Monday, June 30, 2014

Why Was Blackwater in China?

James Risen’s report in the New York Times on Blackwater’s death threat against State Department investigators in Iraq (and the US embassy’s craven decision to kick out the investigators for being “unsustainably disruptive to day-to-day operations” in response) also includes this interesting passage:

The company's gung-ho attitude and willingness to take on risky tasks were seductive to government officials in Washington. The State Department, for example, secretly sent Blackwater guards to Shenyang, China, to provide security for North Korean asylum seekers who had gone to the U.S. Consulate there and refused to leave for fear the Chinese government would force them to go back to North Korea, according to company documents and interviews with former Blackwater personnel.

The backstory for the Shenyang job is presumably the flood of economic and political refugees from North Korea during the famine years of the early 2000s.   Some refugees tried to get into various consulates in Shenyang as well as embassies in Beijing, and hope that they could obtain some kind of asylum/entry into a sympathetic foreign country instead of facing repatriation to North Korea.

Antoaneta Bezlova wrote the story for IPS in 2002 (via Asia Times Online):

The attempt by the family of five North Koreans to enter the Japanese consulate in Shenyang is the latest in a string of cases. On the weekend, two North Koreans entered the Canadian embassy in Beijing to seek sanctuary. The swelling flow of North Korean asylum seekers in China comes following the daring and successful asylum bid of 25 refugees who rushed into the Spanish embassy in Beijing in March. They were later allowed to leave the country and gained passage to South Korea through the Philippines. More attempts have followed. Last month, a North Korean sought asylum in Beijing's German Embassy after scrambling over a two-meter wall into its compound, while two other North Koreans gained entry into the US mission. All three subsequently were sent on to South Korea.

The wave of asylum bids has been highly publicized in the foreign press as they offer a rare glimpse into the secretive society of poverty-wracked North Korea, which is plagued by a lack of food, heat and medicine. Between 250,000 and 300,000 refugees are believed to be in the hiding in the northern Chinese provinces bordering North Korea.

The PRC pushed back aggressively to control the influx of asylum seekers.  The most troubling incident occurred at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang.  Chinese police seized three family members as they tried to rush through a half-open gate at the consulate; two adults made it inside and police walked into the consulate and arrested them, without any apparent resistance from the consulate staff.

Per Bezlova, whether the Chinese had any tacit agreement from the Japanese government is a matter of dispute:

Japan and China agreed on Wednesday to release the five asylum seekers and send them to South Korea or the United States via the Philippines. The agreement was made during talks in Tokyo between China's ambassador to Tokyo and Japan's vice foreign minister. The incident in Shenyang was caught on videotape. At the time, China said that Japanese diplomats had given police permission to enter the compound to seize the asylum seekers. But on Monday, Japanese officials said that consent was not given and that Tokyo considered the incident a violation of its sovereign territory.

Maybe one of those “Officially, this is unacceptable, unofficially…meh” things.  

The most interesting question is why this family, apparently both determined and with access to significant support from the escapee support network (which I imagine, must be highly selective in its choice of people to champion), was not discretely waved into some consulate for eventual emigration.  Did the DPRK pass the message to the PRC and Japan that asylum/emigration for these particular people was intolerable?  Or was the cooperation of family members already overseas deemed unsatisfactory, perhaps even evidence that they were double agents?

In any event, the family quickly became an unwelcome media and political headache with no upside.

In talking to the Japanese government immediately prior to the incident, Lee Young Hwa of RENK  (Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network) had warned of the hardball tactics the asylum seekers might theoretically employ to make it into the consulate:

From my experience of helping asylum seekers in the past, there is the strong possibility that refugees might be carrying suicide poison with them just in case. Also, with this worst case scenario in mind, they are also likely be accompanied by reporters.

It’s unclear if suicide poison was involved, but the media was certainly present:

South Korean activists who help North Koreans seek asylum showed once again their talent for public relations. The Yonhap News Agency, tipped off in advance, filmed the struggle on May 8 from a window across the street in Shenyang.

The Japanese government apparently cared enough about the family of five, or at least for Japan’s international reputation, to ensure that the group was allowed to journey onward to the ROK and/or the United States and not get repatriated to North Korea despite detention by Chinese police.

According to Lee, who was apparently the go-to guy at the time both for asylum seekers and foreign governments trying to get a grip on the asylum-seeking process, the response at the US consulate in Shenyang was somewhat more muscular:

In the case of the United States, however, the United States took refugees who rushed into the U. S. Embassy in Beijing and its Consulate  General in Shenyang into protective custody  without making a fuss, not allowing armed Chinese police to enter into either of its diplomatic compounds.

This looks like the suitable context for the Blackwater revelation.

Given the still inexplicable willingness of the Japanese consulate to waive its sovereign immunity and allow Chinese police to arrest people on its grounds, maybe the State Department decided it was necessary to bring in Blackwater and demonstrate that, no matter what was going on with Japan, and no matter how high the value of the asylum seekers sheltering in the US consulate (and despite, I would think, the ability of US embassy and consulate guards to refuse entry to Chinese police), whatever happened at the Japanese consulate should not in any way be misconstrued as a precedent for the US.

The alternate possibility is that Blackwater was there to make sure that the consulate wasn’t stormed by desperate asylum seekers.  This is, however, unlikely.  Asylum seekers would have to run a gauntlet of Chinese police to get to near the consulate.  In any case, as Lee’s account of the Japanese consulate fiasco indicates, asylum seekers were not crowds of starving Korean peasants bum-rushing consulates and embassies; those unfortunates were, by and large, still bottled up on the DPRK/PRC border.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, were part of an “elite” subgroup of refugees who could reasonably expect a friendly reception, for instance escapees who were Japanese residents (“returnees” i.e. ethnic Korean residents of Japan who had emigrated from Japan to North Korea and subsequently fled, and possibly had Japanese family members), ROK prisoners of war, people with relatives already overseas, or, it appears, attractive intelligence assets.  

Their asylum gambits were choreographed and pre-arranged by a NGOs acting as concierges on behalf of particular individuals and families.

Other members of the family that tried to rush the Japanese consulate had already made a successful bid for asylum in Beijing, according to the New York Times:

The five people who were detained by the Chinese police while trying to enter the Japanese Consulate are all members of a family that has angered North Korean authorities with previous efforts to escape to Seoul, a human rights group said. Last June, other family members walked into the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing demanding asylum and were subsequently resettled in Seoul.

The increased traffic in asylum seekers was definitely not welcome to the PRC—which installed barriers, heightened security to prevent approaches to embassies and consulates, and issued a notification laying out its disapproval.

The foreign states were not terribly averse to the Chinese message.

Overall, it appears that the bottom line was that the “underground railroad” had the potential to deliver “elite” refugees in quantities that the foreign states as well as the PRC deemed unacceptably disruptive, and the message was passed to the NGOs that qualified escapees should not be put in the pipeline on the presumption that they would be welcome when it came time to negotiate the final passage into a consulate or embassy.

In 2007, Adrian Hong of Liberty in North Korea described a failed approach:

“Last December, our field workers had moved to help 6 North Korean refugees from our underground shelters in China seek asylum. These refugees were judged to be high-risk; two orphan teenagers, a young 22 year old woman, and three older women. Many of the refugees have chronic injuries and illnesses. One of the refugees is mother of a North Korean refugee now resettled in the United States. During our underground railroad operation, our refugees and their escorts made the dangerous trek to the United States Consulate in Shenyang without incident, although not without several very close calls. 
Upon arrival in Shenyang, I notified the authorities at the Consulate of our identities and intentions, to seek asylum and protection for these NK refugees. I took extensive measures, as always, to remain discrete, speaking over safe phone lines and using words and phrases that would signal our situation to educated Consular staff, but not to an eavesdropper. As the group waited a few hundred feet from the main gate of the US Consulate, in view of the United States flag and gates, I was told that someone would call me back. 

A while later I received a call from a gentleman who identified himself as a member of the US Consulate. He referred to me by name, and said that they could not accept us, and that they suggested for us to “take the North Korean refugees and go to the UNHCR in Beijing. It goes without mention that US posts are subject to intense electronic surveillance, and sure enough, a short while later large numbers of Chinese authorities and police began to show up in the vicinity of our location. 

I moved the refugees to a more discreet but still very close location, and called into the US Embassy in Beijing. I was told in very strong, scolding terms, that I had jeopardized the lives of the refugees, and that China’s Public Security Bureau had informed the US and other nations with posts in the area that North Korean refugees were seeking entrance to their compounds. I responded that the refugees took the calculated risk to seek asylum with the United States because their situation was already very dangerous, and that the Chinese authorities had likely been alerted by the irresponsible and indifferent actions of the US post in Shenyang. I spent quite a bit of time on the phone pleading with the officer in question.

At that point we were literally less than 100 feet away from the main entrance to the Shenyang post- it would have been a simple matter for any consulate official to step out and wave our refugees in, past the Chinese authorities, as is done for many visitors to the Consulate. 

The officer continued to refuse and redirect us to the UNHCR in Beijing, despite my pleas, and we had no choice but to head towards Beijing. En route, our 6 refugees and their 2 American escorts were apprehended, and I was detained in Beijing. The group was imprisoned in Shenyang. Our LiNK workers were released and deported to the United States after 10 days; our refugees are still in Chinese custody today [they were released after several months’ detention and allowed to emigrate to South Korea—ed] 
… Refugees are being turned away from the gates of US posts and sent to the UNHCR in Beijing – a dangerous journey that very few manage to make without capture. Funding for NGOs and underground workers has not been released; and less than a paltry three dozen North Korean refugees are now resettled in the United States. Our own refugees that I personally escorted to US custody last October arrived just last week- nearly four months after they had been accepted! It is my understanding that delays on their arrival here were not from the Chinese, but from our own State Department. 

The passivity of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Beijing is apparently a sore point for North Korea activists.  Any escapee who is able to run the gauntlet from the DPRK to the capital and “touches base” there is entitled to a review of the conditions of flight; if it is determined he or she is a political or religious refugee who would be expected to suffer persecution if returned to North Korea, the relevant principle is “non-refoulement” i.e. the individual is entitled to refuge and cannot be returned forcibly to the home country.

The US strongly supports the “touch base” privileges of Tibetan refugees who reach the UNHCR office in Nepal, characterizing the people who make the arduous and expensive trek over the Himalayas from the Tibet AR as political/religious refugees  (though the Chinese government would beg to differ; over half of the “refugees” processed by the UNHCR and allowed to go on to Dharmsala are actually political/religious tourists who quickly return to Tibet, to the aggravation of Nepal and the suspicion of the PRC).  

The UNHCR Beijing Office apparently has a lower profile out of deference to the PRC government, and, like the foreign embassies and consulates, appears a party to the limited processing of  small numbers of “elite” refugees, as a group of NGOs complained in 2011:

However, we reluctantly must conclude that the UNHCR’s presence in Beijing is now unwittingly supporting the PRC government in its repatriation policy.  It is our understanding that the UNHCR does not overtly pressure the PRC government in order to quietly help individuals and small groups of refugees reach safety.  To the best of our knowledge even this kind of activity is severely limited at present.

The UNHCR made some amends in February 2014 by releasing a blistering report on human rights in North Korea, which addressed the plight of the tens of thousands of “non-elite” refugees in Northeast China and also took aim at PRC refoulement policies.
Although unable to conduct direct, on-the-ground inquiries either in North Korea or on the PRC side of the border, the UNHCR collected enough atrocity stories from émigrés and NGOs to compile a bulky dossier on the DPRK/PRC system for dealing with people fleeing North Korea for China.

The report concluded that Kim Jung Un’s regime had tightened border controls compared to the Kim Jung Il era, when a combination of corruption and famine-related realpolitik had caused border guards to turn a blind eye toward people fleeing across the Tumen River. 

Border operations have now been placed under the aegis of the SSD—the State Security Department—instead of the army, and a protocol set up by which escapees either recaptured or forcibly repatriated are processed through a series of interrogations (abetted by food deprivation, beatings, and other tortures) to determine whether the flight motive was to seek economic opportunity in China (bad), Christian conviction (very bad), the desire to make it to the ROK (very, very bad), or in collusion with ROK intelligence (fatal).

Depending on the nature of the allegations against them and their background, the fate of repatriated persons is determined by the SSD. Persons found to have made contact with ROK nationals and/or Christian missionaries are sent for further interrogation at the provincial SSD headquarters. From there, they are sent either directly to a political prison camp (kwanliso) without any trial or imprisoned in an ordinary prison camp (kyohwaso) after an unfair trial.  In cases considered to be particularly grave, such as having contact with ROK intelligence officials, the victim faces execution.

Conversely, those found to have solely gone to China looking for food and/or work are handed over to the MPS [Ministry of Public Security], where the interrogation process is usually recommenced. If the MPS confirms that the person is only an “ordinary” border crosser, it commits him or her to detention in a holding centre (jipkyulso). There, the person remains detained, sometimes for months, until MPS agents from the person’s home county collect him or her and place the victim, usually without a trial, for several months to a year in a labour training camp. [pg. 114]

The PRC cooperated with the DPRK by aggressively tightening up on border enforcement and capture, and has declared that all North Korean escapees are economic migrants who can be repatriated without any asylum review.

However, since the initial screening for all returnees is torture—i.e. cruel and inhumane treatment for the purposes of extracting a confession—followed by cruel and inhumane treatment --i.e. much of the same inflicted by the prison guards and administration out of sadism against people they consider less than human, especially women who have become pregnant by Chinese men and suffer the horrors of forced abortions--there’s a pretty strong argument that every North Korean, economic migrants included, who is detained in the PRC should be entitled to non-refoulement status until his or her qualifications for asylum are reviewed.

As the report put it:

The Commission therefore finds that many DPRK nationals, deemed by China as mere economic illegal migrants, are arguably either refugees fleeing persecution or become refugees sur place, and are thereby entitled to international protection.  [pg. 130]

Furthermore, the UNHCR report alleged that the PRC pre-screens returnees and provides information to the DPRK upon refoulement, undercutting its “economic migrants” defense:

A former official, who worked on border security, stated that when the Chinese authorities repatriate DPRK nationals, they also provide the DPRK authorities with documentation regarding the living circumstances of the repatriated persons in China. The documentation indicated whether the DPRK nationals had simply lived with their “spouses” or have had contact with Christians or ROK nationals including with ROK intelligence agents. Such information was used by the DPRK authorities in determining the fate of those repatriated persons. Those believed to be working with ROK intelligence were executed in the DPRK, whilst those involved with Christian missionaries would be sent to DPRK prison camps without trial. The same witness also indicated that Chinese officials used differently coloured stamps on the documentation handed over to the DPRK authorities based on whether the repatriated persons planned to reach the ROK or not. Another witness also indicated that the Chinese authorities provided their DPRK counterparts with a document concerning her case upon handing her over. [pg. 131]

The report concludes with a rather quixotic call to refer the DPRK to the International Criminal Court—something that would have to be done through the UN Security Council i.e. with the support of the PRC.  In addition to tying up its neighbor and quasi-ally in the ICC process, which the PRC detests on principle, such a proceeding would presumably expose PRC officials to the accusation, if not legal liability, for complicity in crimes against humanity.

The contradictions inherent in the UNHCR approach were highlighted, perhaps inadvertently, in the Guardian’s coverage:

The UN report "is a very strong indictment of North Korea, but China is clearly right there in the mix, and that's the reason why they were reluctant to co-operate," said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And so the main purpose of the report, beyond making the case for a continued international response to North Korea through the international criminal court, is to move China."

Unsurprisingly, China was unmoved.  The PRC brushed aside the report as “politicized” and once again declared that all DPRK escapees were “economic migrants”.

Estimates for DPRK citizens clandestinely residing in the PRC near the Korean border range from 25,000 to 100,000, down from perhaps a quarter of a million during the famine years (and before the aggressive refoulement campaign).  That is a manageable number but one that would surely grow if the PRC respected the principle of non-refoulement, started reviewing asylum dossiers…and began suggesting that the ROK and US live up to their human rights rhetoric and step up to take in thousands of brutalized and poorly educated DPRK refugees.   

That’s an outcome that neither the PRC, ROK, the US, the other nations, or the UN are presumably eager to see right now.

So it looks like everybody’s quietly on board with the current system (with the noble exception of the NGOs that support refugees and the persecuted North Koreans themselves)—and Blackwater (now renamed once again as “Academi”) won’t be needed in Shenyang again for a while.

But that doesn’t mean the Blackwater crew is done with China.

Blackwater ex-jefe Erik Prince announced he was fed up with the political and legal heat associated with servicing the US government (and, perhaps, massacring clusters of Iraqis at roundabouts and threatening US State Department personnel with murder).  He told the Wall Street Journal about his new job, new boss, and new market:

[Prince is] chairman of Frontier Services Group, an Africa-focused security and logistics company with intimate ties to China’s largest state-owned conglomerate, Citic Group. Beijing has titanic ambitions to tap Africa’s resources—including $1 trillion in planned spending on roads, railways and airports by 2025—and Mr. Prince wants in.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hillary Drops the Big One: Taiwan = Ukraine

Back in March, I presciently speculated about (and J. Michael Cole pined for) a Taiwanese political uprising that would combine domestic mass resistance to the KMT's mainland-friendly policies with US institutional support a la Maidan and whip up a political froth that might result in the sidelining of the KMT, the acquisition of political momentum and even political power by a pro-US/pro-independence led by the KMT's independence-friendly and mainland-averse rival, the Democratic People's Party, and a gigantic black eye for the People's Republic of China.

The first salvo occurred a couple days later, with the occupation of the ROC parliament by student demonstrators, the Sunflower Movement, opposed to a cross-strait trade and service pact negotiated between the government and the PRC.  At that time, the US government stayed on the sidelines and the semi-official US presence in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan, reviled by many as an enabler of KMT-PRC rapprochement don't rock the boatism, actually criticized the occupation.

Now it looks like Hillary Clinton has put Taiwan in play as a geopolitical counter in her ongoing confrontation with the People's Republic of China, which characterized her term as Secretary of State and looks to define, for better or worse, her expected presidency.  I don't believe that Secretary Clinton is just talking up the benefits of the Trans Pacific Partnership and Taiwan's membership in a U.S.-led trade bloc.  She's referring specifically to the advisability of putting a brake on development of cross-strait integration.

Expect the DPP and the Sunflower Movement to take Clinton's statements as offering the prospect of US support, as well as encouragement to resist the KMT government's cross-strait policies and challenge its legitimacy and effectiveness in a multitude of venues beyond the conventional electoral and parliamentary fora (where the DPP is currently trapped in impotent minority status thanks to the black magic of the democratic process).  Since the current government is pretty unpopular, there is ample mischief that can be achieved in the name of "national emergency".  Ma Ying-jyeou = Yanukovich, PRC = Russia, KMT = Party of Regions etc. 

And since the opposition to the KMT is firmly rooted in the discourse of Taiwan independence, there's even a World War III vibe over Taiwan that was only fitfully present in the whole US + Maidan v. Russia confrontation.

I guess Clinton is doing Taiwan the favor of warning it to conduct its pro-US political ruckus sooner than later so that, unlike Ukraine, it doesn't find itself torn in two by the struggle.

Good luck with that!  I predict interesting times.

From the June 25 Taipei Times:

Reliance on China makes Taiwan vulnerable: Clinton

Former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton said the government’s push for closer cross-strait ties could lead to Taiwan losing its economic and political independence and becoming vulnerable to over-reliance on China, according to an interview in the next edition of the Chinese-language magazine Business Weekly.

Widely expected to make a run in the 2016 US presidential election, Clinton made her position on the Taiwan-China relationship clear in the interview, which was conducted in Los Angeles on Thursday last week.

Citing Ukraine’s relations with Russia as a cautionary tale, she advised Taiwan’s leaders to be careful, or Taiwan might lose its current political independence.

“Economic independence goes with political independence,” she said. “How far can you go before you lose your economic independence? Because it will affect your political independence.”
Economic opportunities mean there are growing cross-strait connections and now Taiwan has arrived at “a turning point,” she said.

“Now you have to decide how dependent economically you become… How ... do you handle the [cross-strait] relationship, if you say this far, but no farther?” Clinton said. “That will put pressure on you from China, if they want more, but you have to make these evaluations based on what you think is in the long-term interest of Taiwan.”

It may be difficult for Taiwan to strike a good balance with China, because “it will be harder and harder, because the demands from China will grow, because [China] is growing so much,” she said.
Taiwan should proceed with caution, as decisions made now could have “unintended consequences,” she said, adding, “you have to look five years, 10 years from now on, to see if that’s where you want to end up.”

She reiterated the US’ support for Taiwan.

“We have been willing to support Taiwan in many ways, [even] against China’s objections, and we will continue to do so,” she said.

The interview is reportedly Clinton’s first one-on-one with a Taiwanese media organization, and the first time she has stated her position on cross-strait development.

Getting Played by ISIS? Welcome to the Club!

[China Matters will be on vacation hiatus until July 14, 2014.  It will be interesting to see how this piece on ISIS holds up in the interim.  Best summer wishes, and thanks to all our readers.]

Apparently ISIS is a business, a bloody and illegal business, sort of like the Mafia.  That’s what I gleaned from a McClatchy report by Hannah Allam on the group’s finances, revealed at least by a trove of documents captured by the US, turned over to RAND a few months ago, whose conclusions leaked into the public sphere today.

Mosul was the Islamic State’s fundraising nerve center for years before the city fell to ISIS this month, according to Johnston’s analysis of the documents. A key to understanding the city’s enduring importance to the group comes from a Mosul “administrative emir” whose meticulous records from August 2008 to January 2009 were seized and added to the database. 

In accordance with the Islamic State’s business model, Johnston said, cells were required to send up to 20 percent of their income from local enterprises _ such as kidnapping ransoms and extortion rackets _ to the next level of leadership. Higher-ranking commanders would examine the revenues and redistribute the funds to provincial or local subsidiaries that were in dire straits or needed additional money to conduct attacks.

The records show that the Islamic State was dependent on the Mosul members for cash, which the leadership used to bail out struggling militants in the volatile provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and even Baghdad.

Looking at ISIS as a high-level crime syndicate in the matter of its operating philosophy (as opposed to its core convictions centered on establishment of a new “caliphate”) would explain some puzzling elements of the group’s behavior, ones that don’t fit in with the usual perception of extremist, caliphate-committed jihadist groups.

For one thing, ideological purity does not interfere too much with operational opportunity.  ISIS is out to earn, increase its footprint, and magnify its clout.  When ISIS is ready to roll somebody, it goes ahead; but if the time isn’t ripe, it coexists.  And, when it can gain the cover of a compromised local political machine, it co-opts.

ISIS has made a big show of turning over the administration of Mosul to its local Sunni allies; when the Baji refinery fell, ISIS announced that local elements, not ISIS, would run it (though the decision to put some distance between itself and an abandoned refinery with a giant bulls’ eye painted on it might not be an instance of unalloyed ISIS altruism).

In northern Iraq, ISIS is happily collaborating with ex-Baathists and Sunni tribal chiefs; in Syria, it is murderously muscling in on the turf of fellow jihadis Jabhat al Nusra.  It demonstrates its ideological rigor by massacring Christians and Shi’as, the very groups it is trying to demoralize in its drive toward southern Iraq.

ISIS’ unwillingness to take it to the Assad regime has opened ISIS to accusations that it’s in the pockets of the Syrian government and Iran; however, ISIS’ forbearance may simply mean that it is waiting for the right opportunity to make its move in Syria.
If, as per RAND via McClatchy, the group’s financial heart is Mosul, that would explain the rapid takeover; ISIS was simply coming out of the shadows to assert control of the city whose economic and political life it already dominated.

The most interesting question, for Americans at least, is how ISIS fits into the strategies and tactics of the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia.  Is ISIS simply an astoundingly successful local startup that is unilaterally driving the agenda in Iraq; or is it an element in some Saudi strategy to confound Iran and the Shi’a world?

Certainly, Saudi Arabia seems pretty happy with ISIS’ challenge to the Maliki government.  But whether ISIS is simply another Gulf-funded jihadi shop is open to question.

RAND analysts assert that ISIS received only 5% of its funding from the Gulf, and draw the inference that Gulf influence and control is not decisive.

 This doesn’t quite make the case—despite the palpable desire of the Saudis to rebut Iranian and Iraqi accusations that ISIS is bankrolled by the Gulf--since the records only go up to 2010, when ISIS was more of a struggling startup and had yet to come under the leadership of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.  Who knows, maybe with the acquisition of Baghdadi’s top-flight management skills, ISIS became eligible for a round of angel financing from well-heeled jihadi VCs in the Gulf.

It does seem that ISIS, with its best-practices operational, political, communications, and business strategy seems more sophisticated than anything the sclerotic Saudi security establishment could come up with on its own, or even with the eager advice of Israel.

However, I speculate that there is a collaboration going on between ISIS and Saudi Arabian security elements, but one that is initiated and to a certain extent controlled by ISIS, rather than the other way around.  Saudi Arabia, in other words, is just another big player in the Middle East to be wooed, threatened, and exploited by ISIS as circumstances dictate.

Anbar sheiks and local Ba’athists have, I would expect, a pretty clear-eyed understanding that ISIS will treat them well only as long as it is in ISIS’ interests to do so.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, after all, became an onerous and resented burden in Anbar, which the sheiks were able to shed through the “Anbar Awakening” i.e. death squads a go go a.k.a a JSOC/Sons of Iraq joint operation.

So I speculate that the cooperation of local non-jihadist anti-Maliki Sunnis with ISIS is predicated on the understanding that Saudi Arabia is condoning and endorsing the ISIS campaign, with the idea that once a “government of national unity” i.e. government with a Sunni veto is installed in Baghdad, or the whole country just fragments into de facto and increasingly de jure Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish zones, the Gulf states will step up in financial and security matters to avoid ISIS completely filling the resultant political and economic vacuum.  

In other words, I think Saudi Arabia may have funneled money to ISIS as the “best of breed” jihadi startup, blessed the ISIS advance into northern Iraq, maybe jumpstarted the instantaneous collapse of the Iraqi army with some judiciously distributed bribes, and encouraged Sunnis in the government to let the Maliki government twist in the wind.  At the same time Saudi Arabia is abetting ISIS’ operations, it has avoided endorsing ISIS as its creature, and is reaching out to ISIS collaborators to assure them that there is an endgame other than lonely subjugation to ISIS and its criminal exactions once the situation in Baghdad shakes out.

As for the United States, the unhappy handwringing has not been unexpected.  Clearly, America wants to see the twisted wreck of Iraq in its rearview mirror and doesn’t want to have to return to the scene to bandage the bloody, wailing victims.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the Obama administration to take time out to flay the Maliki administration for its amply-documented political sins and push for a leadership change, instead of focusing on the threat from an extremely successful black-flag waving/sectarian massacring ISIS outfit is rather remarkable. 

If the United States had any security role in the Middle East beyond the “it’s the oil stupid” rationale, one would think it would include supporting a secular democracy trying to forestall military conquest by advocates of a fundamentalist caliphate. 

The conspicuous lack of an Iraqi man on horseback capable of uniting sects and ethnicities to protect the Baghdad government makes the decision to overthrow the current man on horseback and hope for the best look pretty dubious.  The US “decapitate the regime and everything will work out great” strategy has failed rather spectacularly in 1) Saddam’s Iraq 2) Libya 3) Egypt 4) Afghanistan 5) Syria (still pending but already FUBAR) does not quite vindicate the idea that, with its capital under threat, what Iraq really needs now is a struggle to fill a power vacuum at the highest level of government.

One can suspect that the US is not ready to take the momentous step of openly backing Iran and Iran’s man (Maliki) in an Iraq clash when Saudi Arabia and Israel obviously want things to go the opposite way.  Supporters of this view—maybe some funded by KSA, Israel, and the rest of the anti-Iran bloc, I dunno-- spend a lot of time dumping on Maliki as the author of Iraq’s predicament, while trying—in a manner I find rather unconvincing—to shoehorn ISIS into the “armed auxiliary of populist uprising” narrative.

Well, I guess if Pravy Sektor can be spun as the midwife to the birth of Ukrainian democracy, it’s not too much of a stretch to characterize ISIS as the handmaiden of social and political justice in Iraq.

But at the same time, of course, the US tries to play on the Iran side of the field—President Obama is, after all, still desperately attempting to normalize relations with Iran, which is, sorry Israel, the only stable democracy left standing in the Middle East—so Iraq gets 300 US advisors.

With the brave 300 comes, of course, the possibility of some morale-boosting air strikes against ISIS, which is apparently a difficult nut for the US to target even though its fighters are now driving Iraq Army-supplied Humvees and tanks all over the barren, very barren, so very exposed landscape.

The China Hand crystal ball tells me that, as long as that equipment is driving toward Syria, US targeteers, torn by the US policy of supporting ISIS in Syria while griping on ISIS in Iraq, will encounter insurmountable difficulty in identifying and destroying it.

In other words, maybe the United States, like every other power in the region, is getting played by ISIS.  Welcome to the club!