Category Archives: Russia

PUTIN? PUNT!

BLOG 440
August 18, 2019

putins eyes

WISE ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Each week Robert L. Wise, Ph.D., explores the Middle Eastern situation, ranging from Egypt through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the surrounding area. Wise first traveled to Israel and the neighboring countries in 1968. Two of his sons taught in Jordan and Lebanon universities. Wise presents an objective view of the behind the scenes situation in these countries.

PUTIN? PUNT!

When asked why he trusted Vladimir Putin, George Bush said that he looked into his eyes and saw his soul. Probably the worst political statement ever made. If he’d looked again, he would have seen KGB beaming up from the depths of a cold soul. That’s the opinion of author Douglas E. Schoen in his just published book, Putin On the March, The Russian President’s Global Advance. (That’s my opinion also.)

Schoen advances insight into how Russia involved itself in Syria during the Civil War and is now aligned with Iran. Anyone interested in the future of the Middle East will do well to pay attention to Douglas Schoen’s insights.

Putin is different from ideological Communist rulers like a Lenin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev. Rather, he is far more like Russian nationalists like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Schoen calls Putin a neo-Czarist. Having just completed a sixteen-session study of Russian history, I appreciate Schoen’s distinction. Putin typically functions like those Czarists of the past. He is a Russian opportunist down to his toenails.

An example of ignoring this mentality is one of President Obama’s worst mistakes. After threatening Syria for use of chemical weapons on its own people, when they did it again, Obama did nothing. He turned to Putin for assistance like talking to a friend. Putin promptly took Crimea, attacked the Ukraine and surged ahead in Syria. Putin saw an opportunity and seized the moment. Obama was left scratching his head.

Schoen strongly disagrees with President Trump’s approach to Putin, seeing the same naivete. When Trump joked with Putin about “not interfering” in our next election, the joke was on Trump.  Schoen believes America and its European allies must wage counter-cyber warfare against Putin. He will not retreat from Russia’s aggressive moves in the Middle East unless confronted with consequences. Left unchecked,  Schoen believes there is no limit to what Putin will attempt.

In recent blogs, I have detailed how Russian intervention increased the chaos and fighting in Syria. Assad would have fallen long ago if Putin hadn’t propped him up. The current conflict in Iran may well become another showcase.

What hope is there? Schoen believes it could come from the “better soul” of the Russian people themselves. Such was expressed in the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Solzhenitsyn displayed the same in The Gulag Archipelago. The West should support and encourage these impulses in the days ahead. Needless to say, treating Putting like a “buddy” only opens the door to more serious consequences.

Anyone concerned for peace in the Middle East needs to listen and read Douglas Schoen.

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CROSSING THE THRESHOLD OF ETERNITY
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MAKING SENSE OUT OF SYRIA

Blog 345 April 10, 2017

            A number of years ago, I spent time in Syria and stayed in Damascus, wandering around the municipality and spending time in the ancient city. Walking down the street called Straight (Acts 9:11) proved enlightening. A number of years previous to this experience, I traveled to the Soviet Union (1985), visiting Moscow, Minsk, etc. Like Damascus, wandering down the streets and talking to the people brought insights I never would have expected. These two experiences continue to run through my mind as I listen to media reports about this week’s U.S. Tomahawk and Scud missile attacks in Syria. The past gave me perspective for today.

With the lowest approval rating of any American president in memory, Donald Trump appears to have dug himself out of a hole with the unannounced successful attack on the Syrian base from where Bashar Assad’s air force jets gassed their own people. Outside of Russia and Iran, the world applauded this attack on Assad who is unquestionably a war criminal.

During my time in Syria, I recognized the dictator’s grasp on the Syrian people. Everywhere I went from Taxi cabs to bathrooms, there were two pictures: Hafez Assad, the father smiling; Bashar Assad frowning. Their faces were unavoidable and no one would talk about the pictures or them. Bashar’s brother is a ruthless general leading many of the deadly attacks on civilians. Hafez, the father, rose to power through his military position as a general. I quickly learned that the citizens knew better than to speak ill of the Assad regime.

Could Bashar Assad kill women and children? He and his family history demonstrate they have and will – possibly again.

Russia was a different type of dictatorship that worked at being more of an enigma. From the time of the Czars, the Russian government functioned with deception. When the Soviet System collapsed, the art of deceit didn’t miss a lick. Out of the ashes of the Russian Revolution, the practice of illusion sprang back to life. Putin continues the swindle.

Apart from all of Putin’s huff and puff, Russia is not in a good place. Their economy is in trouble and the drop in oil prices has seriously impacted them. Yes, they have the big Bomb, but even Putin understands the risk of a nuclear threat.

Now, Russia is caught with its pants down in Syria. They either knew about the chemical weapons or were incompetent in handling the situation. Assad promised Obama he would get rid of chemical weapons—which he didn’t. Putin’s efforts to prop up Assad amounts to selling a Sunday School class on the idea of having Al Capone teach on kindness.

Russia will continue to scream and holler – but little more as they have no idea what Trump will do next. Syria is now back in a more defensive posture and Assad is in a kettle of hot water.

Stay tuned. More to come.

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THE RULES ARE CHANGING Part II

BLOG 327 November 21, 2016

trumpgolfing

            No matter where we look, the world is turning upside down. Hundreds of thousands gathered in downtown Seoul, South Korea to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. The president of the Philippines wants the American military out of the country, suggesting he is looking to China for a new relationship. Germany’s Angela Merkel is the last powerful defender of Europe and the Trans-Atlantic alliance. Britain is pulling out and Obama is gone. With a resurgent Russia at her back, Angela Merkel is tired and struggling. The world is fast becoming a different place. Change is on the way.

Reports say that even President-elect Trump has changed. The brash, rudeness has given way to a more restrained soberness. Last week, we considered changes evolving after the Presidential election. Here’s some more.

Egypt appears to be smiling. El-Sissi said Trump would make a strong leader and Trump believed in a new “good chemistry” with Egypt. Following the military takeover of the government and the jailing of elected president Mohammed Morsi, relations with Egypt went into a tailspin. For a period of time, the Obama administration even suspended aid. A definite chill set in between el-Sissi and Obama. Egypt’s pro-government backed media railed against Obama. Even going so far as to accuse Washington of backing the Muslim Brotherhood. (which was nonsense) Trump appears to be attempting to ease the tension.

Predictions are that Trump will be less concerned over human rights issues. He will probably give el-Sissi political support as the battles with ISIS inspired and led forces continue in Sinai and Libya. A pro-el-Sissi TV host predicted a major shift in Egyptian-American relations under Trump.

As far as ISIS goes, during the political campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to intensify the war both in Iraq and Syria. He set crushing the Muslim extremists as his main priority. Americans generally applauded this stance. However, the jury is still out on how this effect complex alliances in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia always smiles while slipping money under the table to the extremists. One of the yet-to-be resolved twists in this situation is Trump’s statements that the rebel may be worse than President Bashar Assad, indicating defeating ISIS may be more important to him than getting rid of Assad.

Behind these issues is the question of Trump’s new approach to Russia. Giving the impression that he and Putin might become pals, does jar the picture considerably and raises important questions. Should Trump strike a deal with Putin at a cost to the rebels, the Middle East would be plunged into a new situation.

As Americans generally do, the new president-elect is given time to get his cabinet in order. Because Trump has offered little insight into a comprehensive Middle East policy or perspective on what comes next after the Syrian Civil War, one cannot be sure how all the cards will be played out.

At this point, we’re not even sure what’s being dealt at many major points. Don’t panic, but keep your cards close to your chest.

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POLITICS IN ISRAEL

BLOG 324 October 31, 2016

israel-walldome

            With the election a week away, I have been asked by a number of people how the candidates are seen in Israel and what is expected after the winner is in office. Of course, no one is taking polls in Israel so certainty is not possible. In these blogs, I attempt to present a balanced view that may be contrary to my own opinion. This blog is intended to do the same.

It doesn’t take a prophet to recognize the race is over. However, figuring out who- believes-what has been a challenge because of the name calling, lying, distortions, and detractions aimed at creating an angry electorate. The latest charge to derail real debate is coping and fondling. (Not by Hillary) Never-the-less, Israelites are drawing their own conclusions.

While it has not come out as a campaign issue, both candidates’ daughters are married to Jewish men.

Trump is seen as having no coherent foreign policy. Fundamentally an isolationist, America is first regardless. He appears to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and doesn’t see the Ukraine as important to America. NATO gets support only when everybody pays up. His support from the Jews has always been wobbly.

Clinton is seen as a hawk with overwhelming foreign policy experience from her years as Secretary of State. Even though she later said it was for political reasons, she did vote for the Iraq war. As secretary, she supported the surge of American troops in Afghanistan. Israelis conclude she has demonstrated a willingness to use a muscular approach to the military. This position was displayed in her support for Syrian rebels, support of a no-fly zone in the civil war, and a regime change in Libya.

Regime changes usually lead to support for nation-building. Clinton appears to hold that idea. The problem for Israelis is that they must draw conclusions by inference because the volatile presidential campaign and personal attacks have obscured any debate on these positions.

Obama reminds unpopular and suspect in Israel. His back-peddling in Syria has allowed the Russians to take an upper hand. He appears to have deployed American military only after forced to do so. His position has been to rely on diplomatic solutions and the call for other nations to join America before acting. Obviously, this has dramatically failed in Syria and made Israelis shutter.

Clinton’s worldview is vastly different. Her tendencies are seen as far more interventionists. She holds a “responsibility to protect” perspective. She favors imposing restrictions on Russia for their attacks in the Ukraine as well as a reset of relations with Russia. The hacking into the American election process by Russia reflects their fear of how she might respond to them

Is this good for Israel? The Israelis think so.

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WHAT’S UP?

Blog 318 September 12, 2016

Obama met Putin in a face-to-face confrontation to discuss a cease-fire in Syria as well as provide mercy and relief for the last citizens bottled up in Aleppo. Putin said no and went home. This morning the rumor is that a cease-fire is pending. Really?

If so, Putin’s delay was to appear superior to Obama which seems to be a major preoccupation with him. As a matter of fact, the Russians and to some extent the Iranians and Syrians appeared these past several weeks to be testing how far they can push the USA in near military confrontations before there is a response.

This activity is a result of Obama’s failure several years ago to keep his pledge to act if Syria used chemical weapons. They’ve been doing it ever since and Obama has done nothing. He is now perceived as weak and unreliable. The Russians are testing just how far he can be pushed around. Some commentators speculate that Russia is testing the waters to see what might happen in an attempt to militarily conquer the Ukraine later in the year.

Maybe – hopefully – this behavior on Obama’s part is coming to an end.

Lt. General Stephen Townsend is the new U.S. commander of American troops in Iraq and Syria, taking command this past week. He is now vowing to defend American special operations in northern Syria and cautioned the opposition that Americans warplanes and artillery will attack to defend these operations. General Townsend has told the Russians and sent the messages on to Syria that that they will defend themselves against the threat of any attack. The general is the first senior military commander to speak on the record that US forces will confront Syrian Air craft if encounters happen again.

Has the military acted whether the Obama administration is awake or not? Possibly, Obama has realized that his attempts to work with Putin are null and he has awakened to the consequences of being passive. Hard to say.

General Townsend also stated that his personal goal is the defeat of ISIS in the coming year. He recognizes that this is an ambitious goal, but the possibility remains his objective. The top leader of ISIS. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, is being hunted and will be attacked when found. It appears that the ISIS leaders are in or around the Syrian city of Raqqa. Townsend defined the defeat of ISIS to be when the so-called caliphate no longer exists or controls population centers. He recognized that ISIS would continue to exist, but in a highly diminished form. Kurdish fighters trained by the US will start moving on Raqqa in the coming weeks.

Has the situation truly changed? If General Townsend’s strong statements are backed up with force, it will. Putin may want to test the US, but he doesn’t actually want to start a war as that would be disastrous for Russia.

Stay tuned.

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WHAT’S OBAMA GOING TO DO NEXT?

B LOG 315 August 15, 2016

This past week the world discovered that the Assad regime used chlorine gas in the battle for Aleppo. Since World War II and before, the entire world has recognized that the use of chemical warfare is a war crime. The Syrian government has done this a number of times and once again has struck babies, women, and children as well attacking the military. They are guilty of a criminal offense against humanity.

And who will bring them to justice?

As readers of Wise On The Middle East know, this blog attempts to avoid political partisanship and reports an objective understanding of every situation occurring across the region. My goal is an unbiased reading of events. Of course, no one can claim absolute neutrality, but at the least, that’s the objective. The following is such an attempt.

On April 26, 2013, President Barrack Obama declared that if Syrian used chemical weapons in their civil war, they would be crossing a red line, a line drawn in the sand. They did. He did nothing.

As a result, Putin invaded Crimea and then the Ukraine. Current reports indicate the Russians are increasing their troops in the Ukraine. In response, the USA gave a slap on the wrist to key Russia oligarchical leaders. But did nothing about chemical warfare in Syria.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker said Syria used chemical weapons to slaughter 1,200 people and predicated Putin will escalate military aggression in the Ukraine if the U.S. does not nothing.

So far, nothing has followed.

Previously promised arms from America, Syrian rebels are now complaining that they are running out of weaponry and none is on the way. Apparently, the Obama administration is pursuing a diplomatic rather than military approach to the problem. Secretary of State John Kerry said 54% of the chemical weapons had been removed.

Fifty-four percent? After all these years and months? Really? That only leaves 46% of one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. How many more citizens can the Assad regime kill with their mountain of chemicals? Probably the rest of the country.

One of the worst legacies that Obama will leave behind is the deteriorating status of the United States in the Middle East. Israel doesn’t trust the US. Egypt doesn’t trust America. And Russia apparently no longer fears us.

Are we weak? Incapable? No, just frighteningly indecisive and uncertain. For the good of the world and the goals of democracy, the next American president must reverse the lack of trust that now exists.

In the mean time, who will stop Syria from gassing babies, women, children, as well as soldiers? Doesn’t appear that America’s ready.

This is a decisive moment for action. President Obama could reverse the situation at the snap of his fingers by reacting decisively against Syria for crossing the line that he has drawn in the sand. Will he?

That’s the question.

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READING THE SYRIAN SITUATION

Blog 311 July 18, 2016

With the wild swings in American politics dominating the headlines, we don’t hear much about the war in Syria these days. Mass killings and police shootings have sent people to the streets in protests. Black Lives Matter dominates the headlines. No problem with those stories being up front – it is just that they have pushed the Middle East out of media coverage while the war in Syria goes on full tilt. And we need to be kept up on all fronts.

The civil war in Syria is approaching a six year anniversary with control swinging back and forth. The Russians abruptly emerged as leading the fight against the rebels and ISIS with America viewed as wobbly with no viable objectives in mind. The rebels wonder if the US would stand back and let them lose. Maybe.

Because of President Obama’s reluctance, Russian air power has now changed all calculations. At this late date, any American direct intervention could end up with a direct clash with Russia. Actually, Putin appears to be in control and dictating events inside Syria. Would the Obama Administration confront Russia in an election year? Not a chance.

The impeding assault on Aleppo has been projected to be a turning point in the entire war. With the help of Russian air power, Assad now appears to be back in the drivers seat. Even though starvation is a war crime, the Syrian government has put the squeeze on the 300,000 people left in Aleppo. This home once to 2.1 million citizens is now little more than rubble. With Damascus and Homs under Assad’s control, the fall of Aleppo would give him the main population and economic centers of Syria.

An analysis from the Carter Center suggests Assad’s government now controls 40% of the country with the rebels, Kurds, and ISIS holding about 20%. The numbers paint their own picture. The deal reached in Munich for a “cessation of hostilities” has done nothing. The bombs keep falling and ISIS keeps killing.

Why has the Obama administration been so dilatory? You tell me. ISIS has killed thousands and ethically cleansed 300,000 citizens by blindfolding men and elderly women and shooting them in the back of the head. Over 6,000 women have been sold into slavery and mass rape. The United Nations Independent International Commission said, “Genocide has occurred and is ongoing.” Are we missing something here? What part of the equation does America not understand?

Assad is a despotic murderer and ISIS is a indiscriminate killing machine. What don’t we understand about the Syrian debacle? Is anyone in the American camp going to do anything? It appears the USA has been entirely pre-empted by Russia.

Keep your eye on Aleppo and what happens next. The result could have long range consequences.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY ISRAEL!

BLOG 302 May 16, 2016

On the Middle East calendar and across the world, May 14 is Yom Ha’Atzmaut or Israel Independence Day. The state of Israel is 68 years old – and what a turbulent 68 it’s been. Israel started at the bottom of the heap with little more than struggling immigrants, swamps, and deserts. Today Israel does more than $100 billion in annual trade with the world. Millions of tourists pour in while dozens of international airlines fly in everyday. Not bad for a 68 year older!

I have visited the Independence Hall formerly called Dizengoff House, originally built by Meir Dizengoff who became Tel Aviv’s first mayor. I even sat in the former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s seat the day the document was signed. Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev, Russia, she became Golda Myerson in America before Hebraizing her name to Meir in Israel. The building is so small that the symphony orchestra had to sit upstairs. At the end of the ceremony, they played the Hatikvah that drifted downstairs as the delegates sang. The national anthem of Israel proclaims, “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope 2,000 years old to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The daughter of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence still lives in Tel Aviv. Batya Herman’s father Saadia Kobashi had been a leader of the Yemenite Jewish community before immigrating to Israel in 1909. He was the only signatory born in an Arab country. On Batva’s living room wall hangs an exact copy of the Declaration of Independence. Her father was to become a supervisor of the Religious-Zionist education system and principal of a school in Rosh Ha’ayin.

My first visit to Israel came in l968, one year after the six-day war was won by Israel. Sabras (native born Israelis) were a fierce force to contend with and the country was still emerging. Now, 48 years later the scenery has radically changed. However, one finds that Israelis are still attempting fully to internalize that they are a free people in a free land and not at the mercy of oppressors. The vast majority of the world does not fully grasp how deeply the historical scars from the past remain. Arab Intifada’s and the current rash of stabbings of innocent citizens in the streets also with street car bombings are a phenomenon that most of the world can read about, but usually will not feel in their souls. This residue remains part of the Jewish psyche.

Israelis see the world through decidedly different glasses.

And yet history leaves a witness. Eleven minutes after David Ben-Gurion signed the Declaration, President Harry Truman gave recognition to Israel (standing against his entire national security staff). Three days later, the Soviet Union granted recognition. Today 158 of the United Nation’s 193 states recognize Israel.

History marches on and Israel is in full step advancing toward a bright future.

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THE RESHUFFLING CONTINUES

BLOG 293 March 7, 2016

Last week we considered how the Middle East situation has gone through a radical reordering that has changed what came out of the geographic shape from the past. One of the countries not considered offers another interesting reflection of change: Turkey.

Most Westerners pay little attention to Turkey. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the conclusion of World War I, Turkey has not been particularly significant. However, Turkish President Recap Tanya Endogen has been hard at work lately to reverse that standing. In previous blogs, I have detailed some of his efforts to establish a Muslim axis running from Turkey through Syria down to Iran. Turkey became fast friends with President Bashar el-Assad. Erdogan had visions of setting himself up as the Grand Caliphate of that Muslim area . Sorry. The fact is that Erdogan’s efforts have all failed.

Why should a Westerner care about Turkey? Putting its past history aside, the gyrations of Turkey have created significant problems. In an unprecedented ploy and without warning, Turkey exposed Israeli Mossad agents while trying to build his Muslim Axis. In addition, during the spring of 2010, the Mavi Marmara affair was an attempt by Turkey to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza. As a result nine Turks were killed. Erdogan was seriously discredited in Israel and lost footing in his Middle East pursuits as well.

Today, Erdogan sees Assad as Turkey’s worst enemy. With Russia entering the Syrian civil war, Russia is not only on the bad guy list but is now positioned to strike the underbelly of Turkey. Turkey is now confronted by what it sees as “Imperialist” Russia and shot down one of their airplanes . Sanctions followed. As the Russians change the balance of power in the war, Tehran is becoming on the winning side and Turkey on the losing. Erdogan’s aces have turned into deuces.

To make matters even more difficult, the United States appears to have abandoned their efforts and turned civil the war over to Russia while the USA backs the Kurds. Turkey particularly fears a resurgence of the Kurds on their border may result in a new state after the Syrian war. The Kurdish insurgency is another big headache for Erdogan.

In other words, Turkey is in a BIG mess. Who could profit from such a quagmire?

Surprisingly enough, the answer is Israel.

Erdogen’s anti-Israel assaults never brought the result for which he had hoped. A dry run there. Moscow had been Turkey’s supplier of gas but that source is no longer trustworthy. Israel can sell gas to Turkey. Interesting possibility.

As painful as it probably will be, Israel may be Turkey’s only open door.

Watch for a new hand to be dealt. Stay tuned.

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THE RUSSIAN GRAB –AND ISRAEL

BLOG 290 February 13, 2016

A plan to bring food and desperately needed aid to the starving in Syrian towns was agreed on this week by Secretary John Kerry and Russian Secretary Sergev Lavrov. The hope was to bring a cessation of hostilities as the beginning of a pathway to a formal cease-fire. Great idea. Not great possibilities.

The problem is Russia.

President Assad was being pushed out the backdoor when President Vladimir Putin started bombing the countryside. Russian airpower turned the table and now Assad is claiming he will regain the entire country. Hope dies with such words.

The Saudis have already announced they would take a military option if Assad did not step down. Turkey also announced Ankara’s opposition to any political transaction in Syria that included Assad staying in power. Russia is faced with these responses.

However, Russia has its own set of goals for the entire region. When President Obama withdrew American military pressure, the door was thrown wide open for opportunists like Putin to come surging in. He didn’t wait.

After an absence of three decades, Russia is seeking to re-establish itself as a power and influence in the entire Middle East. Inside Syria, Russia continues to attack the moderate pro-Western Rebels while talking out of the other side of its mouth at the conference table. Iran’s significant military build-up couldn’t stop the Syrian opposition and probably called for Russia’s increased involvement. The agreement that brought Russia jets into Syria came with an unpublicized agreement that Russian could maintain permanent military bases inside that country.

Do you hear any squawks from Washington about such a possibility? I didn’t.

The problem? Israel’s air force is no match up against Russia. The S-400 anti-aircraft system Russia has in Syria also covers half of Israel’s territory. The bottom line is that Israel has now lost its regional air superiority.

Every American president from Roosevelt on sought to curb Russian power in the Middle East. President Obama stepped away from this position and has allowed what his predecessors opposed. This shift has produced winners and losers. Winners? Iran and those aligned with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood. Losers? Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Israel is now placed in an extremely difficult position. Current American policy has left the Israelis pushed into a corner. While serious criticism can be leveled at Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s rhetoric, political actions (or lack of action), as well as flip-flop gyrations, Israel increasingly must consider how it can best defend itself. Whoever is elected in the current political Campaign, will be faced with a critical decision about whether Russia will be allowed to continue this presence and military pressure left behind during the Obama years.

Americans may not like world leadership – but look what happens when they back off!

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