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Amateur Hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the north-western border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012,

And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

And do you recall that the United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS?

When Turkey objected, Washington hastily dropped that notion, and is indeed standing idly by while the Turkish army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. It does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t have a serious strategy at all. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The United States doesn’t want President Bashar al-Assad to win, but beyond that the Americans don’t know what they want. They originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as American troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants – the ultimate reunification of Syria under his rule) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian army, by the Russians, and even by the Americans. And by the way, after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have actually made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living.

Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States now), but those interventions effectively cancelled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and American troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

Weirdly, it reminds me of the J. Geils Band’s greatest song (they didn’t have many): ‘Love Stinks’.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win…

I’ve had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic, ridiculous story, and it stinks.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“Weirdly…stinks”)

Universal Health Care – a No-Brainer

It began, as so many things do these days, with a Donald Trump tweet. Frustrated by his inability to kill the ‘Obamacare’ expansion of public healthcare provision in the United States, Trump seized on a protest about the under-funding of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) in London last Saturday to trash the entire concept of universal healthcare paid out of taxes and free at the point of delivery.

“The Democrats are pushing for universal healthcare [in the US] while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their system is going broke and not working,” he tweeted. It was an awkward moment for Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, who tries to avoid criticising Trump whenever possible, so she let her health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, respond instead.

Hunt tweeted back that while he disagreed with some of the protesters’ opinions, “not ONE of them wants to live in a system [like the US] where 28 million people have no cover….I’m proud to be from the country that invented universal coverage – where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance.”

It’s true. The British population is growing older and needs more health services, but Conservative governments over the past seven years have not raised spending on the NHS to match. As a result, many people are dissatisfied with the growing delays in treatment, but the NHS is the most beloved institution in the United Kingdom. Not one person in a hundred would want to replace it with a privatised, insurance-based system.

A huge controversy rages permanently in the United States over public vs. private spending on healthcare, with the Republican always trying to cut the share paid out of taxes by federal and state governments (currently about half). But there is no equivalent controversy elsewhere.

Every other developed country has a universal healthcare system – and in an eleven-country study published by the US-based think-tank The Commonwealth Fund last summer, the United States came dead last in terms of safety, affordability and efficiency. The contrast is particularly stark in the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Americans spend twice as much per capita as Britons on healthcare. Health services account for an astonishing 17.2 percent of American GDP (the highest in the world), compared to 9.7 percent in the UK. Yet the British system delivers better results: life expectancy at birth is almost three years higher in UK (81.4 years, compared to 78.8 years for Americans).

To be fair, it’s not only the NHS that enables British people to live longer. They are less obese than Americans (23 percent of English adults have a body mass index of more than 30, compared to 32 percent of Americans). The murder rate in the US is five times higher than it is in the UK. But even if average life-spans were identical in the two countries, Americans would be paying twice as much for the same result.

There really is no controversy: universal healthcare is better. Since half of that enormous American spending on health goes to profit-making enterprises like insurance companies, there is an immensely rich and powerful lobby fighting to keep the public-private controversy alive in the United States, but elsewhere, even in much poorer countries, it is a no-brainer. Like in India, for example.

India, which recently overtook China to become the world’s most populous country, is still relatively poor (although its economy is now growing at over 7 percent annually). Last week in the Indian parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a new government initiative that will provide the poorest 100 million families (half a billion people) with up to $7,800 annually to cover hospitalisation costs in case of severe illness.

“This will be the world’s largest government-funded healthcare programme,” he told parliament. “The government is steadily but surely progressing towards a goal of universal health coverage.” People are already calling it ‘Modicare’ (after Prime Minister Narendra Modi), and it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Obamacare.

India currently spends only one percent of its GDP on healthcare, so there’s still a very long way to go – and as always in India, the tricky bit is actually implementing the programme, especially in the rural areas. (Free government hospitals are mostly in the cities.)

Diagnostic tests, doctor follow-ups, basic medicines (like statins for heart disease or diabetes control) and post-operative home care are not covered by the $1.7 billion scheme. Private hospitals and clinics are still not properly regulated, and frequently overcharge. Poor families dealing with a major illness often end up in the hands of money-lenders, and even in government-run hospitals bribes are sometimes necessary to get good treatment.

All that said, the direction of travel is clear, and maybe in a couple of decades India will have a universal health service like the NHS. Beloved, in other words.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“To be…result”)

Nuclear Posture Review

The US ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ published by the Pentagon late last week announced that the United States will be getting two new types of nuclear weapons to provide, in the words of US officials, “more flexible capabilities to give tailored deterrence.”

‘Tailored deterrence’? What on earth is that supposed to mean?

It’s a brand new euphemism that is designed to disguise an old, largely discredited and very dangerous concept. The United States is once again playing with the notion of a ‘limited’ nuclear war – and everybody else is very unhappy about it.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, called the move “confrontational”, and expressed “deep disappointment”. The Chinese defence ministry said: “We hope that the United States will abandon its Cold War mentality [and] earnestly assume its special disarmament responsibilities.” Even the Iranian foreign minister warned that the new move would bring the world “closer to annihilation.”

What the United States is actually going to do is change some of its existing nuclear weapons so that they make a smaller explosion. It’s also going to to put nuclear-tipped cruise missiles back on some of the navy’s ships. At first glance, this is not very exciting stuff, but it really is very foolish and quite dangerous.

Various justifications were offered for the new weapons by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, including the “growing threat from revisionist powers” such as China and Russia. ‘Revisionist powers’ are countries that would like to change the world’s pecking order so that the United States is no longer the sole superpower. It doesn’t mean they are planning to attack the United States.

The main reason that the Nuclear Posture Review gives for the new weapons is that the US military are worried that other countries may see its existing nuclear weapons as too big to be used. So the Pentagon also wants lower-yield bombs and ‘low and slow’ cruise missiles in order to convince everybody else that the US would actually use them.

Really? Do they really think that when those ‘revisionist powers’ see the new, smaller American nukes (no bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima), they will say to themselves: “I never believed the Americans would use megaton-range thermonuclear weapons on us, but they might actually use piddling little atomic bombs, so I’d better not invade Lower Slobbovia after all.”

Nonsense. The Pentagon pretends that the new nukes will just fill a gap under the deterrent fence so that “Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable,” but what it is really after is a credible nuclear war-fighting capability. This is the old fantasy that you can safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in some distant part of the world without risking major damage to the homeland.

It’s a fantasy that has been killed many times, but it never stays dead for long. It just seems wrong and unnatural to the military mind that you should have these hugely powerful and expensive weapons and never be allowed to use them in any circumstances – that they exist entirely and exclusively to deter the other side from using its own nuclear weapons.

It’s so frustrating that in every military generation there are people who spin theories about how you might safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war. The first time their ideas gained a temporary foothold in American strategic thinking was in the late 1950s, and they have resurfaced for a while at least twice since then.

Here they come again. It’s as predictable as the monsoon, and once again more sensible people will have to devote time and energy to defending the core concept of nuclear deterrence.

As Bernard Brodie, the father of the theory of nuclear deterrence, wrote in 1946: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

That is true, but it is not compatible with traditional military thinking, so ‘limited’ nuclear wars that you could actually fight keep sneaking back onto the agenda, usually in disguise. The current proposal is not some transient whim of Donald Trump’s. It has been gestating within the US military for some time.

It may be possible for the US military establishment to sell this really bad idea to the American media, the Congress and the White House, but do not imagine that the Russians or the Chinese are fooled. They know exactly what the Pentagon is up to, and they don’t like it one bit. In due course they will respond, and the world will get a little more dangerous.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Various…States”)

Syria: A Carnival of Treachery

There are comical elements in the current Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Its name, for example: Operation Olive Branch. Or the frantic back-pedalling by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the announcement that triggered (or at least provided a pretext for) the Turkish offensive.

A week ago the US declared that it was building a new 30,000-strong ‘border security force’ in the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border. It would be backed by 2,000 US troops, who would remain there indefinitely. Whereupon Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded, and declared that his army would strangle this new Kurdish ‘terror army’ in its cradle.

Tillerson, who had been attending a pointless meeting in Vancouver of all the countries that sent troops to fight in the Korean War 67 years ago, was caught on the hop, and quickly denied it all. “That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said on the way to the plane. The lack of adult supervision in Washington extends beyond the White House.

In any case, too late. The Turkish army is now fighting its way into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, with further operations promised to eliminate the rest of the Kurdish-led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ that the United States used to destroy Islamic State’s troops in eastern Syria. From Erdogan’s point of view, all Kurds are bad Kurds.

And Washington, as predicted, is betraying and abandoning its Kurdish allies. They were useful at the time, but it’s more important to keep Turkey happy. It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, it’s a NATO ally (with the second-biggest army in the alliance), and it controls the Straits that give the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean. So the United States confines itself to urging ‘restraint’ on the Turks.

That’s what great powers say when they have no intention of intervening to stop something bad from happening – and the Russians are also urging restraint, so they are not going to stop the Turks either. The ally the Russians are betraying is the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

“We warn the Turkish leaders that if they start fighting in the region of Afrin, it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against the sovereignty of Syria,” said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad last week, adding that Syria would shoot down any Turkish planes bombing Afrin. But then Turkish military and intelligence chiefs flew to Moscow on Thursday and got Russian and Iranian approval for their bombing campaign.

The Damascus regime hates Turkish tanks on its soil, but it accepts Moscow’s hands-off policy because it still depends on Russian and Iranian military support for its remarkable come-back in the Syrian civil war. Besides, it suspects that America really was planning to create a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the north-eastern part of Syria as a US base and counter-weight to the Russian presence in the country.

Why has Russia given the green light for the Turkish invasion? Because Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to prise Turkey out of NATO and make it a Russian ally. That’s probably not going to happen, but Turkey has just bought $2.5 billion of Russian arms so he has some reason to hope. And he too suspects that the United States was planning to use the Kurds to maintain a foothold in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds are also lying. They insist that their army, the People’s Protection Units (YFP), has no links with the PKK, the nationalist and sometimes separatist movement of the Turkish Kurds, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the United States and the European Union (although not by the UN). But of course they have links, and they share the same long-term goal: an independent Kurdish state.

In fact, everybody is lying, everybody has ulterior motives, and the Syrian people’s best interests are the last thing on anybody’s mind. Business as usual, in other words, including the usual betrayals.

This is a very old game, so old that the rulers of the first Sumerian city-states would recognise it. Indeed, even the head-men of warring aboriginal tribes in the New Guinea highlands would understand what is going on in Syria now – and realise that it is probably inevitable but generally futile.

A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard, and then it’s time for the next round. Once in a while things get out of hand and a great deal of death and destruction ensues over a broad area, but not often: maybe every second generation. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“The Syrian…state”)