Wednesday, January 31, 2018


"The State Department has turned the page on Turkey for it no longer views Ankara as a reliable US partner. Many argue that Washington will abandon Syria’s Kurds in order to assuage Turkish anger. I doubt this. Washington expects more anti-US actions from Erdogan. Many in DC believe that Turkey’s rising Islamism, hardening dictatorship, and worsening anti-Israel rhetoric will only increase in the future. They do not hold out hope that Washington can reverse this trend. The US is increasingly falling back on support for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump has clearly set his course and reversed Obama’s effort to balance Iran and the KSA. Trump has thrown Washington’s future in the Middle East in with its traditional allies; it is moving to hurt Iran and Assad. It’s main instrument in gaining leverage in the region seems to be Northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Washington is promoting Kurdish nationalism in Syria. Turkey had hoped that when the Islamic State organization was destroyed, Washington would withdraw from northern Syria. In this, Ankara has been disappointed. See my earlier article of Oct 2017: Will the U.S. Abandon the Kurds of Syria Once ISIS is Destroyed? By keeping Damascus weak and divided, the US hopes to deny Iran and Russia the fruits of their victory. Washington believes this pro-Kurdish policy will increase US leverage in the region and help roll back Iran. The Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, explained to the Senate on January 11, 2018 that US policy is designed to convince the Russians to see that a new constitution for Syria is written and that fair elections, overseen by the UN, are carried out such that Assad will lose. By denying the Damascus access to North Syria, the US says it is convinced it will achieve these stated ends. I am unaware of any analysts who believe this. It is completely unrealistic. Russia, even if it wished to, cannot force Assad to make such concessions. Most analysts brush off such State Department formulations as talking points designed to obscure more cynical objectives. Washington recognizes that its pro-Kurdish policy is forcing Turkey into Russia’s arms, but it seems willing to risk this loss. It is not at all clear what good Erdogan can achieve by invading Afrin. It will not hurt or weaken Washington’s relationship with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. Most likely, it will do the opposite. Those in Washington who see Turkey as an unreliable and misguided partner will only have their negative views of Turkey confirmed. The Kurds will be inflamed. The YPG and PKK will cooperate more closely to mobilize the Kurds of Turkey. For this reason, I believe Erdogan will not invade. He is trying to bring attention to his unhappiness, fire up his base, and prepare for elections that are approaching. But I doubt that he plans to occupy Afrin. He may lob cannon fire into Afrin, as he has done these past few days, but I suspect his ire will end there. America’s current Syria policy is designed to roll back Iran. This is short sighted. The PYD, or Kurdish leadership in North Syria, is a weak reed upon which to build US policy. Neither Assad nor Iran will make concessions to the US or Syria’s opposition in Geneva because of America’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the military force that now controls North Syria and which partnered with the US to defeat ISIS. (It has been named and armed by the US and is led by Kurdish forces who answer to the PYD.) The continuing presence of the United States in North Syria will provide only limited leverage over Damascus. By controlling half of Syria’s energy resources, the Euphrates dam at Tabqa, as well as much of Syria’s best agricultural land, the US will be able to keep Syria poor and under-resourced. Keeping Syria poor and unable to finance reconstruction suits short-term US objectives because it protects Israel and will serve as a drain on Iranian resources, on which Syria must rely as it struggles to reestablish state services and rebuild as the war winds down.... This US position serves no purpose other than to stop trade and prohibit a possible land route from Iran to Lebanon. Iran has supplied Hizballah by air for decades and will continue to do so. What the US does accomplish with this policy is to beggar Assad and keep Syria divided, weak and poor. This will not roll back Iran, but it will go a long way to turn Syria into a liability for both Iran and Russia rather than an asset. But the problem with such a policy is that it is entirely negative. It is designed to punish and impoverish; it provides not vision for a brighter future. The U.S. will rightly be seen as a dog in the manger".
Joshua Landis, "US Policy Toward the Levant, Kurds and Turkey." Syria Comment. 15 January 2018, in
Joshua Landis is one of the premier specialists on contemporary Syrian politics. Of that there is no doubt. And unlikely many he was correct in positing that the regime of Assad Fils, would not collapse, but would in fact win the Syria Civil War. With that being said, what does one make of his prognosis in re American policy in the Near and Middle East? While I for one am quite willing to credit that American policy has (at least for now) thrown aside Ankara as one of its major regional partners. Which given how erratic the current regime is in Ankara, is not altogether surprising or indeed can easily be gainsayed. Where I differ from Landis is that I am very much skeptical that the current American Administration has either the intelligence, wisdom or even manpower to (in the State Department that is) to carry-out a consistent policy in almost any region in the world other than North Korea. It is for example quite believable to describe the current American Administration as 'anti-Persian'. That per se does not change the fact aside from three-thousand American troops in Northern Syria and their air cover, the Americans have little by way of geopolitical chips to put into this power political poker game. And that if a and when things become rough, the Americans will hardily be able to keep up with the other players (Russia and Persia) in this sometimes dangerous game.

Friday, January 05, 2018


"There is a shorthand among foreign policy types that designates the 20th as the Atlantic century. The 21st, the received wisdom continues, will belong to the Pacific. The last century saw wealth and power concentrated among the littoral states of the north Atlantic as Europe and the US reached across the ocean. But prosperity and power have travelled eastward and southwards. The phrase Pacific century seems to capture China’s rise. Only in part. True, the People’s Liberation Army is building military bases on reclaimed islands in the South China sea to expand its maritime reach into the Western Pacific; and, yes, China could well clash with the US in these waters. But such tensions misread Beijing’s organising ambition. It is looking westwards rather than eastward. Mr Xi’s big play is wrapped up in his “One Belt, One Road” idea — the recreation of the sea and land routes of an earlier age of globalisation. When it looks ahead China imagines an era in which the great land mass of Eurasia becomes the vital fulcrum of global power. And guess who will be the pivotal Eurasian player? Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter who until his death this year was Washington’s sharpest strategic thinker, long ago grasped the significance of what he called the “axial supercontinent”. “A power that dominated Eurasia”, he wrote as far back as 1997, “would exercise decisive influence over two of the world’s three most economically productive regions, western Europe and East Asia . . . What happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and historical legacy'".
Philip Stephens, "A train that proclaims China’s global ambition". The Financial Times. 20 July 2017, in
"On October 24, 2017, the Communist Party of China (CPC) adopted a new version of the Party Constitution. Along with the name of Secretary General Xi Jinping, the constitution now includes the One Belt One Road (OBOR) concept — Xi’s trademark geo-economic concept that is now used to explain almost every move that China makes outside its borders. The “Belt and Road” concept has become so inflated, that it’s no longer helpful in understanding anything about China’s relationship with the outside world, but only further obscures an already complicated picture.... These and many other theories about China’s strategic rationales behind the Belt and Road are based on Chinese sources and interviews with Chinese scholars, officials and businesspeople. The spectrum of theories reflects not only the diverse backgrounds and research priorities of scholars outside of China looking at Belt and Road, but also the wide range of opinions and approaches toward this initiative taken within China. Since Xi proclaimed the SREB idea in Astana, nearly every university, ministry, region and SOE in China has held at least one event dedicated to OBOR. Newly established think tanks in the PRC, dedicated to studying this issue, already number in the hundreds. At the same time, most Chinese officials and analysts who advise Beijing would acknowledge in private conversations, that the top leadership has not given them much positive direction about what Belt and Road actually is. The only internal instructions that have come so far, have been from Zhongnanhai, and are about banning words like “project” (because the word connotes a goal and timeline, Beijing prefers the looser term “initiative”) as well as banning the publication of official maps purporting to show the scope of OBOR. Lack of stated goals is closely tied to the second feature of the Belt and Road, which distinguishes it from a strategy — the initiative doesn’t have any performance criteria. Xi Jinping did identify five broadly defined facets of the initiative in his Astana speech in 2013, namely, policy communication, road connectivity, trade facilitation, monetary circulation (financial cooperation including promotion of local currencies), and person-to-person ties. Beijing has not, however, identified any quantifiable indicators of success or progress. This means that a great many things can be presented as progress under OBOR. Examples include, establishing a new intergovernmental commission with Russia, financing a new road project in Tajikistan, signing an FTA with Georgia, establishing a currency swap with Switzerland and holding an annual beauty pageant in Sanya.... Last but not least, OBOR doesn’t have a timeframe. No timeframe is to be found in the speeches of Xi Jinping and other officials, or in documents and roadmaps published by the Chinese government. Most of the time, when confronted directly over the timeline issue, Chinese officials and experts say that Belt and Road is a long-term goal that doesn’t have an underlying set of deadlines. Interestingly enough, not only does Belt and Road stretch into the indefinite future, it also reaches into the past. Some of China’s old projects, like the construction of Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which began in 2002, are now listed among the Belt and Road’s flagship achievements. This approach allows Beijing to re-package old deals and projects in OBOR wrapping, and present them to the world as Belt and Road deliverables. China’s current and prospective partners may find this uncertainty and lack of focus problematic. But for the Chinese political system, this lack of clarity around Belt and Road is actually a good thing. After all, the lack of performance criteria gives the government more latitude to declare positive outcomes and address the desire of all governments but, perhaps especially important to singleparty regimes, is the ability to appear successful, victorious and influential on the global stage".
Alexander Gabuev, "Belt and Road to Where?" Carnegie Moscow Center 8 December 2017, in
"About thirty years ago the fear of the 'Yellow Peril' was the fashion. It was said that China and Japan were about to advance towards the economic and perhaps also military conquest of Europe and other regions. Much was written to stress the vast size of the yellow races, their modest standard of living which ensured the low prices of manufactured goods, the political sense of Japan, the reawakening of China after a sleep of centuries".
Vilfredo Pareto. The Other Pareto. Edited by Placido Bucolo. Translated by Placido & Gillian Bucolo. (1980), p. 258. First published on 13 June 1922.
In these days when Communist China appears to be on the fast lane to Superpowerdom, it is wise and useful to be reminded of certain realities as per the Peoples Republic. The chief one is that like most authoritarian regimes in the 21st century (think of Putin's Russia in particular) the regime in Peking is obsessed with legitimacy and with appearing successful. As the American academic at Columbia University Andrew Nathan recently commented: "the regime is hypersensitive about its image because of its shallow legitimacy at home" 1. Much of the rhetoric about 'One Belt, One Road', that the bien-pensant Philip Stephens of the Financial Times appears to accept without much by way of analysis, is as the Russian analyst Alexander Gabuev demonstrates is simply eye-wash. Pur et simple. Which is not to gainsay the fact that of course Peking would love to spread its influence west to Eurasia and from hence to Europe proper. Merely, that there does not appear to be any concrete plans or strategy behind the rhetoric, much less real investments behind the fabled (and thus illusory) expenditures that Peking is enamoured of talking about to Western journalists. Given the nature of the regime in Peking, that is just as well. Per contra to Mr. Stephens, the world will be better off, if there is no 'Asian Century'. Either now or indeed a hundred years from now.
1. Andrew Nathan, "The Chinese World Order". The New York Review of Books. 12 October 2017, in

Thursday, January 04, 2018


"The Financial Times’s team of forecasters had a solid 2017. But not a perfect one. We — OK, I specifically — was wrong to think the US stock market would finally falter. I have therefore retired in disgrace from the prognostication game. John Authers takes over as our S&P 500 psychic this year. We also thought Venezuela would manage to avoid debt default. It did not (although its government and some bondholders are pretending otherwise). We also had too much faith in Donald Trump: we thought he would build at least some of that big, beautiful wall on the Mexican border. But all we got was some small, unattractive prototypes. Overall, the FT got 15 out of 19 questions right (the 20th question, about North Korea, was too hard to call as a “yes” or “no” so the judges tossed it out). This is not nearly as prescient as our reader forecasting contest winner, Katalin Halmai of Leuven, Belgium, who scored a cool 18 of 19. She needed the tiebreaker question to edge out our runner-up, Hamish Vance of Washington DC. Congrats Katalin — for at least one year, you were smarter than the entire FT. Please try to avoid winning next year. That would be hard for us to take. For your own shot at glory in 2018, provide your answers to the 20 questions below, plus the tiebreaker, and submit your (real) name and email. Good luck!" Robert Armstrong
"Will Theresa May remain prime minister in 2018? Yes. Mrs May lost most of her authority with the bungled snap election. But the past few months have been kinder. Sealing a Brexit divorce deal has ensured short-term job security. So until Brexit is formally complete in 2019, or an appealing alternative emerges, the Conservative party will keep her where she is. Remainers and Leavers alike wish to avoid a civil war that would be sparked by moving against her. What was thought to be an unsustainable position is proving surprisingly sustainable". Sebastian Payne
"Will the UK economy be the slowest-growing in the G7? No. This is possible, of course, but with luck, Mrs May has at least now ensured that the UK is not going to tumble over a “no deal” cliff in 2019. In December 2017, Consensus Forecasts’ prediction for the UK was of 1.5 per cent growth in 2018. Its forecasts for Japan and Italy were even lower, at 1.3 per cent. So the chances that the UK will have the slowest-growing economy in the G7 next year should be around one in four". Martin Wolf
"Will the Democrats take back the majority in the midterm election in the US House of Representatives? Yes — by an eyelash. Democrats will need to win an additional 24 seats, meaning they will have to hold on to all 12 Democratic districts that Mr Trump won last year and pick up the 23 Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton, plus one or two more for good measure. The math is not on the Democrats’ side, but history is. The president’s party almost always loses some House seats in the midterms, and sometimes loses big, especially when the president has an approval rating below 50 per cent. See Barack Obama in 2010". Courtney Weaver
"Will impeachment proceedings begin against Donald Trump? Yes — just. Democrats will regain control of the House of Representatives in the November midterm elections. Though they will not take charge until January 2019, they will waste no time preparing the House Judiciary paperwork. Mr Trump will label it a “witch hunt”. But another year of his surreal presidency makes it all but inevitable Democrats will campaign on a pledge to hold him to account. Whatever Robert Mueller’s investigation unearths before then is unlikely to turn enough Republicans against him". Edward Luce
Financial Times Writer, "Forecasting the world in 2018". The Financial Times. 29 December 2018, in
I cannot recall if my prognoseses were as good as those for the Financial Times in Anno Domini 2017. However, there is always 'next year', which in this case, means Anno Domini 2018. So for a little bit of forecasting of my own, here goes:
i.) Will the United States fall into a recession? By June of this year, the current economic expansion will have been running for upwards of nine years. Which will make it the second longest on record (the Bush the Elder / Clinton expansion of 1991-2001 will have been longer). Given that element of longevity, it will not take very much for the American economy to fall into a recession. Certainly a few more kicks upwards to the discount rate by the Federal Reserve should be enough so that by the third quarter of the current year, the economy will commence a serious slow-down with the fourth quarter falling into negative growth, with one or more quarters of the very same in 2019.
ii.) Will President Trump be impeached? If the question is: 'will President Trump be ousted' by impeachment proceedings in Congress, the answer is 'no'. If the question is: will Congress commence impeachment proceedings in calendar year 2018, the answer is: peut-etre. Why? Simple: if President Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller, then it is highly likely that impeachment proceedings will commence in the House of Representatives. And those proceedings might very well succeed, if the Republican party were to direly afraid of losing fifty or more seats in the 2018 elections due solely to President Trump. Another scenario would be that Special Counsel Mueller, prosecutes either the President's son Donald Trump, Junior, or First-son-law, Jared Kushner. And then in order to save them (and of course himself), President Trump issues a blanket Presidential Pardon of both men. That would be more than enough to force Congress, even a Republican Congress to commence impeachment proceedings.
iii.) Will Kanzler Angela Merket survive anno domini 2018? The answer is yes, but only by a hairs breath. Based upon the current reading of the situation, it is highly likely that the SPD will reluctantly decide to form another 'grand coalition' with the Christian Democrats. However, the damage done to the German body politic by having the Alternative for Germany as the 'official opposition', might be enough, barely enough to force the Kanzler out of office. However, my reading of the situation is that in the absence of some other very negative variable occurring in Deutschland (some terrorist outrage by migrants from Syria), Mme. Merkel will remain weakened, but in office.
iv.) Will Prime Minister Theresa May see out anno domini 2018? The answer is yes. As the FT above correctly notes, that it is very much a faute de mieux situation. There is at this point in time no credible successor to May and she has been very very careful to not promote anyone to the Cabinet (Jacob Rees-Mogg, Rory Stewart being the best known), who could possibly be a threat to her. However, I am not sure that this bit of luck on May's part will last much further into anno domini 2019.
And that gentle reader is the end of my prognoseses for Anno Domini 2018. We will know by this time in anno domini 2019, if my predictions are any more accurate than the accumulated wisdom of the FT.