Defence

Syria: Diplomatic Ignominy over Humanity’s Orphans  

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Following excerpts adapted from the author’s new book, Syria Betrayed: Atrocities, War, and the Failure of International Diplomacy published by Columbia University Press.

Everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third, or not at all. — Lakhdar Brahimi, UN special envoy for Syria, August 31, 2015

In Early 2011 the world was stunned as the Arab Spring tore through Tunisia, then Egypt, and then Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, and Jordan. Syria stood at the precipice. As diplomats at the United Nations argued about what to do in Libya and the deteriorating situation in Côte d’Ivoire, few understood that Syria was descending into a hell of civil war that would consume more than half a million lives, displace more than half the country’s population, host the brutally genocidal Islamic State, and draw in the militaries of Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, the United States, Turkey, and others. As Syria’s tragedy unfolded, not one foreign government consistently prioritized the protection of Syrians from atrocity crimes. Not only did they do little to alleviate suffering, much of what they did made matters worse. They betrayed Syria’s civilians by breaking the trust between peoples, states, and global institutions exemplified by the responsibility to protect.

It is difficult to convey the extent of the brutality inflicted on Syria’s tormented civilians since the uprising began in 2011, since raw numbers have a numbing effect. Syrians have been shot in the streets as they protested. Tens of thousands were hauled into prisons and tortured until dead. Tens of thousands more live on in those conditions. Barrel bombs packed with high explosives, nails, and other makeshift shrapnel have been hurled indiscriminately by the dozen into civilian neighborhoods. Men, women, and children have been gassed to death with sarin and chlorine. Civilians have been shot, knifed, beheaded, and even crucified. They have been denied food, water, and medicine to the point of malnutrition. Children have had their homes brought down on top of them and have been raped, shot, tortured, and forcibly recruited into armed groups. Women and girls have been kidnapped, trafficked, and sold as sex slaves. Schools have been systematically targeted and destroyed. Hospitals and medical centers suffered the same fate. The government and its allies were not responsible for all Syria’s atrocities, but they were responsible for the overwhelming majority. Syrian civilians found themselves trapped between ISIS extremism and its deranged ideology enforced by beheading, immolation, and slavery and the indiscriminate barrel bombs, artillery fire, rockets, missiles, and militia of the government and its allies. Yet even at the peak of ISIS’s power in Syria, jihadists killed Syrian civilians at a lower rate than the government. Different datasets record the number of civilians killed by the government and its allies in the decade between 2011 and 2021 as being between 175,000 and 207,000. In comparison, those same datasets record that ISIS was responsible for the deaths of between 5,000 and 6,500 Syrian civilians. The number of civilians killed by other opposition groups ranges between 6,000 and 11,000. Put another way, the Syrian government and its allies are likely responsible for between 86 and 94 percent of all civilian deaths directly caused by the war. These stark discrepancies show that while opposition groups certainly perpetrated atrocities, they did not do so on anything like the scale perpetrated by the government and its allies. There is no place for moral equivalency in the story of Syria’s war.

More than sixty years earlier, the newly established United Nations General Assembly adopted a convention to prohibit genocide and establish a legal duty to prevent it. Two years later the four Geneva Conventions established what we today call International Humanitarian Law. Additional protocols agreed to in 1977 stipulated that “the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited” (article 13, protocol II). The protocols required that any use of force be strictly confined to military goals and established the legal principle of discrimination—the rule that soldiers are obliged to discriminate between soldiers and civilians and should refrain from violence if they cannot tell the difference. Violations of these laws have become known as “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” New laws restricted the use of “Certain Conventional Weapons” (1980, 1995, 1996, 2008). The Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 prohibited possession, manufacture, and use of chemical weapons, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was established to oversee it. In the same year, the Ottawa Treaty banned the manufacture, stockpiling, and use of antipersonnel land mines. In 2008 cluster munitions were also prohibited, by a treaty that garnered the support of more than a hundred states. The scope of legal obligations doesn’t end with the prohibition of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, however. States have legal obligations to prevent these crimes, protect their victims, and promote compliance with the law. These laws reshaped expectations about how war ought to be conducted and civilians protected from its worst ravages. They established legal limits to what a government can lawfully do to its people. They codified the notion that sovereignty entails legal responsibilities as well as rights.

But these laws always stood in tension with two harsh political realities: First, that in war power tends to matter more than justice, since when the fighting starts actors rarely yield to law and justice alone. Indeed, it is precisely because they disagree about what justice is and what it entails that they fight. Second, that for all the talk of the rights of individuals and groups to protection from atrocity crimes, governments have tended to privilege sovereignty—especially their own—over the protection of basic human rights. There is a good reason for that, for sovereignty and its attendant right to noninterference protects postcolonial and small states from the coercive interference of the powerful and helps maintain a basic condition of orderly conduct among states. The awkward juxtaposition of the humanitarian aspirations expressed in international humanitarian law and a sovereignty-based international order raised difficult practical and ethical questions about what to do when states themselves committed atrocities against sections of their own population. The result was an acute gap between what the law said about how states should behave and how they actually behaved. Genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity persisted, often untroubled by outside interference. This became a matter of global concern after the Cold War and high-profile failures to stem genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica; mass killing and ethnic cleansing in Angola, Bosnia, Burundi, Croatia, East Timor, Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo; and state repression in Iraq. Time and again, international society proved unwilling or unable to uphold its own laws in the face of such disasters. The principle of the “responsibility to protect”—or R2P as it has become known—was devised as a way of navigating these dilemmas. Unanimously endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005, the principle meant that governments recognized they have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. They agreed to encourage and help one another fulfill their responsibility. They also pledged to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to protect populations and decided that when a state is manifestly failing to protect its population from atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to take “timely and decisive action” to do so, using all necessary means through the United Nations Security Council. This commitment was made unanimously by the largest ever gathering of Heads of State and Government at the United Nations in 2005. It was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 2009 and 2021. At the time of this writing, R2P had featured in ninety-two UN Security Council resolutions and statements and fifty-eight resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council. All this counted for little in Syria.

This book explains how and why the world failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect Syrians. Ultimately, it is a story of priorities, of how other things came to be seen as being more important than protecting Syrians from their government. So-called realists might say that this is inevitable; that we live in a brutal and illiberal world where power matters more than justice and where even trying to stop atrocities in other countries invariably makes things worse. But this takes too much for granted. It ignores evidence that determined action can mitigate and end atrocities.1 And, like all structural theories, it absolves individuals of responsibility for their choices. As I will show, political leaders were presented time and again with choices, and almost every time they chose not to make alleviation of Syria’s suffering their priority. These choices had direct, sometimes immediate, consequences for the lives of Syrians, usually for the worse. Things could have been different. Steps could have been taken to save lives, perhaps even lots of lives. I will show how decision making was guided by shibboleths; false assumptions that were exposed one by one. Chief among them was the conviction that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could be persuaded to reform or agree to share power through a political settlement. Foreign actors clung to that belief despite its evident faults even as their peace processes zombified. There were other shibboleths too, about the impossibility of using force to good effect, about the opposition’s inherent extremism, and about Russian good faith.

There are innumerable ways of telling this tragic story, but however one tells it, the central point remains the same: that despite moral imperatives, legal obligations, and our knowledge of what happens when the world turns a blind eye to atrocities, governments and international organizations chose not to prioritize the protection of Syrians because they thought other things were more important. First, Syria’s civilians were betrayed by their own government. To Assad, killing civilians was always a price worth paying for regime survival. Then, they were betrayed by the government’s foreign allies who blocked any meaningful multilateral approach to the crisis. Almost from the start, Assad’s tottering government depended for its survival on foreign allies, principally Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, cheered on from the sidelines by China and to a lesser extent, at the beginning at least, India, Brazil, and South Africa. Then those who claimed to be the friends of Syria’s people, their most immediate neighbors, betrayed them. For all their posturing, Syria’s Arab neighbors also had other priorities and were often more concerned with their own survival and legitimacy and their regional competition for hegemony, status, and influence, than they were with the plight of Syrians. They competed against one another as much as with Damascus and fostered the fragmentation and radicalism that doomed Syria’s opposition. Turkey stayed the course longer than the others but mainly because it had a Kurdish problem and a refugee crisis to resolve. And then, those states most vociferous in their support for R2P and the principles of protection betrayed Syria’s civilians. The West stridently condemned the violence, demanded reform, and agonized over what to do. Admittedly, the actions of others presented concerned Westerners with few appealing options. But protecting Syria’s civilians was never their main priority either. For the United States at different times, priorities included military withdrawal from the Middle East, combatting Islamist terrorism, rapprochement with Iran, and protecting itself and its allies from the perceived threat posed by refugees fleeing for their lives. For Europeans, distracted by economic crisis and disunity, fear of terrorism and refugees always loomed larger than humanitarian concerns. Priorities shifted, but the protection of Syrian civilians was rarely even close to being at the top of the list. Even the United Nations—the institution entrusted to implement R2P—succumbed. As earnest efforts to negotiate peace crumbled, the organization propped up a zombie peace process that helped Assad while its humanitarian agencies funneled millions of dollars to the government and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to government-controlled areas, despite that same government prohibiting the flow of aid to opposition areas it was besieging, bombarding, and starving. Thus did the United Nations aid and abet a government strategy based on atrocities.

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Halt This Crazy Rush to All-Out War

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The finest modern military thinker, Maj. Gen J.F.C. Fuller, wrote “the true objective of war is not military victory but the peace that follows it.’

Amen. Besotted by tribalism and propaganda, we often forget why we are fighting and what changes the current war will bring. We think killing fellow humans is a noble quest rather than the basest Stone Age behavior.

Case in point, the current war in Ukraine. There, ex-Russians now rebranded “Ukrainians” are battling Russia’s not so competent armies.

The United States and its vassals are pouring arms and money galore into the rebellious Ukraine – over $100 billion to date. This is an amazing amount of money considering hardly anyone in the US had ever heard of Ukraine and certainly couldn’t find it on a map, and that this flood of money comes from the US which is itself on the financial ropes and operating on borrowed money.

Getting America so deeply involved in the obscure Ukraine War was thanks to truly monumental propaganda produced by the six US government-controlled TV channels and court newspapers. Its 24-7 happy news about Ukraine and constant vilification of re-demonized Russia.

We are in fact involved in a war that dares not speak its name. Russia denies it’s a war at all and claims to be fighting a recrudescence of Euro fascism. The US and its subservient allies also deny a war is going on, while pouring arms and munition on an almost WWII scale into Ukraine – whose government the US spent $5 billion overthrowing.

Russia won’t call this war a war, still pretending it’s a `police action’ – rather like the past US invasions of Panama, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. But, as western arms and covert troops pour into Ukraine and Russia can’t manage to field adequate troops or weapons, holding on to the ‘police action’ fiction is preposterous.

What’s happening in Washington is that the Democrat neo-liberals smell Russian blood and are intoxicated by the prospect of first Russian defeat in Ukraine, then the collapse of the current Russian federation made up of 83 supposedly sovereign units. Russia is very fragile and vulnerable to foreign-engineered unrest. Russia’s Far East is dangerously exposed between US and Chinese ambitions.

The dramatic transformation of most of the formerly staunch communist republic of Ukraine into an arch-anti-communist Kyiv republic is a dire warning signal for Moscow. Russian leader Dimitry Medvedev just warned that Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would trigger a nuclear war. He could be right.

The leading American neocon, Victoria Nuland, boasted that it cost only $5 billion to overthrow Ukraine’s former inept communist regime and replace it by a TV actor, Volodymyr Zelensky. The Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine don’t even have a capable spokesman.

It’s by now clear that the so-called non-war in Ukraine is dangerously escalating towards a full-scale US-NATO-Russia war that might turn into World War III. The duty of great powers is to keep world affairs calm.

Instead, the US and its European satraps keep pouring fuel on the fire. Ukraine, once infamous as Europe’s most corrupt nation, is happily gulping down the billions from the US and Europe. Swiss banks are making a killing. So too arms manufacturers who had been facing flat or declining sales before this jolly little war.

Germany, the keystone of NATO power, is caught between its sensible goal of keeping good relations with Moscow and its subservience to Washington. If the Ukraine war intensifies, Germany will be caught in the middle – an obvious target for Russian tactical nuclear strikes.

Who in Washington has begun to add up the costs of keeping post-war Ukraine going. Without a steady inflow of billions from the US and its rich allies, Ukraine will likely collapse into warring fiefs. Worse, if Russia is somehow defeated, who will assume its financial upkeep and prevent this nuclear superpower from running amok? Will China sit back and allow its only major ally to be splintered? Would militants in China’s leadership not beat the war drums to re-occupy border regions lost in the 19th century to Imperial Russia?

Time for the Great American power to act to bring peace and stability, not more war.

Copyright Eric S. Margolis

VIDEO: Cow dung and urine mixed attacks on police officers in Jaffna

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The following video shows how a group of human rights activists operating in Jaffna, instigated by political parties, attacked police officers on duty with water mixed with dung and cow urine. These police officers were attacked during the recent visit of President Ranil Wickremesinghe to Jaffna. Reliable sources say that local politicians are against enforcing the law against these perpetrators, who have severely obstructed and humiliated the duties of police officers.

Sri Lanka and U.S. militaries commence CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka

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The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps began exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT)/Marine Exercise (MAREX) Sri Lanka 2023 with the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) and Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) in Colombo, Jan. 19, 2023.

CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka is a joint, bilateral maritime exercise taking place ashore in Colombo and at the SLN bases in Trincomalee and Mullikullam. The sea phase will take place in the Laccadive Sea. This year’s exercise includes participants from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Maldives National Defence Force, and coincides with the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations and partnership between the United States and Sri Lanka.

The exercise commenced with an opening ceremony led by Deputy Chief of Staff / Director General Operations of SLN Rear Adm. Pradeep Rathnayake, and Capt. Sean Lewis, deputy commodore of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 7.

“CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka is designed to exchange ideas as well as tactics,” said Lewis. “We will practice interoperability and strengthen our interpersonal relationships — both at sea and in port.”

Sri Lanka Navy offshore patrol vessels SLNS Gajabahu (P 626) and SLNS Vijayabahu (P 627) will meet the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD 23), with embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), at sea. Training will focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as well as air defense, small boat operations, and replenishment-at-sea approaches.

“I believe each event perfectly reflects the excellent collaboration between our forces and emphasizes our partnership in promoting regional security, combining knowledge, skill and understanding of goals, cultures and ideals,” said Rathnayake.

The shore phase trainings will consist of classroom subject matter expert exchanges (SMEE), practical education, and a Women, Peace and Security roundtable hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung. Highlights will include a series of public performances and exchanges between both country’s navy bands, a sports day, and a series of community service activities, as well as SMEEs on issues like diving and underwater construction, medical support, and maritime domain awareness.

“For seventy-five years, Sri Lanka and the United States have worked together to preserve an international community in which diverse sovereign states can unite to work with each other while maintaining their own respective identities,” said Rear Adm. Derek Trinque, commander, Task Force (CTF) 76/3. “CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka will help us move in unison toward achieving our shared goals of safety and prosperity.”

Additional participating U.S. assets include a P-8A Poseidon and personnel from U.S. 7th Fleet, Commander, Task Force (CTF) 72, CTF 73, CTF 76/3, DESRON 7, and Amphibious Squadron 7.

CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka is a bilateral exercise between Sri Lanka and the United States designed to promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance maritime interoperability.

In its 28th year, the CARAT series is comprised of multinational exercises, designed to enhance U.S. and partner navies’ abilities to operate together in response to traditional and non-traditional maritime security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.

7th Fleet is the U.S. Navy’s largest forward-deployed numbered fleet, and routinely interacts and operates with Allies and partners in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Sri Lanka: Downsizing Army in Response to Economic Crisis

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State Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon could have disclosed a decisive decision taken by the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government to reduce the approved cadre of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) at the launch of ‘STORY OF THE WORLD: Geopolitical Alliances and Rivalries Set in Stone’ authored by Col. Nalin Herath, at Rock House Army camp (Regimental Headquarters of the Armoured Corps), on January 12.

State Minister Tennakoon was the Chief Guest at the event, attended by Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Shavendra Silva, both of the Gajaba Regiment, and several other senior serving, and retired officers.

The author, as an armoured corps officer, has served the 681 Brigade of the 53 Division. He has been the Brigade Major. The 681 Brigade, assigned to the 53 Division, commanded by the then Maj. Gen. Gunaratne, has been credited with the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009.

The first such book, launched by a serving officer, would have been the ideal setting for the official declaration on the reduction of SLA’s approved cadre.

A press release, pertaining to the proposed reduction of the approved cadre of the SLA, was released by Col. Nalin Herath, on the following day (January 13). Interestingly, the statement was attributed to State Defence Minister Tennakoon, who received the elevated position, on Sept. 08, 2022. The Matale District MP was among 37 government parliamentary group members appointed as State Ministers, as per the understanding between President Wickremesinghe and his principal sponsor, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Pramitha Bandara is the son of Janaka Banadara Tennakoon, MP, one of the SLFP seniors who had even served the party during the tenure of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the SLFP leader. Incidentally Pramitha’s paternal grandfather, Tikiri Banda Tennakoon, was a founder member of the SLFP, along with its creator, SWRD Bandaranaike. T.B., having swept into Parliament, in 1956, like so many other first timers, with an essentially Sinhala ethos, he continuously retained his Dambulla electorate for five consecutive terms, thanks to his dedication to serve his people.

Perhaps, that high profile decision to trim the armed forces, that were deliberately expanded in the last phase of the then long-running war, from 2006, should have been announced by President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and the Defence Minister, as well. The government owed an explanation whether the Cabinet-of-Ministers approved the far reaching move and when that decision was taken.

Following the perusal of statements, issued in Sinhala and English, there couldn’t be ambiguity regarding what really prompted the decision. Lawmaker Pramitha Tennakoon declared that the decision to reduce the current approved SLA cadre of 200,783 to 135,000, by end of next year, and further reduce that figure to 100,000, by 2030, has been taken after taking into consideration the current state of affairs. Obviously, the State Defence Minister was referring to Sri Lanka’s bankrupt status.

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to review the approved cadre of the SLA should be appreciated, as it was a long felt necessity, as maintaining an army of more than 200.000, under current circumstances, is no small burden for a country of the size of Sri Lanka, especially as it no longer faced any formidable enemy, militarily from within. This assertion shouldn’t be misconstrued as our wholehearted backing for the government decision. Let us hope some sections in the Opposition do not seek political advantage, thereby causing unnecessary friction amidst the continuing economic-political-social turmoil.

President Wickremesinghe indicated his desire to bring down the SLA’s strength, on Nov. 14, 2022. when he presented the 2023 Budget. Wickremesinghe proposed to allow armed forces personnel, other than special categories, to retire after 18 years of service. Wickremesinghe assured that tangible measures would be taken to provide them training, required to engage in productive economic activities.

On behalf of the government, State Minister Tennakoon asserted that a 100,000 strength as the right size for the SLA.

Change of SLA command

Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Vikum Liyanage, in his New Year message to his officers, and men, revealed the intended decrease in SLA’s approved cadre. Gajaba Regiment veteran Liyanage, who succeeded Gen. Shavendra Silva, on July 01, 2022, declared that preliminary measures had been taken in this regard. Army headquarters, in a statement issued on January 02, quoted Lt. Gen. Liyanage has having said the process was meant to streamline the organizational structure, operational deployment and concept of operations. The Army Chief emphasized the responsibility on the part of the SLA to be prepared to face any eventuality this year. Lt. Gen. Liyanage didn’t mince his words when he declared the need to keep their plans on track, regardless of the current crisis, which he described as a turbulent period.

If not for the massive public protest campaign that turned violent, after Temple Trees unleashed SLPP goons on the Galle Face ‘Go Gota Home’ protesters on May 09, morning, Liyanage probably wouldn’t have received an opportunity to command the war-winning SLA. The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself a Gajaba founder veteran, brought in Liyanage to succeed celebrated ground combat commander Gen. Shavendra Silva. Liyanage received the appointment on June 01. Protesters overran President Rajapaksa’s official residence, in Fort, six weeks later. Wickremesinghe, having been picked as President, by a majority vote in Parliament, has chosen Liyanage to oversee the transformation by granting him a one-year extension.

Otherwise, Liyanage would have retired on Dec. 31, 2022. He received a one-year extension, amidst intense controversy over his successor.

Over a dozen officers would retire by Dec. 31, 2023.

Gen. Shavendra Silva continues to serve as the CDS, a position he held earlier in an Acting Capacity beginning January 01, 2020, while also being the then Army Commander. The celebrated General Officer, Commanding (GoC) the 58 Division (previously Task Force 1) received the SLA command, on August 19, 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency. Unfortunately, many top officers, who contributed much to that most unlikely victory, over terrorism, were overlooked during the Yahapalana regime that came to power in 2015, thanks to the political betrayal by Maithripala Sirisena.

Proposed gradual but significant reduction of approved SLA cadre, by half, within the next seven years, should be examined, taking into consideration two domestic factors, namely (1) Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, and (2) the worst ever post-independence economic crisis that has compelled utterly disorganized and reckless political party system ways and means to cut down both capital and recurrent expenditure.

Cash-strapped Sri Lanka can save a considerable amount of public funds by halving the SLA size. Retired Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera, Director of Operations, during the crucial period of the Eelam War (2006-2009) asserted: “It is not the numbers that matter, but the deterrence….” The one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Malaysia, emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the decision-makers, to adopt, what he called, a pragmatic approach.

Contrary to numerous warnings, regarding the possibility of the LTTE launching a hit-and run-campaign, after the combined security forces decimated its conventional fighting capacity, by February-May 2009, the group was no longer in its previous suicide mode, due to the overbearing presence of the SLA. There had been one attempt to regroup and that was mercilessly and swiftly dealt with. Since then, ex-members of the group remained peaceful, though some expressed fears those who had been released after rehabilitation could take up arms again. Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, having played a pivotal role in the eradication of terrorism. by May 2009, allowed the release of as many as 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres and the gradual decrease of the SLA presence, in the Jaffna peninsula. Accordingly, the SLA gave up both state and private land in the Jaffna peninsula, and other parts of the Vanni and the East, held over the years, to fight the war, to facilitate the return of civilians, in peace time.

Rapid SLA expansion

At the time Eelam War IV erupted, in the second week of August, 2006, with coordinated attacks in the East and across the Muhamalai front line, extending from Kilali, across Eluththumaduwal to Nagarkovil on the Vadamarachchy east coast,

The SLA had approximately 60 regular and volunteer infantry battalions. It, however, lacked the wherewithal to simultaneously conduct offensive operations, defend areas under control and deploy troops to hold newly recaptured areas.

The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa took an unprecedented political decision to rapidly expand the SLA to finish off the LTTE, once and for all. The then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka got what he asked for. Fonseka never hesitated to push the political leadership on the urgent need to expand the SLA. The Army Chief had the backing of the Defence Secretary and the whole process was expedited, overnight.

A recruitment drive got underway, in the last quarter of 2006, as the SLA, at a great cost, thwarted the LTTE offensive on the Northern front, stabilized the situation there, and went on the offensive. A relentless SLA campaign brought the entire Eastern Province, under government control, with the recapture of the last Tiger stronghold, at Toppigala, in July 2007. As the name denotes, it was a rock outcrop, with a clear viewing advantage of the surroundings. But, that wouldn’t have been possible without operations, conducted by the Navy and the Air Force, both in support of ground forces, as well as to weaken the overall conventional capacity of the enemy. But, ironically, that fact was lost on our warwinning military genius, Sarath Fonseka, and, no doubt, a man with a sixth sense, but who ironically felt that all war trophies should go to the Army and him.

We will cite just one example as to why we say he had a sixth sense that helped to win the war. For a long time, we had heard from lower ranking officers that they were often reluctant to call in artillery support as often they themselves got whacked by such ‘friendly’ fire. But after the all-out war broke out, in 2006, and the Army was advancing on several fronts, we suddenly found that Fonseka had taken a rather unusual step of putting a stop to the discretionary power of our artillery and he had placed Special Forces operatives with all field artillery units and they couldn’t fire their big guns till those minders, clearly wearing T-shirts, emblazoned ‘Special Forces’, double checked their ranges. And, miraculously, that ended many a friendly artillery killing our own soldiers. This was something all previous commanders failed to do.

As many as 120,000 men were mobilized as the the SLA raised almost 100 infantry battalions. It would be pertinent to mention that new recruits were required for new fighting formations and also to replenish depleted battalions. The high intensity Vanni battles took a heavy toll on fighting formations. The incumbent Army Commander had served as the Commanding Officer of the 8th battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (Jan. 1, 2006 to June 06, 2006) attached to 56 and 57 Divisions during the Vanni campaign. The 56 Division played a defensive role whereas 57 Division played a critically important offensive role, though it ceased offensive operations, after capturing Kurivilkulam, in the second week of Feb. 2009.

The rapid recruitment, training and deployment of fresh recruits swamped the Vanni with infantry formations. During the last phase of the war, the SLA troop strength doubled, thereby allowing successive commanders after Fonseka, who relinquished command in mid-July 2009, amidst controversy of his decision to enter active politics. Fonseka contested the 2010 January presidential election but suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Having made an abortive bid to spearhead a party of his own, the war hero, who holds the rank of Field Marshal, has now ended up as an MP, representing the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Since the end of the war, there has been a gradual decrease in the security forces’ strength, though the approved cadre remained unchanged.

Unprecedented challenge

In spite of President Wickremesinghe’s declaration Sri Lanka’s commitment to friendly ties with all countries, at regional and global level, his government is ensnared in a deadly US-China conflict against the backdrop of an equally lethal debt trap.

Having declared bankruptcy, in April last year, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach consensus with China and India, two major bilateral creditors whose backing is nothing but a pre-requisite for the finalization of the IMF USD 2.9 bn credit facility, spread over a period of four years. No less a person than President Wickremesinghe, during an informal chat with a group of journalists, representing Upali Newspapers Ltd., on January 06, acknowledged the difficult situation his government is in.

There is still no clear indication when China and India will reach final consensus on this matter, although Sri Lanka and the IMF reached a staff-level agreement, relating to it, on Sept. 01, 2022.

The response of some sections of the international community, to the developing economic crisis here, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration their alignment with the US-led grouping meant to counter, what they perceive, as a growing Chinese threat.

Once Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, declared that Sri Lanka faced a major security threat as long as the Hambantota Port remained in Chinese hands. The warning was given in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage that claimed the lives of 269 men, women and children, including about 40 foreigners, and wounded about double that number. The then UNP lawmaker Wijeyedasa Rajapakse proposed the intervention of Parliament to take back the Hambantota Port, given to China, on a 99-year lease. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Premier of the Yahapalana government that finalized the Hambantota Port deal, in 2017, is the President now.

Sri Lanka needs to carefully review the situation. Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore geopolitical interests of individual countries, as well as various groupings, in addition to the Tamil Diaspora factor. The ‘Quad’ (Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue) comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India. The grouping wants Sri Lanka, within its orbit, whereas China pursues its own strategy.

There cannot be any other reason than the Tamil Diaspora vote for Canada to recognize Tamil genocide, in May last year, and then imposed sanctions against former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently.

Canada’s treatment of indigenous people has exposed their human rights façade, while Ottawa pursue Sri Lanka over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Unfortunately, successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration, continues to fail the war-winning military.

Sanctions imposed on the Rajapaksa brothers must be examined, keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure, in the House of Lords, in Oct. 2017. to clear the military. Following a lengthy legal battle, Lord Naseby forced the UK to release a section of highly censored confidential wartime dispatches (January 01, 2009- May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo.

In conversations with this writer, in Colombo, last year, Lord Naseby expressed disappointment over Sri Lanka’s continuous failure to use available evidence, coupled with a very supportive assessment made by wartime US Defence Advisor Colonel Lawrence Smith, in Colombo, over two years, after the war ended, at the inaugural defence seminar, in Colombo. Sri Lanka simply ignored the US Colonel’s declaration that must have been made quite confidently in the presence of senior military representatives of about 40 countries.

Sri Lanka never recognized the growing threat until the US imposed a travel ban on Gen. Shavendra Silva, on Feb. 13, 2020. That was five years after Australia refused a visa to Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage, also over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, too, has been denied a US visa after Washington quite conveniently forgot backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll and the war-winning Army Chief receiving the backing of the Tamil National Alliance that ensured the General sweeping predominately Tamil speaking districts in the Northern and Eastern Province, at the 2010 presidential poll. But, Canadian sanctions on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, are the first on a politician, whereas Gotabaya Rajapaksa was targeted over his role as the wartime Defence Secretary.

Parliament needs to ascertain the situation seriously, and take appropriate measures, at least now, to have accountability issues examined properly to pave the way for restoring public faith in the political party system.

Parliament, entrusted with financial responsibility, has achieved what the LTTE, one of the groups established by India, in the ’80s, to terrorize Sri Lanka, failed to do.

Parliament has overseen the ruination of the war-winning country. The declaration of bankruptcy is nothing but an indictment of successive governments. The debt servicing crisis should be studied, keeping in mind Sri Lanka obtained IMF’s bailout packages on 16 previous occasions. The next one depends on the response of Sri Lanka’s creditors, China and India.

Sri Lanka and U.S. Militaries Commence Joint Training Exercise

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The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will commence exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT)/Marine Exercise (MAREX) Sri Lanka 2023 with the Sri Lanka Navy and Sri Lanka Air Force in Colombo, Jan. 19 – 26, 2023.

CARAT/MAREX Sri Lanka is a bilateral exercise between Sri Lanka and the United States designed to promote regional security cooperation, maintain and strengthen maritime partnerships, and enhance maritime interoperability.  This is the fifth CARAT/ MAREX exercise between the United States and Sri Lanka, and this year includes participants from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Maldives National Defence Force.  Training exchanges will occur in Colombo and on the Sri Lanka Navy bases in Trincomalee and Mullikullam.

“The United States, in our 75th year of bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, is proud to partner with the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Air Force for this training.  These yearly exercises are an important opportunity for training to prepare for disaster relief and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.  We are grateful for the invitation to host the exercise together,” said U.S. Ambassador Julie Chung regarding the upcoming exercise.

The week-long exercise is designed to enhance U.S. and partner navies’ abilities to operate together in response to traditional and non-traditional maritime security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and build relationships through sports, cultural, and information exchanges.  In addition to training for humanitarian disaster relief and lifesaving training, U.S. and Sri Lankan servicemembers will participate in a Women, Peace and Security roundtable with the Ambassador Chung.  During the exercise, the 7th Fleet Navy band, in partnership with the Sri Lankan Navy band, will give a series of free performances in Colombo.

Statement issued by the US Embassy in Colombo

Indian Army: Intelligence Blind

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General Manoj Pande, Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army in his customary media briefing ahead of the 75th Army Day outlined the significant challenge faced by the world’s second largest army that of assessing the enemy intent on the other side of the hill.

Thus, referring to the Northern borders with China, the Army Chief General Pande said, “In the northern borders the situation is stable and under control yet unpredictable. You are aware of the ongoing talks (both at military as well as diplomatic levels) wherein we’ve been able to resolve five out of seven issues that were there on the table.”

Clearly this was an admission of the military being blind on the intelligence front which is a failing that is not new to the Indian armed forces and is frequently made up by the blood and toil of soldiers on the ground and junior officers who demonstrate commitment and vigour to notch up many operational successes.

The saga of the Indian Army’s intelligence failures is long starting with the Pakistan Army supported raiders surreptitiously entering Kashmir in 1947 reaching the gates of Srinagar near Badgam when these were beaten back towards Muzaffarabad.

The momentous failure of 1962 War against China is shrouded in the mystery of the Henderson Brooks Report which has never been officially released yet excerpts from the same have been quoted from time to time.

In 1971, the success of Liberation War in Bangladesh may have been different had General later Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw not insisted on launching operations at a time of his choosing despite significant pressures from then Prime Minister Ms Indira Gandhi.

Thereafter from Kargil in 1999 to the large scale terrorist attacks in Uri and Pulwama military intelligence failures have continued which have been made up by unleashing operational capability be it Operation Vijay in 1999 to so called, “surgical strikes,” in 2016.

The story has been familiar in recent years with the Army failing to anticipate China’s intrusions across selected points on the Line of Actual Control. But for the saga of the Galwan incident of 15 June 2020 when skirmishing Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) clashed with casualties to both sides, these intrusions may not have gathered national attention.

However, by establishing a post on the high Kailash Range in the summer of 2020, the military partially made up for the losses. The Yangtse incident on December 09 this year is an indicator that lessons are being learnt fast and the military is now anticipating possible actions by the PLA.

Yet the surge of attacks in Rajauri sector in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2023 brings to light concerns that the rise in awareness of adversary intention remains a question mark. The killing of four soldiers in August 2022 should have been warning enough of infiltration of groups in this sector but the military perhaps believed that the counter infiltration grid was impermeable.

The Statement by the Army Chief that the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was “uncertain,” is another marker of the intelligence dilemma faced by the Army.

By making huge investments in drones and UAVs as reports indicate apart from other resources the Indian Army Forces hope to make up for the deficit.

However, this is not likely to lead to removal of, “uncertainty,” vis a vis China or Pakistan.

Understanding the Long Game

Developing intelligence of enemy, “Intent,” is a complex process the principal feature of

which is understanding the Long Game of the adversary.

China’s aggressive proclamations of regaining territorial sovereignty was evidently ignored at the national as well as military level, with belief in diplomacy at the high table.

While China has abandoned the agreements for peace and tranquility on the LAC made during a period when there was obviously a need felt in Beijing for keeping the ghosts of the past under cover, the present regime under President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping is no longer shackled by constraints of the past and is unwilling to, “bide the time and never take the initiative,” sayings of the Deng era.

Galwan is thus a symptom of the disease of a blinkers down approach, and here the Army alone cannot be faulted.

But where the blame directly rests on the military is in discontinuing vigil on the LAC which was the express charge of the Army and prevent intrusions regardless of ongoing diplomacy.

Why the commanders in the field were complacent will never be clear, yet the Army seems to have learnt the lessons well if Yangtse is any example.

Understanding China and Pakistan’s Long Game is therefore important, what that is will be a

subject of another discussion.

Character of Wars and Insurgencies Transforms

Yet another indicator of knowing the Intent of the enemy is to track the way he will fight in the light of his Long Game.

It is an oft known maxim that while nature of war is constant the character of wars and insurgencies changes based on application of violence by an adversary.

The next war will be different from the previous one and an agile aggressor as Pakistan will continue to strive to change the pattern of terrorism in J & K catching the security forces off guard.

For crystal gazing, investing in mastering the many techniques of futures assumes importance.

Sri Lanka: Father Cyril Gamini’s Rip Van Winkle Moment

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Editorial

The almighty and his holly son equally condemned the false prophets and teachers; no matter what they dressed. Liars are the bane of humanity and the doom of liars is spoken of in Revelation of Holly Bible. “As the messengers of God taught us, the liar will forever be separated from a loving and holy God. The liar will have all eternity to regret the deception they refused to renounce as they hear their lies echo in their memory.”

One liar who deceives himself as well as others suddenly came before the media and expressed his hypocritical hatred. What an ugly show. This is what we called; the Rip Van Winkle moment of any personality. He was fast asleep, and just before getting up he was sleepwalking; now he’s as awake as Rip Van Winkle. 

After a period of silence, Father Cyril Gamini, a media spokesman of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called a press conference in Colombo yesterday and once again expressed his views on the Easter terrorist attacks. On what authority Father Gamini can criticise the appointments of the senior officers climbed based on merits and seniority? Does he know that the basic legal ideology, the presumption of innocence, every person should be presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty due process of law?

Before and during the Galleface Aragalaya, many self-proclaimed civil society activists made a big fuss in the country about the Easter attack, but after the Aragalaya, their focus shifted. Consequently, many of them were pushed into a hideous silence. Simultaneously, the sources of income of those “revolutionaries” have also changed. According to reliable sources; some have received asylum in foreign countries and others have applied for it.

There were widespread allegations of a conspiracy behind the attack, but no one has any data to prove it is true. Their response is clear; I say because the other person said so.   However, one good thing is that those who blame the attack was the result of a political conspiracy formulated by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa are now struggling to continue their blabbering to mislead society. With the rapid development of information technology, Goebbels’ theory that a lie becomes a truth just by telling it again and again has changed. But Father Cyril Gamini is reluctant to come out of the Goebbelsian cage.

Ensnared in such a confused social context, the new despicable attempt of the group of conspiracy theorists including Father Cyril Gamini is to attack the characters of the government officials they are targeting. At the press conference held yesterday, he proved his new vice. Father Gamini could be observed in the media yesterday to be so low as to express his views in a very obnoxious manner targeting government officials while the conspiracy theory he articulated and kept on repeating in last few years, unfortunately, has exhausted without substance.

A few days ago, in the official propaganda magazine released by Islamic State, a detailed narration of the 2019 Easter attack was published. The publication has vividly cleared in detail that there is no political conspiracy behind this attack, but a group of fanatics motivated by Islamic State ideology. This has dealt a serious blow to conspiracy theorists. In fact, Father Cyril Gamini should answer that, instead of proving his ugliness in front of society by personally attacking the officials who have proven with data that they fulfilled their responsibility to the best of their ability.

Year of the Rabbit– India and China in South Asia

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2023 is the Year of the Rabbit which is seen as the gentlest animal in the Chinese Zodiac. This comes after the Year of the Tiger – fast and furious. But the Rabbit is good at adapting and can move rapidly cutting through multiple furrows of uncertainty. A Rabbit can also protect itself and indicates strong confidence and strength with resoluteness towards goals despite the obstacles.

Applied to the India China dyad despite operating on different zodiac systems 2023 denotes to be a year of continued competition cum confrontation. The confrontation of the military kind is easy to guess which may occur on the Northern borders as the Yangtze clash on December 09 indicates. Competition could be in many spheres geographic and topical.

In 2022, China was engaged in internal political consolidation for President and General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Now that the same is out of the way after the 20th Congress has established primacy of the Xi regime so to say, the pathway to regional and global domination will be resumed rapidly and at a faster pace than before.

From the Indian perspective Chinese presence in South Asia – New Delhi’s regional sphere of influence – Neighbourhood First assumes significance for that would be an area of contestation not just competition.

Yet China seems to have started at an advantage in the beginning of the New Year 2023 with a communist left party led coalition assuming power in Nepal, Pakistan continuing to be the favourable “ally,” regionally and umpteen opportunities in other states through political, diplomatic and economic influence.

Most importantly several countries in South Asia will face parliamentary or presidential elections. From the military regime ruled Myanmar to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives polls are to be held this year which may provide Beijing an opportunity to swing the tide in its favour using tools fair and foul.

With success in Nepal under the belt the Chinese could perceive a higher level of confidence and advantage. That the Chinese political, diplomatic and development machinery is nimble is evident with a few projects declared for Nepal days after the CPN Maoist Centre Leader Prachanda or Pushpa Kamal Dahal was sworn in as the Prime Minister.

The aim is to give a fillip to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects which have been lying fallow for some time. An attempt could also be made to open up trade and transit including energy routes to the North with China through Tibet despite the harsh terrain and logistics challenges faced.

Afghanistan may be a challenge for China given despite almost 16 months of defacto authority of the Taliban in power in Kabul there has been a breakthrough in only one mining and energy project with China’s CAPEIC (Xinjiang Central Asia Oil and Gas Company) in the Amu Darya Basin in the North on January 05.

The highly ambitious extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and linking with the Belt and Road Initiative will remain poor for now.

Extra regional influence is also expected to grow as the first container ship of Chinese goods landed in the joint India Iran Chabahar port on December 31.

The port is operated by India Ports Global and has seen greater maritime traffic than neighouring Gwadar in Pakistan which despite being a CPEC project has not seen many ships unloading. Apart from lack of hinterland, there are law and order and terror challenges in this zone whereas Chabahar is secure.

How an increase in Chinese traffic at the port will be handled by India in conjunction with Iran remains to be seen?

To sum up China may have a comprehensive advantage over India in Pakistan, while the influence in countries as Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar may be overwhelmingly wider.

On the other hand a tough contest for influence can be envisaged in Bangladesh Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Having understood the Chinese game to some extent India may be better prepared to meet these challenges, yet there are hurdles that can be envisaged apart from constraint of resources in comparative terms to the focus on managing the Chinese military expansion on the Northern borders as well as the maritime sphere.

This may tie down the Indian leadership which will also be working towards general elections in the country which will be held in the first half of 2024.

Indeed, Beijing’s calculations may have factored in this important event and how it would shape the same is a subject for another day.

Yet there could be one critical uncertainty internally for China – the spread of COVID 19 – while numbers are unclear for now – the impact is likely to wear down the Party as well as the State authorities in Beijing.

End of Conspiracy Theories: IS issues a detailed narration on Easter Attacks

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The Voice of Khorasan, a magazine by the media outlet for the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), recently published a brief bio of and a statement by Shaykh Shaheed Abu Ubaitha, the alleged mastermind of the 2019 attacks in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The profile was titled “Shaykh Abu Ubaitha: the Amir of the Istishadi Knights Who Wreaked Havoc on the Crusaders in Srilanka (sic.)”. The attacks occurred on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019: official figures state that these resulted in the deaths of 269 people, plus the eight suicide bombers involved.

The article claims that Ubaitha was born and raised in Kattankudy (Kaathankudi), a township on Sri Lanka’s east coast. It includes few personal details on him, stating “he had immense love for jihad and zeal for the Ummah (Islamic community) from his childhood, as he bore enmity towards the kuffar (infidels) and mushrikin (polytheists)”. It also claims that sometime prior to the attack, Ubaitha and 800 other individuals pledged their allegiance to former Islamic State (IS) Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

It states that Ubaitha’s 2019 attacks killed “650 Christians and mushrikin and 22 Mujihideen (who were) martyred”. It also claims that the attackers left a message to the world in “their own blood”, that states “Allah willing, the Khilifah will be raised through our blood that has flown from our bodies and fallen on this earth”.

Ubaitha is quoted directly in reference to the attacks. “If you ask us why we did these attacks, there is a village named Baghuz in Sham (Syria). This land was governed by the law of Allah only. Over 80 crusader countries destroyed this area and its people. They showered white phosphorus bombs, which has (sic.) been banned by the crusader countries [themselves]…”. “After killing our people, making our children orphans, making our sisters widows, and after killing the mujahedeen they (the ‘crusaders’) come here for tourism and holidays. So we have embarked on a noble cause… to kill them by sacrificing our lives!” In his lengthy statement, Ubaitha also addresses future potential targets, stating “Do not think you can negotiate. There will be explosions here and there. This is [just] the beginning!” The statement also mentions the March 2019 Christchurch Mosque shooting in New Zealand as justification for attacks on Churches in Colombo.

Other than the brief bio and photos provided in this recent publication, practically nothing is known of Shaykh Shaheed Abu Ubaitha. One of the known attackers named Mohammad Cassim Mohammad Zahran (aka Zahra Hashmi) came from Ubaitha’s reported hometown of Kattankudy. A suspected ringleader in the attacks, he was killed in a suicide explosion at the Shangri-la hotel in Colombo in 2019. It is possible that Shaykh Shaheed Abu Ubaitha may have been another of Zahran’s nom de guerres.

According to Sri Lankan officials, the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo were perpetrated by the National Thoweeth Jama’ath (NTJ). Translated from Arabic as the National Monotheism Organization, the NTJ is believed to have ties to IS: it and one of its suspected splinter groups were banned by the Sri Lankan parliament on April 27, 2019, shortly after the attacks. Although now-former Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene has claimed that the attacks came in response to the March 2019 Christchurch Mosque shootings, this has been disputed by some experts. If true, this latest statement from the ISKP would corroborate the Sri Lankan government’s official narrative on the matter.

Source: Militant Wire

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