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What Would a Syrian Peace Deal Look Like?

After the Syrian army recaptured the city of Palmyra from Islamic State a week ago, US State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that the liberation of the ancient city was a “good thing”. But he could not resist adding: “We’re also mindful, of course, that the best hope for Syria and the Syrian people is not an expansion of [President] Bashar al-Assad’s ability to tyrannise the Syrian people.”

This was entirely in line with the long-standing US policy of seeking to destroy both Islamic State and the Syrian government (i.e. the Assad regime) at the same time. But that was never more than wishful thinking, especially as the United States was quite sensibly determined not to commit its own ground troops to the conflict.

If the Syrian army actually had collapsed (as was looking quite likely before the Russians intervened to save it last September), nothing could have prevented Islamic State and the rival Islamist forces of the Nusra Front from taking the whole country. They might then have fought each other for control, but all of Syria would have ended up under extreme Islamist rule.

But the opposite is not true. The revival of the Syrian army, and even its reconquest of Palmyra, does not mean that the Assad regime can destroy Islamic State, let alone regain control of the whole country. Nor does Russia have any intention of helping President Assad to pursue such an ambitious goal, as Moscow made clear by withdrawing most of the Russian combat aircraft from Syria two weeks ago.

Russia’s strategy has been more modest and realistic from the start. It was to restore the military stalemate that had persisted until the spring of 2015, and to convince the remaining non-Islamist rebel groups that they had no chance of somehow riding to power on the coat-tails of an Islamist victory over the Assad regime.

This hope was as delusional as the American policy in Syria. By mid-2015 between 80 percent and 90 percent of the Syrian rebels actively fighting the Assad regime belonged to Islamic State or to al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, and its Islamist allies in Ahrar al-Sham. Moreover, the remainder of the rebels, the non-fanatics or so-called “moderates”, were mostly allied to the Nusra Front.

This curious alliance came to pass mostly because the Nusra Front wanted to avoid the American and “coalition” bombs that were falling on Islamic State. So it created a broader alliance called the “Army of Islam” that wrapped these small “moderate” groups around the Islamist core, and the United States fell for it. Or at least American propaganda fell for it.

The Russians cheerfully bombed all these forces indiscriminately, making no distinction between Islamists and the allies of Islamists. The United States ritually condemned the attacks on the latter groups (always described as “moderates”), and the Russians cheerfully ignored that too.

And after five months, when most of the “moderates” had been persuaded that they were never going to gain power through an alliance with the Islamists, Moscow proposed a ceasefire that would include the “moderates” but exclude the Islamists. That ceasefire has now been in effect for almost a month.

The negotiators for these moderate groups are still demanding the departure of Assad from power as the price of a permanent ceasefire. They haven’t a prayer of getting such a sweet deal, but the Russians are putting pressure on Assad to come up with a formula of words, however vague, that will persuade them to accept amnesty and come in from the cold without losing too much face.

The Islamists, although largely surrounded and blockaded, will not be defeated any time soon by military force, but they are growing weaker and may fall to fighting among themselves.

And the Syrian Kurds, the only American allies on the ground in Syria, will probably manage to hold on to the long strip of territory they control along the border with Turkey. However, they may have to settle for being an “autonomous province” within Syria if they wish to avoid a Turkish invasion.

President Vladimir Putin’s goal was to isolate the Islamists and reconcile the rest of the rebels with the Assad regime, and it is well on the way to accomplishment. It will not be a happy ending for any of the groups involved in the Syrian civil war, but it is the least bad outcome that can now be realistically imagined.

It will not put an end to all the fighting on Syrian territory. Not all the refugees will want to come home to such a country, and the terrorism abroad will continue. (But then, it would continue even if Islamic State disappeared – you don’t need a state to plan terrorist attacks.)

When no decisive victory is possible for any side, it makes sense to stop as much of the shooting as possible.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 14. (“And the Syrian…invasion”; and “It will…attacks”)

Obama’s Minimalist Foreign Policy

If the US Congress had not imposed a two-term limit on the presidency in 1947 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record four electoral victories, President Barack Obama would be a safe bet for a third term next November. He inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and now the United States has the healthiest economy of all the major powers, with unemployment back down to 5.5 percent.

But Obama can’t run for president again, so the time has come for the pundits to start delivering their assessments on the success or failure of his policies. First up is Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, with a lengthy article called “The Obama Doctrine” on the man’s conduct of American foreign policy over the past seven and a half years.

As you would expect when discussing a man whose basic rule is “Don’t do stupid shit”, Goldberg’s piece is mostly an examination of what Obama didn’t do, not what he did. He didn’t go to war with the Assad regime in Syria. He didn’t get into a new Cold War with Russia over Ukraine. He didn’t bomb Iran, instead making a political deal to block its nuclear weapons ambitions. He didn’t attack North Korea even when it did test nuclear weapons.

None of these foreign policy choices would be remarkable if we were talking about Japan or Canada or Germany. Even in former imperial powers like Britain and France, where the interventionist reflex is still alive and kicking, Obama’s choices would not be controversial.

But in the Washington foreign policy establishment, where every conflict on the planet tends to be redefined as an American problem and almost unlimited military force is available to attack the problem, Obama’s approach was heretical.

Democrats were just as opposed to his heresy as Republicans. Indeed, despite the wreckage of George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that Obama’s administration inherited when it took office in early 2009, his own first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was a classic interventionist.

After she left office in 2013, Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad…left a big vacuum, which the jhadists have now filled.” But Hillary Clinton actually got her way on Syria.

The real failure of American policy on Syria in 2011 was the tolerance extended to Turkish, Qatari and Saudi Arabian shipments of arms and money that were intended to subvert the faltering non-violent revolution and replace it with an armed revolt whose goal was a Sunni Islamic state, not a secular democracy.

Obama and Clinton must share the blame for the fact that the United States became part of this operation in early 2012, providing arms that it sourced from Libya to avoid Congressional oversight. By then the non-violent protests had been largely suppressed and Syria was stumbling into a civil war – which subsequently killed 300,000 people and turned half the country’s population into refugees.

Most Syrians would now agree that it would have been better to accept the failure of the non-violent movement and the continued rule of the execrable Assad regime than to see their country virtually destroyed. I suspect that Obama sees Clinton’s Syrian policy, in hindsight, as the greatest mistake of his time in office – but he did partially redeem himself by refusing to bomb Syria during the “poison gas” episode of 2014.

Clinton also told Goldberg in 2014 that “great nations need organising principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organising principle.” Nobody said it was, but it is a good guide when deciding on actual policies, and Obama has been pretty consistent in observing it even with regard to the Middle East.

His fundamental insight – and his greatest break with the orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment – has been to understand that very little that happens or could happen in the Middle East is a threat to America’s vital interests. Even Israel’s well-being is only a sentimental consideration for the United States, not a strategic one, although like all American politicians he is obliged to pretend otherwise.

Only if the Islamist extremists of the Nusra Front and Islamic State were to overrun all of Syria would Israel be in any danger, and the Russian military intervention in support of Assad’s regime since last September has largely eliminated that possibility. So Obama has been free to concentrate on the issues that he thinks are really important, and that is where he has made real progress.

His foreign policy has been minimalist only with regard to the traditional “strategic” concerns inherited from the Cold War and America’s long, deep and mostly futile engagement with the Middle East. In his “pivot” to Asia, in reestablishing ties with Cuba, above all on the issue of climate change (which he rightly sees as the crucial issue for the next generation and beyond), he has been an activist in his foreign policy – and a largely successful one.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump, the two main contenders for the succession, will be a patch on him.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11. “None…controversial”; “Obama…refugees”; and “Clinton…East”)

North Korea’s Deterrent

Here we go again. North Korea launched a ballistic missile of intercontinental range on Sunday (saying it was just putting up a satellite) only weeks after it carried out its fourth nuclear weapons test (which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb).The United Nations Security Council strongly condemned it, and even the People’s Republic of China, North Korea’s only ally, expressed its “regret” at what the country had done.

There will certainly now be more UN sanctions against Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime. But there have already been four rounds of UN military and economic sanctions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, and Pyongyang just ignores them.

Clearly, this is something that the North Korean regime wants so badly that it is willing to endure considerable punishment in order to get it. But why is this very poor country spending vast sums in order to be able to strike its neighbours – and even the United States, for that is what the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are about – with nuclear weapons?

Well, here’s a clue. What the North Korean government said after last month’s hydrogen bomb test was this: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a genuine peace-loving state which has made every effort to protect peace on the Korean Peninsula and security in the region from the vicious US nuclear war scenario.”

“The US is a gang of cruel robbers that has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK….By succeeding in the H-bomb test…the DPRK proudly joined the advanced ranks of nuclear weapons states…and the Korean people demonstrated the spirit of a dignified nation equipped with the most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Never mind the stilted rhetoric and gutter abuse; North Korean propagandists always talk like that. Listen to the key words that are almost buried under the surrounding invective. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, they say, is meant to “protect…the region from…the US …nuclear war scenario” by creating a “most powerful nuclear deterrent.”

Really? Do they actually fear that the United States might use nuclear weapons on them, and that they can only be safe if they have their own hydrogen bombs and ICBMs? Are they doing all this purely as a defensive measure?

Of course they are. However bad-tempered and impulsive they sounded, the men of the Kim family, father, son and grandson, who have ruled North Korea in dynastic succession for the past 68 years, were not crazy. They never started a war, because they knew they would lose it, and the current incumbent is certainly not going to start a nuclear war.

He would have to be crazy to do that. North Korea lacks the resources to build more than a few bombs a year, and it does not have the technologies to ensure that the missiles it may one day have won’t get shot down. It will probably never be able to guarantee that it can strike even South Korea or Japan with nuclear missiles, let alone the United States.

Everybody in the North Korean hierarchy (along with some millions of other North Koreans) would certainly be dead only hours after the regime launched nuclear weapons at any of those countries. The United States has literally thousands of nuclear weapons. It would take only a few dozen quite small ones to virtually exterminate the entire ruling elite, and North Korea would have no way of stopping them.

A few not-very-high-tech nuclear weapons would give Pyongyang no usable ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. They would, however, give it a pretty credible nuclear deterrent.

Launching a few nuclear weapons against a major nuclear power is suicidal, but those same few weapons can be a perfectly good deterrent against a nuclear attack by that same power, because they give the weaker party a capacity for “revenge from the grave.” Even a country as powerful as the United States will behave very cautiously when faced with the possibility that an opponent might land even one or two nuclear weapons on its territory.

North Korea has lived under the implicit threat of US nuclear weapons for almost seven decades, and the United States has never promised not to use those weapons against it. It’s almost surprising that we haven’t seen North Korean nuclear weapons before now.

North Korea is just doing the same thing that Pakistan did in the 1980s and 90s out of fear of Indian nuclear weapons, and that Iran was doing in fear of both Pakistani and Israeli nuclear weapons in the last fifteen years.

The Security Council is quite right to try to block North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the successful use of international sanctions to stop Iran offers some hope that it may succeed. But North Korea is not a crazy state plotting a nuclear holocaust at the cost of its own extinction. Its nuclear weapons programme is a perfectly rational – although highly undesirable – policy for a small country with a big problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“He would…United States”; and “North Korea…now”)

Trump vs. Sanders – vs. Bloomberg?

The outcome of the US presidential primaries was supposed to be Hillary Clinton, the wife of an ex-president, vs. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of other ex-presidents: both worthy but somewhat boring candidates, and both definitely members of the “establishment”. Less than a week before the first primary, the Iowa caucuses, Bush is dead in the water and even Clinton is looking vulnerable.

In Bush’s place as the Republican front-runner is Donald Trump, billionaire property developer, TV reality star and demagogue, who told a campaign rally last Saturday “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” His arrogance is not misplaced: to the despair of the Republican Party’s hierarchy, he probably has the party’s presidential nomination locked up.

Three months ago, Democrats thought this would virtually guarantee Hillary Clinton’s election, as a majority of Americans would refuse to vote for such a crude clown. That was probably correct, but it’s irrelevant if Clinton doesn’t get the Democratic nomination. Ominously, her “socialist” rival, Bernie Sanders, is neck-and-neck with her in Iowa and clearly ahead in the next primary, in New Hampshire.

Sanders is also raising as much money from small voluntary donations as Clinton has raised from her rich frends and corporate donors. He can stay in the race right down to the finish, and the belief that he will fade when the more populous states vote in the later primaries is based on the shaky assumption that Americans will never vote for universal government-provided health care, free college tuition and soak-the-rich taxes.

Sanders is not really a socialist – fifty years ago he would have been an unremarkable figure on the left wing of the Democratic Party– but in any case “socialist” is no longer a curse-word in the United States. When pollster Frank Luntz asked “Would you be willing to vote for a socialist?” last June, nearly 60 percent of the Democrats surveyed said yes – and an astonishing 29 percent of the Republicans.

Both the major parties are facing a mutiny among their traditional supporters this year. A presidential race between Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders (the Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street) is entirely possible. But both Trump and Saunders are too radical for at least a third of American voters. That would leave the middle ground of American politics unoccupied.

Enter Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire, who started out as a Democrat, became a Republican to run for mayor of New York City in 2001, and now calls himself an independent. He won’t run if Hillary Clinton still seems likely to win the Democratic nomination – but if Sanders is pulling ahead, he probably will.

In a three-way race featuring Trump, Sanders and himself, Bloomberg would be the one “moderate” candidate, and he might even win. The probability that all this will come to pass is still well below 50-50, but the fact that it exists at all shows just how far American politics has departed from the usual track. Why?

The rise of Trump is mainly due to the fact that gerrymandering has turned 90 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives into safe seats for one party or the other: win the nomination, and the seat is guaranteed. So would-be Republican candidates have to appeal to the party’s strongest supporters, white working-class people without a college education, not to voters in general.

A lot of these Republican stalwarts are very, VERY angry. Their incomes are stagnant or falling, and as demography change gradually turns the United States into a country where the minorities are a majority, they feel that they are being marginalised and forgotten. They want their candidate to be angry too, and Donald Trump intuitively understands this and plays to it.

Paradoxically, Sanders appeals to some of the same people, because he also represents a radical break with business as usual. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for many people whose first choice is Trump, their second choice is Sanders. But most of Sanders’s support comes from people who are not so much angry as despairing.

In the new documentary “Dream On”, comedian John Fugelsang sums up what has driven them farther left than they ever imagined they would go. “America has become a reality show,” he said. “Food, Medicine, Rent: Pick two.” Median US household income in constant dollars is still $4,000 a year lower than it was in 2000, and the ‘American Dream’ is dying if not dead.

So it’s a horse-race that anybody could win, unless Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, in which case she would be the odds-on favourite to win. She even promised last Sunday to “relieve” Michael Bloomberg of the obligation to run by winning the nomination herself.

But if she does win, of course, nothing will really change, including an unreformed financial system that is setting us all up for a rerun of the 2008 crash.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“Sanders…taxes”)