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Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

Iran: No Plan B

The extraordinary thing is that there is no Plan B. If Donald Trump’s re-imposition of American sanctions on Iran does not cause President Hassan Rouhani’s government to buckle at once (which is almost unimaginable), there is nothing else he can do short of going to war with the country. And he couldn’t even win that war.

Iran is entirely within its rights in condemning Trump’s action. All the other signatories to the deal that hobbled Iran’s nuclear programme – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – agree that Tehran is in full compliance with its terms, as do the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

All of Trump’s complaints about the deal are about things it was never intended to cover, and it does not contain those things because Iran would never agree to terms that effectively gave the United States control over its foreign policy. If Trump wants to try to negotiate that kind of deal anyway, it is not necessary to terminate the nuclear treaty in order to do so.

But it’s a mistake to apply rational analysis to Trump’s action, because this was an emotional decision, not a rational one. It is part of his obsession with expunging every single achievement of the Obama administration: healthcare, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Paris climate treaty, and now the Iran nuclear deal.

You can, however, apply rational analysis to every other player’s reaction to Trump’s tantrum, starting with President Rouhani. He will try very hard to keep the deal alive because his own political fate depends on it. If he cannot succeed, the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-line nationalists will gain the upper hand domestically and his entire reform policy will be paralysed.

Rouhani probably only has a few weeks to get public commitments to continue trading with Iran from the other parties to the deal, and that will require them to defy the United States. Trump’s declaration on Monday only requires American banks and companies to stop trading with Iran within 180 days, but the US may also apply so-called ‘secondary sanctions’ against foreign companies that trade with Iran.

These ‘secondary sanctions’ may actually be illegal under international law, but that has not stopped the US in the past (Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) and it won’t do so now. You can count on Russia and China to push back if the US blackballs their companies for trading with Iran, but will the British, French and German governments also do so? Even if it risks splitting the Western alliance?

Probably not, in which case the deal really will be dead. Rouhani would remain in office for the remainder of his term, but the hard-liners would be in charge. That doesn’t mean that Iran will start working on nuclear weapons right away, however, because it can’t.

In obedience to the deal, it has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium, placed two-thirds of its centrifuges (for enriching uranium) under international monitoring, and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium. It would take a long time to get started again.

The immediate impact is more likely to be seen in a tougher approach in Syria, where Iranian troops (sent to aid the government side in the civil war) are bombed by the Israelis practically every week. So far Iran has not responded to these attacks in any way, but it could start by shooting a couple of those Israeli planes down, and then the fat would be in the fire.

For several years now, the main foreign policy goal of America’s two main allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been to draw the United States into a war with Iran. Therefore they have to provide the hawks in the Trump administration (Pompeo, Bolton, et al.) with a plausible pretext for starting the war, and a couple of downed Israeli planes would do nicely.

If it were just an attack on Iran by the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, it would not be of earth-shattering importance. They would probably lose a lot of planes, since Iran now has good air defences, but none of them could or would do a ground invasion.

Iran is a country the size of Alaska, two-thirds of it is mountain or desert, and it has 80 million people, lots of industry and good science and technology. Invading it would make the Vietnam war look like a tea party. So any ground fighting between Iran and its enemies would be more likely to happen in the countries between them: Syria and Iraq.

You could be forgiven for thinking that both Iraq and Syria deserve a break from war by now, but they may not get it. And the most worrisome thing is that there are both Russian and American troops on the ground in these countries.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“All…so”; and “In obedience…again”)

The Old Man Rages

I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear, Act II, Scene 4

There are occasions when only Shakespeare will do, and Donald Trump was really, really cross.

There’s still no proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the poison gas attack that killed, according to various reports, forty or seventy-five or even more people in the besieged Syrian town of Douma. Indeed, the Russians, Bashar al-Assad’s faithful ally, maintain that the attack did not even happen.

Moscow suggests that the video footage was faked by the Islamist rebels, or perhaps taken from some previous occasion. There has been no proper investigation, although the Russians offered to escort a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the site of the alleged attack as early as Tuesday. But Trump saw the footage on Fox News, and he was determined to punish the evil ones.

And he did act, although his actions were not exactly ‘the terrors of the Earth’. The missile strike, according to the US defence secretary, General James Mattis, involved “double” the number of missiles that were used in last year’s similar attack. So that’s around 120 Tomahawk cruise missiles, costing around $100 million, delivered on three or four targets that were almost certainly evacuated last weekend.

There were also a few smaller missiles, delivered by British or French aircraft that tagged along after the Americans. They probably came within range of the Russian S-400 air defence system, by general assent the best in the world, but there was no risk of their being shot down. The Russians didn’t turn their system on.

It was a big enough attack to re-arrange the landscape around the alleged “chemical weapons-type targets”, even if Syrian anti-aircraft fire shot down a few of the unmanned missiles (as the Syrians claim). Essentially, however, it was a pantomime event designed to impress a small and unsophisticated audience: Donald J. Trump.

It would appear that the grown-ups really are still in charge in the White House. They couldn’t actually disobey orders, but they could arrange things so that nobody got seriously hurt. They specifically chose targets that would “mitigate the risk of Russian forces being involved,” and the Syrians obviously had time to get their people out of the likely targets too.

The United States even warned the Russians to clear the airspace along the tracks the missiles would follow, so that there would be no accidental encounters with Russian (or Syrian) aircraft. “We used the normal deconfliction channel to deconflict airspace,” explained the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford. And the Russians obligingly turned off their air defences, since the Western attacks weren’t going to do any serious harm anyway.

President Trump did say that “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” but that is a perfectly meaningless commitment since Syria is not using them now. If it did use them last week, it has already stopped. As General Mattis said: “Right now, this is a one-time shot.”

So move along, folks. Nothing more to see here. And spare us all the talk (most recently by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres) about a ‘new Cold War’. There can’t be a new Cold War, because the Russians don’t have the resources to hold up their end of it.

The Russian Federation has half the population of the old Soviet Union, and its economy is about the same size as Italy’s. If Italy spent its budget the way Russia does, it too could have big conventional forces and a nuclear striking force big enough to deter even the United States from attacking it – but it could not sustain a global military confrontation with the NATO powers for even one year. Neither could Russia.

Moscow only commits its forces to areas that really threaten its security (or at least appeal to its own sometimes paranoid definition of what constitutes a security threat). Syria is quite close to Russia, whose own population is more than one-tenth Muslim, so Moscow was unwilling to let Islamist extremists win the Syrian civil war, and in September 2015 it intervened to stop them.

The Russia intervention in Syria has been almost entirely successful: Bashar al-Assad has won the war, and already controls all the big cities and most of the country’s ‘useful’ land. The Washington foreign policy establishment hates this outcome, but it never had a plausible alternative to peddle, nor (after Afghanistan and Iraq) was there the political will in the United States for a major military intervention in Syria.

The Syrian war will end in a year or two, and fleabites like this week’s air strikes will have no influence on the outcome. And Moscow will stop there: it has no further ambitions in the Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“There were…on”; and “The Russian…Russia”)

Islamic State: Is It Over?

Late last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin met the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Syria, allegedly to discuss a final peace settlement in the Syrian civil war. On Monday he was in Syria to announce a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from the country because they had inflicted a “total rout” on the jihadist militants of Islamic State. Is the war really over?

Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, no longer exists as an actual, physical state in either Iraq or Syria. Last summer it lost Mosul, Iraq’s second city, to Iraqi troops backed by US air power. Over the past four months it has lost all of eastern Syria, including its capital Raqqa, to a variety of forces including Kurdish, Syrian, and Iranian troops and American and Russian bombers.

Just one year ago, Islamic State controlled a territory the size of Belgium and the Netherlands, with 7 or 8 million people. Now it is homeless, and even its propaganda output has dropped by 90 percent as its video production facilities were overrun one after the other. Its credibility among the faithful has taken an even bigger hit.

When the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the re-founding of the traditional Islamic Caliphate in the territory controlled by ISIS in mid-2014, he was claiming quite specifically that the enterprise had God’s blessing. So it’s deeply embarrassing when it loses all that territory again within 30 months to the local ‘enemies of God’ and their infidel foreign allies.

The standard tactic of prophets, when their prophecies don’t come true, is to say that God is just testing people’s faith. We are already seeing some of this in ISIS propaganda, but the people who watch it are not complete fools. If they are fanatics interested in waging jihad, they will not abandon the idea, but they will look for some other organisation that has a better claim to divine support.

That alternative organisation, at least in Syria, is al-Qaeda. It still has credibility because it planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and its Syrian branch still controls most of the province of Idlib in northwestern Syria. It was never as interested as Islamic State in attracting foreign volunteers, but if you’re a Syrian jihadi, it’s now the destination of choice.

The Syria branch of al-Qaeda was known as al-Nusra for a long time, but in the past two years it has changed its name approximately every second weekend in a bid to disguise its origins. It wasn’t trying to hide its loyalties from potential recruits. It was pretending to be a ‘moderate’ rebel group so that it wouldn’t get hit by American bombers.

This didn’t actually fool the Americans, of course, but it did allow them to denounce the Russians – who WERE bombing al-Nusra/al-Qaeda – as evil allies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad who were killing ‘good’ rebels. Oh, and killing innocent civilians, too, as if American bombs never hit civilians.

Al-Nusra was the Russians’ main target because it was a bigger threat to the survival of the Syrian government than Islamic State. It was al-Nusra, for example, that controlled the eastern half of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, until Assad’s forces took it back a year ago with the help of Russian bombers and artillery.

Remember how the Western media covered the end of that siege? They never mentioned al-Qaeda or al-Nusra, and you never saw a fighter in the video clips coming out of east Aleppo. They just ran the footage of suffering civilians without any further comment or context.

It was hard to tell whether Barack Obama’s State Department was being delusional or merely hypocritical, but it insisted that there was a ‘third force’ of non-jihadi Syrians that was also trying to overthrow Assad. The US was supporting them, and the wicked Russians were trying to kill them. But the ‘third force’ didn’t exist: it had been swallowed up by al-Nusra years ago.

So the US bombed Islamic State and nobody else, while the Russians only did that occasionally. Instead, they concentrated on bombing al-Nusra, which held territory much closer to Syria’s big cities. And Washington scored propaganda points by claiming that the Russians were bombing innocent civilians and ‘good’ rebels.

Now, with Islamic State defeated, the US forces will probably leave eastern Syria. (They have no legal status there, since they were never invited in by the Syrian government or authorised to intevene by the United Nations.) But most of the Russian forces will stay, because it will probably take another year to destroy al-Nusra in Idlib province.

So why was Putin in Syria to announce a Russian troop withdrawal? Because there’s a presidential election coming up in Russia, and he wanted to declare a victory and bring some troops home now. But the war goes on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“al-Nusra…context”)