This awful Syria escalation

It’s reckless and irresponsible for the United States to launch missiles at a Russian air base in Syria, as we did today on President Trump’s orders. That’s really an understatement, too. And it’s ridiculous that former Secretary of State Clinton endorsed this plan publicly earlier today.

There are three realities, beyond the risks of attacking Russia, that have to be acknowledged regardless of the use of chemical weapons:
1) The US does not have the capacity to lead a successful regime change in Syria and it’s wildly foolish to “Just Do Something” with zero plan and zero capacity to execute it beyond the opening shot.

2) Chemical weapons are repugnant, but it is not a “proportional response” to risk a war on this scale, particularly considering that far more people have been killed already (and will be killed by escalation) by conventional arms, which are also horrible. Dead is dead, as Stephen Walt said.

3) This war would have been over years ago (with far fewer deaths or calamities and without the use of chemical weapons) if the United States (and allies) had not supplied dangerous and deadly major conventional weapons systems and light arms to extremist insurgents, many if not most of whom are not Syrian, thereby keeping the war going but with no one able to prevail definitively.

Getting involved further in the Syrian war than we already are, instead of pulling back and cutting off aid to the insurgents, can only increase the catastrophe.

Bursting bubbles on the Syria war

“Getting Real: Facing Necessary Facts in Syria and Iraq” by Michael J. Brenner for The Globalist:

Washington only compounds its culpability while simultaneously reducing the chances of finding a tolerable way out of the jam if it remains addicted to fanciful thinking.

And yet it remains wedded to a set of totally unrealistic propositions. This results in the creation of a make-believe world that bears no relation to reality.

Bursting bubbles

Here are some of the biggest fictions that must be abandoned:

  • Jihadist Syrian frontrunners al-Nusra/al-Qaeda can be transmogrified into mere expressions of genuine Sunni grievances.
  • Nusra jihadists can be converted into the instrument for militarily crushing ISIS just because there is nobody else willing or able to a job America won’t take on.
  • Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies will give priority to defeating the various Salafist groups rather than to the removal the Alawite regime in Damascus.
  • ISIS’s financial lifeline can be cut without destroying the infrastructure of its oil trade and without getting Turkey to cease and desist its complicity in sustaining the oil trade.
  • The Russians can be “isolated” and denied a major role in determining Syria’s future by calling Putin dirty names and reciting the number of worthless partners in Obama’s ersatz coalition.
  • Phantom Syrian rebel armies devoted to tolerance and democracy – that don’t exist except in the escapist visions of Washington’s strategic non-thinkers – can be relied upon to win battlefield victories.
  • Establishing a no-fly buffer zone in northern Syria would do something other than satisfy Erdogan’s ambition to keep open his supply line to al-Nusra and his lucrative commercial dealings with ISIS.
  • Such a no-fly buffer zone would not contradict our purposes in Syria and would be tolerated by Russia.
  • It is within the power of the United States to shape the Middle East to its own specifications while contesting a legitimate place for Iran, Russia, Yemenese Houthis and anyone else who doesn’t hew the Saudi-Israeli-Erdogan line Washington has endorsed.

 

Flag of the Syrian government.

Flag of the Syrian government.

Russian diplomat explains that Soviet invasion of Poland was Poland’s fault

If you were wondering why Poland has been readying itself to go underground as an insurgency again in case of Russian re-invasion, we just saw a pretty strong reason for the Polish people to be at least mildly concerned…

“Russian Ambassador Says Poland Was Partly to Blame for World War II” – The New York Times

Ambassador [to Poland] Sergey Andreev of Russia on Friday described the Soviet Union’s 1939 invasion of Poland as an act of self-defense, not aggression.

Uh. In… in what way? That would require interwar Poland to have had threat capacity.

In an interview broadcast on the private TVN station, Mr. Andreev also said: “Polish policy led to the disaster in September 1939, because during the 1930s Poland repeatedly blocked the formation of a coalition against Hitler’s Germany. Poland was therefore partly responsible for the disaster which then took place.”

But… But the Soviet Union itself was in Hitler’s coalition in September 1939. So…how? What?

The Russian Ambassador to Poland’s version of 1939 history appears to be “Oops, the Soviet Union slipped in the tub and fell into Poland.” Or perhaps, at best, “We just had to invade Poland and all the Baltic states to create a bigger buffer zone between Hitler and the edge of the real Soviet Union.”

You know what? Never mind. This is too much nonsense to figure out.

Flag of Poland's Home Army during World War II. (Credit: Bastianow - Wikimedia)

Flag of Poland’s Home Army during World War II. (Credit: Bastianow – Wikimedia)

Poor US-Russia relations still thwart Native reunifications

“The ice curtain that divides US families from Russian cousins” – BBC News

The people of this Bering Strait region still see themselves as one people and the border as an irritant. It was first drawn up in 1867 when America bought Alaska from a cash-strapped Tsarist Russia. But no-one took much notice then. Families lived on both islands and criss-crossed back and forth until 1948 when the border was suddenly closed. The Soviet military moved on to Big Diomede and the civilians were forcibly resettled on the Siberian mainland.
[…]
Over the years [since the Cold War ended], hopes continued that the more entwined relationship between the Russia and the West would loosen up the border. But they have been dashed by the Ukraine crisis and by Russia’s military build-up.

 

June 2001 NASA satellite image of the Bering Strait, where the U.S. state of Alaska (right) meets Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Okrug (left).

June 2001 NASA satellite image of the Bering Strait, where the U.S. state of Alaska (right) meets Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug (left).


Previously from AFD:

NASA comes out swinging at Russia, US Congress


Also recently in the news:

The Atlantic: “In Alaska, Climate Change Threatens to Sweep Away the [Native] Village of Newtok” – A longform piece on this devastating trendline for Alaska Natives:

A 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office found that most of Alaska’s 200-plus native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, and that four were in “imminent danger.” By 2009, the GAO said 31 villages were in imminent danger.

 

Is Crimea Russia’s albatross? Or vice versa?

Things in Russian-occupied Crimea are (still) more than a year later going super poorly.

Maybe not as poorly as things in rebel-occupied Donbass war zones, but about as bad as peacetime can get. They very badly underestimated the level of economic integration between Crimea and Ukraine / the rest of Europe (and by extension the economic and fiscal catastrophe that awaited a walled-off version of the peninsula). Crimea is in a crunch with no end yet in sight, and Russia is stuck with a very expensive bill its population and budget officials have already begun indicating they’re ready to skip out on.

Whether or not an overwhelming majority actually favored Russian annexation at the time — we don’t know how far off the hasty / sketchy referendum was from the truth — it’s pretty clear now that many voters would have at least reconsidered their pro-Russian instincts had they had better access to a realistic assessment of their prospects … or, at the very least, the benefit of hindsight from today.

Nostalgic Soviet pensioners and Russian-friendly organized crime thugs were never really a good foundation for the future, it turns out.

crimea-ukraine

Close encounters of the Red October kind

Two fishing boats have been caught on presumed Russian submarines and nearly destroyed. The New York Times:

An 80-ton trawler that normally catches prawn in its nets, the Karen this time seemed to have ensnared a submarine. And, with the British Navy and NATO both denying involvement, suspicion has fallen on Russia, which since the conflict in Ukraine has been testing the response times of the alliance in the air and at sea. The episode, which nearly capsized the Karen, was the second of its kind in a month off the coast of Britain, and comes at a tense time in relations between London and Moscow.
[…]
Dick James, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organization, said that the deep stretch of the Irish Sea where the Karen nearly capsized was so popular with submariners during the Cold War that it was nicknamed “submarine alley.”
[…]
At the time of the accident, the Karen was in international waters, halfway between the coast of Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.
[…]
Being dragged by one wire, the Karen was just seconds from sinking, he said, and his crew would not have had time to grab life jackets.

 

Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Tajikistan

The tiny ex-Soviet country of Tajikistan, located in Central Asia, has almost as many residents as New York City, at 8.2 million. It doesn’t have much to draw attention to its economy except for one thing: it is currently, by a wide margin for all countries where data is available, the national economy most dependent on remittance money transfers from its citizens abroad.

In 2013, 48.8% – or nearly half! – of Tajikistan’s 2013 GDP came from remittances from Tajikistani workers in other countries, who sent home $4.2 billion to their families, according to the World Bank.

Most of these workers are in Russia, the source for three-quarters of all remittances flowing to Tajikistan, which is very typical of the other ex-Soviet states in the region. Russia is, in fact, one of the top five destinations in the world for migrant workers.

tajikistan-location-map

For Central Asia’s economies, in some ways, the Soviet Union never really ended. Four of the top Tajikistani remittance sources are other former Soviet countries and neighboring Afghanistan – the Soviet invasion target that became the Union’s military undoing – is a fifth.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan holds the title of second-most dependent on remittances with 32% of its 2013 GDP coming from them and nearly 80% of that coming from Russia.

Tajikistan’s domestic economy has remained severely hampered by geopolitical chaos since the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991. A brutal 5-year civil war broke out almost immediately between the Communists, ethnic opposition and Islamists, as part of the continued fallout of the disastrous Afghan invasion.

I’ve mentioned this war in passing previously because it was particularly noteworthy among the post-Soviet wars of the Russian Near Abroad:

[In the months following the USSR’s collapse, newly “Russian” troops] were often ordered by Moscow to remain in place as outside “peacekeepers” (between the fighting populations of countries that had last seen self-rule around the time of the Franco-Prussian War) even though the Soviet Union had opposed peacekeeping as “anti-Leninist” and had thus had provided its troops and officers with zero training on how to conduct peacekeeping operations. In the most extreme case, ex-Soviet Russian troops hunkered down in defensive positions on Tajikistani military bases as a brutal civil war between Communists, democrats, and Tajik/Afghan mujahideen raged all around the bases and any heavy military equipment outside was stolen for use in the conflict.

 
Then, as its own civil war wound down, Tajikistan participated in the Afghan Civil War (between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban), which ended only with the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The country finally grew rapidly beginning around 2000, on the strength of aluminum and cotton, but this growth was beginning from a very small base. Therefore, Russia has continued to be an attractive source of employment for many Tajikistanis.

Unfortunately, this means the recent instability in Russia’s economy – from sanctions and falling oil prices – puts Tajikistan (and its neighbors) at risk. Migrants in Russia are losing their jobs and the value of their remittances is evaporating as Russia’s currency loses value.

While Tajikistan might not seem ripe for collapse and a return to war (and I certainly hope that is not on the horizon), its proximity to northern Afghanistan (where things are heating up again recently) means it is always in danger of a new flare-up. And the violently genocidal spiral Kyrgyzstan entered very suddenly in 2010 (full archive coverage➚) proved that the right spark at the wrong time can plunge these smaller Central Asian ex-Soviet republics back into chaos in the blink of an eye.