Comment on Obama-Netanyahu Tiff worsens: US won’t rule out using UN to create Palestine by Juan Cole

March 27th, 2015 No comments

Yes, of course, old white men in the imperial capitals get to decide if Palestinians are kicked out of their homes. Just so.

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Comment on What’s Religion Got to do with it? German Co-Pilot as Terrorist by J. R. Saleem

March 27th, 2015 No comments

I swear I must be internalizing this stuff. It is so pervasive. My first thought when I heard the plane was brought down on purpose was “Ya Allah, dear Lord, let him not be a Muslim!”

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Complex US-Iran ties at heart of complicated Mideast policy

March 27th, 2015 No comments

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. and Iranian diplomats gather at a Baroque palace in Europe, a historic nuclear agreement within reach. Over Iraq’s deserts, their militaries fight a common foe. Leaders in Washington and Tehran, capitals once a million miles from each other in ideological terms, wrestle for the first time in decades with the notion of a rapprochement.
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Yemen weighs on Asian shares, Japan gains on stimulus hopes

March 27th, 2015 No comments

FILE - This Oct. 2, 2015 file photo shows the facade of the New York Stock Exchange, in New York. U.S. stocks are edging lower in midday trading Thursday, March 26, 2015, extending the market’s losses to a fourth day. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares were lackluster Friday as investors monitored violence in the Middle East but Japan's market rose after weak economic data boosted hopes for more central bank stimulus.

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Relax, Oil Prices: There’s Really Very Little Chance of Anyone Closing Bab al-Mandab, Let Alone the Houthis

March 27th, 2015 No comments
NASA photo: Bab al-Mandab with Perim Island

Oil prices are rising steeply due to the Saudi and allied attacks on Yemen. Business reporters in particular may be fueling this with articles like this one and this one, suggesting that if the Houthis take over Yemen they could block the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, a critical choke point for the passage of much of the world’s oil. Like the Strait of Hormuz to the east, this is a critical international passage that technically lies within the territorial waters of the neighboring states. And like the Strait of Hormuz, whenever tensions rise, people start worrying about a closure of the Strait. Egypt has explicitly cited this as a reason for its joining the Saudi coalition (though there are doubtless monetary reasons too). But there are multiple reasons to doubt that any Yemeni government, even a Houthi one would do it, since Yemen’s own oilfields are outside the Strait and it is their lifeline to world markets, but even if a Yemeni government should be self-destructive enough to try, I don’t think it could be done.

Let’s start with this: you and what navy?

In response to the far less lethal threat of Somali piracy, the United States, NATO, the European Union, and even Russia, China, and Japan, dispatched warships to assure freedom of navigation. Do you think they’d let the Strait be closed? If somebody fires on a ship from Perim Island, I think they’ll get an up-close and personal visit from an Aegis Cruiser (if anything is still standing after the Predator strikes).

Even if the international warships in the Gulf and Indian Ocean were not in the neighborhood, the Egyptian, Saudi, and Israeli navies are sufficient, I suspect, to deter or meet any threat. It’s not the days of Alfred Thayer Mahan or Teddy Roosevelt. Sea power is global, three dimensional, and rapidly deployable.

I’m reminded of my days writing on defense issues in the region in the early 1980s, when the Soviets had bases in South Yemen and Ethiopia, the US had bases in Oman and the French in Djibouti, and there was a lot of talk about Bab al-Mandab. Unlike the Houthis, the Soviets could have closed the Strait. (At the cost, of course, of starting World War III.),

Iran has from time to time threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. And it has a navy that could credibly make the attempt. At the cost of war with the US, NATO, and probably loss of its own oil production facilities.

Though international traffic passes through territorial waters of Yemen and Djibouti (as Hormuz does between Iran and Oman and the UAE), these are international straits where the right of innocent passage (:or “transit passage” as the International Convention on the Law of the Sea calls it) is guaranteed.

The closest thing to a closure of the Strait I know of was an Egyptian Navy blockade during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which was not aimed at the world’s oil supply but at intercepting shipments bound for the Israeli port of Eilat. And at the time, the Suez Canal had been closed since 1967 anyway. And it was wartime, when the rules change.

Which brings me to another point. Blocking Bab al-Mandab might be possible with a serious naval force, which Yemen lacks. But is it really the most vulnerable point in the oil supply? Let’s run some numbers:

Bab al-Mandab: Width 18-20 miles (16 miles between Perim Island (Yemeni) and Djibouti coast.

Hormuz: Width 21 miles, but with shipping channels only two miles wide in each direction, separated by a two-mile buffer.

Suez Canal: Width 673 feet.

SUMED Pipeline: two 42-inch pipes

If you want to block international tanker traffic, which choke point is chokiest?

Due to Arab-Israeli wars, the Suez Canal was closed for several months in 1956-57 and again from 1967-75. Sinking a few ships in the shallow canal can block it for weeks. If bad guys also attacked the SUMED (Suez-Mediterranean) pipeline (two 42-inch wide lines running from ‘Ayn Sukhna on the Red Sea to a terminal off Alexandria), not only would passage of Gulf and Yemeni oil to Europe be blocked, but so would Saudi oil from the terminal at Yanbu‘ and Sudanese oil from Port Sudan.

I really am less worried about the Houthis blocking Bab al-Mandab than I am about the instability in Sinai threatening the Canal and SUMED.


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With Yemen strikes, Saudis show growing independence from U.S.

March 27th, 2015 No comments

By Matt Spetalnick, Warren Strobel and Mark Hosenball WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia kept some key details of its military action in Yemen from Washington until the last moment, U.S. officials said, as the kingdom takes a more assertive regional role to compensate for perceived U.S. disengagement. The Middle East’s top oil power told the United States weeks ago it was weighing action in Yemen but only informed Washington of the exact details just before Thursday’s unprecedented air strikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels, the officials said. U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy increasingly relies on surrogates rather than direct U.S. military involvement.
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Yemen leader Hadi gets Saudi refuge

March 26th, 2015 No comments

Yemen’s President Hadi arrives in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, as a Saudi-led coalition continues air strikes against Shia Houthi rebels.
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Comment on Washington’s 2 Air Wars: alongside Iran in Iraq, Saudis in Yemen by Steven

March 26th, 2015 No comments

Something similar to the “coalition” in Yemen theoretically could be assembled one day for action in the West Bank. They would cite nationalism, “national security,” and “stability” as words with which to dull outside opposition to the strategy. Depending on whether or not the Yemen conflict ends up setting what they deem an acceptable precedent, it would become impossible to rule out another such operation in the future. Middle Eastern leaderships, alliances, and goals change frequently and sharply.

However, it is likely that the Yemeni plan will be an extremely rock and risky course.

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Comment on What’s Religion Got to do with it? German Co-Pilot as Terrorist by Nairar Tnoc

March 26th, 2015 No comments

Always lookong for that terrorism byline..damn lazy. Journos..you need to do better.

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Beware the "Sunni-Shi‘ite Conflict" Narrative: the Houthis from a Local Rebellion to Geopoliticization

March 26th, 2015 No comments

In January, I noted that although the Yemeni Houthis are certainly radical in their rhetoric, Zaydi Islam traditionally is not, and that while technically Shi‘ite in that their Imams must be descended from ‘Ali, they have never identified with the Twelver Shi‘ism of Iran, nor has it generally considered them genuinely Shi‘a. The same is true of the ‘Alawites of Syria, yet today both ‘Alawites and Houthis are loosely aligned with Iran’s geopolitical goals (though the links between the Houthis and Iran have more often been asserted than demonstrated).

Iran has been partly responsible for this, but the readiness of the West to accept the narrative of an “ancient” enmity between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, some sort of inexorable clash, has also helped reinforce a regime narrative on the part of Sunni majorities who want to paint non-Sunni minorities as Iranian-backed fifth columns. This narrative has already led to a tendency to paint the conflicts in Iraq and Syria not as complex fractures long complicated lines but as a Sunni-Shi‘ite dualism.The only reason this oversimplification has not been extended to the equally complex conflict in Libya is that there are no Shi‘ites to speak of in Libya.)

The danger is that the more the world accepts the dualistic view, which to some extent reinforces both the Iranian and Saudi regimes’ dueling propaganda, the more the various regional conflicts with heir complex historical, social, economic, ethnic (and yes, sometimes sectarian) roots, the more these local conflict are merged into a regional general war, and the sectarian dualism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the Houthis, let me note that back in 2009 I was already blogging about border clashes between the Saudis and the Houthis, though accusations about Iranian support were just beginning.

I keep hearing the war in Yemen, which is complex (consider the role of ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, old friend of the Saudis, new friend of the Houthis), described in simplistic ways which see broad geopolitical motives behind people fighting for quite different motivations (power, tribe, ideology). If one side misinterprets the motivation of their adversary, disastrous results are inevitable.


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