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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”)

Poland: Backsliding Furiously

Lech Walesa, a national hero 26 years ago for his role in ending Communist rule in Poland as the leader of Solidarity, has little political power in the country today, but he still has his voice. Last week he raised it, to condemn the new Polish government that emerged from last October’s election.

“This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy, not to mention the fact that it makes us look ridiculous to the rest of the world,” Walesa said. “I’m ashamed to travel abroad.”

Walesa said this on privately-owned Radio Zet, because Polish public service television and radio will no longer invite him to speak on any of their channels. The new government sees him as an enemy, and it now controls public broadcasting completely: all four channels of TVP and the 200 stations of Polskie Radio.

It took them over in an operation that the European Parliament’s president, Martin Schultz, described as having the “characteristics of a coup.” First the new Law and Justice Party (PiS) government packed the constitutional tribunal that might have stopped the media takeover, swearing in five new PiS appointees in the middle of the night. And then it used its parliamentary majority to bring the public service media under party control.

The new Polish Culture Minister, Piotr Glinski, explained that it was necessary to “re-Polonise” Polish society – i.e. cleanse it of all the decadent Western European liberal notions and values that had infected it under the rule of the outgoing Civic Platform government – and that the public broadcasters would therefore be re-designated as “national cultural institutes.”

The head of PiS’s parliamentary caucus, Ryszard Terlecki, was even franker: “Over the past few weeks . . . we have had to deal with the extremely unreliable work of the public media,” he said, referring to the media coverage of popular protests against the PiS’s attack on the constitutional tribunal. “If the media criticises our changes . . . we have to stop it.”

The PiS is the creation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his late twin brother Lech, who died in a plane crash at Smolensk in Russia in 2010. The brothers have always had a close political relationship with the Catholic Church in Poland, and the PiS largely owes its recent electoral victory to the support of Poland’s very conservative Catholic bishops.

But it wasn’t all that sweeping a victory, really. The PiS got just over half the seats in the Sejm (parliament), which technically allows it to do almost anything it wants now that the constitutional tribunal has been crippled. But it won those seats on only 37 percent of the popular vote – and now that it has begun to put its agenda into action, recent opinion polls are giving it only 24 percent support.

That doesn’t bother Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the slightest. He has the same knack as Donald Trump for saying nasty, untrue things and making them sound bold and incisive (to his target audience, at least) rather than just stupid and slimy.

For example, he recently warned Poles that Syrian refugees would bring diseases and parasites into the country. He continues to speculate publicly that the crash that killed his twin brother was a plot (presumably a Russian plot), despite the fact that two official Polish investigations have concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error.

Even the poor, left-behind Poles who are Kaczynski’s target voters are sometimes alarmed by his anger and his extremism, so he wisely decided to let another, virtually unknown party member, Andrzej Duda, run for the presidency last year.

Duda won, so Kaczynski repeated the strategy in October, promoting another relatively obscure and unthreatening party member, Beata Szydlo, as prime minister after the PiS’s victory in the parliamentary election. But most people suspect that he will quickly tire of working from the shadows and take her place as prime minister himself.

What has brought this deeply unattractive politician to power in Poland? It’s largely the same factors that have made Donald Trump a political phenomenon in the United States: an economy that is doing quite well overall – Poland’s economy grew by a third under Civic Platform in the past six years – but that has left a large chunk of the population behind.

It’s even the same chunk of the population that backs Trump in the US: older, more religious, less well educated, living in smaller cities and rural areas. Kaczynski’s victory therefore depends on a very narrow and fragile base, and he may well become more and more radical in his struggle to hold it together.

It is therefore going to be quite exciting in Poland for a while, and probably quite embarrassing for people like Lech Walesa. But it isn’t an anti-democratic revolution with real staying power.

Poles overwhelmingly want to remain part of NATO and the European Union, if only (in some cases) because they still fear Russia so much. You cannot go far down the road Kaczynski wants to travel without coming into serious conflict with the EU’s laws protecting civil and human rights – and when Poles have to choose between the EU and Kaczynski, they will not back Kaczynski.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“The new…stop it”)

Obama and San Bernardino

On Sunday President Barack Obama spoke about a mass shooting in the United States for the seventeenth time in the past seven years. (There have actually been 335 mass shootings in the United States already this year, but he only does the big ones.) But this time Obama spoke from the Oval Office.

He’s only done that twice before, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the end of combat operations in Iraq, both in 2010. The shooting in California killed fourteen people and wounded twenty-one, so it wasn’t even the biggest mass killing of his administration, but it got special treatment because it was a terrorist attack.

He needed to do that because you just have to say the word “terrorist” to send many Americans into a flat panic, and many American politicians into spasms of oratory overkill. A representative example was New Jersey Governor and would-be Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who said: “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”

The next world war? The last world war killed at least forty million people. The next one – the Third World War that we were waiting for when I was growing up – would have killed hundreds of millions, even if it didn’t cause a nuclear winter and kill billions. With due respect to the victims, the sixteen dead in San Bernardino do not add up to a new world war.

Neither do the 130 French (and a few foreigners) killed with guns and suicide bombs in Paris last month, nor the 224 Russians on the plane brought down over Egypt by a bomb at the end of October. Even in Europe, Islamist terrorism kills at the most hundreds per year; in America, it kills almost nobody.

Before this week, only sixteen Americans had been killed on home soil by Islamist terrorists in the past fourteen years (thirteen soldiers killed by US Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, and three killed at the Boston Marathon in 2013). That’s an average (including the San Bernardino deaths) of two people per year killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists. .

So why didn’t Barack Obama finish his speech by pointing out that Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists? Because no public figure in the United States is allowed to say that the terrorist threat is very small in the West generally, and utterly minuscule if you actually live in the United States.

You’re not allowed to say it because more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in two foreign wars that were justified by the 9/11 attacks (although Obama was bold enough to say plainly in his speech that those wars actually served the Islamists’ purposes).

And you’re not allowed to say it because almost three thousand Americans died on 9/11: that single attack fifteen years ago has permanently defined the scale of the terrorist threat in American minds, even though the likelihood that a comparable attack could be mounted today is extremely small. (In 2001, nobody was looking out for such an attack; now they are.)

On the one hand, we have a trillion-dollar “war on terror” defended by a US military and security establishment that has grown fat on the proceeds. On the other hand, we have a very small terrorist threat to the “homeland” against which, for the most part, that establishment’s efforts are irrelevant because the attackers are home-grown, self-radicalised lone wolves.

None of the three “Islamist” attacks over the past fourteen years was planned from abroad. All were carried out by US citizens or permanent residents. None of those people, so far as is known, was even in contact with organisations like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (although Tashfeen Malik pledged her allegiance to the latter on her Facebook page on her way to the massacre at the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino).

The Islamist extremists pose an existential threat to Syria and Iraq. They are a serious threat to the other Arab countries, and a rather more distant problem for other Muslim countries. For Western, Asian and African countries that do not have large Muslim populations, they are merely a strategic nuisance.

If any of those outside powers want to fight the Islamists on home ground (like the NATO countries and Russia, who are all now bombing Islamic State targets in Syria), then by all means do so. You might save the Syrians from a very unpleasant fate. But don’t imagine that this is necessary for your own defence.

Conversely, don’t worry that the bombing will cause terrorist attacks on you at home. Those attacks will happen no matter what the United States (to pick an example at random) is doing or not doing abroad. And a country that can blithely ignore 63 shooting attacks in its schools since the beginning of this year can manage to live with a small Islamist attack every few years too. “
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“You’re not…they are”)