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After Aleppo: A Kind of Peace?

Eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held half of what was once Syria’s biggest city, is falling. Once the resistance there collapses, things may move very fast in Syria, and the biggest question will be: do the outside powers that have intervened in the war accept Bashar al-Assad’s victory, or do they keep the war going?

Even one year ago, it seemed completely unrealistic to talk about an Assad victory. The Syrian government’s army was decimated, demoralised and on the verge of collapse: every time the rebels attacked, it retreated.

There was even a serious possibility that Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the extreme Islamist groups that dominated the rebel forces, would sweep to victory in all of Syria. But then, just fourteen months ago, the Russian air force was sent in to save Assad’s army from defeat.

It did more than that. It enabled the Syrian army, with help on the ground from Shia militias recruited from Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq and mostly trained and commanded by Iranian officers, to go onto the offensive. Assad’s forces took back the historic city of Palmyra. They eliminated the last rebel-held foothold in the city of Homs. And last summer they began to cut eastern Aleppo’s remaining links with the outside world.

In July government forces took control of the Castello Road, ending the flow of food and supplies for eastern Aleppo’s ten thousand rebel fighters and its claimed civilian population of 250,000 people. (The real total of civilians left in the east of the city, once home to around a million people, is almost certainly a small fraction of that number.)

A rebel counter-offensive in August briefly opened a new corridor into eastern Aleppo, but government troops retook the lost territory and resumed the siege in September.

For almost two months now almost nothing has moved into or out of the besieged half of the city, and both food and ammunition are running short inside. So the resistance is starting to collapse.

The Hanano district fell on Saturday, and Jabal Badro fell on Sunday. The capture of Sakhour on Monday has cut the rebel-held part of Aleppo in two, and the remaining bits north of the cut will quickly be pinched out by the Syrian government’s troops.

The southeastern part of the city may stay in rebel hands a while longer, but military collapses of this sort are infectious. It is now likely that Bashar al-Assad will control all of Aleppo before the end of the year, and possibly much sooner.

At that point he would control all of Syria’s major cities, at least three-quarters of the population that has not fled abroad, and all of the country’s surviving industry. He would be in a position to offer an amnesty to all the rebels except the extreme Islamists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and a lot of the less fanatical Syrian rebels would be tempted to accept it.

For the many foreign powers that are involved in the Syrian civil war, it would then come down to a straight choice: Assad’s cruel but conventional regime or the Islamist crazies.

Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however much their leaders may loathe Assad, could not openly put their armies at the service of the Islamists. (They used to send them arms and money, but even that has stopped now.) And for a newly installed President Donald Trump, it would become a lot simpler to “make a deal” with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to finish the job of crushing Islamic State and the Nusra Front together.

Would the Russians and the Americans then hand over all the recaptured territory to Assad’s regime? Many people in Washington would rather hang onto it temporarily in order to blackmail Syria’s ruling Baath Party into replacing Assad with somebody a bit less tainted, but a deal between Putin and Trump would certainly preclude that sort of games-playing.

How could Trump reconcile such a deal with Russia with his declared intention to cancel the agreement the United States signed last March to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions? Iran is Russia’s closest ally in the Middle East, and if Trump broke that agreement he would be reopening a US military confrontation with Iran.

Since this question may not even have crossed Mr Trump’s mind yet, it would be pointless for us to speculate on which way he might jump three months from now.

It’s equally pointless to wonder what kind of deal the Syrian Kurds will end up with. Turkey will want to ensure that they have no autonomous government of their own and are thoroughly subjugated by Assad’s regime. The United States, on the other hand, owes them a debt of honour for carrying the main burden of fighting Islamic State on the ground – but the Kurds are used to being betrayed.

All we can say with some confidence at the moment is that it looks like Assad has won his six-year war to stay in power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 16. (“In July…September”; and “It’s…betrayed”)

Yemen: The Stupidest War

“They hit everything, hospitals, orphanages, schools,” Hisham al-Omeisy told The Guardian newspaper six months ago. “You live in constant fear that your kids’ school could be the next target.”

No, he’s not talking about the wicked Russians bombing the eastern side of Aleppo in Syria, which is stirring up so much synthetic indignation in Washington and London these days. He was talking about the air force of Saudi Arabia, that great friend of the West, bombing his friends and neighbours in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian bombing campaign in Yemen is now eighteen months old, and is responsible for the great majority of the estimated 5,000 civilian fatal casualties in that time. The Saudi authorities swear that it wasn’t them every time there is an especially high death toll – “(our) forces have clear instructions not to target populated areas and to avoid civilians” is the familiar refrain – but they are the only side in the conflict that has aircraft.

A case in point is last Sunday’s strike on the Great Hall in Sana’a, a very large and distinctive building of no military importance whatever. Last Sunday it was crowded with hundred of people attending the funeral of Ali al-Rawishan, the father of the current interior minister, Galal al-Rawishan.

The younger al-Rawishan is the interior minister in the government that sits in the capital, which is supported by “rebel” Houthi tribesmen from the north of Yemen and by the part of the army that still backs the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. His father’s funeral was therefore attended by many senior Houthi officials and supporters of the former president, as well as large numbers of other people.

By the sheerest coincidence, we are asked to believe, an air-strike accidentally hit the Great Hall at just the right time on just the right day to kill 150 people and wound 525, among whom there would probably have been a dozen or so “rebel” government officials.

Even the White House, which has loyally backed Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, said that it is launching an immediate review of its policy. US National Security Council spokesman Ned Simon said it was part of a “troubling” pattern of Saudi air attacks on civilians, and warned that “US security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank cheque.” But it is, actually.

This war is really about Saudi Arabia’s ability to control Yemen’s government. The two neighbours have about the same population but Saudi Arabia is thirty times richer, so that should be easy.

Yemen’s long-ruling dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the latter took advantage of popular protests against him in 2011-12 (part of the “Arab Spring”) to engineer his replacement by a Saudi puppet, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Saleh then made an alliance with his former enemies, the Houthi tribes of northern Yemen, and struck back. When the rebel forces seized Sana’a in late 2014 and eventually drove Hadi out of the country, Saudi Arabia put together a “coalition” of conservative Arab states and launched the current military intervention to put Hadi back in power.

However, none of the “coalition” members wants to risk the casualties and the consequent unpopularity at home that would come from fighting a major ground war in Yemen. The intervention therefore consists mostly of air strikes, which produce lots of civilian casualties – some deliberate, some not.

The other motive behind this foolish war is the Saudi belief (or at least claim) that Iran, its great rival in the Gulf, is the secret power behind the rebel forces in Yemen. No doubt Iran does sympathise with the Yemeni rebels, since they are mostly fellow Shias, but for all the talk of “Iran-allied Houthis”, faithfully repeated in Western media, there is no evidence that Iran has given them either military or financial aid.

So, then, three conclusions. First, the Saudi-led coalition will not get its way in Yemen if it remains unwilling to put large numbers of troops on the ground – and it might not win even if it did. Second, the relentless bombing of civilians is largely due to the coalition’s frustration at the failure of its political strategy (although the sheer lack of useful military targets also plays a part).

And third, this is the stupidest of all the wars now being fought across the Middle East. Who runs Yemen is not a matter of vital strategic importance to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi obsession with the Iranian “threat” is absurd.

Yemen is of no imaginable strategic value to Iran, nor could the Iranians help the rebel government there in any concrete way even if they wanted to. And while Iranian influence has undoubtedly grown in the Gulf region in the past decade, that is entirely a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, not of some nefarious Iranian plot.

Does the Washington foreign policy establishment finally understand all this? Only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Old habits die hard, and it’s all too easy to condemn Russian air strikes in Syria while condoning similar Saudi air strikes in Yemen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 15. (“Even…actually”; “However…not”; and “Yemen…plot”)

Saudi Arabia Admits Defeat

“God be with the citizens, we are back to the time of poverty,” wrote Saudi Arabian blogger Rayan al-Shamri on Twitter last week. That’s a bit strong, but he and his fellow citizens are certainly no longer living in the time of plenty. Saudi Arabia is cutting back on all fronts.

The wages of government employees accounted for almost half the the Saudi Arabian government’s spending last year: about $120 billion. And the country’s budget deficit, due to the collapse of the oil price, was $98 billion. So you can see why the government would go looking for some economies in the public sector.

About two-thirds of employed Saudi citizens have public sector jobs, many of which require them to do little beyond showing up on a fairly regular basis. It’s the unwritten contract that the absolute monarchy made with its citizens decades ago, when money was not a problem: you keep quiet politically, and we will subsidise your lifestyle handsomely. But the money isn’t there any more.

A royal decree on 23 September announced that government ministers’ salaries would be cut by 20 percent. Lower-ranking civil servants will have their pay frozen and their overtime payments and annual leave capped. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced a plan to cut the public sector to only 40 percent of the working population by 2020. (In the United States it’s 7 percent.)

If this policy sounds a little less than drastic, that’s because the Saudi regime doesn’t dare cut harder for fear of a popular backlash. It cannot afford to let the “time of poverty” come back, and citizens who are used to being coddled and subsidised will define anything short of their current living standard as “poverty”.

So if the regime can’t get its budget spending down much, then it had better start getting the oil price back up before it runs out of money entirely and the roof falls in. This requires an about-turn in the market strategy it has followed for the past two years.

The Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) only accounts for 40 percent of the world’s oil exports, which is marginal for a cartel that seeks to control the world oil price. Moreover, some poorer OPEC members regularly pump more oil than their quotas allow. So Saudi Arabia’s traditional role, as OPEC’s biggest member, was to cut production and get the world price back up when there was a glut of oil on the market.

When the oil price collapsed two years ago, however, Saudi Arabia didn’t do that. The regime was worried that the rapid rise in American oil production, mainly due to fracking, would ultimately destroy OPEC’s ability to set the price of oil. Its response was to pump oil flat out and let the price stay low, hoping that this would drive the high-cost US fracking industry out of business.

That was a foredoomed strategy, because the US government would even subsidise its fracking industry, if it had to, rather than give up on the dream of “energy independence” (self-sufficiency in oil production). In the event, that wasn’t necessary: even with the oil price at rock bottom, American oil production actually grew last year – and by now the OPEC producers are facing budgetary disaster.

At the OPEC summit in Algiers last Wednesday, Saudi Arabia publicly abandoned its strategy. OPEC will cut production by 700,000 barrels a day, starting next month. Saudi Arabia, as usual, will take the biggest share in the cuts – and if this round of cuts doesn’t get the price back up, there will presumably be a further round early in the new year.

The Saudis have even agreed that Iran, their great strategic rival in the Gulf region, can increase its production while everybody else in OPEC is cutting. (Iran, frozen out of the market by the American embargo for so long, has been claiming its old OPEC quota back now that the embargo has been lifted, and until last week Saudi Arabia was resisting its demand.)

A number of things are not yet clear about the new strategy. In particular, how to share the pain of production cuts between the OPEC members has not yet been worked out, so the market is not yet persuaded that these cuts are real.

The world oil price jumped 7 percent on first news of the OPEC decision, but is now back down to about the level it was at before the OPEC announcement. OPEC’s promises about cuts have been broken before. But this time they probably will be kept, because a lot of the producers are truly desperate for a higher price.

So, then, three conclusions. One, Saudi Arabia’s ability to set the price of oil, and OPEC’s power in general, is seriously impaired. Two, the oil price is going back up over the next year or so, though probably not beyond $70 or $80 a barrel. And three, that is really a good thing, because we need a higher oil price to drive the shift out of carbon fuels and into renewables.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“About…more”; and “The Saudis…demand”)

North Korea’s Deterrent

Here we go again. North Korea launched a ballistic missile of intercontinental range on Sunday (saying it was just putting up a satellite) only weeks after it carried out its fourth nuclear weapons test (which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb).The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned it, and even the People’s Republic of China, North Korea’s only ally, expressed its “regret” at what the country had done.

There will certainly now be more UN sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime. But there have already been four rounds of UN military and economic sanctions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, and Pyongyang just ignores them.

Clearly, this is something that the North Korean regime wants so badly that it is willing to endure considerable punishment in order to get it. But why is this very poor country spending vast sums in order to be able to strike its neighbours – and even the United States, for that is what the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are about – with nuclear weapons?

Well, here’s a clue. What the North Korean government said after last month’s hydrogen bomb test was this: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a genuine peace-loving state which has made every effort to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in the region from the vicious US nuclear war scenario.”

“The US is a gang of cruel robbers that has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK….By succeeding in the H-bomb test…the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states…and the Korean people demonstrated the spirit of a dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Never mind the stilted rhetoric and gutter abuse; North Korean propagandists always talk like that. Listen to the key words that are almost buried under the surrounding invective. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, they say, is meant to “protect…the region from…the US …nuclear war scenario” by creating a “most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Really? Do they actually fear that the United States might use nuclear weapons on them, and that they can only be safe if they have their own hydrogen bombs and ICBMs? Are they doing all this purely as a defensive measure?

Of course they are. However bad-tempered and impulsive they sounded, the men of the Kim family, father, son and grandson, who have ruled North Korea in dynastic succession for the past 68 years, were not crazy. They never started a war, because they knew they would lose it, and the current incumbent is certainly not going to start a nuclear war.

He would have to be crazy to do that. North Korea lacks the resources to build more than a few bombs a year, and it does not have the technologies to ensure that the missiles it may one day have won’t get shot down. It will probably never be able to guarantee that it can strike even South Korea or Japan with nuclear missiles, let alone the United States.

Everybody in the North Korean hierarchy (along with some millions of other North Koreans) would certainly be dead only hours after the regime launched nuclear weapons at any of those countries. The United States has literally thousands of nuclear weapons. It would take only a few dozen quite small ones to virtually exterminate the entire ruling elite, and North Korea would have no way of stopping them.

A few not-very-high-tech nuclear weapons would give Pyongyang no usable ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. They would, however, give it a pretty credible nuclear deterrent.

Launching a few nuclear weapons against a major nuclear power is suicidal, but those same few weapons can be a perfectly good deterrent against a nuclear attack by that same power, because they give the weaker party a capacity for “revenge from the grave.” Even a country as powerful as the United States will behave very cautiously when faced with the possibility that an opponent might land even one or two nuclear weapons on its territory.

North Korea has lived under the implicit threat of US nuclear weapons for almost seven decades, and the United States has never promised not to use those weapons against it. It’s almost surprising that we haven’t seen North Korean nuclear weapons before now.

North Korea is just doing the same thing that Pakistan did in the 1980s and 90s out of fear of Indian nuclear weapons, and that Iran was doing in fear of both Pakistani and Israeli nuclear weapons in the last fifteen years.

The Security Council is quite right to try to block North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the successful use of international sanctions to stop Iran offers some hope that it may succeed. But North Korea is not a crazy state plotting a nuclear holocaust at the cost of its own extinction. Its nuclear weapons programme is a perfectly rational – although highly undesirable – policy for a small country with a big problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“He would…United States”; and “North Korea…now”)