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The US and Russia Agree on Syria

Great states hate to admit error, so when they have to change course they generally try to disguise the fact. That’s why you may not have heard much about the way that the United States has changed course in Syria in the past three months.

You will recall how Washington insisted for years that it was determined to see the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and was at the same time working to destroy his mortal enemy, Islamic State – without, of course, committing any US ground troops to Syria. You may also recall how the US government regularly and vehemently condemned Russia’s military intervention in Syria last year.

Well, that’s all over now. Two weeks ago (16 July), US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Moscow and agreed to take “concrete steps” together in Syria. These included coordinating air strikes against both Islamic State and the Nusra Front, the two Islamist offspring of al-Qaeda that dominate the rebel forces in Syria.

Russia is the Assad regime’s main ally in the Syrian civil war. By agreeing to these coordinated “concrete steps” against Assad’s main domestic enemies, Washington is effectively conceding that it now wants him to survive. Assad, it has finally recognised, is the lesser evil compared to a take-over of all of Syria by the Islamist fanatics.

It has taken five years to get here. The United States bombs Islamic State forces every day, but when IS troops advanced to seize Palmyra last year, no American bombs fell on the vehicles that took the IS fighters across the desert to the historic city. That would have been “helping Assad” – and so the US let Palmyra be captured and trashed by the fanatics. (Assad’s troops took Palmyra back last March – with Russian air support.)

The Obama administration fell into this now obviously hopeless strategy back in the days of the “Arab Spring” in 2010-11. Like most people, Obama was convinced that the Assad regime would fall quickly, and that the government that replaced him would be better both for American interests and for the Syrian people. It was, after all, a brutal and corrupt regime. It still is.

As the opposition fell increasingly into the hands of Islamist extremists in 2012-13, the prospect of a peaceful, democratic successor regime vanished. But rather than biting the bullet and switching its support to Assad, the lesser evil, Washington embarked on a forlorn attempt to build a “third force” that would defeat both Assad and the Islamists. It spent billions on the project, but never produced a credible fighting force that could accomplish that miracle.

Governments do not easily admit error, so right down to late last year Washington clung to the illusion that somehow or other it could avoid having to choose between Assad and the Islamists. Now it has accepted that necessity, and the deal with Lavrov clearly signals that the United States now wants Assad to survive.

It still won’t say that, of course, but bombing both Islamic State and the Nusra Front means that it will effectively be bombing the great majority of the Syrian rebels. There are still some non-Islamist rebels fighting Assad in the “Free Syrian Army”, but most elements of the FSA have been coerced into joining the Nusra Front in an unequal alliance called the “Army of Islam”.

The Nusra Front created this alliance specifically to ward off American bombs by wrapping non-Islamist groups around itself. It worked for a while, although Russia was never fooled and has bombed them all without discrimination since it intervened militarily last September. Now the US has signed up to bomb them too.

The Nusra Front’s leader, Abu Mohamed al-Julani, responded last week by breaking his organisation’s formal ties with al-Qaeda and changing its name, but that will not stop the bombs. The Nusra Front does not indulge in the spectacular acts of cruelty that are Islamic State’s trademark, but they both come out of al-Qaeda and in terms of ideology and goals they are practically identical. Washington is not fooled.

The Obama administration has at least learned from its mistakes, and this de facto US-Russian alliance may actually have the power to weaken the Islamist forces drastically and impose a real ceasefire on everybody else. Syria will not be reunited under Assad or anybody else, but at least most of the killing would stop.

Unfortunately, if this approach does not deliver results in the next five months it is likely to be abandoned. Hillary Clinton seems committed to going back to the old, discredited “third force” strategy if she wins the presidency in November, which would mean years more of killing. And If Trump wins….
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The Nusra…fooled”)

The Other Clinton Presidency

Shortly before John Kasich dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, leaving Donald Trump as the only candidate, the Ohio governor put up a spoof video on the internet. Modeled on the old-fashioned intro that scrolls up the screen at the start of each Star Wars movie, it envisioned a future in which Trump won the candidacy, lost the presidential election, and left Hillary Clinton triumphant.

Titled “Our Only Hope”, Kasich’s video began: “Upon defeating Donald Trump in the largest landslide since Reagan in 1984, President Hillary Clinton is preparing to name her newest Supreme Court justice, Elizabeth Warren. (House) Speaker Nancy Pelosi is planning new tax hikes, hoping that Senate President Chuck Schumer and his new Democratic majority can swiftly get it to the President’s desk for her signature.”

“New executive orders restricting the Second Amendment are being drafted while increased federal spending on Obamacare is readied. Meanwhile, our allies across the world are swiftly losing faith in America’s role as a global leader, empowering our enemies and leaving America in a more dangerous position. But we have hope it can be different…”

It was a roll-call of all the nightmarish things that Republicans fear a Clinton presidency would do: create a “liberal” majority on the Supreme Court, raise taxes, bring in gun control, and spend more money on health care for poor Americans. Kasich, of course, was the “Only Hope” to prevent this disaster. (It was his video, after all.)

If Kasich didn’t get the Republican nomination, according to the video, then Trump would win it, but then lose the national election and put Hillary Clinton into the presidency. That would be followed shortly by dragons, plagues and strange portents in the sky, leading to the full-on End Times during her second year in office.

Well, Kasich is out of the race, Trump will get the Republican nomination, and Clinton will win the presidency by a landslide, just like the video says. Not only that, but the Democrats really may win control of both houses of Congress.

Hillary Clinton probably will create a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, tax the rich a bit more, and expand the Affordable Care Act (what Republicans call “Obamacare”). She probably will tackle gun control, too, although you should not hold your breath while awaiting a positive result.

She will certainly push on with Obama’s intiatives on climate change and add to them. (She talks about wanting “half a billion more solar panels deployed in the first four years.”) But will she do anything genuinely surprising? It would be astounding if she did. Hillary Clinton is “a safe pair of hands,” not a radical.

On foreign policy, she belongs to the “Washington consensus”, so she is suspicious of Russia and Iran, reflexively pro-Israel, and uncertain what to do about China. She resents the fact that people still bring up her vote in support of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it does highlight her inability to think outside the box that the rest of the consensus is trapped in at any given time.

She takes the standard liberal positions on practically every domestic issue from gay marriage and abortion (cautiously pro) to immigration (no mass deportation of illegals). She has talked about the need to reform the rules on political campaign finances, but would have trouble in getting that through even a Democratic-controlled Congress (“the best Congress that money can buy”), and might just decide not to waste her political capital that way.

If all this makes Hillary Clinton sound like a profoundly unexciting president, that would not bother her a bit. Nearly three decades of experience with the political game at the highest level has reinforced her natural tendency to think only in terms of incremental change, and her whole approach to politics is managerial, not transformational. She will not rock the boat.

This is perhaps not such a bad thing in a peacetime national leader – and the United States really is at peace, despite the small overseas military commtments that entail an occasional military casualty.

It is perhaps especially not a bad thing in the First Female President in American history, just as it was not a bad thing for her predecessor, the First Black President in US history. When you are setting a new precedent for who can hold the office, steady competence is a better advertisement for the new rules than high excitement.

It’s also the best way to assure a second term in office – which could also be within Hillary Clinton’s grasp if the Republican Party splits before either before or after the electoral debacle that, with Trump as its candidate, now seems almost certain. Although that would make her 77 at the end of her second term.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“It is perhaps…excitement”)

The Syrian Truce

So far the Russian plan for a ceasefire in Syria is working remarkably well. The truce that came into effect on Saturday had been observed with only minor violations on all the relevant fronts, and the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Yacoub el-Hillo, called it “the best opportunity that the Syrian people have had over the last five years for lasting peace and stability.”

Notice the choice of words there: not Syria’s best chance for democracy or reunification, just for “peace and stability”. In fact, the truce is a big step towards the partition of the country. But the old Syria cannot be revived, and at least this way the killing will stop for most people – if the truce can be converted into a permanent ceasefire, which is far from certain.

When the Russian military intervention in Syria began only five months ago (30 September), even this unsatisfactory outcome seemed to be out of reach. Indeed, the likeliest futures for Syria were a collapse of the Assad regime and the rapid conquest of the whole country by extreme Islamist forces, or years more of a civil war that had already killed 300,000 Syrians and driven half the country’s citizens from their homes.

The immediate effect of the Russian intervention was to foreclose the “collapse” option. Whatever else happened, Russian air power would be able to prevent the Islamist forces from winning a decisive victory over the government army that would bring them to the borders of Lebanon and Jordan (and possibly right across them).

But the Russian planners had no wish to be comitted to an endless and expensive military campaign in a stalemated war. They needed an “exit strategy”, and they had one. The Russian political strategy was to secure the Assad regime’s hold on the more populous parts of Syria, cut the flow of arms and volunteers across the Turkish border to the rebel forces, and then split the alliance between the Islamist and non-Islamist rebels.

This was a direct challenge to the strategy of the American-led “coalition” that has been bombing the Islamists who rule the so-called Islamic State (but not the other Islamists in Syria) for the past two years. The US strategy envisaged destroying both the Assad regime and Islamic State, and accomplishing both these objectives without the help of any ground troops except the Syrian Kurds.

It was more a fantasy than a strategy, and many people in the US State Department and the Pentagon were aware that its practical result would probably be to hand Syria over to the Islamists. Those people were secretly grateful when Russia intervened to save the Syrian government, and they managed to limit the American reaction to general statements of “concern” that the Russians were bombing the wrong targets.

“Wrong targets” or not, unstinting Russian air support for Assad’s army won it time to regain its balance, and then to push the rebel troops away from Syria’s key cities. In the past month the Syrian army, in de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurds, has cut the main rebel supply line from Turkey.

Only the last part of the Russian strategy remains to be accomplished: split the alliance between the Islamist rebels and the non-Islamists. And that is best done by politics: negotiate a ceasefire between the regime and the non-Islamist rebels that excludes the Islamists. That game is now afoot, and the people whom the US government calls “moderate” rebels are clearly willing to play.

They might as well, for the “moderates” have been whittled down to less than a fifth of the troops who are actually fighting the regime. All the rest of the rebel troops in Syria serve Islamic State or its equally extreme Islamist rivals, the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham.

Since the “moderates” have accepted the truce while the Islamists were not even offered it, the split in the rebel forces has now been accomplished. And since the United States now officially accepts this new definition of the “good” rebels and the “bad”, the final stage of the Russian strategy has been accomplished: the great powers are all on the same side.

If this temporary truce can be converted into a permanent ceasefire, then the only remaining fighting in Syria will be around the borders of Islamic State in the north and east, and around the territory controlled by the Nusra Front and its ally Ahrar al-Sham in the northwest. (There will also be continued “coalition” bombing within the borders of Islamic State, and Russian bombing in both sectors.)

The main risk to this truce is the fact that the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham have wrapped small non-Islamist groups around them in a broad “coalition” called the Army of Islam. They have no real influence on the fighting, but in the past their presence has allowed the United States to claim that the Russians are bombing the wrong people, the “moderates”.

If the US can swallow the bitter reality that this truce leaves the Assad regime in charge of the territory it now controls (and around two-thirds of the Syrian population), then the Syrian civil war could eventually be shrunk to a war of everybody else against the Islamists. And along the way it would give the US and Russia a chance to rebuild a more cooperative relationship.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“They might…side”; and “The main…moderates”)

Oil Downturn

“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent,” said John Maynard Keynes (or maybe it wasn’t him, but no matter). At any rate, that was the eternal verity the Saudi Arabians were counting on when they decided to let oil production rip – and the oil price collapse – in late 2014.

The Saudi objective was to keep the oil price low enough, long enough, to drive American shale oil producers out of business and preserve the OPEC cartel’s market share. (The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries controls only 30 percent of world oil production, which is already very low for what was meant to be a price-fixing cartel.)

The end of sanctions against Iran and that country’s push to raise production and regain its old market share put further downward pressure on the oil price. So did the slowdown in China’s economy.

High-cost shale-oil producers in the United States are really hurting (US oil production this year will be down by 700,000 barrels a day), but the OPEC producers are hurting too – and it looks like the Saudis just blinked.

On Tuesday Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and Qatar announced that they would freeze their oil production at the January level. Most other OPEC members are expected to follow suit, and since Saudi Arabia and Russia (not an OPEC member) are the second- and third-largest oil producers in the world, the freeze will affect almost half of the world’s oil production.

That will not be enough to rescue the economies of OPEC countries and Russia from their current crisis. (All their economies are actually shrinking, and Saudi Arabia has gone from a budget surplus amounting to 13 percent of GDP in 2012 to a deficit of 21 percent last year.) Freezing production will not get the oil price back up when the current global production level is at least 2 million barrels a day higher than global demand.

In fact, the oil glut is so great that the world is running out of places to store the excess production. US and European oil storage facilities are full, and people are already talking about buying tankers as floating storage. Since the beginning of this year the oil price, as high as $115 a barrel less than two years ago, has dipped down into the $20s several times.

Not only will the new production freeze not solve this problem; it won’t really even freeze production. If there’s one thing that OPEC members do well, it is to cheat on their production figures and pump more oil than they admit. As for Russia, it broke the last deal it made with OPEC about freezing production, and it will probably do it again.

Ineffective as this deal is, it illustrates the mounting panic in the major oil producers as the prospect of a long period of very low oil prices opens out ahead of them. Saudi Arabia and Russia are edging towards a direct military confrontation in Syria – the Russian air force backs the Assad regime, and the Saudis are talking about sending ground troops to fight it – but the oil price transcends such issues.

So what conclusions may we draw from all this? First, the price of oil will stay down. In the short run it may even go lower: Morgan Stanley analysts say that oil “in the $20s” is possible if China devalues its currency further, and Standard Chartered Bank predicts that prices could hit just $10 a barrel.

The production freeze might allow the oil price to return to the low $40s in the medium term, if Chinese demand does not collapse entirely and if the producers keep their promises. That price would enable most of the fracking operations in the United States to stay in business, but it would still fall far short of balancing the budgets of Russia and Saudi Arabia. They can’t really afford to have a full-scale war over Syria.

Second, OPEC members with large populations and national budgets that depend heavily on oil revenues (more than 75 percent) face the prospect of major civil unrest or even revolution. This includes Nigeria, Algeria, Venezuela and Angola. Iran and non-OPEC member Mexico face lesser political risks, but they are not negligible.

Finally, a prolonged period of low oil and gas prices will hit the whole array of climate-friendly energy and transportation technologies, from wind-farms to electric cars. Energy costs still matter, even if governments can rectify the balance to some extent with carbon pricing and other regulatory measures. But coal, the most polluting of the fossil fuels, still faces early extinction, since its main rival for power generation is ever cheaper gas.

A ruthlessly rational OPEC leadership (i.e. a Saudi Arabia run by competent economists and strategists) would just end the cash hemorrhage and reduce the political risk by cutting production sharply and getting oil prices back up. But the great gamble to break the US frackers by driving them into bankruptcy was not an ownerless, free-floating policy that somehow took root in OPEC soil.

It was a specific strategy that was conceived and promoted by particular powerful individuals, most notably high-ranking Saudi individuals. They would lose a great deal of face if they had to abandon it, so it will be with us for a while yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 8. (“The end…economy”; and “In fact…again”)