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Thorns and Thistles: Reflections of a Balkan Sojourner (3)

Three weeks ago, in Kosova, I was interviewed by an Albanian-language journalist. Discussing American attitudes toward the revival of Russian expansionism and its relationship to Serbian aggressivity, I was asked if a new cold war had begun. When I answered affirmatively, the local reporter told me I was “the first international who admitted the existence of a new cold war.” I reacted explosively, declaring that I am an American, not an ‘international,’ but also insisting that a fresh global confrontation between Washington and Moscow has indeed commenced.

At midweek, I regret to say my argument has been apparently vindicated by the Russian assault on Georgia . Naturally, Kosovar Albanians must now ask themselves how the brutal devastation of a Caucasian country will affect the situation in the newborn republic. A cynical commentator, in The New York Times of August 9 wrote, “One United Nations diplomat joked on Saturday that ‘if someone went to the Russians and said, “OK, Kosova for Iran ,” we’d have a deal.’ ” Yet Russia’s backing for Iran cannot be waved away, and a Western sacrifice of Georgia – or Kosova – will not change Putin’s alignment with Ahmadinejad, but will strip the U.S. of credibility everywhere from the Adriatic to Tibet.

If the Russian attack on Georgia encourages a Serbian attempt to retake Kosova, other factors come into play. U.S. troops continue to serve at Camp Bondsteel , with 1,450 American soldiers, or 10 percent of the overall Kosova Forces, on the ground. They will hardly let Serbian troops or irregulars roll over them. Second, as I have long observed, Kosovar Albanians are anything but passive about a threat to their independence. Even without its own full-fledged army and secure borders, Kosova has forces trained to defend the republic, and a long-established tradition of local resistance.

Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Georgia has exposed many aspects of Western, and especially European policy that are, to say the least, ominous for the future of independent Kosova. As this column was written, French president Nicolas Sarkozy had stepped into the conflict. He claims he can negotiate its end, but Washington Republicans, who previously enthused over Sarkozy as a supporter of George W. Bush, complain that the French leader has merely provided cover for Russia ’s claims on Georgian territory.

As formulated by prime minister Vladimir Putin’s puppet president, Dmitry Medvedev, the six points of the so-called Sarkozy initiative include maintenance of Russian forces in the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. According to Sarkozy and Medvedev, the destiny of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be subject to internationally-supervised negotiations, even though the borders of Georgia have included these regions for thousands of years.

Other aspects of the international response to Russian aggression in Georgia are troubling. Russia has demanded that Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili be removed from office, a proposal Washington considers outrageous. Russia further insists that defending the “dignity” of Russian citizens abroad (including some South Ossetians, who have acquired Russian passports although they are Iranian in origin, if Christian in religion) justifies Russian military intervention wherever Moscow chooses to act.

Russia insists that the South Ossetians have been subjected to “genocide” by the Georgians, a charge for which there is no serious evidence. It is also alarming to see how quickly global media rushed to blame the invasion of Georgia on Saakashvili, who had undertaken extensive measures to grant the South Ossetians and Abkhazians autonomy.

Residents of several former Yugoslav territories should immediately recognize the pattern: Russian actions in Georgia could be taken directly from the playbook of Slobodan Milosevic. Serbia proclaimed the right to exercise armed force in Croatia , Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosova allegedly in defense of local Serbs, and made (and insists on) claims of “genocide” against their co-ethnics.

It would, nevertheless, be a mistake, in my view, to view Putin as an imitator of Milosevic. As U.S. former military and intelligence officer Ralph Peters has pointed out, the post-Soviet strategy of responding to the independence movements of previously-subjugated nations, by inciting minorities within them to seize land, began almost 20 years ago, when the Armenian region of Artsakh (aka Nagorno Karabakh) split off from Azerbaijan in a bloody act of war. Simultaneous with the failed Serbian attempt to seize Croatian territory, the so-far-successful partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the incipient effort to accomplish the same north of Mitrovica , Russia has supported a similar illegitimate parastate in Transnistria on the border of Moldova , along with Abkhazia and South Ossetia .

If Russian patronage of the latter should, as some say, be viewed as a reprisal for the separation of Kosova from Serbia, Peters has also argued, in a seeming paraphrase of the mentioned parallel with Russian policy toward Iran, what standing would Moscow have to deny independence to Chechnya and Ingushetia, Daghestan, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and other Caucasian Muslim republics?

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