Changing US-Mideast Relations — Turkey’s Hot and Cold Running Erdoğan

By Jay Holmes

During the past twelve years, US-Turkey relations have been in a state of flux. Statements from Ankara and Washington D.C. to the Western media have been almost habitually optimistic, but the reality beneath the rhetoric has proven problematic for both nations. For the West, the rise to power of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan and his pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party has introduced complications in the previously stable US-Turkey relationship.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Image by Govt. of Chile, wikimedia commons.

 

As compared to earlier Turkish leaders, such as Abdullah Gül, the outspoken Erdoğan has demonstrated less finesse when dealing with Western leaders. In his three terms as Prime Minister and now as the President of Turkey, Erdoğan has represented himself as an agent for change. Precisely what sort of change Erdoğan represents is not so easy to identify.

Erdoğan is a case study in contradictions.

Turkey has been moving toward economic integration with the European Community for over a decade, and Erdoğan openly supports this. He’s counting on European markets to provide the cash that will satisfy the “development” aspect of his Justice and Development Party platform. Yet, in spite of his desperate need to bring Turkey into the European Community, he simultaneously sees himself as leading Turkey into a leadership position among Islamic nations.

These two positions are not realistically or mutually sustainable. The values, standards, and laws that are central to European Community membership are not compatible with the values, standards, and laws of most Islamic nations.

One of Erdoğan’s dilemmas is his relationship with Iran.

Iran, unlike Turkey, is a Shia nation with a radical Shia theocracy. Therefore, it might seem a simple choice for Erdoğan to openly oppose Iran and Iranian ambitions in Syria and Iraq. However, Iran is Turkey’s second largest export customer. Iran also provides Turkey with about 35% of its oil supplies. Instead of being at odds, these two countries have fostered closer relations in recent years.

The rise of a democratic reform movement in Syria followed by the birth of the ISIS cancer presents Turkey with obvious security risks. It also presents Turkey with a golden opportunity to assume a leadership role in the fight against ISIS at a time when Turkey so desperately wants membership in the European Community.

In light of this golden opportunity, one might envision coalition air attacks being conducted from Turkish air bases, which are ideally located near the Syrian border. One might even expect the Turkish Air Force to take part in those raids. However, one would be quite mistaken. While Erdoğan has loudly demanded and received prompt NATO protection in the past, he refused to allow US and European air forces to conduct raids against ISIS from Turkish bases. For apparent diplomatic reasons, the US and its allies have downplayed their frustration with Turkey over this and several other issues concerning ISIS.

Another contradiction in Turkish policies is Erdoğan’s changing relationship with the Kurds. While most Kurds see themselves as being one people in need of an independent homeland, Turkey views them as three distinct groups.

The first group is the Kurds within Turkey. In order to enter the European Union, Turkey has been under pressure from Europe to improve its stance on human rights. Erdoğan and many Turks see the Kurds within Turkey as enemies of Turkish culture and a challenge to Turkish nationalism. In order to gain entry to the European Community, Turkey has changed some of the laws that discriminated against Kurdish Turks, but Turkey’s relationship with other Kurds remains more complex.

The second group of Kurds resides to the east of Turkey in Iraq. From Erdoğan’s point of view, they are “our dear Kurdish friends to the east.” The central feature of those particular Kurds that makes them dear to Erdoğan is the oil reserves in their region. Perhaps I oversimplify. It’s not just the oil. There’s gas, as well.

 

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014 Image by Voice of America, public domain.

Kurdish refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Nov. 19, 2014
Image by Voice of America, public domain.

 

The third group of Kurds is in Syria. Many of these Kurds previously resided in Turkey, but they escaped to Syria to avoid oppression by the Turkish government. While practicing to pretend to love Kurds in Iraq, Erdoğan is hosting 200,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey. These Kurds have no oil and no gas to sell to Turkey, and so to Erdoğan, they are only a problem.

Removing ISIS from Syria would be a simple solution to the refugee problem. However, when ISIS attacked Kobani, Syria, on the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey refused to allow the US and other coalition members to supply the Kurdish resistance fighters in Kobani through Turkey. In Erdoğan’s mind, Kurdish control of part of Syria represents a threat to Turkey. Erdoğan fears that the Kurds will one day do to Turkey what Turkey has done to the Kurds.

The US grew tired of negotiating with Erdoğan and resorted to airdropping supplies to the Kurdish fighters. In spite of Erdoğan’s opposition to US assistance to the Kurds, the Kurdish resistance fighters were able to drive ISIS from Kobani.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobani, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

One particularly nasty rumor that surfaced during the battle of Kobani is that members of the Turkish army supplied ISIS with ammunition during the battle. Another serious allegation against Turkey is that it may have been supporting ISIS affiliated rebels in Libya.

Turkey denies those allegations, but they cannot deny that a Turkish-born ISIS commander, Emrah Çaçan , is being treated in a Turkish hospital after being wounded in Kobani. At the same time, Turkey is prosecuting a Kurdish-Turkish medical student named Esra Yakar for providing volunteer medical treatment in Kobani.

Esra left school to volunteer as a physician in Kobani. She was badly wounded there, and with the promise of better treatment, she was taken to a hospital in Turkey. Her Turkish doctor requested that she receive advanced care by eye specialists, but he was ignored. She then lost the use of her right eye. After she was finally transferred to a hospital in Ankara, Esra Yakar was ordered out of her hospital bed by police, arrested, and thrown in jail. Though she was released a few days later, she is still awaiting a trail date on April 30. Apparently, Erdoğan and his government consider anyone that gives medical treatment to Kurdish fighters to be criminals, yet they are happy to give medical care to a well-known terrorist.

To be clear, not everyone in Turkey supports Erdoğan’s pro-ISIS behavior.

The medical community in Turkey is outraged by what was done to Esra Yakar and has lodged complaints and petitions on her behalf. Unfortunately, the opposition in Turkey counts for less each day since Erdoğan’s government has stifled the press and used the police and intelligence services to crush any opposition to his rule.

So why is Erdoğan so willing to defy his Western “allies”? Why would the European Community seriously consider Turkey’s application when Turkey has so clearly rejected all of the European Community’s shared values?

In large measure, the answer is oil and gas.

Turkey is serving as a major conduit for oil from Russia, Central Asia, and Iraq. Turkey must import most of the oil and gas that it consumes, and if the Justice and Development Party is to deliver on its “development” promises, it needs even more oil and gas to do so.

 

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline -- only one of many through Turkey. Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

Kirkuk-Ceyhan Oil Pipeline–only one of many through Turkey.
Image by Amirki, wikimedia commons.

 

Although Turkey has none of its own gas and oil to sell to Europe, it collects lucrative fees on each barrel of oil or cubic yard of gas that flows through its pipelines or transfers through Turkish ports. At a time when Russia’s trans-Ukraine oil and gas pipelines are under threat because of its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Europe will likely remain quiet about whatever Erdoğan does as long as he keeps allowing that oil and gas to keep flowing across Turkey.

And what will the US do?

For the moment, the US administration has decided to keep pretending that Erdoğan is an ally to the US and NATO. Elections in Turkey are scheduled to take place in June. Whether or not the throttled opposition can manage a victory remains to be seen.

The US will not be interested in harming European allies by slowing the transit of oil and gas across Turkey to European markets. My guess is that, if Erdoğan and his party remain in power, the US will begin to disregard Turkish interests while continuing to pretend that Turkey is an ally.

If the Justice and Development Party loses the next elections in Turkey, Turkey will likely end up with a more secular-leaning government, and it will abandon its fantasies of friendship with Iran and ISIS.

Until that happens, we cannot expect any real improvement in US-Turkey relations.

 

 

The Changing Face of US — Mid-East Relations, Part One

By Jay Holmes

The cancerous growth of ISIS across Syria and Iraq since 2014 both exacerbates and illuminates a series of changes in US-Middle East relations. The most crucial and obvious of these changes is to the relationships between the US and Iraq, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey.

 

Kurdish YPG fighting in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015. Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

Kurdish YPG fighters in Kobane, Feb. 4, 2015.
Image by Voice of America, wikimedia commons.

 

The simplest case to review from the whirlwind of US foreign policy transformations is the relationship between the US and Iraq.

When ISIS rolled into Iraq, the US-financed and Iraqi-led Iraqi Army collapsed anywhere ISIS appeared or threatened to appear. Only the lightly armed, poorly supplied Kurds halted the tide of ISIS terror. The much better armed, well-financed Iraqi Army proved to be an embarrassment to themselves and to the US administration that had overseen their creation.

The US had, until then, pursued a policy of pretending that their extravagantly well-financed “friend,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, was capable of leading a democratic government in Iraq. He never was. Many observers had long felt that Maliki was not capable of leading anything other than a self-promotion campaign. Perhaps it was that particular resemblance to Western politicians that caused some in the US government to mistake Maliki as a functioning politician as opposed to a common circus clown.

 

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki Image by US government, public domain.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki
Image by US government, public domain.

 

The collapse of the Iraqi Army leadership in response to the ISIS invasion forced the US to stop pretending that Maliki was anything like a “leader.” At the urging of the US, Iraq formed a new government with the less laughable and more pragmatic Haider al-Abadi taking the lead as Prime Minister.

Students of world history will undoubtedly wonder what “US urging” looked like in this case. Was it something dark, complex, and difficult? Did it involve secret assassinations or long propaganda campaigns? No, and no. The US simply explained that without changes, next month’s check would not be arriving.

Rather than expose himself to the justifiable wrath that would soon be unleashed on him by the people of Iraq, Maliki took the pro-Maliki option and stepped down. Under new leadership, the Iraqi military is beginning to resemble a real military, and it appears that, with the assistance of the Kurds and US air support, it will begin to push ISIS out of Iraq. Whether or not this or any future US administration will have learned any long term lessons from the fantastically expensive Maliki debacle remains to be seen.

 

President Barack Obama Re: Nuclear talks with Iran ". . . according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon, if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal." Obama quote, Feb 9, 2015, joint news conference with German PM Angela Merkel. Image by Gage Skidmore, wikimedia commons.

President Barack Obama
Re: Nuclear talks with Iran
“. . . according to their Supreme Leader, it would be contrary to their faith to obtain a nuclear weapon, if that is true, there should be the possibility of getting a deal.”
Obama quote, Feb 9, 2015, joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Image by Gage Skidmore, wikimedia commons.

 

A less straightforward and more mystifying case can be seen in changing relations between the US and Iran.

As near as rational observers can determine, based on the information thus far available, the change has been minimal. Previously, US-Iran relations were a case of the US completely distrusting Iran and worrying about its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, but not doing much about it. In return, Iran responded by pretending to not want nuclear weapons while continuing to pretend to love or hate the rest of the world depending on the time of day.

In particular, Iran vacillates between claiming that it is no threat to Israel and claiming that it will annihilate Israel, Zionists, and those that sympathize with Zionists. Iran has not budged an inch from its decades of anti-Western/anti-Israel policies, yet the US is now oddly pretending to trust Iran. Iranian Shia Revolutionary Guards are now operating openly in Iraq with US acquiescence, and the White House now seems convinced that Iran isn’t really developing nuclear weapons after all. This one-sided rapprochement with Iran seems to be an unwise change in US foreign policy.

That leads us to another simple case: US-Israel relations.

The US government’s increasing friendliness toward Iran and the Israeli perception that the US has gone soft on terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah has complicated relations between the two allies. To understand the US alliance with Israel, one must pragmatically ignore personal sympathies and admit that the relationship has been rather one-sided for over half a century.

 

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menahem Begin at Camp David Accords Image from US National Archives, public domain.

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menahem Begin
at Camp David Accords
Image from US National Archives, public domain.

 

Confident of continued US financial and military support, Israel has never made much effort to consider US interests in the region when making foreign policy decisions. Israel has only been able to do this because successive US administrations consistently allowed it. The one major instance of Israel acceding to US pressure was the Camp David Accords. The result of the Accords has been of mixed value from Israel’s point of view. Israel now enjoys better relations with Egypt and Jordan, but Syria, the Palestinians, and Iranian-controlled Hezbollah remain at war with it.

From the US point of view, it often seems like we should expect more cooperation from Israel. From the Israeli point of view, it often seems like trusting in US idealism will lead to the death of Israel. In practical terms, the current tension in US-Israel relations changes almost nothing. It likely will require a change of US administration before US-Israel relations improve, and there is no guarantee that the next administration will seek closer relations with Israel. In the meantime, the US will continue to send the checks.

One if the more complex foreign policy cases in the Middle East is that of US-Egypt relations.

 

Egyptian Protestors, Tahrir Square, November, 2011. Image by Lilian Wagdy, wikimedia commons.

Egyptian Protestors, Tahrir Square, November, 2011.
Image by Lilian Wagdy, wikimedia commons.

 

 

The US relationship with Egypt since the Camp David Accords in 1978 has been fairly stable. The Mubarak dynasty did what it wanted, left Israel alone, and received lots of cash from the US. After the Mubarak dynasty collapsed in 2011, the Egyptian military took control of the country until elections were held in 2011. Some Middle Eastern potentates wondered why the US had so quickly abandoned “their guy” in Egypt. In any event, the US had little influence in the Egyptian version of the “Arab Spring” that lead to the “Mubarak Winter.”

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood won elections in Egypt, and Mohammed Morsi became the president. Morsi then quickly forgot his centrist moderate views and proceeded to try to consolidate power in his office while moving Egypt toward an Islamic theocracy. Many believed the elections were rigged, and As Morsi became more theocratic, many of his own supporters felt betrayed.

In 2013, Morsi was removed from office by the Egyptian military. Although he and his radical supporters had clearly lost the support of much of the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of Egypt, the US reacted negatively to what they considered a coup. As required by US law, coups prevent any US aid from continuing. The rule is often ignored. In the case of Egypt, the administration wavered, and most of the military and other financial aid to Egypt continued. Nonetheless, the US response to the Egyptian military’s removal of Morsi aggravated the Egyptian military and many civilians. From their point of view, they had saved Egypt from becoming the “next Iran.” Morsi had been positioning himself as increasingly anti-West, anti-US, and anti-Saudi, so most Egyptians expected the US to be glad for Morsi’s removal.

 

Egyptians Celebrate Morsi's Ouster Image from Voice of America, July 7, 2013, public domain.

Egyptians Celebrate Morsi’s Ouster
Image from Voice of America, July 7, 2013, public domain.

 

In 2014, military leader Abdul al-Sisi won the presidential election. In theory, US-Egypt relations became simpler again with democracy appearing to be functioning in Egypt. The US was happy to have the sticking points gone from US foreign aid, but al-Sisi now has little confidence in his friendship with the US.

One obvious and interesting symptom of the cooling of US-Egypt relations is that Egypt has signed an agreement with France for the purchaser of French-made fighters. Anyone in the US government that happens to be awake this week might ask why, at a time when US unemployment is so high, US tax dollars are going to purchase French-made fighters for the Egyptian Air Force.

At the same time, Egypt has now joined in in the fight against ISIS, though they have been clear that they are operating on their own and not as a part of a US coalition. As in the case of Israel, it will likely require a new US administration for US-Egypt relations to improve. Whether or not the next US administration will develop better relations with Egypt or wish to continue foreign aid to Egypt remains to be seen.

Next week in Part Two, we will look at the changing relationship of the US and Turkey.

Russia’s Ukraine Invasion–The Cost

By Jay Holmes

Precisely who is fighting in Ukraine depends upon whom you ask. When Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin speaks to non-Russians, he claims the Russian-speaking Ukrainian rebels are valiantly fighting to save Russian-speaking orphans, Jews, and senior citizens from the vicious onslaught of the Ukrainian government. When Putin speaks at home, he says the Jews are plotting with Americans to overthrow Ukraine. The Ukrainian government, along with most of the rest of the planet, takes a different view. According to Kiev, the violence in eastern Ukraine is instigated by, funded by, and in part fought by Russian security forces.

 

 

Base image for Putin meme  from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

Base image for Putin meme
from Agencia Brasil, wikimedia commons.

 

From Putin’s office in Moscow, the Russian invasion must seem like a great idea. His entire campaign platform—for the next campaign, last campaign, or any campaign—is his vision of returning Russia to the former glory that, in his view, it enjoyed during the Soviet era. Many Russians don’t have the same memory of enjoying that glory, or much of anything else during that time. Unfortunately, their memories and opinions no longer count for much since Putin has consolidated his power as a New Age Stalin.

A year ago, NATO-aligned nations warned Putin that the costs to Russia for invading Ukraine would far outweigh any nationalist glory that he might obtain.

In response, Putin confidently explained to Western journalists that Europe would suffer more than Russia would from any Western-imposed economic sanctions. At that time and to this day, Putin is denying that any such invasion has taken place, or that the economic sanctions are hurting Russia. They are.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s currency and its stock market have plummeted, and energy prices have dropped like a rock. Between that and the damaging economic sanctions that Putin had so confidently laughed off, the economic outlook for Russia is much less favorable today than it was a year ago.

Given Putin’s plans for increased military spending, the Russian taxpayers can expect decreased standards of living, accompanied by decreased civil rights.

The Russian people are already experiencing a decline in the standard of living in economic terms. Along with this, Putin is intolerant of dissent, the state controls the media, and political opponents are being jailed. Apparently, Putin’s visions of former Soviet glory come down to more centralized authority, fewer human rights, and the same economic hopelessness that made life so miserable in the old regime. Welcome to the “good old days.”

 

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

Euro to Russian Ruble Exchange Rate
Image by Gorgo, wikimedia commons.

 

For the most part, we in the West have measured the consequences of Putin’s folly in Ukraine in terms of damage to his economy, but there are deeper and less obvious consequences that will affect Russia for decades to come.

For starters, Putin grossly overstated his support at home for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The lack of real democracy in Russia means that Putin can pretend to ignore the unpopularity of his Ukrainian adventure, but even for a skillful, self- promoting dictator, there are limits to his power. I don’t know what those limits are. Unfortunately for Putin, he doesn’t know either. He would not like to discover them, as his increasing ruthlessness could mean that if he is toppled, he could end up with a retirement plan similar to that of his old pal Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

Another price Russia is paying is that a substantial percentage of its young professionals are immigrating to the West in the wake of Russians allowing Putin to install himself as a modern czar.

That brain drain is hurting Russia. In fact, if so many Russian engineers and scientists had not left their country during the last fifteen years, Russia might not have needed to pay France to build new amphibious assault carriers for them. And now, with the sanctions, Russia doesn’t get the carriers from France. Putin wants desperately to modernize and enlarge his military, but that modernization depends on Russian engineering and scientific capacity, which has has been badly damaged by the intellectual exodus resulting from his repressive policies at home.

Russia is also paying in the form of deteriorating relations with Scandinavian countries.

Last week, Sweden suggested to its partners in the Nordic Defense Cooperation that they do two things. First, that they raise the status of cooperation from the current minimal form by establishing an actual Nordic standing task force to deal with growing aggression from Russia. Second, that deeper military coordination and cooperation be extended beyond Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark to include Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

 

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

Nordic Defense Cooperation Countries
Image by S. Solberg J., wikimedia commons.

 

The bad news for Russia is that it didn’t take more than a few hours for the Nordic members to enthusiastically agree to Sweden’s suggestions. But that’s not all. Sweden has suggested that the combined force that they create should be available to integrate in NATO operations. So in effect, Putin has achieved what Western diplomats could not achieve with half a century of their best efforts–he has managed to get Sweden to join a Western alliance against Russia.

These developments are all consequences of Putin’s adventurism in the Ukraine, and they are all precisely the sorts of developments that Putin was hoping to avoid.

In an alternative scenario, Putin would be capable of seeing beyond 1986.

It is a view that would leave Russia without enemies in Europe. It would be a country where the aspirations of so many of its brightest young people would not include relocation to London or Paris. In that alternative paradigm, Russia could pick up a phone and ask Sweden if it could send a submarine to Swedish waters, and Sweden would say “yes,” because Russia would be a modern nation with a modern foreign policy and friendly relations with its neighbors.

That Russia would experience a better standard of living, greater scientific and cultural achievements, and far better national security. The NATO nations would be happier for it and would enjoy all the advantages of real cooperation between Russia and the West. But that’s the alternative paradigm and a view that Vladimir Putin will not entertain, because such a view would place the interests of the Russian people above his own desire for absolute political power.

The scope of Russia’s lost opportunities is spectacular to behold, but until new leadership arrives, Putin’s dingy Stalinist Cold War reality is all that we can expect for that country and its unfortunate neighbors. Proof that you can take the boy out of the Cold War, but you can’t always take the Cold War out of the boy.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Related Posts

France–At the Crossroads of Russia and NATO

How Putin is Having His Way with the West

Dances with Bears–The Putin/West Waltz

Ukraine in Crisis:  Vladimir Putin and the Power of Gas

Timeline of Ukrainian Turmoil–Part Two, 2001 – Present

It Didn’t Start Last Week–Timeline of Ukrainian Invasions

 

 

Why Over is NOT Over — Afghanistan

By Jay Holmes

With the “ISIS crisis” occupying the headlines in Europe and North America, the US and NATO military operations in Afghanistan have been all but forgotten in the media.

 

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province Image by Dept. of Defense.

US Marines patrolling poppy fields in Helmand Province
Image by Dept. of Defense.

 

On December 28, 2014, US President Obama announced that after thirteen years of combat, the longest war in US history, the war in Afghanistan, was ending. However, the president pointed out in the same speech that US forces would, in fact, remain in combat in Afghanistan.

The war that is “over” is not over.

To most accurately represent the President’s words from his December 28 speech, it is best that we offer a direct quote. The following is the entire fourth paragraph of President Obama’s speech:

“Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, and the Afghan people and their security forces continue to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country. At the invitation of the Afghan government, and to preserve the gains we have made together, the United States—along with our allies and partners—will maintain a limited military presence in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda. Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment of the United States to the Afghan people and to a united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation.” [emphasis added]

In attempting to interpret and understand the President’s intent in Afghanistan, I am left in the precarious position of trying to extract facts from a political speech.

In the above paragraph, we see the source of the “war is over, but not over” dilemma that the president and our troops at risk face in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the president and most Americans would love for peace to reign in Afghanistan, or at the very least, for Americans to no longer suffer the consequences of the complete lack of anything like peace in Afghanistan. While President Obama mentioned the sticky detail of the “remnants of al-Qaeda,” he failed to mention the larger obstacle to peace—namely, the Taliban and its dozens of local “taliclones” opposing peace and civilization in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s commitment to a “united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan” is in keeping with US political opinion, but is, unfortunately, not at all descriptive of the reality in Afghanistan as it was on December 28, 2014, nor as it is today.

We in the US find ourselves again in a dilemma that resembles President Lyndon Johnson’s view of the Viet Nam war. The war that Johnson saw, understood, and valiantly attempted to manage was not terribly similar to the war that actually occurred in Viet Nam. My guess is that in reality, President Obama understands Afghanistan better than his speech would indicate, so I assume that the speech was a political exercise rather than an expression of the president’s real view of Afghanistan.

He knows it’s not over.

While most of us in the US were glad to see the Afghan people conduct their first democratic election, that election, unfortunately, has not led to any sign of unity in the Afghan political system. Being ever the incurable optimist, I hasten to point out an interesting, though less noticed, phenomenon in Afghanistan. The young people of Afghanistan are learning to use social media, and judging from their correspondence, they are more practical, more civilized, more intelligent, and far more united than their elders. They have clearly expressed that they want a functioning democracy and won’t let tribal loyalties and factionalism get in their way.

In practical terms, it seems that we will have about 11,000 US forces in Afghanistan instead of the previously estimated 10,000. NATO will continue in its feeble efforts by maintaining 2,000 troops in Afghanistan to back up the usual idealistic and vague European political agenda.

Political speeches and media trends aside, what might we reasonably expect from Afghanistan?

My best guess is that any hope for civilization in Afghanistan resides with its not-yet-empowered youth. Too many of Afghanistan’s most educated people reside outside of Afghanistan, and most of them have no intention of returning home.

We have to consider that the ongoing national political schizophrenia in neighboring Pakistan will continue to allow various tali-brand bandits to wage war against the Afghan people.

The American public’s dwindling enthusiasm for paying the Afghan bills in blood and treasure, combined with the fact that most European nations have never been willing to contribute much more than rhetoric to the Afghan war, means that the US will remain in combat in Afghanistan as quietly as possible for another ten years. As the next generation of Afghan leaders gradually replaces the current gang of intellectually arthritic old men that currently fail to run their country, hope for a “united, secure, and sovereign Afghanistan” will finally become more than political dogma.

 

ISIS–Who Are the Players, and Where Do They Stand?

By Jay Holmes

This week, ISIS remains a major news item. For the sake of continuity, we will continue referring to them as ISIS, but be aware that, in recent weeks, they have acquired more aliases than the average Brooklyn mob goon.

 

ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

Since their defeat at the hands of the lightly armed but well organized Kurds of northern Iraq, ISIS has focused on training, recruiting, and re-establishing their local dominance in Syria. Even if ISIS were forced to retreat from all of Iraq, that would be of secondary importance to them as compared to maintaining their strongholds in Syria.

Where does Iraq stand?

The success of the Iraqi Kurds, with assistance from U.S. air support, was no surprise to anyone who knows or has studied the Kurds. It remains to be seen how well the Iraqi National Army will capitalize on the U.S. and allied airstrikes to recapture ISIS-held areas in their country. With Maliki no longer in charge in Iraq, and with so many Shia Iraqis rediscovering their long forgotten love of U.S. firepower, the ISIS offensive in Iraq is stalled for the moment.

If the new Iraqi government can deliver a closer approximation of “functioning government” than Maliki did, then Iraq should be able to eventually push ISIS forces out of their country. However, no amount of U.S. or anti-ISIS coalition airstrikes will push ISIS out of Iraq completely unless Iraqis take some responsibility for saving themselves by fielding a credible army and establishing and maintaining a functioning administration.

 

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush image by U.S. Navy, public domain

F/A-18E Super Hornet on Deck of U.S.S. George H.W. Bush
image by U.S. Navy, public domain

 

More recently, the U.A.E., Jordon, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar joined in coordinated airstrikes against ISIS bases and assets in their Syrian strongholds. Aircraft from Belgium and Denmark also joined in strikes in Iraq. Simultaneously, the U.S. stepped up aid to non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The trick is—and long has been—to assist the legitimate indigenous freedom fighters of Syria without accidentally funding and equipping ISIS or any “Ali come lately” ISIS wannabes.

What does ISIS mean to the Gulf States?

Fortunately, the Gulf States are now exercising more discretion in how they fund and arm anti-Assad groups in Syria. For most Gulf Sates, enemies of the Shia Iranians are their natural friends. In the case of ISIS, the supposed “friends” have become an even greater danger to their former benefactors in the Gulf than the danger presented by the Shia theocracy in Iran.

Even if all outside financing of ISIS were halted, and it pretty well has been, ISIS would not be bankrupt. For the last few months, they have skillfully built a strong economy based on violent tax collection, bank robbery, and oil sales. Note that the recent coalition airstrikes against ISIS included oil refineries as priority targets. Destroying ISIS oil export operations has the added advantage of making the Gulf States happy to participate in the air campaign. Anything that drives up oil prices is good news for the Gulf States.

 

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries September 24, 2014 image by Department of Defense, public domain

Map of coalition airstrikes on Syrian oil refineries
September 24, 2014
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

How do the airstrikes benefit the coalition members?

While ISIS bases are being destroyed, ISIS is less able to plan and conduct effective terrorist strikes against its enemies. In the ISIS reality, its enemies, real or imagined, can be roughly defined as the non-ISIS segment of the human population. If nothing else, we can appreciate that ISIS is consistent and predictable. If it lives, and it is not ISIS, they want it dead.

Where is France in all of this?

During the last week, France made a moderate effort at conducting independent airstrikes against ISIS. It is not in the nature of French politicians to place their troops, ships, or planes under foreign control, so French efforts might remain independent and somewhat uncoordinated with US-led airstrikes. It’s possible that the French Air Force and Navy are quietly receiving refueling support, reconnaissance, and intelligence from U.S. forces. If that is so, it’s best that it happen quietly so that French voters can view French airstrikes as being a strictly French affair. Call it “Operation Les Belles Artes” if you like. As long as the bombs drop on suitable ISIS targets, it doesn’t much matter who dropped them or which national anthem they were humming at the time.

What are our allies in the U.K. doing?

Having settled the critical question of Scottish secession, the U.K. government turned some attention back toward ISIS. David Cameron called for the U.K. to join in airstrikes against the group, and it has done so to a minimal degree.

How is Syria’s largest neighbor, Turkey, reacting to the “ISIS crisis”?

The Turkish position is somewhat complex. Turkish President Recep Erdogan can see both potential opportunities and potential disasters in the ISIS crisis, and Erdogan is highly skilled at envisioning potential disasters.

The potential benefit of ISIS to Turkey comes from the fact that ISIS hates Iran. The group has destabilized the already-pretty-unstable pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

 

Map of U.S. airstrike areas in Iraq image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

Map of airstrike areas in Iraq
image by JhonsJoe, CC3.0

 

One of the potential disasters is already manifesting itself in the form of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Turkey. Some of those refugees are Syrian Kurds, and Erdogan’s secret target number of Kurds in Turkey is zero. Rather than having more Kurds moving into Turkey, Erdogan would prefer to get rid of the independence-minded Kurds that are already there. And yet, these refugees are close cousins of the Iraqi Kurds that are willing to export oil to and through Turkey.

ISIS captured over forty Turkish diplomats during its summer blitzkrieg in Iraq. On most days in the ISIS universe, Turks are “filthy western lapdogs.” Yet, rather than staging the usual “ISIS entertainment hour” publicly broadcasted beheadings of their Turkish prisoners, ISIS released them. Why? Western observers are asking what deal Erdogan might have made with the devil to secure the safe return of his diplomats. My suspicion is that any deal was likely brokered through Erdogan’s friends in Qatar and might have involved oil. However, in truth, Turkey needs ISIS to be defeated nearly as urgently as Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria do.

The view from my kitchen window here in the U.S. is different from the view from Turkey. I cannot see ISIS from my house. Erdogan, on the other hand, sees ISIS standing right past his border crossings with Syria. He needs the Sunni fundamentalists vanquished far more than we do, but when we decide that ISIS has been suppressed enough for our liking, we will stop bombing them, and they will still be across the border from Turkey.

Given the basic ISIS tenet that everyone outside of their direct control is their mortal enemy, it’s likely that any deals that Erdogan might have made with the devil will be null and void once the bombs stop falling on ISIS heads. As he so often does, Erdogan missed the easy play. ISIS will never be a friend to Turkey. In the long run, Erdogan further damaged Turkey’s relationship with its supposed NATO allies without obtaining any long-term benefit for his country.

 

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp image by Department of Defense, public domain

U.S. Marines constructing Kurdish refugee camp
image by Department of Defense, public domain

 

What is the Syrian point of view?

The Assad regime is grateful for the tactical windfall being delivered by its distant enemies against the closer and more immediately threatening ISIS forces in Syria and Lebanon. However, Assad and his gang cannot express any happiness with the U.S. or its allies. From the Syrian point of view, while ISIS is a threat to the Assad regime, once ISIS is substantially defeated, the Assad gang would be the next obvious target.

So what can we see in the crystal ball?

My best guess is that Gulf States will remain willing to cooperate just long enough to save themselves from ISIS. As the casualties mount for ISIS, the ISIS leaders will try to understand why their We Will Kill You All publicity campaign has failed them. If their current gangster-in-chief and/or enough of his closest pals are killed, ISIS might transform itself into a more publicity-friendly criminal enterprise and survive under some new name with a slightly less visible agenda of hate and destruction. When the dust from the bombs settles, the region will still be a hellish mess, but we in the West might succeed in avoiding or blunting major terrorist strikes by ISIS. If we can do so without investing more ground forces in the region, then we can declare a victory before moving on to the next “catastrophe du jour.”

Bad News for ISIS

By Jay Holmes

On June 29, 2014, after gaining control over large swaths of northern Iraq, ISIS declared itself to be a caliphate.

Its intention is to expand this caliphate from Morocco to Malaysia and Indonesia. ISIS “Caliph,” is supreme leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi—we’ll call him Abu. Abu made it clear that ISIS considers itself to be the one true Islamic authority for all of the world’s Islamic population. He called on all the world’s Muslims to declare their allegiance to ISIS and to obey his dictates. Fortunately, most of the world’s estimated 1.6 billion Muslims show no interest in bowing down to Abu. However, while Abu’s lack of majority support might confine his greater caliphate dreams to the fantasy realm, it will not keep ISIS from creating more misery in the real world.

 

ISIS logo public domain, wikimedia commons

ISIS logo
public domain, wikimedia commons

 

If you have been following the news and find yourself unable to draw clear conclusions about ISIS’s impact and the world’s response to it, don’t feel bad. The media’s interpretations and opinions on ISIS vary even more widely than what we saw during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even well-respected analysts are struggling to achieve much consensus in their evaluations. Disliking ISIS is simple. Predicting the impacts of ISIS and defining effective responses requires a bit more work.

Reading the basics of ISIS history is a tedious challenge, even for CIA analysts that have been on the case for several years.

ISIS’s terror group pedigree is based on political incest and bastardry conducted at a frenetic pace. While ISIS is consistent in hating everyone that is not their brand of Sunni Muslim, ISIS’s best friend this morning is their avowed enemy this afternoon and their holy martyr tomorrow. Some of the rapid changes in alliances, friendships, and death lists are based on ruthless pragmatic opportunism. However, that alone can’t quite explain all of their instability. The Taliban are known to be opiate consumers, and many members of Al-Qaeda have a taste for hashish and alcohol. Perhaps ISIS is buying its “energy supplements for jihad” from Walter White. If they are not consuming meth, they are at least faking the symptoms quite well.

I am certain that publishing this article will have me near the top of the ISIS death list, but only for the briefest moment. In the ISIS universe, life is a rich pageantry of endless top priority targets that blossom with each new moment. In its loud and colorful world, hysteria is its own reward.

Western responses to ISIS have been yawningly predictable.

In the USA, Republican loyalists blame Obama, and Democrat loyalists blame Bush. In Europe, the responses range from “Blame it on America” to blaming it on whichever national political party they least like. The world is always so simple for party loyalists. It might be hard for some Americans and Europeans to imagine, but sometimes things actually do occur in the world without the USA or Europe being the cause.

ISIS has a complicated history, but it has some consistent characteristics. Such as, ISIS is barbaric and ruthlessly violent. In fact, it is so violent that it had a falling out with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda terrorist leaders considered ISIS to be too violent and indiscriminate in its killing of fellow Sunnis. From Al-Qaeda’s point of view, the worst brutality should be reserved for non-Sunnis. That argument with Al-Qaeda, combined with generous funding from Gulf State billionaires, resulted in ISIS’s founding fathers abandoning their Al-Qaeda affiliation and setting their sights on creating their own world order.

A small portion of ISIS’s brutality toward the Yazd minority in northern Iraq has now been well documented by the media. What the media and the United Nations have not covered well is the ongoing genocide against Christian groups and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.

For several months, ISIS has conducted a systematic genocide against Christian communities in Syria. Thousands of Christians have been raped—boys and girls alike. Torture and beheadings are daily occurrences in ISIS’s war against Christianity. Christians represent a greater threat to ISIS because they are far more numerous and more cosmopolitan than the Yazd community.

ISIS’s wealthy Gulf State supporters have been aware of this genocide since it began, but they continued to fund the group.

Now that ISIS has succeeded in presenting a credible threat to the Iraqi government, some of their Gulf State patrons are having second thoughts. Funding genocide is all well and good until they have to greet the genocidal maniacs at their own doorsteps.

A few months ago, a decrease in funding from the Gulf States would have been a crisis for ISIS. Now, it hardly matters. Intelligence estimates indicate that ISIS has stolen nearly half a billion dollars from banks in the cities that they now control. As the badly-led Iraqi Army melted away during ISIS’s advance across northern Iraq, ISIS also captured ammunition, tanks, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft weapons, trucks, radios and other assorted military equipment. ISIS is in better material condition than they ever have been before.

But it’s not all good news for ISIS.

While bribing and intimidating Iraqi Army leaders into desertion was easy, ISIS discovered that the Kurds are not quite as eager to desert their positions or surrender. As the Kurds brought the ISIS advance to a halt, and the Yazd genocide became the latest cause célèbre in the West, Western governments felt a ground swell of support for action in Iraq. After long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s no simple task to get the jaded and bankrupted Western public interested in committing to action in a seemingly hopeless cause like Iraq, but ISIS has succeeded in doing just that.

The Kurds are, in some ways, unique in Iraq. Unlike other Iraqi communities, the Kurds have never seemed hopeless, and they have a track record of having delivered on the agreements that they have made with Western governments. The credibility that the Kurdish community has established with Westerners makes it easier for Europeans and Americans to accept delivering military and humanitarian aid to them. Western aid to the Kurds is clearly bad news for ISIS.

The bad news for ISIS doesn’t stop there. The group can no longer count on the feeble and inept government of Prime Minister Maliki to keep Iraq weak and fractured. Maliki is gone. He resigned on August 14. It’s possible he imagined that the West and most Iraqis were about to arrange an unfortunate accident for him, and that his Iranian pals were no longer going to be able to keep him safe.

The infamously corrupt and incredibly incompetent Maliki has been replaced by Haider al Abaidi. Al Abaidi will not remind anyone of George Washington. He in no way resembles Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is not a savior, and he will not resolve all of Iraq’s problems, but unlike Maliki, he will not do his determined best to alienate most of the Iraqi population. This translates into more cooperation with the West and, more importantly, more Iraqis cooperating with each other. That’s also bad news for ISIS.

In a German blitzkrieg-like fashion, ISIS has moved quickly and deliberately. The group stripped away much of its soldiers and equipment from its battle in Syria to conduct its offensive in Iraq. Now that ISIS is facing counterattack by American-backed Kurds and a better led Iraqi Army, it cannot shift its troops back to Syria. Assad’s Syrian Army and native Syrian rebels are in a position to take advantage of ISIS’s force realignment to Iraq, and they have begun to do so. Assad has celebrated some small victories and recaptured territory from ISIS. If the native Syrian rebels can find enough support, they might now establish a solid position in Syria.

ISIS is enjoying looking at its map of its new “Caliphate.” If it looks a little more closely, it will notice that it has maneuvered itself into a three front war, and two of their principal enemies are rapidly improving. More bad news for ISIS.

Many Western viewers have seen a photo of an ISIS wannabe holding up an ISIS flag in front of the White House. That’s as close as an ISIS flag will come to flying over the White House. Before ISIS can even establish a real caliphate across Islam, it will need to do two things. It will need to destroy its growing list of enemies in the Middle East, and it will need to competently administer the territory that it now holds. I doubt that it will do either.

Here is my best guess:

ISIS will not be swept aside quickly. It will continue its skilled manipulation of on-line media platforms. It also might conduct successful terrorist attacks against the West, even as it loses ground in Syria and the Middle East. However, now that ISIS has succeeded in alienating most of the planet, it will eventually be reduced to the marginalized position from whence it spawned.

Another Day, Another Battle–The Israeli Counter-Attack on Hamas

By Jay Holmes

In April of 2014, Hamas, which governs the Palestinian Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which governs the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, agreed to make peace and form a unity government. Predictably, Israel reacted negatively to the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Israel viewed it as a victory for radicalism and terrorism within the Palestinian camp.

 

Woman holding Hamas flag. Unaltered image by Kimdime.

Woman holding Hamas flag.
Unaltered image by Kimdime.

 

The governments of China, the EU, India, Turkey, and the USA joined the UN in agreeing to negotiate with the new Hamas-Fatah unity government. These countries and organizations announced their agreement to work with the Hamas-Fatah union in spite of the fact that Hamas has not waivered from its stated central goal of annihilating Israel and converting all of Palestine, including what is now Israel, into a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist state. This was particularly odd on the part of the EU and the USA, since those governments had previously been very clear in declaring Hamas to be a terror organization.

After the EU and the USA announced their acceptance of the new Hamas-Fatah union, Israel became less receptive toward EU/USA brokered peace negotiations. From the Israeli point of view, the EU and the USA could easily afford to trust the new Palestinian unity government because rockets from Gaza and terrorist attacks originating in Gaza and the West Bank would not be targeting either of them. The new Palestinian government took power on June 2, 2014.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped from the West Bank. At the same time, the number of Hamas’s rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel increased sharply. The Israeli Air Force responded to the increased rocket attacks by launching air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza.

 

Israel Defense Forces searching for kidnapped teens near Hebron. Unaltered image by Israel Defense Forces.

Israel Defense Forces searching for kidnapped teens near Hebron.
Unaltered image by Israel Defense Forces.

 

Hamas did not claim the kidnappings of the three teens. The culpability for that action lies with Hamas’s affiliated terror group, Qawasameh. However, not wanting to miss an opportunity to pursue its favorite pastime of shooting itself in the foot, Hamas loudly applauded the kidnappings of the three Israeli children. Evidence indicates that Hamas had supplied weapons and cash to Qawasameh to conduct these kidnappings and murders.

The kidnappings and Hamas’s gloating about them have served to silence the voices of reconciliation within Israel. On June 30, the dead bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teens were found near Hebron. The Israeli government came under increasing pressure from its citizens to act against the kidnappers. In July, Israel rounded up Hamas leaders and some of their affiliated terrorist pals in the West Bank.

On July 17, Israel and Hamas agreed to a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire for the purpose of delivering food and medicine to Gaza. After the ceasefire ended, the Israeli Army entered Gaza with the stated purpose of destroying tunnels that served Hamas and other terrorist groups as weapons depots and passages for terrorist raids into Israel from Gaza. The Israelis claim that they found evidence indicating plans to use the tunnels for a massive, coordinated terrorist strike against Israel in September of this year.

 

 

On August 1, the EU and the USA announced that they had negotiated a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire to assist the thousands of wounded Palestinians in Gaza. About an hour into the ceasefire, Hamas fighters demonstrated their usual lack of concern for the Palestinians in Gaza by attacking Israeli Army forces and negating the ceasefire.

On August 3, the Israeli Army announced that it had destroyed most of the known Hamas tunnel networks, and that it had withdrawn from most of Gaza. Two days later, the Israeli Army completed its withdrawal from all of Gaza.

As soon as Israel withdrew from Gaza, another 72-hour ceasefire took effect. This time, Hamas did not overtly violate the ceasefire. After the ceasefire ended, Hamas again launched rockets from Gaza into Israel, and the Israelis resumed shelling Gaza.

Thanks to Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defense system, most of the Hamas rockets did not reach targets in inhabited areas of Israel. Thanks to the Iron Dome system and Israel’s well-organized emergency medical facilities, the fatality rate during this summer’s fighting in Gaza have thus far amounted to less than one hundred Israeli deaths, but approximately 1,800 Palestinian deaths. Israel claims that between forty and fifty percent of the Palestinian deaths have been Hamas and affiliated combatants. Hamas claims that nearly all of the Palestinian deaths have been innocent civilians.

In Gaza, at least three UN facilities have been hit. The assumption has been that they were hit by Israel, but Israel points out that they never target UN aid locations or shelters, and Israel says it suspects that Hamas is responsible for at least some of the damage to UN locations. The TV coverage of grief stricken refugees weeping over dead children in UN shelters has been a public relations disaster for Israel, but what actually occurred and who is responsible for the tragedies has not yet been determined. If evidence indicates that Israel is not responsible for the attacks on UN locations, it will still be too late to prevent the public relations damage.

Interestingly, the Arab nations have not loudly condemned Israeli military action. This might be because many of Hamas’s usual allies in Kuwait and Qatar are experiencing second thoughts about instigating radical Islamic movements as they watch ISIS Islamic fundamentalists rape and pillage their way across neighboring Iraq. Most of the condemnation of Israel has come from the UN and from the West.

 

Apartment yard destroyed by Hamas rocket Unaltered image by The Israel Project.

Apartment yard destroyed by Hamas rocket
Unaltered image by The Israel Project.

 

Since Hamas’s consolidation of power in Gaza in 2005, Western nations have almost completely stopped economic aid to Gaza. At the same time, Israel has tried to maintain an effective blockade of Gaza to prevent increased imports of rocket parts and other weapons from Iran. It is at times amusing to listen to various Iranian government spokesmen contradict each other as they brag about giving rockets, improved rocket technology, and other weapons to Hamas, while simultaneously denying sending Hamas rockets and weapons. I imagine that Iranian government foreign policy meetings must resemble a Three Stooges episode or a Marx Brothers movie.

In any event, while the rockets continue to fly into Israel from Gaza, the Israelis aren’t laughing. The exchange of fire between Hamas and their affiliates in Gaza and the Israeli Army continues. Early Sunday morning, August 10, Hamas rejected peace talks in Egypt. Then, around 8 A.M. Washington, D.C. time, Hamas announced that it is willing to participate in peace talks in Egypt. It could well be by the time this article is published that Hamas will have changed their minds three more times.

So what does this all mean for Israel and the Palestinian people in the near future? Sadly, my best guess is that although Hamas might be temporarily motivated to lower the level of fighting, they will still maintain their despotic rule in Gaza while they attempt to improve and replenish their rocket inventory with help from Iran. The Israelis will try to improve their very expensive Iron Dome system while simultaneously trying to improve their intelligence on terrorist activity by Hamas and their affiliate gangs in Gaza. The Israeli people will continue to live with the tension that has always been pervasive in Israel, and the civilians in Gaza will continue to suffer under the miserable administration that Hamas and Fatah have thus far delivered.

For the rest of the world, I would not recommend a vacation to either Gaza or Israel right now. Tragically, millions of children caught in the middle of the conflict don’t have that choice.

Why Putin Has His Way with Europe

By Jay Holmes

This past February, Russian Dictator Vladimir Putin ordered his intelligence and military services to invade Crimea in the Eastern Ukraine. Western governments loudly condemned Russia’s aggression, but practical responses have been limited to minor economic sanctions and visa restrictions against major Russian supporters of Putin.

In predictable fashion, Putin responded with symbolic bans on U.S. involvement in Russian energy development. Neither Western responses nor Putin’s counter-measures count for much in the short term. However, in the long term, Russia wants the oil and gas fracking technology that U.S. companies dominate. To get that, Putin is betting that the West will forget about Russian aggression in Ukraine as quickly as it forgot about the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

 

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008 Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Poster on Rustaveli Avenue, Tblisi, Georgia, 2008
Wikimedia Commons, public domain

 

Thus far, there are striking similarities between the Georgian and Ukrainian invasions.

In 2008, Georgia, like the Ukraine of 2014, was expanding its economic and cultural ties with the West while reducing its trade with Russia. That year, Putin quickly seized Georgian territories where there was a significant Russian speaking population. Then he moved more military assets to the Georgian frontier than Russia needed for the intended operations. The propaganda campaign projected an image of Putin’s wild popularity across all segments of Russian society and total approval of his aggression in Georgia. Georgia seemed to be on the brink of complete absorption by Russia.

The West enacted economic sanctions and demanded that Russia withdraw. Putin then announced that his army was withdrawing from Georgia, but, in fact, his army enforced an annexation of Georgian territory. Once it appeared that the crisis was de-escalated, the West quickly rescinded the economic sanctions. Putin got what he wanted and suffered nothing for forcibly annexing part of Georgia.

In Ukraine, we see Putin once again employing this same basic strategy that worked so well in 2008. The Ukrainian people made it clear that they did not want closer economic and political alliances with Russia in exchange for promised Russian financial aid. Protests mounted, and the Russian backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Russia responded by sending special forces to invade and seize Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

In response, the West enacted mild sanctions against Russia.

Putin deployed more Russian military assets to the Ukrainian border areas than were needed to take the Crimea and then he asked for and received permission from the Russian parliament to invade all of Ukraine. The propaganda campaign in the Russian media created an image of a nation of one mind and soul ready to invade and annex more Ukraine territory, or even the entire country.

 

Canstock 2014 Bear Market

image from Canstock

 

Underneath Russia’s bravado, we saw the Russian stock market take a major nose dive.

This forced Putin to use ten billion dollars in Russia’s reserves to prop up the Russian currency and avert a credit crisis. Because Putin was certain that the sanctions were temporary, he likely predicted the economic impact of Ukraine invasion and calculated it as a bargain price for the purchase of Crimea.

As the situation in Ukraine appeared to be escalating beyond the Crimea, the U.S., Poland, and Romania asked their European allies to agree to increased sanctions. Most of the E.U. opposed the increased sanctions, so nothing meaningful happened. It became apparent to Ukrainians that many of their European neighbors were not willing to lose profitable business agreements with Russia in order to support them.

About thirty-three percent of Europe’s fossil fuel imports are from Russia. If we add in the ISIS crisis in Iraq, the energy picture has to concern European governments. Even those nations that do not directly import gas or oil from Russia would see steep price increases if Russian fuel imports stopped. That reality undoubtedly figures enormously into Europe’s unwillingness to support Ukraine by enacting meaningful economic sanctions against Russia. Conversely, with fracking operations now in place and growing in the U.S., the U.S. is becoming a significant gas exporter, it is easier for the U.S. to risk economic boycotts against Russia.

One of the most visible and controversial touchstones of the economic conflict of interest for the Western world regarding Russia’s Ukrainian invasion is a pending ship building contract between France’s STX shipyard in Saint-Nazaire and the Russian Navy.

In 2011, the Russian Navy contracted and partially funded the building of four high-tech amphibious warfare ships. With the Russian annexation of Georgian territory fresh in their minds, France’s Western allies voiced opposition to the deal because most Western governments did not want to improve Russia’s ability to invade their neighbors. One ship is near completion, and the second is partially constructed. The first ship is due for delivery in October of this year.

 

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

Shipyard at Saint-Nazaire
Unaltered image by Pouick44, wikimedia commons

 

In addition to four powerful amphibious warfare ships, Russia will gain significant upgrades in electronic warfare systems from the French equipment installed on those ships. France benefits in that the one billion, six hundred million Euro payment from Russia fuels approximately a thousand French jobs. With France’s continuing high unemployment rates, the Paris government is reluctant to abandon the work and refund Russia its deposit.

The U.S., Poland, the U.K., and Ukraine appropriately and frankly criticized France’s ship deal with Russia. Predictably, Putin responded by saying that he looks forward to placing large orders for more naval ships from France once these ships are delivered.

On June 30, 2014, four hundred Russian sailors arrived in Saint-Nazaire for training on the shipboard systems. If and when the Russian sailors are given full access to the newer military systems and technologies, France will have allowed major warfare technologies to transfer to Putin’s navy at a time when Eastern Europeans are frantically trying to improve their security against Russian aggression.

The U.S. has suggested one easy way out for France. Rather than lose the financial value of the contracts with Russia, it could lease the two ships already under construction to NATO to be employed by NATO’s Standing Force, possibly in the Black Sea.

Thus far, Europe has been ambivalent to that idea. If Europe can cooperate amongst itself and with the U.S. enough to prevent the transfer of the French naval warfare technology to Russia, it would be a major achievement for European cooperation and security, but it would not address the deeper underlying problems.

Europe is facing major economic problems and has been relying heavily on large doses of political P.R. driven denial.

Take the U.K. as a simple case. The U.K. is the largest producer of oil and the second-largest producer of natural gas in the European Union. Production from U.K. oil fields peaked around the late 1990s and has declined steadily since then. Domestic production of natural gas is also steadily declining. Although once a net exporter of natural gas, the U.K. now imports more natural gas from Norway each year. Norway is limited in how much and how fast it can increase its gas exports to the U.K. The U.K. is also importing oil from Russia. Soon, the U.K. will have to drastically cut its natural gas consumption or find more import sources. This likely means sharp price increases for gas consumers in the U.K.

Four days ago, I had a polite conversation about the U.K.’s energy needs with a respected economist from London. He assured me that, “We can get most of the gas that we need from Norway, and recent discoveries show that in the future we can get all the gas we need from fracking.” He was unconcerned about the U.K.’s current energy dilemma.

 

Unaltered image by Battenbrook wikimedia commons

Unaltered image by Battenbrook
wikimedia commons

 

Fracking comes with serious environmental concerns.

France and Romania have already outlawed the practice. In light of these concerns, how much fracking will occur in the U.K., and how fast can it can it become a reality? Not fast enough to avoid increased prices at the pump and increased vulnerability to Russian aggression.

The U.K. is just one example of how European nations must juggle conflicting priorities in dealing with both Russian aggression against Europe and the usual turmoil in the Middle East. The U.K.’s powerful E.U. partner Germany, following initial indignation, has been somewhat muted in condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Germany is the one Western European nation that is not on the fast track to bankruptcy, and it cannot afford to ignore its major trade agreements with Russia.

We could go on, but why depress our European readers?

The fact is that North America and Europe must find the political courage to openly face the economic and energy questions that so greatly affect the future of Western civilization. A public that is unaware of energy issues cannot effectively demand that European and North American governments formulate policies that their citizens are willing to accept. Those policies shape how Europe can respond to Russian aggression. As long as the E.U., the U.S., and Canada limit their cooperation to lip service, Eastern Europe will remain at risk of further Russian invasions and energy blackmail.

ISIS — The Vultures Come Home to Roost

By Jay Holmes

This week, world governments and the attendant media gaggles are focused on the ISIS militia that has captured much of northern and western Iraq. From popular news reports, we might get the impression that ISIS’s expanding influence is a shocking and sudden surprise event. It isn’t.

 

Iraqi insurgents image by US Dept. of Homeland Security

Iraqi insurgents
image by US Dept. of Homeland Security, public domain

 

In spite of the usual “the CIA has failed us” blather from the major media drones, ISIS has, for the last decade, been well known by the US government and anyone else caring to pay attention to the PR department of the ISIS gang. When we read news reports that claim that the US government was, until this week, left in the dark concerning ISIS, we are reading analysis that is either from a fantastically uninformed source or from someone who simply invents fake news to suit their boss’s political agendas. ISIS has been well known under a variety of names to even the most feeble Western intelligence organizations since at least May of 2004, when the group web-published video of their execution of US contractor Nick Berg.

Even if the CIA wanted to hide the existence of ISIS, it could not have done so, as ISIS has never tried to be particularly secretive. On the contrary, they have always done their best to garner as much media attention as possible, and they have always been clear about their objectives.

So who is this group that seems to be surprising so many oblivious “reporters”?

In the broadest terms, there are three main intransigent political groups in Iraq—the Shia, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. The Shia Arab group is in power and is ruling with the same lack of skill that we would expect from any other Iraqi political coalition. The Shia block and their grossly incompetent and very corrupt Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have made little effort to protect the interests of the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq or the large Sunni minority scattered around Iraq.

 

Nouri Al-Maliki image by US government, public domain

Nouri Al-Maliki
image by US government, public domain

 

In turn, radical members of the Sunni minority formed ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In their early days, they called themselves Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Qaeda has since decided that ISIS is “too barbaric and too radical” for Al-Qaeda standards. Translation—ISIS has so much funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar that we can’t control them.

The Kurds don’t back ISIS, nor do they care for Maliki and the Shias. The Kurds are Sunnis, but they are Kurds first. If they end up with their own country as a result of this conflict, they will be thrilled. Much of the online chatter of an independent Kurdish state originates with Kurdish sources. However, if the US fails to back up the Iraqi government sufficiently to save them from themselves, the Kurds could finally end up with their own country. (See Turkey–America’s Special Frenemy and  Turkey–Giving America the Bird.)

Why would certain Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Qataris back such a radical group so close to home?

Their main reason is that they pose as Sunni Islamists while living as hedonists, whereas the Iranian leadership poses as Shia Islamists while living as hedonists. Iran has, for decades, been exercising power throughout the area via their surrogate Hezbollah militia/terrorist group in Lebanon and their obedient servants, the Syrian mafia Assad family. The Shia-governed Iraqis are their pals.

The uprising in Syria was started by moderate Syrians in a desperate hope to find freedom. Iran quickly moved to help keep their obedient Assad servants in power. In response, Iran’s Shia Hezbollah militia went on a campaign to consolidate their power in Lebanon and Syria. Sunni radicals of various stripes banded together under the ISIS brand to oppose Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. As a result, most of the Syrian moderates were swept aside or murdered.

As more cash has flowed into ISIS pockets during the Syrian Civil War, the group’s influence has grown. In the meantime, Maliki’s government in Iraq has grown closer to Iran, while being propped up by US taxpayers.

Does your head hurt yet? It certainly should.

So why does the West care about one more war in the Land of Infinite Wars?

The collapse of the Iraqi Army is a frustrating embarrassment to the US government. Under the “you break it, you own it” doctrine first stated by US Army General Colin Powell,* both the Obama and Bush administrations have invested heavily in trying to finance and train something that might look vaguely like a functioning government in Iraq. In exchange for our $50,000,000,000 post-war reconstruction extravaganza, which has been managed by a 5,000-strong diplomatic corps, we ended up with something even more chaotic and violent than our worst inner-city ghettos. We ended up with Iraq. So did the poor Iraqis that live there. We Americans are a sentimental bunch, and many of us hate to think that all that reconstruction money we sent to Iraq was a complete waste.

 

General Colin Powell image by Charles Haynes, wikimedia commons

General Colin Powell
image by Charles Haynes,
wikimedia commons

 

On the dark humor front, we are now being treated to the specter of the Iranian Mullahs offering to cooperate with the US—and anyone else that would like to show up—in bailing out Maliki’s government. Iran does not want ISIS to succeed in gaining control in Iraq. ISIS does not want Iran and the Shia Iraqis to succeed in Iraq, and the Kurds would like them both to go to hell as soon as possible.

What can or should America do?

For the present, the president is considering air strikes to back up the sham Iraqi Army. A US carrier has been ordered to approach Iraq. This will be the first time in history that the Shia radical thugs in charge in Iran will find themselves cheering the sight of a US Navy carrier.

The strategy over the last few months has been to send better weapons, including anti-armor missiles, humvees, and infantry support weapons, to the Iraqi Army. This strategy has backfired badly, as ISIS has captured large stockpiles of US weapons. I suppose that if each of our 5,000 diplomats in Iraq threw a rock at the advancing ISIS forces, that storm of rocks could slow them down. Perhaps ISIS would mistake the flying rocks as a sign from Allah and accept it as a command to stay out of the Shia dominated regions of Iraq. ISIS has had easy going in areas where they have a Sunni majority to back them up, but they will face discernable opposition in Shia areas.

What will the impacts be?

My best guesses are as follows. Neither Iran nor the US will quietly accept a radical Sunni regime in Iraq. If ISIS becomes too powerful, even their Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Qatari backers will grow uncomfortable with their presence and will withhold funding. ISIS will never be able to achieve their dream of consolidating power over all of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. They may be able to keep a hold over Sunni dominated areas of Iraq, but they will face a constant struggle to occupy what they have thus far captured.

On the economic front, oil companies will do what they have been doing for a hundred years. They will raise the price of oil beyond any real escalated costs of obtaining crude.

On the political front at home, loyal Republicans will pretend that Iraq was once a great place to live, and they will blame the current disaster on Obama. Loyal Democrats will pretend that Iraq was once a great place to live, and they will blame the current disaster on George Bush. Loyal Americans will likely notice that both administrations demanded far too little of the Iraqi government that we financed and propped up, while thousands of our military members died or suffered serious wounds.

And for the children of Iraq? It’s another sunny day in the Land Between Two Rivers.

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*I know that General Powell was the US Secretary of State in addition to being a general. But as events have often proven during the last half century, any third rate political bum can be a Secretary of State. It takes a bit more than that to be a US Army general, so I prefer to think of General Powell in terms of his higher status.

Dances With Bears — The Putin/West Waltz

By Jay Holmes

On February 23, 2014, with the help of ethnic Russians in Crimea, Russia’s special forces and intelligence services stepped up their pro-Russian campaign to a degree that signaled that a Russian invasion and that annexation of the Crimean region was likely to occur. Emboldened by Russian military support, pro-Russian protesters in the area became more violent and more demanding.

During the last three years, national sentiment in Ukraine has shifted toward closer ties with Europe. How and when, not if, Ukraine would enter the European Union was the topic of daily debate in Ukraine. While Europeans, including most Ukrainians, were forging those closer ties, the infamous Dancing Bear of Moscow, Vladimir Putin, began to formulate a very different view of Ukraine’s future.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.

Base image from Agencia Brasil.
wikimedia commons

 

Prior to February of 2014, as these tensions played out in Ukraine, Western nations were relying on two basic strategies. The strategy pursued by most Western nations ranged from “Where is Ukraine?” to “How soon can they join the EU?”  The US pragmatically pursued a more focused policy—the “I hope that all goes well and nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”  Once a Russian invasion of Crimea was imminent, the West quickly reacted with new strategies. Most European nations seemed to be relying on the US to “do something.” The US responded by upgrading its own strategy to “Gosh, I really, really hope nothing bad happens in Ukraine.”

On February 28, 2014, the not-so-sneaky Russians did their best impersonation of a “sneak attack” in Crimea. All the West’s best hopes and wishes had not prevented the obvious. US President Obama (a.k.a. Dances With Bears) and other Western leaders quickly announced that there would be “consequences” for Russia in response to their invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, Putin responded by claiming that Crimea belonged to Russia all along. He then reminded Europe that they like Russian gas supplies.

As expected, the “consequences” promised by the West have been mild.

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell, GNU Free Documentation License, wikimedia commons

Base image by Elizabeth Cromwell,
GNU Free Documentation License,
wikimedia commons

Moderate economic sanctions and a list of Russians who will not receive US entry is all it amounted to.  Across Western Europe, the political rhetoric varied from near silence to mild displeasure. Putin is probably thrilled by this lack of a coordinated response on the part of the West.

Since February, Russia has officially annexed Crimea and continues to orchestrate, supply, and partially man protests and riots in Eastern Ukraine. Russian mechanized forces are staged along the Russian Ukraine border.  So now what?

On May 7, Vladimir Putin gave a televised speech to the Russian people. The speech was the usual double talk that we can always count on Putin to deliver. Here is a small, translated excerpt of Putin’s speech. “We must look for ways out of the situation as it is today. We all have an interest in ending this crisis, Ukraine and its people above all. Thus I say that we all want the crisis to end as soon as possible and in such a way that takes into account the interests of all people in Ukraine, no matter where they live. The discussion with Mr. President showed that our approaches to possible solutions to the crisis have much in common.”

Putin meme i don't always invade a foreign country

When he said “Mr. President,” Putin was referring to the visiting president of Switzerland. As far as his claim that they share “much in common,” it’s true in the same sense that the chicken and the fox might momentarily share the same hen house. In case you wonder, the translation is the official translation to English done by the Kremlin media office. As usual, Putin sounds semi-conciliatory, and as usual, his words don’t mean much except to the Russian public. In the same speech, Putin directly contradicted his own foreign minister by claiming that he supports the upcoming May 25 elections in Ukraine as “a step in the right direction.”

Fortunately, most Western leaders are responding to Putin’s speech with muted skepticism.  A few Putin admirers and the occasional innocent have welcomed Putin’s speech as a turning-point in the Ukraine crisis. Putin’s military dispositions on the Ukraine border and his country’s ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine are a very clear measure of Putin’s actual intentions. In light of that, the West should formulate a united response to Russian aggression. That response should include increased economic sanctions.

Thus far, the economic sanctions have had a small negative impact on the Russian economy. If those sanctions are increased and continue in force, the impacts will be far more significant. Russia has significant foreign debt in the form of bonds. As the trade value of those bonds continues to drop and interest rates rise, Russian companies will find it difficult to finance growth. That will drive up unemployment to levels that will not keep Russians happy with Vlady the Dancing Bear.

Thus far, one positive development has occurred as a result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Europeans, especially Eastern Europeans, have prioritized finding new sources of natural gas so they can avoid dependency on Russia. This will include the delivery of liquefied petroleum gas from the USA to a new port facility in Lithuania. Let’s all hope that the facility is well designed and safely operated. Don’t buy a vacation home in that neighborhood. New gas supplies will not be prepared quickly. It will take several years to make a sizeable impact in the European gas supply, but there is now more cooperation than ever before in the energy planning of Western states. It’s about time.

So here is my best guess for the near future in Ukraine. Putin is not going to relinquish Crimea—not this month, or any month. Russia will likely not launch an all-out invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Putin has taken the measure of his geopolitical dance partners in the West. He does not want full-scale cooperation against Russia by the US, Canada, and Europe. Russia could all but eliminate the strife in Eastern Ukraine by withdrawing its military and financial support for pro-Russian Ukrainians and by ending its clandestine operations in Ukraine. However, in all likelihood, Russia will continue to direct a smoldering conflict in Eastern Ukraine while pretending to be “seeking peace.” The uncertainty and chaos in Ukraine suits his purposes. From Putin’s point of view, it keeps the West “on the edge” without causing a more harsh Western response.

In my view, the best way for the West to help the Ukraine is to avoid vague threats and present a united front with well-enforced economic sanctions against Russia. That bear dances well, but all bears must eat, and the Russian bear has a big appetite that feeds on cash from U.S. and Western banks. Reasonable sanctions won’t wrestle the Crimea from Russia, but they can prevent Russia from invading and seizing a third of the remaining Ukraine without firing a shot.

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Dances with Bears — The Putin/West Waltz