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Syria: Two Unconvincing Explanations

The FBI raid on the office, home and hotel room of President Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, may persuade the president that a larger, longer-lasting distraction is needed, but it’s still likely that his response to the alleged poison gas attack by the Syrian government in Douma on Saturday will be short, sharp and soon forgotten.

That’s how it worked last April, when Trump ‘punished’ Bashar al-Assad’s regime for another alleged poison gas attack in rebel-held Idlib province by dropping 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Syrian airbase at Shayrat from which the attack supposedly originated. Lots of explosions, not many hurt, no lasting political consequences.

Trump is talking tougher this time. Asked on Sunday if military action was possible, he said: “Nothing is off the table…If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out.” And what if Russian President Vladimir Putin bears some responsibility for the attack? “He may, yeah, he may. And if he does, it’s going to be very tough, very tough. Everybody’s going to pay a price. He will, everybody will.”

It may just be the usual Trump bluster, but the Russians are so concerned that their UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzia, warned on Tuesday that the use of “armed force under mendacious pretext against Syria, where, at the request of the legitimate government of a country, Russian troops have been deployed, could lead to grave repercussions…I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.”

Now, it’s hard to believe that the Russians would not know if the Syrians were using poison gas: after all, they are using the same air bases. American advisers certainly knew what was going on when they were giving Saddam Hussein targeting data for poison gas attacks against Iranian troops in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

“The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas,” said retired US air Force Col. Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes. “They didn’t have to. We already knew.” The Russians would know, too – but then why would they go along with it?

The great puzzle about poison gas use in Syria is that it has no plausible military purpose. The targets are never fighters. The victims in the various videos are always civilians, and using poison gas obviously has a big political price. Why would the Syrian regime pay it, especially when it has already won the military battle?

It just doesn’t make sense for the regime to be deliberately killing civilians with poison gas. Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense: you will often hear explanations that essentially say that Assad and his partners-in-crime are simply evil. They do it because it’s wicked, and because they can. But even then you have to explain why the Russians would let them do it.

Moscow says that the Douma gas attack didn’t actually happen. “Our military specialists have visited this place, along with representatives of the Syrian Red Crescent… and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday.

Instead, Lavrov suggested, it was a ‘false flag’ operation in which the besieged rebels deliberately staged a gas attack and blamed it on the Assad regime, or at least used video footage from somewhere else and pretended it had been shot in Douma.

Can you really believe that Syrian rebels would kill their own innocent civilians in such a horrible way? Well, if they are losing the war, and the only way to turn the tide is Western military intervention against Assad, and the only way to mobilise Western opinion to support that intervention is to get him blamed for using poison gas, then maybe they would.

Getting the poison gas would be no problem: the rebels overran about half of Syria in the early stages of the war, and gained control of a number of chemical weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian army. They are almost all Islamist radicals by now, and would be comfortable with the argument that the end justifies the means.

I don’t know which of these explanations for the gas attacks is true. Is it the brutal, incredibly stupid Syrian regime that unfailingly undermines every one of its successes by making a pointless gas attack on civilians just as it wins a major battle fought with conventional weapons?

Or is it ruthless Islamist rebels making false-flag chemical attacks because that is the only thing that might trigger a Western military intervention big enough to save them from ultimate defeat? Very stupid monsters or very clever monsters, or maybe both. Who knows?

What I do know is that I feel as isolated, writing this, as I did back in early 2003 when I was one of the few Western journalists questioning all the nonsense and outright lies about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons that provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq.

And I know that the evidence is not strong enough either way to justify a major Western military attack on the Assad regime now.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 12. (“Now…it”; and “Getting…means”)

Russian Victory in Syria

Two years ago this month, the Russian air force was sent in to save the tottering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from collapse. The air was thick with Western predictions that Moscow had made a dreadful mistake.

“These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a joint statement three days after the first Russian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Russians were backing Assad, they were bombing the wrong groups of fighters, they were bombing civilians, and they would end up trapped in an endless war.

Why didn’t the Russians listen to such expert advice, especially from the United States, which has more experience in losing wars in the Muslim world than anybody else? Nobody likes to be patronised, but the Russians didn’t get into a slanging match about it. They just kept quiet and carried on doing what they were doing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating ISIS in Syria,” said General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Russian army in Syria, and that is the simple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir-es-Zor remain under ISIS control, and both cities will fall before the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where Western, mostly US troops and their Kurdish and Arab allies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will probably end up partitioned between the Syrian government and the Americans in the short run. But in the long run Assad gets it all back.

All that remains to do is reconquer the big enclave around Idlib in north-western Syria that is ruled by the al-Qaeda affiliate that used to be known as the Jabhat al-Nusra. (It has taken to changing its name every month or so in an attempt to disguise its origins.) But the Russian have promised to help Assad reconquer that territory too.

“The operation to destroy the fighters of the Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups on Syrian territory will continue until their complete and guaranteed destruction,” promised General Lapin last week. Taking down al-Nusra will be a major enterprise, but it is quite doable because the Islamist outfit’s former supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have abandoned it.

Indeed, the Russian and Iranian effort to save Assad has been so successful that what once seemed impossible is becoming a reality: the whole country will be reunited under Assad’s rule.

Much of the population that falls back under his control will hate it, and it is far from clear what will happen to the six million Syrians who fled abroad during the war. Most were anti-Assad, and many will never go home. Losing a civil war is a bitter experience, but one way or another everyone will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you contemplate the Syrian tragedy, that there are degrees of iniquity. Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is a model of democratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nastier, and there have certainly been times when its foreign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not exclude the possibility that the Russians might pressure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fighting stops. Sending Bashar al-Assad into a safe and comfortable retirement at that point wouldn’t really change anything in Syria, but it would put Russia’s intervention in the war in a somewhat better light.

And what did Moscow get in return for its intervention? First and foremost, it prevented the emergence of an Islamist-ruled terrorist state quite close to Russia’s own southern borders. (The Russian population is around one-tenth Muslim.) But it also demonstrated that it can be a very useful ally for other regimes that run into trouble. Unlike you-know-who.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Why…doing”; and “It’s…back”)

Peak Putin?

The crowds of protesters in Moscow and other Russian cities were far bigger the last time, in 2011-2012. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was so intoxicated by the forty or fifty thousand citizens who demonstrated in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s rule that he boasted: “I see enough people here to take the Kremlin…right now, but we are peaceful people and won’t do that just yet.”

It was a delusional thing to say even then. Five years later, the crowds joining the protests against official corruption on Sunday were in the hundreds or the low thousands in most Russian cities. Even in Moscow’s Pushkin Square they probably did not number more than ten thousand – and Navalny himself was arrested on his way to the square. At home, Putin reigns supreme, with approval ratings around the 80 percent level.

He’s not doing too badly abroad, either. On Friday he met with Marine Le Pen, the leading candidate in France’s presidential election next month and Putin’s favourite Western leader after Donald Trump. She supported Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from the start, and promises to work for an end of European Union sanctions against Russia if she becomes president of France this spring.

That promise might be hard to keep, since she would also be busy organising a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, but Putin replied “I know that you represent a European political force that is growing quickly.” It certainly is: the Brexiteers in Britain have already won their referendum on leaving, and the EU would probably not survive the departure of two of its three biggest members.

Without the EU, there would be no powerful counterpoise to Russia in Europe, and the election of Donald Trump has already put an admirer of Putin in the White House. Moreover, Russia is now the dominant outside power in the Middle East for the first time since the 1960s, and it has achieved that position at a far lower cost in blood and treasure than the United States paid in 2001-2015.

Putin is undeniably a master manipulator both at home and abroad, and he has good reason to be pleased with his accomplishments. And yet….

Putin has played a weak hand internationally with great skill, but Russia really is weak. Its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and apart from defence industry the country is largely de-industrialised. (Have you ever bought anything made in Russia?)

Only oil and gas exports give Moscow the cash to play the great power game at all, and the collapse of oil prices has put Moscow on a starvation diet. The relatively low-cost intervention in Syria has brought Moscow high diplomatic returns in the short term, but Putin lacks the resources to play a major role in rebuilding post-war Syria, so Russia’s influence in the region is bound to fade as time passes.

Even in Europe, Russia’s posture is essentially defensive, if only because it could not afford to hold up its end of a new Cold War. Putin has effectively neutralised the pro-Western government of Ukraine by seizing Crimea and sponsoring a separatist war in two eastern provinces, but he won’t go any farther even with Trump in the White House.

Putin’s real vulnerability is at home. His popular support has held up well despite three years of economic decline because of falling oil income, and it may even carry him safely through next year’s presidential election. But there is no reason to believe that oil revenues are going to recover in the near future.

Even Russia’s cooperation with the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries in cutting oil production to get the price back up caused only a modest and brief upward tick in world oil prices. Now they are back down where they were three months ago.

There is great over-capacity in the world’s oil industry, and it’s entirely possible that Russians face two or three more years of declining incomes (from a base that was never all that high). Many Russians are still grateful to Putin for ending the decade of chaos and acute poverty after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but for half the population that is ancient history.

It is the young whom Putin must fear, because they are less impressed by hollow foreign triumphs in places they don’t care about, and more unhappy about an economic future that leaves most of them bumping along the bottom. He has had a long run in power – seventeen years and counting – but his future is probably a lot shorter than his past.

In fact, Russia may be at peak Putin right now, with only mounting troubles in his future. The crowds were smaller this time than last, but they were not just in the big cities. When there are protests in places like Chita and Barnaul, you know that a lot of people are running out of patience.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Even…House”; and “Even…ago”)

Everybody Take a Valium

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, he took more than half a million troops with him, and he still lost. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he used four million troops, but he lost too. And now the United States has deployed just one thousand American into Poland.

So did the Russians giggle and snort at this pathetic display of American “resolve”? Of course not. They pretended to be horrified by it.

“We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman. “These actions threaten our interests, our security, especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. (The United States) is not even a European state.”

The Russians have not suddenly caught a severe case of timidity. They know perfectly well this handful of American troops poses no danger to them. But building up the American “threat” helps to mobilise popular support for Putin – and he will be even more popular when Donald Trump enters the White House and makes a “deal” with Putin that ends this alleged threat.

Pantomime threats like this are a standard part of international politics, and should not be seen as a cause for panic. It is also quite normal for great powers to bury an inconvenient dispute and move on, as Trump will probably do with Putin after he takes office. As long as Trump does not formally recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, international law will survive. Indeed, it would survive, perhaps limping a little, even if he did.

As Trump’s inauguration looms, there is great panic among American commentators and strategic analysts (and quite a lot of people elsewhere) about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace, but this ignores two important facts.

One is that the other world leaders he is dealing with will still be grown-ups. The other is that the real US government – the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work – are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions.

Even Trump’s most radical ideas, like threatening to end America’s 45-year-old “One China” policy – and implicitly, therefore, to recognise the independence of Taiwan – will only destabilise the international order if OTHER national leaders are panicked by his demands. In most cases, they will not be. (Indeed, many of them are already taking up meditation or practicing deep breathing in preparation for having to deal with him.)

None of this guarantees that Trump will not blunder into a big international crisis or a major war during his term, but the chances of his doing so are relatively low – maybe as low as one-in-ten. You wouldn’t freely choose to live with this level of risk, but people did live with it for decades during the Cold War, and they survived it.

As for the ‘Manchurian Candidate’ nonsense: while Trump may have had significant Russian help of one sort or another during his election campaign, he is almost certainly not an ‘agent of influence’ for Moscow. The intelligence report by a British ex-spy that is causing such a fuss is actually TOO detailed: senior Russian officials do not give that much away to each other, let alone to Western spies or the Russians who work for them.

Even if the lurid accounts of Trump’s alleged sexual games with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel were backed by Russian-held film of the event, Moscow could never blackmail Trump with a threat to make it public. He would know that it was a bluff, because Putin’s rational strategy must be to put and keep Trump in power, not to discredit him.

The real cost of the leaked allegations for Trump is domestic, it is high, and he has already paid it. He can indignantly deny the story until his thumbs are sore, and he may actually be telling the truth, but mud sticks. People think of him as the sort of man of whom it MIGHT be true, and so the ‘lentil and chickpea’ jokes will not stop. He has suffered grave and lasting reputational damage even among his own supporters.

Many people will be very frightened about the future when Trump swears the oath of office on Friday. They are certainly right to be concerned, and the economic damage may be very bad, but the risk of war, even with China, is probably lower than they fear.

Back in 1976, when the Quebec separatists won an election for the first time, English-Canadians were terrified, and the anglophone minority in Quebec itself saw it as the apocalypse. It was only six years, after all, since there had been dramatic terrorist attacks in Quebec by a different brand of separatists. But cartoonist Aislin (Terry Mosher) in the Montreal Gazette had the right idea.

It just showed a close-up of the separatist leader, René Lévesque, smoking his usual cigarette and telling the entire country: “OK, everybody take a Valium.” It was better advice than even he knew: Quebec never left and the heavens never fell.

We need Aislin again.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Even…supporters”)