Iranian myths exposed as Ukrainian plane shot down

By Claude Salhani

By refusing to release the black boxes of the Ukrainian passenger aircraft shot down by its missiles, Iran is committing yet another mistake. Worse, it is committing an outrageous humanitarian offence.

In their refusal to hand over the voice and data recorders from the aircraft to countries possessing technology to decipher the flight data, Iranian authorities prolong the suffering of the families of the ill-fated civilian aircraft. There were no survivors among the 176 passengers and crew.

Iran initially said it would hand over the boxes because it does not possess the technology to retrieve data from them.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested the boxes be handed to France but Iran has made no move to follow up. Information on the black boxes could help families of the victims of the downed aircraft learn more about why the plane was fired upon.

Many of the passengers were Canadians of Iranian origin, holding both Canadian and Iranian citizenship. Iran, however, does not recognise dual citizenship.

Tehran, embroiled in a long-running dispute with the United States over its nuclear programme, has given mixed signals about whether it would hand over the recorders. An Iranian aviation official had said the black boxes would be sent to Ukraine only to backtrack a day later, saying they would be analysed in Iran.

Further delay in sending them abroad is likely to increase international pressure on Iran, whose military said it shot the plane down by mistake while on high alert in the tense hours after Iran fired missiles at US targets in Iraq.

“If the appropriate supplies and equipment are provided, the information can be taken out and reconstructed in a short period of time,” the Iran Civil Aviation Organisation said in its second preliminary report on the disaster.

Even discounting human compassion, any person with an ounce of logic would be tempted to ask why Iran is doing this. Why is it so reluctant to help with closure to this tragedy? A terrible mistake was made. Why not help clear it up?

The answer is simple. This is a terrible embarrassment for the Iranian leadership. It is all the more embarrassing coming while Iran is trying to show it is a country that is advanced militarily.

Shooting down a passenger plane speaks otherwise and opens questions as to how professional and well-trained Iranian officers with fingers on the trigger of the powerful weapons possessed by Tehran are.

Today, the mistake was made with a missile. Could the same mistake be made with a nuclear weapon, if Iran weaponises nuclear energy? This apparent mistake begs the question as to how stable is the country’s military arsenal if an individual can decide to shoot down a civilian aircraft.

Did whoever decided to fire the two missiles have the authority to do so or was the request sent up through the chain of command? Worrisome conclusions spring to mind either way.

How secure would nuclear-armed missiles be under the current regime? Were those missiles under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or the politically distrusted regular military?

Surely there is a cloud of fear among the Iranian leadership about what the data from the black boxes might show.

Is it fear that information would reveal the ineptitude of the IRGC, which cannot distinguish between an airliner of a scheduled flight, a US F-35 jet fighter, a missile or a bird? Does Tehran fear that myths that had surrounded the IRGC were exposed the minute the Ukrainian plane and its passengers were shot down?

Despite the billions of dollars training and equipping them, the guards could not perform better than blind sentries shooting in the dark. It is not Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s inappropriate words of praise on January 17 that can whitewash the bloodstained hands of the IRGC or restore a modicum of the artificially constructed illusions around them.

Iranian demonstrators have rendered their verdict. The IRGC and the clerics: Out! They are part of an obsolete past that must go.

The killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani awakened the Iranian leadership to a new reality. They realise how outperformed they are by US drone and satellite technology. They realise that their claims about technological and military prowess are bluster. Admitting their technological inferiority on top of their lost ethical compass is too heart-wrenching for the Tehran regime to endure.

Iranian clerics and the military establishment that back them might have lost more than a battle. Their compounded ineptitude and ignorance of the ways of the world indicate they might have lost the whole war.

One more twist in Erdogan’s imperial mindset

By Claude Salhani

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to rewrite history to suit his expansionist visions of reviving the Ottoman Empire, with — naturally — himself as the supreme sultan.

While many may laugh and shrug off Erdogan’s illusions of grandeur, the Ankara strongman is taking his role very seriously.

Erdogan, after intervening militarily in Syria, has been itching to send Turkish troops to Libya for no reason other than to fulfil his ideology-driven vision of control of the region and boost his stature at home.

He is saying he believes there are Libyan-Turks or Libyans of Ottoman descent who deserve to be protected by Ankara. “It is our duty to protect our kin in Libya,” Erdogan declared January 14, adding that Turkey had “deep historical and social ties with Libya.”

Such statements claiming a mandate to protect Libyans of Turkish ancestry have fuelled the wariness of Libyans towards him and Turkey. It also added a new dimension to the dangerously growing polarisation in the war-torn North African country with many Libyans blaming the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) camp for failing to reject Erdogan’s claims. Erdogan’s claim is likely to inflame Libya where the flames of war need no fanning.

This incredibly arrogant and expansionist mindset ignores the sensitivity of Libyans to the Ottomans’ abusive rule in Libya.

Erdogan should have avoided the trap of seeing his militaristic drive being compared to that of other unfortunate precedents in history. In 1938, Adolf Hitler’s excuse for invading and annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland was the region’s German majority. The invasion and annexation of the Czech region set the ground for what was to come — the invasion and occupation of Europe and the horrors that came with it.

Strangely enough, this mindset borrows a page, not only from Nazi Germany, but the complete opposite political spectrum — Zionist agencies’ claim to having a mandate to save Jews anywhere in the world.

Erdogan’s attempt to establish a protectorate over “Ottoman ancestors” in Libya is a dangerous and flammable move reminiscent of actions by colonial powers using protections of nationals to invade other countries but these are not Turkish nationals and evidence of their ancestry is disputed.

Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric after the failure of the Moscow talks to reach an agreement on a ceasefire in Libya added to the resurgence of tensions and could ignite the zero-sum confrontation between the Libyan National Army, led by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the internationally recognised GNA.

“We will not hesitate to teach a deserved lesson to the putschist Haftar if he continues his attacks on the country’s legitimate administration and our brothers in Libya,” Erdogan said at a Justice and Development Party meeting January 14 in Ankara.

Haftar walked out of the Moscow’s talks January 13, refusing to sign a ceasefire accord.

The “threat of Ottoman colonisation,” as described by the enemies of Turkey in Libya, is further exacerbated by reports of jihadists and soldiers of fortune making their way from Syria to the shores of Tripoli.

These mercenaries give Erdogan room to appease his own public opinion, which is reluctant to support a far-away war threatening the lives of Turkish soldiers and bound to make the miserable lives of Libyans even more miserable.

The recourse to mercenaries is reminiscent of the chapter of janissaries in Turkish history. The Ottomans used slaves and prisoners to unleash a cruel army on the empire’s minorities in the 19th century. The janissaries eventually became a threat to the sultans to the extent that Ottoman ruler Sultan Mahmoud II killed 7,000 janissaries in Istanbul and 120,000 in other parts of the empire.

Erdogan should be pickier about the chapters of Ottoman history he wants to reenact. Less militaristic and bellicose episodes could do the region more good than those of mercenaries and Ottoman wars.

Iran's mullahs taking advantage of unexpected sacrificial lamb

By Claude Salhani

US President Donald Trump may sound victorious when talking about the killing of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone. Trump may have looked victorious when he announced the slaying of Soleimani, the head of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom Trump accused of being responsible for the death of thousands of people, including hundreds of Americans.

Trump no doubt believes he is following the right path by ordering the assassination of a lethal enemy. As much as we would like to believe the Trump administration was correct in targeting Soleimani, it seems Iran is playing chess while the United States is playing checkers.

The winner in this round of political/military sparring could be, not Trump or the United States, but the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran.

The death of Soleimani, as perceived in Iran, comes at an opportune time for the revolution that was running out of steam. Seen as a villain in the rest of the world, Soleimani was regarded as nothing short of a national hero in Iran.

There is no doubt of the role the charismatic 62-year-old general was someone who promoted terrorism when it suited the interests of Iran in pursuing its foreign policy through the use of proxies.

There is also no doubt of the role Soleimani played in meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

That he was an evil person responsible for the death of hundreds of people, again there is no doubt. Also, that Iran has lost an important player in its struggle to remain in power and to mark its position on the global political landscape is also certain.

However, the Iranian revolution will continue through this bump in the road; one the mullahs hope will be a long road. This is where their chessboard can easily be turned upside down.

Why and how are the mullahs pursuing their quest to outsmart the Americans in this round?

A look at the crowds that oozed onto the streets of Tehran to accompany the body of assassinated general to his final resting place were chanting a refrain as old as the revolution: “Marg bar Amrika” (“Death to America”).

This was the rallying cry from the very early days of the Islamic Revolution. It must have been sweet music to the mullahs.

So the mullahs have bought some time by offering the revolution this unexpected sacrificial lamb.

Of course, Iran’s ruling mullahs, as it is the case with all authoritarian states, have an interest in diverting the attention of the population to the notion of outside threats. Blaming the United States for all their troubles is a time-honoured tradition for the rulers of Tehran.

Their approach can be short-lived because people quickly discover that the reasons that had previously sent them into the streets have been unresolved. The show of solidarity for the slain hero will quickly be forgotten.

Sooner or later, the people will remind their government of their demands for better living conditions.

Blaming the US bogeyman will probably work for a while and will serve to ease some of the pressure from an unhappy street but the mullahs are living on borrowed time because the unaddressed fundamental demands put forward by the protesters will come back to haunt them.

All that is obvious in the manner the Iranians responded to the killing of their beloved general: Threaten the United States with fire and brimstone but respond in a very calculated manner by launching their missiles on a practically deserted section of al Asad Airbase in Iraq where there were no Americans, therefore avoiding escalating the situation.

In the eyes of his own people, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained defiant in the face of the United States and retaliated — by shelling an Iraqi airbase — where there were no casualties.

In Washington, Trump comes across as a president who is not afraid of going to war (though he should be). He wastes no time in ordering an additional 3,500 troops to the Middle East, thus flexing US military muscle. That will help with the 2020 presidential election, now just around the corner, and it will help the Iranians push their anti-US rhetoric.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Remembering the true genius of Sultan Qaboos of Oman

By Claude Salhani

Sultan Qaboos bin Tymoor, the charismatic ruler of The Sultanate of Oman died earlier this month, reported a statement from the Omani government in Muscat. Qaboos was 79, and leaves no children, therefor no direct heir.  He is succeeded by his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq al-Said, whom according to sources in the sultanate, the choice of succession was Qaboos’ who had left instructions in as letter he wrote shortly before his death.

Qaboos was the longest serving Arab leader, having governed Oman as this country’s head of state for 50 years.

The history of Oman is closely tied to Qaboos who took power from his ageing father in 1970, in a bloodless palace coup worked out in close cooperation with the British military.

As a young man Qaboos was sent to school in England, after graduation attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Britain’s equivalent to the American West Point.

Qaboos’ father, the old sultan ruled the country in what may well resemble tales coming straight out of the Grimm brothers. Except this was taking place in 1970 in the Middle East and not in some imaginary Mittle Europa country in the 1800s.

Oman was no fairytale. It was more of  a nightmare trailing centuries behind the rest of the region.  The old ruler was terribly  paranoid and banned all forms of modernization, including prohibiting the use of eyeglasses and forbidding  women from education. A  country half the size of France had only a few kilometers of paved roads, it had a single hospital serving the entire country and the gates to the capital, Muscat were shut between sunset and sunrise. Security forces were under orders to shoot anyone walking inside the capital after dark and not carrying a lantern up to his face.

At the same time Oman was caught in a civil war with the southern population in the Dhofar region. The rebels had legitimate concerns and demands, such as roads, hospitals and schools. The rebels were supported by South Yemen, also known as the Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen, or PDRY for short.

As the only communist country in the Arab world South Yemen also had support from China and the Soviet Union. The sultan had help from the British, the old colonial masters; Iran, at that time still under the rule of the shah, and others. And here were soldiers from Pakistan, Jordan. The UK and others.

Under Qaboos and the newly discovered oil fields money was beginning to flow into the country. Qaboos wasted no time as he began to build roads, hospitals, and schools and lifted the ban  on women in education.

With revenues from the oil pouring in he managed to meet the demands which the rebels were fighting for and demonstrated that they had no legitimate reason to continue the fight.

He introduced a program where surrendering rebels were offered complete amnesty and financial rewards for bringing in whatever caliber guns they had. For example a rebel surrendering with an AK-47 would receive $ 350, handing in an RPG was worth $500, and so on. The larger the caliber the greater the financial reward.

But the stroke of genius was what the sultan did next. He was well aware that as long as the army moved into areas cleared of rebels there would remain tension between the army composed northerners and the people of the south. Instead of having the army deployed throughout the Dhofar Qaboos created  a local militia called the “firqats”. In Arabic it translates as groups.

When the firqats caught a rebel there were good chances that at least one of the militiamen had been in the same unit as the rebel, or yet one of the former rebels hailed from the same village. Qaboos invited many of the surrendering rebels to join the firqats and police the area themselves. The program was very successful and remains to this day the only peacefully settled rebellions in the Middle East.

Qaboos managed throughout the 50 years he ruled Oman not to fall blindly in line with the rest of the Gulf Corporation Council on every issue the GCC addressed.

 He managed somehow to maintain good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He was among as the first Arab countries to established established diplomatic relations with Israel and among the first  to open a trade bureau in Tel Aviv.   He did not hesitate to criticize Saudi Arabia when he disagreed with the Saudis on policies such as Iran, Qatar and Yemen.

He was a figure of stability in a turbulent part of the world. He shall be missed. 

Erdogan opens a Pandora's box

By Claude Salhani

Building a mercenary force in order to help direct one’s foreign policy is a strange way to conduct affairs of state, but those are the strange ways of the Middle East.

Just when you thought the Middle East could not get any more complicated, well, look again, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to open a Pandora’s Box that will cause greater harm and present the region with yet more questions to which answers are practically impossible to find.

Erdogan, with an ego larger than the Bosphorous Tunnel, is now trying to deeply involve his country in Libya by deploying his military as well as hundreds of unpredictable hired guns in that troubled North African country.

Hundreds of fighters, including many militants and mercenaries outside the ranks of Turkey’s regular army, are already arriving in Libya, as admitted by Erdogan in an interview with CNN Turk last Sunday.

 Most Libyans are wary of seeing Turkish troops add yet another layer to the military factions already deployed in Libya. What is needed in Libya are far fewer guns and more people with an open mind who would be able to negotiate the future of their country with people who don’t necessarily share their vision on how Libya should be governed. Regardless, at the end of the day Libyans will have to sit down and negotiate with other Libyans.

 Bringing foreign elements, especially soldiers of fortune, into the picture will never be in Libya’s interest.

So if Erdogan can’t go in the front door, there is always the temptation of a back door. Emulating what the US did in Iraq at the start of the 2003 invasion,  Erdogan is building as an army of Turkish mercenaries that can then be deployed at his liking.

Already, advertisements by a Turkish contractor called SADAT, has gone out. They are seeking to recruit mercenaries on behalf of Ankara. The ad says the company is looking for “bodyguards” to provide protection for “Turkish personnel” working in Libya.

 This is somewhat ironic since the personnel they claim to be protecting are really in no need for protection.  They are members of the Turkish military dispatched by Erdogan to help save the Islamist camp of Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj,  the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord which already enjoys the support of a great many militants and armed militias.

The outcome of such a transaction is mind-boggling at best. Erdogan is offering to hire militiamen, Islamic militants and former military types of various hues to take part in invading another country (Libya). They are doing so as hired guns for a company linked to the Turkish government. 

There is no mystery as to where the funds to pay the mercenary task force would come from. It is financed by non-other than the Erdogan government itself. SADAT, the contractor in question is led by close advisors and friends of the Turkish president.

 Mercenaries working for Turkey would theoretically minimize Turkish casualties in Libya. But if the Syrian experience is any indication, the hundreds of mercenaries that are arriving in Libya are likely to commit similar abuses and atrocities which pro-Turkish militias and mercenaries have been suspected of perpetrating in Syria.

In fact this is not the first time that paramilitary forces are brought in to supplement or assist regular troops on a conflict.

The United States had hired more than 60,000 “contract workers” to back up regular to troops in Iraq. And a similar scheme was used in Afghanistan.

 The US used primarily Virginia-based Blackwater for its mercenary force and the Russians did the same through a company called Wagner to send fighters abroad.

“Turkey must establish a private military company to assist and train foreign soldiers,” said retired Gen. Adnan Tanrıverdi, chief military aide to  President Erdoğan.

Tanrıverdi announced several times this month that thanks to a military deal Turkey signed with Libya’s UN-supported government on November 27, 2019, Turkey could send private contractors to Libya as the Russians allegedly did with the Wagner Group.

Erdogans’ military advisor owns  the controversial private military contractor SADAT, which many believe is a de facto paramilitary force loyal to Erdoğan himself. The advisor to the Turkish president supported the idea of establishing a mercenary company that operates abroad, elaborating in an interview with a media outlet on how such a private army would be formed. 

“Absolutely, Turkey needs a private company like Blackwater or Wagner,” Tanrıverdi said, indicating that it would be a new tool in Turkey’s foreign policy.

This establishes new – and very troublesome  — parameters in the region, not least is under such circumstances, Turkey’s commitment to NATO comes into question.

The day may well come when Turkey’s mercenary force finds itself on the opposite side of a serious argument in which NATO holds a very different opinion.

Owners of SADAT do not hide their ideological colours. They want to promote a certain vision of Islam and Islamism through their mercenary plans. 

Yet another slippery slope that could take Turkey and the rest of the region in charted and dangerous territory as mercenary wars have the bad habit of starting new wars that do not end and unleashing humanitarian disasters nobody wants

Why the Lebanese revolution may yet work

by Claude Salhani

The upheaval in Lebanon is unprecedented in many ways, leaving authorities in a complex situation and not knowing how to respond.

What makes Lebanon’s revolution different from other attempts at revolting against a sitting government is the choice of its participants to remain peaceful.

Look at the major revolutions of the past 350 years starting with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Iranian Revolution. The attempts to force political changes in Syria, Iran and Iraq and all the above mentioned were very violent. The demonstrations that erupted in Iran last year, which don’t really qualify as a revolution, resulted in, opposition sources said, about 1,500 people killed.

Governments, especially those in the Middle East, know how to deal with violence; what they don’t know is how to address non-violent protests. This non-violent movement, of a novelty for the area, has been the brilliance of Lebanon’s revolution.

The people of Lebanon — call them the revolutionaries, if you will — are fed up with the political structure, starting with the sectarian-based system in which cabinet ministers are appointed not due to their level of education, academic record or achievements but rather according to religious affiliation.

Most high-level government jobs are reserved exclusively for certain religions. For example, the top three government posts in Lebanon are the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament. Following the National Pact, reached by the country’s sectarian leaders when Lebanon became independent from France, the distribution of power would be: a Maronite Christian at the presidency, a Sunni Muslim as prime minister and a Shia Muslim as a speaker.

Rather than unify the country, the system allowed external powers to push their interests rather than for the good of Lebanon. An example is Iran’s support of Hezbollah.

Iranian authorities did not need much prodding before reacting to peaceful demonstrations with violence. Similarly, in Syria when demonstrators began demanding a say in the way they were governed.

For nearly three months, the Lebanese revolutionaries continued their struggle to bring about the much-needed change in the way the country was governed. Their peaceful approach placed the government in a corner because authorities don’t know how they will emerge from this crisis.

One observer called it a “lesson in statesmanship,” adding: “The Lebanese revolutionaries have remained steadfast about their demands, steadfast about maintaining peaceful conduct and steadfast about their unity and perseverance in this fight.”

Indeed, this approach to a peaceful revolution is a first, not only in the Middle East but in Europe, Asia and in the Americas.

Despite the political, religious and other differences that divide the people of Lebanon and despite the recent history of severe violence, the populace demonstrated its unity as one people with one goal. That has remained constant and despite repeated efforts by various factions to sow dissent and guide this honourable movement into disarray.

Those aiming to disrupt the Lebanese revolution have no shame and no place in society. History will remember them and future generations will learn of those who were on the side of what is right and of those who chose to support corruption and sell their integrity to foreign interests.

The Lebanese authorities, principally the president, had hoped the demonstrators would, with time and winter approaching, grow tired and the demonstrations would end.

Mr President, if you have an ounce of decency left in you, listen to the shouts from the streets. As a former officer of the armed forces, show that the oath you took to defend Lebanon means something. Open the doors of your palace and listen to the calls from those you swore to defend. There is still time to act. History will recall your actions.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

Not the season to be merry in Tehran

By Claude Salhani

It is sad to see a country, such as Iran, rich in mineral resources, having a capable workforce and a cultured middle class and, yet, a large portion of the people struggle just to keep their heads above water, financially speaking.

When the cost of diapers for a baby hovers around $24 a packet, you know something is not right.

When the price of petrol doubles overnight and residents turn the streets into battle zones, you know something is not right.

When authorities arrest people by the thousands, possibly executing some, you definitely know something is not right.

For that regrettable state of affairs Iranians can thank the mullahs who control the day-to-day issues that touch the people of Iran.

The clergy controls every aspect of government, including monitoring the internet. In their ever-so-fine wisdom, ruling mullahs have final say over the country’s involvement in the region’s domestic policies. Ergo, Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and in the Palestinian territories, where it funds Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The government of the Islamic revolution has allocated tens of millions of dollars in trying to impress and impose its policies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and the West Bank.

Not to mention the infiltration of Iranian intelligence agents in the rest of the world, including Western Europe and the nuclear issue that has triggered economic sanctions.

In so doing the mullahs gained some friends, a few, on whom they can call on for favours, as with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. If they have gained some friends, they have irritated many more people, not least of which are the Americans.

Iranians are beginning to question the logic of propping up proxy groups around the region when their citizens go hungry or broke, just trying to buy diapers for a baby.

After Iranian years of squandering huge sums of money, the disenchantment of the regular people is being heard throughout the country in mass protests in the streets of Tehran and cities around the country.

To say that the Iranian leadership and its proxies are in dire straits is not overstating the situation.

The government has overstretched its resources by supporting the Syrian regime in the civil war, financing and arming proxies in Lebanon and Iraq. Hezbollah is unable to pay its fighters because funds from Tehran have not come through. The shrinking budgets of Hezbollah’s military and propaganda operations are causing many defections from its ranks.

For Iran, Iraq is maybe an investment in the future control of a rich country’s destiny but this strategy is badly backfiring and earning Tehran’s leading supporters in Baghdad new sanctions.

Iranians got involved in Iraq believing they were expanding their influence there but they became so involved that the welcome mat has been removed with prejudice.

In Iraq, Iranian militias kidnapped protesters and shot them at will, believing this could solve the problem of young demonstrators demanding a say in the way they are governed. That approach seems to be breeding a new generation of enemies, this time among Iraqi Shias.

Protesters are not about to stop the demonstrations whether in Iraq or in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah faces a rude awakening as protesters who have taken to the streets for two months do not seem to fear threats from the Party of God.

The narrative used to describe Hezbollah as part of the resistance to Israel has outlived its purpose. It cannot shield it from protests the people in Lebanon participate in daily. Not even Lebanon’s Shia community is convinced anymore by Hezbollah’s promises of distribution of spoils and benefits. Shias, as well as Sunnis and Christians, see such sectarian handouts as part of a corrupt system that must go.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.