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Preposterous Times

All the talk of special prosecutors and the like will not bring the man to book. The soap opera will continue and no amount of dysfunction in the White House will make it stop until early 2019 at best. Even though a great deal of damage will have been done by then.

Some of the damage will only affect the United States. Donald Trump doesn’t often violate the Constitution, but he breaks all the unwritten rules that regulate the behaviour of public officials: don’t use your office to enrich yourself, don’t give plum jobs to your relatives, don’t fire the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation because he’s leading an investigation into possibly treasonous behaviour among your close associates.

However, these are domestic American problems, and the American republic will survive them. In four years, or at most eight, Trump will be gone, and more-or-less normal service will resume. But the same recklessness, brought to bear on foreign affairs, may have far bigger consequences.

Most of the concern at the moment is focused on North East Asia where Trump’s
scarcely veiled threat to “do something” about North Korea could escalate a long-standing problem into a “major, major conflict”. But most other major players in the North East Asian game are grown-ups who do not want a nuclear war in their region, so the risk of a calamity there is much smaller than it looks.

The Middle East is more frightening than north east Asia in this context, for half the countries of the regions are already at war one way or another, none of the regimes really feels secure – and Trump has already launched a missile strike against the Syrian regime.

He justified it as retaliation for the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime – an allegation that has not been conclusively proved – but most people in the region take it as a sign that he is joining the Sunni side of a region-wide Sunni-Shia war.

This alignment didn’t start with Trump, of course. For more than half a century the United States has seen Saudi Arabia, the effective leader of the Sunni bloc, as its most important ally in the Middle East, and for the past forty years it has regarded Iran as the root of all evil in the region.

Iran is the leader of the Shia bloc. In fact, it is the only big and powerful Shia country. Trump has already expressed hostility towards Iran, and his intentions to abandon the treaty that President Obama signed to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions for the next ten years. And on Friday Trump is making his first foreign visit – to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defacto ruler of Saudi Arabia and leader of the Sunni bloc.

Although Prince Mohammed is almost forty years younger than Donald Trump, the two men share several striking characteristics. The Saudi Arabian leader (his father, King Salman, is 81 and not fully functional) is not as ignorant as Trump, but the two men are almost twins in temperament. The Prince is just as vain as Trump, just as impulsive, and just as likely to start a fight he can’t finish.

Prince Mohammed’s escalation of Saudi Arabian support for the al Qaeda-linked faction in the Syrian civil war two years ago was the direct cause for the Russian intervention that ultimately saved the Assad regime. His military intervention in Yemen, trying to put the Saudi Arabian-imposed president back into power has led only to an unwinnable war and a looming famine in the country. And he’s up for fighting Iran too.

In an interview broadcast this month on Saudi TV he said: “we will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia. We will work so the battle is in Iran.” Why? Because, accordin to the Prince, Iran’s leaders are planning to seize Islam’s most sacred city, Mecca, in the heart of Saudi Arabia, and establish their rule over the world’s billion and a half Muslims.

This is paranoid nonsense. Only one tenth of the world’s Muslims are Shia. The only three Muslim countries (out of 50) where they are the majority are Iran, Iraq and tiny Bahrein.

Iran sends troops to help the beleaguered, Shia-dominated Assad regime in Syria, and money and weapons to the (Shia) Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But in the 38 years since the current regime came to power in Tehran, it has never invaded anybody And the notion that it could or would invade Saudi Arabia is simply laughable.

Never-the-less, what matters here are not the facts but what Trump and Prince Mohammed may believe to be the facts. So the prospect of the two men getting together in Riyadh will arouse dread in Iran, and in some other quarters as well.

It’s preposterous to imagine that Saudi Arabia would attack Iran directly or that the United States would encourage Saudi Arabia or pursue such a strategy – or that Russia would let itself be drawn in on the other side. But we do live ibn preposterous times.

There is no chance that the Republican majority in the US Congress would impeach Donald Trump before the mid-term elections in late 2018 no matter what he does. Unless there is a complete collapse in the Republican vote then, they won’t impeach him either. It’s going to be a long four years.

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To shorten to 7 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most …looks”; and “Prince…too”)

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”)