Tuesday, January 26, 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


"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 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


"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.