Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Sitrep - 30 Sept, 2015

Russian military build-up in Syria continues as world leaders gather in New York at the UN General Assembly. The frosty US and Russian leaders verbally sparred over humanitarian, democratic and military responsibilities but the meeting failed to reconcile significant differences.

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad will likely utilise Russian military forces to defend its core territory in western Syria. This will facilitate a rumoured power transition. But Russia hopes Mr al Assad’s ethnic Alawite support zone will eventually break away from the larger Syrian state, similar to Lebanon’s history.

Should this happen, it will position Russia as the main power patron to the new statelet, reinforcing Moscow’s goal to force the US into dialogue on other geopolitical situations, namely Ukraine. Russian troops also set up surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in Syria, even though the Islamic State possesses no aircraft. This SAM bubble supports Moscow’s goal to compel the US into discussion.

Syria cannot be divorced from Ukraine’s separatism, where for almost 72 hours no shelling has occurred in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow retains the ability to ratchet up tension in the region if it doesn’t think Kiev is supplying enough political concessions. The present moment of quiet suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting his way.

This conflict has been expensive for Russia, costing almost $US2 billion in military expenditure (not including the continued rolling military exercises). The Russian-backed separatists also don’t boost Moscow’s international image. The build-up in Syria is both a convenient distraction from Ukraine and a play for greater concessions in that conflict from the US.

In Russia proper, the economy is financially struggling from sanctions, a halving of global energy prices, a poor reinvestment of energy income and the net loss of an estimated 700,000 people each year due to natural causes. Russia’s current geopolitics has an air of desperation, but Mr Putin may well succeed if the international community counters the actions too slowly.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Power and responsibility in the cyber world

The most interesting thing about the cyber world isn’t computers, it’s in the confluence with power.

Cyber technology is changing the way humans live. Both private and public corporations have online problems that look remarkably similar to their offline problems. So when their digital remedies look identical to their offline remedies because there’s really no good alternatives, the consequences can be forecast. What this all means for society is, well, intriguing.

The best way to think about cyber is from the perspective of a soldier. For the military, the world is split into “domains”: land, sea, air and space. Cyber is the fifth domain. The first four were built by nature, while the fifth was built by humans. And unlike the others, cyber has no natural obstacles such as rivers, mountains or deserts. It is an entirely flat landscape, ideal for communication and offence. It is cyber’s inherent defensive flaws that keeps CEOs up at night.

Cyber foments its own versions of commerce, entertainment and traditional statecraft. People rely on it for almost every facet of their lives, and private corporations are increasingly dependent on the internet for the simplest of tasks. We’ve seen this before in history. The most apt parallel to what’s happening in cyber is the creation of global sea lanes during the European colonisation of the Western Hemisphere.

As then, the question for governments is: how much should we allow private entities to defend themselves outside their own perimeter? And what may a company appropriately do inside its own network when under attack from non-state actors, rival companies or a nation state?

Plenty of companies have been set up to help other corporations defend against cyber threats. The word “corporations” is used specifically because a government is also a corporation, in the sense that it is simply a group of people working together for a common purpose. Those cyber defence companies say they will “agnostically” assist both public and private corporations, for a fee.

After 9/11, the Western governments asked these private cyber corporations to complement intelligence and defence forces as contractors. One of those contractors, Edward Snowden, is now infamous. Yet the actions of the Five Eyes intelligence club (New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Canada) over the last decade reveal a remarkable transition of power.

The Five Eyes countries have the greatest collection of cyber firepower on the planet. No other country comes close, not least because the club created, owns and controls the underlying platform of the internet. Even so, when asked the above question by private corporations, the Five Eyes governments respond in much the same way as 18th century governments: “defend yourself.”

Think about this for a second. Powerful as governments are in the cyber world, they are certain of their limitations. Just as the East India Tea Company reached too far across the globe for the British government to effectively defend, todays private corporations travel too far in a significantly more vulnerable domain for their governments to also defend. And both sides know this.

Five Eyes officials, especially in the US, are of course discussing the appropriate response to this reality. They keep coming back to the 17th and 18 centuries as the only relevant parallel. Many of those global, sea-faring companies acted with the attributes of state sovereignty. They could defend their assets with full state-backing using “letters of marque and reprisal.” Now a reissuance of such powers is under serious consideration.

What are these letters? In the days of fighting sail, a letter of marque and reprisal was a government licence authorising a person (known as a privateer) to attack and capture enemy vessels and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale. It was a mutual understanding between private and public corporations that sometimes the Leviathan can’t offer complete protection, but still deserves the citizen’s full subjugation.

Private cyber defence companies occupy an interesting position in modern society. They offer intelligence and cyber weapons to corporations with the full blessing of governments. What those corporations do with cyber threat intelligence is entirely up to them. After all, the defence companies say they do not encourage counter-attacks against cyber threat actors.

But if the understanding is that public corporations cannot defend private corporations at almost any time (remember the response: “defend yourself”) then those letters of marque and reprisal might already exist implicitly, but not explicitly. This is a grey area but is also a transition of power, although governments won’t see it as such because letters of marque and reprisal sounds Orwellian.

The root of the problem is that the modern English language has no word which means “power,” but carries only positive associations. Yet there are synonyms for power, the most common being “responsibility.” People in power are almost always sincere and cannot think of themselves as having power, but they are responsible and that means powerful.

The legitimacy of a nation state is its promise to defend life and property in exchange for a monopoly on violence. In other words, a state is responsible for its citizens’ safety. But how much does this legitimacy erode when the state voluntarily cedes responsibility of protecting private corporations to those very corporations?

This is the confluence of cyber with power. Since much of the global economy is digital and since governments have indicated they cannot control the realm, what exactly is stopping a corporation from using its cyber weapons to “defend itself” outside its own network? And what if the attacker is a nation state?

Responsibility, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If an entity no longer controls something, yet the requirement still exists, then another will fill its place. Once this happens, it is often impossible to reclaim. Governments were lucky to reclaim power in the 19th century because the global trading companies were too weak. Will they be so lucky this time?

Friday, 25 September 2015

Evil drug CEO raises prices, incurs internet rage

Some obscure CEO of a peripheral drug company decides to arbitrarily raise the price of a product by 5000% and everybody on the internet flips out. Normal day on the world wide web? Not really.

Martin Shkreli is currently the chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, a company internationally condemned for its use of the only US-approved treatment for parasitic disease toxoplasmosis, Daraprim. After obtaining the rights to sell the drug in August, Turing increased the price from $US13.50 ($21.49) per pill to $US750 ($1193) overnight in a move that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called “outrageous”.

Now, Mr Shkreli appears to be changing his mind. Maybe he received terrible PR advice – or none at all – but really, what kind of inexperienced CEO talks back to detractors? It was a losing battle the moment he responded on social media because no one was angry at him for rational reasons. Of course any rational or irrational response achieved the same effect: nothing.

I haven't been closely following this controversy but here’s a few initial thoughts. Mr Shkreli explained in an interview he was raising prices because (a) the drug was not profitable and (b) charging more would fund the research and manufacture of other drugs.

Thing is, this is actually a very sound economic argument. In fact, that’s exactly how most things work in a modern economy, not just in the pharma industry. It strikes me this whole debacle is just another example of people getting outraged at something they're just finding out about now, but which they should know about already.

Am I surprised? Well, not at the lack of general knowledge. This is exactly how the internet/millennial generation operates: they get angry at trivial things while all the really hard problems remain unaddressed because “someone in charge” will probably deal with those… eventually.

In all likelihood, the reason the medication was priced so low in the first place was because a previous over-priced drug earned enough profit to fund Daraprim’s creation. Besides, getting angry at the price of things is a bit weird in 2015. Is basic economics not taught in school anymore?

I think people have this case "exactly backwards", as they say. Plenty of CEOs are absolute douchebags, but they aren't plastered over the media. Believe me (or don't), CEOs say crazy things on a daily basis. Some of them are probably sociopaths, but not all of them. Many have to make decisions that go against their personal ethics for the good of the corporation. Yet barely any get on the front pages for acting like a “douchebag”. Why not?

This precise example nevertheless hit a chord with a certain demography, and that makes it different. I’m not sure on this, but suggest it has something to do with a mix of the politics of Obamacare, fear of Big Pharma and a healthy dollop of the shrill “1%” insanity that’s been an undercurrent since the 2008 crisis. The Daraprim price was pretty much a perfect storm.

In other words, it is incredibly important to the story that this antagonist happens to tick the boxes of being a young, white, rich male trying to hike medicine prices. Think about how normal most of that sentence reads. This kind of thing happens all the time, across the world, in every industry. And yet this specific set of ingredients twisted a simple business price decision into a media maelstrom that might yet destroy the company.

Step back to consider that changing just one of those variables makes this whole mess disappear. But the particular ingredients turn Mr Shkreli into the archetypal villain according to millennials. He’s the bad guy they’ve been told to leverage their hate towards ever since the 2009 financial crash: the not-quite-rich enough CEO, devoid of any real power, who desperately wishes to be considered powerful. He’s not a member of the nefarious “1%”, he’s part of the aspirational 14% who above all else desire to be considered powerful and important.

His central fault was to act as an anti-system force against the essence of a progressive medical bill. It was a sin the state religion (progressivism) making him the perfect symbol of hate for the current narcissistic generation.

Consider for a moment what would have happened if this CEO looked like a normal pharma CEO (60 years old with one liver spot for every SME he’s engulfed in a leveraged buyout). Since this person fits most people’s expectation of a CEO, there’d be no news and no hate. But Mr Shkreli embodies exactly what digital millennials believe is responsible for their failing careers and wasted university fees: the white, rich, pseudo-powerful ex-hedge fund manager.

But something else is going on. What truly makes him so easy to hate is that he’s the repressed dark side of every young progressive millennial who’s saturated in internet “news” and bereft of independent thinking unless it can be copied and pasted from another website.

He’s the guy they proclaim they would never be, even while they suspect – in their fundamental psyche – they probably would be him if they were placed in the same situation. He is a symbol of the worst parts of ourselves – the parts we try to ignore and sublimate before it gets the better of us. The rage comes from a place where every millennial believes if they were in Mr Shkreli’s shoes, there’s no chance they would act like this.

Yet here we see how repression permanently leaves behind a sign of what’s been repressed – how else do you explain the need to add the qualifier “evil” before “CEO” if not for the deeply buried suspicion that, in fact, you too would make a similar decision in favour of profit if the roles were reversed.

I don't really care about what Mr Shkreli did or didn't do. What concerns me is everyone's rage. Because, as I’ve pointed out multiple times, rage is always often response to a threat to a person's identity.

That's what makes this event so damn interesting – and frightening. The collective reaction of the Internet suggests a serious case of post-modern narcissism in its users. This is reaching a point where it is no longer a pathology, but an ideology driving our society’s decisions.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Sitrep - 23 Sept, 2015

Enough Russian aircraft have now arrived in Syria to begin combat operations in support of loyalist forces, according to satellite imagery. Russia has been consolidating its military presence in Syria over the past few weeks, bolstering the Syrian regime’s fight against rebel and Islamist groups.

The Russian entry into Syria complicates an already fractured war. Risk of miscalculation in the air and on the ground may result in Russian and US forces clashing. Behind the scenes, the Syrian regime is in the midst of a potential power transition, a process facilitated by Russia. Combat-strength foreign troops in the country will help convince the regime to share power.

Across the Mediterranean, the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras was victorious over the weekend with its second general election in a 12 month period. The Syriza Party’s gamble in asking the public for trust has paid off. The election also assisted Mr Tsipras in purging rogue members of his party.

Mr Tsipras will now focus on two main issues. While he promises to adhere to the bailout terms, he has some breathing space from creditors before engaging in necessary reforms. However, Mr Tsipras will need those reforms in order to re-engage Greece’s creditors for further debt relief. Greece will likely stay in the Eurozone for the rest of 2015, but a recession will complicate its reform process.

On the other side of the world, more satellite imagery shows China continuing to build islands by reclamation in the South and East China Seas. China earlier claimed this process has stopped, indicating it knows its actions are dubious. However, the international community is displaying confusion as to whether the actions are illegal and what to do about it.

In response to the larger context of China’s belligerency, Japan this week finalised a process of re-evaluating its overseas security posture. Japan’s Senate passed a new bill allowing the country’s military to conduct “collective self-defence”. This will place Japanese forces directly in harm’s way to protect allies, even if its troops are not threatened.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

In Syria, Russia reaps what the US has sown

What could the Western world have done differently to prevent the Russians returning in force to the Middle East for the first time since 1973?

This is the only question worth asking as reports flow in of significant Russian air, ground and naval assets in Syria’s western provinces. What the US and its allies are doing today, and one is free to judge those actions as either good or bad, is a reflection of what they have not done with the Syrian crisis over the last three or four years.

Enough Russian multirole, ground attack and rotary wing aircraft have arrived for Moscow to begin sustained combat operations from Syria’s Bassal al Assad International Airport in Latakia. Satellite photos show up to 20 fixed wing aircraft of various types and the same number of helicopters – both attack and transport – parked on the air base’s newly refurbished runways.
Russian military aircraft over Syria

Russian armoured vehicles, main battle tanks and artillery batteries have also been spotted by overhead imagery around Latakia and at the Tartus port. Video of Russian aircraft formations in the air over Syria suggest the planes are operational while pictures of Russian soldiers fighting alongside loyalists predict Moscow could be ready to start wider combat operations soon.

How far Russia is willing to push this game-changing new deployment to defend its client-state is unknown. The geopolitics of the Middle East are moving extremely rapidly and by the time this essay is read, there will no doubt be more developments. Once again, the overt and covert battle for influence over the Syrian landmass is the focal point in the larger great-power tussles between the US and Russia – but also between Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Letting the Russians move serious military materiel into Syria probably wasn’t what Washington had in mind when it called for an international effort to end the civil war. But given the peripheral engagement of US President Barack Obama in Syria over the last three to four years, there’s not a lot the US can now complain about as Russia takes the reins.

President Bashar al Assad’s Syria has been a client-state of Russia since the 1970s. The two are ideologically aligned: Russia was a socialist republic while Syria’s had its socialist Baath Party. During the Cold War Russia wanted a constellation of proxies and was only too happy to accommodate the Syrian regime. Now, after years of protracted struggle against rebels and Islamists, Mr al Assad needs all the help he can get.

Four years ago, Russia was a shadow of its current self. The Ukraine conflict hadn’t yet begun and Russian movements in the Middle East were limited and overridden. Syria always maintained its relationship with Russia, but that didn’t stop Mr al Assad asking the US for help. The regime purposefully characterised the conflict as a war against terrorism long before the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra entered the fight.

The US has consistently said its policy is there can be no political solution in Syria should Mr al Assad remain as president. If the Russians have the contrary view, there is little point in any discussions with them at the political level. Moscow’s game is to appear on parity with the US by forcing Washington to discuss with it directly about Syria. Mr Obama probably wanted to avoid this as well, but his own peripheral or weak actions have neatly backed him into a geopolitical corner.

The timing of Russia’s movement into Syria is not entirely surprising either. Mr Putin needed to ensure there would be no US air strikes against the regime before he could deploy Russian forces to defend it. Russian soldiers killed by US strikes would be bad. So would US planes shot down by Russian soldiers.

Mr Putin also needed to know there would be no US military advisers deployed on the ground with rebel forces, because US soldiers killed by the Russian military would be bad. So would US soldiers killing Russian soldiers who are themselves embedded with loyalists.

To a lesser extent, Mr Putin hopes US proxies acting independently will not engage with Russian forces on the ground. This provision was somewhat optional, since the whole point of a proxy war is for external powers to pretend they’re not fighting each other. But Mr Putin probably doesn't want a proxy war against the US – even while he fondly remembers the Cold War – because his last proxy war against the US in Ukraine almost lost him his job (and his head).

The next step will be to create deconflicting procedures for what happens when Russian and US aircraft occupy the same airspace. The obvious situation of non-aligned, fully armed aircraft flying in close proximity adds serious risk to the conflict. But far more hazardous is that Russian and US aircraft will be offering close air support to opposing sides in support of loyalist and rebels respectfully.

Mr Putin clearly has enough assurances to begin his protection and support of the al Assad regime. There are three immediate reasons this serves Russia’s geostrategic goals: it ensures a foothold in a rapidly fracturing Middle East, it embarrasses the US as Russia takes the lead in degrading Islamic global terrorism and it is positioned as the key player in any conclusion to the internecine conflict.

This last aspect brings the Russian deployment into stark relief. Rumours have emerged recently that Russia is heavily engaged in organising a political transition in Syria. Quiet backroom talks between current and former Syrian regime members and various major rebel groups, conducted in Europe and Russia, may finally have secured a workable preliminary power-sharing deal.

If this is true – and there are many pieces not yet in place – then the size of Russian forces in Syria and the timing makes more sense. From Mr al Assad’s perspective, he is primarily concerned with maintaining power over the country, but he also knows it is far more important for his regime to remain intact to protect his Alawite ethnic base from future persecution.

The rumoured deal presumably will keep Mr al Assad in power with a heavily neutered role, so if the Russians can guarantee his regime’s secure during the transition then he might accept the deal. The last thing anyone wants is a power vacuum in which Islamist groups take control. Like it or not, Russia’s gambit to keep the regime largely intact may be the only way to assure this doesn’t occur.

Russia will bulking up its military presence in Syria and may begin assisting loyalist forces in fresh offensives against rebel and Islamist positions in the coming weeks and months. However, Mr Putin closely watched Coalition pacification efforts in Iraq a decade ago and will be under no illusion his troops can secure a far more fractious country. Russian troops will bolster the regime at a time when morale is low and attrition rates are high, but they will not be decisive in ending the war militarily.

Mr Putin is a shrewd strategist and is aware the world watches. He will want to emphasise his military deployment’s humanitarian goals rather than be seen as defending a brutal Arab regime for political reasons. Nevertheless, the world will be asking how it got to a point where Russian consolidation in the Middle East became the price for ending a civil war.

What is happening in Syria is a direct consequence of Mr Obama’s decisions not to intervene. This is not a criticism, it is simply fact. His desire for an alteration in US Middle Eastern engagement is certainly proceeding apace. Hopefully the present situation fits with his broader strategy to construct a post-9/11 foreign policy. One thing should be extremely clear: Syria shows the true global battle for influence is between Moscow and Washington.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Sitrep - 16 Sept, 2015

North Korean state media reports the regime has restarting its nuclear enrichment programme at multiple sites. Other indications suggest a the regime is planning a new satellite launch scheduled perhaps for early October, however US officials are sceptical considering no preparations have been recorded at launch sites.

However, a Chinese think-tank will soon hold a forum with members of the Six-Party talks (US, China, Japan, Russia, and both Koreas) in an effort to restart the failed talks with Pyongyang. North Korea’s nuclear capability both helps and hinders the regime, but the North’s crucial ally – China – is growing weary of its unstable neighbour and may be inspired after the successful Iran nuclear talks.

In the EU, an uncoordinated policy debate about thousands of new refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia is causing friction in the supranational bloc. Germany briefly introduced border controls earlier this week to stem the flow, leading other central and eastern European countries to enact similar emergency measures.

An EU-wide discussion in Brussels about the crisis over the weekend failed to decide on relocation efforts and immigration controls. However, emergency measures now run the risk of becoming de facto rules, undermining key EU free-movement policies. Germany is showing tentative leadership in this crisis but many EU countries inside the bloc face different demographic and ethnic issues.

The US government was also briefed this week by cyber intelligence agencies about the growing threat of data manipulation and destruction against all manner of corporations. Businesses across the US, and outside, are dealing with espionage, theft and worse from a variety of threat sources.

A leaked report by Edward Snowden also detailed the US government’s updated and bolstered cyber retaliation rules. In it, the US displays increasing comfortability in treating the cyber realm as a military domain. The US has conducted its own cyber destruction campaigns in the past.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

New Zealand's flag and the world system

Over the past few weeks, I've outlined the basic structure of the world system. The New Zealand flag debate now offers a case example of how this country is part of the underlying system.

Digging through the layers of geopolitics, the structure of the world system is built on the twin concepts of the “international community” and the all-important difference between being a “legally” independent country and one which is “illegally” independent. As globalisation accelerates, those two concepts have never been more important.

The idea of the nation-state was constructed in 1648 with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. In that German town, the various European powers decided there were so many other things worth fighting over that religion should no longer be one of them. An understanding emerged that people should be defined by where they were born, not by what language they spoke or what god they worshipped.

The resultant border system has oscillated over the intervening centuries, countless times, but the idea of a country spread over the entire globe. It is now so deeply part of the world system that the world’s great powers mutually decided to avoid conflict over Antarctica by refusing to fragment the ice-shelf with new artificial borders. This international treaty reflected not power, but parity. After all, a global power would not hesitate to claim Antarctica if it possessed the power to do so.

On a map, New Zealand doesn’t appear to be a country with borders. Homogenous islands generally don’t. Yet this landmass is indeed part of the larger international community and therefore is legally independent. This has a specific meaning for the present debate about New Zealand’s flag.

In order to squabble about the design of any flag, a large number of basic assumptions must therefore be made by everyone living on a given landmass. This essay is too short to list every assumption, but a few are worth teasing out.

For instance, to decide on a new flag a person must implicitly appreciate the flag is a symbol both for describing themselves and something intangible and which exists only in the mind of an individual. In this case, the flag represents the idea – not the reality – of a human’s country. This concept is not biological, and no one is born with the idea of “country” loaded in their brains. It is entirely conditioned.

This implies that the mere possibility of debating the idea of a flag can only be possible in a Westphalian world system. And to debate a flag in the 21st century will only be accepted by other countries if the result is the country’s continued participation in the “international community” and whether it remains “legally” independent.

In other words, before the debate even began a few months ago it could only exist in a state of advanced civilised thought. New Zealanders are spending mental energy focusing on the form of the question. The flag design is possible to discuss strictly because each person implicitly accepts the default assumptions of being part of a nation-state.

This debate is a concentration on symbols without the ability to discuss why we need a flag in the first place. That question does not even occur to people because it cannot. According to the Westphalian world system, there is no other way to legally exist unless people classify themselves as inside the international community while using an accepted symbol of a nation-state.

After all, the first question people are asked in initial introductions is which country they were born in. This sentence is so rich with default assumptions about modern Western thought it would take tens of thousands of words to unpack and deconstruct. But clearly an answer to the question offers a package of presumed identity for the individual which is easily transferred between humans. That’s why we keep the concept going.

Does a person come from this country or that country? This is the form of the question no one is allowed to alter. For the eternity of our lives, none of us can ask: are these the only two options available?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

In Syria, transition rumours override refugee crisis

More countries are getting involved in the Syrian war as rumours suggest the four-year conflict may be inching towards a conclusion.

Various news agencies in Europe and the Middle East report that backroom talks between some rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al Assad may have converged on a way to transition the country to a new political structure and end the civil war.

But after years of near continuous fighting, the conflict is having only minimal effect on the international community. Presently, the only aspect of the war stirring global public attention is the more than 4 million refugees escaping the country. Rebel groups are also making important gains against regime positions in the north of the country near the ancient trading city Aleppo, while jihadist groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al Nusra press the regime in the centre of the country.

The regime may be receiving crucial support from Russia, but it is clear Damascus is under intense pressure. This morning a regime army garrison was forced to evacuate an airbase in Idlib. The garrison had defended the Abu al Juhur military airbase for two years. Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra led the assault ahead of other moderate rebel groups. Germany’s intelligence agency released information also this week that IS has used chemical weapons in Marea near Aleppo against members of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group. IS has also made significant strategic gains over the last few weeks against both regime-held territory and rebel strongholds, some of which have occurred inside central Damascus.

Also this week, the UK conducted its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack on British citizens fighting for militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The strike was reportedly conducted near the IS pseudo-capital Raqqah. The missile attack highlights the reach of Western governments in Syria, but also their overall lack of action to address either the IS militancy or to bring about a political solution to the civil war in Syria. Other foreign governments, such as France and Russia, are now filling the void in important ways.

In late August, reports emerged that Moscow may have found a way for the Syrian regime to agree to a power-sharing arrangement with rebel groups. The unconfirmed reports indicate both the regime and some rebels are involved in backroom talks with Russia and France, mediated by Oman. The core of the arrangement is that Mr al Assad will apparently remain in a leadership position during the possible transition.

The president could then cede his role to Syrian politician and diplomat Farouk al-Shara as the changeover progresses. The deal apparently keeps Mr al Assad in the new structure as a politically sterilised figurehead, an important consideration given the Alawite minority the president represents worries it will be persecuted should the Assad clan be side-lined.

Other reports suggest former brigade commander Manaf Tlass, of the Syrian Republican Guard, may step into the role of army chief of staff. Mr Tlass is a Sunni with close familial ties to the al Assad clan, defecting in 2012, and has spent most of the intervening time in France. He has been recorded travelling to Moscow on multiple occasions over the past few weeks. Although the transition rumours have not been confirmed, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond told Reuters today he would accept retaining Mr al Assad in a nominal political position during any transition if it meant the end of the civil war.

“If there is a sensible plan for transition that involves [Mr al] Assad remaining in some way involved in the process for a period of time we will look at that, we will discuss it. We are not saying he must go on day one,” he says.

A spokesperson for British prime minister David Cameron says the UK still believes there is no “positive future for Syria if Mr al Assad is included.” Any political transition which isn’t accepted by most or all rebel groups is unlikely to be successful however, regardless of which country is mediating the talks.

After weeks of anecdotes suggesting Russian troops are in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry finally confirmed this morning that Russian military experts are operating in the country. Russian troop ships and amphibious landing craft have been spotted transiting through the Bosporus heading to the Mediterranean over the past few weeks. Many carried armoured vehicles and other supplies. Bulgaria and Greece also denied overflight rights to Russian cargo aircraft this week which were travelling in the same direction, much to Moscow’s chagrin.

It is not totally surprising Russia is increasing its support for the al Assad regime. The Syrian port of Tartus is currently leased to Moscow and is Russia’s access to the Mediterranean. During most of Syria’s civil war, the port has been used by Russian supply vessels to deliver weapons, materiel and other goods to the regime.

However, reports from Syria that a new airbase near Damascus may be being built by Russian troops, and that Russian forces are on the front lines with fighting with regime soldiers. If true, it indicates Moscow is increasing its involvement in the war even while the survival of the al Assad regime is far from certain. The regime has struggled to fill key positions in its military due to high levels of fatigue, low morale and increasing numbers of deserters from the Alawite ethnic core. This high attrition rate on Mr al Assad’s forces might be somewhat offset by Russian military personnel, although just how willing Moscow is to risk its troops in combat is largely unknown.

Along with the backroom transition talks, the inclusion of Russian forces in Syria place Moscow as one of the most influential central foreign powers in the country. This is in sharp contrast to the peripheral and non-committal US engagement in Syria, and its focus on Iraq as first priority.

Syria’s refugee emergency is already one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, but is largely over-emphasised in Western countries. The conflict has failed to maintain international attention since it began in 2011, despite total combat and civilian deaths tipping over 320,000 this year, according to Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Refugees from the embattled country have now reached more than 4 million, putting Syria back in the world’s headlines.

Most Syrian refugees are moving to neighbouring Middle Eastern countries. For instance, 2.1 million are estimated currently to be in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Almost 1.9 million are have traveled to Turkey, while the remainder have fled to Europe and beyond. Germany suggested this week it could take up to 500,000 refugees each year, some of whom will come from Syria. Other European Union (EU) countries are facing pressure to accept more refugees, although a parallel debate about the potential negative repercussions of accepting more refugees will constrain how many people the EU can cope with.

New Zealand and Australia are also discussing increasing refugee intake quotas to accommodate more people from the Levant. John Key in response increased New Zealand’s quota by a 600 hundred extra people each year at a cost of $48 million. The low numbers of refugees travelling outside the Middle East suggest this particular crisis will likely dissipate in most Western countries soon.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Sitrep - 9 Sept, 2015

This week US President Barack Obama scored two major victories in his attempt to secure an Iran nuclear deal. A sufficient number of Congressmen, mostly Democratic Party, supported his plan. The deal will now move into the Republican-dominated House, but is likely to pass into force.

The political split on Iran reflects a much deeper battle for influence between Foggy Bottom (US State Dept) and Arlington (Dept of Defense). The two factions of the US government see Mr Obama’s attempts to finalise the Iran nuclear threat very differently.

In Africa, the US reported it will open a diplomatic mission to Somalia, based from its Nairobi embassy. The decision reflects the decreasing capabilities of militant group al Shabaab and the success of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

AMISOM has chipped away at al Shabaab’s control of Somalia over the years, starting a fresh offensive in July which already appears to have early success. Two men were arrested this week in Kenya this week carrying explosives, potentially linked to the militant group. Nevertheless, al Shabaab is struggling to sustain its control of the broken country.

Further north, an undersea natural gas field – potentially the largest in the Mediterranean – has been discovered in Egyptian waters. Italian energy firm ENI says it could come online in 2017.

Egypt has weathered high energy demands and low production for years, forcing the military government to decrease energy subsidies in 2013. The new gas field could offer the country greater revenue, but will also change its relationship with Israel and potentially the wider region.

In Syria, the UK conducted its first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack on a British citizen fighting for militant group Islamic State (IS). The strike was reportedly conducted near the IS pseudo-capital Raqqah in Syria.

The missile attack highlights the reach of Western governments, the ability to attain exquisite intelligence on militant movements, lack of alternative interdiction options, the growing capability of IS militants in Syria and the incredible utility of UAVs in modern combat operations.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The dark, racist flipside to blanket refugee acceptance

It might sound nice that New Zealand is increasing its refugee quota, but there’s a dark flipside no one is talking about.

John Key has been under pressure to increase this country’s refugee quota from 750 per year, where it has been since 1987, to perhaps 1500. After initially rejecting the proposal, Mr Key has confirmed the government will accept an emergency intake of 100 Syrian refugees.

Europe and the United Kingdom are also dealing with pressure to increase the total numbers of refugees accepted per year. Many refugees are entering Europe illegally. There is even talk of rearranging the bloc’s “Schengen Agreement” in response to the crisis to make room for EU countries to tighten their border controls more frequently. Since its implementation in 1995, the Schengen Agreement eliminated border controls between EU signatories and created a common visa policy for 26 countries.

The bloc probably will not end the agreement, but more power and discretion will likely be given to member states to reintroducing border controls in the future. But cancelling the agreement would hamper the free movement of goods – a key pillar in the EU project – bringing the integrity of the union under serious threat.

Most refugees flowing into Europe are escaping conflict zones in North Africa, the Levant and Central Asia. Civil wars, terrorism and environmental degradation are forcing people out of their homelands in these regions. Some are headed southeast towards Australia and New Zealand, however the number is fewer than that headed to Europe. The question of what to do with asylum seekers is a perennial problem, but it appears to have reached boiling point in many developed countries (which should set off propaganda alarm bells, but as always: if you’re seeing it, it’s for you).

But what is a refugee? According to Immigration New Zealand, a refugee is defined by the Refugee Convention (as amended by the 1967 Protocol) as a person who:

·         “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or
·         who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.

Under these definitions, most people would say it is an unalloyed good to protect people from pain and persecution. But the campaign to increase New Zealand’s quota has so far been one of subjective ethics. And while it might be instructive to ponder the arbitrary choice of total asylum numbers (why not 60 refugees, 5000, or 1 million? Why just a few hundred?), it’s far more interesting to ask other questions first.

Let’s say New Zealand admits a total of 1500 people from Syria in 2015. Refugees come from all over the planet, but to keep it simple, I’ll pretend every refugee comes from Syria. The reason these Syrians wish to enter New Zealand is because an internecine war threatens many of their lives, both biologically and economically. Most New Zealanders would want to save a Syrian person’s life, that’s understandable. But what happens when the Syrian war is finished? That’s a question you’re not supposed to ask.

Wouldn’t it make practical sense to send all those Syrians back to their home country once pain and persecution are no more? After all, by Immigration New Zealand’s own definition, a person no longer fits the category of refugee if those conditions are removed. Did you think of this? If not, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Everyone was presented the binary choice of accepting more or fewer refugees. However, the question is often less important than who is asking the question.

Some will reject this idea immediately. This article is for them. Keeping the Syrians in New Zealand after the war has finished, they say, is the right thing to do. But no one is ever clear exactly what the word “right” actually means in this context. For whom is it “right”? Refusing to send people back to their countries once a war is over is a pernicious Western idea packaged up as if it were of the highest ethics. It oozes with humanitarianism and believing that all people are equal. In other words, it is a progressive ideal. That’s fine, but think about what it means. Although many people think it is “right”, this has a flipside: it is “wrong” to send them back.

Let me offer a contrary position, unpalatable but worth considering: refusing to send refugees back to their home country as part of a blanket refugee increase is a racist act. We might think we’re being progressive, but try to comprehend why those 40 year olds didn’t consider moving to New Zealand even once in four decades. The internet gives everyone access to a world map in seconds, so there’s a high likelihood these people knew about New Zealand. They probably also knew about its wonderful vistas, job opportunities and democracy. All of which are perfectly acceptable reasons for anyone to wish to live in New Zealand.

And yet, not once did any of these Syrians seriously attempt to travel to New Zealand. Until the war began, they expected to stay in Syria for the rest of their lives. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume every single refugee desired to apply for asylum in New Zealand specifically. I’ll even allow that they wanted to travel here since childhood. Yet it doesn’t negate the fact that none of them seriously attempted the effort. This is the uncomfortable reality. It’s almost as if those 40 year olds wanted to stay in Syria for the rest of their lives. But for whatever reason, it is impossible for progressives to have this thought. That should concern you.

Accepting these people into New Zealand and refusing to send them back once the crisis is over holds the dark assumption that New Zealand is better than Syria. It is the assumption that Syria has no redeeming qualities at all, that no one would want to live there and sending someone back is tantamount to abuse. Think about what this might mean to a Syrian who hears it. While it’s understandable a New Zealander will consider this country to be the best in the world, why don’t we consider that Syrians also think their country is the greatest? Is it so hard to believe that two people can believe contradictory things and both be correct?

Although I’m open to argument on this, increasing the refugee quota should come with a guarantee of a free aircraft flight back to the person’s home country once a war officially ends. The person may wish to apply to enter New Zealand under standard immigration processes in the future, that’s fine. But they should be subject to every immigration rule New Zealand has. Just as any normal migrant or immigrant would.

Anything else would be racist.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Sitrep - 2 Sept, 2015

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s proposed government and structural reforms, while institutionally popular, are stirring a growing amount of opposition in the country’s south, some of it violent. The leader wishes to clamp down on corruption and governmental inadequacies in the midst of a crippling internecine war and could be losing control of much of the country.

Iran, implicitly in control of Iraq’s government, understands that a wider success of Mr al-Abadi’s reforms would strengthen his leadership too much, diminishing reliance on Tehran for political support. The Iranians will quietly encourage demonstrations in the Shiite Iraqi south to both undermine support for the reforms and remind Mr al-Abadi where the power truly is.

Further north in Syria this week, two rumours emerged of a Russian plan to increase its military and political support for the embattled regime. Greater numbers of advanced military equipment, and even Russian language speakers, have been recorded in the regime’s core territory fighting rebel and Islamist forces over the past few weeks.

Whether this influx of materiel can bolster the regime relies on the veracity of the second rumour. Sources close to the Russian and Gulf Arab governments have hinted at backroom negotiations between the Syrian regime and selected rebel forces are underway showing some indications of early success.

The two sides reportedly have broadly agreed on a power transition to end the civil war, but will require the backing of more rebel groups for it to be viable. Russia is spending serious political capital on the project, indicating that Moscow thinks these negotiations and extra weapons may be effective to protect its interests in Syria and the al-Assad regime, although only time will tell.

This week will also be important for China as it deals with the ripples of compounding financial and political problems of transitioning to an updated economic model. A series of chemical explosions over the past few weeks highlight the broken nature of Chinese local bureaucracies and their emphasis on growth over regulations and worker safety. While Beijing must tread carefully in prosecuting its anti-corruption campaign, the campaign is extremely important to maintain.

China’s PMI index also dropped into contraction territory over August, indicating the country may have slowed down further than indicated by official figures. The index measured below 50 (49.7), the lowest since 2012. More wild swings in the Chinese stock market are likely, and its housing sector is showing signs of not yet hitting bottom after a partial bubble-burst earlier this year.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Something is winning, but what exactly?

It’s hard to believe that anything could be winning in this world of chaos. But take a look again at the map: “something” is winning, and doing so overwhelmingly.

All these countries fracture the earth as if a God-sized hammer smashed its outer crust. Even in our minds, this splintering has convinced many the world is broken beyond repair, forever resigned to competition. But none of these ideas are natural in the slightest, and that should ring alarm bells.

In this sense natural doesn’t refer to border lines carved physically into the earth, as the concrete thinking of five-year-old might understand it. Instead, it is the “naturalness” of borders which exist only in a person’s mind which explains the modern world system. It is flippant, for instance, to say the Afghan people don’t register the borders of Afghanistan in the same way a German person might. This is an illuminating point often missed but worthy of deeper consideration.

Most people understand that victors write the history. This seems to be obvious at a deep level. The ability to convince others of a particular version of past events is integral to the retention of power. What truly creates power, however, is when the victor no longer needs to write anything and historical interpretation is self-driven by the losers as if it were their own idea.

In last week’s column, I described the concept of the international community as the default assumption in the world system. Moreover, it was shown to be a legacy of the post-1945, US-led world order which was itself inherited from the British-led world order.

The idea of an international community relies on the concept of the nation state. The 1648 treaty of Westphalia introduced the nation state to the world, spreading from Europe across the planet until it created the map before us. The international community was neither a British idea nor a US idea, yet it has been unbelievably effective.

So effective in fact, that the concept has almost entirely conquered the world on its own. All the baggage of Western thought – Christianity, science, currencies, media, etc – is included in the victory of the international community. It comes from Puritan ideals: that all humans are created equal, the individual is central and the inexorable march of progress (divine providence).

Those Puritan beliefs are today dominant in American tradition guiding both the writing of its constitution and the structure of its society. Puritanism has contributed to everything seen on a map: its nation states, capitals and governments. It is not a supernatural force. The international community idea is now the default assumption not only of the US government, but of much of the rest of the world too.

This is why the US/Cuba and the US/Iran rapprochements are so curious. With Iran, the agreement was presumably about nuclear weapons, while for Cuba the opening was about repairing ideological cracks. But this is only the first layer. Both are about winning, pure and simple.

The international community structure is bigger than any imperial plans Washington might have. The idea is integral to the US system, but Washington is only the current custodian of the concept.

In an insightful interview, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently described the international community as an end goal for the Ukraine crisis – not just for the US, but for the world. Breaking Russia, he says, “has become an objective; the long-range purpose should be to integrate it.” In other words, Russia’s integration is more important than US victory. And he is exactly correct.

National independence – whether illegal or legal – can only occur within the framework of the international community. This is why the map is fragmented. The US is no longer the driver of the international community, the community has matured to a point where it is maintained by the very people it was built to control.

The “something” which is winning is the international community idea. Observe how successful this idea has become and understand that the Cuba and Iran agreements were all but inevitable. Whether this structure will persist is unknown, but like a virus it has burrowed deep into the consciousness of the entire world and looks set to remain as default for a good while yet.