Thursday, 31 May 2012

The dangerous spread of nuclear projects in the Middle East

The Jordanian parliament voted May 30 to suspend development of the country's first nuclear reactor and uranium-mining activities following misleading claims by officials about the project’s financing, DPA reported. Economic feasibility studies will be conducted before the project can move forward. "It is wrong to stop such a national nuclear project," government deputy Khalil Attiyeh remarked, suggesting that Jordan will continue to develop its nuclear program.

It is unlikely that Amman intends to wield their future nuclear capability in as belligerent a way as Tehran, but the development of the reactor is worth analysing from the perspective of how Middle Eastern countries are responding to Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Jordan’s ambition to develop a nuclear capability for energy generation is noteworthy given the current trends in the greater Middle-East. For a relatively large Arab country, ruled by a monarchy, Jordan has managed to maintain stability as the so-called Arab Spring continues to provoke unrest throughout the region.

By no means an historically contentious objector, Amman has nevertheless declined to confront the recent violence in Syria and rejected Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) requests to stage in Jordan an Arab intervention in Syria. Jordanian King Abdullah II is trying to balance domestic peace and the fulfilment of Jordan’s responsibilities as a GCC member. The royal family faces an existential crisis similar to Saudi Arabia’s if the internal equilibrium changes negatively and its energy problems worsen. Jordanians could begin to demand revolution.

The creation of a nuclear plant in Jordan is geopolitically important for Amman. Jordan relies heavily on Egyptian pipelines to deliver natural gas for much of its energy. But the frequency of pipeline attacks on the Egyptian side of the border, delaying gas deliveries, is compelling Amman to advance alternate energy projects.

More than 80 percent of Jordan’s electricity is generated from this imported Egyptian natural gas, and even though the sun shines roughly 95 percent of the year in Jordan there is little sign of renewable solar energy sources coming on-line to replace the natural gas. Also, making King Abdullah’s plans for a nuclear reactor sensible and timely, approximately 65,000 tons of naturally occurring uranium ore was discovered near the Amman in 2007.

Then there are the foreign policy obstacles. Iran and the P-5+1 countries will meet in Moscow on June 18-19 to try to conclude negotiations concerning Iran's nuclear program, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said May 24. Ms Ashton said both parties want progress but harbour substantial differences.

The fears among the P 5+1 centre around a potential tip in the region’s power balance towards Tehran if its nuclear goals are reached. There is growing assurance in Riyadh also that if Iran attains a nuclear weapon, they will fast-track a process to build their own bomb.

From the international community's perspective, stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon should ensure greater stability in the region and roll back the advancing Iranian influence. Removing the threat of a nuclear Iran retains what’s left of the strategic power balance in the region, even though Iranian conventional forces are currently superior in quality and size than most Middle Eastern counties. 

Iran has indicated on multiple occasions it intends to intimidate its neighbours with whatever nuclear weapon it devises. Saudi Arabia’s tight control of the petroleum market is an economic and national threat to the Islamic Republic. Since Iran receives much of its income from the sale of its abundant reserves of light crude oil, increased manipulation over the oil market is a desirable strategy for Tehran.

Altering the balance of power towards Iran and gaining greater control of the Persian Gulf turns out to be a geopolitical imperative for the Islamic Republic. If it can get hold of a nuclear weapon it would all but ensure that the oil-rich region is controlled by Tehran. Understandably, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid this scenario. Riyadh is probably not playing rhetorical games by threatening to build its own weapon either. 

What Riyadh is suggesting is nothing short of a dangerous arms race. This is the real danger of Middle Eastern nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia is probably the best situated nation financially to pursue such a project, but the race wouldn’t end there. It is unlikely that other Arab countries will sit idly by as their neighbours proliferate such weapons.

While Israel already possesses deliverable nuclear weapons, it has never deployed them in anger. Given the small size of Israel the tactical calculation of Israeli generals may lean towards pre-emptive targeting of the technology it it spreads any further in the region.

The Arab history of violence towards Israel predicts they will stamp out any emerging nuclear threats, a practice Israel excels at. Potential Israeli military plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites are fairly credible given how Israel has dealt with the nuclear ambitions of its neighbours in the past. But military strikes always have the potential to spiral out of control; just how fast and destructive an escalation would be if multiple Middle Eastern countries possess nuclear weapons is unknown.

It hasn't reached that point yet though. Jordan is not planning for nuclear energy with the ultimate result of a weapon in mind. The development of its program is so far strictly civilian. There is no guaranteeing however that the technology will not be enhanced to create a weapon in the future. With the US military no longer the dominant force in the Middle East, many of these states are relying less on unpredictable US power projection and taking direct measures to protect themselves militarily.

The strategy of mutually-assured destruction (MAD), the Cold War’s central strategic legacy, is unlikely to apply in the Middle East. Because rather than using their weapons on each other, the Arab regimes are more likely to bully weaker countries into submission to leverage their own national interests.

The P 5+1 discussions must bear this in mind. They need to treat all Middle Eastern nation's nuclear ambitions the same. Nuclear proliferation is not just a strategy designed to keep the so-called Nuclear Club doors firmly shut. Keeping unstable countries from attaining such weapons is an imperative for global security, therefore limiting nuclear technology in stable states is also a necessity. 

Monday, 28 May 2012

Syrian opposition groups and Riyadh's influence

Syrian forces killed two people as crowds of 2,000-3,000 civilians protested in Yalda and Daraya near Damascus on May 27, Reuters reported. Protests erupted following the May 25 killing of 109 civilians in Houla, including many children, opposition activists said.

The deaths of the civilians occur at a time when the Syrian opposition movement is spreading into a new stage. This phase is encouraging many non-state actors from around the region to join the fighting, and is hinting at the involvement of powerful Saudi Arabian state intelligence agencies trying to direct the outcome of the Syrian uprising.

Burhan Ghalioun, the head of Syria's Western-backed front, said that he will resign when his replacement is found. Mr Ghalioun announced this just days after he was re-elected president of the Syrian National Council (SNC) for another three-month term.

His announcement is in response to perceived disunity among the opposition groups. Syrian opposition groups have never been united in their demonstrations against the al Assad regime, which is a recurring pattern seen elsewhere in Libya and Egypt as those governments faced civilian discontent last year.

There is significant apprehension among Syrian rebels that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is too much influence having on the rebellion. The Islamist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is also concerning for the remaining Arab dictatorships and regimes. Saudi Arabia, the largest and wealthiest of these still-incumbent administrations, is working to marginalise the group’s political aspirations in the Levant and Middle East.

While the MB is itself a Sunni-dominated ideology that has developed into a potent political force, the Sunni oil-state of Saudi Arabia has been surprisingly negative towards it even though it officially recognises the group politically.

While the religious and ethnic similarities between the Saudis and the MB would seem to predict at least some rhetorical support, it is the ideological goals of the MB alarming the Saudis and retarding any reconciliation. This is because Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, and the republican fervour awakened by the MB throughout Arabia, North Africa, and the Levant is a direct threat to the continuation of Saudi palace rule.

Complicating this is that the Saudis are reportedly funding the delivery of weapons to other Syrian opposition groups. These groups are so split for political, ethnic, and religious reasons that it is difficult to predict where those funds and weapons might end up.

Because the Saudis distrust Sunni MB groups in Syria and their success in the rebellion potentially threatens Saudi interests in the whole region, the weapons will be supporting groups more closely aligned with Riyadh's goals.

Given the Saudi endorsement of a more Salafist form of Islamism at home (a move undertaken to quell the growing MB influence in Saudi Arabia), the weapons might find their way into the hands of Salafist groups. In some way, this funding is good news for external Syrian ex-pat supporters in places like Bern and Paris as it brings closer the possible fall of the al Assad regime.

These groups outside Syria are already looking towards a post-al Assad future. The Syrian National Council (SNC) presented an economic restructuring plan at a Friends of Syria meeting in the United Arab Emirates, Reuters reported May 24. Reconstruction for the first six months after the regime collapse would be about $US11.5 billion, an SNC representative said. This funding will be used primarily to support the nation's currency. The United Arab Emirates and Germany announced that they partnered to establish a reconstruction initiative in Syria and they pledged to provide $755,000 each, a German Foreign Ministry official said.

There are great risks in the SNC planning and the Saudi machinations in Syria. The SNC are relying on the collapse of the al Assad regime - an outcome that is far from assured - in order to move ahead.

There is very little planning for negotiating on the eventuality that Mr al Assad survives this unrest. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is confident he will succeed in the current turmoil, and so far appears to be holding out. But there are ways to forecast a threat to governments.

During an uprising inside a country, a key indicator of regime survival is the allegiance of the military. If military commanders rebel against their government, that regime will likely collapse. However a regime will probably survive if the generals believe their interests are better served by supporting the incumbent leaders.

The mostly Alawite (a minority group and Mr al Assad’s own ethnic identity) commanders of the Syrian military continue to indicate their support for Mr al Assad. Those troops who have defected are a mix of ethnic identities, but most do not appear to be Alawite. His government has lasted this long and its survival is not certain but the strong unity among the Syrian armed forces is portentous.

This threatens the SNC plans. Presuming the uprising will oust Mr al Assad from Damascus in the near term, and readying large sums earmarked for reconstruction after the regime is supposed to have already collapsed is a tenuous strategy for the SNC. But it is a plan the SNC leaders can at least frame as a clear goal, even if every rebel on the ground in Syria does not share their ideology.

The Saudi plans however, are not so definitive. Saudi support of Salafist Islamism in Syria may be strategically sound, given their distrust for all things Muslim Brotherhood at the moment. But the militarisation of opposition groups such as the al-Bara’ ibn Malik Martyrs Brigade, a group that has received vocal support from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of Al Qaeda Prime (AQP), is a short term strategy at best and not the kind of historical Saudi funding venture we have come to expect.

Especially so geographically close to the Saudi Kingdom, a group with jihadist tendencies and proven operational competence (the group conducted the high-profile attacks on the Syrian intelligence headquarters on Nov 6, 2011) could very well eventually spread down and cause unrest in the Saudi Kingdom.

The Saudis are aware a MB-dominated opposition in Syria would continue to fan the flames of Islamic republicanism in the region. And of course the collapse of the Iranian-backed al Assad regime is a desired outcome.

But Saudi princes must tread a fine line to achieve these goals. The changes sweeping the Middle-East over the past 12-16 months were mostly bypassing the Saudi kingdom. Yet the Saudis cannot be so sure of this remaining the case in the future. With so many players in the region vying for influence, the end-game is unclear and may not be to their liking. The Saudi family, if it is to remain in power, are doing everything they can to manipulate which players fall and which are left standing.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

A quick thought on evolution and teleology

Today I was re-digesting good conversations with a friend about religion and philosophy. I remember being struck by how he could accept both the theory of evolution and Christianity without the ideas clashing like two steamships in choppy waters. While natural selection does not rule out a creator-type god, nor does it specifically prove against one, a quick glance at the fossil record doesn’t show much teleological guidance or direction. Christianity relies on, no, needs for there to be a plan at the bottom of all this. For the religious, there has to be some semblance of direction or for this all to not be a cruel game or arbitrary experiment.

My friend sees nothing wrong with agreeing that life evolved over millions of years, accepting that evolution works through tiny incremental changes in response to environmental pressures, among other factors. For him evolution is absolutely compatible with the idea that god created all life and is most definitely still involved in its development today. While there’s no reason to believe he thinks god created life in today’s form at one distinct time in the past (as a creationist would), his inclusion of god in the natural process of evolution strikes is entirely redundant and dangerous for his belief. I want to try to explain why.

If life can start on its own (a proposition with a growing amount of evidence, but still no solid ideas on how exactly it might have happened on this earth) and if it is the case that life plods along slowly, adapting to environments by itself, no divine intervention necessary, then what role does an all-powerful creator god play? Sure, god could be responsible for all the changes. Perhaps it’s god who made the fish begin to breathe more gaseous oxygen and crawl out onto the dry shore. And perhaps god is causing all the small mutations making bacteria and viruses so damn resilient to our drugs. And further, I guess god could even direct where the amino acid groups fit in DNA structures, or even where the molecules and the very atoms of the molecules arrange inside an adenosine protein. And sure, god could ensure the strange quantum rules actually form the atom. God could do it all. God would be pretty tired from all this micromanagement, but who cares, it’s God we’re talking about!

This is all well and good, but something about this doesn’t seem right. If god is just a tinkerer, would there ever be a natural process? If god is in the details, just like his devilish antonym, how could saying god exists be any different from saying nature exists? Surely if god is at the bottom of everything like the turtles, then I would have to presume either god is tinkering with my atoms right now, or god actually IS my atoms. Maybe god and nature are the same thing, just like the eastern religions have said this whole time.

However, this doesn’t get us anywhere. If god really is doing everything, all the time, then what good is science? Of what possible use could the invented of a word like ‘nature’ be when we already have the word god? They both describe the same thing. Yet this is what you get if you purport some divine guidance for evolution. But thinking like this is a complete non-starter. After all, don’t you want to know HOW god does things? Don’t you want to know HOW to replicate these phenomena in a lab or in technology? Or is the idea that god does absolutely everything comforting enough not to care?

If god really is directing evolution, it must be assumed there’s a destination. God is proposed by the religious to have a plan (although how they would know of such a thing is beyond me). A direction proposes a destination. God has to be tinkering with life to get a result. But what is the end-game? Is it frogs? They’re pretty cool; maybe god has been working steadily for billions of years to finally create the Green Tree Frog species. Now god can watch them jump around on leaves and catch insects with their creepy tongues like the stupid looking things they are. Maybe god is keen to see how they camouflage themselves on bark or swim goofily through the water with their spindly legs. Or whatever god wants frogs for, I don’t presume to know what god wants, I’m not that arrogant. But if the whole purpose of evolution is frogs, then that’s cool with me.

I guess the Christian faith would have us believe that the ‘special’ homo sapiens is evolution’s destination. With us god’s tinkering was complete; god had found the end point of evolution, and god was pleased. It makes sense really; since god came down to earth in the form of a homo sapien then, obviously, god is some kind of ape. Of course, it also stands to reason that god appearing as an ape would be the smart move on god’s part if god wanted to talk to other apes. We’ve no idea if god also appears to frogs as a frog to talk to frogs. Or if god appears to rabbits as a rabbit to talk to rabbits. Or for that matter we have no idea whether god has assumed the form of every creature that has ever lived at any point in their evolution (or god wouldn’t have seen all the species) just to talk to them and save them from ‘sin’. We simply can’t know that, and god very well could have.

But if god’s mighty interfering in evolution was to eventuate the humble homo sapiens, then that’s fine too. Until you do a little more thinking. And here’s what’s been bothering me:

If you take the premise that the homo sapiens is the destination in the long, winding road of evolution, then you have to: a) agree to the vast age of the earth, b) agree with the theory of evolution, c) agree that natural selection has created and destroyed almost every species that has ever lived on this earth, and d) [this bit is optional] that evolution by natural selection is an on-going process.

All but (d) MUST be agreed to if we upright apes are the destination of god’s wonderful plan for evolution. But (d) is the problem, the fly in the ointment so-to-speak (biology puns). If evolution is an on-going process (and we can show definitively that this is the case) then it follows that evolution has not magically stopped as soon as humans arrived. Natural selection is still a force that humans, albeit in very minor ways, have to deal with each day. One of those nasty viruses might catch on a sneeze and destroy a fair chunk of our population. Or what if a natural disaster (sorry, a ‘god’ disaster) such as a rogue asteroid were to kill millions of people by ploughing into this spinning rock with the force of a million nuclear explosions? Anything could happen and humans might come off worse for wear.

That’s fine if you agree that no god controls anything (it’s a fine thought, but not a nice thought. Reality can be a depressing place sometimes…) but it’s a problem for any theist who thinks it’s all part of the plan. Consider what would happen if the next 100,000 years (a mere yawn in evolutionary time) was to be relatively asteroid-free down here on the third rock from the sun. A lot of evolution can happen in such a long time span. Granted it wouldn’t be enough time to see any radical changes in morphology on any one branch, but it would be enough to encourage speciation within many animal families. Surely if one agrees with the theory of evolution then it’s clear that humans are part of the living world and are therefore still subject to the biting claws of natural selection. In 100,000 years what are the chances of homo sapiens still being recognisable to us today? Very low I would predict. That is, such a time-span would probably result in a homo sapiens population becoming isolated and the inevitable speciation event occurring (perhaps this happens through some other process than isolation).

The point is, there is no evidence to support the theory that the homo sapiens are the final play of evolution. We’ve progressed technologically to the point of being able to offset much of the natural pressures that directly affect our survival, and the gene pool is large enough to dilute any significant morphological changes. But this doesn’t mean that evolution has been in closed off for our species. Our records can only reliably stretch back around 2000 years, and it shows humans looking and acting in pretty much the same way as today. But this is only 2% of the years I proposed earlier! What might occur in our species if we gave it another 98,000 years?

What if humans evolve away from what we are today? Does that mean that god didn’t intend for homo sapiens to be the final stage after all? What does that tell you about this god coming to earth as a homo sapien? Did god come too early? Was god mistaken in telling us we were who god was “most pleased” with? For that matter, did god also visit homo erectus or neanderthalensis? Those guys had brains comparable in size to ours, and, in the case of neanderthalensis, the brain was quite a bit larger than ours. What if humans evolve away from our current form, will god send down his son as a saviour for those post-human creatures too? Maybe god will tell them that it is their “sins” that are keeping them from entering heaven and they need to turn their ‘homo whatever’ hearts towards god.

For me, this whole idea of god and evolution being compatible falls apart when you consider not only how long evolution has been working in the past, but how long it probably still has to go into the future. Don’t stop thinking about the next 100,000 years, stretch your mind a bit more and visualise the next 200,000 or 1,000,000 or even the next 20,000,000. Keep going, if you can, and think how earth life might look in the next 600,000,000 years. Will homo sapiens still be around then? Maybe (if we can develop technology to a point where evolution no longer affects us), but I highly doubt it. I rather think the homo sapien will go the way of the dodo or the plesiosaur: extinction and into the great rubbish pile of failed species.

If god really is a tinkerer, working away furiously each and every second on each and every piece of the universe (even the bits we’ll never see in the Andromeda galaxy; can’t forget those atoms!), and there really is no natural processes at all, then I guess we just might be the destination of evolution. But you’d have to be incredibly short-sighted not to even ponder what things might look like in the distant future.

Maybe it will all end soon, just like the bible-bashers say it will. Maybe the universe is about to wrap-up and humans really will be the final stage of our small evolutionary branch on this isolated planet orbiting a mediocre star in a run-down stellar neighbourhood inside a rudimentary whirlpool galaxy. Yes, perhaps we are the final scene, but I’m not narcissistic enough to believe such rubbish. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

NATO summit displays serious scaling back of influence

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) leaders gathered in Chicago for a summit to discuss security decisions of the future. The summit is one of the largest in history with over 60 nations participating, including non-NATO countries. Leaders will examine how to maintain and improve security in an age of austerity and serious economic challenges, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the press ahead of the meeting, reported May 20.

Although the summit was broad, the exclusion of certain countries makes it also one of the most interesting. Vladimir Putin, the recently re-elected president of Russia, declined an offer to attend the meeting citing civil responsibilities at home.

Mr Putin won last month’s Russian election convincingly, securing his hold on the Kremlin for his third and final ruling term. His control was arguably never lost, even as he rescinded direct management over the Russian government to Dmitri Medvedev, his current prime minister, in the previous presidential term. It is widely believed that Mr Putin was directing Russian policy from behind the stage the whole time.

Russia is less worried about NATO development than it is about dealing with its own internal economic problems. Therefore Mr Putin’s decision to remain at home this weekend was not entirely a smokescreen.

Indeed, his decision is partly the result of stalemated diplomacy between NATO and Russia over the positioning of a ballistic missile defence (BMD) shield in Turkey, Poland, and Romania. Russia is not convinced the planned shield is for deterring rising Middle Eastern powers such as Iran. It fears the shield plan will not only protect Eastern Europe and change balance of Central European defence, but also interfere with Russia’s own ballistic missile emplacements and early-warning radar (EW).

In fact, Russia is so concerned about BMD that Kremlin officials recently stated that Russia considers “pre-emptive strikes” as possible if they are to go ahead. Such specific threats indicate Russia believes they are a direct military provocation to Russia from NATO.

It is quite likely however that Russia need not worry about any NATO threat. NATO countries are not only facing a prolonged period of funding cuts for their militaries, but the institution itself has decayed significantly over the past decade. NATO, at initial formation, was expected to function as a team with the US doing the heavy lifting. European countries were encouraged to maintain their militaries with a semblance of personal responsibility against the threat of Russian tanks rolling across the North European Plain.

NATO’s problem today, as the Libya campaign demonstrated, is its creeping irrelevancy and incapability. The intervention in Libya showed that NATO struggle to agree to commit forces, with France and Germany very publicly disagreeing on direction.

America assisted in the intervention in Libya in a logistical and support capacity, and true to its role, did much of the work to enforce the no-fly zone over the North African country. Many NATO countries could not get permission to use their missiles in battle and were on station flying patrols as more of a representative presence instead of a direct strike role. European aircraft flew the bulk of the 26,500 sorties, but only a handful of countries allowed their pilots to use their weapons.

Indeed, the bureaucratic morass in many NATO governments considerably slows any timely military interventions. The US now accounts for over 80 percent of NATO defence spending, up from 60 percent in 1980. This is a huge increase which is starting to expose vulnerabilities in current NATO expeditions.

Most International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan are mainly deployed to peaceful regions of the South Asian country and away from restive areas like Kandahar and Helmand. Their limited equipment and hesitant political decision-making severely limits how those troops can be deployed. Indeed, when United States General Stanley McCrystal recommended a surge of troops into the country in 2009, he specifically requested that it should be US troops who consist of the surge, not ISAF.

NATO as an institution was created to limit Russian westward advance into Europe during the Cold War. Russia is unprotected by any significant natural geographical barriers on its western flank and therefore must push west until it reaches some. This geopolitical imperative has resulted in heavy Russian influence in Eastern European affairs for over 50 years, especially in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and the Baltic states.

In response to this, NATO unified Western Europe against the encroaching Russian influence. In fact, during the weekend’s summit the Baltic States requested a more permanent NATO military presence over their nations to deter Russia as the Kremlin begins to grow in power and ambition. It was subsequently announced by NATO commanders that air patrols would be increased over Lithuania and Estonia.

Today the Soviet Union is a relic of history but Russian geopolitical imperatives remain real. As Russia stirs up support in Eastern Europe to maintain its strategic buffer, the very existence of NATO and all that it entails encourages those states to look favourably towards the defence organisation.

Being part of NATO theoretically ensures protection and inclusion into a strong EU economic system which continues to perform despite serious fiscal issues. However, the NATO ability to conduct war is becoming limited as budgetary constraints begin to take effect.

What is most striking about the NATO dissipation, especially the two factors of lowered capability and a growing European distaste for all things military, is that some countries in Central Europe are creating their own non-NATO defence alliances as a replacement. For instance, the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) is a battlegroup independently preparing to address the return of Russian influence.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
visits ISAF troops in Afghanistan
Stuck between two aggressive historical enemies, Germany and Russia, and realising that NATO support may not be reliable in the long term, Poland has to find a way to protect its interests. NATO leadership does not appear to be betting on any serious future geopolitical horrors, perhaps because of the relative calm it has experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Poland is less sure of this future and, given its history, it makes a great deal of sense to arrange a back-up plan.

NATO may be a shell of its former self, but it is still useful as an organisation. Not only does it keep a restless Europe passive, especially an increasingly fidgety Germany, it is a natural extension of the growing US empire.

Washington encourages NATO involvement in US foreign policy, thereby supplying a convincing veneer of legitimacy to its actions. It is clear in hindsight for instance, that if NATO had been afforded a greater role in the initial stages of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, those campaigns may have been prosecuted differently. It is always good to have conflicting opinions around the table when organising military strategies. Certainly, a less unilateral approach to those wars would have smoothed the reconstruction progress and perhaps weakened the sectarian violence.

Ultimately it is the Eastern Europeans who are worried about the steady Russian return to their affairs, not the Central Europeans. In fact, Germany is quite positive towards greater Russian political and economic influence.

The eastern European states have already begun to take matters into their own hands to deal with a returning Russia while Central Europe is distracted by a deep economic hole and general ambivalence towards Russia. NATO is still useful, but the question is: for how long will it remain a useful tool?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Rising Australia, marginalised Pakistan, and the US strategic realignment

Alongside the Group of Eight (G8), the United States hosted the NATO Summit over the weekend. Both are two important gatherings of the world’s most powerful leaders, bringing them together to focus on critical global issues such as the global Economic Crisis and the military operations in South Asia. The NATO Summit will be especially important as the Afghanistan departure timeline for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be discussed.

The Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is among the notable major non-NATO ally invitations to the Summit in Chicago. Ms Gillard’s attendance reflects the Australian Defence Forces contribution to the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Given the recent positive political overtures between Washington and Canberra in 2012, it is not surprising the Australian leader was invited.

Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, seen in May 2011
Washington has created an agreement with Canberra for 2,500 Marines to deploy in the Australian Northern Territory by 2016-17, with the first 250 already arrived near the Australian city of Darwin.

The US government is also discussing leasing arrangements with Canberra to potentially base troops on the Cocos Islands, a small archipelago located almost 3000 kilometres (1800 miles) from Perth in the Indian Ocean.

Because the islands are too far from any economically important waterways, such as the Strait of Malacca, to be strategically convenient there is some speculation the islands could be used for US unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance of ocean transit routes. UAVs flying from the Cocos Islands will broaden the coverage of the Indian Ocean currently being surveilled from Diego Garcia, the US airbase and listening station.

Japan and Australia on May 18 also signed an intelligence-sharing agreement, Japan Today reported. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba met in Tokyo to sign the agreement. The two nations are strategic partners and need to increase the strength of their security relationship, Mr Gemba said.

This and other agreements are increasing Australian confidence in the Asia-Pacific region. Canberra is also re-engaging its near-abroad and assisting in security in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, long considered by successive Australian governments as marginal threats. But as Chinese economic power in the Melanesian Island chain rises, Canberra's continuing sanctions of the Fiji junta will do nothing to counteract Chinese influence and fails to meaningfully advance diplomatic relations between Suva and Canberra.

Australia is not threatened by Fiji, but it does have interests there. The small island nation is governed by a military junta which plans to draft a constitution by early 2013. Australia has diplomatically maligned Fiji because of the junta but the re-focusing of US strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region, and the changing dynamics of Australia-US and Fiji-US bilateral relations, is encouraging Canberra to at least demonstrate that it is working on improving security in the region by finding agreement with Suva.

NATO supply convoy en route to Afghanistan 
Canberra is rethinking its strategy towards Suva as a policy of self-preservation. Australia does not have the resources to design a defence force to confront the growing Chinese naval influence, and must rely on US protection.

However, Australia has plenty of experience in the Melanesian Island chain to assist Washington as it escalates its presence there in the coming years. But aside from leasing geographically important real-estate to the US government and supplying cultural knowledge and intelligence, Canberra can do little else to effectively assist the US.

This leaves Australia in the awkward position of needing US protection for its interests yet without the ability to reciprocate effectively outside its own economic zones, leaving it largely dependent on the Washington’s strategic focus.

Canberra is trying to offset this dependency by purchasing advanced military hardware to bolster its force projection and is starting to advance relations with neighbouring island nations like Fiji. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s inclusion in the recent NATO Summit can be viewed as a reflection of Canberra’s increasing importance in the global community, especially to Washington.

Perhaps the most notable event in Chicago’s NATO Summit is the US refusal to initially invite Pakistan to the talks. While NATO eventually rescinded and invited Islamabad, US-Pakistan tensions were distastefully apparent. US President Barack Obama refused to see Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, during the talks because Mr Zardari arrived without intention to discuss the closed NATO supply route through Pakistan, The Guardian reported May 21.

The locked supply routes have forced US Central Command (CENTCOM) and ISAF forces to rely on the expensive Northern Distribution Network (NDN) that runs mostly overland through Russia and Central Asian states from ports in the Baltic and Black Seas.

Mr Obama attended the NATO Summit but Mr Zardari had to meet on the sidelines with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, an indication of US frustration with Pakistan. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said May 20, that NATO cannot solve the Afghanistan problem without Islamabad, and that the reopening of the supply route was crucial. Mr Zardari rejoined briefly that US drone strikes inside Pakistan are a serious compounding factor to the route remaining closed

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Islamabad closed the Pakistan Supply Route on November 26, 2011 after a border skirmish resulted in 26 Pakistani troops killed by US gunfire. Pakistan also called for the cessation of UAV flights from Pakistani airbases in retaliation to the border strikes, backtracking later after intense US pressure. Focused diplomacy between the US and Pakistani governments are currently trying to reopen the supply route.

Pakistan is unlikely to remain so immovable on this issue, but if the behaviour of and tensions between NATO and Islamabad on the weekend are indicative of anything, it is that Pakistan holds the advantage geographically over ISAF. Ultimately it will be poverty and government deficits in Pakistan that will force Pakistani leaders to open the route once more. But it is a good bet that Islamabad will use their power of closure to squeeze more beneficial concessions from Washington. 

Australia and Pakistan are two nations separated by both culture and distance, yet they share a common interaction with the world’s only superpower. Pakistan has more control over its predicament than Australia, as shown by the recent supply route spat, but it is still only a temporarily useful country for Washington. Once the Afghan theatre closes in late 2014, US military aid should drop significantly.

However, Australia is a politically mature country and has some of the resources to become a significant regional player. Likewise, Pakistan has used the US distraction in Afghanistan to attract billions of dollars of US aid to build up an effective military-intelligence apparatus poised to dominate Afghanistan once the US end combat operations in 2014.

But that is where the similarities end. Canberra and Islamabad are treated very differently by Washington, and ultimately it will be Australia that receives long-term meaningful US support. While Pakistan will probably fade into a power-balance with India, effectively locking it up for the future. Just as Washington intends.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Yemen engages Al Qaeda in fresh fighting

Backed by local tribesmen, Yemeni troops killed 45 militants in the Dovas and al Harour regions of Abyan province, Yemen's Defense Ministry said May 16, Xinhua reported. A military official in Aden said 15 soldiers were killed in militant battles near Yasouf Mountain.

Two militants and eight civilians were killed in two strikes in Jaar in southern Yemen on May 15, witnesses said, AFP reported. Two al Qaeda militants died in the first strike and residents who had gathered around the scene were killed by a second strike, unnamed witnesses said. Twenty-five civilians were wounded. It is not clear whether the Yemeni air force or U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles carried out the attacks. Meanwhile, two soldiers were killed in clashes between the Yemeni army and al Qaeda militants around Loder, an unnamed army official said, adding that 13 members of the Popular Resistance Committees fighting jihadists alongside the army were also wounded.

The on-going military operations in southern Yemen are part of a concerted effort by the transitional government to quell unrest as it tries to stabilise the government. Military reports suggest that perhaps 20,000 Yemen troops have participated in five days of coordinated assaults in the province of Abyan. The offensive has left at least 144 dead, including 98 Islamist fighters, 20 soldiers and 16 civilians.

Beginning on May 12, the new Yemeni president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi ordered government troops to confront the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), also known as Ansar al-Sharia, a militant group that has made southern Yemen a stronghold. According to western diplomats in Sanaa, the US is supplying advisors to the Yemen military operations. Those US troops are deployed in an air base near al-Anad, Al Bawaba reported May 16.

U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order that will give the Treasury Department power to impose sanctions on those who obstruct a November 2011 power transition agreement in Yemen, The Wall Street Journal reported May 16. The sanctions will freeze U.S. assets and property of the individuals and will not allow U.S. citizens to engage in transactions with them.

The order did not name any individuals who could be hit with the sanctions. A Treasury Department official said the order allows the government to target individuals and entities inside and outside of Yemen who threaten Yemeni peace, security or stability.This executive order effectively makes the policy of past few years of US drone strikes in Yemen perfectly legal going into the future. And there is no sign of the Americans backing down any time soon, with unconfirmed reports of US naval units involved in this week’s fighting.

The US has conducted drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 when an RQ-1 Predator fired a missile striking a vehicle containing AQAP leader Qaed Senyan Abu Ali al-Harithi. Since then, hundreds of AQAP members have been targeted including the American editor of the Jihadist magazine ‘Inspire’ and AQAP member Anwar al-Awlaki. His death was significant as it was Awlaki who was the main force behind the Al Qaeda nodes efforts to become a transnational terrorist group. And it was Awlaki who was the single most effective jihadist advisor in the region.

Because of this, both US-Yemen forces and AQAP have played cat and mouse, with the terrorist group sustaining heavy losses. However, the group has been the most active of the Al Qaeda franchises, deploying the so-called ‘Underwear Bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to the United States in 2009. This and other significant attacks focused the attention of US intelligence agencies on Yemen, the CIA using the nearby Djibouti air base, Camp Lemonier, to launch airstrikes and command drones against AQAP.

But Yemen, a country without properly defined borders, has found it difficult to abrogate the threat from al Qaeda. During 2011 and into 2012, the country underwent drastic civil unrest spurred on by militant groups against the then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. As Yemen quickly fell into uncontrollable militancy, Saudi Arabia launched its own strikes on Yemeni rebels in the nebulous border region of northern Yemen. But up until this week, Yemen government troops have not conducted military strikes of division strength due to the political uncertainty in Sanaa as the Saleh government transitions to a successor government.

The addition of US advisors in Yemen amongst this week’s operations is expected. The US has injected a lot of resources into countering the AQAP threat in Yemen; this includes supporting the government in Sanaa. US drone strikes and advisors will be only part of the military package promised to Yemeni president Hadi. Usually, any Special Forces presence is indirectly indicated by the admission of advisors or experts working with local forces. Two US aircraft carrier groups are currently stationed in the 5th fleet area of responsibility (AOR), along with a Big-deck amphibious warfare ship loitering off the southern coast of Yemen. Conventional strike aircraft can be launched from these platforms to assist Yemeni ground troops therefore it is very likely that US Special Forces teams are on the ground in Yemen directing airstrikes. Some reports suggest US Special Forces are directing Yemeni strike aircraft and artillery.

It is difficult to see a decisive end to the current military engagements. AQAP have shown remarkable resilience in the past few years fortifying themselves in Yemen’s southern tribal areas, the true Yemen demographic core, apparently even marrying into local tribes. US-Yemen forces are attempting to engage the remaining Al Qaeda fighters to keep them occupied in the south while the transitional government consolidates in the north. The buffer being created should give Sanaa ample time to craft a position of legitimate power as the country tries to recuperate from the unrest.

The Yemeni government faces uncertainty in the coming months and is trying to intensify the battle against AQAP and other militants. Al Qaeda has fed on the chaos in Yemen and the inherent political problem of maintaining such a vast, almost deserted interior in which resident Yemenis feel little affiliation with the government in Sanaa. US interests in the region are currently being managed with drones, Special Forces, and aid, so it is unlikely any further military assistance will be allocated. For the time being, Sanaa appears to have made a significant dent in AQAP operational ability. But this will only be confirmed when the dust settles in a few days and both sides return to lick their wounds and count their dead.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Syrian truce fractures, Israel looks to capitalise

The Israeli intelligence community has changed its view on Syrian President Bashar al Assad and now believes Israel will benefit if al Assad is removed from office, Israeli Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi told U.S. officials during a secret meeting in New York two weeks ago, Haaretz reported May 16, citing an unnamed European diplomat. Mr Kochavi said Israel believes the al Assad's regime will fall, with the only question being when, the diplomat said.

Mr Kochavi secretly visited Washington and the United Nations' headquarters in New York two weeks ago, Haaretz reported May 16. He met with senior White House and State Department officials as well as Defence Department Intelligence and CIA officials, according to an unnamed senior Israeli official. In Washington Mr Kochavi primarily discussed Iran's nuclear program, while in New York his focus was the crisis in Syria and Hezbollah's increasing power in Lebanon.

For the past few weeks Israel has been quiet regarding the security situation in Syria. Yet silence from Jerusalem is usually far more intriguing than noise. Syrian instability directly affects Israel, as potentially armed Islamist groups infiltrate their border in the north and because of the inexorable spread of Iranian influence.

Either way Israel feels it needs to remain involved in Syria somehow. As the situation escalates away from the tentative UN-arbitrated truce between Mr al Assad and the demonstrators, Israel will be keeping a close eye on events.

Nine people were killed and 40 wounded May 14 when Syrian regime forces shelled Rastan, a town 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Homs on Syria's main northern highway, Free Syrian Army (FSA) sources said, Reuters reported.

Rastan was hit by shells and rockets at a pace of one per minute starting at 3am and the town was destroyed, an unnamed FSA member said, adding that FSA commander Ahmad Ayoub was among those killed. FSA fighters battled army forces that included elite units and members of military intelligence, the source said. Whatever truce was in place is surely shattered now.

While it is unclear yet whether the violence of previous months will return, the fervour of the demonstrators appears not to have dissipated. Ceasefires are strategically useful as resupply opportunities and regroup plans can be conducted without threat of attack.

Syrian government troops have indeed used the brief interlude to fortify and reposition their forces around key areas in Syria. The rebels have probably not wasted the precious time either, and if the intelligence community is correct, the Syrian demonstrators are receiving covert assistance from outside powers in the form of weaponry and training.

Israel wants to get involved in the conflict because it is wary a strong Syria would effectively extend and solidify Iranian influence in a crescent from Central Asia through to the Mediterranean. Many Islamist groups in the Levant such as Hezbollah already receive instruction from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Israel has fought scrappy, battles with this group all but destroying their operational capability in Lebanon. But since 2006, the Shiite Islamist group continues to receive military assistance from Iran via Syria, and Mr al Assad was never hesitant to support the terrorist group as a legitimate entity.

The intelligence community in Israel and the US has known of the links between Persian power and various militant groups in the region for some time. Indeed, the Iranians do not hide their aid of the groups.

Iran can field probably the largest conventional military force in the Middle East now that the US military has left Iraq. Tehran has enough troops to blackmail any country aside from Turkey if the US were not to intervene - including Israel. Hezbollah in the past has attacked Israel and retreated both into Lebanon and Syria. This is why Israel is concerned with the current unrest in Syria.

Although the al Assad regime supports Hezbollah and itself is directly influenced by the Iranian government, Damascus probably still has the strength to contain and control militant actors within its borders. Mr al Assad and Tehran understand that, regardless of how much they may wish it, premature attacks on Israel by their militant proxies would bring aggressive retribution from a very capable Israel Defence Force (IDF). Besides, there are more pressing concerns at the moment.

Israel currently has friends in high places and a joint US-IDF retaliation would break Syria. Quieting the unrest in Syria and holding onto the leash of their militant proxies are of primary concern for Iran. For Tehran to be successful in the Levant, Mr al Assad must remain in power and in control of the country. Iran needs to retain the status quo.

But both Israel and the US are aware of these imperatives. They have been trying to counter Iranian movements in Syria since the unrest began in 2011. The intelligence community of both countries fear the demonstrations are the result not just of civil unrest, but Islamist groups travelling to the area.

Israel isn’t the only country to voice these concerns. Moscow believes that terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, carried out recent suicide bombings in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said on Monday.

At least 55 people were killed and over 370 were injured in two explosions on a highway near the capital, Damascus, on May 10. “Terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, are behind the recent acts of terror in Syria, including al-Qaeda,” Gatilov said. “There are confirmed reports indicating that armed rebel groups enlist mercenaries from Libya and other Arab countries.”

Therefore there may be more to this high-level conference of intelligence officials than immediately meets the eye.

Neither Israel nor the US intelligence community wish for the Iran-Syria collaboration to intensify in the region. The potential for extended Iranian influence concreting is too high, but the possibility Syria will collapse and Islamist groups take over if Mr al Assad falls is probably not as high at this point.

There is the very real chance that Israel-US intelligence are using Islamist militants in Syria to destabilise the al Assad government. By overseeing or indirectly assisting such groups, Israel could bring down the regime thereby limiting Iranian influence permanently. This would then create a situation in which a more conducive government for Israel and US interests could take Mr al Assad’s place.

The Syrian rebel's current inability to unite also fits into Israel-US goals. If Mr al Assad steps down or is forced from power, a Sunni government may form. Having a Sunni majority government would act as a natural counterweight to Shiite Iran and might ensure continued Israeli security for the future. Regardless, Israeli intelligence is working hard to ensure the result of Syrian unrest is beneficial for Jerusalem.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Greece struggles to remain financially afloat

Speculation that Greece will exit the European Union is "propaganda," Eurogroup Chairman Jean-Claude Juncker said, adding that the May 14 Eurozone finance ministers meeting was not devoted to that topic, Xinhua reported. Greece must commit to the terms of the 130 billion euro ($NZ167 billion) bailout by the EU, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund but exceptional circumstances such as extending deficit target dates could be discussed in the future, Mr Juncker said.

Greece's bailout program offers the only means by which the country's economy can recover, German government spokeswoman Steffen Seibert said May 14, AFP reported. Germany believes the program's terms and its duration are the right stance, Ms Seibert said, adding that Greece's political forces need to create a workable majority government.

The European Commission wants Greece to remain in the Eurozone, but Athens must respect the bailout terms, Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said, Reuters reported.

Greece will pay a $NZ430 million bond that matures May 15, an unnamed Greek official said, Reuters reported. This bond is a small step in the right direction for struggling Greece - a step Athens needs to take to stay afloat - but the time is fast approaching when the decision to retain Greece in the European Union may fall to larger countries.

It now seems eons ago when Greek civil planners thought it important to enter into the Olympic club and host the astronomically expensive world-class games in Athens. Such a thing is best forgotten now, lest we remember the naivety of thinking Greece could dabble in entertainment luxuries as others in Northern European countries worked hard to pay for them.

The May 6 elections in Greece did not produce a clear one-party victory. Of the two main rival parties, the centre-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the centre-right New Democracy (ND) both combined for a total of about 33 percent of the vote. This is down from the 77 percent they shared in 2009, a spread that has strengthened non-traditional Greek political parties.

Voters finally exasperated with the elite’s plodding attitude to the woeful economic situation are shifting their votes to fringe parties in protest, a trend predicted to continue in Greece and throughout Europe in 2012.

The ND and PASOK are the political parties of two powerful families. But the ability of the ND and PASOK to steer Greece towards economic safety (an outcome hypothetical at best) is greatly weakened as minor parties gain influence.

This loss of political control by Greek elites has created a stalemate. The outcome of the election is that they need to try again and hope for different results. Simply making decisions is difficult if there is no semblance of control and all but impossible if the splinter parties cannot agree on a coalition. Although bickering politicians is not the only cause of Greece’s problems.

Greece has always struggled with its geographical location. The Greek mainland, where large cities such as Athens, Corinth and Thessaloniki are located, is mountainous with little contiguous arable land. During invasions in the past this has been a strategic blessing, but in the modern era the lack of arable land has strangled the Greek economy.

Indeed, the true strategic core of Greece is the Aegean Sea and the archipelago of  islands. A great deal of Greece’s landmass is in these thousands of islands. But aside from strategic value, they do not create the necessary details of strong economy and they stretch precious Greek resources. Indeed, not until Greece was included in the European Union in 1981 did the country see an industrial, modern economy.

Greece is rumoured to be discussing an honourable exit from the Eurozone to climb out of the debt spiral dragging the Euro-periphery down. Reverting back to the drachma would give Athens a competitive edge in global markets, theoretically, but the Greek economy is almost entirely artificial. Greek exports are slim and contribute very little to overall GDP.

Just being part of the Eurozone has exposed Greece to unprecedented easy capital drawn from richer European countries such as Germany and France.

Athens has lived well for the last three decades, building their infrastructure on other people’s money. Now comes the point where long-expected fiscal discipline looms on the horizon and the ability to maintain this lifestyle with Greek exports alone is next to impossible. Significant downsizing is inevitable.

A reversion to the drachma is not the favoured choice for Athens, neither is it for Berlin or Paris. If Greece departs from the relative safety of the Eurozone, investor confidence and speculation would dissipate on the continent and something of a domino effect in the periphery countries may occur.

After all, if Greece can be allowed to fall, which country would be next? Spain, Portugal and Ireland are not faring much better than Greece. Italy is predicted to be strong for the meantime, but it is not an exaggeration to say the situation is tenuous in the EU going into the second quarter of 2012.

Greece's inclusion in the EU required the signing of treaties. One of which strictly forbids any member from printing Euros for its own consumption. This task is controlled by the European Central Bank (ECB). If Greece were to reintroduce the drachma on top of their participation in the EU, they would be held in contempt of this treaty. This is not to mention the horrors of a plummeting devaluation of currency Greece would experience.

Ultimately, the Greek decision to stay in the Eurozone sits with Germany. Life is smooth in Germany; the problems on the Mediterranean seem far away from one of the world’s best performing countries. If Greece collapses by shove or by gravity, Germany does not seem too overly bothered.

What will only amount to around 8 percent of German GDP if Berlin were to “purchase” Greek debt, is still not the preferred method to fix the crisis. Berlin would rather Greece fixed itself. It appears that although Germany fought two wars last century to wrest control of the European continent, when Berlin is presented with an opportunity to snatch hegemony through the power of economics, it simply can’t bring itself politically to take the last step.

Germany instead consoles itself with the plan that printing more Euros will eventually move them past this blot on their history. The truth is that the Southern European states are close to Depression-era market reactions and real people will suffer if nothing is done soon.

Far from being “propaganda”, Greek elites are seriously contemplating the potentialities of their departure from the imploding Eurozone. The problem remains though: what helpful decisions are left to make that will not fracture Europe?

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Egyptian courts suspend elections, controls election timing

A low-level administrative court in provincial Benha, Egypt, ruled May 9 to suspend Egypt's May 23 presidential elections, saying the Supreme Elections Commission overstepped its mandate and that only the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is authorized to call elections, AP reported. The ruling will be appealed in Cairo on May 10, AFP reported, and a lawyer and judicial official said the decision likely will be overturned since it was based on a technicality.

The suspension of the Egyptian elections does not cancel the planned elections outright. The ruling came from a provincial court, and because of that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has some options ahead.

The SCAF promised to hold presidential elections this year but it has become clear they will be at a time and place of their choosing. The SCAF will take advantage of the evolving Egyptian political climate and call elections when the feel they will gain the most from them, even if it means they must manipulate the climate in some way.

But right now, the SCAF controls Egypt. There was some reshuffling of the parliament following the protests of 2011 in which Islamist parties won seats, but the Egyptian parliament has no real power. The military regime Hosni Mubarak led, before his forced resignation, is still firmly in place. Although a strategic retreat of SCAF leaders convinced many Egyptians the ruling regime had changed, the SCAF remain firmly in control.

Earlier this month, the SCAF announced plans for a move towards governmental change. Egypt's ruling military council planned to hand over power before June 30 and elections in Egypt were to continue as scheduled despite clashes, Gen. Mahmoud el-Assar said May 3, Reuters reported.

Other Egyptian political parties considered this an important date. Not because the Egyptian public might finally get a semblance of democratic values, but because it was presumed that a fresh president would take over the powers currently held by the SCAF.

However, given the politics and reputations of the SCAF leaders, they are unlikely to surrender total authority after decades of power in the important Middle East country. It may be the case that if they feel sufficiently threatened, an election might not be held at all.

During the Egyptian protests of early 2011, it was assumed by many in the West that the demands of the demonstrators were for democracy to replace an authoritarian regime. The media narrative of the ‘Arab Spring’ described hordes of discontented, bitter Egyptians rising up demanding a change.

The truth is more complex. Many Egyptians yearn for Western-style democracy, especially the educated, English-speaking youth, but the majority of the demonstrations were driven by Islamist political parties such as offshoots of the popular Muslim Brotherhood (MB). They have very different dreams for Egypt than the pro-democracy demonstrators and the SCAF are doing everything in their power to subvert the potential for an Islamist-led government in Cairo.  

Holding elections in Egypt is not as important to the SCAF as limiting that Islamist influence. Throughout the Arab world, in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria, the transitional or incumbent governments are deeply concerned about domestic Islamist movements.

Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) amended a law May 2 banning political parties organised by religion, tribe or ethnicity, AFP reported. Members of the NTC judicial committee read the amended version of the law governing party formation without mentioning the ban. The ban was announced to test the public's reaction, an NTC member said. The Libyan transitional government is still highly fractured but collectively concerned over the potential for an Islamist-led ruling council in a future government.
Syria faces not only civil unrest from anti-government forces. Unverified reports from inside Syria suggest that Islamist groups are perpetrating attacks to further their own agenda in the Levant. An explosion occurred May 9 that hit cars accompanying UN monitors in the Deraa Province and injured eight Syrian guards, Reuters reported, citing a pro-government news channel.

None of the monitors, including the head of the UN observer mission to Syria, Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, were harmed in the incident, AFP reported. While two explosions May 10 hit the Qazaz neighbourhood of Damascus, where a Syrian intelligence agency has its headquarters, AP reported. The blasts happened at about 7:50am. Syrian President Bashar al Assad has in the past blamed what he terms "jihadist insurgents" for a number of assaults on government buildings, including suicide attacks.

This is why the SCAF are keen to hold onto control of Egypt. There are multiple parties ready to submit candidates for whatever election is planned. Some of them are more desirable for the SCAF than others, but it is uncertain if the military would retain enough power if any were elected.

The SCAF want to ensure that Islamist parties do not gain control of Egypt through the election process. Islamists dominated the protests in early 2011 and the MB has displayed reasonable amounts of popular support for its agenda, so this once-banished group could achieve success in an election if it were to be held soon.

Therefore, even though the recent court ruling may be appealed and overturned in the coming days, the SCAF will only continue to support elections if it suits them. A provincial court, like the one issuing the suspension, surely was not acting without the permission of the ruling military elites in Cairo.

This actually points to a potential manipulation of the Egyptian judicial system if the SCAF feels such an action will help facilitate a legitimate cancellation. The ease with which the elections could be wiped away if there are sufficient worries about the outcome doesn't elicit much optimism for the rival political parties success.  

The voting Egyptian public may not be happy with the decision to suspend the May 23 elections, but the SCAF will gauge their reaction and move accordingly. Increasing civil unrest would prompt them to punish the provincial judge in question and announce a new process for elections.

But the lack of any heated public response would only encourage the SCAF to maintain the suspension. Right now the SCAF can cancel or continue any election plans as they see fit, they just have to make sure their public relations plans are calibrated correctly to deal with any response.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

China moves to break from its containment

Final arrangements are being made for China's most senior uniformed military officer, Gen. Guo Boxiong, to visit Japan and South Korea from May 24-28, Kyodo reported May 8. During the visit the general is expected to meet with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and hold talks with Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka.

In maintaining close ties with both Japan and South Korea, especially militarily and strategically, Gen. Guo Boxiong hopes to continue the close partnership between the three countries. This has not always been entirely straightforward.

All three countries have experienced enormous growth since the end of World War II, positioning themselves as regional powers with global significance. This power balance, while largely peaceful, does have the potential for flash-points but the mutual benefit of trade and good relations is superseding any simmering conflict for now.
Construction of Sino-Myanmar pipeline

South Korea, boosted by American aid during the war on the Peninsula in the 1950s, was able to leap into the 20th century once the war cooled down to become a huge economy in its own right. Today the country is the world’s 15th largest economy, a world leader in automobiles, robotics and electronics, and a responsible, contributing member of the UN, WTO and the OECD.

The presence of thousands of US troops on the Peninsula has allowed Seoul to redirect funds from creating an indigenous military onto civil and economic projects, further enhancing their export power and influence.

Japan has had its share of troubles since the Second World War, from a quickly expanding economic bubble that eventually burst, to a collection of horrible natural disasters. However, the historically-rich island country still maintains its position as the 3rd largest economy on the planet.

Without the ability to field a true military, bound as it is by post-war treaties to a residual self-defence force, it is impossible for Tokyo conduct reasonable warfare on its own. Instead it relies on US naval protection accompanied by a range of other treaties with neighbouring countries. Tokyo, as with Seoul, has used the protection to focus on its economy and create a society with the longest life expectancy in the world.

China has built a strong economic position via a different path, one largely self-sufficient and without an external power patron. By securing good trade partners and having a steady abundance of cheap labour pools, China managed to produce double-figure growth rates annually for over a decade at the beginning of the century. Whether or not one entirely believes the GDP figures announced by Beijing regarding this growth, this is a feat not replicated anywhere else in the global system, and one that is probably highly unsustainable.

Cooking the books slightly isn’t as much a concern to Beijing as what goes on internally. And there are a number of geopolitical imperatives for China. A Chinese interior bubbling with discontent threatens the rich eastern seaboard and the true centre of Chinese power.

An unprotected interior border region (a huge land area housing millions of people living at subsistence level or below) deprives the state of natural boundaries such as the Tian Shan and Himalayan mountains, the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts, and the subtropical rainforests near south-east Asia, leaving it vulnerable to insurgencies or invasion.

Increasing the buffer-zone between Beijing with the economic centres of the Eastern Chinese seaboard and the nearest potentially hostile force heightens their security in this critical region. Success for any Chinese government model depends on reaching or maintaining these geopolitical goals.

Beijing has felt increasingly caged in on its eastern shores. The US and South Korean navies practice drills each year in the Yellow Sea, a body of water that is traditionally a vital passageway for Chinese trade and a strategic buffer for the Chinese military.

So while the US drills are not meant to be inflammatory, Beijing expresses its concern each time they run. The US has also positioned troops on strategic Japanese islands: the recent negotiations to redeploy US troops from Okinawa to another island are continuing. Japan has leased bases to US troops as part of post-war treaties, but China still feels it is being surrounded, even if it is only a feeling.

Therefore, Beijing is pushing to break out of its cage in the Yellow and South China Seas. The idea is to make China useful to countries far outside its traditional stomping ground, establishing military bases or securing patron status. Recently, Beijing has courted Myanmar, a country emerging from international isolation, to help build oil pipelines between the two countries. This will connect that region more efficiently to facilitate greater trade outputs.

Reports suggest China may also have won construction tenders to build deep-water ports in Myanmar that could be used to berth roaming Chinese naval ships in the future. Similar economic overtures to countries as far away as Pakistan and the Seychelles have placed semi-permanent Chinese military assets in these areas as well.

Beijing is also creating its own drills with neighbouring countries. Chinese and Thai marine forces will hold joint exercise Blue Commando-2012 in China's Guangdong province from May 9 to May 29, Chinese Ministry of National Defense officials said May 8, Xinhua reported. The training will be held in Guangdong's cities of Zhanjiang and Shanwei, according to an agreement reached by the countries' navies. The training will be the second of its kind since 2010 and will work on counterterrorism and increased mutual understanding.

Given that the inherent geographical constraints on Chinese growth and power extension from the core, the drills with Thailand and the high level military visits to neighbouring countries are a good geopolitical move for Beijing.

The Chinese social issues lying dormant which may eventually reawaken to weaken the power of the Communist government if standards of living get too imbalanced, and the critical Chinese dependence on foreign oil and coal drive Beijing’s adventurous moves. It must secure alternate trade routes as they can’t rely on US waterway protection, because the United States is in competition for those very resources.

China is acting fast because its growth rate is slowing and its demographics are no longer young. Time is against the central planners in Beijing but the answer to their riddle is already being formulated.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

French elections expose splits in the EU

Germany will not work to change Europe's compact on budget discipline and rejects growth measures that increase debt levels, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said May 7. New negotiations of the fiscal compact are not possible, Mr Seibert said, adding that growth should come through structural reforms, not through new debt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's good relationship with France will continue with French President-elect Francois Hollande, Mr Seibert says.

The European financial crises has caught up many nations threatening to seriously weaken states from Greece, Italy, Ireland to Spain. Not only have these countries had their economies collapse around them, they have very nearly brought their larger neighbours down with them.

The structure of the European Union (EU) has so far held the continent together but at the price of huge debt from focused quantitative easing (QE) plans. Strict austerity measures have essentially ceded control of entire countries to a central governing body; a highly risky, not to mention unpopular, plan.

No single country has remained completely immune to the dread of EU market volatility, but Germany and France have fared better than most. This is partly due to their fiscal policies and good relations with outside countries, but their good fortune mainly arises from geography.

Both Germany and France sit astride the North European plain, one of the most fertile and accessible areas of arable land on the planet. The tapestry of navigable rivers flowing throughout the long plain has made logistics simple and cheap over the centuries (waterborne transportation is orders of magnitude more efficient than compared to overland routes). Coupled with French - and especially German - strength in exports, the two countries have always been richer than the more isolated Mediterranean and Central European states.

The German powerhouse economy, one of the strongest in the world, has been a large part of the reason the Euro as a currency and idea remains strong today. Together, Europe is a huge economy, but since 2008 has begun to fracture the tenuous treaties and diplomacy. Hairline splits are starting to open again, exposing old wounds that could never be hidden forever.

Exit polls show French presidential candidate Francois Hollande defeated incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in France's May 6 presidential runoff election with 51.9% of the vote, France24 reported.  The transition between presidents will be fast, as Mr Hollande is expected to enter office before May 16.

First on his schedule of important meetings is a visit to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Discussions will surround how the current Franco-German leadership of the EU will continue and will be a chance for Mr Hollande to begin building the good relationship he needs with Ms Merkel, even though he remains a sceptic.

The German chancellor has expressed interest in discussing some of Mr Hollande’s election-campaign proposals around redrawing Europe’s fiscal compact treaty and his stimulus packages designed to increase job creation and economic growth.

A renegotiation of the fiscal compact treaty would not contradict Mr Hollande’s stoutly German-sceptic promises, but may place the new French president at odds with the Germans, who are not willing to seriously amend the treaty at a time when more delay and uncertainty in the EU could have very negative effects on the markets.

Much of the public reaction to the financial woes in the EU has been to criticise incumbent governments. Mr Hollande’s win can be seen as a result of the negative way in which the European public view the management of the crisis. Voting for the other side of the political spectrum, as Europeans are doing right across Europe and the United Kingdom, has only ushered in cosmetic changes. The underlying problems still remain because the processes which led to the crises have not been radically altered.

The election results in France highlight another emerging European trend. An unprecedented level of success for minority political parties is causing concern amongst Europe’s elite. Many countries have electoral ceilings that specifically limit such success from minor parties, but the public are pushing through those barriers with their support.

The French elections were not unusual given this trend. Marine Le Pen’s National Front, a far-right party advocating protectionism and heavy Euroscepticism, gained 17.9% of the votes. The popularity of her party is the strongest it has ever been and exposes the underlying splits beginning to occur even in one of Europe’s largest economies. The story is largely the same in the Lower Countries.

Unofficial exit polls from Greece's May 6 general election show the New Democracy party leading with 17-20% of the vote, Athens News reported. The Radical Left Coalition finished with 15.5-18.5 % of the vote, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement with 14-17% , the Independent Greeks party with 10-12%, the Communist Party with 7.5-9.5%, Golden Dawn with 6-8%, 4.5-6.5% for the Democratic Left, and 2.5-3.5% each for the Popular Orthodox Rally, the Democratic Alliance and the Ecogreens. Most of these are minority parties.

In the United Kingdom, last year’s elections also uncovered simmering discontent with the status quo. The Independence Party - another Eurosceptic and nationalist group - took votes away from the eventual winner David Cameron in much the same way as what happened in France yesterday.

Europe is struggling to contain and reconcile fundamental differences which have led to so many brutal wars in the past. The European Union was built to keep these forces in check. But the structure of the supranational organisation as a bandage for these tensions is slowly coming loose as the crisis deepens. The European elites still feel they can salvage a good chunk of the working EU organisation, but that may mean implementing harsher austerity measures on some of the more broken Lower Countries.

Actions of this sort are not going to be very welcome. They would stir up the long-standing and legitimate suspicion of hegemonic Northern European nations. However, the Lower states realise that their continued inclusion in the great European experiment depends largely on whether the Franco-German leadership can afford to retain them. Mr Hollande’s election doesn’t exactly answer their question yet, but the direction his government is heading is not likely to be encouraging for them.

Mr Hollande’s party is relatively traditional in its ideology compared to other advancing parties in the French parliament. And given the state of the crisis, an emergency that is only beginning to really start, the splits between traditional and more nationalist ideologies will become more pronounced in the future.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Moscow quells anti-Putin protests

Riot police in Moscow arrested dozens of protesters May 6 after clashes broke out during a demonstration against Russian President Vladimir Putin, witnesses said, Reuters reported. Two opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were also arrested. Police confined protesters to a square across the Moscow River from the Kremlin and beat some demonstrators with batons. Some protesters threw plastic bottles and a smoke bomb.

Police eventually arrested approximately 450 people for various crimes around Moscow on May 6, a Moscow Police spokesman said, Interfax reported. Crimes cited include resisting police and organizing provocations in the area around Bolotnaya Square. Some 40 people described by the spokesman as "nationalists" were arrested after attempting to start a fight with police near Teatralnaya metro station.

Protests are commonplace in much of the world. If change is needed and a large enough group of people believe in the cause, they will find a way to rally support, protesting and demonstrating to spread their discontent. 

If their voices grow too loud reaching a tipping point before state intelligence and police forces (sometimes even the military) can put down the unrest, then demonstrations can evolve into regime change. Many protests are peaceful propaganda, never leading to any fundamental upheaval. But every so often, if the timing’s right or the funding is accurate, a protest can evolve rapidly.

Russia is unfamiliar with the concept of the protest. For much of the last century the Russian state apparatus removed dissenting voices efficiently and quickly, keeping any anti-Kremlin voices gagged. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union over 20 years ago, the Russian public slowly came to accept demonstrations as a legitimate and safe method to display their discontent. 

Anti-Putin protests in the lead-up to the Russian presidential elections this year never quite got off the ground, despite the majority of the crowds being below 30 years of age and clearly passionate about their cause.

One of the things this site looks for is the potential movements of the state intelligence apparatus. Very often they are invisible, but through the lens of geopolitical theory it can be much easier to spot them. Intelligence agencies do not generally work under their own direction or for their own ends; instead they are instructed by the geopolitical imperatives of their country and its leaders. This results in patterns and predicted movements which can be uncovered. Over the past week, Moscow has opened the door into this world very slightly.

The protests in Moscow could well be the continuation of the anti-Putin rallies held before the election. But the timing and place need to be taken into account to gain understanding of their significance. 

On Thursday 5 May, diplomats from 50 countries, including every NATO member, gathered in Moscow for the international conference on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). This conference was meant to highlight the growing strain on US-Russia relations and the controversial missile interceptors. 

BMD has been a thorny issue for Washington and the Kremlin as it threatens to rearrange the strategic equilibrium on the Eurasian continent, changing the balance of nuclear deterrent and tipping the two countries back into an expensive arms race. Or so Russia would have the world believe. 

The United States has promised Romania and Poland that it will build early-warning radar (EW) sites to guide US interceptors such as the MIM-104 Patriot anti-ballistic missile (ABM). This missile system replaces the old MIM-14 Nike Hercules ABM which the US positioned throughout NATO countries in the latter part of the 20th century. Today the threat is purported to come from rogue countries like Iran, where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for missile strikes on neighbouring states.

Russia called the US bluff by offering to synchronise their native BMD network with the US-NATO systems so they would not have to position their own interceptors in Romania and Poland. The US declined this offer, preferring instead under President George W. Bush - and later Barack Obama - to continue talking with Warsaw and Bucharest. Russia has countered the growing US-led enclosure around its periphery by setting up EW sites in their exclave of Kaliningrad and threatening to reposition Iskander ballistic missiles in the region, effectively vindicating US and NATO fears of a new Russian missile threat.

What worries Russia is not the emplacement of American EW sites and BMD interceptors in Poland; rather it is the promised military package accompanying the systems. 

ABM positions require their own layers of defence. US fighter aircraft would have to be supplemented with refuelling and electronic warfare aircraft. These aircraft would need airfields with ground troops for protection, preferably on separate bases. On top of this, those troops would need armour and the ability to call in artillery support and so on. Russia is smart enough to realise the full implications of US BMD deployment.

Russia is pushing to regain influence over its old Warsaw Pact allies and realises that the window of opportunity to do so is closing. While the US are distracted in the Middle East and South Asia, Moscow has moved to overturn democratic “colour” revolutions in the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and the Baltic states bringing them into line with Russian thinking. 

Russian freedom to act was displayed in full during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, in which the US was unable to assist their Caucasus ally aside from rhetorical gestures. The US worries that as Russia regains influence over these states it will be able to pressure traditional US allies in Western Europe, especially as Russian oil and gas exports count for the bulk of German, Polish, and Central European energy consumption.

This is why the anti-Putin protests in Moscow are important. They don’t so much represent the cogent or strategic positioning of a strong-man against Russian President Vladimir Putin, because there really is no political party large enough at this time to challenge his domination of the Kremlin and its clans. 

Rather the protests are a clue to the movements of foreign intelligence agencies working against Russian interests. One of the tactics America reserves to respond to Russian resurgence is stirring discontent and democratic fervour in Former Soviet Bloc countries. An example of such tactics was found in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine which capitalised on rumours of election fraud, ushering pro-western Viktor Yushchenko to leadership.

Western intelligence agencies were suspected to be behind those Colour Revolutions, and it makes sense if they are again involved in Moscow today. Building up support for the opposition parties in the Kremlin places stress on Putin’s presidency as the clan system he helped set up in his first march to power could be crumbling. 

Turning the Kremlin’s eyes away from their periphery to focus on their interior buys the US and NATO precious time as they race to conclude the fighting in Afghanistan. Only when they wind up the campaign in South Asia can they redeploy troops to block Russian expansionary efforts.

While Russia has improved its peripheral security during the last decade, the time for relatively risk-free movement is quickly coming to a close. US focus is returning to the region, creating strong defence ties with natural counter-weights to Russian influence like Poland and Romania. 

US intelligence agencies may not have anything to do with the anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow, but geopolitical logic offers reasons why they should be there.