Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

Everyone should read this as a reminder of the brutality that states may employ for political ends, whether Ethiopia (1935), Chechnya (1995), Iraq (1998) or Syria (2017). Chemical weapons such as sarin or mustard gas leave horrific injuries, but any deliberate targeting of civilians — such as bombing of hospitals and residential neighborhoods — should IMO be treated as a war crime.

Luke O’Brien is a U.S. Army officer assigned to Aberdeen Proving Ground and is currently a Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Graduate Fellow at National Defense University:

…..Perhaps the most notorious example of this from recent memory, however, was the Iraqi chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988, as part of the Anfal Campaign at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. This attack struck the small Kurdish village with both conventional and chemical bombs, including sarin, just as Assad’s forces would nearly 30 years later. The first attacks used normal high-explosive bombs, which both drove civilians into basement shelters as well as broke open the villages windows and doors. These initials attacks were then followed up with chemical munitions, which quickly filled the basement shelters and killed their occupants.

Such brutality was intentional. The attacks were intended to break the back of the Kurdish peshmerga militia by depopulating its support. Commenting on the matter at the time, Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid bragged that he would “kill [all the Kurds] with chemical weapons.” The chemical bombardment of Halabja had its desired effect, with a stream of surviving civilians abandoning the town and fleeing to nearby Iran. This use of chemical weapons, moreover, had another added benefit: driving away civilians and insurgents who had become numb to the effects of conventional weapons…..

Read more at: Echoes of the Past: Syria, Chemical Weapons, and Civilian Targeting

No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Trump’s Russia Policy

Michael Kofman is an Analyst at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute:

….Past American attempts at coercive diplomacy with Russia have typically lacked actual coercion, and a theory of how to gain leverage over Moscow. It will be rather startling if 59 cruise missiles turn out to be the answer to this problem. Thankfully, the previous administration tested a lot of theories that didn’t work, from empty threats at the United Nations, to disproven assumptions on what influences Russian behavior, to narratives about quagmires. It would be best for Trump’s White House not to set us on this journey, mounted on that very same broken wheel (or one just as broken in a different way).

In a contest of wills, Trump needs a plan to establish coercive credibility rather than hoping to scare the Russians with expensive fireworks. The number one mistake previous administrations made with Moscow is that, rather than deal with the Russia that is, they all imagined a Russia that suited them more, and then tried to have relations with that imaginary country.

The reality is, this administration’s only current leverage with Russia is the notion inside the Kremlin that a cooperative agenda with the United States is still possible. That’s a dubious proposition which offers the U.S. some advantages. Russia still hopes that there are carrots the United States might offer, or at the least it could get respite in the current confrontation and consolidate gains. If the administration is able to drag out this perception, rather than demonstrating that the White House is rapidly reverting to classical archetypes that Moscow anticipates, then there is an opportunity to obtain concessions.

Given that a cooperative agenda between the United States and Russia is well-nigh impossible, where does that leave us?

Source: No Plan? No Strategy? No Problem! Syria and Why Trump’s Russia Policy Is Off to a Rough Start

How to survive the next four years

Donald Trump

We are entering a time of uncertainty.

Donald Trump started his presidency with a continuation of the confrontational approach that he exhibited throughout his campaign, with scant regard to unifying the country and governing from the middle. Instead he has signed off on two controversial oil pipelines that, while they would create jobs, have met fierce opposition and are likely to polarize the nation even further.

Subtlety is not Trump’s strong point. Expect a far more abrasive style than the Obama years.

Trump also signed off on constructing a wall along the border with Mexico. Again, this will create jobs and slow illegal immigration — two of his key campaign promises — while harming relations with the Southern neighbor.

Another key target is the trade deficit. The US has not run a trade surplus since 1975. Expect major revision of current trade agreements like NAFTA, which could further damage relations with Mexico, and a slew of actions against trading partners such as China and Japan who have used their foreign reserves in the past to maintain a trade surplus with the US. Floating exchange rates are meant to balance the flow of imports and exports on current account, minimizing trade surpluses/deficits over time. But this can be subverted by accumulating excessive foreign reserves to suppress appreciation of your home currency. Retaliation to US punitive actions is likely and could harm international trade if not carefully managed.

Apart from wars, Trump and chief strategist Steve Bannon also seem intent on provoking a war with the media, baiting the press in a recent New York Times interview:

Bannon delivered a broadside at the press…. saying, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Bannon also said, “I want you to quote me on this. The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States…..”

Trump and Bannon’s strategy may be to provoke retaliation by the media. One-sided reporting would discredit the press as an objective source of criticism of the new presidency.

On top of the Trump turmoil in the US, we have Brexit which threatens to disrupt trade between the UK and European Union. If not managed carefully, this could lead to copycat actions from other EU member states.

Increasingly aggressive steps by China and Russia are another destabilizing factor — with the two nations asserting their global power against weaker neighbors. Iran is another offender, attempting to establish a crescent of influence in the Middle East against fierce opposition by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and their Sunni partners. Also, North Korea is expanding its nuclear arsenal.

We live in dangerous times.

But these may also be times of opportunity. Trump has made some solid appointments to his team who could exert a positive influence on the global outlook. And confrontation may resolve some long-festering sores on both the economic and geo-political fronts.

How are we to know? Where can we get an unbiased view of economic prospects if confrontation is high, uncertainty a given — the new President issuing random tweets in the night as the mood takes him — and a distracted media?

There are two reliable sources of information: prices and earnings. Stock prices reflect market sentiment, the waves of human emotion that dominate short- and medium-term market behavior. And earnings will either confirm or refute market sentiment in the longer term.

As Benjamin Graham wrote:

“In the short term the stock market behaves like a voting machine, but in the long term it acts like a weighing machine”.

In the short-term, stock prices may deviate from true value as future earnings and growth prospects are often unclear. But prices will adjust closer to true value as more information becomes available and views of earnings and prospects narrow over time.

We are bound to experience periods of intense volatility over the next four years as hopes and fears rise and fall. These periods represent both a threat and an opportunity. A threat if you have invested on hopes and expectations rather than on solid performance. And an opportunity if intense volatility causes prices to fall below true value.

It will pay to keep a close watch on technical signals on the major indexes. As well as earnings growth in relation to index performance.

Also, keep a close eye on long-term indicators of market risk such as the Treasury yield curve and corporate bond spreads. These often forewarn of coming reactions and will be reviewed on a regular basis in future newsletters.

How to Counter the Putin Playbook | The New York Times

Michael A. McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford, served as United States ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014:

…We will not find security in isolationism. No missile defense shield, cybersecurity program, tariff or border wall can protect us if we disengage. Menacing autocracies, illiberal ideas, and antidemocratic and terrorist movements will not just leave us alone or wither away. The threats will grow and eventually endanger our peace, as we saw in Europe and Japan in the 1930s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Conversely, the growth of democracy around the world serves American interests. Democracies do not threaten us; autocracies do. Democratic allies also vote with us at the United Nations, go to war with us, support international treaties and norms, and stand with us against tyranny.

So we must push back, in new ways. Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we.

We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne. The United States can expand resources for learning about democracy……

I agree with the sentiment but not the execution. Win friends by promoting education and building infrastructure abroad. These have practical, tangible benefits to citizens of developing nations. Democracy can come later. In many parts of the world it is as foreign a concept as gay marriage.

Source: How to Counter the Putin Playbook – The New York Times

Something Fishy (humor)

Trouble brewing

SYDNEY — Five men with cancelled passports were Wednesday accused of planning to sail to Indonesia from Australia en route to join jihadist groups in Syria.

The men included notorious Australian Islamic preacher Musa Cerantonio, who was detained in the Philippines in 2014 and deported for reportedly urging people to join jihad in Iraq and Syria, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said…. (JT)

Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess | Foreign Policy

By Steven A. Cook, Amr T. Leheta:

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did.

The region’s “unnatural” borders did not lead to the Middle East’s ethnic and religious divisions. The ones to blame are the cynical political leaders who foster those divisions in hopes of maintaining their rule. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein built a patronage system through his ruling Baath Party that empowered a state governed largely by Sunnis at the expense of Shiites and Kurds. Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and his father before him, also ruled by building a network of supporters and affiliates whereby members of his Alawite sect enjoyed a privileged space in the inner circle. The Wahhabi worldview of Saudi Arabia’s leaders strongly encourages a sectarian interpretation of the country’s struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. The same is true for the ideologies of the various Salafi-jihadi groups battling for supremacy in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen…..

Source: Don’t Blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s Mess | Foreign Policy

Hilary Benn’s moving speech on Syria

Hilary Benn, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary’s speech in support of air strikes in Syria reduced MPs to tears and drew applause from members on all sides of the House of Commons.

https://youtu.be/XLYNygoJ8aE

Crude testing support

Crude futures (Light Crude December 2015 – CLZ2015) are testing support at $44.50 per barrel. Follow-through below $44.00 would signal another test of primary support at $40. Supply continues to exceed demand with the Saudis and Russians cranking up production and cutting prices to secure key markets in the US and China. Breach of $40 would offer a (long-term) target of $30*. Recovery above $50 per barrel is most unlikely unless there is a serious disruption to supply.

WTI Light Crude December 2015 Futures

* Target calculation: 40 – ( 50 – 40 ) = 30