronnie defied medical science and was able to return to duty and became a Fire Marshall for New York City.

Ronnie was one of the individuals who struggled mightily against a second attack on the Twin Towers. (Remember that the 9/11 attacks were the second attack on the Twin Towers, the first being a truck bombing in 1993.) Ronnie’s experience with the first Twin Towers bombing, as well as his experience as a United States Army Intelligence Specialist, a Fire Marshal, and a member of Rescue 1, gave him a unique perspective on terrorist threats, and Ronnie was convinced that another attack on the Twin Towers was highly likely.

Ronnie reached out to a variety of people concerning his well-founded fears. Had more people listened to him, the attack might have been thwarted. On 9/11, Ronnie was on duty as a Fire Marshal. When he heard the news, he and his partner went to the World Trade Center and entered the complex to help in the evacuation and firefighting efforts. Ronnie and his fellow fire fighters must have known that they had little chance of surviving that fire, but it didn’t stop them from trying to save as many lives as possible.

The last conversation I had with Ronnie Bucca was about his concern for a possible attack on the Twin Towers. I send my renewed condolences and my respect to his wife, Eve, and to their two children, Jessica and Ronald. We have not forgotten Ronnie.

To all those who have lost loved ones in the fight against terrorism, they, too, are remembered.

JH

 

Armageddon and Intervention: Europe Intervenes in the American Revolution

By Jay Holmes

The United States and many Western European allies are presently involved in multiple military interventions around the world. In any country with a reasonable population that has access to something approximating free speech, military intervention will always be controversial. In my view, it is foolish for any nation to run to war too quickly. The costs and possible outcomes should be considered by those who pay for those interventions, as well as for failures to intervene. The taxpayers and their kids.

To do a minimal bit of justice to the subject, I will be publishing short articles in a series in which we will review several past interventions, their costs, and their impacts before considering the current interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Cote D’Ivoire. Then, we will look at a few of the potential cases for military intervention in the near future.

Fortunately, with history, we often have verifiable facts about the outcomes of an event, and we can view these outcomes without staging a second battle of Guadalcanal or Bastogne. One can prepare for war, fight in war or read about war. Having tried all three, I would say that preparing is somewhat tedious, but can, at times, prevent a war, and reading about other people’s wars is, in my view, the best of the three options. It’s great that, except in catholic school and military academies, there are no drill instructors forcing us to read the next page, and the book will usually not kill us (although some porn store customers might debate that point). And come to think of it, I did consider dying rather than finishing Steppenwolf in high school, but that’s the topic of another blog.

So, without bearing the expense of any real interventions, any consequences of not intervening, or any bullets, bombs, or aggravating journalists while intervening, let’s enjoy some arm-chair executive power and safe-distance “generalship” and dice up a few interventions. Feel free to disagree with any conclusions I might propose. Unchallenged ideas always remain imperfect, or may, in fact, simply be stupid. So unlike the youngsters on the obstacle course, you should feel free to appoint yourself Field Marshall, Admiral of the fleet, or Dictator for a day and decide how you might have better managed or avoided past interventions. Unfortunately, this promotion to dictator does not come with countless cowering servants or the treasury of any nation so you still have to clean your dishes tonight, but enjoy yourself nonetheless.

Let’s start with an American intervention. Not Yankees intervening somewhere else, but rather Europeans intervening in America. . . .

Hey Buddy, Can You Spare a Franc?

At Lexington, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, some stubborn men and adventurous boys blocked an advancing British force of seven hundred well-trained British soldiers. The British were attempting to catch the Americans by surprise at Concord and capture their weapons and ammunition depot. Unknown to the British, the precious and scarce supplies had already been moved.

The British habit of planning operations at the dining room table in the company of their wives, mistresses, and servants was a valuable intelligence opportunity for the colonials, and on this and other occasions, timely intelligence saved the day. It is my unconfirmed suspicion that one unspoken reason the colonials took a stand at Lexington was to cover the success of their intelligence operations against the British camp. If so, they succeeded, and the British continued their careless Headquarters security habits.

The Battle of Lexington is usually considered the start of the American Revolution combat phase. But long before those stubborn Red Sox fans decided to exchange fire with the advancing British, the conservative rebel leaders were hard at work trying to gain the aid of European nations in their struggle against Great Britain. When Patrick Henry said, “. . . but as for me, give me liberty or give me death,” he may have been expecting more liberty for Americans and more death for the British. Henry and other members of the Congress were aware that, as an 18th century superpower, Britain had many enemies, and that chief amongst them were France and Spain.

Most Americans learn that the French Navy sent Admiral de Grasse to assist the colonies, and that the French fleet managed to win a battle against a British fleet in Chesapeake Bay, thanks to favorable winds and the late arrival of British naval reinforcements. We also know that many young low-ranking officers from France and other parts of Europe were quick to come to Philadelphia to seek commissions as high-ranking officers in the Continental Army. Many of those eager European officers were available because they lacked the talent to succeed in their own regiments at home.

However, two excellent European volunteers were Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia and the loveable idealist, French cavalry officer Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Rocha Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, or simply “Lafayette” in the USA. Neither Lafayette nor Von Steuben was “sent” to the colonies by their governments. They both came at their own risk and expense. Von Steuben had a tremendous positive impact in the training of colonial recruits. As for Lafayette, he is best remembered for his courage and leadership on the battlefield, but his greatest service to America might well have been his influence in obtaining loans for financing the war and direct military aid from France.

It’s easy to understand why France, The Netherlands, and Spain were eager to see the Americans succeed against Great Britain. It’s also easy to understand why they hoped to keep their assistance covert as long as possible while publicly declaring neutrality toward the Colonies. In fact, the neutrality was broken before it was ever even announced. Long before de Grasse brought his fleet and French Army soldiers to fight in the colonies, France was clandestinely financing and supplying the Colonials.

Both King Carlos III of Spain and his cousin, King Louis XVI of France, were nervous about aiding a revolution against a ruling European monarch. As it turned out, Louis’ fears were well founded. But both countries were trying to prevent British hegemony in the Caribbean and the North Atlantic, and they both knew that a protracted American war with Britain would present a marvelous opportunity for their own countries.

While France has enjoyed its well-deserved recognition for intervening on behalf of the colonial rebels, Spain’s involvement was much quieter and more advantageous to itself. Spain maintained no illusions about America becoming a staunch ally of any European monarchy. Spain made loans of cash and supplies based on the assumption that they would eventually be repaid approximately 0% +/- zero of any investment made. Spain kept Great Britain guessing in the Caribbean, and actively engaged the British in the Mediterranean. As a result, Spain was able to use the opportunity provided by the American Revolution to remove British colonists from Central America and defeat the British Military units that were sent to capture Central America from Spain.

At the same time, Spain was shipping supplies from New Orleans across the Mississippi and overland to the rebels. In fact, during the first two years of the revolution, Spain supplied much of the rebels’ gunpowder via the Mississippi. During the revolution, Spain was able to evict Britain from her strongholds in Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.

The Netherlands were allied to Great Britain at the outbreak of the American Revolution. The Prince of Orange had no intentions of assisting the Americans against the British, but the wealthy bankers and merchants of Holland undermined his policies. Dutch banking houses and merchants were quick to organize assistance in the form of money and contraband trade with the American colonies. The British quickly discovered this “silent conspiracy by vast committee” and ignored the Prince’s assertions of allegiance to Great Britain. Great Britain declared war on The Netherlands. The Dutch managed to fight the British navy to a draw, but while the British were capable of bringing in naval reinforcements, the Dutch were not, and The Netherlands signed a peace treaty that included the loss of their colonies in India.

The fledgling United States prospered immensely from the interventions by The Netherlands, France, and Spain. The early financial assistance from Dutch banks and merchants greatly benefitted the US early in the revolution. The financial support and direct military intervention by France helped tip the balance and made victory at the Battle of Yorktown possible. Spain supplied valuable weapons, powder, shot, supplies, and gold while keeping the British occupied in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Central America. They also kept a third of British forces in continental North America busy during the revolution. While The Netherlands lost from their involvement, and France “joined in” to the revolutionary spirit more than King Louis XVI would have cared for—it cost him his throne and his head—Spain handled itself adroitly.

Spain’s intervention in the American Revolution stands out as a remarkable example of skilled, rational statesmanship. Spain took the time to see the American revolutionaries accurately and accept them for what they were. King Carlos and his crew skillfully avoided clouding their judgments with wishful thinking or cultural biases about the Dutch, the French, the British, the American colonials or the native Americans in the new world.

A reading of the historical records of Spanish diplomatic and military communications from Madrid to the New World reveals a startling picture of 18th century statesman accurately predicting the results of both events that they could impact, and events that were beyond their control. King Carlos had excellent intelligence information, but more importantly, he and his government used that information dispassionately to form an amazingly accurate picture of a war that was fought thousands of miles from Madrid, long before the telegraph was invented.  Two and a half centuries later, we Americans would be well served by following their example.