Wednesday, February 13, 2008 


The destruction wreaked by the bomb that killed Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

Everyone loves a good game of whodunnit? It's especially fun when the media join in, speculating wildly as they currently are over the sudden death of Arkadi "Badri" Patarkatsishvili, linking it endlessly to Alexander Litvinenko. Never mind that Patarkatsishvili, or "the Georgian" as Jeremy Paxman amusingly had it a couple of hours ago when he failed to pronounce his name, doesn't seem to have any particular grudge against Putin or Russia (Update, slight correction: He had been charged with fraud in Russia and fell out with Putin, but nowhere near on the scale that others have, nor had he been making the kind of accusations against Putin that Litvinenko had) but rather against the Georgian state, which is currently still ruled by the distinctly cool towards Russia Mikheil Saakashvili, it's obviously all inter-linked and highly worrying. We'll know more in the morning, but the police seem to have only described the death as "suspicious" because it is as yet unexplained, not necessarily indicating any foul play. I could be proved horrendously wrong in a few hours, but the media itself ought to remember the general idiocy and assumptions made about Bob Woolmer's death.

In any case, a far more interesting and genuinely worrying case of whodunnit? is currently taking place in Syria. Just a day before the 3rd anniversary of the massive car bombing that killed the ex-prime minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri, largely blamed on Syria and which forced the exodus of much of Syria's security apparatus from the country, Imad Mughniyeh, accused of masterminding numerous kidnappings and bombings by Hizbullah, has been killed in a similar fashion.

Those instantly leaping to conclusions will be pointing the finger squarely at Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, with perhaps a side-dashing of the CIA. Hizbullah and Iran have both pointedly denounced the attack, directly accusing Israel of being the perpetrator. Israel has denied any involvement in a rather terse release from prime minister Olmert's office, stating "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add," but Israel has a policy of never owning up to strikes on foreign territory.

It's the method that will naturally raise the most suspicions. A car bombing isn't the CIA's style of late; they prefer the Hellfire missile delivered by manless drone, used in both the recent strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi, although it hasn't been confirmed whether it was the US or Pakistan itself that launched the attack, and the case of the strike which was meant to have targeted al-Zawahiri, and instead killed the depressingly familiar innocents who got in the way. Mossad certainly has used car bombings in the past, but because the nature of the conflict within Israel and the occupied territories, the Hellfire missile has again been the most favoured weapon, although this is technically by the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency. The most notable recent assassination not involving an air strike was the killing of Yahya Ayyash, known as the "Engineer", who was killed by a mobile phone rigged with explosives.

Assuming that it was the work of Mossad and not the result of internal bickering within Hizbullah, an attack that went horribly wrong, or the result of a breakdown in the relationship between Mughniyeh and Iran or Syrian operatives, the main problem as always with these assassinations is that they are first and foremost, regardless of whom they target, acts of state terrorism. If the target is missed, innocents are usually the victims, which it turn only exacerbates the hate and mistrust towards the country attempting the assassination in the first place. What then should be the options for dealing with pieces of work such as Mughniyeh? Kidnapping, or as we're now referring to it, rendition, is problematic not just because those recently rendered have been tortured and are now facing manifestly unfair trials, but it also encourages general lawlessness by states the world over. While we haven't been directly involved in most of the rendition cases that have been brought to light, excepting the case of al-Rawi and el-Banna where the CIA did the dirty work of MI5 for them, let's say that at some future point there's a terrorist attack masterminded from abroad and that we kidnap and transfer the accused to stand trial in this country without any involvement in that nation's extradition process. We would be in effect opening Pandora's box, and if you thought that Litvinenko's assassination was unpleasant, wait until you have FSB agents running around kidnapping Russian dissidents and oligarchs with the justification that we've done it to terrorists.

Of course, we can get into arguments of tit for tat. The targets chosen by Mugniyah were mostly what would be considered legitimate targets in times of war, embassies and barracks, excepting the 1994 AMIA bombing, although Hizbullah has never been conclusively linked to that attack, even if it was their usual modus operandi, and the TWA Flight 847 hijacking where a U.S. navy diver was murdered, although the rest of the passengers and crew were released unharmed. None of the events took place during war however, or at least without all the other options for legitimate, peaceful protest and non-violent resistance being exhausted, and innocents were killed. Does however such indiscriminate targeting justify the same in response? We could argue that Mugniyah's death was a targeted killing, although it appears to have killed a passer-by according to reports, but this is no different to when Israel launches Hellfires into Gaza and acts apologetically when innocent Gazans are killed along with the targeted militants. The only acceptable way of bringing Mugniyah to justice would have been, in these circumstances, to kidnap him, but even then could he have received a fair trial in Israel?

We shouldn't forget in all of this that Hamas and Hizbullah continue to hold Gilad Shalit and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev respectively, and little is known about their current state of health. All should be released immediately. The death of Mugniyah is however also unjustifiable. Quite apart from anything else, violence only breeds more violence, a truism which has never become a cliché, one which the United States, doing everything but celebrating openly his passing, ought to have learned by now. Hizbullah are already threatening revenge, and while a repeat of the 2006 war seems highly unlikely, the very last thing that Lebanon needs, let alone the Middle East as a whole, is more misery, bloodshed and instability.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007 

Cold war syndrome.

It's difficult to know exactly how to respond to the decision to expel 4 Russian diplomats over the refusal of Moscow to extradite Andrei Lugovoi. At first look, it seems both to be by no means a harsh enough display of displeasure, considering how a British citizen was murdered in cold blood using elements which could have only have been obtained by going through government channels, yet also a pointless gesture for gesture's sake, making it even less likely that any sort of deal could possibly be reached.

There's so much murk surrounding the whole case that it's almost impossible to come to any firm conclusions about anything involving it. What we do know is that Litvinenko is not the only critic of the Kremlin under Putin to die in highly suspicious circumstances, nor is it likely that he will be the last. The question ultimately is whether the decision to murder him went right to the top, whether it was taken by underlings, or even by those simply associated or formerly connected to the FSB/KGB who now consider any dissent about the course which the new Russia has taken as treachery to be responded to with deadly force.

If we are to connect the dots between the two most high profile individuals to be assassinated, Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, the motive may become slightly clearer, but not by much. Both Litvinenko and Politkovskaya had made damaging, highly controversial contentions, in the former's case concerning the 1999 Russian apartment bombings, which started the second brutal war in Chechnya and quickly elevated Putin to president, and in Politkovskaya's case her continual exposes of the abuses on the ground in that other poor, benighted country. Litvinenko accused the FSB of being behind the bombings, a false flag operation which, if true, most certainly served its purpose. While Politkovskaya concentrated more on the situation that those bombings brought about, she wasn't immune from entering the same kind of conspiracy ground that Litvinenko did; she conducted an interview in the aftermath of the Moscow theatre siege with a Chechen FSB agent, Khanpash Terkibaev, who she considered to have been the real kingpin of the hostage taking, arranging for them to make the journey to Moscow, with the promise that he would also arrange for them to get out afterwards. Just to further set the mind racing, a file which Litvinenko gave to Sergei Yushenkov containing his own allegations and suspicions was eventually passed to Politkovskaya. Every single character in this whole pass-the-parcel game is now dead: Yushenkov was assassinated just days after his return from visiting Litvinenko. Terkibaev died in a car accident in Chechnya.

In additional to all the conspiracy theorising, we have to consider the money aspect. Litvinenko had become good friends with
Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch that managed to get away, at least for now. Much of Putin's popularity lies with his continuing attempts to cut the alleged robber barons who made their money buying and selling formerly state controlled assets at what are now considered prices well below their actual worth down to size. Considering how the vast majority of Russian people suffered, at least in the short term, during the "experiments" in extreme neo-liberalism conducted in the early 1990s, and how the country itself has only now just about recovered, we always ought to keep in mind the fact that Berezovsky is himself wanted in Moscow on fraud and political corruption charges. While it's unlikely that he could get a fair trial in the current climate, we should always keep open the possibility that the charges against him are credible, whatever we think about Putin and the FSB's antics. This then raises the question of why Litvinenko, and not Berezovsky, who is much more of a substantive threat to Putin than Litvinenko was, who could be dismissed as a conspiracy nut especially considering some of his later accusations, was not the target himself. It might well be that Litvinenko's murder was a warning that if he kept up his campaigning, and potential funding of what Putin fears most - a velvet revolution - that he would be next. If this was the objective, then it has backfired spectacularly, as we have since seen.

A lot of commentators have one basic problem with Russia: they see it instantly through the prism of the cold war, as if the Soviet Union never went away. As understandable as this is, especially considering how Russia has started to once again exercise its long-resting might, it misses the point that Russia is now more isolated than it has ever been. The money might be flooding in because of its reserves of natural resources, but on most policy matters it has never felt so alone. While once it even seemed likely that Russia could eventually join the EU, it now finds itself as a pariah once again. This is not entirely through its own actions, as bad as its human rights abuses and drift away from democracy have been: the rise of the neo-conservatives in Washington, with one of Bush's first acts being to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty,
and now with the prospect of having missile interceptors in Poland, supposedly aimed at Iran and North Korea when anyone with even half a braincell realises they're directed at Russia, has been just as influential. The West has treated Russia since the collapse of communism as a subjugated nation, never to be allowed to rise again. That it appears to be attempting to do so is as much a reason for some of the opprobrium it's received as its own repression of political opposition has been.

Where does this all leave us? What is our response to Russia's own inevitable reaction? Rather than exchanging tit-for-tat diplomatic blows, our answer has to be more subtle. An increase in funding of democratic organisations, NGOs which Putin has desperately banned more out of paranoia than anything else, is certainly one step. Another has to be an attempt to be seen as an honest broker: rather than being 100% behind the decision of the US to place new bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, we have to consider Russia's own legitimate grievance, and attempt to reach a compromise. What Putin and his successor will fear the most is the Russian citizenry themselves: we have to empower them against their own autocrats, not against us.

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