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The Nordic Battlegroup, Ready and Willing

This is transnational solidarity in action: Since the beginning of this year, more than 2,400 soldiers and officers from seven European countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ireland—have been on standby, ready to deploy to any conflict zone. They form the Nordic Battlegroup (NBG), a rapid deployment force initiated and managed by the seven countries with the task of intervening on behalf of the EU. 

India Goes Shopping for Submarines

India is in the market for subs, but it’s having trouble buying the best ones. Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, during a two-day meeting in Tokyo at the end of last month, reportedly asked his counterpart there, Gen Nakatani, to offer to sell six of Japan’s Soryu-class diesel models. The Japanese, according to a source in the Indian Defense Ministry speaking to Defense News, were “non-committal.” The apparent hesitance suggests that New Delhi might want to rethink the application of its “Buy and Make in India” program.

The Kurds' Heroic Struggle Against ISIS

ISIS is getting its ass kicked by the Kurds.

In Syria's Hasaka Province, where the Iraqi and Turkish borders converge, YPG fighters have ISIS on the run, and they've just retaken two more villages outside the long-besieged city of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forced ISIS to flee Sinjar near Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the site of horrible massacres against the Yezidi minority last year. As many as 5,000 civilians were killed, thousands of women were dragged off as sex slaves, and tens of thousands were forced to flee onto a mountaintop without food or water.

Sinjar was the penultimate straw for Washington and the start of the war between Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS. The last straw for Washington came just weeks later when an ISIS column made a beeline for Erbil, Iraq's Kurdish capital, in American Humvees stolen from the Iraqi army in Mosul.

The Kurds are the only people in the region whose willingness to fight matches that of ISIS, and unlike ISIS nearly all their fighters are recruited internally. They haven't issued any worldwide calls for enlistment. They don't troll social media looking for disgruntled young people abroad. With just a handful of exceptions, no one from outside the region volunteers to fight alongside them. They receive little support from the West and no support from the neighbors.

On the one hand it's astonishing that they're able to maintain a firewall hundreds of miles long against so vicious an enemy with so little help, but the Kurds have fielded better fighting forces than the Arab states for decades. Shortly after the first Persian Gulf War, Iraq's Shias and Kurds mounted simultaneous uprisings against the government, together wresting control of most of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. He managed to massacre his way into retaking the Shia parts of the country, but his army—the fourth-largest in the world at the time—was no match for the Kurds in north. Women and children left the cities on foot and took refuge in the mountains while the men stayed behind to purge the regime more than a decade before the rest of the country was finally rid of it.

Picking a fight with the Kurds is a little like going to war against Lebanon's Druze or the Israelis. It's like trying to invade and occupy Texas. Only ISIS leaders, at this point in history, are drunk enough on their own ideological belligerence to think they can best the people who whooped Saddam Hussein's military machine while everyone else who tried was gunned into ditches.

But ISIS is learning, and its commanders are asking the Peshmerga for a ceasefire. The Kurds, though, are even less likely to negotiate with who the Kirkuk chief of police calls “blind snakes” than Americans are. We have two continents and an ocean between ourselves and ISIS, but a hardy person could walk from Mosul to the Kurdish autonomous region in a less than a day, and that border is as potentially porous as the Mexican-American border.

Iraq's central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are planning operations to reclaim Mosul from ISIS later this year, but Baghdad is loathe to give the Kurds much help in the meantime. Kurdistan is still at least technically part of Iraq, and its officials have to ask the central government for money and weapons. At times Baghdad grudgingly says yes and other times it says no. Everyone knows the Kurds want their own state, and the central government doesn't want them to grow so strong that they can finally tell the rest of Iraq to sod off and damn the consequences.

So they need help from outside, but they aren't getting much. Bayan Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the US, says most of the promised American weapons shipments still haven't arrived.

Washington is so afraid of cheesing off Baghdad and Turkey, which are both hostile to Kurdish independence, that it's still willing to largely blow off its only genuine and competent allies in that part of the Middle East. The Kurds are by far the most pro-American people over there, more so even than the Israelis, and the only reason they aren't yet powerful enough to be reckoned with internationally is because they haven't achieved full independence. They are still, after all these years, the world's largest stateless people and treated as second-class allies in favor of Turkey, which has been obnoxiously unhelpful in the Middle East for more than a decade, and Iraq, which is a de-facto Iranian client state.

The US may eventually get its alliance priorities straight. In the meantime, the Kurds are doing yeoman's work nearly alone and without even much recognition, let alone thanks.

Meet Motorola, Self-Confessed War Criminal of the Donbas

The latest entry into the Donbas enclave’s Pantheon of heroes is one Arsenii Sergeevich Pavlov, a slight 32 year-old Russian from Russia who sports the nom de guerre, Motorola. 

Why Pavlov chose this ridiculous moniker is unclear. Was his first cell phone a Motorola? Is he even aware that Motorola was a telecommunications firm founded in a country he detests almost as much as Ukraine—America? 

For China and India, Diplomacy Meets Competition

Chinese troops provoked a confrontation with India’s soldiers twice last month in Ladakh, according to reports that surfaced over the weekend. The incursions—elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army advanced south over the Line of Actual Control into Indian-controlled territory—took place in the same area as an incident in April 2013 that roiled relations between the two nations. The line, a little more than 4,000 kilometers long, serves as a de facto border between India and China.

The provocations last month—on March 20th and 28th—were reported to be on the agenda when Indian Defense Secretary R. K. Mathur and his team sat down with Chinese officials in Beijing Wednesday and Thursday for preliminary talks. The discussions took place before their seventh annual dialogue, to be held on Friday.

Iran's Goal is Middle Eastern Hegemony

The chattering class has spent the last couple of days pontificating on and bickering about the so-called nuclear “deal” with Iran, but largely missing from the conversation is a recognition of the Iranian government's ultimate goal—to become the regional hegemon. Its nuclear weapons program is simply a means to that end.

Last month Ali Youseni, former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, made that perfectly clear at a conference in Tehran. “Since its inception,” he said, “Iran has [always] had a global [dimension.] It was born an empire.”

A nuclear deal isn't beside the point, exactly, but at best it's more of a patch than a solution, and the truth is we don't yet have a deal anyway. What we have is a “framework” for a deal that may or may not be agreed upon in the future, and it's not clear that Washington and Tehran even agree on the framework. The US, for instance, says Iran has agreed to cease and desist using advanced nuclear centrifuges, yet Iran says “work on advanced centrifuges shall continue on the basis of a 10-year plan.”

The Iranian government is more patently dishonest than the American government, of course, and may be selling a face-saving bill of goods to its exhausted population, but Washington has never been and never will be above political spin, and it's entirely possible—and perhaps even likely—that each side genuinely perceives  the results of the talks so far differently.

Much of the pontificating and bickering among those in the chattering class is a bit premature, but one thing at least should be clear: the Iranian government is and will continue to be a pernicious force in the region regardless of any agreement. Even with a good deal from our point of view, replacing a rapid expansion of Iran's nuclear weapons program with sanctions relief and economic growth will at best be a wash.

Many in Washington seem unbothered by Iran's ultimate ambitions and are only concerned with Iranian nukes. In an interview on NPR in December, President Barack Obama said a deal could break Iran's isolation and enable the country to become, as he put it, “a successful regional power.”

Iran, though, is already a successful regional power. It has been an on-again off-again regional power since the Persian Empire ruled much of the ancient world, and it has been more culturally and politically sophisticated than most of the Middle East for thousands of years. The current era, which began in 1979 with the  installment of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary clerical regime, is a but a rough patch—a mere blip—in all that history.

But we're not past that blip yet. The elderly “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei will pass from the scene soon enough. The Guardian Council and Revolutionary Guard Corps may eventually reform themselves out of all recognition as the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties have done, or they may be overthrown like the Soviet client states of Eastern Europe in 1989, but we're not there yet. Iran could eventually become a force for good if and when a new government reins in or dismantles its terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and beyond, but for now the regime is aggressively projecting power beyond its borders into the Arab world in ways that are entirely detrimental to both the West and the Arabs.

Zoom out and look at the rest of the region. One Middle Eastern state after another has disintegrated into schismatic abstractions controlled by rival armed groups. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen are all, as scholar and analyst Jonathan Spyer put it, “living in the time of the militias,” many of which moonlight as international terrorist organizations.

Iran backs armed factions in four out of five of those countries—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, undisciplined Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The only reason it has no footprint in Libya is because Libya has no natural Shia constituency for Iran to throw its weight and power behind.

Tehran's most effective project so far is Hezbollah, which has dominated Lebanon for decades and is expanding into its range of operations deep into Syria. Its Iraqi proxies just burned and looted Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and its Houthi clients in Yemen are well on their way to conquering the city of Aden, one of the country's largest cities, after seizing control of the capital Sanaa a couple of months ago.

One could argue that Iran's influence isn't entirely negative since its proxies are fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS wouldn't have gained much traction there in the first place if it weren't for the vicious depredations of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki, both Iranian clients. Besides, the world's largest state sponsor of international terrorism is the last country on earth we should want as a firewall between us and international terrorist organizations. 

Iran's ability to disrupt the Middle East is unmatched by any other state in the region, but it couldn't conquer and rule the whole area even if it did have nuclear weapons. It can, however, foment fragmentation, chaos, terrorism, and war, and will continue to do so whether or not its government signs and adheres to an agreement with the US. A deal that allows Iran to grow stronger through sanctions relief without addressing any of that, alas, will almost certainly make the Middle East a worse place than it already is.

US Allies Join China’s AIIB: What Now?

March 31st marked the deadline for countries to join the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as founding members. A surprising number of American allies, including Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, and Australia, joined over Washington’s objections, emboldened, it seems, by Great Britain’s decision to break ranks with Washington.

An unnamed American official disparaged London’s “constant accommodation” to Beijing’s interests.

The diplomat is right, of course. The British government has acquiesced to China’s refusal to allow democracy in Hong Kong. Prime Minister David Cameron has obsequiously courted access to trade with China by promising not to meet with the Dalai Lama. But Washington hasn’t stood up to China on Hong Kong or Tibet either. And it has stood by while China slowly but surely establishes military strong points throughout the South China Sea.

America’s Voice in Europe to Counter the Kremlin

The Nordic countries (as I reported in my previous post) are helping their Baltic neighbors counter Russia’s pervasive propaganda by lending them not just human resources and expertise but their own world-famous programming. Borgen versus the Kremlin, you might call it.

Russia Expected to Escalate War in Ukraine Soon

That’s what a number of prominent experts think. Andrii Parubii, the vice speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament and former national security adviser, stated on March 27th that there is a “high risk” of a “full-scale military operation” in the next few weeks. An expert team led by Wesley Clark, a retired US Army general and former NATO supreme allied commander, informed the Atlantic Council in Washington on March 30th that “Ukrainian forces expect [an] attack within the next 60 days.

The Xi Jinping Faction in China

On Friday, the Asahi Shimbun, a Tokyo newspaper, suggested that Chinese ruler Xi Jinping was building a “Zhejiang faction” by promoting longtime acquaintances, some from the Nanjing Military Region of the People’s Liberation Army. Xi served in party posts located in that district.

The report is striking because Xi is at the same time attacking factionalism inside the Communist Party. “Banding together in gangs, forming cliques for private ends, or forming factions is not permitted,”  the official Xinhua News Agency stated after a December 29th meeting of the Politburo, the high party organ.

Xi’s attack on factionalism, while attempting to form a faction of his own, is roiling the Communist Party. 

Egypt and Saudi Arabia's Big Adventure

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and the Middle East decided on sooner: Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, and Egypt is prepping a ground invasion.

Why was this bound to happen? Because Yemen's Iranian-backed Shia Houthi movement is sweeping across the country in force. And if any two countries in the Sunni Arab world are going to get involved in that fight it will be Egypt and Saudi Arabia, partly because they're Yemen's neighbors and partly because that's how they roll. Egypt fought a long war in Yemen from 1962 to 1967 and the Saudis invaded Bahrain in 2011 to put down a Shia rebellion against the Sunni ruling house of Khalifa.

Iran has been a regional power since the time of the Persian Empire, and the current revolutionary regime that swept away the Shah in 1979 wants to restore Iran's place as a regional superpower. It's tricky, however. The overwhelming majority of the Middle East's population is Sunni and Arab while Iran is Shia and dominated by Persians. These ethnic and religious differences mean little to us in the West, but they mean everything in the Middle East. 

Much of the Arab world is fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and tribal lines, but Iran, despite its patchwork of Persians, Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, has long been a coherent nation-state. It rests atop the region's relatively temperate highlands and can easily project power down to the hot Arab lowlands below. Its preferred method these days is divide-and-conquer rather than direct confrontation, and it has been perfecting the art of sectarian proxy war since its Revolutionary Guard Corps founded Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982.

Yemen's Houthis are its latest project, and the neighbors are not going to stand for it. They'd rather have Al Qaeda take over the country, not because they swoon over Al Qaeda—they don't—but because sect in that part of the world, as ever, trumps ideology.

It's not just that the Houthis are at war with the Egyptians' and the Saudis' fellow Sunnis. Every Arab government in the region aside from Syria's and Iraq's fears and loathes the rise of Iranian power.

Egypt’s megalomaniacal former president Gamal Abdel Nasser got more than 20,000 Egyptian soldiers killed in his ludicrous bid to overthrow Yemen’s monarchy in the mid 1960s. “In this terrain,” Patrick Seale wrote in The New Republic in 1963, “the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.” But that disastrous doesn’t register as a loss any more than the disastrous war against Israel in 1973—which Egypt claims to have won—registers as a loss.

Egypt's current ruler General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi wouldn’t care either way. He's basically a 21st century version of Nasser, minus the latter's regional popularity. Throngs of Arabs outside Egypt aren't clamoring to be annexed by Cairo as they did during the 1950s, but Sisi is nevertheless as puffed up and full of himself and eager to restore Egypt as the rooster of the Arab world regardless of what anyone else over there thinks about it. Pulling a Nasser and stomping the Shias of Yemen wasn't inevitable when he seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood last year, but it became almost inevitable when the Gulf region cried out for help against Iranian malfeasance on the peninsula.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are Iran's bitterest enemies in the Arab world, and they share a border with Yemen. Saudi citizens on their own side of the border have long been linked to Yemen in the same way Vancouver, British Columbia, is more linked to Seattle and Portland than to Quebec. Riyadh is simply not going to tolerate Iranian adventurism so close to home in a region that overlaps with its own territory. If Iran succeeds in Yemen—and it might—there's nothing stopping Tehran from backing a Shia insurgency against the Saudi crown and the fanatical Sunni Wahhabis.

So here we are with yet another Middle Eastern civil war that's sucking in regional powers. The United States can stay out of it. The United States is going to stay out of it. The United States is less involved in Yemen right now despite the internationalization of the conflict than when the country was kinda sorta “stable” before the Arab Spring blew through the place and knocked everything sideways.

You might think from Western media coverage of the region that the Israelis are the only ones concerned about Iran's expansionist foreign policy and its nuclear weapons program, but that's only because Arab governments make less public noise about it in public. Look at what Arab governments are doing, however. While the Israelis groan about it on television and in Congress, the Arabs are going to war.

Ukraine as a Vital Security Interest for Europe

An American official in Brussels recently informed me of a meeting he had with a highly placed European Union diplomat during which the latter “stressed that Ukraine is an ‘almost existential’ issue for Europe.”

The phrase “almost existential” is worth looking at more closely. Existential issues concern the life or death of the subject concerned. A Russian attack on Germany would be an existential issue for Germany. A Russian attack on Tajikistan would be an existential issue for Tajikistan, but a non-existential issue for Germany. An almost existential issue for some country is thus something that almost concerns—or is almost equivalent to—the life and death of that country. Seen in this light, the claim that Ukraine is almost existential for Europe amounts to saying that Ukraine’s life or death is almost equivalent to the life or death of Europe.

Iran’s Latest Bait and Switch

Watching the P5+1 talks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the final scene of the classic movie Some Like it Hot. Remember it? Jack Lemmon has spent much of the film dressed as a woman, and as a result, has inadvertently won the affections of a smitten Joe E. Brown. Trying to back out of this entanglement, Lemmon gives Brown reason after reason why they can’t be married. The trouble is, nothing Curtis says is able to put Brown off. Desperate, Curtis finally removes his wig and shouts, “I’m a man!” But Brown simply smiles and says, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

America’s stance in the P5+1 talks has had more than a bit of the Joe E. Brown about it.

China’s Never-Ending ‘War on Pollution’

On Monday, the Beijing municipal government announced it would close the last of its major coal-fired generating stations. By next year, China Huaneng Group’s 845-megawatt plant will cease operations. The capital city shuttered another one in 2014 and two more last week. The closed facilities will be replaced by four new ones powered by clean-burning natural gas. Beijing’s notoriously dirty skies—its air is more than twice as bad as the Chinese national standard—should be cleaner as a result of the closures.

There is now a sense that Chinese leaders are starting to take the environment seriously. Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, at the National People’s Congress this month said he was reaffirming his March 2014 “declaration of war” against pollution.

Dealing with Iran: Get It in Writing

On March 25th, the New York Times reported that Iranian negotiators are resisting putting onto paper the yet-to-be-finalized political framework for a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program. Anyone who’s ever waited four months for a landlord to fix a leaky faucet he “promised” to fix “tomorrow,” knows the importance of the age-old adage, “Get It in Writing,” or as the seasoned diplomat and scholar Dennis Ross explains more eloquently, “As important as it is to forge conceptual understandings, they must still be translated into concrete agreements that get expressed in writing.”

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