Saturday, August 25, 2018

Rooting Out Reuters' Rotten Reporting on Nicaragua

Distorting Past and Present: Reuters on Nicaragua’s Armed Uprising

by Joe Emersberger  -

August 24, 2018

From April 18 until late July 2018, an armed insurrection in Nicaragua left hundreds of people dead. The uprising, backed enthusiastically by private media outlets in Nicaragua (in particular one of its largest circulating newspapers, La Prensa, and the TV network 100%Noticias), was also supported by local NGOs funded by the US government through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).

The Trump administration and others (the EU parliament, UN officials) publicly backed the opposition’s version of events, as did Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his supporters were held responsible for the vast majority of the “protest”-related deaths, and Ortega (who had been re-elected in 2016) was pressured at first to resign outright, and later to hold “early elections.”

I examined 45 Reuters news articles about the uprising in Nicaragua since April 18, as the London-based wire service, whose news articles are widely reprinted throughout English-language Western media, provides a good sense of the ostensible facts about the conflict as portrayed by corporate journalism. The story conveyed by Reuters is that the Sandinista government is opposed to democracy and human rights in Nicaragua, while the US government supports these things. Various other sources, which may provoke less distrust than a US government led by Donald Trump, were cited in support of this scenario. But a closer look at the picture presented by Reuters reveals numerous distortions about Nicaragua’s past and present.

Whitewashing the gruesome US track record

Daniel Ortega first came to power in 1979 when the rebel force he was a part of, the FSLN, or “Sandinistas” as they came to be known, ousted the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Somoza family’s dictatorship was established in 1937 as a direct result of a US occupation that lasted, almost continuously, from 1912 until 1933. By the end of the occupation, Somoza’s father was head of the US-trained National Guard.

Reuters mentioned the US occupation one time (5/28/18) in the 45 articles, but very misleadingly suggested it lasted only six years. Somoza was mentioned in 11 of the articles. Only one of those (5/28/18) mentioned that Somoza was a “US-backed” dictator. By contrast, Ortega was disparaged as being like Somoza in four articles. For example, one article (7/19/18) said that the protests had led to 300 deaths, and then quoted a government opponent saying, “He seems more and more like Somoza with the violations of human rights and killings.” Reuters provided no response to this comparison from Ortega’s supporters, but some of the following points would very likely have been made had Reuters looked for one.

Somoza’s National Guard is estimated to have killed between 40,000–50,000 people in his last 18 months in power (John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning, p. 181; Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua, p. 6). One three-week bombing campaign alone by Somoza’s military in September of 1978 killed at least 3,000 people.

The level of US support for Somoza is best illustrated by the Carter administration’s maneuvers to thwart meaningful change as Somoza fell (Walker, Nicaragua, p. 37). A month before Somoza fled to Miami, the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Lawrence Pezzullo, told Washington that with “careful orchestration, we have a better than even chance of preserving enough of the [National Guard] to preserve order and hold the FSLN in check.” Only 11 days before Somoza fled, Pezzullo heinously advised Washington, “I believe it ill-advised to go to Somoza and ask for a bombing halt.” Carter also made no objection to a $66 million IMF loan to Somoza two months before he fled.

The Reuters articles never mentioned the horrendous death toll from Somoza’s last stand, or US efforts to keep his repressive apparatus intact when Somoza himself could not be rescued.

Ronald Reagan with a T-shirt promoting the Nicaraguan Contras.

Ronald Reagan, dispensing with Carter’s attempt to use finesse, had the US train, arm and finance the Somocista “Contra” rebels throughout the 1980s. Reagan’s Contra war in Nicaragua cost 30,000 lives. Reuters mentioned Reagan’s backing for the Contras in eight of the 45 articles. Two (6/24/18, 6/3/18) noted the 30,000 people who died as a result of the war against the Contras. None mentioned that the Contras were basically run by Somoza’s ex-National Guardsmen.

Four articles stated that Nicaragua was “one of the poorest countries in the Americas” (4/20/18), or words to that effect—which is unsurprising, given that 78 years of Nicaragua’s history consisted of direct US military occupation, a brutal US-backed dictatorship, and the Reaganite terrorist war. It wasn’t until about 2008 that Nicaragua’s real GDP per capita recovered to the level it had reached when Somoza was overthrown.

It should be noted that Reuters is capable of putting sweeping indictments in its news articles, provided they are aimed at the Official Enemy. One article (5/28/18) stated that “Ortega has consolidated his rule by neutralizing and co-opting credible opposition and stalling the development of independent institutions.”

Casting doubt on Ortega’s democratic legitimacy

One Reuters article (7/18/18) stated that “Ortega is a former Marxist guerrilla leader who has held elected office since 2007 and also ruled the country from 1979 to 1990.” The contrast between “elected office” and “ruled” erases Ortega’s electoral victory in 1984 from history; it was never mentioned in any of the articles. One of the ways Reagan justified his aggression against Nicaragua during the 1980s was to claim that Ortega was a dictator, ignoring the 1984 election, which Ortega won with 67 percent of the vote, or claiming it was fraudulent. FAIR (Extra!, 10/87) noted in 1987, “Eighty percent of the [New York] Times sources about Nicaragua’s election were US officials and Nicaragua’s boycotting opposition.”

Another Reuters article (6/24/18) contains this jaw-dropping passage:

“Some in Nicaragua are looking to the lessons of the 1990 election when Ortega was defeated by an alliance led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a murdered opposition journalist. Her pitch was to end the civil war that claimed more than 30,000 lives.

The “opposition journalist” Reuters mentioned, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, was murdered in 1978 as a fierce opponent of the Somoza dictatorship, but Reuters’ wording deceptively suggests he was killed by the Sandinistas. Even more disgracefully, the “lesson” from 1990 was that if you are US-backed candidate promising to end US military and economic attacks on your country, you can use that to win an election. Chamorro’s “pitch,” based on the exploitation of violent foreign intervention, should completely discredit her victory in the eyes of reasonable observers.

Much of the US establishment has questioned the legitimacy of the 2016 US election based on reports of email hacking by Russia. If email hacking invalidates an election, then what about terrorist attacks and economic blackmail in support of the winning candidate?

Another Reuters article (5/16/18) said that

“Ortega, 72, first took power in 1979 after the Sandinista rebels overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. His government then fought a war against US-backed “Contras” before he was voted out in 1990.

Again, Ortega’s 1984 electoral victory is edited out of history, and he is presented as finally bowing to the will of voters in 1990. In the eyes of Western journalists, elections don’t exist when Washington doesn’t like the results, but US aggression does not mar an election result that the US government applauds.

In contrast to its knee-jerk acceptance of Chamorro’s electoral victory in 1990, Reuters relayed opposition allegations of electoral fraud against Ortega in eight articles. One of them (5/28/18) stated that Ortega was “re-elected in 2016 with nearly three-quarter of the votes after limiting opposition participation.” But an OAS report on the 2016 election defended the election’s legitimacy; the OAS’s observer mission, according to the OAS press office, identified

““important advances” and “weaknesses typical of all electoral processes” that have “not affected substantially the popular will expressed through the vote.”

The OAS has never been inclined to give governments targeted by Washington a pass; quite the contrary, which is why several years ago leftist governments in the region worked to create alternative organizations, like CELAC and UNASUR.

A year after Ortega’s last re-election, Latinobarometro, a pollster that tends to be biased against governments Washington dislikes, found Ortega’s government to be the most popular in Latin America, according to a broad range of questions.

Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (4/27/18) offered an explanation for why Ortega might be far more popular among Nicaraguan voters than he is with Western journalists:

Since 2006, Nicaragua’s per capita GDP has increased by 38 percent — more than in Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras. Inequality, too, is lower in Nicaragua than any of those other countries, save El Salvador. Poverty has been cut nearly in half, according to World Bank data, from 48 percent to 25 percent.

None of the Reuters articles mentioned the poverty reduction that took place during Ortega’s recent years in office.

Concealing opposition support for social security cuts

Protests erupted in response to the government announcing changes to the social security system. Reuters (4/19/18) described the changes as follows:

Employees will now have to contribute 7 percent of their salary to social security, up from a current 6.25 percent. Employers will have to contribute 22.5 percent of salaries from a current 19 percent. Pensioners will also have 5 percent of their pension taken out to be used for medical expenses.

An article by the Tortilla con Sal collective in Telesur (4/21/18) clarified that the 5 percent benefit cut would be taken from “retirees’ pensions so they receive the same healthcare benefits as active workers (which they currently do not).” Moreover, the changes removed “the salary ceiling so that people earning high salaries pay social security contributions proportionate to their income.”

The majority of Reuters’ articles (27 out of 45) noted that proposed “social security” (or “welfare”) changes sparked “the protests.” Many of those articles referred to the changes as “cuts.” The word “slash” was also used.

But tellingly, not a single article reported that COSEP, the business lobby that joined the coalition to overthrow Ortega, itself supports very deep and unpopular cuts to social security. On April 19, right after protests began, a COSEP press release called on Ortega to “be responsible,” even if it meant “paying the political price,” and endorsed a plan for a 20 percent cut in social security.

The opposition newspaper La Prensa (4/18/18) also made clear that it supported much deeper cuts to social security than the Sandinistas, dismissing Ortega’s proposal as “just a patch” in an April editorial that called for “profound structural changes.” The specific plan COSEP endorsed was based on recommendations by the IMF and FUNIDES, a Nicaraguan NGO funded by the US government through the NED. NED funding for the Nicaraguan opposition was never brought up by Reuters.

One Reuters article (5/28/18) spun the opposition’s lack of coherence beyond an “Ortega must go” line by calling it a “broad new coalition” that is “looking to the lessons of the 1990 election.” Another (6/24/18) described the “uneasy union” and “division,” but somehow never reported the basic fact that key groups within the opposition want much deeper cuts to social security than what Ortega proposed. Of course, if you are looking to seize power by applying the “lessons of 1990,” why worry about such details?
Hiding violence of ‘mainly peaceful’ opposition

Reuters would be unlikely to characterize protesters as “mainly peaceful” if they were shooting mortars at the police force of a pro-Western government.

The Reuters articles generally stuck to uncritically reporting what local rights groups claimed about the victims of violence. These claims were backed up by prominent international outfits like Amnesty International. Amnesty’s Erika Guevara-Rosas was quoted by Reuters (7/18/18) as saying “President Ortega has shown time and again that he will stop at nothing to crush all those who dare to oppose his government and anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way.”

A few times Reuters dispensed with quoting sources, stating directly that Ortega was guilty of a “thuggish response to weeks of protests” (5/28/18) or “violent repression of dissent” (7/24/18, 7/23/18). Even the Trump administration was uncritically quoted by Reuters (7/17/18) as joining the “outcry” over human rights. The same article quoted UN human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville as saying “the protesters were mainly peaceful, though some were armed.”

They “protesters” weren’t simply “armed,” though. They killed people.

Independent journalist Max Blumenthal (Mint Press News, 8/6/18) went to Nicaragua and spoke to numerous family members of people killed by the “mainly peaceful” opposition, who did a lot more than simply “oppose the government.” One high-profile victim miraculously escaped death, a student leader named Leonel Morales, who initially led protests against Ortega’s social security proposals. Soon after protests began, Morales held a nationally televised press conference saying that armed groups had infiltrated the protest movement at a major university. La Prensa (4/26/18) ran a hostile news article about Morales’ press conference, saying he “tried to delegitimize the protest movement.”

Days after that press conference, Blumenthal (Shadowproof, 8/5/18) recounted, Morales was “kidnapped from his girlfriend’s house by a truck full of armed men. He was shot in the face, shot in the stomach, stabbed, and thrown in a ditch to die.” La Prensa never reported the near-fatal assault on Morales, nor did Reuters. Blumenthal, who visited Morales in the hospital, was shocked that many high-profile and readily accessible victims of opposition violence were ignored by foreign journalists.

View image on Twitter


Max Blumenthal
I visited Leonel Morales today. He is in the hospital in Managua going through a string of surgeries. An armed opposition affiliated gang kidnapped him at his gf’s house, tortured him, slashed and shot him, and left him for dead in a drainage ditch. He miraculously survived.

Blumenthal (Gray Zone, 7/30/18) also wrote about the case of Gabriel de Jesus Vado, “a police officer from Jinotepe, who was kidnapped, dragged from a moving car, and burned alive on video.” The atrocity took place at one of hundreds of roadblocks set up by protesters.

An Ortega government supporter compiled a detailed spreadsheet of the deaths reported by local human rights groups. It includes police reports and news articles from both pro-opposition and pro-government sources about each death, when available. After two months of protests (when Reuters reported that local human groups were claiming 300 victims), his tally broke the 293 deaths down as follows:

20% (60) deaths implicate the opposition
20% (59) protester deaths implicate the government
16% (46) bystanders
17% (51) deaths not related to protests (crime, accidents)
26% (77) deaths for which information available is too limited

(An updated spreadsheet covering three months of the uprising—405 deaths—is here.)

Obviously, a breakdown like this compiled by a partisan source can be challenged. Depending on the standards for evidence applied, the classification of deaths can change significantly. I checked through each death in his first category (deaths that implicate the opposition), gave zero weight to police reports (the opposite of what Western journalists do at home), and gave most weight to sources, regardless of political bias, that quoted family members.

I concluded that the opposition was implicated in 52 deaths, most of them very strongly. Applying that same standard, the government (police or armed supporters) is implicated in 28 of the 46 bystander deaths, with the other 18 being unclear. (Based on 2017 figures for homicides, Nicaragua under normal circumstances would have had about 80 homicides in a two-month period, so the claim that 51 of the deaths were from crime unrelated to the protests is plausible.)

Wolf Blitzer (CNN, 4/28/15) repeatedly pushed DeRay McKesson  to 
condemn “violence” in protests against seven killings by the Baltimore police in the previous year.

Consider the very different standard for “peaceful” applied in the US to protests against impunity for police killings. In 2015, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (4/28/15) badgered Black Lives Matter supporter DeRay Mckesson after protests in Ferguson resulted in property damage and some police officers hurt. At one point Blitzer commanded, “I just want to hear you say there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests,” after Mckesson had already said exactly that a few times.

Samantha Bee (Full Frontal, 11/14/16) set the bar even higher suggesting that truly “peaceful protesters” would shake hands with police (, 11/16/16). Barack Obama urged Colin Kaepernick to “think of the pain” he may cause by kneeling during the national anthem to protest killings by police. A movement in the US, or resisting a US-backed government, would not be labeled “mainly peaceful” if it killed any police or civilians at all.

Even the relatively minor crimes perpetrated by the opposition in Nicaragua—like using piles of concrete blocks to set up roadblocks all over the country that were kept in place for months—would never be tolerated in the United States, or be described as “peaceful” acts of “dissent.” The unarmed protesters of Occupy Wall Street in the US had their camps evicted by police on the grounds that they were too dirty: a “public health hazard.” An Occupy march that stalled traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for a few hours led to 700 arrests.

That isn’t to say that Nicaraguan police and armed supporters didn’t perpetrate serious crimes in putting down the uprising. However, a violent insurrection like this in the US would never be legitimized by Reuters—not that such a revolt would ever be allowed to get a millimeter off the ground, or that foreign governments would dare support it. In the extremely unlikely event such a revolt developed, it would certainly be put down very brutally.

Some leftists in rich Western countries say that they live under “dictatorship.” It‘s a silly and defeatist claim, but it will not put their own countries at risk of invasion, foreign-backed violent insurrection or devastating economic assault. It’s quite different when a government in the Global South gets the “dictatorship” label pinned on it, thanks to very biased reporting about a foreign-backed insurrection.

Joe Emerbersger is a writer based in Canada whose work has appeared in Telesur English, ZNet and Counterpunch.

Nicaragua: Peace Rearing Its Ugly Head?

A Specter of Peace Is Haunting Nicaragua

by Roger D. Harris - Dissident Voice

August 25th, 2018 

After four months of violence, peace may be breaking out in Nicaragua, which has gotten those North American partisans opposed to Nicaraguan President Ortega worried. But they have one last hope.

The latest in a series of anti-Ortega articles in The Nation is entitled “An eternal night of persecution and death.” We are told:

“Despite mass killings and newly authoritarian laws, a diverse opposition says the movement to oust Ortega is far from over.”

Although some analysts understand the relative calm that has befallen Nicaragua is mainly due to the failure of the opposition to sustain public support, this article maintains it is because it is “too dangerous for resistors to rally publicly.” The article is primarily based on an interview with an anonymous source “whose name has been altered for his safety.” Toward the end of the article, we find out that the anonymous source is “at a coffee shop in New York.” Ever vigilant, he has his back to the wall “facing out at the rest of the café.”

With the opposition in quiescence, The Nation is still hopeful for regime change. The anonymous source “laments” that “the only way Ortega would concede to that would be with US and international pressure.” The article concludes that “while the United States is not the perfect partner, options are limited.”

The article condemns Ortega, who “no longer represents the ideals of…anti-imperialism,” but does not extend that criticism to publications calling for the US to partner in regime change in Nicaragua.

Will Uncle Sam Come to the Rescue?

Academic Latin Americanist William I. Robinson, an opponent of Ortega, questions whether the US will oblige. He contends,

“Washington’s primary interest in Nicaragua is not getting rid of Ortega but in preserving the interests of transnational capital.”

Much of Robinson’s analysis is consistent with those who oppose US involvement in the recent violence in Nicaragua. Robinson agrees that the CIA surrogate, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), “funding started in the mid-1980s and has never ceased. It is not new to the Ortega-Murillo period.” However, Robinson’s assertion that the US funding has “not been aimed at overthrowing Ortega” is mistaken. The so-called “democracy promotion” dollars from the US went to the opposition who are intent on overthrowing Ortega.

Robinson agrees a viable left alternative within the opposition to Ortega is lacking: “These popular sectors from below have no project of their own to put forward as a viable alternative to replace the regime. This opens up the popular resistance to manipulation or cooptation by the third force.”

This third force, Robinson explains “is the bourgeoisie, organized in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), the oligarchic elite, transnational capital, and the United States.”

And Robinson agrees:

“Finally, have right-wing forces taken advantage of the uprising to try to gain control over it? Absolutely. Have these forces deployed their own violence. Yes. Have they manipulated a disorganized and politically incoherent grassroots opposition to Ortega-Murillo? Yes.”
To his rhetorical question “would the post-Ortega scenario (that) the Right seeks to achieve be ‘more, not less, neoliberal, repressive, and authoritarian’ than the regime?” Robinson answers “probably.”

So what’s Robinson’s beef with what he characterizes as “the infantile Manichean view of a significant portion of the US Left”?

Robinson is a major proponent of the view that US imperialism has been eclipsed by a “transnational capitalist class.” He does allow that on a world scale Nicaragua weighs in as being more progressive: “Has the Ortega regime, with its assistancialism (sic), been anywhere near as ‘bad’ as these other neoliberal regimes? Certainly not.” But, less bad is not enough. The crux of his difference with the anti-imperialist left is that they uphold Nicaragua as worthy of defense, whereas in Robinson’s post-US imperialist world no nation passes his litmus test.

The Threat of an Alternative to Empire

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and its allies, all countries are compelled to be integrated into the world capitalist market, including Nicaragua. This is well described by Robinson in his academic work.

But Robinson is less insightful regarding the coercive aspect of US relations with progressive countries such as Nicaragua and its allies in ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. These countries and their leaders are very much in the crosshairs of US regime change efforts precisely because they represent some degree of a challenge to neoliberalism and because they are not compliant to every dictate of the empire.

Robinson may label this view as “manichean,” (i.e., seeing a binary world of good or evil), but it is a reality imposed by the US. George W. Bush, in his own eloquent way, summed up US strategy best: “You’re either with us or with the enemy.”

One of the factors contributing to a tipping point between US cooperation and US coercion was the adoption of a inter-oceanic canal project with Chinese financing, which fundamentally challenged US geopolitical interests.

The US has imposed sanctions against top Nicaraguan officials. USAID received an additional $1.5 million to promote “freedom and democracy” in Nicaragua. The NICA Act has passed the House by unanimous consent and is pending in the Senate. The NICA Act is designed to restrict international financing and thereby create misery among the Nicaraguan people to pressure the Ortega government.

And the bulk of the US diplomatic corps has been withdrawn from Nicaragua. The US State Department’s travel advisory warns that the remaining

“US government personnel are prohibited…from entering…gentlemen’s clubs throughout the country due to crime.” 

“Non-emergency government personnel” have been evacuated to go back home, presumably where gentlemen's clubs are still safe.

Nicaragua and its allies represent a breathing space in a world dominated by the US empire. The US government recognizes the alternative posed by Nicaragua as a threat and has targeted the Ortega government, even if some academics are less perceptive.

Roger D. Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.
Read other articles by Roger.

Kansas' Kris Kobach Coaches Expert Dogwhistle Campaigners

Kris Kobach’s Gubernatorial Campaign Hires White Nationalists


August 24, 2018

Kansas Republican Kris Kobach’s Governor’s Campaign hires white nationalists, giving momentum to the racist anti-immigrant movement and increasing their power in the GOP.

Christina Lopez is with Media Matters

Bolton Gives al-Qaeda Allies Broad Hint with "Red Line" on Syria

Bolton calls on Al-Qaeda to stage more chemical attacks in Syria

by Eva Bartlett - In Gaza


August 24, 2018

In a move that was entirely predictable, the US administration is once again threatening to bomb Syria if there is a “chemical weapons attack.” This was entirely predictable because that chemical attack script has been read out, with salty crocodile tears, fake concern, and mocked indignation by US talking heads over the years – since 2012, in fact, when former US President Obama himself drew his red line on Syria.

The latest script-reader to toe the chemical hoax line is President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who on August 22, stated:

“…if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time.”

Beyond the tattered veil of moral superiority that is US war propaganda, Bolton’s words were clearly a very public command to Al-Qaeda and co-extremists to stage yet another fake chemical attack.

Bolton’s statement was preceded by an August 21 France-UK-US (FUKUS) joint statement, likewise threatening further illegal bombing of Syria if a chemical attack in Syria occurred (based on evidence the US never has nor needs to reveal).

Recall that the last time they acted on such a threat, in April 2018, the US and its interventionist allies didn’t even wait for the Douma lie to be exposed, let alone for any mythical evidence to materialize, before they illegally bombed Syria with 103 missiles. The bombings occurred before the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had a chance to visit the Douma sites in question.

It seems that FUKUS’ appetite for destroying Syria wasn’t satiated in April 2018, nor in the April 2017 bombings of Syria following unsubstantiated allegations around Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib.

Bolton’s assertions are backed by the usual suspects of the corporate media, fake human rights groups, “media activists”, and individuals linked to NATO’s Atlantic Council war propaganda think tank.

The over two decades-long dictator of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Ken Roth – who couldn’t even discern whether a video was Gaza’s Israeli-flattened Shuja’iyya or Syria when he tweeted about it being Aleppo in 2015 – is re-beating the Ghouta 2013 dead horse to scare would-be humanitarians around the world. The Western narrative of events in Ghouta been widely-discredited by journalists, and by the so-called “rebels” themselves.

However, many people are rightly skeptical and disbelieving of the alarm cries, having seen this sort of song and dance before. The war propaganda heightened dramatically just prior to and during the liberation of eastern Aleppo and of eastern Ghouta, to name but two examples.

Indeed, the AFP’s Twitter thread on Bolton’s threat is filled with almost-exclusively mocking comments about replaying the false flag chemical attack scenario, and other overused, unbelievable war propaganda. Likewise on NBCNews’ video of Bolton making the threats.

Doing the job of corporate media, others continue to pose valuable questions about this latest outbreak of propaganda on chemical weapons attacks.

NATO war propagandists, not even slightly original

Chemical weapons accusations are among the most overused war propaganda tactics during the war on Syria. From late 2012 to April 2018, NATO’s mouthpieces have screamed bloody chlorine or sarin. But time and again, they’ve been revealed as intellectually-challenged, supremely-unoriginal liars, to put it politely. Less shrill voices have pointed out the many occasions where so-called “rebels” had access to sarin, control over a chlorine factory, and motives for an attack to occur, among other prudent points.

Some of the more loudly blasted claims were: March 2013, in Khan al-Assal, Aleppo; August 2013, in eastern Ghouta areas; April 2017, in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib; and April 2018, in Douma, eastern Ghouta.

Of the Khan al-Assal allegations, Carla Del Ponte, a lead member of the UNHRC commission of Inquiry, stated that it was “rebels” which used sarin, saying:

“I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got… they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.”

A Mint Press News journalist who went to the areas in question wrote of speaking to “rebels” and their family members who blamed Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar for sending them weapons they didn’t know were chemical weapons and didn’t know how to use.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote and spoke on the sarin allegations, noting (among many things) that,

“the sarin that the Syria army has, has a different chemical component than the sarin that would be made by al-Nusra.”

Among the many questions journalists should have posed around the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun allegations is the question of how we can trust any of the samples by the OPCW when clearly there was no chain of custody: the area is controlled by Al-Qaeda or groups affiliated, groups which have a vested interest in fudging results.

As noted in an article by Moon of Alabama, there is also a distinct lack of certainty around the Khan Sheikhoun accusations. The article further notes that in the OPCW report on Khan Sheikhoun, there are what they mildly dub as irregularities: the 57 cases of patients being admitted to hospitals before the alleged incident occurred, and the contradictory results of blood versus urine samples in “sarin victims”.

Following the April 2018 White House accusation that the Syrian government used sarin in Douma, and in spite of Damascus’ insistence on an OPCW investigation, FUKUS bombed Syria, including Damascus’ densely-inhabited Barzeh district, destroying a site which was involved in production of cancer treatment components, but not chemical weapons.

In Douma, medical staff said that patients had not shown symptoms of a chemical attack. Douma citizens likewise said there hadn’t been a chemical attack. Seventeen Douma civilians and medical staff testified this at the Hague. Corporate media snidely dismissed these testimonies.

The OPCW’s July 2018 interim report on Douma noted that in samples taken from alleged sites, no chemicals that are prohibited in the Chemical Weapons Convention were detected. The OPCW found traces of “chlorinated organic chemicals”, but not Sarin, as alleged by supposed expert Eliot Higgins and the White House, among others.

Who benefits from these repeated allegations? 

Would the Syrian government truly have benefited had it perpetrated any of these alleged attacks? No. Would it have been logical for the Syrian president to have ordered such a chemical attack, knowing it would bring forward the wrath of Obama, Trump, and their allies? Do these allegations benefit the regime-change coalition? Yes.

In their recent briefing report on the Douma allegations, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media analyzed the facts around the Douma allegations (and previous ones), the discrepancies around the official narratives, and the murky details behind experts bringing us “evidence”, including one expert with potential ties to the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Factors which just might influence the official outcome of investigations.

Regarding the latest concerns by FUKUS about a chemical attack, I agree on one point: we should be concerned that there will be a new attack or staging thereof, but not by the Syrian government. As has happened so many times prior, a staged attack would be done by NATO’s tools in Syria.

In fact, Syrian media recently noted the likelihood that members of the White Helmets and Al-Qaeda in Syria recently transported shipments of barrels from a chlorine recycling factory near the Turkish border to terrorist-occupied areas of Idlib.

If true, indeed strange activities for a “neutral rescue” group, and a worrisome setting of the stage for a new round of accusations.

Obfuscating the legitimate fight against Al-Qaeda in Idlib

What Bolton, CNN, or any other mouthpieces of illegal intervention attempts in Syria are avoiding mentioning is the Al-Qaeda elephant in the room: the designated terrorist group, which now goes by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dominates Idlib. HTS supposedly “cut” ties with Al-Qaeda but still maintains the same ideology.

Envoy for the US-led coalition (pretending to defeat ISIS), Brett McGurk, even deemed Idlib “the largest Al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri (current #Al-Qaeda leader) & this is a HUGE problem.”

Yet, CNN was just back in Idlib (having illegally entered, again), glossing over the Al-Qaeda factor, as predicted, and beginning, what will become, a nonstop stream of war propaganda focused on the city.

In fact, many on social media are predicting the recycled war propaganda memes we’ll be seeing more of soon from the regime-change coalition, including “last hospitals”, Bana al-Abed 3.0 child twitter accounts (Bana 2.0 accounts were created during the liberation of eastern Ghouta), and the latest emotive hashtag #EyesOnIdlib.

Days ago, HTS’ Abu Mohammed al-Golani spoke against the surrender of armed groups in Idlib. Another “Syrian rebel” in Idlib, an Egyptian Al-Qaeda commander, threatened Syrians, who might be considering reconciliation, with crucifixion.

It’s not only terrorists who oppose reconciliation. Western governments find that concept a thorn in the side of their intervention project. Reconciliation has brought peace and stability to areas across Syria, most recently Daraa governorate. When I went to Daraa in May 2018, terrorist shells rained down. Now, after a combination of military operations and reconciliations throughout Daraa, calm reigns, as in eastern Ghouta and Aleppo prior.

Yet, every time the process is beginning in a new area, terrorists shell humanitarian corridors, and Western talking heads squeal about unverified “atrocities”, turning wilfully blind eyes to Al-Qaeda and affiliates in Syria, and demonizing the Syrian and Russian governments for fighting terrorism in Syria.

The FUKUS August 21 statement also read: “We implore those countries to recognize that the unchecked use of chemical weapons by any state presents an unacceptable security threat to all states.”

I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in demanding the US and its allies be held accountable for their documented, unchecked and criminal use of chemical weapons on civilians around the world.

Related Links:

Eyes on Idlib: Syrian children robbed of innocence to act as mouthpieces for US coalition proxies, August 16, 2018, Vanessa Beeley

Briefing note: the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018, and other alleged chlorine attacks in Syria since 2014, by Paul McKeigue, Jake Mason, David Miller, Piers Robinson, Members of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

UN On Khan Sheikhoun – Victims Hospitalized BEFORE Claimed Incident Happened, October 29, 2017, Moon of Alabama

‘They know that we know they are liars, they keep lying’: West’s war propaganda on Ghouta crescendos, March 21, 2018, Eva Bartlett

Terrorist capabilities laid bare in an Eastern Ghouta chemical lab, March 16, 2018, Sharmine Narwani

Syrian civilians from ground zero expose chemical hoax, June 1, 2018, Eva Bartlett

Israel and Britain's Corbyn Attacks

Is Israel's hidden hand behind the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn?

by Jonathan Cook - MiddleEast Eye

August 24, 2018

Israeli group submits freedom of information request as evidence grows of meddling by Netanyahu government in UK politics

Has Israel been covertly fuelling claims of an "anti-Semitism crisis" purportedly plaguing Britain's Labour Party since it elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, three years ago?

That question is raised by a new freedom of information request submitted this week by a group of Israeli lawyers, academics and human rights activists.

They suspect that two Israeli government departments – the ministries of foreign affairs and strategic affairs – have been helping to undermine Corbyn as part of a wider campaign by the Israeli government to harm Palestinian solidarity activists.

The Israeli foreign affairs ministry employs staff of the country's embassy in London, which was at the centre of suspicions of meddling in UK politics provoked by an Al Jazeera undercover documentary aired last year.

Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer, has written to both ministries requesting information on Israel's contacts and possible funding of anti-Corbyn activities by pro-Israel lobby groups in the UK. The letter specifically seeks information on possible ties with the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Community Security Trust, Labour Friends of Israel and Conservative Friends of Israel.

It also requests information on any efforts by the two Israeli ministries and the Israeli Embassy to influence journalists and civil society groups in the UK.

The move follows an outburst by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on social media last week, in which he accused Corbyn of laying a wreath at a cemetery in Tunisia in 2014 for a Palestinian faction that took hostage Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Eleven Israelis were killed during a bungled rescue bid by the German security services.

Netanyahu's high-profile intervention followed days of similar claims in the British media against Corbyn.

The Labour leader has insisted that the wreath was laid for Palestinian and Tunisian victims of an Israeli attack on Tunisian soil in 1985, an operation that was denounced by most Western leaders at the time.
'War against the Jews'

The suggestion that Corbyn supported Palestinian terrorists is an escalation in long-running allegations of a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism in the Labour Party since he became leader. Such claims have been rife despite statistics showing that the party has less of a problem with anti-Semitism than both the ruling Conservative Party and British society generally.

While initial charges of anti-Semitism in the party targeted mostly Corbyn supporters, the focus has increasingly shifted to the Labour leader himself.

This week Labour MP Joan Ryan, who heads Labour Friends of Israel, wrote a commentary in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper directly blaming Corbyn for what she termed the party's anti-Semitism crisis.

She said the party's problems had grown out of his "past associations with 'Holocaust deniers, terrorists and some outright anti-Semites'".

Fellow Labour MP Margaret Hodge had earlier
called Corbyn "an anti-Semite and racist".

Marie Van Der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies, appeared this week on i24, an Israeli English-language channel, to berate Corbyn:

"It's like Jeremy Corbyn has declared war on the Jews ... We as the Jewish community are spending our time fighting the leader of the opposition."

A recently created British group, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, solicited testimony this week from British Jews in a case it has submitted to the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission alleging "institutional racism" in the Labour Party.

Meddling by Israel

Netanyahu's tweet is far from the first example of public meddling by Israel in Labour politics. Last December Gilad Erdan, Israel's strategic affairs minister and a close ally of Netanyahu's, all but accused Corbyn of being an anti-Semite.

He was reported saying:

"We recognise and we see that there are anti-Semitic views in many of the leadership of the current Labour Party."

An Israeli app developed by Israel's strategic affairs ministry was reportedly used this month to amplify erroneous criticism of Corbyn on social media for making supposedly anti-Semitic comments at a 2010 meeting.

A "mission" issued to Israel lobbyists urged them to spread claims that Corbyn had compared Israel to Nazi Germany, based on a misreading of a report in Britain's Times newspaper. In fact, Corbyn had attended an anti-racism event at which a Holocaust survivor, Hajo Meyer, had made such a comparison.

But while these interventions have angered Corbyn and many of his supporters, there are suggestions that, behind the scenes, Israel has been playing a much larger role in helping to stoke the party's "anti-Semitism crisis," as the freedom of information request suggests.

Dirty tricks unit

The main source of Labour's current woes looks to be Israel's strategic affairs ministry, which has been headed by Erdan since 2015.

It was set up in 2006, mainly as a vehicle to prevent far-right politician Avigdor Lieberman from breaking up the governing coalition. Lieberman and his successors used it chiefly as a platform from which to stoke concerns about either Iran building a nuclear bomb or a supposed problem of "Palestinian incitement".

But more recently, reports suggest that Netanyahu has encouraged the ministry to redirect its energies towards what he terms "delegitimisation," chiefly in response to the growing visibility of the international BDS movement, which promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel.

"They hope that by taking action against him, they can decapitate what they see as the most powerful figure in this network. By making an example of him, they can sow division, spread fear and suppress speech on Israel." - Asa Winstanley, journalist

As a result, the strategic affairs ministry has moved from being a relative backwater inside the government to playing a starring role in Israel's struggle on the world stage against "enemies" damaging its image.

It is hard to determine precisely what the ministry is up to, so sensitive is its work. Even the names of many of its staff are classified.

In the summer of 2016, it advertised a position for an intelligence operative to head a "tarnishing" – or dirty tricks – unit. Its role, according to Amir Oren, a commentator on Israel's security services, was to "establish, hire or tempt nonprofit organisations or groups not associated with Israel, in order to disseminate the sullying material".

The ministry now has an annual budget of tens of millions of dollars, and there are clues aplenty that it is playing a leading, if covert, role in shaping public perceptions of Israel around the world.

'Civil targeted eliminations'

Erdan's number two, Sima Vaknin-Gil, a former military intelligence officer, told a parliamentary committee in 2016 that most of the ministry's activities had to stay "under the radar" because of "sensitivities".

"I can't even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities," she said.

The ministry's job, she added, was to build a "community of warriors".

Yossi Melman, a veteran Israeli analyst who has spent decades covering Israel's intelligence services, reported at the time that the ministry was receiving help from a "special unit" of military intelligence to run "black ops" that might include "defamation campaigns" and "harassment".

The ministry's underhand methods were alluded to two years ago, at a conference in Israel against BDS. A colleague of Erdan's, intelligence minister Yisrael Katz, called for "targeted civil eliminations" of high-profile proponents of BDS.

That could be achieved, he suggested, by drawing on information provided by the Israeli intelligence services he oversees.

Katz used language intended to play on the term "targeted assassinations" – how Israel describes its extrajudicial execution of Palestinian leaders. Katz appeared to be calling for "black ops" designed to character-assassinate Israel's leading critics.

Plan to marginalise critics

If Israel regards it as necessary to go to such lengths against BDS activists, it seems reasonable to ask: what is it prepared to do to undermine Corbyn, who heads the largest political party in Europe and was in sight of winning last year's British general election?

If Corbyn eventually becomes prime minister, he would be the first European leader to prioritise the cause of justice for Palestinians over Israel's continuing occupation.

Clues are provided in a report written last year by two prominent pro-Israel lobby groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute, in collaboration with Israeli government "experts" and endorsed by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. The report was leaked to the Electronic Intifada website.

It warned that solidarity with Palestinians had "migrated into mainstream left-wing parties in Europe". The damage could be curtailed, according to the report, by "driving a wedge" between what it termed "harsh critics" and "soft critics" of Israel.

It proposed "professionalising" the existing network of pro-Israel lobby groups and improving "information-gathering" to target Palestinian solidarity activists – or what it called a "delegitimisation network". Such work needed to be done "covertly" and "uncompromisingly," the authors stated.

Harsh critics, the report concluded, could then be "marginalised to a point where it [their criticism] is considered socially inappropriate".

The report praises the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs for having "inserted a great degree of sophistication and creativity to the pro-Israel network".

Vaknin-Gil, the ministry's director-general, is quoted in the document as endorsing its findings: "I am glad to see that we share a very similar point of view regarding the challenge and desired strategy."

'Sowing divisions'

Whether connected or not, much of the report reads like a playbook for what Israel lobbyists have been doing to promote the idea of an "anti-Semitism crisis" in the Labour Party.

The issue has indeed driven a wedge between "harsh critics" of Israel – Corbyn and his supporters – and much of the rest of the party bureaucracy.

Asa Winstanley, an investigative journalist who has extensively covered the claims of an anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour Party for the Electronic Intifada, argues that Corbyn is viewed by Israel as effectively the "figurehead of the delegitimisation network".

"They hope that by taking action against him, they can decapitate what they see as the most powerful figure in this network," he told Middle East Eye.
"By making an example of him, they can sow division, spread fear and suppress speech on Israel."

Certainly, Israel's fingerprints look to be present in the current claims of an anti-Semitism crisis supposedly revolving around Corbyn.

Active interference by the Israeli government in British politics was highlighted last year in a four-part undercover documentary produced by the Qatari channel Al Jazeera. It secretly filmed the activities of an operative in Israel's embassy in London named Shai Masot.

The Al Jazeera investigation provoked numerous complaints that it breached broadcasting rules relating to anti-Semitism, bias, unfair editing and invasions of privacy. However, Ofcom, the British broadcasting regulator, cleared the programme of all charges.

What little coverage there was of the documentary in the British media focused on Masot's meetings with pro-Israel activists in the Conservative Party. Masot is shown plotting to "take down" a junior foreign office minister, Alan Duncan, who was seen by Israel as too sympathetic to the Palestinians.

But the documentary itself concentrated on Masot's much more extensive meetings with pro-Israel activists in the Labour Party. One of his main efforts was to establish a front organisation, a youth wing of Labour Friends of Israel that would have been opposed to Corbyn.

Complaints of bias

Masot was also filmed collaborating with two key Israel lobby groups within the party, the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) and Labour Friends of Israel – membership of the latter includes dozens of Labour MPs.

Winstanley, of the Electronic Intifada, observed that the JLM had in recent years become a largely defunct organisation until it was revived in February 2016 – just as claims of an anti-Semitism crisis in Labour took off.

Those who have tried to investigate how the JLM expanded its operations so rapidly say its funding sources are "completely opaque".

Shortly after the JLM became more active, a new director, Ella Rose, was appointed. It was Winstanley who revealed that Rose had been recruited straight from Israel's London embassy, where she worked as its public affairs officer.

Although the JLM has argued it represents the diversity of Jewish opinion in the Labour Party, that has come under challenge since the Al Jazeera investigation. A new faction, Jewish Voice for Labour, has since been established with a declared intention to show that many of the party's Jewish members are supportive of Corbyn.

"It looks suspiciously like the JLM has become a proxy of the Israeli state," Winstanley said.
"It is not an organic grassroots movement, as it likes to claim. And it is no accident that it has been the driving force behind the claims of an anti-Semitism problem under Corbyn."

Both Ella Rose and the JLM were contacted for comment on these allegations, but neither had responded at time of publication.

Turf war in London

Who was Masot working for? Perhaps not surprisingly, Israeli officials and the Israeli media have downplayed his significance, portraying him as a minor player at the embassy who pursued a rogue, personal policy.

That view appeared to be accepted by the British government and the British media, which allowed the controversy to quickly die down after Masot was sent back to Israel.

But there is considerable evidence that Masot's collaborative work with British pro-Israel organisations against Corbyn was being carried out at the direction of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

In September 2016, as Al Jazeera was filming its undercover documentary, Haaretz reported on a growing turf war in Britain between the Israeli foreign ministry and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the two groups targeted in the freedom of information request.

In a leaked cable sent to the Israeli foreign ministry and obtained by Haaretz, its senior staff at the London embassy complain that Erdan’s strategic affairs ministry is "operating" British Jewish organisations behind the embassy's back.

The embassy's apparent concern is that such operations are likely to break British law and could have "dangerous" repercussions for the embassy's work. "Britain isn't the US!" the cable states.

Haaretz explained the concern behind the cable: "The potential legal problem stems from the fact that most British Jewish organisations are defined as charities. As such, they are barred from activity of a political nature unless it is directly connected to the organisation's charitable goals."

According to the Haaretz report, strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan had visited Britain two weeks earlier to try to iron out differences. His advisers in the UK had promised "not to pose as the embassy," though the cable identifies an incident shortly afterwards when one such adviser did so.

Was Masot another of Erdan's "advisers" in the UK, operating out of the embassy? His covert operations – caught on camera – are of precisely the kind his own embassy was complaining about.

At one point during Al Jazeera's many weeks of secret filming, Masot dramatically changes direction. He announces to the undercover reporter that he can no longer be directly involved in creating a Labour youth movement and must remain in the background. He is seen winking at the reporter.

His sudden change of tune appears to coincide with the spat between the embassy staff and the strategic affairs ministry.

Problems over anti-Semitism

One Labour activist, who did not wish to be named given the purges taking place inside the party, told MEE: "Corbyn is up against an unholy, ad hoc alliance of right-wing MPs in both the Labour and Tory parties, the Israeli government and its lobbyists, the British security services and the media.

"They have settled on anti-Semitism as the best weapon to use against him because it is such a taboo issue. It's like quicksand. The more he struggles against the claims, the more he gets sucked down into the mire."

That has been all too evident in months of wrangling inside Labour about how to define anti-Semitism. Under pressure from Corbyn's critics, the party approved a new code of conduct in July based on a highly controversial "working definition" drafted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The adoption of the IHRA definition, however, did nothing to placate Jewish leadership organisations, such as the Board of Deputies, or the JLM. They objected because Labour's code of conduct excluded four of the IHRA's 11 possible "examples" of anti-Semitism - the main ones that relate to Israel.

Labour officials feared that including them would severely curtail the party's ability to criticise Israel.

Experts agree. David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck College, London University, has warned of "a danger that the overall effect will place the onus on Israel's critics to demonstrate they are not anti-Semitic".

Under pressure from pro-Israel groups, however, Labour looks close to adopting all of the IHRA examples.

Creating a new definition

Israel's fingerprints are evident in these recent efforts to redefine anti-Semitism in a way that moves the centre of gravity away from hatred of Jews towards criticism of Israel.

That shift inevitably ensnares any political leader who, like Corbyn, wishes to express solidarity with Palestinians.

The IHRA's definition is itself based on one proposed in 2004 – and discarded after much criticism – by a now-defunct European Union body called the Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

That definition was derived from the work of Israeli academics such as Dina Porat, who was part of an Israeli foreign ministry delegation to an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. At that time Israel was facing a barrage of criticism for its use of lethal force to put down a Palestinian uprising.

Nathan Thrall, an analyst in Jerusalem with the International Crisis Group, has noted that the aim of Porat and others was to create "a new definition of anti-Semitism that would equate criticisms of Israel with hatred of Jews".

The role of the strategic affairs ministry, given its covert nature, is harder to assess. But the existence of a 'dirty tricks' unit points towards a strategy to vilify and isolate high-profile Palestinian solidarity activists such as Corbyn

They were largely responsible for the way the EUMC's "working definition" was formulated.

But Israel and its lobbyists were frustrated by the definition's failure to gain traction. That began to change in 2015.

A conference in Jerusalem sponsored by the Israeli foreign affairs ministry, the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, recommended that year that the working definition of anti-Semitism "be reintroduced into the international arena with the aim of giving it legal status".

The task was taken up by a senior pro-Israel lobbyist, Mark Weitzman, of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre. As chair of the IHRA's committee on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, he lobbied on behalf of the discredited EUMC definition. The IHRA formally adopted it in 2016.

In a new book, Cracks in the Wall, analyst Ben White points to an Israeli government document that approved the change of emphasis in the definition. The document states:

"The main innovation in the working definition is that it also includes expressions of anti-Semitism directed against the state of Israel, when it is perceived as a Jewish collective."

'Open season' on Corbyn

A tool originally intended to suppress student debates about Israel and block Israel anti-apartheid week on campus has now been successfully pressed into service against the leader of a major British political party.

According to Winstanley, if the full IHRA definition is approved by Labour: "It will be open season on Corbyn and his supporters in the party."

He added that the strategy outlined in the report by the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute was being closely followed.

"Well-tested disinformation strategies are being used to isolate Corbyn from his base of support," he said.

The Israeli academics and lawyers seeking access to information on the activities of two Israeli ministries – foreign affairs and strategic affairs – believe that official documents could help to expose a role played by Israel in fomenting the current problems facing Corbyn.

The foreign ministry has demonstrably been at the centre of efforts to expand the definition of anti-Semitism from hatred of Jews into a catch-all for criticism of Israel – a definition that Corbyn and his supporters are bound to fall foul of.

The role of the strategic affairs ministry, given its covert nature, is harder to assess. But the existence of a "dirty tricks" unit points towards a strategy to vilify and isolate high-profile Palestinian solidarity activists such as Corbyn.

There is evidence that, in cooperation with the foreign affairs ministry, it has run at least one agent out of the London embassy assisting and possibly directing pro-Israel lobby groups to amplify a supposed anti-Semitism crisis in the Labour party.

Given his long track record of being at the forefront of anti-racism initiatives that have emphasised Palestinian solidarity and criticism of Israel, Corbyn may find there is an endless supply of readily mined "scandals" the two ministries can keep digging up.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Saudi/Iran Price War Threatens OPEC

A Saudi-Iran Oil War Could Break Up OPEC

by Irina Slav -

August 25, 2018

When OPEC and Russia shook on increasing crude oil production by a million barrels daily to stop the oil price climb that had begun getting uncomfortable for consumers from Asia to the United States, there was no sign of what was to come just two months later: slowing demand in Asia, ample supply, and a brewing price war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch-rival in the Middle East, has been a passionate supporter of President Trump's intention to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran and reimpose sanctions.

This support is not simply on ideological or religious grounds, it also has a purely economic motive: the less Iran crude there is for sale, the more consumers will buy from Saudi Arabia.

Iran, however, is not giving up so easily. It has more to lose, after all, with the harshest sanctions yet coming into effect in the coming months. The first shots in this war were already fired: Saudi Arabia cut its selling price for oil shipped to all its clients except the United States, S&P Global Platts reports in a recent analysis of OPEC.

Iran did the same and has indicated that it is prepared to do a lot more if any other producer threatens its market share. In fact, statements from senior government and military officials suggest that Iran is ready to go all the way to closing off the Strait of Hormuz.

While analysts argue whether Iran's threats have any teeth, oil demand news from Asia is giving OPEC another cause for worry. Slowing economic growth is dampening oil demand growth and both the Chinese yuan and the Indian rupee are falling against the dollar as a result of the economic developments in both Asia and the United States, whose economy is growing so fast that some are beginning to worry that it will soon run out of steam.

So, OPEC's internal fractures are deepening and likely to deepen further because Saudi Arabia and Iran are highly unlikely to put down their arms, even if it means cutting prices to uncomfortably low levels. Saudi Arabia could boost its production.

According to Platts, it has the biggest portion of OPEC's combined spare capacity. Iran is not really in a position to do so, what with exports already falling and expected to fall further as the November 4 start of the sanctions approaches. Yet Iran has made clear that it will not stop exporting oil and China, for one, has made clear it will not stop buying it.

China and India, unsurprisingly, are shaping up as the battleground for Saudi and Iranian crude as two of the world's top oil consumers. While India has suggested that it will try to comply with U.S. sanctions, China has stated the opposite. So, India could up its Saudi oil intake, but whether China will do so will depend on prices. Again, Iran has more to lose, so it might be willing to go further than Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis cannot go too far: they have huge financial commitments under the Vision 2030 reform strategy and they are already extending themselves with major investment projects at home and abroad.

A price war between Saudi Arabia and Iran could effectively put an end to OPEC. Iran has already voiced its strong opposition to the reallocation of individual member quotas suggested by Saudi Oil Minister Khalid al-Falih. According to his Iranian counterpart Bijan Zanganeh, this threatens its market share.

Both are expected to attend a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee that was set up to monitor the production cut deal struck with Russia in 2016. It's hard to imagine Saudi Arabia assuring Iran that its market share won't suffer any consequences from its stated pledge to fill any supply gap left by a cut in Iranian exports resulting from the U.S. sanctions. It's also hard to imagine Iran shrugging and letting this go. Could OPEC be on the way out? Maybe.