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Syria: Not a Peace, But Maybe a Ceasefire

Abu Muhammad al-Golani is an Islamist fanatic, a head-chopper (although only in moderation), and the leader of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is classified by the United States as “terrorist”. He spent almost a decade killing American occupation troops and Shia civilians in Iraq as a loyal member of the Sunni extremist organisation that is now called Islamic State before going home to Syria in 2011.

He was sent home to create a Syrian clone of what was then called ‘Islamic State in Iraq’, on the orders of Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State and now the self-proclaimed “Caliph” of all the Muslims. Golani named the Syrian branch the Nusra Front, and it did so well that he broke with Islamic State and went out on his own in 2013.

There was a three-month turf war between Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Syria in early 2014 that killed an estimated 3,000 jihadis. Islamic State won it and now controls most of eastern Syria (and all of western Iraq). Golani managed to hang on to northwestern Syria, where the Nusra Front and another extreme Islamist organisation, Ahrar al-Sham, now completely dominate a rebel alliance that also includes several smaller “moderate” outfits.

So you would not expect Golani to favour a peace deal that left the brutal Assad regime, secular in form but Shia-dominated, in power in Damascus. And indeed he does not: in a rare interview recently, he condemned the peace deal being cooked up by the US and Russia as “unacceptable”. It was, he said, a plot to merge more moderate rebel fighters with Assad’s forces in order to fight extremist groups like his own and Islamic State.

Golani was right to be suspicious, and yet he may go along with the deal in the end, because it isn’t really a permanent peace settlement that is being discussed. It’s actually just a ceasefire that will leave all the players in Syria in control of the territory they now hold – except for Islamic State, which they can then all concentrate on destroying.

This is the sort of Machiavellian thinking that caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to accuse Washington recently of “dividing terrorists into good and bad ones,” but it’s just as much a part of Russian thinking. When Moscow started bombing the rebels in Syria in September to save the Assad regime from collapse, it bombed them all indiscriminately: the Nusra Front, Islamic State, even the “moderates”, if it could find them.

But it quickly became clear that what Russia had in mind, after stabilising the battlefronts, was precisely what Golani was condemning: a ceasefire that would effectively partition Syria between the Assad regime and the various rebel groups, and enable them all to turn on Islamic State.

You can’t admit that that’s what you are doing, of course, so you talk in terms of a peace settlement. That’s what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry were doing in Moscow on Tuesday, and the result is that a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing the Syrian peace process will probably be passed on Friday.

The current round of “peace talks” began in Vienna on 23 October, with no Syrians present, just Russia, the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It subsequently expanded to include about twenty countries, and the organisers are now deciding which Syrians can attend the next round of talks, probably early in the new year.

On one side, obviously, will be the the representatives of the Assad regime. On the other side will be some of the leaders of the armed opposition, but not all of them. Islamic State won’t be there, of course, and at the moment the Nusra Front says it won’t be either. Since those are the two most powerful groups fighting the Assad regime, what’s the point of talks?

But the Nusra Front’s close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, did show up at last week’s meeting in Riyadh where decisions were being made on which groups could attend the peace talks. At one point it walked out – and then, after some further thought, it added its signature to the joint declaration.

The Islamists of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham are clearly in two minds about a ceasefire (disguised as a peace agreement). On one hand, it would leave the Assad regime in power. On the other, it would give them time to consolidate their control over the territory they now hold, and maybe to eliminate their most dangerous rival, Islamic State. So in the end, they may go along with the idea.

It wouldn’t be perfect, and it wouldn’t necessarily be permanent either. But it would stop most of the killing, it would at least contain if not eliminate Islamic State, and it might even let some of the refugees go home. It’s basically a Russian initiative, but Moscow is wisely letting the US take the lead now. If anybody has a better idea, please let us all know.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“This is…State”)

COP21: Cheering and Fearing

The climate deal that almost 200 countries agreed to in Paris on Saturday was far better than most insiders dared to hope even one month ago.

The biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, are finally on board. There is real money on the table to help poor countries cut their emissions and cope with warming. They have even adopted a target of holding the warming to only +1.5 degrees C, instead of the limit of +2 degrees that was the goal when the conference opened.

So the thousands of delegates who spent two weeks dickering over the details of the deal in a drafty exhibition hall north of Paris felt fully justified in cheering and congratulating one another on a job well done. Given all that, it’s a pity that the deal won’t actually stop the warming.

The plus-two limit was always too high. It began as a scientific estimate of when natural feedbacks, triggered by the warming that human beings had caused, take over and started driving the temperature much, much higher. It was actually quite a fuzzy number: at somewhere between +1.75 C and +2.25 C, the feedbacks will kick in and it will be Game

So +2.0 C, for political purposes, became the limit. Beyond that, governments told us, we would have “dangerous warming”. Nonsense. We are having dangerous warming now – bigger storms, worse floods, longer droughts – and we are only at +1.0 C.

At plus-two or thereabouts, what we get is catastrophe: runaway warming that can no longer be halted just by stopping human emissions of carbon dioxide. Nature will take over, and we will be trapped on a one-way escalator that is taking us up to +3, +4, +5, even +6 degrees. Hundreds of millions or even billions of people would die as large parts of the planet ceased to be habitable by human beings.

If you don’t want to risk unleashing that, then you don’t want to go anywhere near +2, so the official adoption by the world’s governments of +1.5 degrees as the never-exceed limit is a major step forward. But note that they have only pledged “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C,” not to succeed. The hard-and-fast promise is still not to go past +2 – and there is not even any guarantee that that will be achieved.

In order to avoid a debacle like the one at the last climate summit in Copenhagen six years ago, nobody even tried to put enforceable limits on national carbon dioxide emissions this time. Each country was just invited to submit the emission cuts that it is willing to make. The sum of all those promised cuts (if the promises are kept) is what we will get by way of global emission cuts in the next five years.

United Nations experts did the math, and concluded that these emission cuts fall far short of what is needed. If this is all that is done, then we are headed for at least +2.7 degrees C – or rather, for a lot more, because of the feedbacks.

None of the negotiations at the Paris conference changed those numbers, or even tried to. So are we doomed to runaway warming? Not necessarily.

Most of the negotiators know that the cuts which are politically impossible now may become quite possible in five or ten years if the cost of renewable energy goes on dropping, if techniques like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) become economically viable – and if people are sufficiently frightened by a climate that is getting wilder and less predictable by the year.

So there is a review process built into the treaty. Every five years, starting in 2018, there will be a “stock-taking” exercise in which everybody’s progress in cutting their emissions will be reviewed, and everybody will be encouraged to increase their commitments and speed up their cuts.

Whether they will actually do that depends on political, economic and technological factors that cannot yet be calculated, but fear is a great incentive, and there is no government on the planet that is not frightened by the prospect of major climate change. In fact, most of them would have gone a lot further in Paris if they were not nervous about getting too far ahead of public opinion at home.

Public opinion will eventually change, because there is going to be a very large amount of damage and suffering in the world as we move past +1.0 and head up towards +1.5. Will it change fast enough to allow governments to act decisively and in time? Nobody knows.

Will new green technologies simply sweep the field, making fossil fuels uneconomic and government intervention unnecessary? Nobody knows that either, although many people pin their hopes on it.

We are not out of the woods yet, but we are probably heading in the right direction – and it would be right at this point to put in a good word for that much maligned organisation, the United Nations. It is the only arena in which global negotiations like this can be conducted, and its skills, traditions and people were indispensable in leading them to a more or less successful conclusion.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Whether…it”)

Obama and San Bernardino

On Sunday President Barack Obama spoke about a mass shooting in the United States for the seventeenth time in the past seven years. (There have actually been 335 mass shootings in the United States already this year, but he only does the big ones.) But this time Obama spoke from the Oval Office.

He’s only done that twice before, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the end of combat operations in Iraq, both in 2010. The shooting in California killed fourteen people and wounded twenty-one, so it wasn’t even the biggest mass killing of his administration, but it got special treatment because it was a terrorist attack.

He needed to do that because you just have to say the word “terrorist” to send many Americans into a flat panic, and many American politicians into spasms of oratory overkill. A representative example was New Jersey Governor and would-be Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who said: “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”

The next world war? The last world war killed at least forty million people. The next one – the Third World War that we were waiting for when I was growing up – would have killed hundreds of millions, even if it didn’t cause a nuclear winter and kill billions. With due respect to the victims, the sixteen dead in San Bernardino do not add up to a new world war.

Neither do the 130 French (and a few foreigners) killed with guns and suicide bombs in Paris last month, nor the 224 Russians on the plane brought down over Egypt by a bomb at the end of October. Even in Europe, Islamist terrorism kills at the most hundreds per year; in America, it kills almost nobody.

Before this week, only sixteen Americans had been killed on home soil by Islamist terrorists in the past fourteen years (thirteen soldiers killed by US Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009, and three killed at the Boston Marathon in 2013). That’s an average (including the San Bernardino deaths) of two people per year killed in the United States by Muslim terrorists. .

So why didn’t Barack Obama finish his speech by pointing out that Americans are 170 times more likely to drown in the bath than to be killed by Islamist terrorists? Because no public figure in the United States is allowed to say that the terrorist threat is very small in the West generally, and utterly minuscule if you actually live in the United States.

You’re not allowed to say it because more than 6,000 American soldiers have been killed in two foreign wars that were justified by the 9/11 attacks (although Obama was bold enough to say plainly in his speech that those wars actually served the Islamists’ purposes).

And you’re not allowed to say it because almost three thousand Americans died on 9/11: that single attack fifteen years ago has permanently defined the scale of the terrorist threat in American minds, even though the likelihood that a comparable attack could be mounted today is extremely small. (In 2001, nobody was looking out for such an attack; now they are.)

On the one hand, we have a trillion-dollar “war on terror” defended by a US military and security establishment that has grown fat on the proceeds. On the other hand, we have a very small terrorist threat to the “homeland” against which, for the most part, that establishment’s efforts are irrelevant because the attackers are home-grown, self-radicalised lone wolves.

None of the three “Islamist” attacks over the past fourteen years was planned from abroad. All were carried out by US citizens or permanent residents. None of those people, so far as is known, was even in contact with organisations like al-Qaeda or Islamic State (although Tashfeen Malik pledged her allegiance to the latter on her Facebook page on her way to the massacre at the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino).

The Islamist extremists pose an existential threat to Syria and Iraq. They are a serious threat to the other Arab countries, and a rather more distant problem for other Muslim countries. For Western, Asian and African countries that do not have large Muslim populations, they are merely a strategic nuisance.

If any of those outside powers want to fight the Islamists on home ground (like the NATO countries and Russia, who are all now bombing Islamic State targets in Syria), then by all means do so. You might save the Syrians from a very unpleasant fate. But don’t imagine that this is necessary for your own defence.

Conversely, don’t worry that the bombing will cause terrorist attacks on you at home. Those attacks will happen no matter what the United States (to pick an example at random) is doing or not doing abroad. And a country that can blithely ignore 63 shooting attacks in its schools since the beginning of this year can manage to live with a small Islamist attack every few years too. “
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“You’re not…they are”)

Turkey: Seventeen Seconds

The key fact is that the Russian plane, by Turkey’s own admission, was in Turkish airspace for precisely seventeen seconds. That’s a little less time than it takes to read this paragraph aloud. The Turks shot it down anyway – and their allies publicly backed them, as loyal allies must.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared: “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey.” President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to assure him that the United States supported Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty. But privately, they must have been cursing Erdogan. They know what he’s up to.

This is the first time in more than fifty years that a NATO plane has shot down a Russian plane, and it happened in very suspicious circumstances.

Even if Turkish radar data is to be believed, the two Russian SU-24s only crossed the bottom of a very narrow appendix of Turkish territory that dangles down into Syria. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Our pilots, planes did not threaten Turkish territory in any way. ” What harm could they have done in seventeen seconds?

Moreover, the two Turkish F-16s that brought one of the Russian planes down had only seventeen seconds to get into position to fire their air-to-air missiles over Turkish territory. It would have been hard to do, in that confined space, without crossing into Syrian territory themselves.

According to the Russian radar data, it was the Turkish planes that crossed into Syrian territory. In this version of the story, the Russian planes were following a well-established route just south of the Turkish border, probably turning into a bomb run against Syrian rebels in Latakia province. How strange that there was a Turkish TV crew in northern Syria, positioned just right to film the incident. (The Russsian plane crashed 4 km. inside Syria.)

Either way, it seems quite clear that President Erdogan really wanted to shoot down a Russian aircraft, and that the Turkish pilots were under orders to do so if they could find even the slightest pretext. So why would Erdogan want to do that?

President Putin said bitterly that Erdogan and his colleagues were “accomplices of terrorists”. That’s hard to deny: Erdogan is so eager to see Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad overthrown that he left the Turkish-Syrian border open for four years so that recruits and supplies could reach the Syrian rebel groups, notably including Islamic State (IS).

Putin also observed that “We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from IS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving.”

Black-market oil is Islamic State’s largest source of revenue, and almost all of it goes to Turkey – which could not happen without the Turkish government’s active connivance. And when the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was driving Assad’s forces back in northwestern Syria last spring, Turkey jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications to help the rebels win.

Erdogan is utterly determined that Assad must go, and he doesn’t really care if Assad’s successors are Islamist extremists. But he also wants to ensure that there is no new Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border.

That is a problem for him, because that state already exists in embryo. It is called Rojava, a territory that the Syrian Kurds have carved out in the far north of the country along the Turkish border, mainly by fighting Islamic State. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds are the US-led coalition’s only effective ally on the ground against IS.

When Erdogan committed the Turkish air force to the Syrian war in July, he explained it to the United States as a decision to fight against Islamic State, but in fact Turkey has made only a token handful of strikes against IS. Almost all Erdogan’s bombs have actually fallen on the Turkish Kurds of the PKK (who had been observing a ceasefire with the Turkish government for the past four years), and above all on the Syrian Kurds

Erdogan has two goals: to ensure the destruction of Assad’s regime, and to prevent the creation of a new Kurdish state in Syria. He was making some progress on both objectives – and then along came the Russians in September and saved the Syrian army from defeat, at least for the moment.

Worse yet, Putin’s strategy turns out to quite pragmatic, and even rather attractive to the United States despite all the ritual anti-Russian propaganda emitted by Washington. Putin wants a ceasefire in Syria that will leave everybody where they are now – except Islamic State, which they can all then concentrate on destroying.

This strategy is now making some headway in the Vienna ceasefire talks, but it is utterly abhorrent to Erdogan because it would leave Assad in power in Damascus, and give the Syrian Kurds time to consolidate their new state. How can he derail this Russian-led project?

Well, he could shoot down a Russian plane, and try to get a confrontation going between Russia and NATO.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Moreover…themselves”; and “Putin…win”)