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Archive for June, 2020

Syrian Sanctions

Last week the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria: a “sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” to end the nine-year war by forcing President Bashar al-Assad to UN-brokered peace talks where he would negotiate his departure from power. Assad’s wife was already cross about not being able to shop at Harrod’s or Bergdorf Goodman, so he should crumble any day now.

Other things are crumbling already. Ordinary people’s incomes are collapsing (down by three-quarters since the beginning of the year). The price of food in Syria has doubled. Lebanon next-door, already in financial meltdown, is now seeing its large trade with Syria vanish as well.

Even those Syrians who support the regime – around a third of the people who have not fled the country – will have a much harder time, but they won’t desert the regime. The more prosperous ones depend on Assad’s regime for their income, and the poorer ones are mostly minorities who fear they will be slaughtered if the jihadis win.

The US decision to raise the pressure on Assad is probably a random by-product of Donald Trump’s obsessive campaign against Iran (which has been helping the Syrian regime to stay afloat). If Trump even knows that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are by now all led by fanatical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the group that organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t care.

The Syrian tragedy is mainly due to endless foreign interventions. The Syrians who called for an end to Assad’s regime in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 were just like the young men and women who started demanding the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak at the same time. They were both genuinely popular movements, not fronts for jihadis.

The Egyptian protesters won, there was a free election – and then the army struck back in 2013, slaughtered several thousand people in the streets of Cairo, and put General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in power, where he remains to this day. Egypt is at peace, although hundreds more people have probably died in Sisi’s prisons since then, and thousands have been tortured.

The Syrian protesters didn’t get that far. They were driven from the streets – but then various foreign powers started organising the rebels and giving them arms. The war has lasted another eight years, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million Syrians have fled abroad, and another five million are displaced within Syria.

So here’s the question: would you prefer Egypt’s fate or Syria’s? Both countries are still tyrannies, but one is literally in ruins, with half the population out of their homes, and the other had a few thousand deaths. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

The Syrian power struggle would probably have ended in an Assad victory around the same time that General Sisi took over in Egypt if the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hadn’t begun sending the Syrian rebels arms and money. US motives were mixed, but the Turks and the Saudis, both led by different kinds of militant Muslims, just saw an opportunity to replace a secular regime with a hard-line Islamist one.

They would probably have succeeded if Russia had not intervened to save Assad in 2015, and Syria would probably be divided today between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The groups linked to al-Qaeda absorbed or destroyed all the others, and today they rule over a single province in northwest Syria under Turkish protection. But still the war drags on.

If any of these outside players had been willing to put its own troops in the ground, the war would at least have ended years ago (though it might have ended badly). But none of them were willing to risk their own soldiers’ lives – not even the Russians, who stick to air strikes. And now the US is hitting Syria with even bigger sanctions.

When governments impose sanctions they usually explain that they had to “do something”, but the new sanctions will hurt ordinary Syrians very badly. They might be justified if there were a reasonable chance that more sanctions could bring Assad’s regime down, but there’s no chance of that, and everybody knows it.

In a famous paper in 1997, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago showed that out of 116 cases of international sanctions being imposed during the 20th century, in only six cases did the target government yield to the demands of the country imposing the sanctions. The success rate has not improved since.

It’s 70 years since the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the Kim family is still in power. It’s 60 years since it put sanctions on Cuba, and the Communists still rule. It’s 40 years since Washington slapped sanctions on Iran, and the ayatollahs still rule. Not to mention Zimbabwe (sanctions since 2003), or Venezuela (2006), or Russia (2014).

‘Doing something’ feels good, but it doesn’t usually do much good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Even…win”; and “If any…sanctions”)

Putin’s Plea

Donald Trump writes in tweets, with more exclamation marks than a thirteen-year-old girl’s diary. Nobody knows for sure whether his very limited vocabulary is due to concern for his intended target audience, or to his own gradual mental decline. (Look at interviews from 20 years ago, and he was still using long words and speaking in complete sentences.)

China’s president, as witness his philosophical masterpiece, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, is a fluent writer of the ‘langue de bois’, the ‘wooden language’ of abstractions, slogans, bad metaphors and cant used by sub-Marxist thinkers and other ideologues. The Chinese call it ‘konghua’ (empty speech), and Xi is a master of the art.

They speak a non-Marxist version of the langue de bois at the École nationale d’administration ( ÉNA – National School of Administration), the finishing school for most French politicians. It’s still stilted twaddle, and President Emmanuel Macron is an énarque, so he sometimes sounds out of touch – but he can also speak and write human.

So can Boris Johnson, part-time prime minister of the United Kingdom. He even wrote a whole book about how much Winston Churchill resembled him, and he can talk just like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, so he’s no slouch in the literary department either. But none of these world leaders can hold a candle to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The Russian president has just done something none of these other men would or even could do. He has written a 9,000-word essay on the risk to world peace to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and published it in the leading American foreign policy magazine The National Interest.

Putin called it ‘The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II’, which presumably refers to the end of the war in early May of 1945, but that was obviously last month. Instead, he scheduled publication for this week, because 22 June is the date when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He wanted to write this piece so badly that he deliberately mixed up the dates.

One of his objectives is to rectify the ignorant omission of any mention of Russia’s leading role in defeating Nazi Germany in the Anglo-American celebrations of the anniversary last month. Russians are sensitive on this subject, because, as Putin points out, one out of seven Russians was killed in the war (27 million people) compared to one in 127 British (less than half a million) and one in 320 Americans (the same).

He also spends some time defending the Nazi-Soviet pact to conquer and share out Poland, the three Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania, which fired the starting gun for the Second World War in 1939. This is a futile, thankless task that every Russian leader is condemned to perform for at least another generation.

There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. Britain and France rejected repeated Soviet offers of an anti-Nazi alliance, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia instead, or at least playing for time while they raced to re-arm. There was still no excuse for what Stalin did, nor for the fact that he was taken by surprise when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union anyway less than two years later.

So far, so predictable, you might say, but the concluding third of Putin’s essay is quite different. It is an almost desperate plea for the preservation of the international order embodied in the rules of the United Nations and especially of the Security Council, which has kept the peace between the nuclear-armed great powers for such an astoundingly long time.

He writes: “The victorious powers…laid the foundation of a world that for 75 years had no global war, despite the sharpest contradictions….What is veto power in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries.”

“(The veto) is a statement by one of the great powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, (accept this position), abandoning any attempts to realize their unilateral efforts. So, in one way or another, it is necessary to seek compromises.”

Putin is right: the United Nations is not a naively idealistic organisation, and the Security Council is brutally realistic about how to keep the peace between nuclear powers. It has done so successfully for 75 years, but it is now threatened by the rival, non-negotiable nationalisms of many countries and the growing isolationism of the United States.

Rather like the 1930s, in fact. Putin is not older or naturally wiser than the other leaders, but he is Russian and KGB-trained, so he remembers the history a lot better. He is actually scared, and he’s probably right to be.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He also…later”)

The Chinese Way of War

Never bring a knife to a gunfight, the saying goes, but China does it differently. It brings clubs.

Last Monday, China and India had the nastiest frontier incident since their border war of 1962. In the Galwan Valley of the Aksai Chin, a disputed region the size of Switzerland in the western Himalayas, Chinese and Indian border patrols clashed and twenty Indian soldiers were killed – yet not a shot was fired. The killing was all done with clubs, stones and bare hands.

Killing people without firearms is actually quite hard, but the fact that the fight happened on a steep ridge at night makes it easier to understand how so many died: many apparently fell or were pushed to their deaths. What’s not so easy to explain is why most or all of the dead were Indian.

The Chinese report blames the incident on India but does not complain of any Chinese casualties. The Indians say that they came to a position that the Chinese were supposed to have left and were suddenly attacked by a large number of Chinese troops using makeshift weapons.

Put these reports together and you can begin to see what probably happened. The Chinese were lying in wait, all tooled up with clubs and metal rods, and when the Indian patrol stumbled upon them they immediately attacked, tumbling many of the Indians off the ridge to their deaths.

That would explain the disparity in deaths, but it also means that it really was a deliberate ambush. In fact, it looks like a pre-planned Chinese operation, carefully designed to kill enough Indian troops to send the Indian government a message but minimise the risk of escalation.

What message? Don’t mess with us. We don’t really care about this useless, frozen valley, and we’re happy to leave it as a no-man’s-land. But if you keep pushing forward, we’re going to smack you down. And we can.

India has been pushing forward, building a new road in the most remote part of the Aksai Chin. No doubt the Indian military told themselves that they were just improving their tactical position – and no doubt the Chinese military saw it as a land-grab. That’s how it usually works on this frontier.

The confrontations over this new road began forty days ago, and they have all been conducted without gunfire because the two sides signed an agreement in 1996 that says “neither side shall open fire… conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control.”

They have kept to that agreement for almost a quarter-century because neither side wants a war over this uninhabited wasteland; they both have much bigger fish to fry elsewhere. But the Chinese clearly got fed up with the endless shoving and stone-throwing sessions and decided to tell the Indians it’s time to stop. That’s pretty much what happened back in 1962, too.

The conflict started along the eastern part of the border that time, but all of it is in dispute to some extent. There have been many failed attempts to pin the line down by governments that no longer even exist – the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa, the Qing dynasty and the Nationalist regime in Beijing, and the British Raj in Delhi – and the fact that hardly anybody lives there makes defining it even harder.

The governments that are currently dealing with this border issue, the Communist autocracy under president-for-life Xi Jinping in Beijing and Narendra Modi’s ultra-nationalist, Hindu supremacist BJP in New Delhi, are at least as unreasonable as any of their predecessors. But the quarrel has never led to a major war in the past, and it probably won’t now either.

The problem in 1962 also began with Indian troops trying to improve their positions in the disputed territories: a so-called ‘Forward Policy’. Mao Zedong’s government decided to drive the Indian army out of all the land under dispute, and then, after the Indians had been ‘taught a lesson’, to declare a unilateral ceasefire and pull all China’s troops back to their original positions.

It was a major military operation, with 700 Chinese and over 3,000 Indian soldiers killed or missing. But Mao predicted that it “will guarantee at least thirty years of peace” along the frontier, and that’s just what it did.

Think of this as just another 1962, but in miniature and without bullets.

Russian Referendum

28 June 2020
“The very existence of an opportunity for the current president (to be re-elected in 2024), given his major gravitas, would be a stabilising factor for our society,”, said Valentina Tereshkova, former Soviet cosmonaut, first woman in space, and now, at 83, a member of the Russian Duma (parliament).

She was talking about President Vladimir Putin, of course, and she was proposing a constitutional amendment to let him bypass the existing term limit and be re-elected in 2024 (and again in 2030, if he likes). The Duma obediently passed the measure, and Russians are now voting on the new constitution, but she paid a certain price on social media for sucking up to Putin.

“Tereshkova – the first woman who bravely travelled into cosmic cold and darkness, and then brought the entire country there,” read one post, retweeted by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. But Putin will win the referendum on the new constitution without even having to cheat.

The vote was delayed for two months because of the coronavirus: Russia has the world’s third-highest number of infections, although it only admits to 9,000 deaths. Voting is being spread out over a week to minimise the risks, and the results won’t be known until early July.

Government ads urging people to get out and vote (or stay home and vote – for this time only they can do it online) barely mention that the new constitution will ‘reset the clock’ for Putin. That means he will be entitled to run for two more terms as president, which might let him stay in office until 2036, but his advisers reckoned that was more information than people actually needed.

This referendum is rather like a lottery, and all you have to do to win is vote. Text messages told Moscow voters this week that there will be ‘millions of prizes’, from hair-dryers to washing machines and on up. Provincial governments and even private employers are also offering prizes, and the central government is raising pensions and the minimum wage.

Yet Putin was bound to win this referendum even without all these incentives: in twenty years in power, his approval rating has never gone below 65%. The result might drop below that figure this time, because the country’s oil income has halved in recent months and lots of people were already having a tough time economically, but it’s hard to believe that it could fall below 50%.

So why this circus to achieve a big turnout and a large majority? Could Putin be feeling insecure? His abrupt dismissal of the entire government including the prime minister in January might be a clue, and his various public changes of mind on what the new constitution should contain might be another.
But trying to read Putin’s mind like latter-day Kremlinologists is a futile pursuit, and in any case it’s obvious that he has to keep his options open. It must be legal for him to run for re-election when his present term expires in 2024, because if he becomes a lame duck the struggle to succeed him starts now. No mind-reading is necessary to know that.

I would hazard a guess, however, that Putin doesn’t actually know what he will want to do in 2024, when he will be 71. He might have to stay in power because he has made too many enemies to be safe in retirement, but he has never had a grand plan beyond restoring Russia’s status as a great power. If it feels safe, he might just pick a promising successor and quit.

The main point of this discussion, for those of us who aren’t Russians, is to remind ourselves that it isn’t always about us. Russia has its own internal politics and priorities, and most of them are not about foreign policy.

Like any great power of long standing, Russia has a large ‘intelligence’ branch of the government that gets up to various bits of skulduggery overseas. The latest allegations are that the GRU offered bounties to Taliban fighters for killing American and British troops. (But why pay them when they’ll do it for free?)

More plausible claims allege that Moscow’s spies tried to kill Russian exiles in Britain with nerve poison, and that in 2016 they tried to influence the British referendum in favour of Brexit and the US election in favour of Trump. So what? Washington’s spies have overthrown governments from Vietnam to Iran to Chile, and spent a lot of money (along with their British colleagues) trying to influence Russian elections in the 1990s.

It’s what great powers do, and it doesn’t mean they are plotting global conquest. In particular, it doesn’t mean that the Russians are trying to take over the US or British governments or planning a new Cold War. For the most part, they are just busy with their own affairs.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The vote…needed”)