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Syrian Sanctions

Last week the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria: a “sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” to end the nine-year war by forcing President Bashar al-Assad to UN-brokered peace talks where he would negotiate his departure from power. Assad’s wife was already cross about not being able to shop at Harrod’s or Bergdorf Goodman, so he should crumble any day now.

Other things are crumbling already. Ordinary people’s incomes are collapsing (down by three-quarters since the beginning of the year). The price of food in Syria has doubled. Lebanon next-door, already in financial meltdown, is now seeing its large trade with Syria vanish as well.

Even those Syrians who support the regime – around a third of the people who have not fled the country – will have a much harder time, but they won’t desert the regime. The more prosperous ones depend on Assad’s regime for their income, and the poorer ones are mostly minorities who fear they will be slaughtered if the jihadis win.

The US decision to raise the pressure on Assad is probably a random by-product of Donald Trump’s obsessive campaign against Iran (which has been helping the Syrian regime to stay afloat). If Trump even knows that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are by now all led by fanatical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the group that organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t care.

The Syrian tragedy is mainly due to endless foreign interventions. The Syrians who called for an end to Assad’s regime in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 were just like the young men and women who started demanding the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak at the same time. They were both genuinely popular movements, not fronts for jihadis.

The Egyptian protesters won, there was a free election – and then the army struck back in 2013, slaughtered several thousand people in the streets of Cairo, and put General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in power, where he remains to this day. Egypt is at peace, although hundreds more people have probably died in Sisi’s prisons since then, and thousands have been tortured.

The Syrian protesters didn’t get that far. They were driven from the streets – but then various foreign powers started organising the rebels and giving them arms. The war has lasted another eight years, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million Syrians have fled abroad, and another five million are displaced within Syria.

So here’s the question: would you prefer Egypt’s fate or Syria’s? Both countries are still tyrannies, but one is literally in ruins, with half the population out of their homes, and the other had a few thousand deaths. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

The Syrian power struggle would probably have ended in an Assad victory around the same time that General Sisi took over in Egypt if the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hadn’t begun sending the Syrian rebels arms and money. US motives were mixed, but the Turks and the Saudis, both led by different kinds of militant Muslims, just saw an opportunity to replace a secular regime with a hard-line Islamist one.

They would probably have succeeded if Russia had not intervened to save Assad in 2015, and Syria would probably be divided today between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The groups linked to al-Qaeda absorbed or destroyed all the others, and today they rule over a single province in northwest Syria under Turkish protection. But still the war drags on.

If any of these outside players had been willing to put its own troops in the ground, the war would at least have ended years ago (though it might have ended badly). But none of them were willing to risk their own soldiers’ lives – not even the Russians, who stick to air strikes. And now the US is hitting Syria with even bigger sanctions.

When governments impose sanctions they usually explain that they had to “do something”, but the new sanctions will hurt ordinary Syrians very badly. They might be justified if there were a reasonable chance that more sanctions could bring Assad’s regime down, but there’s no chance of that, and everybody knows it.

In a famous paper in 1997, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago showed that out of 116 cases of international sanctions being imposed during the 20th century, in only six cases did the target government yield to the demands of the country imposing the sanctions. The success rate has not improved since.

It’s 70 years since the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the Kim family is still in power. It’s 60 years since it put sanctions on Cuba, and the Communists still rule. It’s 40 years since Washington slapped sanctions on Iran, and the ayatollahs still rule. Not to mention Zimbabwe (sanctions since 2003), or Venezuela (2006), or Russia (2014).

‘Doing something’ feels good, but it doesn’t usually do much good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Even…win”; and “If any…sanctions”)

Putin’s Plea

Donald Trump writes in tweets, with more exclamation marks than a thirteen-year-old girl’s diary. Nobody knows for sure whether his very limited vocabulary is due to concern for his intended target audience, or to his own gradual mental decline. (Look at interviews from 20 years ago, and he was still using long words and speaking in complete sentences.)

China’s president, as witness his philosophical masterpiece, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, is a fluent writer of the ‘langue de bois’, the ‘wooden language’ of abstractions, slogans, bad metaphors and cant used by sub-Marxist thinkers and other ideologues. The Chinese call it ‘konghua’ (empty speech), and Xi is a master of the art.

They speak a non-Marxist version of the langue de bois at the École nationale d’administration ( ÉNA – National School of Administration), the finishing school for most French politicians. It’s still stilted twaddle, and President Emmanuel Macron is an énarque, so he sometimes sounds out of touch – but he can also speak and write human.

So can Boris Johnson, part-time prime minister of the United Kingdom. He even wrote a whole book about how much Winston Churchill resembled him, and he can talk just like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, so he’s no slouch in the literary department either. But none of these world leaders can hold a candle to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The Russian president has just done something none of these other men would or even could do. He has written a 9,000-word essay on the risk to world peace to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and published it in the leading American foreign policy magazine The National Interest.

Putin called it ‘The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II’, which presumably refers to the end of the war in early May of 1945, but that was obviously last month. Instead, he scheduled publication for this week, because 22 June is the date when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He wanted to write this piece so badly that he deliberately mixed up the dates.

One of his objectives is to rectify the ignorant omission of any mention of Russia’s leading role in defeating Nazi Germany in the Anglo-American celebrations of the anniversary last month. Russians are sensitive on this subject, because, as Putin points out, one out of seven Russians was killed in the war (27 million people) compared to one in 127 British (less than half a million) and one in 320 Americans (the same).

He also spends some time defending the Nazi-Soviet pact to conquer and share out Poland, the three Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania, which fired the starting gun for the Second World War in 1939. This is a futile, thankless task that every Russian leader is condemned to perform for at least another generation.

There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. Britain and France rejected repeated Soviet offers of an anti-Nazi alliance, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia instead, or at least playing for time while they raced to re-arm. There was still no excuse for what Stalin did, nor for the fact that he was taken by surprise when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union anyway less than two years later.

So far, so predictable, you might say, but the concluding third of Putin’s essay is quite different. It is an almost desperate plea for the preservation of the international order embodied in the rules of the United Nations and especially of the Security Council, which has kept the peace between the nuclear-armed great powers for such an astoundingly long time.

He writes: “The victorious powers…laid the foundation of a world that for 75 years had no global war, despite the sharpest contradictions….What is veto power in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries.”

“(The veto) is a statement by one of the great powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, (accept this position), abandoning any attempts to realize their unilateral efforts. So, in one way or another, it is necessary to seek compromises.”

Putin is right: the United Nations is not a naively idealistic organisation, and the Security Council is brutally realistic about how to keep the peace between nuclear powers. It has done so successfully for 75 years, but it is now threatened by the rival, non-negotiable nationalisms of many countries and the growing isolationism of the United States.

Rather like the 1930s, in fact. Putin is not older or naturally wiser than the other leaders, but he is Russian and KGB-trained, so he remembers the history a lot better. He is actually scared, and he’s probably right to be.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He also…later”)

Libya: The Incredible Irrelevance of America

‘Field Marshal’ Khalifa Haftar’s retreat from Tripoli should not be confused with Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Haftar was foolish to try to capture the Libyan capital – it even surprised his foreign backers – but he probably won’t have to retreat very far. His main force is still intact, and it doesn’t snow much in Libya.

It’s probably too generous to call what has been going on in Libya a civil war. After long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the country actually disintegrated into a series of city-states ruled by rival Islamist militias – and every petty warlord got foreign backers because of Libya’s oil wealth.

Fifty years ago Khalifa Haftar was one of the young officers who helped Gaddafi overthrow the monarchy. 25 years ago he was a CIA asset living in Virginia and promising to overthrow Gaddafi. Five years ago he became the commander of the Libyan National Army and started subjugating the ‘Islamist and terrorist’ militias that then dominated the east of the country (Cyrenaica).

As he gained control of Cyrenaica and then the desert south of the country Haftar’s foreign backers multiplied – France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates – for that’s where most of the oilfields, pipelines and oil terminals are. They also liked his strong anti-Islamist line. But they weren’t really interested in reuniting Libya, whereas Haftar was.

The various Islamist militias that dominate the capital, Tripoli, and the broader western region of Tripolitania are really just local boys defending their protection rackets. They have no loyalty to the unelected Government of National Accord (GNA) that the United Nations calls legitimate. However the GNA has gained the support of Turkey, probably the strongest country in the Middle East.

Why? Partly because under President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan Turkey has become the key supporter of pro-Islamist regimes and parties throughout the Arab world (the GNA is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood), and partly because of oil.

Still with me? Don’t bother to take notes; there won’t be a test.

Turkey didn’t instantly give military aid to the GNA when Haftar sent his forces west fourteen months ago to attack Tripoli. That had to wait until Erdoğan had extorted a deal last December in which Libya promised to sell Turkey lots of oil and gas (although it couldn’t deliver until Haftar was defeated).

The leader of the GNA, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, also had to agree to a deal in which Turkey and Libya carved up seabed rights in the Mediterranean in a way that gave Turkey valuable gas fields and froze both Greece and Cyprus out. (Both strongly objected, of course.) And then Turkey started sending arms, Arab mercenaries (also Islamist), armed drones, and Turkish military ‘advisers’ to Libya.

By early this year Haftar was also getting a lot of foreign help: arms shipments from the UAE and Egypt, thousands of mercenaries from Sudan, Chad and Niger, and even a couple of thousand Russian ex-special forces troops now working for the Wagner Group of mercenaries. But Turkey’s bid was higher.

Haftar’s last assault on Tripoli failed late last month, and the GNA-Turkish counter-offensive has already retaken all of western Libya. As I write militias from Tripoli and Arab mercenaries provided by Turkey are fighting in the outskirts of Sirte, Libya’s third city and the gateway to the ‘Oil Crescent’, where the sea terminals of the pipelines are. If they take those, Haftar will be toast.

Except that the ‘alliance of evil’, as Erdoğan calls Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, France and the UAE, won’t let that happen. More importantly, Russia won’t let it happen – and Russia flew more than a dozen state-of-the-art combat planes into a Haftar-controlled airbase last month.

Russia doesn’t want to put its own troops on the ground in Libya to save its man, any more than it did in Syria, but air-power alone can probably save him. It doesn’t want a full military confrontation over Turkey either, any more than it did in Syria. But it will probably get its way in Libya anyway, or most of its way, at least – like it did in Syria.

And what’s extraordinary is that despite key words like ‘oil’ and ‘Middle East’ and ‘Russia’ scattered all through this article, it hasn’t been necessary to mention the United States even once. There was a telephone call between Erdoğan and Donald Trump on Monday, but it’s unlikely to be relevant to the outcome.

The likeliest outcome is that Turkey backs off, there is a ceasefire of some sort that freezes the lines, and there is a de facto division of Libya with a Haftar-led Russian client state in the east that shares the oil revenues with Tripoli. And then there will be a generation of quarrels over the shares.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Russia…Syria”)

Oil: the Perfect Storm

For the global oil industry, it has been a double whammy. First a foolish price war between two of the world’s three biggest producers, Russia and Saudi Arabia, drove the price per barrel down from almost $70 in early January to under $50 in early March. They were fighting each other for market share, and they were also hoping that lower prices would kill off US shale oil, whose production costs are higher.

Then the second whammy: the Covid-19 lockdowns that started spreading across the world in early March cut total demand for oil by 30% in the next six weeks. By last weekend a barrel of ‘Brent crude’ was selling for only around $20. (There are two oil prices: ‘West Texas Intermediate’ mainly for US oil and ‘Brent’, always a few dollars higher, for the rest of the world.)

Actually, on Monday the US oil price briefly dropped another $60, to -$40, because demand has dropped so far below supply that the world is running out of places to store the excess oil. The producers can’t just pour it on the ground and it’s very expensive to shut wells down, so they’ll pay somebody who still has storage capacity to take it away.

This is currently a problem mainly for inland producers in the US, Canada and Russia, because they are far from the ports where you can still hire supertankers (for up to $350,000 a day) to store the oil offshore. But that cannot be a long-term solution anywhere, so we are starting to see productive wells being ‘shut in’ (closed down) because that’s cheaper than paying for long-term storage of unwanted oil.

This solution has two drawbacks. One is even if the smaller oil producers don’t go bankrupt (they generally carry high loads of debt), their leases will cancel quickly if they stop producing oil. The other is that it will be too expensive to reopen many of the shut-in wells unless much higher prices return – and if they stay inactive for years, the production flow may be permanently impaired.

Last week’s agreement between all the major oil producers to cut oil production by 20% by the end of June does not begin to address the glut of oil. Global production, at 100 million barrels per day (bpd) last month, will fall to 80 million bpd in the next two months, but global demand is already down around 70 million bpd.

Nor is there much hope in sight. Oil demand may drop further, and even in the long run it may never return to pre-January levels. “This is very reminiscent of a time in the mid-1980s when exactly the same situation happened – too much supply, too little demand, and prices of oil stayed low for 17 years,” said John Browne, the former head of British Petroleum.

‘Peak oil’ ceased to be a subject for debate some time ago. More and more countries are committing to net zero emissions by 2040 or 2050, and everybody knows that quite a lot of oil (and coal and gas) will be left in the ground forever. So the topic of concern for the industry is now ‘peak demand’ – and some industry analysts think that it is already past.

“The virus will bring forward peak demand for fossil fuels,” Kingsmill Bond of Carbon Tracker told The Guardian three weeks ago. “Peak emissions was almost certainly 2019, and perhaps peak fossil fuels as well. It will be touch and go if there can be another mini-peak in 2022, before the inexorable decline begins.”

So the stock market valuations of most oil majors have halved since January, and the ‘golden dividends’ of 20% or more are gone forever. The rate of return on new oil and gas projects is now about the same as on wind or solar power projects, so where is the smart money going to go? Oil is ‘low return, high risk, high carbon’, so don’t touch it.

This collapse of production and investment in the industry is hard on the millions of people who make their livings from it (including some entire countries), but the writing has been on the wall for some time now. The sensible and humane course is to support them as they seek different ways of making a living, but climate, not Covid-19, is the real crisis of our time. The jobs cannot and should not be saved.

As for the investors, they deserve little sympathy. They are paying the price of not reading the writing on the wall. The real trick in all forms of gambling is knowing when to pick up your winnings and walk away from the table.

And the real question is: what does the decline of oil mean for our civilisation’s prospects for dealing with climate change without a global calamity? That, however, is a subject for another article.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“This collapse…table”)

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