Tag Archives: Middle East

Russia’s War on Ukraine: Grain, Oil and Poor Developing Countries

Further to these tweets,

the Globe and Mail’s man in Africa reports (note Canadian aspects at end of the post):

World’s poorest countries face power cuts, spike in food costs as war in Ukraine hits global supply

Geoffrey York Africa Bureau Chief

Johannesburg

When the lights went out in South Africa this week, the country’s electricity monopoly warned that the war in Ukraine could soon deepen the darkness. Power cuts are common in South Africa, a legacy of corruption and deferred maintenance. But to stave off a complete collapse, the state-owned utility Eskom is heavily reliant on the emergency use of diesel fuel. It now uses nine million litres every day to run its turbines – and admits this will become unsustainable as oil prices soar as a result of the war.

“We will get to a point where we don’t have funds to pay for diesel,” Calib Cassim, Eskom’s chief financial officer, warned at a briefing this week.

The prospect of worsening blackouts in South Africa is just one example of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is sending shock waves around the world. As always in wartime, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer the most – this time from a global surge in food and fuel costs [emphasis added].

South Africa has one of the highest per-capita incomes on the African continent, but its economy is highly unequal. Even before the Ukraine war, an estimated 17 per cent of its people were routinely experiencing hunger – substantially higher than before the pandemic. Now they face a barrage of new pressures.

Petrol prices in South Africa jumped to a record high last week, and another big increase is expected at the end of the month, causing a surge in transportation costs. More frequent power outages will hit the country’s poorest hardest, because they cannot afford backup energy sources such as generators.

The country imports half its wheat, so the skyrocketing prices of grains on global markets will cause a spike in food costs. Globally, the price of wheat has jumped almost 80 per cent since the war began less than three weeks ago, [emphasis added] climbing close to record levels and surpassing the prices that helped spark the historic Arab Spring protests in 2011.

Ukraine and Russia provide about 30 per cent of global wheat supplies, along with 20 per cent of the world’s corn exports and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil [emphasis added]. The war has severely disrupted Ukraine’s supply lines and halted commercial shipping from its ports, while Russian exports are hampered by sanctions and freight costs…

Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, predicted last week that the war will trigger “the biggest supply shock to global grain markets in my lifetime.” In a commentary on social media, he added: “Basically nothing can be done in the short run, except to run up the price of grain high enough to ration demand.” This could cause “wildly high” prices, he said.

The food index of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported this month that global food prices have already reached an all-time high. The rising prices of wheat, corn and vegetable oils, driven by the Ukraine war, were among the biggest factors.

This, in turn, will severely hinder the operations of the world’s humanitarian relief agencies [emphasis added].,,

The WFP [World Food Program–see their site on grain, energy impact of the war], which provides a crucial supply of relief rations for 120 million of the world’s poorest people in war zones and other food emergencies, has depended on Ukraine for about 50 per cent of its grain supplies and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil [emphasis added]. If it has to find other suppliers, its costs will increase drastically…

Some countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, are heavily dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine [emphasis added]. Egypt subsidizes the price of bread, but those subsidies will become increasingly expensive, putting pressure on the government to raise prices.

Economically struggling countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan have been hit with rapid rises in fuel costs in recent days as a result of the war [emphasis added]. Zimbabwean authorities have announced two separate fuel-price increases this week, while Sudan hiked its petrol prices 32 per cent Wednesday.Sudan, already close to economic collapse, could be the most vulnerable country in Africa. It too is heavily dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and its military government is acutely aware that bread prices are highly sensitive politically. It was a sharp rise in bread prices in 2018 that led to a wave of anti-government protests in the streets, eventually toppling the regime of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had held power for 30 years.

Follow Geoffrey York on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

It would not appear that much food relief could be available from Canada–in 2021

Because of challenging growing conditions, several major field crops grown predominantly in Western Canada experienced their largest year-over-year yield decrease on record, falling to levels not seen in more than a decade…

Total wheat production fell 38.5% to 21.7 million tonnes in 2021…

Canola [rapeseed] production decreased by 35.4% nationally to 12.6 million tonnes in 2021, as the drought in Western Canada resulted in the lowest yield since 2007…

And we still have not completed a pipeline expansions bringing Alberta oil to tidewater (all our–large–oil exports go to the US, Canada is its top source of imported oil at 51%; but few Americans and few in their media realize that):

B.C. adds conditions for Trans Mountain pipeline expansion as concerns remain over spill-response plans

Meanwhile completion of that pipeline expansion has been pushed back to the third quarter of 2023.

Oh well.

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Yemen, or, the Houthis vs the Saudis and then there’s Iran

The start and end of a piece at War on the Rocks by an excellent Canadian professor and analyst:

How Iran Helped Houthis Expand Their Reach

Thomas Juneau

Since 2015, when Saudi Arabia launched its intervention in Yemen, the Houthi movement has deepened its ties with Iran and grown more powerful on the ground. As a result, the impact of the Iranian-Houthi partnership will increasingly be felt beyond Yemen’s borders. As I have argued elsewhere, the Houthis are now developing their own foreign policy, forming direct ties with other Iranian partners in the region and presenting a growing risk to rivals like Saudi Arabia and, eventually, Israel. In recent years, some of the most alarmist coverage of the Houthi movement has presented the group in simplistic terms as an Iranian proxy inside Yemen. In fact, the partnership is more complex than a patron-proxy one, but it still carries real risks for regional security.

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

While the Houthi movement emerged as an insurgency in northwestern Yemen in the 1980s and 1990s, it most likely began receiving Iranian support around 2009. Yet this initial support was marginal, as Yemen at the time was far from an important priority for Iran. Relations ramped up after 2011 as street protests and elite infighting caused an already fragile Yemeni state to weaken even more. Exploiting this vacuum, the Houthis expanded their power and eventually took over the capital, Sanaa, in 2014. These evolving local dynamics piqued Iran’s interest: Saudi Arabia was increasingly anxious at the prospect of mounting insecurity on its vulnerable southern border, while the Houthis were becoming more powerful. Nevertheless, through 2014, Iran’s role in the growth of Houthi power remained limited.Become a Member

The major turning point came in March 2015 when Saudi Arabia launched a military intervention in Yemen, officially to roll back the Houthis and return the internationally recognized government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to power. The intervention has since become an unmitigated disaster: It is a quagmire from which Saudi Arabia has proved unable to extricate itself, even as the Houthis emerged as the dominant actor in Yemen.

It is impossible to precisely quantify how much of the Houthi movement’s success is the result of Iranian support. A significant portion of Houthi assets have been generated locally: Large portions of their arsenal come from absorbing — by negotiation or coercion — units of the Yemeni military, as well as from looting national army stockpiles, forging alliances with tribal militias, and making purchases on the black market.

That said, growing Iranian support has certainly played an important role in helping the Houthis to become more powerful…

The Houthi movement’s role in this network of Iran-backed non-state actors has grown to the point that it is now possible to refer to Houthi foreign policy. Houthi-Hizballah ties have become particularly prominent, as the two movements increasingly cooperate in areas ranging from training to weapons smuggling. Yemen is also, according to some reports, increasingly used as a platform for Iran to send weapons to other armed groups it supports, most notably Hamas. In this case, weapons delivered to Yemen are transshipped to Sudan and then through Egypt to the Gaza Strip. There is also evidence that Iran and Iranian-backed groups are increasingly coordinating their information operations, for example in the immediate aftermath of recent missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi movement is now a regional power, demonstrating ever greater experience and skill as it pursues its interests in the region. The Houthis have emerged from Yemen’s civil war as an increasingly important element in the Iranian-led constellation of revisionist actors that surrounds Saudi Arabia and Israel. They also provide Iran with new options for targeting American forces in the Middle East. Houthi leaders will not attack Iran’s enemies solely based on orders from Tehran — that is not how their partnership functions. In a hypothetical escalation, the Houthi leadership would have to balance its multiple interests, notably the need to preserve Iranian support, the risk of American retaliation, and the politics of maintaining their position inside Yemen. Nonetheless, the Houthi’s newfound reach has enhanced Iran’s deterrence posture and its ability to project power — all at very little cost to Tehran.Become a Member

Thomas Juneau is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs [more here] and a former policy officer with Canada’s Department of National Defence (2003 to 2014). He tweets @thomasjuneau. 

Plus those Saudis are tough cookies and Saudi infantry famously are not.

UPDATE: Note this tweet:

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Iran’s President-Elect, the Hanging Judge–and the JCPOA

One doesn’t suppose PM Trudeau’s government has any appetite left of its early urge to re-engage with Iran, what with the continuing repercussions of the Revolutionary Guard’s 2020 shooting down of Flight PS752 that killed 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents, and now the record of the president to be–excerpts from an article at the Globe and Mail;

Mark MacKinnon Senior International Correspondent London

Beginning in July, 1988, thousands of political prisoners in Iran were taken from their cells and brought before a panel of judges, who asked them a series of questions such as: Are you a Muslim? Do you pray? Are you willing to walk through a minefield to assist the army of the Islamic Republic?

Anyone who gave the wrong answer under interrogation was handed a pen and paper and told to write their last will and testament. At least 5,000 political dissidents – some of them leftists, many others affiliated with a militia known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran – were executed after being interviewed by a panel of judges, who became known as the “Death Commission.”

The victims were hung from cranes erected in a parking lot behind Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison, or in what inmates called “the amphitheatre” of Gohardasht prison, on the outskirts of the capital. Some say the real number of those killed in the prison massacre was closer to 30,000.

This week, Ebrahim Raisi, who as deputy prosecutor for Tehran was a member of the four-person Death Commission in 1988, became the president-elect of Iran. Many believe he is being prepared to succeed the aging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s Supreme Leader, potentially putting him in a position to chart the country’s direction for decades to come.

“Whenever they went to execute a group of 10 or 12 or 15 prisoners, all the members of the Death Commission, including Raisi, went to the amphitheatre and witnessed. And then they made a party [emphasis added]. They came to our cells with cake and cookies and asked us to join their celebration,” said Iraj Mesdaghi, who spent 10 days in what was known as “death corridor” of Gohardasht prison, before he was released after vowing to end all of his political activities.

Mr. Mesdaghi now lives in Sweden, where he is a key witness in a landmark trial against Hamid Nouri, another Iranian official who allegedly took part in the 1988 massacre. Mr. Mesdaghi told The Globe and Mail that he was interrogated four times in Gohardasht by the panel of judges that included Mr. Raisi. He says Mr. Raisi declared that he wanted to rid Iran of all its political prisoners, and that the president-elect will be implicated by the evidence he and others intend to give to the Swedish court.

In his current post as the country’s Chief Justice, Mr. Raisi also played a leading role in Iran’s investigation into last year’s shooting down of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752, which was struck by two missiles shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 people on board. Though 138 of the victims were either citizens of or travelling to Canada, Iran refused to give Canadian investigators full access to the crash site, and victims’ families were outraged by the Iranian investigation’s conclusion that the disaster was caused by human error…

“I don’t know how the international community will deal with this guy,” Mr. Mesdaghi said in a telephone interview. “Can he come to international organizations? The United Nations? Can he visit other countries? How?”

It’s a question that U.S. President Joe Biden, among others, will soon have to answer. Mr. Biden’s administration is in the midst of sensitive negotiations regarding the future of a 2015 deal that saw the U.S. and other countries agree to lift longstanding economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for curbs on the country’s nuclear program.

Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew the U.S. from the pact in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions. Mr. Biden’s administration has vowed to re-join the deal, but now faces an informal deadline of August, when Mr. Raisi officially succeeds the more reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani. “I have a hard time imagining that if a deal is not restored before August that Raisi will be able to make the compromises that Rouhani shied away from,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

While the U.S, has sought to broaden the nuclear pact to include restrictions on Iran’s missile-building program, Mr. Raisi said in his first public remarks after winning the election that the U.S. should lift sanctions before Iran is required to take any steps. Asked if he would be willing to meet Mr. Biden once sanctions were lifted, Mr. Raisi answered: “No.”

Adding to the complexity of the negotiations, Mr. Raisi has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2019 for his alleged oversight of human-rights abuses – including the execution of juveniles and the punishment of prisoners by amputation – committed by Iran’s judiciary [emphasis added–do you know “Why Narendra Modi Was Banned From the U.S.“?].

That Mr. Raisi could rise from the Death Committee to become the head of Iran’s government is telling. So too is the effort that that Ayatollah Khamenei – the country’s ultimate authority – and his allies put into ensuring Mr. Raisi’s victory in the June 18 presidential election…

The anxiety of the moment is seen as connected to the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei is now 82 years old and rumoured to be in deteriorating health. There’s speculation inside and outside Iran that by installing the 60-year-old Mr. Raisi in the presidency, the Supreme Leader is effectively naming his own successor…

If Mr. Raisi is on a course to become Iran’s next Supreme Leader, it’s unclear that a majority of Iranians support the idea. Official figures show only 48.8 per cent of voters cast ballots on June 18. Mr. Raisi won with a clear-cut 62 per cent, nearly 15 per cent of those who did vote spoiled their ballots.

“It was a protest vote against the candidates, against the political system,” said Sanam Vakil, an Iran expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. “There’s clear frustration that the people are no longer being considered as important to this process.”..

Asked this week about his role in the 1988 massacre, Mr. Raisi told reporters in Tehran that “if a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised.”..

And a relevant post from 2016:

Homa Hoodfar, or, the Iran the Canadian Government Wants to Engage

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

Christians just Hanging On in Iraq

The sad reality in this Reuters story (caption for photo at top of the post: “A view of Rabban Hormizd Monastery is seen in Alqosh, Iraq February 18, 2021. Picture taken February 18, 2021. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani”):

An ancient monastery in Iraq is a symbol of Christian survival

ALQOSH, Iraq (Reuters) – Nestled in a steep rocky hillside among the remote mountains of northern Iraq, the Rabban Hormizd Monastery has watched invaders come and go through Christianity’s tumultuous history in this corner of ancient Mesopotamia.

Mongols, Persians, Arabs, Kurds and Ottomans have sacked, surrounded or occupied the seventh century monastery and the Christian town of Alqosh, above which it perches, near the borders with Turkey, Syria and Iran.

But Christians there survived the latest onslaught, this time by Islamic State militants who took over one third of Iraq between 2014 and 2017, including the city of Mosul just 20 miles (32 km) to the south.

Mercifully for them, a string of villages just above Mosul was as far north as the group got, sparing Alqosh the brutality inflicted on minority faiths and sects. Some families fled those villages to the safety of the town.

“This will remain a Christian town, I believe. We have to stay in this land,” said Brother Saad Yohanna, an Iraqi monk working at a local orphanage.

“Far fewer people live here these days – maybe 1,000 families from 3,000 a few years ago, but it remains home for them.”

Of the 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003, only around a fifth remain, the others driven out by sectarian violence first by al Qaeda and then Islamic State [emphasis added].

The displaced who remain will get rare recognition this week, as Pope Francis visits the country from March 5-8. The closest he will get to Alqosh is a cluster of demolished churches in Mosul, once Islamic State’s de facto capital…

Control of Alqosh itself, after centuries of change, remains unresolved. It lies along disputed territory between the Baghdad central government and the self-run Kurdistan region.

It is in Baghdad’s Nineveh province, but controlled by Kurdish forces who helped drive Islamic State away [emphasis added]

The country’s oldest monastery of St Elijah, near Mosul, was damaged during the 2003 conflict before Islamic State destroyed it just over a decade later.

Rabban Hormizd Monastery, named after its founder, was built when Muslim armies were conquering the Middle East, and fortified over time. Dotted around its high brick walls are caves where monks once cloistered and prayed.

It became an important centre of the Eastern Catholic clergy from the 16th to 19th century, although monks gradually moved out to more accessible digs, including a second monastery in the town.

It is open now to visitors, worshippers and local monks, but not inhabited [emphasis added]

Earlier posts:

1) The Exodus of Christians in the Middle East, Cont’d [2014]

Further to this post,

The Exodus of Christians in the Middle East and Their Murder Elsewhere

I would wager–given the state of Canadian education–that the great majority of people here are unaware that Anatolia (Turkey today), the Levant, and North Africa were, as a result of the Roman Empire, heavily Christian when the Arab Muslim invasions of the seventh century A.D. defeated the Byzantines…

2) “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” Part 2 [2015]

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

The Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit, or, Time for the US Navy to Keep its Schwerpunkt Far East of Suez

Iran and the Persian Gulf/Arabian Sea just aren’t worth the wear and tear on a badly stretched aircraft carrier fleet, the prime role of which is vs. PRC. That’s the case made by James Holmes of the US Navy War College (see end of following quote), sure makes sense to me. Surely the Gulfies, with all the air power they now have, with relations with Israel breaking out in several places, and with US Air Force resources in the region, can look after Iran without those carriers. At Real Clear Defense:

Focus U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers on China, Not Persian Gulf

Sometimes…stability is an unlovely force. Bad ideas, as well as good, can command overwhelming support. In such cases, stability cements policies or strategies founded on an errant consensus. Well-advised course changes never take place.

Exhibit A: the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group left port this past week on what naval specialists term a “double-pump deployment.” The new deployment comes on the heels of a 270-day cruise just last year—a cruise that included 206 consecutive days at sea to dodge the pandemic. USS Theodore Roosevelt embarked on its own double-pump deployment in December after the COVID-19 debacle that stranded the flattop in Guam last spring. It appears Eisenhower is bound for the Middle East judging from the words of Chief of Naval Operations Mike Gilday. Admiral Gilday predicts that, under new leadership, Washington will continue the practice of keeping a carrier on station in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility more or less perpetually.

Such deployments bespeak strategic indiscipline. At its most fundamental, military strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities. Self-discipline helps the country get its way on what matters most without overspending its finite stock of martial resources. That means dispensing with worthy but less critical commitments. Inability or unwillingness to set and enforce priorities counts among the gravest sins makers of policy and strategy can commit.

Over the past three presidencies, Democrat and Republican, a consensus has coalesced around the idea that competing with Communist China should rank atop the United States’ list of strategic priorities….and thus far, the Biden administration has evinced little desire to revise it. This is good. It reflects how China’s rise to great power and penchant for domineering diplomacy have changed Asia and the world.

Unfortunately, the new consensus now coexists with an older—and incompatible—consensus stressing the vital importance of the Persian Gulf region. I suppose we have Saddam Hussein to thank, or blame, for the Middle East orthodoxy. Before August 1990, when Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon regarded the region as a strategic backwater and kept a force befitting a backwater on station there. A handful of surface combatants anchored the U.S. naval presence in the region until heavy forces started arriving in the Gulf region to reverse aggression.

And then stayed. Events seemed to ratify the region’s importance after Desert Storm in 1991, when open war gave way to years of using naval and ground-based air power to enforce UN sanctions on Iraq. Then came 9/11, which gave rise to the global war on terror, a counterterrorist campaign centered on the broader Middle East. Then came 2003, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded and occupied Iraq. The consensus congealed further. And Iran was there all the while, supplying another impetus for deep engagement. Over time the Islamic Republic morphed into the primary reason given for keeping heavy forces—including one or even two carriers—in the Gulf region at all times. The need for such a presence came to seem self-evident as the years passed.

That the United States fields eleven carriers comes as cold comfort. (Only ten are deployable until shipbuilders can get the new USS Gerald Ford’s gee-whiz technology functioning as designed [emphasis added].) How hard can it be to deploy one or two vessels out of ten? Well, only a fraction of the fleet is ready to deploy at any given moment. Take into account routine maintenance, major overhauls, training, and R&R time—the rhythm of a ship’s life—and well upwards of three nuclear-powered aircraft carriers must be in the inventory to keep one U.S.-based carrier deployed to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the Central Command’s naval arm [emphasis added].

Do the arithmetic. Keeping even a single carrier in the Gulf region while trying to compete with China and Russia, ostensibly the United States’ chief foreign-policy threats, is bound to wear down the carrier fleet over time. It’s doubly ironic that it’s Eisenhower making a double-pump deployment, considering the engineering woes that befell the ship in the past owing to overuse. Nor are Ike’s troubles a one-off thing; maintenance problems also idled sister ship Harry S. Truman in recent years. Machinery ages prematurely with intensive use.

Chronological age matters just as mechanical age does. The first-in-class USS Nimitz—a vessel currently returning home after a wearisome ten-month deployment to the Fifth Fleet—is pushing fiftyFifty is not the new thirty for gray hulls; it is a ship’s dotage. Deploy an aging fleet too promiscuously and engineering difficulties like those suffered by Eisenhower and Truman verge on inevitable. In turn, adequate numbers of flattops may not be available to deter or fight China or Russia if the fleet is worn out from guarding against Iran. Sustaining too rapid an operating tempo constitutes a serious—and foreseeable, and self-inflicted—impediment to battle readiness.

It’s time to downgrade the Persian Gulf region on the Pentagon’s list of strategic priorities…Let’s align naval operations and force deployments with national strategy at long last—and husband resources for where they are needed most.

…Does countering Iran promise exceptional rewards for the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon, do the U.S. armed forces command decisive superiority over China and Russia, and can the armed forces keep up a Gulf aircraft-carrier presence without running grave risks in the strategic competition with those great-power rivals? Unless the answer to all three questions is a throaty yes, the Biden Pentagon should rethink the U.S. military posture in the Middle East.

Now looks like an auspicious time for some foreign-policy instability. Let’s veer onto a new—and strategically prudent—path.

[Though I can’t see what serious, effective role USN carriers could have vs Russia–sailing into, say, the Norwegian Sea to attack Russian forces in the Kola Peninsula/White Sea area risks running into a whole lot of bomber-launched ALCMs, amongst other things.]

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific [see here]The views voiced here are his alone.

UPDATE: Plus on the funding front, at Defense News:

Pentagon budget must prioritize Navy, Air Force and cyber, lawmakers say

Relevant posts:

The Western Pacific Naval Cockpit, or, PLA Navy vs US Navy

The Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit: US Navy, Marines (and Coast Guard) vs the PRC and PLA Navy

US Navy/Marines vs PLA Navy in Western Pacific Naval Cockpit–How much of what the Services Want to do will Biden Admin/Congress go along with?

Western Pacific Maritime Cockpit–What’s it all about for US vs PRC? Note “Quad” near end

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

Syria, or, ever Heard of the Caesar Act?

I certainly had not. It looks largely the work of the Deep State and not something pushed by (still) President Trump. When will they ever learn to stop trying to re-make or, if they cannot, to punish countries and the bad guy leaders the Americans are ceaselessly after? Especially when the US is unwilling to put sufficient boots itself on the ground to do a job?

Note that the ever so respectable Brookings Institute supports the act and that a prime advocate of it in the House of Representatives was Democrat Howard Engel of New York.

Excerpts from an article at the London Review of Books by Patrick Cockburn:

Syria Alone

All over Syria people are increasingly desperate. Even before the latest US sanctions, imposed this summer, 83 per cent of the population were living below the poverty line. Late last year President Trump signed the Caesar Civilian Protection Act, named after a Syrian military photographer who had documented the government killings of thousands of people and smuggled the pictures out of the country [more here from the State Department]. The new US law threatens sanctions against any individual or company in any country doing business with Syria and imposes what amounts to a tight economic siege on the entire population. The measures came into force on 17 June, but their impending implementation had already demolished much of what remained of the economy. The Syrian currency has collapsed and the price of basic foodstuffs like wheat, rice and bulgur has tripled while earnings remain the same – for those who still have jobs. The law is supposed to protect civilians by ‘compelling the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law’. This gives a soothing humanitarian guise to the sanctions, but is deeply misleading about their effect. Authoritarian elites, in Syria as elsewhere, are largely immune to embargoes and may even profit from them because they have the power to monopolise scarce resources. The poor and the powerless, the great majority of Syrians after nearly a decade of war, are those who suffer the full impact of sanctions…

The strategy​ of waging economic rather than military war is hardly new. But under Trump it has become the primary weapon of American foreign policy. Despite all his bombastic threats against perceived enemies, he has yet to start a single war in the Middle East or anywhere else, relying more on the power of the US Treasury than the Pentagon. From an American point of view sanctions have much to recommend them: no need for the costly and risky military ventures that have so often gone wrong in the past. Unlike airstrikes, sanctions can be presented as a non-violent way of influencing the behaviour of toxic regimes for the better. In reality, as with the Caesar Act, they are the bluntest of instruments, inflicting communal punishment indiscriminately on whole societies. Arguments justifying the Caesar Act are much the same as those once used to sell UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, imposed after he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and kept in place for the next 13 years. They were meant to weaken Saddam and compel him to disclose information about his supposed weapons of mass destruction. In practice they did nothing to constrain his power or his control over Iraqi resources. He showed defiance by building giant mosques and palaces, and the WMD that he was said to be hiding turned out not to exist. But the sanctions did ruin the lives of millions of ordinary Iraqis and devastated the country’s infrastructure, human capital and economy. This was all fully evident at the time: Denis Halliday, the UN aid co-ordinator in Iraq, resigned in protest against sanctions in 1998, saying that between four and five thousand Iraqi children were dying unnecessarily every month, and that the embargo ‘probably strengthens the leadership and further weakens the people of the country’.

So it is in Syria now. Assad may be being squeezed economically, but he is making up for it by, among other measures, forcing pro-government businessmen to hand over portions of their vast war profits. He can also divert attention from his government’s corruption and incompetence by blaming the sufferings of Syrians on the Caesar Act, much as Saddam did in Iraq with UN sanctions a quarter of a century ago. In the early stages of the pandemic, Syrian state television boasted of the government’s fictitious success in combating the spread of the virus. In reality, hospitals were full, infections were spreading and it was widely believed by Syrians that the number of deaths was much higher than officials were admitting. These have been common failings internationally, but as the real effects of the virus have become hard to disguise the Syrian government has protected itself by taking a new propaganda line. Muhanad Shami, a hospital nurse in Damascus, says that ‘most programmes and news bulletins now show the country as weak in facing the pandemic because of the Caesar Act.’

Another political advantage for the Assad government is that the new sanctions are hitting all Syrians, regardless of political allegiance. The situation is especially miserable for people in anti-government areas, who are more vulnerable to anything that further degrades their living conditions…

Syria​ is today divided into three parts: the government-controlled area, covering most of the heavily populated regions; the small opposition enclave in Idlib; and, in the north-east, a large triangle of land where Kurdish, Turkish, Syrian government, Syrian opposition, Russian and American forces compete for control of roads and population centres. The arena where they confront one another is a plain east of the Euphrates River, with Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. About two million Kurds and a million Arabs live here under conditions of chronic insecurity. Until last year, the area was dominated militarily by the Kurds, who had defeated Islamic State with US support. But with IS gone, at least for the moment, Trump declared last October that he would withdraw American forces, giving the green light for a Turkish invasion that seized a rectangular piece of territory inside Syria, expelling its Kurdish inhabitants or forcing them to flee. The Turkish attack and the subsequent ethnic cleansing in and around the border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain was largely the work of Turkish-backed Syrian Arab opposition fighters from Idlib, Aleppo and Hama. Turkey has since deployed the same proxy forces to reinforce its allies in Libya and, more recently, on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

There are many people in Ras al-Ain for Jasem to fear, but Assad and the Syrian government aren’t among them: government forces withdrew from Ras al-Ain in 2012 and haven’t returned. Yet the Caesar Act, which was supposed to protect Syrian civilians from Assad, is in practice completing the work of the Turkish invasion and driving the remaining inhabitants out of town. The streets, Jasem says, are empty and desolate: it looks ‘like a place where nobody lives and is full of ghosts’. Since July many have escaped to Turkey, though they have to use people smugglers to get them there since the Turkish authorities have closed the border to Syrians. A relative of Jasem’s and three other neighbours made it across to refugee camps; there, at least, they would be given food. His own real income has plunged: as a construction worker, he was paid the equivalent of $6 a day in April and May, but ‘now I am paid $1.50 a day, just enough to buy a meal for one person.’ The only bit of good news is that Covid-19 hasn’t yet reached Ras al-Ain. Jasem suspects that this is because the town is 90 per cent empty: too few human hosts remain for the virus to spread.

Related post from 2015:

The Continuing Failure of US Neo-Imperialism

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3ds

Theme song:

US Election a Spur to Nuclear Weapons Proliferation? And not just if Trump Wins?

Further to this post in 2016 after Donald Trump won that election,

Trump, Russia, NATO and…German Nukes?

Elephant in the Room
Europeans Debate Nuclear Self-Defense after Trump Win

now four years later there are a wide range of countries that may be looking much more closely at their nuclear options–by Eric Brewer (tweets here, nice resumé) at Defense One:

Why Trump’s Retreat from US Allies Could Have Nuclear Consequences

For decades, America gave allies and partners good reason to shelve their nuclear-weapons efforts.

The factors that drove South Korea to pursue nuclear weapons were quite clear: Pyongyang’s “unabated hostility toward Seoul” and the fact that “South Korean confidence in the U.S. security commitment…has declined.” That intelligence assessment was written by the CIA in 1978 about developments earlier that decade but it could easily be written today about South Korea or a number of other U.S. allies. 

Back then, America’s security partners were alarmed by the Nixon Doctrine, which conveyed to allies that they would need to provide for their own defense; U.S. troop withdrawals from the region; and Washington’s desire to mend relations with China. This environment drove South Korea and Taiwan to pursue nuclear weapons. 

Today, it is President Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. His hostility to what he refers to as “so-called allies” and his embrace of the very dictators U.S. alliances are designed to defend against are leading allies and partners across the globe to wonder whether Washington can no longer be counted on. As in the past, regional threats are growing and the United States is once again planning to pull troops from allied territory. It should not come as a shock if a U.S. ally or partner were to determine today that it needed to launch, or relaunch, its own effort to develop nuclear weapons or the capability to quickly build them. 

Since the 1990s, America has become accustomed to thinking about nuclear proliferation as a problem associated with “rogue states”: Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Iran, and Syria. But throughout much of the nuclear age, U.S. allies, partners, and non-aligned countries were of greatest proliferation concern. West Germany, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Sweden, Egypt, Brazil, and others explored or pursued nuclear weapons—and India, Pakistan, and Israel acquired them [emphasis added, AUSTRALIA?].

One of the reasons Washington made extensive security commitments throughout the world—including by offering the protection of its nuclear umbrella—is so that countries would not feel compelled to develop their own nuclear weapons. Critically, that requires those countries to believe the United States would come to their defense if attacked. But as our recent report on proliferation dangers highlights, confidence in U.S. reliability is eroding. Over the past three and a half years Trump’s actions have put that alliance system at risk, fomenting some of the very same doubts and insecurities among U.S. partners that led allies to consider nuclear weapons in the past. 

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on whether the United States would honor its security commitments. He has implied that whether Washington comes to the defense of its allies would depend on whether they have paid their “dues” into the alliance—a not-so-subtle attempt to strong-arm allies to increase their defense expenditures and compensate the U.S. for costs associated with U.S. bases. Trump said he could “go either way” on keeping U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan—where such U.S. commitments have helped deter U.S. adversaries and prevent proliferation for decades. Adding insult to injury, he reportedly mocked the accents of South Korean President Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Abe to a crowd of donors, while bragging that Moon had “caved” to Trump in negotiations over cost sharing. It’s hard to see how these allies would believe that, when the chips are down, Trump would come to their defense today. 

…It is hard to see how allies would believe that Trump takes their interests in to account, and historically such fears of abandonment have been an important motivating factor for nuclear weapons. Indeed, this fear of U.S. abandonment was key to West Germany’s exploration of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s. The potential for U.S. troop withdrawal and growing Soviet threats led then Chancellor Adenauer to conclude that “NATO is finished” and that Germany could not afford to “remain a nuclear protectorate” of the United States. 

Some dismiss President Trump’s rhetoric as cheap talk, but unfortunately these views have manifested in administration policy. Trump’s sudden announcement following his first meeting with Kim Jong-Un that the United States and South Korea would suspend joint military exercises (which Trump referred to as “war games,” using the North Korean terminology, and which he later went on to dismiss as a waste of U.S. money) shocked South Korean officials, who were not consulted beforehand. The initial U.S. demand that Seoul triple the amount it pays as part of the cost-sharing arrangement for U.S. bases on the peninsula (known as the Special Measures Agreement) has caused South Koreans to wonder whether the President was trying to break up the alliance. Finally, the U.S. has announced plans to withdraw one-third of U.S. troops from Germany—no doubt a decision taken in part because of Trump’s dispute with German Chancellor Angela Merkel—and is reviewing U.S. troop levels in South Korea as well. It should therefore come as no shock if an allied head of state uttered the same words allegedly used by then South Korean President Park before creating the organization that would lead South Korea’s covert nuclear and missile program: “We need to free ourselves from being jerked around by America’s policy positions.”

To make matters worse, Trump has implied that the United States won’t impose any penalties on allies for deciding to go nuclear. His mostly-forgotten comments during the campaign that he would be okay with Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia having nuclear weapons have new resonance given his clear desire to pull U.S. troops back and allow countries to fend for themselves [emphasis added]. For example, administration officials have tended to downplay and excuse concerns over potential Saudi nuclear and missile activity. When questioned whether the U.S. had any objections to Saudi threats to produce nuclear weapons, the White House Press Secretary punted, saying that she was not aware of any U.S. policy on that matter. In doing so, the administration is sending a message to allies that nonproliferation doesn’t matter, especially for allies willing to spend billions on U.S. defense equipment. Here again, history would suggest that how the U.S. treats one allied proliferator can be a motive for another: South Korea’s President Park believed that Washington would come to accept South Korea’s weapons program, just as it had Israel’s. 

So far no country is openly dashing for the bomb, but allies appear to be hedging their bets. There has been an uptick in the debate in South Korea over whether to develop nuclear weapons. Germany appears increasingly willing to consider a European alternative to the U.S.-provided nuclear umbrella [and see the post noted at start of this one for 2016]. Saudi Arabia is improving its nuclear capabilities and keeping its options open to enrich and reprocess. Officials in countries from Turkey to Brazil have spoken approvingly of developing nuclear weapons. A number of countries—including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan, Australia and South Korea are improving or plan to improve their domestic missile or space programs, thereby providing pathways to potential nuclear weapons delivery options [emphasis added]. For some of these countries, the development of these capabilities is tied to concerns about U.S. staying power. 

It is hard to imagine that the U.S. alliance system—and Washington’s nonproliferation track record—could survive another four years of a Trump presidency. By comparison, a Biden administration would bring a degree of desperately needed strategic competence and international leadership that would provide an important course correction. But it is not clear that the U.S. would be out of the woods entirely. Some differences with allies run deeper than the current president. Indeed, a Biden administration would still face challenges managing the widening strategic divides with Saudi and Turkey, and several potential Biden administration policy objectives—from changes to U.S. nuclear use policy, to a continued focus on burden sharing—could be in tension with plugging U.S. credibility gaps and strengthening nonproliferation [emphasis added]

These challenges are not insurmountable, but it would be naïve to assume that the United States can simply go back to status-quo ante. By staking out extreme positions with few political consequences—indeed, the Republican Party has embraced many of Trump’s positions—Trump has altered the terms of the debate. Trumpism—and its characteristics of retrenchment, nationalism, and hostility toward the U.S.-created international order—will survive after he leaves office and shape U.S. political discourse. An extreme oscillation between engagement and pull back from the international community is, for many allies, no more tenable than U.S. withdrawal. And this is precisely their concern: That Trump is a harbinger of things to come. That the U.S. is walking away from the international order that it built and led for more than 70 years. 

Countries do not take lightly the decision to develop nuclear weapons. However, history suggests that a total loss of confidence in U.S. security guarantees can cause allies to pursue them. It is almost impossible to know how close we are to that point now. Trumps actions certainly get us closer. 

Eric Brewer is Deputy Director and Senior Fellow at the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

And see this on Japan from 2014:

Japanese Nuclear Weapons Fall-Back Position?

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

The Woke and other White Folk

Further to this post,

Der Untergang des Abendlandes, for real

Terry Glavin (tweets here) really has at us–the start and end of a piece at The Line:

White people are useless

What the hell is wrong with white people? 

It’s not just because of the tenor of the times that this question warrants asking — although, granted, it is high fashion these days to ask it out loud — so I will: what the hell is wrong with white people? 

It just so happens that I have been pondering the question for quite a few years now, and because I’ve settled on an answer that is supported by a surfeit of overwhelming evidence, I may as well come straight out with it. White people are useless. That’s what’s wrong with them.

First, a brief explanation is required: I don’t mean white people as a race…

I know that some people will object to the term “white people” as an identifiable class, here. Under a Marxist analysis, we used to call this collection the bourgeoisie. But at least the 19th-century Western bourgeoisie supported the end of Black slavery. The 20th-century bourgeoisie was at the vanguard of the struggle for women’s equality rights, the end of statutory discrimination against gay people, the dismantling of Jim Crow laws in America, and the achievements of environmentalism.

But nowadays? As social and economic categories, there is one hell of an overlap between the Western bourgeoisie and white people, and their usefulness to human progress can be presumed to be now and at last truly at its end. The white working-class is increasingly marginal to the great upheavals of the current epoch. The trade union movement it helped to create is suffering a tragically diminished relevance. Once the brawn and sinew of industrial capitalism, their labour has been outsourced across vast sectors to the sweatshops of India, China and Malaysia. 

In what little use they are making of themselves in the struggles they once championed, white people are giving every appearance of intellectual exhaustion, with all the incoherence, histrionics and narcissism you’d expect. The “violence” of campus micro-aggression is afforded greater attention among white “activists” than the actual, real-world violence endured by hundreds of millions of Uighurs, Royhingas, Yemenis, and on and on. They may demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the Black slavery that militant Americans once fought to abolish. They may also exhibit the most nuanced analysis of Black slavery’s enduring legacies. Yet when they show up to Black Lives Matter rallies in locales as far flung as Saskatoon, the Faroe Islands and Rio de Janeiro, the clothes they are wearing are effectively made by slaves.

Tommy Hillfiger, Nike, Adidas, Esprit, Calvin Klein, Esprit, Nike, Uniqlo, H&M, Lacoste and hundreds of other globe-spanning corporations have been demonstrably implicated in forced-labour production inside prisons and detention centres and sweatshops from Bangladesh to Xinjiang, where upwards of a million minority Muslims have been rounded up in the largest mass internment of an ethnic minority since the Holocaust. By the reckoning of the Walk Free Foundation’s global slavery index, nearly 50 million people around the world are confined in various forms of slavery. The beneficiaries of slave labour are primarily the contented white consumers of white-majority countries. And as for the struggle to eliminate this scourge of their own generation, white people, true to current form, are largely useless.

Related earlier posts:

Considerate Chicoms Provide Uyghurs with Free Vocational Training

Indeed, Looks like Chicoms Working Brutally to Cleanse Xinjiang of Uyghurs

Another relevant earlier post:

The Woke Folk don’t Know that Muslims were Enslaving Brits well into the 18th Century

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

NATO, Libya and the Sublime Erdogan the Magnificent Neo-Sultan madly off in Mediterranean Directions

(The photo at the top of this post is of President Erdogan and others in front of the Ankara mausoleum for President Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern–and secular–Turkey (rather ironic, that); I visited the mausoleum while traveling in 1972.)

Further to this post,

Libya, Italy, the Sublime Erdogan the Magnificent and…Lenin and Atatürk

Steven Erlanger (tweets here) of the NY Times covers the waterfront and more–I’ve taken out the Times-style swipes at President Trump:

Turkish Aggression Is NATO’s ‘Elephant in the Room’

Despite being a NATO member, Turkey has bought Russian air defense. And a recent push into Libya and its energy ambitions nearly led to armed conflicts with France and Greece.

The warships were escorting a vessel suspected of smuggling weapons into Libya, violating a United Nations arms embargo. Challenged by a French naval frigate, the warships went to battle alert. Outnumbered and outgunned, the French frigate withdrew.

But this mid-June naval showdown in the Mediterranean was not a confrontation of enemies. The antagonists were France and Turkey, fellow members of NATO, sworn to protect one another.

A similarly hostile encounter between Turkey and a fellow NATO member happened just two weeks ago, when Turkish warplanes buzzed an area near the Greek island of Rhodes after Greek warships went on alert over Turkey’s intent to drill for undersea natural gas there.

Turkey — increasingly assertive, ambitious and authoritarian — has become “the elephant in the room” for NATO, European diplomats say. But it is a matter, they say, that few want to discuss.

A NATO member since 1952, Turkey is too big, powerful and strategically important — it is the crossroads of Europe and Asia — to allow an open confrontation, alliance officials suggest.

Turkey has dismissed any criticism of its behavior as unjustified. But some NATO ambassadors believe that Turkey now represents an open challenge to the group’s democratic values and its collective defense.

A more aggressive, nationalist and religious Turkey is increasingly at odds with its Western allies over Libya, Syria, Iraq, Russia and the energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s tilt toward strongman rule after 17 years with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the helm also has unsettled other NATO members…

NATO operates by consensus, so Turkish objections can stall nearly any policy, and its diplomats are both diligent and knowledgeable, “on top of every ball,” as one NATO official said. France has also used its effective veto to pursue national interests, but never to undermine collective defense, NATO ambassadors say. But Turkey has blocked NATO partnerships for countries it dislikes, like Israel, Armenia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

…official Washington…has lost patience with Mr. Erdogan and is infuriated by his insistence on buying the S-400 [advanced Russian surface-to-air missile].

If deployed, the S-400 would put Russian engineers inside a NATO air defense system, giving them valuable insights into the alliance’s strengths while threatening to diminish the capability of the expensive fifth-generation fighter, the F-35…

Turkey has pursued its own national interests in northern Syria, where it now has more than 10,000 troops, and in Libya, where its military support for a failing government helped turn the tide in return for a share in Libya’s rich energy resources.

It was near Libya in June that three Turkish warships confronted the French frigate.

While the European Union has a mission to help enforce the arms embargo on Libya, NATO does not. The frigate, the Courbet, was engaged in a different NATO mission aimed at migration flows, but since Turkey and France support different sides in the Libyan civil war, the confrontation between NATO allies was troubling.

Turkey said the ship was carrying aid rather than arms, and has denied harassing the Courbet. NATO officials say that its military committee is investigating and that the evidence is not as clear-cut as the French suggest.

Still, President Emmanuel Macron of France has used the clash as another moment to assert that NATO is nearing “brain death,” because it seems incapable of reining in Turkey or acting in a coordinated political way…

The latest flash point is over Turkey’s demand to share in discoveries of natural gas made in 2015 in the eastern Mediterranean, which led to deals and alliances among Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.

Maritime claims are disputed, and Mr. Erdogan complained in June that “their aim was to imprison our country, which has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean, into a coastal strip from which you can only catch fish with a rod.”

He then sent survey and drilling ships to explore off Cyprus, prompting European sanctions, and said he would do the same near Rhodes, bringing the Greeks to threaten warfare. Last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany got Mr. Erdogan to hold off while talks proceed.

While many looked to Turkey as a moderate democratic model during the Arab spring a decade ago, Turkey is a different country under Mr. Erdogan, who has mobilized the more religious voters in the countryside…

He has broken definitively with Turkish secularism, symbolized by his recent decision to turn Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. He has pushed hard into the region with a neo-Ottoman ambition, downgrading older alliances to press Turkish interests…

Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman, brushes off criticism and says Mr. Trump and Mr. Macron are the ones questioning NATO’s value.

“I guess Macron is trying to assert some sort of leadership in North Africa, the kind he doesn’t have in Europe,” Mr. Kalin said. “He called Turkey criminal, and it is incredible for France to call that to another NATO member.’’

As for Brussels, Mr. Kalin said, “the E.U. should look into the mirror.” Greece “uses E.U. membership as a way to pressure Turkey, but this language of sanctions will not work,” he said, arguing that Turkey wants only “an equitable and fair sharing of energy resources.”..

“There is a big conversation to have about what to do about Turkey,” a senior European diplomat said. “But it’s not for now.”

Earlier posts:

Turkey and the March of Islam(ism?)

Erdogan the Magnificent: The Sublime Neo-Sultan?

The Sublime Erdogan vs Armenians and Kurds, Urban Redevelopment Section

Turkey Through the Magnificent Mirror of the Sublime Erdogan

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds