Go Ahead. Talk to Kim.

Donald Trump is the first sitting American president who has ever agreed to negotiate with the North Korean dictatorship. His predecessors were right to refuse, but Trump should go ahead anyway. Sit down. Talk to Kim Jong Un. (Just please don’t do it in his capital, Pyongyang.) As Winston Churchill put it, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” and we’ve been lurching toward war now for a while.

There’s plenty of skepticism and even outright opposition, of course. “While Americans (and South Koreans) often view engagement as a tool of conflict resolution,” American Enterprise scholar Michael Rubin writes, “North Korea’s regime and its Chinese sponsors see diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy with which to tie opponents’ hands while they seize strategic advantage.”

North Korea’s pattern, write the editors at National Review, “has been to buy time and get relief from sanctions, while continuing to pursue its core strategic goal of developing nuclear weapons and an advanced missile capability.”

North Korea wants to be “bought off,” says Daniel Russel, who until last year was the chief diplomat for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. He’s looking for “a rental deal where [the Americans] basically pay off North Korea month to month, week to week, to tamp down its misbehavior.”

Axios lays out the diplomatic history between North Korea and the United States and points out that all previous seven attempts failed, each time because Pyongyang refused to honor agreements.  

All true. Which makes another round of talks with the world’s most bellicose, repressive and dishonest regime sound like a terrible idea. It is, but it raises the question: compared to what?

Last year, a retired US admiral warned that the odds of a nuclear war with North Korea were “only” 10 percent while the odds of a conventional war in his view were 50 percent. Just last month we learned that the Trump administration has been mulling the idea of a limited “bloody nose” strike against the North that could easily be the first shot in a total war. Even a non-nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula could kill hundreds of thousands of people and possibly millions.

For decades now, the wardens of Pyongyang have clamored for a meeting with an American president. It’s partly a matter of ego and image. They’ve wanted to be treated not as equals, necessarily, but at least as heads of state like every other world leader is. Denying them this has been entirely justified. No tyrant on earth has ruled with such pitiless cruelty since Soviet premier Josef Stalin. Unlike Stalin, though, no North Korean ruler has made the hermit kingdom powerful enough that it could not be ignored—at least not until now.

If Donald Trump randomly woke up one morning and decided to meet with Kim Jong Un for no particular reason, the naysayers would be right. It would appear recklessly naïve and foolish, and it would come across as mind-bogglingly weak. Why give Kim what he and his family have always wanted if he’s done nothing at all to deserve it?

Likewise, if Trump decided to meet with ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Al Qaeda’s terrorist-in-chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, he’d be out of his mind. Those two need to be zotted with Predator drones or captured and dumped into the ocean. They certainly don’t deserve recognition, and elevating them to the same plane as a head of state would puff them up to gigantic proportions. It would be a huge propaganda boon that could boost their recruitment by an order of magnitude.

The Kim family is responsible for far more human misery than even the worst terrorist organizations, but his regime’s propaganda is entirely useless outside his hermetically sealed borders, and unlike Al Qaeda and ISIS, North Korea, alas, is an actual state. Refusing to recognize it and them has no more effect on reality than Syria’s refusal to recognize Israel, and meeting Kim face-to-face is no more an endorsement of his government’s crimes than Richard Nixon meeting Mao Zedong was an endorsement of Communist China’s.

Meeting and therefore “recognizing” Kim will cost the United States nothing. Even so, there’s no good reason to get excited about this. Diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake is hardly more effective than spinning tires in mud. And the chances that Kim will agree to dismantle his nuclear program is vanishingly small. Even if he does, he’ll almost certainly cheat like his father and grandfather before him.

It’s slightly more likely that he’ll agree to freeze his weapons program in place, at least for a while, and as long as we pay into his protection racket. He’ll still probably cheat, though.

Our best bet is pressuring Kim to accept a peace treaty and finally end this. Because technically, the Korean War never ended. It only paused in 1953 with a decades-long cease-fire.

Kim isn’t an apocalypse nut who wants to burn down the world, nor does he have a martyrdom complex. He’s a young man who wants to revel in his time and rule over his kingdom until he dies in his bed at 90. And he wants a nuclear arsenal for the same reason every other country wants one—as a deterrent.

He already has a deterrent, though. The thousands of artillery pieces pointing at Seoul, which alone could inflict millions of casualties before anybody could stop him, prevent even a mad army from attempting to invade. Kim simply doesn’t understand that or doesn’t believe it. A peace treaty negotiated in good faith would do a lot to settle his nerves and allow us to live in mutual loathing of each other without perpetually fretting about a nuclear holocaust.

Broken ISIS Recruits Return Home

Now that ISIS has been all but destroyed in Syria and Iraq, thousands of surviving foreign fighters are returning home. Their home countries are bracing themselves, but the United States, it turns out, might have less to worry about than we feared.  

As many as 300 Americans traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight and possibly die for ISIS. None so far have returned as terrorists. Most never saw combat and wanted out more than anything once they go there. That’s according to a new book-length report called “The Travelers” published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Apparently, ISIS dispatched only one of its members, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud from Ohio via Somalia, to the United States with a plan of attack. Federal agents rolled him up before he could do anything, and a judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

National security professionals from one end of the Western world to the other have been fretting that suicide-bombings and mass shootings would follow the demise of the Middle East’s “caliphate” when the battle-hardened survivors finally made their way back. I count myself among those who are a little surprised, but it’s obvious, at least to me and in hindsight, why so many of them turned out to be duds as Robin Wright called them in The New Yorker. As disgruntled and disaffected as these recruits undoubtedly were with the United States when they signed up, they ended up disillusioned. After all, they spent most of their lives in a highly developed and more-or-less properly functioning country before finding themselves in a brutal and tyrannical hell.

ISIS promised a utopian society and paradise for its warriors. The reality was something else, a one-way ticket to a Hobbesian world of cruelty, violence and drudgery.

“The propaganda,” concludes the report, “while enthralling, presented an idealized version of reality, meaning that their real-world experience upon arrival was often jarring. Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaraderie were rarely fulfilled. Instead, cultural clashes, bitter infighting, and suspicion among recruits and leaders abounded.”

Hard as it is for those of us accustomed to the affluence and comforts of the West to relate to, living in a bunker or a safehouse alongside hardened jihadists can be be a step up for those used to the grinding poverty, severe state repression, indiscriminate violence and abject hopelessness that have characterized the shattered remains of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. But that’s just not the case—it can’t be—for someone arriving from New York or Miami even if they’ve so far lived a marginal existence in a relatively tough neighborhood far from Manhattan or South Beach.

To be sure, young men who suddenly find themselves rising from anonymous nobodies to exalted fighters in the vanguard of a rising new movement can find their status and ego inflated, even by gigantic proportions, but most American recruits ended up washing dishes and cleaning latrines, jobs that at least paid something back home.

As a Lebanese friend once told me, "when political theories fail in the Middle East they fail hard."

The ISIS dupes are a bit like the sad South Koreans lured to North Korea by communist propaganda in the mid-20th century. They encountered one horrific shock after another once they arrived in Kim Il Sung’s mythical worker’s paradise, but by then it was too late. They couldn’t go home.

ISIS barely even exists anymore except as an idea and an abstraction. Its Islamic “state,” such as it was, has been dismantled. The real threat doesn’t come from those who return from the losing side on the pitiable battlefield but from those like Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people and wounded 58 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two years ago, persuaded to do so by jihadist propaganda online. Unlike the 300 or so who defected from the United States to the caliphate, he never saw the nightmare Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi created up close and in person. Those like him who choose to stay and fight at home are the ones we most need to worry about.

Turkey Takes its War Against the Kurds Into Europe

Czech police officers arrested a Syrian citizen named Salih Muslim last weekend at his hotel in Prague after the Turkish government issued an Interpol “red notice” describing him as a terrorist and asking for his extradition.

Muslim isn’t a terrorist. He’s a spokesperson for the Movement for a Democratic Society, a secular left-wing Kurdish organization aligned with the United States and Europe that stands foursquare against every terrorist army in Syria, especially ISIS.

He used to be one of the co-presidents of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political organization behind the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which has done more heavy lifting against ISIS in Syria—and suffered far more battlefield losses—than any other fighting force in the world. Yet Turkey’s increasingly paranoid and deranged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that everyone involved with them even peripherally is a terrorist, making the morally bankrupt old adage that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” actually true in this case.

The PYD and the YPG are emphatically not terrorist organizations, and Erdogan is no more an authority on the subject of who is and who isn’t a good guy than talk radio conspiracy jock Alex Jones, who went on a tear in January about Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, for being a “devil worshipper” who “drinks children’s blood.” Since the botched coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan has purged more than 150,000 people—including novelists, journalists and professors—for supposed membership in the Turkish “deep state,” that shadowy group of military, intelligence and judiciary officials who have frightened children and would-be dictators since at least the mid-1990s. Erdogan’s regime even arrested a NASA scientist. The evidence against him? He has a bank account at an institution allegedly “linked” to dissident cleric Fethullah Gulen and had a one-dollar bill in his pocket, which is supposedly how Gulen’s followers identify themselves to each other.

At the same time he’s been rolling up the Gulenists and the deep staters he’s been mounting a breathtakingly draconian campaign against supposed Kurdish terrorists and their supporters, so far jailing and indicting thousands of civilians—including a Wall Street Journal reporter—on nonsense charges. Hasip Kaplan, once a member of parliament, is facing a 142-year prison term, and the court won’t even let him attend his own trial. As of the end of 2017, the state has arrested more than 11,000 members of his avowedly secular People’s Democratic Party (HDP).  

The Czech Republic went ahead and complied with Erdogan’s “red notice” request by arresting spokesperson Salih Muslim, but a judge ordered him released from custody when he learned what the fuss was about. Turkish officials are vowing to “hunt the Kurdish leader wherever he goes” and are offering a four million lira reward (the equivalent of roughly one million American dollars) to anyone with information that leads to his capture.  

“This decision clearly means to support terror groups,” Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said about Prague letting his prey go. It means no such thing whatsoever. The Czech Republic simply refuses to send an innocent Syrian into a third country’s dungeon.   

The decision also, Bozdag added, “will negatively impact relations between Turkey and the Czech Republic.” No doubt Turkey’s attempt to rope Europe into its witch hunt will also negatively impact relations.

The Russian Attack Against America You Didn’t Hear About

You probably didn’t hear this because few media organizations have even mentioned it, but Russia committed an act of war against the United States a little more than a week ago. No, this is not about more social media and election shenanigans. Russia mounted an armed assault against American soldiers and our allies in Syria, including Kurdish security forces affiliated with the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, at a military base in the city of Deir Ezzor, the largest in eastern Syria. Russian combatants fought alongside Assad regime fighters and Shia militias armed, funded and directed by Iran.

Both the Pentagon and the Kremlin are going out of their way to keep this as quiet as possible. If you only read the New York Times story about the incident on February 13, you’d have to squint and zero in on the subtext. After the United States used air and drone strikes to obliterate incoming assailants, including dozens of Russians, American military spokespeople assured the press in calm tones that there was never any chance that Russian and American forces would clash directly in Deir Ezzor or anywhere else. The Kremlin, for its part, said any Russians who might have participated in the assault were mercenaries unaffiliated with the Russian armed forces.

The problem with the Kremlin statement is that Russian mercenaries in Syria are employed by the Wagner Group, which works for the Russian government, and specifically for Russia’s Ministry of Defense, not for the Syrian or Iranian governments. And the problem with the American statement is that the Pentagon is asking us to assume that dozens of Russians were killed not by the bombs it had just dropped but by somebody else…or perhaps by spontaneous heart attacks or a catastrophic series of vehicle accidents.

Some fine reporters at Bloomberg News dug a bit deeper. First, on February 14, Henry Meyer and Stepan Kravchenko reported that wounded Russians were flown from the battlefield to hospitals administered by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow and St. Petersburg, belying the claim that they were freelancing for somebody else.

Second, Eli Lake reported on February 16 that several US officials confirmed that the Russian government understood perfectly well what was going on in Deir Ezzor—thanks to the so-called “deconflicting” agreements in place to prevent American and Russian soldiers from accidentally shooting each other. He also helpfully pointed out that one of the leaders of the Wagner Group, Dmitry Utkin, is closely linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin (aka “Putin’s chef”), one of the 13 Russian nationals whom FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller just indicted for information warfare during the 2016 presidential election. The Wagner Group is also, by the way, responsible for the out-of-uniform Russians dubbed the “little green men” fighting in Ukraine in 2014, and the Washington Free Beacon obtained a photograph taken in 2016 that shows some of these mercenaries given medals by Vladimir Putin himself.

Take a look at how carefully Secretary of Defense James Mattis describes what happened in Deir Ezzor. “I have no idea why [the Russians] would attack there,” he told reporters after the incident. “The forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew. We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of.” He’s going along with the story that the Russian government has “no control” over the Wagner Group, which clearly isn’t the case.

And why would he do that? Lake thinks Mattis is committing a “noble lie” for the common good in both countries. “If Mattis acknowledges the obvious,” he writes, “that the Kremlin authorized a direct assault on a U.S.-sponsored base by non-uniformed personnel -- he risks an escalation spiral in Syria. Better to express bewilderment and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to back down and deny culpability, which he ended up doing despite the heavy casualties suffered by his mercenaries.”

Aside from the stories I’ve cited above, this incident has received almost no media coverage in the United States. Perhaps it’s because Americans suffered no casualties while, according to numerous Russian media accounts, as many as 200 Russians were killed, and three separate sources told Reuters that Russia suffered as many as 300 killed and injured. Maybe it’s also because during what would have been this story’s news cycle, Americans were transfixed by yet another bloody massacre at a high school, this time in Parkland, Florida. Another possibility is that, in this inward-looking and tribal partisan time in American history, a botched Russian attack doesn’t neatly fit into one of our pre-existing media narratives, where the Democratic Party is focused on Russian election meddling and the Republican Party would rather talk about almost anything except the Kremlin’s malfeasance. 

Whatever the reason or reasons, Americans have missed an opportunity to take stock of a terrible fact—that Russia is an outright enemy of the United States that just committed an act of war against us in the Middle East. Unless Vladimir Putin has suddenly and silently been deterred—fat chance of that being the case—something else will have to happen to get our attention. Something bigger, something worse, something more dangerous.

So Much for Egypt’s Secret Alliance with Israel

The New York Times reports that Israel and Egypt are secretly working together to fight ISIS on the Sinai Peninsula. For more than two years now, with official Egyptian approval, the state of Israel has conducted more than 100 air strikes inside Egypt using planes, helicopters and drones that fly in long winding arcs to appear as though they’re coming from the direction of Cairo. The Egyptian army  denies the report, but the Israelis do not. Jerusalem is simply declining to comment.  

Jihadists in the Sinai have been waging a deadly insurgency against the Egyptian government since shortly after the army arrested long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The insurgency consists of a hodgepodge groups, from disgruntled Bedouin tribes to Al Qaeda, but more recently, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the most powerful and organized faction, changed its name to Islamic State-Sinai Province, as if their territory, such as it is, is the “caliphate’s” detached exclave province in Egypt.

They’ve already killed thousands of people, downed a Russian passenger jet with a two-pound bomb smuggled onboard, murdered chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat with a car bomb in Cairo, massacred hundreds of fellow Muslims at a mosque just a couple of months ago, and even briefly seized control of the small town of Sheikh Zuwaid barely a dozen miles from Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel. They’ve used Russian-made missiles to shoot down helicopters, blow up tanks and sink patrol boats and have left a bloody trail of civilian dead from the Sinai to Alexandria and Cairo.

In a less stupid world than the one we actually live in, the military alliance between Egypt and Israel would be neither controversial nor secret. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and ISIS and its affiliates are Egypt’s and Israel’s common enemies.

To describe that peace as a cold one, however, is putting things mildly. Egypt is one of the most virulently anti-Semitic countries in the world, much more so than even most Arab countries, especially compared with those that are farthest away like Morocco and Oman. Egypt’s “mainstream” state-run media is awash with the kind of insanity you’ll only find in the West on Alex Jones’ radio show, including accusations that Israel exports the AIDS virus all over the world, corrupts Egyptian youth with aphrodisiac bubble gum, and economically enslaves the planet the way Jews supposedly did in the run-up to the Holocaust.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is quite right to partner with Israel in the Sinai, but he’s committing one of the same long-term mistakes that Mubarak did for so many decades by refusing to order the media to tone down the hysteria. I’m all for press freedom, of course—especially here in the West—but Egypt has never had a free press and almost certainly won’t any time soon, so if the government must control the editorial line, at the very least it ought to use that power for good at least occasionally.

Egyptians are suffering from their own bigoted attitudes far more than the Israelis are nowadays anyway. Peoples and governments gripped by paranoid conspiracy theories (bigoted or otherwise) are incapable of solving their problems, partly because they aren’t diagnosing what ails them correctly but also because they waste time, energy and resources jousting with ghosts, at times with debilitating and bloody results. History is replete with examples, from the Salem Witch Trials to Nazi Germany. To frame it another way, imagine visiting a doctor with respiratory symptoms and he puts you on chemotherapy for a cancer you don’t have instead of a course of antibiotics that would easily cure the pneumonia you do have. You’ll just lay there in bed, half dead from terrible side effects, and get sicker.

No one should expect Egypt’s state messengers and propagandists to tout the Israelis as friends and allies, but they might want to consider cooling their jets for a while and cover their neighbors realistically. Contrary to popular belief, the state of Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Egypt. The Israelis will never, ever, randomly wake up one morning and decide to invade Egypt just for the heck of it. ISIS, however, has already chewed two Arab countries to pieces.

No, the Syrian Kurds are not Terrorists

On January 20, Turkey invaded the Kurdish region of northwestern Syria to destroy what it calls a terrorist army. No, it is not fighting ISIS. It is, quite the contrary, fighting the American-backed militia that effectively destroyed ISIS and helped liberate the city of Raqqa last October.

According to Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are a terrorist organization backed by the United States. That sentence right there ought to be enough to make you doubt what Erdogan is selling right now, but perhaps you aren’t sure. Few in the West know much about the YPG. Most Americans have not even heard of it. And if all a person knows about it is that it’s an armed group in Syria, of all places, that a NATO ally calls a terrorist organization, well…Syria is full of terrorists, isn’t it?

Syria is indeed full of terrorists, but the YPG is one of the few armed factions in the war that adheres to moral Western warfighting norms. It’s also one of the precious few factions that’s genuinely pro-Western.

The YPG is backed by the Pentagon and 2,000 American soldiers as part of Washington’s plan to effectively control 28 percent of Syrian territory so that ISIS cannot come back. It’s mostly made up of ethnic Kurds, although there are Arab, Assyrian Christian and foreign fighters mixed into the ranks, including women in the Women’s Protection Units. They are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, founded in 2003.

Their ideology isn’t Islamist. It’s leftist. They champion, in their own words, “social equality, justice and the freedom of belief” along with “pluralism and the freedom of political parties.” They hope to implement “a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society.” They describe themselves as libertarian socialists, a minority faction within the worldwide socialist movement that rejects one-party rule and authoritarian state control of the economy.

They also ascribe to what they call Communalism, a set of ideas put forth by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is here that the YPG gets itself into trouble with Turkey.

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist separatist movement and a Marxist-Leninist insurgency. Like nearly all communist guerrilla armies—from Peru’s Shining Path to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—it was inherently prone to terrorism. While primarily striking Turkish soldiers and police officers, the group has also committed a number of attacks against civilian targets, including a car bomb in Ankara last March that killed dozens and wounded more than 100 and a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2010.

The so-called Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) take credit for some of the worst attacks against Turkey. Experts disagree about whether or not the TAK is linked to the PKK, but at the very least it’s a breakaway faction and is far more linked to the PKK than the YPG in Syria is.

In 1999, Ocalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish intelligence officers, swiftly dispatched to Turkey and sentenced to death. He’s still alive, though, because Turkey abolished the death penalty, hoping that would boost its chances of being admitted to the European Union. Today Ocalan languishes on Imrali, a penal island in the Sea of Marmara.

While in prison, Ocalan watered down his communist ideology into the so-called libertarian socialism that it is now. And it is this ideology, not the old school quasi-Stalinist one of the PKK’s past, that the YPG adheres to today.

The PKK still behaves as a terrorist organization. Old habits from the 1970s don’t go down easily. The YPG, though, didn’t even exist until 2003. It never went through a communist or a terrorist phase, and it takes its inspiration from the milder version Ocalan promoted after he mellowed in prison.

The YPG is asking for trouble by borrowing anything at all from Abdullah Ocalan, but it has never committed an act of terrorism in Syria or anywhere else, not even at a time when terrorist attacks are as routine as weather in Syria. So while, yes, the YPG and the PKK are ideologically linked, the Turkish government has never been able to identify a single act of terrorism the YPG has ever committed, not in Turkey, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.

One can understand why the YPG gets Erdogan’s hackles up, but gunning for these people makes no more sense than bombing South Africa in the early 1990s because then-President Nelson Mandela used to be a communist, neverminding that his party, the African National Congress, did not even attempt to build a communist state after winning elections.

Whatever you think of the “libertarian socialism” of Syrian Kurdistan, it’s not even in the same time zone as the medieval totalitarianism of ISIS, the secular nationalist tyranny of Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime in Damascus or the Putin-esque rule of the neo-Ottoman Erdogan.

Turkey can call the Kurds terrorists all they want, but that will not make them so.

Time to Kick Turkey Out of NATO?

The case for evicting Turkey from NATO got stronger this week.

First, the United States announced the backing of a border security force drawn mainly from the People's Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava, the quasi-independent Kurdish region in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border. Then Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will “strangle” that American-backed force “before it’s even born.” Russia, Iran and Syria’s Assad regime are standing with Erdogan.

The YPG, along with the multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces which the YPG dominates, are the only armed groups indigenous to Syria that are willing and able to take on ISIS and win, and they’re the only significant armed faction in Syria’s dizzying civil war that isn’t ideologically hostile to the West. In October of last year, they finally liberated Raqqa, the “capital” of the ISIS “caliphate,” while the Russian and Syrian militaries were busy pounding rebels instead in the west.

The Turks would rather have the Assad regime—and by extension Russia, Iran and Hezbollah—rule over the Syrian Kurds whom they consider terrorists. The United States is “building an army of terror” along the southern border, Erdogan says. “Either you take off your flags on those terrorist organisations, or we will have to hand those flags over to you, Don’t force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists…Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000 of them.”

This is not how a NATO ally behaves. It’s how an enemy state behaves. There is truly no getting around this. We can argue all we want—and I have—that keeping Turkey in NATO is better than kicking Turkey out of NATO because it’s better to deal with a troublesome country inside an ostensibly friendly framework than outside one.

There are limits, though, even if those limits aren’t clearly defined. A direct Turkish attack against the United States would clearly be over the line whether a line is defined or not, as would a direct attack against another NATO member state. Attacking a non-NATO ally is more ambiguous, especially when the non-NATO ally in question isn’t even a state. (It’s not like Turkey is threatening to attack Israel, Japan or Morocco.)

None of this could have been foreseen when NATO was founded in 1949 or when Turkey was admitted in 1952. NATO was founded as a united Western front against the Soviet Union, which occupied or indirectly controlled half of Europe, including a third of Germany. Iran’s Islamic Republic, the Syrian Baath Party regime, armed Kurdish separatist movements, ISIS—none of these even existed then, and only the Kurdish movements could even have been imagined.

The world has dramatically changed, as has NATO. In 1952, Turkey was a crucial member in good standing while Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. In 2018, Estonia is a member in good standing while Turkey is behaving as a belligerent. No one should be surprised that alliances have shifted after seven decades. Alliances always shift over time. Enemies become friends and vice versa. Not even Britain has been a constant friend of the United States, and not even Russia has been a constant enemy.

Changes like these happen slowly, and the West is having a hard time processing the fact that Turkey is increasingly hostile, though it has been for some time now. It started when Ankara denied the use of its territory, including Incirlik Air Base, during the war against Saddam Hussein, mostly because Turkey didn’t want Iraqi Kurdistan to become an economic and military powerhouse. Later, Erdogan helped Iran transfer weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and implicitly sided with ISIS in Syria because he didn’t want an independent Kurdish region to rise up in Syria as it had in Iraq. More recently, he has taken American citizens hostage and purchased a missile system from the Kremlin. And how he’s threatening to destroy the only competent Western-friendly militia in all of Syria.

Last August, as Erdogan visited his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow, NATO issued a telling statement. “Turkey is a valued ally, making substantial contributions to NATO’s joint efforts… Turkey’s NATO membership is not in question.”

Stop right there. Of course Turkey’s NATO membership is in question. Otherwise, why bother denying it? NATO isn’t denying that the United Kingdom or Canada doesn’t belong in NATO any longer. NATO is only denying that Turkey’s membership is in question, which is another way of saying it is. Anyway, you can type “Turkey out of NATO” into Google and spend a year wading through the results.  

The statement continues: “Our Alliance is committed to collective defence and founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, human rights and the rule of law.” Indeed, the alliance was founded on all of those principles, none of which increasingly authoritarian Turkey adheres to any longer.

If Turkey were not in NATO, it would not be admitted. It’s grandfathered in at this point.

It’s much easier to say no to an aspiring member that doesn’t belong than to evict a longstanding member who no longer belongs, especially when there’s no clear criteria for banishment. It’s about time, then, for NATO to have a serious discussion about what the criteria for banishment is. That alone might improve Turkey’s behavior. If it doesn’t, we’ll have other options.

Iran's Protests Reveal the Truth About Hassan Rouhani

The protests that rocked Iran in December and early January largely fizzled out after the government arrested more than 3,000 people. We’ll have to wait to find out if this was the beginning of an era of upheaval or a brief spasm of malcontent followed by a longer period of silent malaise. Either way, it should put to bed once and for all the myth that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is some kind of reformer.

Rouhani famously ran as a so-called “moderate” during the farcical 2013 election where, as always in the Islamic Republic, only the hand-picked candidates of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Khamenei can get their names on the ballot. He was a moderate in a relative sense compared with his hard-line opponent and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, but he’s still a regime creature who participated in nearly every state crackdown against dissidents and protesters since the revolution against the Shah in 1979.

Even so, Western foreign policy makers have treated him as an objective moderate and reformer for more than four years now, and far too many journalists have likewise described him as such. Most reporters who aren’t Middle East specialists have only a passing familiarity with Iranian politics on their best days, so let’s look at what happened as if it took place in the West instead of a foreign land on the other side of the world.

Imagine that, in the 2024 election in the United States, Americans face two choices for president, both of them hand-picked by Donald Trump. And let’s say that one is disgraced former Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, accused of sexual assault against minors and twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, and the other is Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, accused of abuse of power and civil rights violations and recently pardoned by Trump for a criminal contempt of court charge. No one on earth with a lick of political sense would describe such an election as anything but a sham, nor would any serious person describe Sheriff Joe as a “moderate” just because Moore is even more extreme. (If you don’t like that analogy, ask yourself how you’d feel if, in the 2024 election, you face a choice between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both hand-picked by Hillary Clinton, with everyone to the right of Elizabeth Warren outlawed and threatened with prison.)

Rouhani sounded like a genuine moderate, though, to anyone who took his campaign promises literally and seriously. He promised a human rights charter and better relations with the West. He’d fight government corruption and improve the economy. He won the middle class and the youth vote overwhelmingly, and you could be forgiven for thinking he’s a genuine moderate or even a liberal if you knew nothing else about him.

Iran still has no human rights charter. Nobody is more free in any real sense than they were when the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had Rouhani’s job. Government corruption is as epidemic as ever. The economy remains an emergency room case. Iran’s relations with the West have been slightly less terrible since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the nuclear deal, went into effect, but relations are deteriorating again thanks to Iran’s continued support for militias and terrorist armies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and the ramping up of its ballistic missile program, none of which Rouhani could stop even if he wanted to.

The thing about Rouhani is that, nevermind what he actually thinks, he’s not the head of state. Ali Khamenei is. He’s the one who calls every shot that matters. Rouhani can no more reform the Iranian regime than Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser can overhaul the federal government in the United States.

The Iranian people understand this perfectly well even if distant foreign observers do not. Sure, Iranians chose him by a 3-1 margin in 2013, but only because he was the lesser of evils. Choosing between Rouhani and Ghalibaf was like being asked if you’d rather be shot or nuked. You’re more likely to survive being shot in the abdomen than if you’re vaporized instantly, but you’re still gut-shot.

The Iranian people chose to be gut-shot. Not that it makes much of a difference. They might as well have chosen to be nuked or cratered by a giant meteor since Rouhani’s cabinet consists strictly of hardliners backed by Khamenei.

He promised during his election campaign five years ago that Iran’s opposition political prisoners would be released. Think about that for a moment. Let the contradiction sink in. What kind of countries have political prisoners? Only dictatorships. What kind of countries have meaningful campaign promises? Only democracies.

A campaign promise in a dictatorship is worth somewhere between jack and squat, so of course Iran’s political prisoners have not been released. Thousands more have been arrested during the last couple of weeks alone.

And so much for Rouhani tamping down Iran’s belligerent foreign policy. Last month, he spent an hour in parliament defending an increase in the Revolutionary Guard budget that makes it triple the size of the regular army’s. The Revolutionary Guard exists for two reasons. First, to protect the government from the army and, second, to replicate itself, virus-like, in countries like Lebanon and Syria through its chief terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

Disgruntled Iranians chanted all kinds of things in the streets before the demonstrations calmed down, among them, “Let Syria be, do something for me” and “Reformists, hard-liners, the whole game is over.” The whole game alas is not over, but at the very least it’s long past time for Western foreign policy makers to listen to the Iranian people and understand who and what Hassan Rouhani really is.

Is Iran's Regime About to Fall?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is convulsing again. The largest anti-government protests since the Green Movement erupted in 2009 began last month in the city of Mashhad and spread throughout the country, with demonstrators chanting “death to the dictator,” “death to Hezbollah,” and “death to the Islamic Republic.”

Iranian security forces deployed both violence and street theater to retaliate, killing more than twenty people and imprisoning hundreds of others, and ginning up massive pro-government demonstrations of their own. Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari now declares that the “forces of sedition” have been defeated.

We’ll see about that. The cities could boil all over again as soon as tomorrow. Iran’s citizens aren’t happy with the status quo all of a sudden. They are simply cowed for the moment or taking a breather. And these demonstrations are different than those of the recent past. They didn’t start in the relatively liberal and cosmopolitan northern part of Tehran, where hatred for the repressive government perpetually simmers, but instead in what was recently considered a clerical stronghold.

After the relatively recent toppling of five authoritarian Arab regimes—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and then yet another in Egypt—it’s only natural to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of Iran’s Islamic Republic.  

No tyrannical state lasts forever. With just a handful of exceptions, all of them monarchies, the only governments in the entire world that have lasted a century or longer are democratic. All others are transient, and they’re transient for two basic reasons. They lack the long-term legitimacy and flexibility that all governments need to navigate inevitable changes in culture and history. Democratic governments can turn corners—sometimes to the left, other times to the right—while rigid autocratic systems almost always calcify in place as the people beneath them move on. Pressure slowly builds over time as if two tectonic plates are in a slow-motion collision until an earthquake finally pulls everything down. That’s what happened during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and it will surely happen again, even as the current regime withstands smaller tremors between the two big ones.

Occasionally, dictatorships survive by reforming themselves out of all recognition and undergoing a regime-change in all but name. That’s what happened in Communist China and Communist Vietnam after Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh died. Usually, though, autocracies fall when they collapse internally or are overthrown in a revolution or war. Sometimes they effectively give up and lose the will to do what’s necessary to hold onto power, as in the former Soviet Union. Other times, the armed forces turn against the palace, as in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and in Egypt more recently (twice). Still others, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Cambodia’s Pol Pot, are removed by conquering armies. Some, like Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi, are toppled by armed insurrections. Once in a while, despots flee in the night to exile abroad, like Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych and Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

The real question, then, isn’t whether or not Iran’s government is about to fall. The question is, does Iran’s regime appear poised to suffer one of the more specific fates listed above?

It’s spectacularly unlikely that those at the top of the pyramid, along with their Revolutionary Guard Corps, will lose their nerve and allow themselves to be peacefully overthrown by civilians. “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Khamenei is no Mikhail Gorbachev. That’s for damn sure. They will fight back. They’re doing it now. And those at the top of Iran’s clerical system are spectacularly unlikely to ever run away like Yanukovych who lives today just outside Moscow. Where would they run to? Syria? That doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Russia’s Vladimir Putin may be their ally, but these people aren’t going to live out their days in the frozen north under lifelong surveillance among godless atheists and Orthodox Christians.

The Iranian army could turn against the ayatollahs as Romania’s did when it arrested and executed Ceausescu, but that’s what the Revolutionary Guard Corps is for, to protect the regime from the regular army which is as ideologically heterodox as the country itself.

And there’s virtually no chance that any country is going to invade Iran and demolish the government. Americans have no appetite for another regime-change adventure abroad, especially not in the Middle East, and no other country in the world is willing and capable either.

Iran’s government, then, is likely to survive for the foreseeable future.

Eventually, though, it will fall, as all such regimes finally do in the long run, and what will most likely herald its eventual downfall is a combination of Soviet-style loosening and rot from within. The Soviet Union lasted seven decades before that finally happened while Iran’s Islamic Republic hasn’t quite been around yet for four. And the Russians suffered an empire-shattering loss in Afghanistan before softening up under Gorbachev. The Iranian government, meanwhile, is riding high on a string of partial victories abroad in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Outright losing in some of those places would weaken the government’s confidence, as would enough morale-sapping demonstrations from the width and breadth of Iranian society, but that’s not going to happen at a time when the government is still just popular enough to whip up large demonstrations on its behalf.  

The tipping point will likely come when those tasked with internal repression sympathize with the protesters and either stand down or turn outright against the regime. That’s what we need to watch out for. There are no signs of either of those things happening now. That could change, and it could change in an instant, but Iran isn’t there yet.

Islamic Governments Cede West Jerusalem to Israel

Last week in Istanbul, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. They made the announcement with a barrage of angry rhetoric, of course. Israel is a “racist” state, and the Trump administration’s recognition earlier this month of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is "an attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people, a deliberate undermining of all peace efforts, an impetus to extremism and terrorism, and a threat to international peace and security."

Look past the bombast at the main point. By recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, the OIC is effectively ceding West Jerusalem to the Israelis and implicitly recognizing it as Israel’s capital.

The vast majority of media organizations around the world that don’t specialize in the Middle East didn’t report this, but it’s important. The OIC includes 57 member states and extends far beyond the Middle East, from Sub-Saharan Africa through South Asia and all the way to Indonesia. Everything it says emerges from a broad consensus among governments ruling Muslim-majority nations, including most of the Arab states. (Syria has been suspended for reasons that are probably obvious.)

Foreign policy analysts who opposed Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital had a hard time understanding what strategic objective the president was attempting to advance, partly because, in all likelihood, he wasn’t trying to advance one. His interests were largely domestic. Former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all promised to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there, as the US Congress has required by law since 1995, but none of them followed through. Trump did. He alone fulfilled four presidents’ campaign promises.

That doesn’t mean a strategic objective wasn’t advanced, though, even if the president doesn’t understand it and didn’t articulate it. He, along with the OIC now, punctured a delusion on the Palestinian side that makes peace in the short and medium term all but impossible.

Plenty of Palestinians want the conflict to end and will grudgingly live alongside Israel even if it means giving up the dream of sovereignty over the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. According to a survey published in August, 53 percent of Israelis and 52 percent of Palestinians support a two-state solution.

At least some in the Palestinian National Authority leadership are among that 52 percent. If President Mahmoud Abbas—who is currently finishing up his twelfth year of a four-year term—could push a button that magically created a Palestinian state that roughly corresponds to the 1967 armistice lines and leads to an enduring and stable era of peace with the Israelis, he would probably push it.

He has never agreed to peace terms with Israel, though, nor is he even open to serious peace talks, because a huge number of Palestinians—especially the armed total rejectionists in Hamas—would brand him a traitor. The dream, the fantasy, of destroying Israel hasn’t died yet. The notion that the so-called Zionist Entity is an ultimately temporary imposition remains all-too powerful in the Palestinian national narrative. Peace is not yet nigh, and Mahmoud Abbas knows it.

Even the two-staters would blow a gasket if Abbas were to sign a peace treaty and concede what the Israelis would force him to concede—no “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees” who have never even set foot in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza; and Jewish sovereignty over the Western Wall. Odds are high that Abbas would be killed or driven into exile and that yet another war between the Israelis and Palestinians would break out soon after.

Israel’s permanence needs to be part of the story Palestinians tell themselves about their place in the world and in history, and right now, it’s not, at least not among enough of them. The Palestinians, as a whole, aren’t likely to be honest with themselves about this before the wider Islamic world is honest about it first and pressures them to say yes and build the sovereign state that is actually possible rather than continue to pine and sometimes fight for a castle in the air.

Most of the Arab states have quietly set the conflict aside, but they’re afraid to speak truth to the Palestinians, afraid to be branded betrayers, afraid to risk popular wrath and go the way of Egypt’s assassinated Anwar Sadat, afraid to apply the kind of pressure on Palestinian negotiators that ultimately will be necessary. In an alternate universe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a post-Soviet-style frozen conflict, but in this one, the Syrian and Iranian regimes keep poking it with a stick by funneling guns, money and even missiles to terrorist armies like Hamas and Hezbollah.

That’s why it matters that the OIC just implicitly recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. They didn’t say it in a way that will get them in trouble back home, but the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah absolutely took note that the OIC thinks only East Jerusalem, and not the whole thing, belongs to the Palestinians. They would not have done this had the United States not done it first. It’s a small step, sure, so don’t go popping any champagne corks just yet, but it’s still a step.

Jerusalem is Israel’s Capital and Always Will Be

Enough with the pearl-clutching already. Donald Trump’s statement on Wednesday that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel is more bipartisan than anything he has ever said and likely ever will say as president.

In 1995, the United States Congress, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, passed a law declaring that “Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.” This law, passed by a whopping 93-5 when Bill Clinton was president, had no effect whatsoever on the Camp David Peace Process which would have given East Jerusalem to the Palestinians as the capital of their sovereign state had Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat said yes instead of no and chose peace rather than war.

That law was reaffirmed in the United States Senate just six months ago by a unanimous vote. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, co-sponsored the bill. And just two months ago, Schumer slammed Donald Trump for not keeping his campaign promise to recognize reality. “This year,” Schumer said, “is the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, yet with 2018 fast approaching, the U.S. still hasn't moved the embassy or made clear its commitment to Israel's capital…President Trump's recent comments suggest his indecisiveness on the embassy's relocation. As someone who strongly believes that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel, I am calling for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be relocated to Jerusalem. Moving the embassy as soon as possible would appropriately commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification and show the world that the U.S. definitively acknowledges Jerusalem as Israel's capital.”

Those are strong words, and far more inherently controversial than Trump’s. Schumer used the word “undivided” and “Jerusalem” in the same sentence while Trump went out of his way to say instead that “We are not taking a position of any final status issues including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.”

What differentiates the president from the Democratic minority leader is that Trump—correctly, and crucially —says the final borders in and around Jerusalem need to be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the only way the Palestinians would have a real shot at having part of Jerusalem as their own capital. Without that, they may never be willing to sit down and negotiate in good faith. It’s a wonder that Trump’s statement reflects this while Schumer’s does not, but that’s where we are. Trump’s is more moderate, more reasonable, more nuanced than that of the Democrats in Congress. We certainly aren’t accustomed to nuance from the 45th president of the United States, so if you like that sort of thing, enjoy it while it lasts, because it certainly won’t.

If Trump had used the word “undivided” as Schumer did as recently as the 10th of October, the case that he prejudged a future peace process would have merit. But that’s not what he said, so it doesn’t.

Jerusalem is Israel’s capital for a basic and incontrovertible reason. With the single exception of the Ministry of Defense, it’s where Israel’s government buildings are located. That, and nothing else, is what makes a nation’s capital its capital. And as Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) said on CNN Wednesday, “a sovereign nation has the right to choose its capital.” No nation on earth—not the United States nor any other—has the right to deny another nation its capital. One may wish that Israel’s government buildings were located in Tel Aviv—or, in Hamas’ case, nowhere at all—but they aren’t. They’re in Jerusalem.

Specifically, they’re in West Jerusalem. None are in East Jerusalem, which is mostly Arab and wasn’t even part of Israel when the nation was founded in 1948. Jordan occupied East Jerusalem then, although it was not part of Jordan. Jordan formally annexed it, along with the West Bank, in 1950, but the international community largely didn’t recognize its annexation

Israel didn’t acquire East Jerusalem until the end of the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt, Jordan and Syria prepared to invade the country with plans to destroy it. The Israelis pushed the Jordanians out of the West Bank entirely, then annexed East Jerusalem. Again, the international community didn’t recognize its annexation.

East Jerusalem, then, still to this day belongs to no state in particular according to most of the world. Its final status has yet to be negotiated. Maybe Israel will keep it and maybe it won’t—and it probably won’t. The Israelis have already offered up East Jerusalem, and the Palestinians would have it by now if they’d said yes.

West Jerusalem is another story. Israel will only lose it if an Arab army invades and destroys the country. Fat chance of that ever happening. No Arab army has ever been strong enough or competent enough to take on the Israelis and win. The United States would almost certainly come to the rescue on the off chance that Israel couldn’t handle an invasion on its own. We rescued Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, after all, and would be doubly or even triply motivated to help an actual friend and ally.

Arab countries aren’t even interested in invading or destroying Israel anymore. They’ve lost enough wars already and moved on a long time ago. Many of them—especially in the Gulf region—are not-so-secretly establishing a de-facto alliance of sorts with the Israelis because they have common interests and common enemies in the region, namely Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Whatever happens to East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem is not going anywhere. It’s Israeli—period—and everyone knows it, including the Palestinian Authority and the Arab states even if they’re too afraid of their own extremists to say so in public. Some may wish Israel’s government and institutions were located instead in Tel Aviv. The Israelis won’t move them until the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, until the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves.

Donald Trump Kicks Syria’s Kurds to the Curb

The Trump administration says it will stop supplying weapons to Kurdish fighters in Syria, though Turkey’s government first announced it last Friday. “Mr. Trump clearly stated that he had given clear instructions,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a press conference, “and that the YPG won’t be given arms and that this nonsense should have ended a long time ago.”

Initially, there were grounds to believe this might not be true. Under the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish government has become no more reliable and very nearly as hostile as the Russian and Iranian governments. And the White House was initially quiet and wouldn’t confirm what Cavusoglu said. That second-hand quote, though—“This nonsense should have ended a long time ago”—is exactly how Donald Trump talks, and severing ties with Syria’s Kurds is exactly what his disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn advocated when he was an unregistered foreign agent for the Turkish government inside the Trump team. It’s also the reason the president initially scrapped the Obama administration’s plan to take back the city of Raqqa from ISIS. That plan relied on Kurdish ground forces, and from Turkey’s perspective, the Kurds, not ISIS or the Assad regime, are the greater of evils in Syria.

Neverminding that the Kurds are America’s only true friends in that country, the White House has confirmed that the Turkish government is correct, that it will be “adjusting” the military support it gives to our friends.

Viewed one way, this is fine. The US supplied weapons to Kurdish soldiers to fight ISIS and liberate the city of Raqqa and for no other reason. That mission today is complete. Therefore, the Kurds don’t need more American help because Americans no longer need Kurdish help.  

Viewed another way, though, Donald Trump is doubling down on the Obama administration’s grave misreading of Syria by assuming that ISIS was the only threat to Western interests in Syria. That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.

Rolling back ISIS in Syria and Iraq was relatively “easy” as far as armed conflicts in the Middle East go. ISIS was never going to be a terribly difficult problem to crack as long as it wasn’t allowed to fester indefinitely. The “caliphate” was land-locked. It had no allies, no real economy, no robust supply lines and precious little internal support from the terrorized citizens cowering under its rule.

The much larger and longer-term problem with Syria from the Western point of view is that Bashar al-Assad’s regime is an ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has been since 1979. It is also, by far, the biggest state sponsor of international terrorism in the Arab world and, after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Arab world’s most belligerent state. It has exported Sunni, Shia and secular terrorists to every single one of its neighbors, to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Israel, to Jordan and to Turkey. It dispatched Al Qaeda fighters against Americans in Iraq. It invaded and occupied Lebanon for well over a decade and, by incubating and nurturing Hezbollah, the PLO and Hamas, is directly responsible for more wars against Israel than I can count on one hand.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is poised to emerge victorious in the Syria war, stronger than ever, thanks to military assistance from Russia. Assad is surviving the biggest threat to his family’s rule since it seized power four decades ago. Short of political revolutions in Tehran and Moscow, he’s likely to die an old man in office. And he’ll have no incentive whatsoever to change his ways. He’ll continue exporting terrorism all over the region, and the next war between Israel and a now far-stronger Hezbollah will likely make the last one look like a peace process. The Kurds in Syria—our only true friends in that country—are likely to lose everything they have gained without American backing.

This is what happens when Americans grow weary of foreign policy and fool themselves, for fill-in-the-blank reasons, that Vladimir Putin is our friend.

Donald Trump owns this, and he owns it alone, mostly because he’s the president but also because his own team had planned for something entirely different in Syria. Just one day before he kicked the Kurds to the curb, administration officials told reporters that the US planned to use the Kurds, which now control large swaths of Northern Syria, to push Assad and the Iranian regime into a settlement. “We're not just going to walk away right now before the Geneva process has cracked,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said a week earlier.

Those statements meant nothing. The strategy his team put into place didn’t amount to anything either. We’ll need to put an asterisk next to anything and everything they say in the future because it can and quite possibly will be undercut and reversed at any time on Donald Trump’s whim.

Trump himself made that perfectly clear on Fox News in early November. “Let me tell you,” he said, “the one that matters is me. I'm the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that's what the policy is going to be. You've seen that, you've seen it strongly.”

Indeed, we have.

Is Lebanon’s Prime Minister a Saudi Hostage?

Last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and resigned his post in a televised address, blaming an assassination plot against him and Iranian interference in his homeland. Hezbollah, Iran’s pet terrorist army in Lebanon and Syria, claimed the Saudis placed him under house arrest.

I dismissed that accusation as ludicrous. Why on earth would Hariri’s Saudi allies force him to quit and imprison him? How could Hezbollah explain reports that Hariri was traveling from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates? Besides, Hezbollah is hardly a reliable source of information or regional political analysis.

Yet it’s increasingly looking like Hezbollah was right and I may have been wrong. No one is right about everything, and not even terrorists are wrong about everything.

Hariri’s advisors, according not to Hezbollah but to The New York Times, are shocked and don’t know if or when he’s going back. If he were free to return home or to leave Saudi Arabia, they would know and they would say so, but they are not saying so.

The New Arab cites sources close to Hariri who say they expected to meet him a week ago in Egypt’s resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, that he was summoned to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—who is currently purging government figures for “corruption”—and that the Saudis removed Hariri because they’re unhappy with his unwillingness to strongly confront Hezbollah. “What happened in those meetings,” one of the sources said, “I believe, is that (Hariri) revealed his position on how to deal with Hezbollah in Lebanon: that confrontation would destabilize the country. I think they didn't like what they heard… For the Saudis it is an existential battle. It's black and white. We in Lebanon are used to gray.”

Over the weekend, Paula Yacoubian interviewed Hariri in a house he owns in Riyadh on his own Future TV station, hoping to put to rest this bizarre speculation. Instead, the interview fueled it.

He was anxious, tense and exhausted. He cried a couple of times. He drank massive amounts of water. “Today, Mr. Prime Minister,” Yacoubian said, “I am unable to convince anybody that you aren't a prisoner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that you're not a hostage, that you're not under house arrest even though we are in your own house.”

She said that to her boss, live, on a TV channel he owns.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he doesn’t believe Hariri is being held against his will in Riyadh, but also that he’s “monitoring the situation.” It’s not just a hysterical rumor, then, if he’s monitoring it. It’s a “situation.” Something is going on.

What, exactly, still isn’t clear. Michael Young, arguably the most astute analyst of Lebanese politics writing in English, isn’t convinced that the Saudis literally have him under house arrest, but he reminded New York Times reporter Anne Barnar that “he is the Saudis’ guy…His margin of maneuver against the Saudis is very limited indeed. He’s a de facto hostage all the time.”

Hariri isn’t hanging shirtless by shackled arms off a dungeon wall in Riyadh, nor are interrogators beating his feet with rubber hoses. His interview sure looks like a hostage video, though.

For years I’ve been saying that it’s often impossible to predict what’s going to happen next in the Middle East because so much of what happens over there barely even makes any sense, and no one can predict things that don’t make any sense. I can comfortably say that nobody could have seen any of this coming a couple of weeks ago. Saudi Arabia doesn’t take foreigners hostage. That’s how the Iranian, Turkish and North Korean governments behave. Also, Hariri is a Saudi ally. He’s a secular liberal while they are medieval theocrats, but they have common interests and common enemies just like Americans and Saudis have common interests and common enemies despite sharing virtually zero moral or political values.

And when was the last time any country deposed and arrested the leader of another except at the end of a war? I can’t think of a single time it has ever happened in the modern era. At the very least, it’s extremely unusual, and doubly so since Hariri and Saudi Arabia are friends. Imagine the United States taking Britain’s Theresa May or Canada’s Justin Trudeau hostage. It’s absurd. If I read an article by Alex Jones alleging that it had happened, I’d scoff. Yet something very much like that may have actually just occurred in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. That’s how wacky the Middle East is.

If you’ve ever wondered why conspiracy theories are so popular in the region, well, here you go. Consider this episode Exhibit A.

How to Avoid a Nuclear War with North Korea

The LA-based Jewish Journal asked me to write an essay about how to avoid a nuclear war with North Korea. Here’s the first part.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea is often described as the most dangerous place in the world. It’s a no man’s land 160 miles long and 2 1/2-miles wide, wrapped with electrical fencing and laced with antipersonnel mines.

At the so-called Joint Security Area, North and South Korean soldiers stare holes through each other, with the South Koreans behind reflective sunglasses. Almost 30,000 American troops are stationed there as a tripwire. If the North invades the South — as it has in the past and for more than five decades has sworn to do again — its soldiers will have to go through ours. You can go there today as a tourist from the South Korean side, a mere 35 miles from the capital Seoul, and nothing is likely to happen to you; but if war breaks out, this place will explode so catastrophically it will make the Iraq War look and feel like a lazy afternoon nap.

In mountainsides just north of the DMZ, the North has buried thousands of artillery pieces that can pound Seoul’s urban area, home to more than 25 million people, with as many as half a million shells in an hour. More than a million people could be killed, practically in an instant, even if nobody on either side uses nuclear weapons.

We haven’t been this close to total war with North Korea since the 1950s.

The North’s tyrant leader, Kim Jong Un, has dozens of atomic bombs (no one is entirely sure of how many) and claims he’s ready to test an exponentially more destructive hydrogen bomb. And for the first time ever, his intercontinental ballistic missiles may be capable of striking mainland United States.

The North Korean missile crisis, which these days feels like the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion, already has taken us well beyond the most dangerous threshold. North Korea isn’t an aspiring nuclear power. It already has arrived. Kim can kill as many American civilians in cities from Seattle to Chicago as he can in Seoul. It is too late to stop him. During a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in late September, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, said he believes there is a 10 percent chance of a nuclear war breaking out between the United States and North Korea, and a 20-30 percent chance of them engaging in a conventional war.

Kim also has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons and has proven that he’s willing to use them. In February, two young women — one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia — assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the ultratoxic VX nerve agent.

South Korea and Malaysia have accused North Korea of being behind the killing. If that was the case, Kim removed a potential rival, reminded the entire world that he has chemical as well as nuclear weapons, and demonstrated to all that he’s willing to use them. And if he’s willing to use them against his own family, what’s stopping him from using them to kill complete strangers in the United States, Japan and South Korea?

In 1994, North Korea committed itself on paper to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the so-called Agreed Framework between Pyongyang and Washington, agreeing to replace its nuclear power infrastructure with light-water reactors that couldn’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed to deliver half a million tons of heavy oil each year. The purpose was to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons without going to war. It failed.

A Gallup poll released in September found that 58 percent of Americans favor military action against North Korea if diplomatic options continue to fail, including 37 percent of Democrats. The United States absolutely could mount a preventive war against North Korea and would certainly win. Let there be no doubt about that. Let there be no doubt also that the cost would amount to a textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory, where the price of victory would be so high that it would be indistinguishable from outright losing.

Millions could die in South Korea alone, mostly in and around Seoul. Hundreds of thousands could die in Japan, too, if Kim, in a fit of malicious pique, nuked the Japanese. There’s no telling how many would die on the northern side of the Korean border. That would depend, in part, on whether the United States used nuclear weapons. And we might as well write off most of the 30,000 American troops stationed near the DMZ as potentially lost right at the outset.

Read the rest here.

Hezbollah Consolidates Its Stranglehold Over Lebanon

Saad Hariri resigned his post as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing an assassination plot brewing against him, presumably from his former government coalition partner Hezbollah. “Wherever Iran settles,” he said in a televised speech, “it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” Iran’s hands in the Middle East, he then said, “will be cut off.” He delivered that speech and resignation not from Beirut but from Saudi Arabia.

In a sinister statement worthy of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad himself, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, a long-time tool of Damascus, says he won’t accept Hariri’s resignation unless he returns to Beirut and hands it over in person.

Nobody really knows what’s going on there right now. Lebanon is one of the hardest countries in the world to make sense of sometimes, even for experts, because there are easily ten different versions of every event, nearly everyone lies, and your average Lebanese media organ is a tribal sectarian fusion of Breitbart, Alex Jones and Pravda. For instance, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah says the Saudis forced Hariri to step down, and the hysterical pro-Hezbollah news rag al-Akhbar goes even further and says Hariri is under house arrest in Riyadh, a story proven instantly false by the fact that Hariri is now in Abu Dhabi.

The Lebanese Army says it isn’t aware of any assassination plots inside the country. Hardly a credible statement. Hezbollah effectively controls Lebanon’s army now, and in 2011, an independent United Nations tribunal fingered Hezbollah for the assassination of Hariri’s father on February 14, 2005, with a gigantic bomb in the city center. Not even a damn fool would expect the army to say, yes, our masters are planning to retire yet another prime minister.

MP Samir Geagea says Hariri stepped down “because the government was not able to practice its authority as was expected of it…The developments of the past eight months left no room for someone to continue on respecting themselves.”

That is a credible statement, though Hariri should have known from the very beginning that he’d end up compromising himself, perhaps fatally, by agreeing to form a government with an Iranian-backed terrorist organization. He had no choice if he wanted the job, and reasonable people can understand how he might convince himself that he’d be a moderating force, but there was never a chance that that would pan out.

Hariri in the prime minister’s office was a band-aid on a sucking chest wound, but he’s a good guy with nothing remotely in common with the grim Iranian ayatollahs, the sour-faced kings in the gulf or the military dictators who erect billboards of themselves overseeing their subjects from behind reflective sunglasses.

I met him once when he invited me and some other journalists to his home in Beirut for dinner. (This was back before he became the prime minister the first time in 2009.) From the outside, his place looks like a medium-rise apartment tower on a dense urban street, but the entire building is his. We took an elevator up to the dining room, an opulent gilded cage. When he wanted to go out for dinner, he had to do it in France.

When he greeted me, he shook my hand and said, “hey, man, what’s up?” He drinks whiskey and plays Xbox. (At least he used to.) He wants peace with Israel even though he’s shy about saying so for reasons that I trust are obvious. He’s not even interested in absolute power for himself, though truthfully Lebanon would be in better shape if someone like him did have absolute power.

Lebanon, however, is the kind of place where no one can wield absolute power, not even Hezbollah, and not even Assad back when his army occupied most of the country. Lebanon has dozens of political parties, almost twenty different religious sects crammed together cheek by jowl in a space only half the size of miniscule Israel, pretty much every family is armed to the teeth, and few are shy about pulling the trigger to protect their communities. Hardly any other place in the world would be harder to transform into a hierarchical collective with a pyramid-shaped org chart and a dictator on top.

My conversation with Hariri was entirely off the record, so I can’t quote anything he said, but I will say this: the man is emphatically not part of the problem in the Middle East. And by “the problem,” you can fill in the blanks with whatever you want—terrorism, war, autocracy, religious bigotry, mass slaughter and all the rest of it. Hariri, like his father before him, is one of the precious few genuinely liberal political leaders the Middle East has ever produced.

And now he’s out. Again. The only thing surprising about the fact that he’s no longer Lebanon’s prime minister is that he was ever Lebanon’s prime minister in the first place.

He was basically just a figurehead, though, the friendly smiling face of a regime that is mortally compromised by Hezbollah, the amputated remnants of Syria’s Assad regime, and the Islamic Republic regime in Iran. He’s better off not surrendering his own moral and political legitimacy by refusing to collaborate with terrorists and mass murderers, and he’s doing the rest of us a favor, honestly, by exposing Lebanon’s government for what it truly is—the subject of a hostile takeover by malevolent foreign powers in Damascus and Tehran.

Is there really an assassination plot against Hariri? Is he just being paranoid? Or is that just a cover story while he’s actually resigning for another reason entirely? I have no idea. All three of those explanations are perfectly plausible.

What I do know is that Iran’s conquest and de-facto annexation is complete. And now that Hariri is out, Beirut isn’t wearing a mask anymore.


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