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The Middle East: Winners and Losers

The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi serves as a symbolic full stop to the many civil wars that have engulfed Syria in the past eight years, although Baghdadi was not personally in charge of anything by the time he died. The outcome of all those wars was already becoming clear, and it is the Russians and Bashar al-Assad who have won.

Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from eastern Syria makes the Russian victory clear: within days, there were Russian soldiers taking selfies in the abandoned American bases on the Syrian side of the frontier with Turkey.

Trump’s elaborate thanks to the Russian, Syrian and Turkish governments for their aid in the Baghdadi operation was a genuflection before the powers that now really count in the region, but the Russian response was as disdainful as ever. “We are unaware of any alleged (Russian) assistance during this operation,” said Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

The Russian contempt for Trump is understandable, but showing it so publicly is self-indulgent and quite untypical. They clearly have some hold over the man, but why flaunt it? Perhaps their victory is going to their heads, because they can never have expected to win so decisively. But that is a question for another day.

What have the Russians won? Four years after they began providing air support to a Syrian regime that was teetering on the brink of defeat, Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule once again extends over almost all of Syria. They never had to commit Russian ground troops to combat, and yet they are now the dominant outside power in the entire Fertile Crescent.

Assad didn’t do too badly either. First he cleared the rebels out of all the big cities, then he regained control of all Arabic-speaking rural areas except the northwestern province of Idlib, and now his troops are re-occupying most of the Kurdish-speaking east without a fight.

He never had to fight Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’ either. It was a Syrian Kurdish militia with US air support that destroyed the part of IS that was located in Syria. And when Donald Trump pulled US troops out of Syria on 6 October, betraying the Kurds, Russian diplomacy finessed that into another win for Assad.

The Syrian Kurds were immediately attacked by Turkey, which intended to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the Kurdish population from northeastern Syria and replace them with Arabic-speaking refugees from other parts of Syria. It was almost certainly Russian emissaries who persuaded the Kurds to give up their dream of independence and invite the Syrian army back in to protect them from the Turks.

When the Syrian army went back in last week it was accompanied by enough Russian soldiers to deter the Turks from shooting at it, so Syrian troops now control most of the border and ethnic cleansing is presumably off the menu. Turkish troops still hold some bits of Syrian territory that they grabbed last week, but Ankara has publicly stated that it will not try to keep them indefinitely.

It was really the Russians who rescued the Kurds, so you can guess where their loyalty lies now. And remarkably, the Turks are coming around as well.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan backed the jihadi rebels throughout the Syrian civil war and still protects them in their last stronghold in Idlib. He even kept the border with Syria open so that foreign jihadis could cross to join Islamic State. But he is a pragmatist who understands the new realities, and within months he will reopen diplomatic relations with Assad’s regime in Syria.

That will mean that Turkey can no longer provide military protection to the jihadi groups in Idlib (most of whom now acknowledge the leadership of Osama bin-Laden’s old organisation, al-Qaeda). Thereupon the final operation to reconquer Idlib can begin, although it may be done quite slowly and methodically to keep the Syrian army’s casualties down.

The Russians have accomplished everything they set out to do in the region in 2015, and the main risk they face now is over-confidence. They saved Assad and he owes them a lot, but he also owes Iran, which provided and paid for the foreign Shia volunteers who provided vitally needed military manpower when the Syrian army was running out.

They have drawn Turkey away from its old reflexive loyalty to NATO, but it is still a member of the alliance and Erdogan’s political position in Turkey is weakening.

Vladimir Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago went well, because Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman has been seeking friends elsewhere after Trump did nothing in response to the recent drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields. But MbS’s position at home is hardly secure either.

The truth is that Russia has won the prize, but the prize is a can of worms.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“The Russian…day”; and “It was…well”)

The INF: Another Treaty Bites the Dust

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty died last Friday, but there won’t be many mourners at the funeral. There should be.

The problem the INF was intended to solve, back when US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed it in 1987, was ‘warning time’.

Bombers would take many hours to get from Russia to America or vice versa, and even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would take 30-35 minutes. That would at least give the commanders of nuclear forces on the side that didn’t launch the surprise attack enough time to order a retaliatory strike before they died.

Whereas intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) based in Europe could reach the other side’s capitals, command centres, airfields and missile launchers in ten minutes: barely time to tuck your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye, as they used to say.

The IRBMs put everything on a hair-trigger. You had maybe five minutes to decide if you trusted the data from your radars or your satellite surveillance before you had to decide whether to launch your nuclear counter-strike. Which makes it all the weirder that the Russians took the lead in introducing IRBMs to Europe.

They were called SS-20s, and they put all the capitals of NATO’s European members on ten minutes’ notice of extinction. However, Moscow would also have only ten minutes’ warning once the US developed its own IRBMs and based them in Europe (they were called Pershing IIs).

But the United States is not in Europe, and only the Soviet Union’s ICBMs could reach it. No matter what happened with IRBMs in Europe, the US would still have a half-hour-plus warning time. The Russians were exceptionally foolish to start this particular bit of the arms race.

By the mid-1980s the Russians were looking for a way out, and Ronald Reagan, who hated nuclear weapons, was happy to help them. He and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty in 1987, banning all land-based ballistic missiles with ‘intermediate range’ (500-5,500km).

They also banned all land-based cruise missiles of similar range, although the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles never posed a ‘warning time’ problem. The INF Treaty was the first major sign that the Cold War was ending: 2,700 missiles were destroyed in the following two years, and everybody lived happily ever after. Sort of.

So why have they now just let the INF Treaty die?

The Russians have been fiddling around with an existing sea-launched cruise missile that has a range of several thousand km. That’s legal at sea, but then they test-fired the same missile from a land-based mobile launcher. They kept that test below the INF-permitted limit of 500 km for land-based cruise missiles, but the test proved that it would work at any range.

Naughty and stupid, but boys will be boys. It’s a cruise missile, so it has no impact on warning time, nor would it give Russia any strategic advantage. Why didn’t Vladimir Putin just stop the nonsense, and maybe apologise?

Same goes for the United States: the INF is good value, and the Russian infringement is legally questionable but strategically unimportant. Why haven’t you taken the time to sort this out and keep the treaty alive?

The reason is China. All the arms control treaties of the later 20th century were made in a bipolar world: the United States and the Soviet Union were the only players who counted. Now China counts too, and arms control becomes a ‘three-body problem’. Those are very hard problems to solve.

The sane answer is simply to deal the Chinese in. Beijing doesn’t want to live with ten minutes’ warning time either. It would probably sign up to the INF terms provided that the U.S. and Russia were willing to grant it parity in other weapons. You could even throw in a new ban on ‘hypersonic’ missiles of intermediate range, which will be otherwise be threatening warning times in a few years.

But there are people in Washington, and no doubt in Moscow, who would love to have the option of a no-warning disarming strike on Beijing. You have to kill the INF to achieve that, because you would need to put land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the ground in Asia. But those people have won the argument, because nobody else cares enough.

Former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, who negotiated the INF Treaty, told the Voice of America recently: “When something like the INF goes down the drain almost like nothing, it shows you the degree to which people have forgotten the power of these weapons. One day it’ll be too late.”

It’s thirty years since the Cold War ended, and the insiders in the American and Russian defence establishments who are letting the INF die are betraying our trust. New weapons, new strategies, new threats are the building blocks of their careers, and they have forgotten to be afraid of nuclear war.

So don’t blame Donald Trump or John Bolton or Vladimir Putin, who are only doing their usual belligerent shtick. Blame the careerists, who should know better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“The Russians…alive”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Iran’s Game

The evidence is far from conclusive, but on balance Iran probably is behind the attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf last month and two more last Thursday. Those attacks carefully avoided human casualties, so if they were Iranian, what was their goal?

If it was Iran, the answer is obvious. Iran would be reminding the United States that it may be utterly out-matched militarily, but it can do great damage to the tankers that carry one-third of the world’s internationally traded oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

After the US tightened its sanctions last month in an attempt to destroy all of Iran’s foreign trade, including the oil exports which are its economy’s lifeblood, Iran declared that if it could not export its oil, no other country (in the Gulf) would be allowed to export theirs. Other economies would be hurt too.

There’s history here. Back in the mid-1980s, when the United States tried to strangle Iran’s Islamic Revolution in its cradle by encouraging Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran, 543 ships were sunk or damaged in three years as each side tried to stop the other side’s oil exports. Another tanker war would be no fun at all.

But maybe the current pinprick attacks on tankers are just a general warning not to push Iran too hard. They would still dangerous, because people could get killed and the situation could easily spin out of control. But the opposite hypothesis – that the attacks are a ‘false flag’ operation – is much more frightening, because it would mean somebody is really trying to start a war.

Who would be flying the ‘false flag’? The leading candidates are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries that are doing their best to push the United States into a war against Iran on their behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would also love to see the US attack Iran, but one doubts that Israel’s de facto Arab allies would want Israeli special forces operating on their territory.

Which brings us to the weirder part of the story. All six tankers that have been attacked sailed from ports in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The attacks have all reportedly been carried out using limpet mines, which cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand. That means they were probably placed while the ships were in port.

It’s almost impossible to place a limpet mine once a ship is underway. Other boats cannot come close enough without being spotted, and swimmers (including scuba divers) cannot keep up. So is security in Saudi and UAE ports so lax, even after the first attacks in May, that foreign agents can plant limpet mines on tankers before they sail?

It’s very puzzling, and even the aerial video ‘evidence’ of a small Iranian boat allegedly removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers makes little sense. Limpet mines are generally fitted with ‘anti-handling devices’ (i.e. they explode when you try to remove them), and yet everybody on that boat crowded onto the bow as if to get as close to the explosion as possible.

But of course, if it’s an Iranian mine, maybe they knew that it had no anti-handling device. You can get dizzy trying to figure this stuff out, and be no closer to the truth at the end. But let us hope that Iran is the culprit, because we know that it, at least, does not want a war. It wouldn’t actually lose, but it would suffer grievous harm.

The United States is even harder to read. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t want a war. He just wanted to destroy the treaty, signed in 2016 by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, that put Iran’s nuclear programs under strict international controls for the next fifteen years.

That’s only natural, because the treaty was Barack Obama’s greatest diplomatic achievement and Trump is dedicated to destroying his legacy. But beyond that, what did Trump want? Probably just a Kim-style ‘summit’ with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Having created the crisis, Trump could then triumphantly ‘resolve’ it and bask in what he imagines to be the world’s admiration and gratitude. He is a man of simple desires.

Unfortunately, his two chief representatives in the ground, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, probably do want a war with Iran. They would never say that, but they spin every bit of data in as anti-Iran a direction as possible. That includes, of course, their analysis of who is behind these attacks.

Nevertheless, we should hope that they are right and that Iran is behind the attacks, because that would be a stupid but quite genuine attempt to stave off a full-scale war. If it’s a Saudi and UAE false-flag operation, with or without the tacit collaboration of Bolton and Pompeo, then the region really is headed for war.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“There’s…all”; and “But of…harm”)

The Mad Dog of the Middle East

The ‘mad dog of the Middle East’, as Ronald Reagan once called Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, is on the brink of achieving his life’s ambition: becoming the dictator of Libya. He’s a rather old mad dog by now (75), but after a two-month siege his troops are starting to break through the defences of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

As a young officer, Haftar took part in the coup that overthrew the Libyan king and brought Muammar Gaddafi to power in 1969, and he stayed loyal to the new dictator for two decades. But he was captured during Libya’s lost war with Chad in 1987, and bought his freedom by switching sides and going to work for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

When Haftar’s efforts to overthrow Gaddafi on behalf of the CIA failed, it resettled him in the United States in 1990. He spent the next twenty years quietly in Virginia, acquiring American citizenship along the way – but then came the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-11, and suddenly he was back in play.

He had little part in overthrowing Gaddafi, which was mainly achieved by NATO bombers. But the multifarious Libyan militias, which were mainly colourful extras playing supporting roles during the bombing campaign, took centre stage when Gaddafi was finally killed, because NATO couldn’t or wouldn’t take responsibility for putting Libya back together after the war.

Haftar’s opportunity came in eastern Libya (Cyrenaica), where Islamist militias had seized control of the regional capital, Benghazi, and murdered the US ambassador in 2012. He created a militia, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), that set about the lengthy task of reconquering Cyrenaica. The centre of Benghazi was destroyed by artillery fire in the process, but by 2017 the job was done.

Who paid for all this? Haftar’s financial arrangements are murky, to say the least, but his backers would certainly include France, which has a large investment in Libyan oil. Also Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Russia, all of which like dictators and hate Islamist radicals. And, since early 2017, the United States as well.

Haftar’s campaign in the east completely ignored the new, ‘internationally recognised’ government that the United Nations cobbled together in late 2015. It’s not elected, it controls nothing outside of the city of Tripoli, and in fact it doesn’t control much of the city either. It’s the local militias, most of them Islamist, who actually run things.

That’s Haftar’s main excuse for trying to capture Tripoli. He just wants to run the country, but his Saudi, Egyptian, Russian and American backers (and don’t forget the United Arab Emirates) are all paranoid about Islamists under the bed, so he highlights that theme to keep them happy.

The Islamist militias of Tripoli, Misrata and the rest of western Libya are not all religious fanatics and secret members of al-Qaeda. They’re mostly just local boys with guns who are enjoying the ride, and need some sort of ideological justification for behaving badly. But if the stupid foreigners think they are a real menace, Haftar will take their money.

He spent last year conquering the desert south of the country, where most of the oil is, and two months ago he moved his forces back north and attacked Tripoli. The local militias rallied to the defence of the ‘internationally recognised’ government (and of their own local protection rackets), and for a while it looked like a stalemate.

In mid-April Donald Trump telephoned Haftar to thank him for his efforts to “combat terrorism and secure Libya’s oil.” More useful were the Russian-made cargo planes flying in to Haftar’s Libyan bases from Egypt, Jordan and Israel bearing – well, who knows? Maybe dates, olives and halva. Or maybe something more useful.

And now, after almost two months of deadlock, the front has started to move. Haftar’s LNA is reported to be in the eastern and southern suburbs of Tripoli and near the international airport. One LNA spearhead is allegedly in Salah al-Deen, only a few kilometres from the city centre.

Haftar’s offensive may yet fizzle out. He calls himself a field marshal, but the highest rank he ever held while actually in combat command of troops was colonel, and he didn’t do very well with that. On the other hand, the people he’s fighting aren’t exactly military geniuses either, so he could win. What would that mean?

It would mean a new Libyan dictatorship, of course, but it would also mean comparative peace in Libya and maybe an opportunity to rebuild the reasonably competent welfare state that has been destroyed in the past decade. And since Haftar is already 75, he’s not going to match Gaddafi’s 42 years in power.

When all the options are bad, you must choose the least bad, and maybe Haftar is it. And think how many people would rejoice in his victory: President Donald Trump, President Vladimir Putin, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, President (and ex-General) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, President Emmanuel Macron….

If all those wise men like it, who are we to say otherwise?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“He spent…useful”)