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Syria: Another Ceasefire Bites the Dust?

As the Syrian ceasefire arranged by the United States and Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, it’s clear that the main problem lies in Washington. Moscow’s goal has never been in doubt: it wants the regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive. The Obama administration has been reluctantly moving towards the same conclusion, but it simply can’t admit it, even to itself.

The Russian government bitterly condemned the American air strike that killed sixty to eighty Syrian army personnel on Saturday, but everybody knows that air strikes sometimes hit the wrong people. It was a mistake, that’s all, and the Russians really understand that – but it was a mistake that tells us a lot about how far the US has moved.

Until recently the United States, still formally pledged to overthrow the Assad regime, would not attack Islamic State troops if they were fighting the Syrian army. (That’s why Islamic State captured the historic city of Palmyra two years ago: the US air force would not strike the long and vulnerable IS line of communications across the desert, because that would have been “helping Assad”.)

But the US air attack that went astray at Deir es-Zor last weekend was targeting Islamic State troops who were in direct contact with the Syrian army. It’s because the two sides were so close together that the planes hit the Syrian troops by mistake. American diplomats still deny it, but the US is now willing to help Assad, at least sometimes.

The strategic calculation that has driven US Secretary of State John Kerry into this uncomfortable position is brutally simple. If Assad’s regime does not survive, then the extreme Islamists will take over all of Syria. The fantasy of a “third force” in Syria, made up of democracy-loving non-Islamist rebels who could defeat both the Islamists and Assad, has died even in the US State Department and the Pentagon.

The “moderate” rebels that the United States has backed for so long make up no more than ten or fifteen percent of the real fighting strength of the anti-Assad forces, and most of them are actually allied to the Islamists. In fact, the “moderates” wouldn’t survive long without their Islamist alliance – so it’s time for Washington to abandon them.

The ceasefire terms show that Kerry has implicitly accepted that logic, for they demand that the Syrian government and the “moderates” stop shooting and bombing, whereupon the American and Russian air forces will cooperate in bombing the Islamists. And the targets will not only be Islamic State but also the al-Qaeda-linked group that was known until recently as the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front saw this coming, so last month it changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of Syria) and said that it has cut its ties with al-Qaeda. (An al-Qaeda spokeman said that the terrorist organisation understood the Nusra Front’s need to break the public link, and wasn’t angry at its Syrian branch.) But even Washington could see through this flimsy disguise, and Nusra (under its new name) is still on the hit list.

Unfortunately, the “moderate” groups are not only in close alliance with Nusra, but are physically mixed in with the Islamist forces. They will get bombed too if they do not break their links with the Islamist extremists and somehow move away from them, so the ceasefire co-sponsored by the US and Russia demands that they do exactly that. Unfortunately , they can’t.

They can’t do it because on their own they could never hope to overthrow the Assad regime – and also because the Islamists will start killing them as traitors if they even try to break away. So the “moderates” haven’t really accepted the ceasefire either, and the Russians are quite right to complain that they have “not met a single obligation” of the truce.

Everything we know about the ceasefire argues that the Obama administration has accepted the regrettable necessity of leaving the Assad regime in power, although it still cannot bring itself to say so publicly.

This conclusion would probably be even clearer if we knew the full text of the Russo-American ceasefire agreement, but the US insists on keeping it secret. (The Russians, naturally, are pushing for it to be made public, but so far they have respected the deal.)

So the ceasefire, as such, is probably doomed, but the crabwise, deeply embarrassing shift of American policy towards a recognition of the strategic realities in Syria will continue. There is therefore hope that the fighting will stop one day.

A year from now, the areas controlled by the Assad regime, including at least three-quarters of the Syrian population, will probably be the same as now or maybe a little bit bigger. The surviving “moderates”, having detached themselves from al-Nusra, will hold little bits of territory and will be observing a real ceasefire.

The Kurds will still control a band of territory across the extreme north of Syria unless Turkey has waged and won a full-scale war to conquer it. And the Russians and the Americans will both be bombing the territories still controlled by Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, although in less than perfect harmony.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The Nusra…list”; and “This conclusion…day”)

Brazil after Dilma

On Tuesday former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff left the presidential palace in Brasilia and boarded a plane for her adopted home city of Porto Alegre. She leaves behind a successor who risks indictment for far worse offences than the ones that brought her down, and a country that has lost its right to a place among the BRICS

The BRICS began as a collection of large, fast-growing countries in the poorer parts of the world that Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs identified as emerging global powers in 2001: Brazil, Russia, India and China. (South Africa and the capital S were added in 2010.) The BRICS even started holding annual summits, although they were rarely more than orgies of self-congratulation.

Nobody enjoyed their new status more than the Brazilians, but it was always an illusion. China and India, with 1.3 billion people each, were indisputably great powers. Russia was a recovering great power, not a new one. But Brazil, like South Africa, was an imposter, lacking the critical combination of population, resources and industry that entitles a country to a place in the first rank.

Brazil was a fairly plausible imposter during the years of the great boom in commodity prices, but for the past two years it has been in deep economic trouble. It was Dilma Rousseff’s misfortune to win the 2014 presidential election just as the bottom dropped out of the country’s economic “miracle”.

Her predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, exploited the boom to build a modest welfare state that lifted 50 million Brazilians out of poverty. Rousseff struggled to maintain those gains in the midst of Brazil’s worst recession since the 1930s – the economy shrank by almost 4 percent last year – and became the least popular president in Brazilian history.

Her unpopularity, plus a huge corruption scandal that implicated some members of her Workers’ Party (though not herself personally), created the atmosphere in which it became possible for the Brazilian Congress to impeach her. She describes it as a “constitutional coup” designed to remove an elected left-wing government from power, and she is quite right.

Rousseff was not impeached for corruption. She was found guilty of window-dressing government accounts before the last election, in order to minimise the impact of the collapse in Brazil’s export earnings on her spending promises. It was a petty misdemeanour for which she received a grave punishment at the hands of a Congress full of people who have committed actual crimes.

It is universally acknowledged that the Brazilian Congress is one of the most corrupt legislatures on the planet. 58 percent of the members are currently under investigation for involvement in the “Lava Jato” (car wash) scandal, in which they allegedly got kickbacks on contracts with the huge, state-owned Petrobras oil monopoly.

Few of these people are associated with Rousseff, since the Workers Party holds less than one-tenth of the seats in Congress and depends on coalitions for a majority. A cynic
might say that that’s why Rousseff has supported federal prosecutors who are investigating Lava Jato – but the same cynic would also have to acknowledge that one of the motives for impeaching Rousseff is to shut the investigation down.

Indeed, the majority leader in the Senate, Romero Juca, was secretly recorded discussing precisely that goal – and he is a close political ally of Michel Temer, Rousseff’s former vice-president (from another party), one of the leaders of the campaign against her, and now her successor as president.

President Temer himself has been accused of skimming $300,000 off a nuclear-energy contract, so it shouldn’t be too long before some kind of amnesty is cobbled together for everybody who faces indictment in the Lava Jato case.

Under Temer, a centre-right politician, it also shouldn’t be long before austerity measures begin to cut into the increased spending on education and welfare that has transformed the lot of the Brazilian poor since the turn of the century. Money is scarcer now, of course, but there are other possible ways of coping with it than just imposing more sacrifices on the poor.

So what kind of Brazil emerges from this sorry story? It will be a much diminished country in wealth, in reputation, and in international influence, and the social and economic gulf between the rich and the rest will widen once again.

None of the BRICS apart from India is doing very well at the moment: Russia’s oil income has collapsed, China’s claims of continuing economic growth are deeply suspect, and South Africa’s economic growth last year was 0.5 percent. As Warren Buffet once said, it’s only when the tide goes out that you find out who’s been swimming naked. Everybody, it turns out.

What’s especially sad about Brazil is that it really did use its boom to rescue a generation of the very poor from misery, and was starting to address the extreme corruption of its political system as well. Now most of that will be rolled back. The crooks are back in charge.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Rousseff…crimes”; and “None…out”)

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….
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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“It is perhaps…excitement”)