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The (Very) Slow Death of Islamic State

“Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties in armed conflict,” said US Army Col. John L. Dorrian, the spokesperson of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve. (Where do they get these ridiculous code-names?)

The CJTF/OIR is the US-led international force that was created to defeat Islamic State, but Dorrian was talking in particular about the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, captured by the forces of Islamic State more than two years ago. There are still at least 650,000 civilians in the IS-controlled part of Mosul, and when the Iraqi army retakes it a lot of them will be killed or injured.

Col. Dorrian was just trying to “manage expectations”, as they say, but he needn’t have worried. As many civilians will probably be killed during the reconquest of Mosul as died in the Syrian army’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo in December, but it won’t get as much media attention – mainly because Islamic State is not as subtle as the Nusra Front, the rival Islamist organisation that dominated eastern Aleppo.

The Nusra Front, now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front) to disguise its allegiance to al-Qaeda, was clever enough to let little girls blog about the horrors of the siege of Aleppo, and the Western media obligingly ran it all without question. It was a holocaust, they reported, committed by the evil army of that wicked Bashar al-Assad.

The Western media won’t be saying that sort of thing about the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians during the retaking of Mosul, because the West supports the Iraqi army. In any case, Islamic State is probably too rigid to allow that kind of blog.

The Iraqi army’s attempt to take the city of Mosul back from Islamic State has already lasted almost as long as the siege of Stalingrad. So far, it has only managed to clear the suburbs on the east bank of the Tigris river, and civilian deaths have only been in the hundreds.

This week it began its assault on the main part of the city, which lies on the west bank. It may fight its way in to the core of the old city in another month or two, but street-fighting eats up armies, and the streets of the old city are narrow and twisting. The casualties will be high among both soldiers and civilians, and it is unlikely that the operation will end until April or May.

It may not even end in a decisive victory for the goverment forces. There are around 100,000 men in the force besieging Mosul, but most of them are Kurdish militia and “Popular Mobilisation Units” of the Iraqi Army that must not be allowed to enter the city proper. They are either the wrong ethnicity (Kurds) or the wrong religion (Shias) to send into an Arab and Sunni city.

What’s left is the Iraqi regular army, probably no more than 30-40,000 strong around Mosul, and in particular the elite units of the Counter Terrorism Service who have borne the brunt of the fighting. Some of the CTS units have already suffered 50 percent casualties (killed and wounded), and overall Iraqi casualties are at least 5,000 before the final battle has even begun.

Let us be optimistic and assume that Mosul will ultimately fall. That would put an end to the Iraqi half of what used to be called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but what happens to the Syrian part of Islamic State is still very much up in the air.

It was losing territory to the Syrian Kurds, whose army was advancing steadily on the IS capital at Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Syrian Kurds have done so well because they had US air support on call at all times. Indeed, the Kurds were America’s main ally in the Syrian civil war, and the only major ground force (apart from the Syrian army) that was actively fighting Islamic State.

But now all that is at risk because Turkey, which has been the main support of the Syrian rebels for years, has switched sides. It sees a semi-independent Kurdish state in northern Syria as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than either IS or the Assad regime in Damascus. And it appears to have made a deal with Russia that will give it a free hand to destroy the Syrian Kurds.

It is not clear whether the Turkish army can actually do that without taking very large casualties, but it’s probably going to try. This means that the United States will have to choose between its ally of the past four years, the Syrian Kurdish army, and its faithless NATO ally, Turkey. It will probably choose Turkey, because it is more important, and abandon the Kurds to their fate.

The Kurds are used to being betrayed, so they won’t even be surprised. But it does mean that destroying Islamic State in Syria will have to wait for a while.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It may…begun”)

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”)

Trump, WikiLeaks and Russia

When a Fox News reporter asked Donald Trump about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange back in 2010, just after Assange had released a huge cache of secret US diplomatic cables, the reality TV star had no doubts: “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like the death penalty or something.”

Circumstances change, however, and smart people with big brains know when it’s time to switch sides. It was WikilLeaks, once again, that revealed the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee that did such damage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last summer. But Trump now readily accepts Assange’s word that he didn’t get those emails from the Russians.

Trump has been having a problem with the main US intelligence agencies, which unanimously insist that the Russians did indeed hack the DNC’s emails, and that they passed them to WikiLeaks (through an intermediary) in order to damage Clinton’s presidential election campaign. “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” as the joint intelligence report put it.

So Trump was very happy to be able to reply (in a tweet, of course) that “Assange… said Russians did not give him the info!” After all, what motive could Assange have for lying about it?

Well, there is the fact that Assange has been living in one room in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for the past four years, in order to avoid being extradited to the United States on espionage charges that could get him up to 45 years in prison. Donald Trump is the one person who could make all that trouble go away, once he becomes the president, so doing him a favour now might be a wise move on Assange’s part.

Assange would not even have to lie outright, because the Russians would obviously never give him the emails directly. There would have to be one or more persons in between, because WikiLeaks is not in the business of taking leaks from governments. Assange might have strong suspicions about who originally hacked the DNC, but he did not necessarily go all out to confirm them.

Moreover, as Trump points out, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are the same organisations that cooked up the evidence for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” so that President George W. Bush could invade Iraq.

Nevertheless, the US intelligence agencies are probably right to blame their Russian counterparts for the hacks that caused the Clinton campaign such problems. President Vladimir Putin has been quite open about preferring Trump to Clinton, and the leaks definitely gave a boost to Trump’s election campaign in late July and August.

On the other hand, that happened so long before the actual vote in November that it’s impossible to say if it had any effect on the outcome.

The event that probably did give Trump his very narrow margin of victory (100,000 votes spread between three key swing states) was FBI director James Comey’s bizarre decision to declare that Hillary Clinton was facing another investigation only eleven days before the vote.

It’s all might-have-beens, and the only reason it has become controversial is Trump’s extremely thin skin. He is questioning the intelligence services’ conclusions about Russian interference because he believes (wrongly) that they undermine the validity of his election victory. But his strong sympathy for the Russian position, though driven by perceived personal interests, is a refreshing break from the usual Washington paranoia.

He said it himself (in another tweet): “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools would think that it is bad. We have enough problems around the world without yet another one.”

This is a perfectly reasonable statement. Trump’s views on China give cause for alarm, but his desire for a reconciliation with Russia makes more sense than the reflex hostility that both Hillary Clinton and the US intelligence services bring to the relationship. Vladimir Putin is a player, and sometimes he plays rough, but his recent meddling in the American election is far less than the massive US interference in Russian elections in the 1990s.

In seeking a rapprochement with Moscow, Trump should not make the mistake of accepting Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Changing borders by force (even if most of the local population approves of it) has been banned by international law for more than half a century, and we should not start making exceptions to that rule now.

But while the United States never accepted the old Soviet Union’s illegal annexation of the Baltic states in 1940, it did not let that stand in the way of improving the US-Soviet relationship as the Cold War drew to an end.

There is much that the United States and Russia could usefully cooperate on now, starting with putting an end to the war in Syria. On this issue, at least, Trump is right and Obama, Clinton and the spooks are wrong.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Assange…them”; and “The event…vote”)

The Reunification of Syria

So far the end-game in Syria has played out in an entirely predictable way. All of Aleppo is back in the Syrian government’s hands, that decisive victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers has been followed by a ceasefire, and the Russians are now organising a peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan for later this month.

The one surprise is that Turkey, long the rebels’ most important supporter, will be co-chairing the conference. This means that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a deal of some sort with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for Astana is clearly going to be a Russian show. (The United States has not been invited, and Saudi Arabia probably won’t be asked to attend either.)

So what kind of deal has Erdogan made with Putin? The details may well have been fudged, for Turkey has not yet renounced its long-standing insistence that Assad must step down as the Syrian leader. But it’s pretty easy to figure out most of what is going to be on the table in Astana (assuming the ceasefire holds until then).

Assad has won the war, thanks largely to Russian and Iranian intervention, and the Syrian rebels are doomed. There is no point in their fighting on, because ALL their outside supporters are peeling away. Turkey is now cooperating with Russia, in three weeks Donald Trump will be US president and also cooperating with Moscow, and Saudi Arabia is hopelessly over-committed to its futile war in Yemen.

Even little Qatar, once one of the main paymasters of the Syrian rebellion, has now lost interest: it recently signed an $11.5 billion deal for a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer. The rebels are completely on their own, and their only options are surrender or dying in the last ditch.

Syria’s rebels are almost all Islamists of one sort or another by now, but the less extreme ones will probably be offered an amnesty at Astana in return for signing a peace deal – which may contain some vague language about an election that MIGHT replace Assad at some point in the indefinite future. That’s as much as will be on offer, because Assad does not intend to quit and Moscow will not force him to.

The extreme Islamists – Islamic State, which controls much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and the former Nusra Front, which controls much of north-western Syria – have not been invited to Astana, nor would they accept an invitation if it was issued.

The ex-Nusra Front (now renamed the Front for the Conquest of the Levant to disguise its membership in al-Qaeda) was refreshingly frank in condemning the ceasefire and the peace talks: “We did not negotiate a ceasefire with anyone. The solution is to topple the regime through military action,” it said. A political solution would be “a waste of blood and revolution.”

But a military victory over Assad is no longer possible, so these groups are destined to lose on the battlefield and revert to mere terrorism. In terms of what a post-civil war Syria will look like, the great unanswered question is: what happens to the Syrian Kurds?

They are only one-tenth of the Syrian population, but they now control almost all the Kurdish-majority areas across northern Syria. As America’s only ally on the ground in Syria, they have played a major role in driving back Islamic State. They are not Islamists, they are not terrorists, and they have avoided any military confrontation with Turkey despite President Erdogan’s war on his country’s own Kurdish minority.

Yet Erdogan publicly identifies the Syrian Kurds as Turkey’s enemy, and they have not (or at least not yet) been invited to the Astana peace conference. Was Erdogan’s price for switching sides a free hand in destroying Rojava, the proto-state created by the Syrian Kurds? Very probably, yes.

Assad would be content for that to happen, provided Turkey handed over the corpse afterwards. Putin doesn’t care one way or the other, and it’s most unlikely that Trump does either. The Turkish army will have its hands full fighting the Syrian Kurds, but it has the numbers and the firepower to prevail in the end.

So even if the current ceasefire holds, and even if the peace conference at Astana goes exactly according to Moscow’s plan, there is still some fighting to be done in Syria. Assad’s army, with Russian and Iranian support, will have to suppress both Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, and the Turks will have to subjugate the Syrian Kurds.

This will take time, but with no more weapons and money flowing in from outside (since Turkey has turned off the taps) it will probably happen in the end. Which means that Assad will probably one day rule once again over a united Syria.

That is a deeply discouraging prospect, but it is probably the least bad option that remains.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The ex-Nusra…revolution”; and “Assad…end”)