Friday, February 12, 2016

THE CEASE-FIRE IN SYRIA: WHAT DOES IT PORTEND?

"World powers have agreed to implement a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria by the end of next week in an effort to salvage the peace talks that crumbled last month. The breakthrough — announced at a meeting in Munich of the International Syria Support Group, the countries whose influence is critical to the outcome of the five-year war — will pave the way for opposition and regime parties to meet again under the auspices of the UN in the coming days. The ISSG communique outlines three key areas of agreement. First, a commitment to implement a cessation of hostilities, nationwide, by the end of next week. A UN task force, co-chaired by Russia and the US, will begin meeting on Monday to outline the “modalities” for the cessation of hostilities and the pathway to cement them into a permanent ceasefire. The task force will also agree on which areas are judged to be under terrorist control and, therefore, legitimate to target with air strikes. Second, a commitment to meet all existing UN humanitarian access requests. A second UN task force will be established to ensure full compliance by all fighting groups in Syria. Aid drops by parachute and by convoy will begin immediately, the ISSG communique states. Third, the ISSG reiterated the urgency of reopening the formal UN-led peace process. Speaking at a press conference late on Thursday night in Munich, John Kerry, US secretary of state said: “We have taken a different step than we, the ISSG, have done previously. Today we decided on a process, on a timeframe, and we all agreed to do everything we can to meet that. “This is ambitious but everyone is determined to move as rapidly as possible to try to achieve it.” Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said it would be a 'complicated task'".
Sam Jones, "World powers agree path to Syria ceasefire". The Financial Times. 12 February 2016, in www.ft.com
"A diplomatic push for a temporary pause in Syria's civil war and the delivery of humanitarian aid faced huge hurdles Friday, with Russia saying it would continue its airstrikes and government planes dropping leaflets urging rebels to surrender because "the belt is narrowing around you." A plan for the "cessation in violence" announced by the U.S. and Russia does not go into effect for a week, and while the Syrian opposition expressed "cautious optimism," it also said more innocent civilians would be killed in that span. Government forces, aided by a withering Russian bombing campaign, are trying to encircle rebels in Syria's largest city of Aleppo and cut off their supply route to Turkey. Another week of fighting could bring the Syrian troops closer to that goal. Syrian forces recaptured several strategic hills north of Aleppo and are in position to target the final supply line to the rebel-held eastern suburbs, according to Al-Manar TV, a Lebanese channel run by the militant group and Syrian ally Hezbollah. Heavy fighting between government and opposition forces occurred south of Aleppo, around the town of Tamoura, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said 12 fighters of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front were killed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised the agreement in Munich as a significant accomplishment in the five-year war, but he noted that a cessation of hostilities, if achieved, would only be a "pause" in the fighting and that more work would be needed to turn it into a full-fledged cease-fire. He also said the agreements made were "commitments on paper" only. "The real test is whether or not all the parties honor those commitments and implement them," he told reporters after the nearly six-hour meeting concluded early Friday.... Lavrov made clear that Moscow will continue airstrikes on Aleppo and other parts of Syria because they are targeting groups that are not eligible for the "temporary cessation of hostilities"'.
Bassem Mroue & Matthew Lee, "Diplomats aim for temporary Syria truce in a week". Associated Press. 12 February 2016, in www.ap.org.
One does not have to be as pessimistic as Kathy Gilsinan is in the current edition of the American periodical the Atlantic to be skeptical about the peace plan / cease-fire agreed to by the Americans and their allies and Moskva and its allies. It is self-evident merely from the statements coming out of Russia as well as Damascus that for Putin & Assad, any cease-fire plan is at best a pis-aller preparatory to the fall of Aleppo to Assad's forces 1. There is nothing to indicate or to show that Putin & Assad are truly interested in a halt to fighting. Far from it as per what is being said. Accordingly, what the Americans and their allies need to decide and quickly as possible is: what are its goals in this conflict? The defeat of the terrorists of ISIS or the ouster of Assad? Or both? If the latter, then one can only conclude that the Americans do not have the will and the Europeans and the Sunni powers of the region lack the means to accomplish both. A tactical situation which is the polar opposite of that of Grazhdanin Putin. Moskva's goals being both narrow in scope (prop up the Assad regime and prevent it from falling at a minimum) and it would currently appear achievable. What needs to happen in Syria is that the Americans & their allies must rethink what their achievable goals are. In the absence of such, all the cease-fires in the world will accomplish nothing.
1. Kathy Gilsinan, "What Happens If Aleppo Falls? Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city". The Atlantic. 11 February 2016 in www.theatlantic.com.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

THE WAR IN SYRIA: CHANCES OF SAUDI MILITARY INTERVENTION?

"Saudi Arabia is discussing plans to deploy ground troops with regional allies, including Turkey, for a safe zone in Syria, in a last-ditch effort to keep alive a rebellion at risk of collapse as a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian regime forces encroaches on the northern province of Aleppo. Although western officials have dismissed the plans as lacking credibility, they are a sign of the desperation that many of Syria’s opposition backers feel towards what looks like an increasingly bleak outcome in the war. Two people familiar with Saudi plans told the Financial Times that high-ranking Gulf officials are in Riyadh meeting Turkish officials to discuss options for deploying ground troops to head a coalition of fighters inside Syria.... President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, bolstered by Iranian-funded Shia militias, advanced last week into opposition-held territory in Aleppo’s northern countryside under the cover of Russian air strikes. The violence prompted thousands of civilians to flee, exacerbating the already vast humanitarian crisis.... The plans appear to be led by Riyadh’s defence minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whose involvement makes some diplomats reluctant to rule out an attempted intervention. “I see all kinds of red flags. But there is a new level of unpredictability and erratic behaviour in the new Saudi government,” said one western diplomat. “With Mohammed bin Salman, you just don’t know.' "
Mehul Srivastava, Erika Solomon, Simeon Kerr and Geoff Dyer, "Saudis make plans to deploy ground troops in Syria". The Financial Times. 9 February 2016 in www.ft.com.
"Saudi Arabia has offered for the first time to send ground troops to Syria to fight Islamic State, its defence ministry said on Thursday. “The kingdom is ready to participate in any ground operations that the coalition (against Isis) may agree to carry out in Syria,” said military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri during an interview with al-Arabiya TV news. Saudi sources told the Guardian that thousands of special forces could be deployed, probably in coordination with Turkey.... Asiri suggested that recent progress against Houthi rebels in the war in Yemen was allowing Saudi Arabia to free up forces for deployment in Syria. A decision could be taken at a Nato summit in Brussels next week. “There is frustration with the current efforts put in place to fight Daesh,” said the Saudi analyst Mohammed Alyahya. “Increasingly, it seems that none of the forces on the ground in Syria (besides rebel groups) is willing to fight Isis. The Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are preoccupied with fighting Bashar al-Assad’s opposition with one ostensible goal: to keep Bashar al-Assad in power, irrespective of the cost in innocent Syrian lives'".
Ian Black, "Saudi Arabia offers to send ground troops to Syria to fight Isis ". The Guardian. 4 February 2016 in www.theguardian.com
One does not have to be especially anti-Saudi (by the bye: is there anyone who can be characterized as 'pro-Saudi'?) to view the news stories which are coming out of the region with some degree of skepticism. Why so? Simply put, the Saudi army with or without its Gulf allies has never prove to be erste-klasse soldiers. Nor has Saudi Arabia ever provided the world with any examples of its military being able to fight abroad successfully against a fully equipped and trained opponent as they would find in Syria (Assad's forces, Hezbollah and Persian forces). Certainly the performance of the Saudi-lead force in Yemen in the recent past, with its overwhelming reliance on air-power, can hardily said to provide an example of an outstanding military performance. Something to keep in mind, especially in light of the dominance that the Russian air force currently exercises in most parts of Syria. With the recent gains by Assad forces in Aleppo, heavily backed by Russian air support and Persia / Hezbollah ground forces, the diplomatic noise that it coming out of Riyadh is I would submit more for domestic and internal Saudi Arabian consumption than anything else. Which is not to gainsay the fact that the current regime in Saudi Arabia is more inclined, once again for primat der Innenpolitik to be seen as more of an active player in the diplomatic and military chessboard in the Near & Middle East. Time will of course tell.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

WILL BASHAR ASSAD & HIS REGIME SURVIVE 2016?

"Just weeks before his death on January 3, Colonel-General Igor Sergun, director of Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency, was sent to Damascus on a delicate mission. The general, who is believed to have cut his teeth as a Soviet operative in Syria, bore a message from Vladimir Putin for President Bashar al-Assad: the Kremlin, the Syrian dictator’s most powerful international protector, believed it was time for him to step aside. Mr Assad angrily refused. Two senior western intelligence officials have given the Financial Times details of Sergun’s mission. The Russian foreign ministry referred a request for comment to the defence ministry, which said it was unable to comment. But on Friday, in response to a question from a journalist, asking if the Russian leader had asked Mr Assad to step down, a spokesman for Mr Putin said: “No, that’s not so.” Russia’s failed gamble in Damascus left Mr Assad more entrenched than before, and hopes for a diplomatic solution to the vicious civil war appear again to be ebbing away. UN officials have spent the past week lowering expectations that the talks between the warring factions planned for January 25 in Geneva will go ahead, let alone produce a breakthrough. It is a dramatic reversal of fortunes. News of the secret proposal delivered by Sergun — a choreographed transition of power that would maintain the Alawite regime but open the door to realistic negotiations with moderate rebels — added to a growing mood of optimism among western intelligence agencies in late 2015. For the US-led coalition fighting Isis, it seemed that accommodating Moscow could break years of diplomatic deadlock over Mr Assad’s removal — a move Washington views as a precondition to cooling the sectarian tensions in Syria and Iraq that have fed the jihadi insurgency. Moscow’s military intervention in the conflict in support of Damascus in late September, many in Europe and the US reasoned, had reached its limit. “Mr Putin had taken a look under the bonnet of the Syrian regime,” one senior European intelligence official told the FT “and found a lot more problems than he was bargaining for.” However, Russia overplayed its hand, the official said, and Mr Assad made clear to Sergun that there could be no future for Russia in Syria unless he remained as president."
Sam Jones, Erika Solomon and Kathrin Hille, "Vladimir Putin asked Bashar al-Assad to step down". The Financial Times. 21 January 2016, in www.ft.com
"In 2011, Bashar al-Assad made a bet, wagering that (1) the West would one day recoil from its love affair with Middle Eastern revolution and return to the familiar comfort of secular authoritarianism, and that (2) his own regime would still be standing when that happened. It is now happening, but whether or not Assad’s regime is still standing, qua regime, is a matter of definition. The Syrian president has so far shown little ability to exploit political openings like these. To an increasing number of European politicians, he does indeed look like the lesser evil, but also like a spectacularly incompetent evil. His regime appears to them to be too broken, too poor, too polarizing, too sectarian, too inflexible, and too unreliable to work with—more like a spent force than a least-bad-option. Assad’s diplomacy may be far more elegant but is ultimately no more constructive than that of Moammar al-Gaddafi, who, as you may recall, kept refusing every kind of compromise and even shied away from purely tactical concessions, until he was finally beaten to death by screaming Islamists in a country so broken it will perhaps never recover. Then there is the question of Assad’s own longterm viability. Even in pre-2011 Syria, no one could be quite sure whether the Baathist regime would remain in one piece without an Assad at the helm. In a conflict like this, there must be dozens of assassins trying to worm their way into the Presidential Palace at any given moment and for all we know one of them could get lucky in 2016, 2017, or tomorrow".
Aron Lund, "The Ten Most Important Developments in Syria in 2015". Syria Comment. 3 January 2016 in www.joshualandis.com.
It perhaps is the case that Assad Fils time in power is indeed numbered in the same fashion that the late and completely unlamented Moammar al-Gaddafi time in power eventually ended in 2011. But as the news of Vladimir Putin's failure to persuade Assad to resign clearly show, that time has not yet arrived. Nor given the recent news from the battlefield shows, has the military balance of forces, with both Persia and Russia actively involved in his favor, shifted against him 1. With all that being the case, the clear and unmitigated factum of the matter is that Assad Fils is not going to go away, nor does there appear to be any likelihood that the Western backed (American and Europeans) so-called 'moderate' opposition will force him out of power militarily. Accordingly, if the principal goal of Western policy in the Syrian conflict is to endeavor to: i) destroy the radical, Islamist militants of ISIS; ii) to bring about a cease-fire between all the other parties once 'i' is accomplished, then those two things can only be accomplished with not against Assad and his regime. That may or may not be a horrible thing to contemplate but it cannot be wished or imagined away. Not if the West is to successfully deal with this conflict which will shortly (this summer) enter its fifth, murderous year.
1. Erika Solomon, "Assad forces recapture key southern town from rebel fighters". The Financial Times. 26 January 2016, in www.ft.com.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

PEACE TALKS ON AFGHANISTAN: A COMMENT

"Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States held talks on Monday to try to resurrect efforts to end nearly 15 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan, even as fighting with Taliban insurgents intensifies. The officials met in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to launch a process that they hope will lead to negotiations with the Taliban, who are fighting to re-impose their strict brand of Islamist rule and did not attend Monday's talks. The Pakistani prime minister's foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, said the primary goal should be to convince the Taliban to come to the table and consider giving up violence. "It is therefore important that preconditions are not attached to the start of the negotiation process. This, we argue, will be counterproductive," he said. "The threat of use of military action against irreconcilables cannot precede the offer of talks to all the groups." Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Hekmat Karzai and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry were joined by Richard Olson, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and General Anthony Rock, the top U.S. defense representative in Pakistan, as well as China's special envoy on Afghan affairs, Deng Xijun. "Participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity," the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It said the group would discuss a road map at its next meeting, on Jan. 18 in Kabul".
Asad Hashim & Tommy Wilkes, "Effort to revive Afghan peace talks begins in Pakistan". Reuters. 11 January 2016, in www.reuters.com
"It is, of course well known that the only source of war is politics---the intercourse of governments and peoples; but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own. We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means."
Karl von Clausewitz. On War. Translated and Edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret. (1976). p. 605.
Whether or not or indeed exactly how the 'peace talks' in Afghanistan between the regime in Kabul and the Taliban progresses, it all and I repeat in employing the mot 'all' depends upon the course of 'interaction' that takes place on the battlefield. If the Taliban succeed in undertaking more and more aggressive and successful attacks on government forces in not only the South and East of the country and in the rural areas, but also in other parts of the country and in the urban areas where the government in Kabul should have the upper hand, then do not, repeat not, expect much by way of any advances in the peace talks between the two sides. As it is very much the case, that the Taliban have not the least interest in sincerely exploring a negotiated settlement unless and until it has been shown conclusively that it cannot expect to win or even to lose well on the battlefield. Until the regime in Kabul and its Western backers are able to drive into the collective minds of the Taliban leadership that it has nothing to gain by continuing the armed struggle, will peace talks reach a definitive and successful stage. Until then, all talks will be merely a form of playacting and nothing more. And as of to-day it is very much the case that the nothing which is occurring on the battlefield can be said to be disposing the Taliban towards the idea that further armed struggle will not be fruitful for them. As the American defense expert, Anthony Cordesman, noted a few weeks ago:
"It has now been almost exactly a year since U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) combat forces formally left Afghanistan. So far, the Afghan government and Afghan forces are losing at every level: Politics, governance, economics, security, and popular support. This becomes brutally clear from the metrics available on the war, as well as from virtually all media reporting." 1
Until the facts on the ground in Afghanistan change, do not expect anything to come of the so-called 'peace talks'.
1. Anthony Cordesman, "Afghanistan a Year After "Transition": Losing the War at Every Level". The Center for Strategic and International Studies. 22 December 2015 in www.csis.org.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

SAUDI-PERSIAN RIVALRY: WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT?

"Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, marking a swift escalation in a strategic and sectarian rivalry that underpins conflicts across the Middle East. The surprise move, announced in a news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis’ execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response. The cutting of diplomatic ties came at a time when the United States and others had hoped that even limited cooperation between the two powers could help end the crushing civil wars in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere. Instead, analysts feared it would increase sectarian divisions and investment in proxy wars. “This is a very disturbing escalation,” said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a research center based in London. “It has enormous consequences for the people of the region, and the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region will continue."
Ben Hubbard, "Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties With Iran Amid Fallout From Cleric’s Execution". The New York Times. 3 January 2016, in www.nytimes.com.
"For all the sectarian differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, what divides the two countries most may be the thing they have in common. Both regimes have predicated their legitimacy on a transnational mission of exporting religion and safeguarding Islam. Following the Arab awakenings and the collapse of the regional state system that followed, their competition for power has only become more urgent. For months, the Islamic republic had been warning the Saudis not to harm the dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The kingdom’s rash decision to kill him probably stems from a sense of vulnerability. Weakening oil prices are sapping the Sauds’ petroleum wealth just as the jihadis of Isis challenge the Islamic orthodoxy that underpins their claim to power. The US, for decades the guarantor of Saudi security, has lately seemed not just flat-footed but indifferent. It is not lost on Riyadh that the Obama administration transacted a deficient nuclear agreement with Tehran, which offers ample financial rewards in return for transitory checks on an Iranian bomb. The US has stood aside as Iran directed the battle against Isis in Iraq, and looked askance as the Syrian civil war produced the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the modern Middle East. But while insecurity may explain why the Saudis lashed out, the principal victim will be House of Saud itself. The execution is bound to polarise politics further in Saudi Arabia and beyond, helping Tehran to kindle an affinity with the Arab Shia community".
Ray Takeyh, "Middle East Pays the Price for a Poorer, Weaker House of Saud". The Financial Times. 5 January 2016, in www.ft.com
The true answer to the above referenced question is: very little. Why pray tell one might well ask? Simply put the impetus for current Saudi policy (and make no mistake, it is Saudi Arabia which has been more aggressive as of late both vis-à-vis Persia and in the region generally), is primarily domestic in origins. Id est., very much a case of primat der Innenpolitik. With the accession of the new King Salman and the two Crown Princes, especially the young (and it would appear very impetuous and no doubt ambitious Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman) 1. For a mixture of reasons including a 'changing of the guard', as well as a felt need to bolster its domestic popularity given the recent financial pressures on the Kingdom due to the seventy-five percent decline in the price of oil in the past eighteen months, the Saudi ruling elite sees an aggressive foreign policy as one which pays dividends. Whether Riyadh is as fearful of Persia and its policies in the region is an unknowable query. However, I for one would be very surprised if the ruling trio (King, Crown Prince and Deputy Crown Prince) are as fearful of Teheran as they claim to be. What might perhaps (and I do mean 'perhaps') calm Saudi fears (real or imagined) would be a more forceful and competent American policy in the Near and Middle East. Something which has been unfortunately almost completely lacking in the past few years. As the Kenneth Pollack formerly of the American National Security Council staff and the Central Intelligence Agency recently noted at his lecture to members of the Lotos Club here in Manhattan (see my post of the 5th of December Anno Domini 2015) 2. Judging from the comments above coming from the State Department and the White House, I do not anticipate anything changing in that regard until perhaps the next American President arrives in the White House and perhaps not even then. In short: do not expect any changes in Saudi-Persian rivalry in the Near and Middle East any time soon.
1. For one example of the Deputy Crown Prince's new policy initiatives, see: Simeon Kerr, "Proposed Aramco sale breaks with Saudi’s past". The Financial Times. 8 January 2016, in www.ft.com.
2. See: "BARACK OBAMA MAKES NO SENSE TO ANYONE": OR KENNETH POLLACK AT THE LOTOS CLUB". Diplomat of the Future. 5 December 2015, in www.diplomatofthefuture.blogspot.com

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

OUR PREDICTIONS FOR ANNO DOMINI 2016

"A New Year beckons and the Financial Times once more indulges in the ritual of forecasting the 12 months ahead. Our experts and commentators set caution to one side and predict what will happen in everything from the US presidential election to the Euro 2016 football tournament. A quick judgment on how they did last year. Ed Crooks correctly forecast that the oil price had further to fall, a brave claim at the end of a year in which it had already halved. Martin Wolf said the ECB would adopt full quantitative easing, which it did. Clive Cookson rightly opined that Ebola would be eliminated in west Africa by the close of 2015. Gideon Rachman said Vladimir Putin would annexe no further territory in Ukraine and Europe. Not many at the end of 2014 were saying that. We got one wrong. Jonathan Ford was among many who assumed the British general election would end in a hung parliament (he went so far as to predict a national government). Otherwise, the fault last year lay not with the answers we gave but the questions we failed to ask. We did not foresee a surge of Isis-sponsored terrorism in France; that Russia would take military action in Syria; and that the migrant crisis would become a grave threat to the EU. In 2016 too, events will happen that are as yet beyond our imagination".
James Blitz, "Forecasting the world in 2016". The Financial Times. 30th December 2015, in www.ft.com.
I cannot pretend to have the omniscience of the great and the good of the Financial Times. However, I can point out that my own prediction list for the year just past was not all together inaccurate: a) that Matushka Russia would be economically hobbled by the decline in oil prices and Western sanctions 1; b) that American economic growth would continue, albeit not to the extent (as I put it: "Look for an overall growth rate of at lease three and half to four percent"; c) In the case of oil, I failed to take into account how catastrophic the commodities depression is, hence my (accurate enough but not on point) statement that: "the price of oil will remain subdued for the entirety of anno domini 2015, not rising any further than sixty to seventy dollars a barrel"; d) in the case of the European Union, my prediction that: "That the European Union will struggle onward in the seemingly eternal muddle that is its economic and political framework", was spot on; e) that Mme. Clinton and ex-Governor Bush would run for the office of President of the United States was accurate enough. Albeit I did not predict that ex-Governor Bush would run a catastrophic race. Nor did I predict (but who did?) the rise in popularity of Mr. Donald Trump.
As per my predictions for anno domini 2016 here goes:
i.) In the American presidential race, assuming (safely I do believe) that Mme. Clinton will be the Democratic party nominee, if the Republican party nominee is Donald Trump (which I do believe is a possibility if not necessarily assured), then look for Mme. Clinton to gain an easy victory. In the absence of a catastrophic terrorist outrage in the United States or a severe recession here in the United States. In the case of the nomination of Texas Senator Cruz, then look for a Clinton victory, not handily but clear enough. Assuming that nothing out of the ordinary happens either at home or abroad. In the case of the nomination of Florida Senator Rubio (which would be something of an electoral upset as of to-day), the race would be very very close with Senator Rubio having the advantage over Mme. Clinton.
ii.) Like those such as George Magnus, I look for the Chinese economy to slow further and further. With the possibility that China's foreign exchange reserve will decline below Three-Trillion dollars. With 'real growth' figures close to if not below four percent per annum 2.
iii.) That the United Kingdom will vote, by a narrow but clear margin to remain in the European Union. Assuming that in the autumn of 2016 a referendum does indeed take place.
iv.) That the Syrian civil war will continue without an serious effort at peacemaking. With the combined efforts of Russia, Persia and its creature Hezbollah being cancelled out by the counter-escalation of the Saudi-lead 'Sunni bloc'. With the Western powers not intervening in such fashion or scale to tip the balance militarily or diplomatically.
v.) That the tensions between Persia and Saudi Arabia (of which this week's breaking off of diplomatic relations between the two countries is evidence for) and its Gulf allies will simmer but not become burn-over into armed conflict of any sorts.
vi.) That the terrorist statelet ISIS will not be defeated militarily and will at the very best be pushed into a narrower territorial space in both Syria and Iraq. With ISIS-inspired terrorist outrages worldwide continuing.
vii.) That Matushka Russia's economy will continue to be in recession. With low oil prices and increased outflow of capital bringing ever closer (but not I believe in 2016) a future 'regime crisis', which will herald the downfall of the Putin regime.
viii.) That the American economy will continue to grow and prosper. Albeit not to the extent that I erroneously predicted one-year ago.
ix.) That the situation in Afghanistan will continue to decline militarily speaking with the Taliban making further and further gains especially in Helmand Province and in other outlying areas of the country.
x.) That the price of oil will not go above fifty-dollar a barrel. With their being a possibility of the price going below Thirty-five dollars a barrel. Something which a 'hard-landing' in China will make much more likely.
1. For my predictions, see: "OUR PREDICTIONS FOR ANNO DOMINI 2015". In Diplomat of the Future. 31st of December 2014, in www.diplomatofthefuture.blogspot.com. For Russia see: Leader, "World economy of so-so growth and fat-tailed risk". The Financial Times. 3 January 2016, in www.ft.com.
2. See: Dan McCrum, Jennifer Hughes and Robin Wigglesworth, "Investors play Chinese numbers game". The Financial Times. 16 October 2015, in www.ft.com.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

SPLITS IN AMERICAN POLICY ON SYRIA?

Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. Their criticism has focused on what they see as the administration’s fixation on Assad’s primary ally, Vladimir Putin. In their view, Obama is captive to Cold War thinking about Russia and China, and hasn’t adjusted his stance on Syria to the fact both countries share Washington’s anxiety about the spread of terrorism in and beyond Syria; like Washington, they believe that Islamic State must be stopped. The military’s resistance dates back to the summer of 2013, when a highly classified assessment, put together by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then led by General Martin Dempsey, forecast that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to chaos and, potentially, to Syria’s takeover by jihadi extremists, much as was then happening in Libya. A former senior adviser to the Joint Chiefs told me that the document was an ‘all-source’ appraisal, drawing on information from signals, satellite and human intelligence, and took a dim view of the Obama administration’s insistence on continuing to finance and arm the so-called moderate rebel groups. By then, the CIA had been conspiring for more than a year with allies in the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ship guns and goods – to be used for the overthrow of Assad – from Libya, via Turkey, into Syria. The new intelligence estimate singled out Turkey as a major impediment to Obama’s Syria policy. The document showed, the adviser said, ‘that what was started as a covert US programme to arm and support the moderate rebels fighting Assad had been co-opted by Turkey, and had morphed into an across-the-board technical, arms and logistical programme for all of the opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State. The so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey.’ The assessment was bleak: there was no viable ‘moderate’ opposition to Assad, and the US was arming extremists. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, confirmed that his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad. The jihadists, he said, were in control of the opposition. Turkey wasn’t doing enough to stop the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons across the border. ‘If the American public saw the intelligence we were producing daily, at the most sensitive level, they would go ballistic,’ Flynn told me. ‘We understood Isis’s long-term strategy and its campaign plans, and we also discussed the fact that Turkey was looking the other way when it came to the growth of the Islamic State inside Syria.’ The DIA’s reporting, he said, ‘got enormous pushback’ from the Obama administration. ‘I felt that they did not want to hear the truth.’ ‘Our policy of arming the opposition to Assad was unsuccessful and actually having a negative impact,’ the former JCS adviser said. ‘The Joint Chiefs believed that Assad should not be replaced by fundamentalists. The administration’s policy was contradictory. They wanted Assad to go but the opposition was dominated by extremists. So who was going to replace him? To say Assad’s got to go is fine, but if you follow that through – therefore anyone is better. It’s the “anybody else is better” issue that the JCS had with Obama’s policy.’ The Joint Chiefs felt that a direct challenge to Obama’s policy would have ‘had a zero chance of success’. So in the autumn of 2013 they decided to take steps against the extremists without going through political channels, by providing US intelligence to the militaries of other nations, on the understanding that it would be passed on to the Syrian army and used against the common enemy, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State.
Seymour Hirsch, "Military to Military". The London Review of Books. 7 January 2016, in www.lrb.co.uk.
The importance of Seymour Hirsch's piece in the current issue of the London Review of Books, is that it clearly shows that an important element of the American National Security apparatus does not adhere to the belief of those in the State Department and the White House that the ouster of the Assad regime is the sine qua non dealing with the problem of ISIS. While it is self-evident (to me at the very least) that the ouster in the current circumstance of the Assad regime would have the end-result of a complete collapse (such as it is) of the Syrian State apparatus with the concomitant replay of the Afghanistan Civil War of 1992-1995, which resulted in the rise to power of the Taliban, this prognosis is not adhered to by those who have been running American Syrian policy since 2011. The fact that (as per Hirsch's piece) the American military hierarchy has been willing to share intelligence information with both the Assad regime and with Russian military in an effort to stop / retard ISIS speaks volumes about their priorities as opposed to that of the White House & State Department. The question that I have is: a) is what Hirsch reporting is in fact correct? b) if so, will the disclosure of intelligence sharing between the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and their Syrian and Russian counter-parts result in any disciplining measures? Or in the termination of this end-run of established policy on the Syrian conflict? We shall see...