Streetwise Professor

November 25, 2015

Let’s You and Him Fight

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:28 am

There should be no shock or surprise at Turkey’s destruction of a Russian Su-24. Russia and Turkey have been in a state of undeclared war for a long time. Turkey has long supported rebels, most notably Islamist rebels, fighting to topple Assad. Russia intervened to prop up a tottering Assad, and has directed the bulk of its operations against the rebels Turkey supports. Many of these airstrikes have occurred close to the border, and are directed specifically at rebel ratlines running back into Turkey and at the front lines of the fighters Turkey supports.

This has made Erdogan furious. The shootdown was, as Lavrov said, clearly deliberate. Just as Putin’s intervention was a clear signal that Assad was losing, this incident is a clear signal that Erdogan believes that his forces are now losing. This is his way of hitting back and trying to get Putin to back off.

Russia says that it is striking ISIS. This is largely, though not completely, a lie. But Russia is striking Islamists. Today Putin pointedly criticized Erdogan, saying that he is Islamizing Turkey. Putin is correct.

To see the kind of people Erdogan is supporting, consider the fact that the rebels shot at the Russian air crew as they were parachuting after bailing out, killing one of them. They then gloated over the corpse.

All of this makes it beyond strange that so many on the right in the US are apoplectic about Russian intervention in Syria, and that this apoplexy has only intensified with the destruction of the Su-24. Senator Tom Cotton (and others) claim that we are in a proxy war in Syria, and that Russia has intervened against our “allies” in this war.

Why are we in a proxy war? What compelling US interests exist in Syria? And why are we allying ourselves with Salafists who are just branded affiliates of either Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood, and who are striving to kill us everywhere else in the world? If “our side” “wins”, what do we get? A Salafist stronghold and safe haven from which to attack us? If “our side” “loses”, what does it cost us? We’ve lived with the Assads  for almost 50 years. They are not going to be much of a threat to anyone, given the wreck the country has become (not that it was ever anything but a typically shambolic Arab dictatorship).

People like Cotton also speak in concerned tones about Turkey as a Nato ally under threat from Russia. This should be turned on its head: we need to reconsider quite seriously whether an Islamist country that provides material support to Islamist groups (including Hamas), and which is led by an increasingly erratic autocrat, is a suitable member of Nato.

This is particularly true given that Erdogan does not have clean hands, by any means, in the fight against ISIS. Erdogan has unleashed his air force against the Kurds, but not against ISIS. ISIS supply lines stretch into Turkey. ISIS members use Turkey as a safe area and a transit zone (including to Europe). He fought mightily to deny aid to the Kurds in Kobani when they were fighting for their lives. Furthermore, there is considerable reason to believe that Erdogan’s family facilitates the sale of ISIS oil. (This last detail raises questions about the US forbearance in attacking ISIS oil convoys, despite the fact that oil revenues are vital to ISIS’s financing. We have given excuses like protecting innocent truck drivers’ lives, or even “environmental concerns“, FFS, to explain the lack of attacks on the oil rat line. The Erdogan connection quite plausibly is a more important reason.)

The main issue for the United States is that this greatly complicates the US air campaign against ISIS, especially in Syria. In response to the downing of its jet, Russia has announced that it is deploying long range S-400 surface-to-air missiles to Syria to protect its aircraft. (Russia denied earlier reports that it had already deployed the missiles. There was some photographic evidence–of the distinctive radars–that they had, so perhaps they are using this as an excuse to announce something they had done before but denied.) Russia does not want to shoot down US planes, but accidents will happen, and the greater the envelope of the missiles, the more scope for accidents, especially given that US aircraft are operating out of Turkish bases.

There are reasons to be concerned about Putin and Russia. But Syria is not among them. Better to devote our efforts to proving a bulwark and deterrent against Putin where it matters to us, than tangling with him in a place where it doesn’t. As I’ve said, if anything, it’s better to have him stuck in Syria than running amok in eastern Europe.

There’s an old joke about “let’s you and him fight.” That seems about right here. Let Putin and Erdogan fight, if that’s what they want. We should want no part of it.


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November 19, 2015

Steve Martin & The Underwear Gnomes Are Apparently Hillary’s Military Advisors

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:51 pm

Taking time out from attempting to silence comics who mock her, Hillary Clinton gave a speech setting out her grand strategy for combatting ISIS:

Our strategy should have three main elements. One, defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq and across the Middle East; two, disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing arms and propaganda around the world; three, harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.

The first one in particular is a real eye-roller. We will defeat ISIS by defeating ISIS. It brings to mind the old Steve Martin bit:

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes!  You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes! You say.. “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?” First.. get a million dollars.

Or the South Park Underwear Gnomes:

Plan for defeating ISIS:

  1. Fight ISIS.
  2. ????

This is Hillary trying to sound all tough and butch, but uttering vacuities.

Not that Republicans are much better. Marco Rubio said: “When I am president, I will tell my commanders that the mission is the total destruction of ISIL and will send them the forces necessary to succeed.” Even if those forces total 50,000? 100,000? 150,000? And what about dealing with the aftermath?

Then there is Trump (who publicly self-identifies as a Republican, though I think his equipment is about as genuine as Kaitlyn Jenner’s), who says, simply, “I will bomb the shit out of them.”

The fact is, there are no good options right now. By 2009, the predecessor of ISIS had been ground down to what Rumsfeld had prematurely declared in 2004: a few dead enders. CIA Director John Brennan (ugh) recently admitted that ISIS was down to “700 or so adherents.” Now it numbers in the tens of thousands, and like Xerxes’s immortals, replaces those killed with a stream of new recruits.

By declaring victory and getting out of Iraq, Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of a hard won victory, and let a dying threat return to life far stronger than before, like an infection after the premature termination of an antibiotic regimen. When ISIS was running amok in May-June, 2014, Obama declined to attack them when they were vulnerable and in the open. Now they are dug in deep in Mosul and Ramadi and Raqqa, and it is beyond the capability of the Iraqi Army, or whatever ragtag force can be assembled in Syria, to root them out.

And despite ISIS’s clearly demonstrated ability to strike outside its core areas, it is dubious in the extreme to argue that the cost of rooting them out of these core areas, and keeping them or some successor Islamic freakazoid group out, is worth it.

The French are bombing. The Russians are bombing. We are bombing more. It will have little effect if not joined with a robust ground force. A robust ground force would entail large casualties. And to what end? To win Syria? Let Putin have it.

All of the major candidates feel obliged to sound tough on ISIS, but shrink from doing what would really be required to destroy it. So they essentially advocate doing what Obama is doing, only a little bit more. This is futile, and ultimately deceptive (and likely self-deceptive).

The reality is that the situation is pretty much irretrievable. We have to look at building firewalls. That will be hard for the US to do, but achievable. For Europe, it will be much harder, because their cities are infested with nests of Islamic radicals, and they are hell bent on admitting more.

In a sick twist on Casablanca, we’ll always have Paris. Sadly, it will be Paris, circa 13 November, 2015.

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October 31, 2015

On the Spot: How a Surfeit of Supply is Transforming LNG Trading

Filed under: Commodities,Derivatives,Russia — The Professor @ 6:22 pm

In September of last year, I gave the dinner speech at the CWC LNG Asia Pacific Summit conference in Singapore. The dinner was held at the Singapore Aquarium, and I spoke in front of the Aquarium’s giant shark tank. I couldn’t help but think of the scene with Kim Jung Il and Hans “Brix” Blix from Team America. Especially after the way my remarks were received, which ranged between cool and rather hostile.

I predicted the demise of oil-based pricing, and increased reliance on the spot market or long-term contracts indexed to spot prices. There were three basic parts to my argument. The first was that the large increase in supplies coming online in 2015-2017 combined with the even-then apparent slowdown in demand in China, and the likely decline from Japan due to the restarting of its nuclear plants, would lead to a large overhang of cargoes that would need to find a home. The trading of these cargoes would lead to increased spot market activity.

The second part of my argument was that the dynamics of liquidity would then take over. Liquidity creates liquidity. More spot market activity reduces the transactions costs of trading spot, which leads to more spot trading. There is a virtuous cycle in liquidity, and the increase in spot trading to dispose of contracted of but now unneeded cargoes would start the cycle.

The third part of my argument was that a robust spot market would support gas indexing, as opposed to oil indexing, in term contracts. Oil indexing is akin to the drunk looking for his wallet under the lamppost, because the light is best there, not because he lost it there. LNG buyers and sellers looking for a price benchmark looked to oil in the early days because in the 70s oil was a substitute for gas in power generation, so there was some connection between the markets, but mainly because oil was the only lamppost around. But especially now, with gas and oil having little fundamental connection in either consumption or production, oil prices are not closely correlated with the marginal value of a ton of LNG. The development of a liquid LNG spot market would-will, in my view-allow contracts to be indexed to a price that reflects gas values. This would also permit the development of a paper hedging market.

My unpopular prediction is now looking much better, though not all are persuaded. There is a huge LNG overhang, with Australian and US supplies about to come on stream. This supply increase is occurring simultaneously with a protracted decline in demand growth. Much of this overhang will find its way to the spot market. That, in turn, will start the virtuous cycle.

The supply overhang will have other consequences. It will force down prices world-wide, and lead to a redirection of supplies from Asia to Europe. One of the biggest losers from this will be Russia, which will face more intense price competition in its biggest export market in Europe, and a reduced Chinese appetite for the gas it had hoped to send east. Another will be Qatar, at present the world’s largest supplier.

Making things even more interesting is that Russia and Qatar are adversaries in Syria. (And by the way, those conspiracy theorists who think that the Syrian civil war was started by Qatar because Assad would not allow the construction of a pipeline to bring Qatari gas to Europe-spare me. Qatar’s big LNG investment dramatically reduced its need for a pipeline, and it anticipated being able to sell all it could to a growing Asian market.)

The next few years will be interesting in LNG. I am even more convinced that in 3 to 5 years the market will look nothing like it does today. It will look more like the oil, iron ore, and coal markets. Furthermore, in the near-to-medium term it will be more of a buyer’s market, and indeed, these things are connected. The surfeit of supply that makes it a buyer’s market will catalyze the development of a spot market.

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October 28, 2015

Could Be Dedovshchina in Syria: Definitely Mendacity in the US

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:41 am

Russia has acknowledged the first fatality in the force it has deployed to Syria. The Russians claim the 19 year old soldier committed suicide. The family is having none of it, and one anonymous source told Novaya Gazeta the body had a broken jaw, a smashed skull, and a broken neck. Given the curtain Russia draws over military deaths (including those that occur in Russia where it is not necessary to maintain fictions about involvement, or not, in combat) it is likely that we will never know for sure. Indeed, the family may never know.

But if the Novaya Gazeta report is correct, it sounds like dedovshchina, which would be all too believable. The abuse-often resulting in death-of young soldiers is just one of the dysfunctions that afflict the Russian military.

The Russians are not alone in drawing a curtain over the deaths and maiming of its military personnel. The United States is doing so as well, all to maintain a fiction that the US has no combat presence in Iraq, a fiction that is maintained purely to allow Obama to continue to insist that he ended the war in Iraq (or at least, the US involvement therein). First, the story about the circumstances of the death of the truly remarkable Delta Force soldier (11 Bronze Stars, 4 with the valor device!) in the raid on the ISIS prison in Iraq are being challenged:

Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died leading his Delta Force team on the primary assault into an Islamic State compound in Iraq — a stark contrast from the Pentagon’s account that American commandos were there only to support Kurdish forces during the rescue mission, according to a U.S. military source.

The body of the 39-year-old native of Roland, Oklahoma, was flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Saturday as more details began to emerge of the Oct. 22 night raid on a prison run by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Video footage, released by the Kurdistan Regional Government, shows American and Kurdish forces freeing 70 hostages that were held by ISIS militants near the town of Hawija, about 30 miles south of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. In a news report, a Pentagon official confirmed its authenticity to CNN.

Wheeler was the first U.S. combat fatality of the campaign against ISIS, but U.S. officials maintain that his death was not the result of a direct combat role.

Second, the military is refusing to release any information about the circumstances surrounding the wounding of 5 personnel:

Five other service members have been “wounded in action” since the U.S. first sent troops back into Iraq last year, according to statistics from the Pentagon and interviews with officials in Iraq (PDF). But how and when they were injured, the Pentagon refuses to say.

As the Obama administration holds to the increasingly dubious claim that U.S. troops are not engaged in combat against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Pentagon is withholding details about its wounded that would give key insights into the kind of fight American troops are facing in Iraq. Were any of the five shot by the Iraqi forces they are training? Did a mortar round shot at their base injure a soldier? Has ISIS wounded a U.S. service member?

It is a sad day when the US military channels Russian duplicity about casualties, all to protect the amore propre of Barack Obama. Recent news about creeping escalation by the US in Iraq and Syria also reeks of deception. More on that later.

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October 12, 2015

From the Ridiculous to the Absurd Is But A Single Step: A New Rebel Group Magically Appears in Syria

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:23 pm

If there’s been a bigger debacle for the US military since St. Clair’s Defeat in 1791 than the fiasco of arming the “moderate” Syrian resistance, I would be hard pressed to name it.

First, there was the fact that the pitifully small number of recruits that we managed to scrape together were either killed or captures no sooner than they had set foot into Syrian territory. Then, other groups turned over arms and equipment to al Nusra to secure safe passage. Then the Russians bombed the snot out of our (CIA-trained) forces while Kerry mewled in protest.

So it was announced that the Pentagon-run train and equip program was being terminated. But check that! The mission has not been ended. Train no: equip yes. We will just give arms to “leaders” we’ve vetted and let them hand them out to . . . whomever.

Meanwhile, in a 60 Minutes interview Obama said that he had been skeptical of arming the opposition from the get-go. (This is no doubt true: remember his dismissive remarks from last year about the futility of arming pharmacists and farmers and expecting them to beat an organized army?)

This immediately raises the questions: (a) then why did you, as commander of chief, permit the program to proceed? (b) if you were going to let it proceed, why didn’t you demand changes to give it a reasonable chance of achieving some success?

What’s more, despite Obama’s alleged skepticism, he is permitting yet another effort. This one would make Rube Goldberg proud. This is so bizarre that you might think I’m playing some sort of joke on you, but I swear, I’m just passing along what’s been reported.

Lo and behold, last night, almost at the exact same time Obama was heaping scorn on the idea of supporting armed opposition groups, a new Syrian resistance group magically appeared: The Democratic Forces of Syria.

It’s sort of the Rainbow Coalition of Syria. Kurds. Arabs. Assyrian Christians. So you should feel all warm and fuzzy about the inclusiveness of the new group.

If you believe the formation this group, and its allegedly ecumenical nature, was spontaneous and indigenous, I have some oceanfront property in Wyoming to sell you.

Bolstered by American arms, the mission of the new group is to advance on Raqqa, and drive ISIS from its Syrian capital. The Kurdish YPG has gained some success against ISIS, and would obviously be the core of any new force.

But we aren’t arming the Kurds! Because that would infuriate Erdogan and Turkey, and he could very well back out of his agreement to allow the US access to Incirlik, and do other nefarious things to kneecap the American efforts (such as they are) against ISIS. So we’re doing this instead:

Officials emphasized that U.S. military aid will go directly to the Arabs, not the Kurds, but the Kurdish fighters stand to benefit from the decision. To date, Washington has hesitated to hand equipment directly to the Kurds. Instead, they send materiel through the central government of Iraq. The new aid will be transported directly to Syria, where Arab groups are expected to launch a new offensive in and around Raqqa, the de facto Islamic State capital, while the Kurds continue to hold border areas where together they have succeeded in routing the militants.

The Kurds are the most effective military force in the region, and the Arabs have been completely unheard from in this sector, so we arm the latter and let the former cool their heels.

From the ridiculous to the absurd is but a single step.

To quote Casey Stengel: Can’t anybody here play this game?

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October 7, 2015

We Need to Choose Our Battles, and Syria Isn’t It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:04 pm

The hysteria over Russian actions in Syria continues. The Russians are making token strikes-at most-against ISIS, and are focusing their firepower on other anti-regime forces in the west of the country.

Well, of course they are. Putin’s objective is to save Assad’s regime. Its core area in the west. The greatest threat is in the west. So that’s where the bulk of the blows will fall.

Today’s cruise missile attack, launched from the Caspian is partly showing off (especially showing off the fact that Iran and Iraq had to concur), but it also makes military sense as part of a preparatory bombardment supporting a counterattack by regime forces, which is apparently in progress. This demonstrates that the Russian air campaign is part of a coherent military operation which integrates air and ground elements. This presents a stark contrast to the air-only US campaign against ISIS, which cannot achieve any decisive result whatsoever. (It remains to be seen whether Russian air support is sufficient to overcome the extreme shakiness of the Syrian army, which wasn’t much to start with and which has been relentlessly ground down by four years of brutal war.) (In contrast to the coherent Russian effort, the US attacks in Syria yesterday involved destroying two “crude oil collection facilities.” Really. No excavators were available?)

There is also hysteria about Russian lying about what they are doing.  This is like attacking a cobra for striking. It’s what they do.

Most of the frenzy focuses on the Russians’ targeting of “our” rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Yes, this is quite deliberate, and a strike at the US for having the temerity of supporting the anti-Assad effort. Putin views this as a part of a broader struggle against the US.

So should the US respond to the challenge frontally, in Syria?  No. And it’s not even a close call.

First, what is the strategic objective to be gained? I find it hard to see an important security interest in Syria. And overthrowing Assad because he’s a monster could be justified, except that monsters-and arguably worse monsters than Assad-will take over. An Assad rout would likely result in a bacchanal of sectarian violence which would result in the extirpation of non-Sunni communities in Syria. There has not been one Middle East war that has ended in anything closely resembling peace, and the circumstances in Syria are even less favorable to such an outcome than in Iraq and Libya.

Second, the idea that the there is a serious “moderate” opposition in Syria is not true today, and arguably never was true. The FSA’s day passed years ago, and our track record of identifying moderate, secular forces in this region is appallingly bad.

Those that are pushing this fantasy include John McCain, who is detached from reality on this issue. Others include journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, who have been flogging this narrative for four years, and are frantically doing so now: the more implausible the narrative becomes, the more frenzied they become. One should note that Hassan is tightly connected with UAE, which has been the main supporter of the anti-Assad opposition from the beginning, and Weiss’s connections are murky, and his pom-pomming for a Syrian opposition that is lousy with Islamists raises questions.

(And by the way: I thought the CIA program to arm the opposition was supposed to be covert. Why are we blabbing about it?)

Third, what can be done? The idée du jour supported by left (Hillary Clinton) and right (several GOP candidates, including Rubio, Fiorina, and Christie), is a no fly zone. This is superficially appealing because it relies purely on American airpower, and thus does not require a ground commitment. This virtue is in fact a measure of the non-seriousness of the idea.  It would not have been militarily decisive before the Russians arrived because Assad’s air force played only a marginal role in the conflict. Now it would require a confrontation with the Russians, because it is the Russians that are flying. Why engage in a confrontation that could lead to unpredictable developments elsewhere, and which (per the above) would not result in any material strategic gainer the US?

Rubio goes further, plumping for a “safe zone” that somehow will magically be radical Islamist-free. How this would work outside of some Harry Potter-esque fantasy is beyond me. Further, note the “safe zone” idea is a favorite of Erdogan. Who has been a major supporter of the Islamist groups in Syria. It appears for all the world that Rubio has bought a bill of goods from the GCC and the Turks about the Syrian opposition.

If you look at the correlation of forces (as the Soviets put it), and the strategic stakes, deeper US involvement in Syria makes no sense. The odds of prevailing are low, and the gains from winning are trivial, and likely non-existent.

Russia’s aggressiveness is indeed a concern, and someone with Putin’s mindset will be emboldened if he believes that he will meet no resistance. But an asymmetric response, an indirect approach, is more advisable. Russia’s vulnerabilities are economic and financial, and its greatest sensitivities are on in the Baltics, Poland, and Ukraine.

One last thing. The sputtering denunciations of Putin, notably again by McCain and others, are profoundly counterproductive. They only contribute to Putin’s image as some sort of colossus, which only encourages more aggressiveness and more admiration for him. At the other extreme, the administration’s mewling protests that the Syrian intervention is a testament to Putin’s weakness is just plain pathetic, especially since it is not accompanied by any countermoves anywhere.

Unfortunately, this administration is has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the strategic dexterity to respond effectively, or even coherently. We will have to wait another 15 months at least for a reach change. Unfortunately, there’s not much to look forward to on that front, as none of the Republican candidates have impressed in the least. Rubio particularly disappointed not just because of the safe zone inanity, but because of his clueless remark that Syria is a battle for the future of Sunni Islam: (a) this is not our battle, and (b) it it mimics Saudi and Qatar Sunni chauvinism, and their interests are not ours, in the slightest. (How often has our anger at Iran blinded us to the fact that the Saudis are a deeply malign force too? I actually have a grudging respect for the Iranians. At least they are quite open about their hatred for us.)

We need to pick our battles, and Syria isn’t it. The obsession with it is distracting from the true objective, which should be to construct a coherent strategic response to Putin that exploits our comparative advantages, rather than confronting him where he can exploit his.


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September 30, 2015

Let Putin Find Out the Hard Way

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 1:13 pm

I have no need to demonstrate my anti-Putin bona fides, but I just roll my eyes at the hysterical response to his intervention in Syria, and today’s launch of Russian bombing operations.  There is much shrieking about the fact that the Russians say they are bombing Isis, but in fact launched a raid on Homs where Isis was not present.

The Russian response is, basically: “Hey, they all look alike to us.” There is much truth to that.

This is not that complicated:

  1. Russia is intervening to save Assad from imminent defeat, and to protect its ports in Syria.
  2. Isis is not the most immediate threat to either Assad or the Russian facilities.
  3. Therefore, Russia will focus on non-Isis targets, while claiming to be fighting Isis.

This is really not that much different than the Turks using Isis as a pretext to attack their real enemy, the PKK.

Yes, this campaign will help Assad, and Assad is an evil bastard. But the Islamists that are dominating the anti-Assad forces are evil bastards too. Many are Al Qaeda offshoots, and others are indistinguishable from Al Qaeda in their ideology and agenda. Or from Isis, for that matter. They are Sunni supremacist Islamists. And wouldn’t you know, we are fighting Sunni supremacist Islamists around the world, and have been for going on 15 years.

There are no good guys in Syria. Stop pretending there are: there is considerable reason to doubt there ever were. And any differences between Isis and the non-Isis Islamists the Russians are bombing are trivial. They do all pretty much look (and act) alike. And what’s more, pretty much everyone in the West looks the same to them: they all think your head would look just splendid mounted on a spike in the front yard.

And yes, Assad’s forces will slaughter his foes if they win. But Assad’s foes will slaughter Assad’s supporters if they win. Syria is a charnel house being fought over by demons.  There is a symmetry of evil.

It is particularly rich that those who are shrieking about Russian involvement say that it will radicalize Sunnis.

Um, where are these people been? Since like 700AD, let alone since 2001 or 2011? Radicalization is a done deal, and the most that the Russians can do is gild that lily.

Moreover, I actually find myself agreeing with some in the administration here. If you truly believe that Syria is a pointless slaughter that we should avoid at all costs (and I believe that is the case today), why would you oppose Putin jumping in? The administration believes (rightly) that we have no current military options that would generate results that even remotely justify the costs: the military realities are exactly the same for Putin. Yes, he will likely secure a rump Syria with its shambolic Russian port facilities (which is more than we could gain). But his airpower is going to be no more decisive than ours, and he is putting himself at risk of getting sucked in more deeply in ways that will cost him blood and treasure that he can’t afford.

As I said before: don’t interrupt an enemy while he is making a mistake.

As for the US, Russian involvement is leading some to advocate getting more heavily involved ourselves. Another military adage is: don’t reinforce failure. Failure is the charitable way of describing US policy in Syria. Don’t reinforce it. Let it go. It’s past our ability to save, or even palliate. It’s done. Both sides.

Let Putin find out the hard way.

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September 19, 2015

Putin Has Made His Sandbox. Let Him Play In It.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:04 pm

In my humble opinion, too many people are way overthinking what Putin is doing in Syria. It seems pretty straightforward. A long-time Soviet and Russian client was on the verge of collapse: the loss of Idlib earlier this month, after a long battle which ground inexorably against Assad, represented a major blow. Syria is Russia’s only outpost in the Middle East, and is also important to Iran, with which Russia cooperates because they share a common enemy: the US. Absent Russian intervention, Assad’s destruction appeared imminent.

Meaning that this is more of a rearguard action, defending the rump of the Syrian state, than an offensive thrust. And it is a reaction to events, not a part of some grand geopolitical strategy.

Some get this.

Donbas is a precedent. Direct Russian military intervention only occurred last August when it seemed that the Ukrainian army was on the verge of crushing the rebels. Once the situation stabilized, Putin seemed-and still seems-to be willing to accept a stalemate.

As for the military effect, the major resources committed appear to be aircraft, and ground units to protect them and their bases. The US campaign against ISIS shows that air power alone is unlikely to be decisive. The Russians have Assad’s army to work with, but it is battered and demoralized after four years of war, and even with air support is unlikely to be capable of sustained offensive action. It is probably on a par with the Iraqi army in terms of combat effectiveness (and may be worse), and past months have shown that even with US (and some Iraqi) air support, the Iraqi army can’t wage offensive warfare. I seriously doubt the Syrian army can either, even with additional Russian air support. Thus, the most likely outcome of the Russian intervention is to stave off Assad’s defeat and perpetuate the stalemate.

There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Washington and Europe, but since they haven’t done anything in the past four years and had no plans of doing anything serious going forward, this reaction is decidedly overwrought.

The administration persists in its pathetic insistence that Assad must go. Today Kerry repeated this demand, but said Assad’s departure doesn’t have to happen on day one or month one. What about century one? That seems feasible.

The US wants to negotiate Assad’s departure, and somehow thinks it can enlist Russia in this effort. That is utterly delusional, especially now that Russia has upped its commitment to Assad. It is also delusional because by making it clear that the US will not do anything serious to combat Assad (especially since that would anger its new BFF, Iran). Our negotiation leverage is therefore bupkis. Therefore, it is better for Kerry and Obama to keep quiet, and let the world think that they are neutered losers, rather than speak up and remove all doubt.

The biggest loser in this is Israel. Iran cares about Syria primarily because it is its bridge to Hezbollah. Israel has periodically launched air attacks in Syria to prevent the movement of advanced weapons (especially anti-aircraft missiles) to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Russian presence complicates Israel’s problem greatly. But of course, this is probably a feature not a bug from Obama’s perspective.

The puzzle is Turkey. Turkey wants to see Assad’s destruction, and is perfectly fine with replacing him with Islamist radicals. Russian intervention reduces the odds of Assad’s defeat, and this is a defeat for Turkey. I have no idea how someone as erratic  as Erdogan will respond. One response will likely be greater covert support for the jihadists fighting Assad.

In sum, Putin’s actions in Syria will perpetuate a grim status quo, rather than cause a dramatic change in the strategic situation in the Middle East.  What happens going forward depends in large part on developments on the ground. If the current level of intervention is insufficient to slow the crumbling of the Assad regime, how much further will Putin be willing to go? His resources are constrained. As I wrote earlier, he faces daunting logistic difficulties in mounting a bigger intervention.

Regardless, we (in the US) are cast in the role of spectators: as Anthony Cordesman notes (perhaps stating the obvious), at present the US has no realistic military options in Syria. Obama made that choice four years ago, and reiterated his choice in 2013. Putin is now making his choice, and will have to live with the consequences: his options are no more palatable that the US’s (though he does have a coherent objective, which the US does not have and never had). We should leave him to it.

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September 14, 2015

You May Not Be Interested In a Clash of Civilizations, But A Clash of Civilizations Is Interested In You

Filed under: China,History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:25 pm

Cast your eyes around the world, and they are likely to land on a scene of conflict and chaos. In the Middle East, obviously, from pillar (Libya) to post (the Persian Gulf). In the center of Eurasia (Ukraine). In the South China Sea and the DMZ. The world situation has not been this fraught since the 1930s.

If you are like me, you crave an explanation. You could do far worse than start with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Huntington’s article and subsequent book of the same title unleashed a storm of furious criticism when it came out in 1993. But standing 22 years later, Huntington looks prescient, and many of his critics look like utter fools.

The best evidence of this is to look at the antagonists in the most important cockpits of conflicts.

Start with Ukraine. Putin has explicitly invoked the idea of “a Russian world” and has justified his actions in Ukraine and elsewhere as a legitimate defense of Russian people, language, and culture from the assaults of his enemies, especially in the West. Putin and other Russians tirelessly invoke contrasts between Russian civilization and European civilization in particular.

Putin and Russians generally think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Next consider China. China’s leadership too views China as a great civilization that was oppressed by others (Westerners, Japanese), and which is now assuming its proper place in the world. They express a clear cultural-civilizational-chauvinism. If anything, the Chinese people are even more aggressively chauvinistic than their leaders.

The Chinese leadership and people think they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

And of course, there is Islam. That Islam believes that it is in a civilizational war with just about everybody, but in particular the West, needs no explication. Yes, there is an intramural civil war within Islam, between Sunnis and Shia, but (a) this is complicated by a civilizational clash between Arab and Persian, and (b) this conflict is in no small part a battle over who will lead the clash of Islam with the infidels.

The jihadis and the mullahs and vast numbers of Muslims generally believe they are in a Clash of Civilizations.

Who doesn’t believe it? The skeptics and doubters reside mainly in one civilization: the Western.

Indeed, Huntington’s harshest critics resided (and reside) in the West. They are, in the main, progressives, which, like top quarks, come in left-handed (mainly those who self-identify as progressives) and right-handed (e.g., neocons as epitomized by Francis Fukuyama) varieties. Despite their differences in specific policies, they share a dialectical view that history progresses in one direction, and that it is relentlessly moving to a final state, and that in the end, humanity as a whole will converge to this state. The left progs’ final state is socialist/statist: the right progs’ final state is liberal and democratic.

Obama is clearly a progressive, so understood. His most consistent trope in responding to conflict, with Putin or the Islamists, is to say that history will leave them behind; that they are swimming against the tide of history. Obama said this to Putin about Ukraine: he just said it about Syria: he has said it about Isis. His policy towards Iran is predicated on the belief that once Iran is readmitted in into the community of nations, it will become a Normal Country, and discard its Islamist civilizational mission.

So part of the failure of many of those in the West to believe in the Clash of Civilizations is rooted in a worldview that such conflicts are an atavism that will disappear as the world converges to-progresses to-some homogenous end state in which all existing differences are dissolved.

But that’s not the only part. Another part is a paradox of Western civilization. The West’s distinguishing characteristics include skepticism, criticism and doubt. That very skepticism, criticism and doubt have led many (especially on the left, but also many on the right) to conclude that Western civilization is flawed, corrupt, defective, and certainly not superior to any other civilization, and hence not worth fighting for. Thus, the self-criticism that defines Western civilization prevents many in it from fighting for it. In this respect too, Obama is an exemplar.

A big part of the reason the past few years have seen a waxing of the Clash is precisely that the leader of the leader of Western civilization has declined to fight for it, due to a rather strange combination of fatalism (history will progress and nations will converge due to fundamental historical forces) and a belief that its civilization has no right to assert itself, because of its inherent flaws. This is in contrast to the American role post-1945, which self-confidently (on the whole, with exceptions like post-Vietnam) believed in the superiority of Western (and specifically American) civilization, and exerted its power (economic, social, cultural, and often military) to create and maintain a rough order even at the fault lines of civilizational conflict (notably the Middle East, but also between Europe and Russia, and between China and the rest of Asia).

So one way to understand the mess that the world is in now is to take Huntington’s idea of enduring antagonisms and frictions between competing and incompatible civilizations, and add the retreat of the one power that largely kept those antagonisms and frictions under control.

We are arguably in the midst of a new world war, though one that is fortunately, for now anyways, not as cataclysmic as the two that preceded it. But it is a different type of world war not only because of its lower intensity, but because it is not a war between two dominant blocs. Instead, it is a multipolar war with at least four major civilizations jostling at various points around the globe. This multipolarity makes the struggle less predictable, and far more confusing. It will only become more so unless the West, and in particular the US, realizes the nature of the ongoing conflict, and reengages accordingly.

A phrase often attributed to Trotsky (probably wrongly) seems apt here: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Rephrased: you may not be interested in a Clash of Civilizations, but a Clash of Civilizations is interested in you. If we don’t awaken to that reality, we are destined to be the losers in that clash.

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September 12, 2015

Let Vlad Have His Victory, and Hope He Pays Dearly For It

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:07 pm

The last few days have seen a frenzy of outrage at Russia’s reinforcement of Assad in Syria, including the deployment of naval infantry at some bases in the country. As someone with a solid nine years of writing to establish my anti-Putin cred, I can still say that I don’t see what the fuss is about.

Russia has long propped up Assad. This latest activity is a continuation of that policy, and is driven by Assad’s deteriorating position. Since Assad is going down, Putin feels compelled to step up.

The intervention is limited. The very fact that naval infantry is involved indicates its limited nature. Dismissing Michael Weiss’s hyperventilating about these being Putin’s “Dirty War Forces”, and focusing on military realities, Russian naval infantry has little combat power, and very little offensive capability. It can seize and defend ports and airfields, and carry out some commando-type direct action operations. And that’s about it. A low-endurance, low-firepower, light force not suited for grinding ground combat in a large theater like Syria. It is there to defend ports and airfields that will be used for resupply and perhaps to intensify the air campaign against the anti-Assad forces.

The targets will in the main not be Isis. Other jihadi groups pose a more serious threat to Assad, and that is who he (and the Russians) will focus on. Indeed, by complicating air operations, Russian presence will impede the US campaign (such as it is) against Isis.

The main reason for the outrage at the Russian action is that it aids Assad, and Assad is a very bad man.

Yes, he is. And the time to do something about him is long past. Four years past. Three years at the low end. But Obama and the rest of the west harrumphed and said that Assad must go, but did nothing. Red lines were drawn, and trespassed, with no consequence. Since then, the war in Syria has descended into an apocalyptic battle between Assad and a mind-numbing array of psychotic, murderous jihadi groups: Assad’s enemies are very, very bad men too. (Even if Assad’s overthrow had been engineered in 2011 or early 2012, it is doubtful that any good would have come with it, given Obama’s and Europe’s neuralgia to securing the peace in the aftermath of the toppling of a dictator. See, for instance, Libya.)

Now it is too late to do anything to stem the holocaust. Regardless of who “wins”, the aftermath will be a bacchanal of sectarian slaughter.  And since stalemate is the most likely outcome, no one will win, and a bacchanal of grinding slaughter will occur anyways.

When questioned about Russia’s intervention, Obama recycled one of his tiresome memes, this one in the Putin-is-swimming-against-the-tide-of-history vein. He said the Russian effort is doomed to failure. This meme is quite convenient in that it relieves him of  any responsibility to do anything: history will take care of it! Given that at this time there is nothing that can really be done to prevent Syria’s descent into the abyss, and based on form, whatever Obama does is likely to make it worse, this is probably a good thing.

That aside, the issue becomes how do you define failure? With sufficient commitment of resources, Putin can likely ensure that Assad can maintain a rump state on the Syrian coast, and provide Putin a foothold in the Middle East. That’s enough for Putin.

As for vanquishing jihadi groups, let alone Isis, Putin couldn’t care less. Putin can realistically achieve his ambitions, and if he does, it is unlikely to have any material impact on US interests.  The effort is not doomed to failure, understood from Putin’s perspective, and the US should be rather indifferent to whether it succeeds or not.

Indeed, since Russian involvement is unlikely to have any effect on the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe, but will be a drain on already strained Russian resources, it could well be a plus for the US. Why should we care if Putin perpetuates his Syrian ulcer? Indeed, a cynical realpolitik type would probably conclude that we should stand aside and let an already struggling Putin throw his scarce resources into a battle where stalemate is the best that can be achieved. As Napoleon said: “Don’t interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” A Putin stuck in a Syrian quagmire is less able to make mischief elsewhere.

Seriously, if perpetuating Assad’s rule over a wrecked Syria is victory, what would defeat look like? If that’s how Putin wants to fritter away his limited capabilities, so be it. It won’t make the carnage in Syria any worse, and doesn’t injure US interests. Let Vlad have his victory, and hope he pays dearly for it.


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