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Secretary Pompeo Testifies Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has just begun its hearing with Secretary of State Pompeo. He is expected to address concerns regarding the President’s recent summit with Putin, his own recent remarks and the President’s tweet about Iran, as well as US relations with NATO and the EU. Here’s the live feed.

Open thread!



No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy: Military Strikes And The Strategic Complications At The Heart Of The Syrian Problem Set

This morning the President warned Russia and its Syrian and Iranian clients that we had the nice, new missiles all ready to go as a response to both the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta, as well as Russia’s attempts to warn the US and its potential allies – from both the existing US led coalition that is Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve or from a new, smaller coalition of the US, Britain, and France designed to just punish the Assad government for the chemical attacks – off of responding.

Always a good choice to avoid the pre-owned missiles. Sometimes they’re owned by little old ladies who only use them to get to and from church on Sunday. But sometimes they’re used by folks that just abuse them, don’t give them regular maintenance, and run up the mileage on them…

There are already reports of the Syrian military relocating its personnel and equipment to the Russian bases in Syria to protect them.

This makes anything more than a demonstration strike, which is what was done last year, much, much more dangerous and problematic. The reason for this is that in order to actually reduce Syria’s capability to make war, and specifically try to deter the future use of chemical weapons, means that the US and its partners would have to target Syrian personnel and equipment that are now within Russian lines, for lack of a better term. This is one of the major strategic complications as it would create a de facto reality that the US and its partners have just attacked Russian military sites in order to get at the Syrian assets we want to degrade, attrit, and reduce.

Another part of this strategic complication is that the Russian navy has both sortied its Mediterranean fleet to get it out of port where these ships would be easy targets and has conducted a live fire exercise.

The lone Russian air craft carrier is back in port in Russia – it is actually in dry dock for the better part of the next four years or so undergoing a refit. As a result this eleven vessel fleet has limited capability.

More worrisome is that the Russian’s have begun electronically jamming US intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) drones.

The Russian military has deployed jamming tactics against US drones that have affected the US military’s ability to operate in the region, NBC News reports.

US officials told NBC News that the Russian military has been jamming smaller US drones. The jamming is focused on the GPS systems of drones, which can result in things like the operators not knowing where the drone currently is, to more extreme results like crashes.

Department of Defense officials speaking to NBC News did not confirm if they lost any of the drones to crashes as a result of the jamming, but one official did say that the jamming is having an operational impact on military operations in Syria.

The drones that have been targeted are smaller surveillance drones, and not the larger ones with strike capability like the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper, according to NBC News. US military drones are encrypted and are supposed to have defenses against electronic counter measures, suggesting that Russian capabilities are more advanced than previously thought.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, then the commanding general for US Army Europe, said in in 2016 that he has seen Russian “electronic warfare capability at a tactical level that we absolutely don’t have.”

Russia’s ally in Syria, Iran, also reportedly has hacking capabilities. In 2011 it claimed that it hacked into a US RQ-170 Sentinel and forced it to land after it gained access to its GPS.

Russian jamming of our ISR drones is intended to communicate to US and allied military commanders that they will not have a friendly electronic environment if they go with an application of strategic air strikes. This complicates not only targeting, but any potential search and rescue operations that might need to be conducted if something went wrong.

There is another set of strategic complications I want to focus on, which is where Russia has moved its military assets over the past 6 months or so. Russia has begun building out its Western Military District. This is the Russian version of a geographic combatant command that borders the Baltics, Scandinavia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

This includes ramping up exercises and mobilizations under cover of wildfire season preparedness:

Here’s how Russia’s military is deployed in their military districts:

(Map 1: Russian Military Units)

And here’s how NATO and Russia’s military stack up right now:

(Figure 1: NATO Assets Vs. Russian Assets as of 2017)

 

(Figure 2: NATO and Russian Deployments as of 2016)

This second strategic complication should be of great concern. The Russian military, despite being much smaller than the US’s and much degraded by Russian economic realities from the vaunted Soviet military, has been deployed and positioned to threaten the US’s NATO and other allies in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Sweden and Finland have been moving towards a war footing, while our Baltic allies have also increased their readiness. Moreover, the Russians have been sniffing around the undersea transatlantic cables that connect the US and Europe for communications purposes. And we now know that Russia’s cyberwarfare capabilities means they don’t have to actually do anything military to retaliate. Russia could just take down parts or all of the US power grid. Russia has also been able to both penetrate for manipulation and penetrate to take down emergency communication systems, as well as planting false stories about natural disasters and terrorist attacks via social media penetrationImagine what happens should Putin decide to retaliate by turning parts of the US power grid off and interfering with 911 and emergency communications systems, while at the same time spreading disinformation made to look like actual news reports or official municipal, state, and/or Federal responses to the disaster he’s created.

Either a military response against US forces in Syria and Iraq, our NATO allies and partners in Europe, and/or a cyberwarfare response within the US are all potential Russian responses to a US led coalition military response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta last week. These are the strategic complications that the US and its potential allies face in developing their plans and sequels to them. These are the strategic complications faced by the President’s senior military, national security, and foreign policy advisors.

The final strategic complication is the one we started with, the one the President created for himself this morning. By threatening Russian and its Syrian and Iranian proxies with the nice, new, and smart missiles he’s tweeted himself into a corner. He either has to actually do something in response to the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta or he will have destroyed any credibility on this type of matter in the future, as well as weakened America’s strategic communication capabilities. Regardless of the strategic complications on the ground in Syria, in Europe, or within the cyber domain, the President has boxed himself in. The President has finally tweeted himself into trouble that he can’t tweet himself out of. Either he orders a response and risks an escalation or he backs down and loses what little face he had.

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



The Devolution Of A Superpower & The End Of The American Century Part II: Levantine Edition

Earlier today MSNBC’s Ali Velshi interviewed Ronen Bergman, the Senior National Security Correspondent for Yedioth Ahronot. Bergman book on Israel’s assassination program has just been published, but the interview never actually got to the book. Rather, it was all about the Israeli Vs Syrian and Iranian fighting over the weekend. The discussion was illuminating, alarming, and discouraging (click across to see the video as it won’t embed).

Bergman is reporting that Israel was preparing a full scale operation against the Syrian military, the Iranian Quds Force, and Hezbullah on Saturday in response to the drone incursion and the downing of the IAF F-16I. The operation was called off when Prime Minister Netanyahu got an angry phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin telling him to stand down as this operation would put Russian military assets and personnel in Syria at risk. Bergman’s conclusion is that the US has now ceded its role in the Middle East to Russia. And that Putin may not have the region’s well being, let alone stability in mind, as he pursues his own agenda. Bergman also reported that when the Israelis went to the US and asked for them to get involved the American responses were a combination of less than reassuring to non responsive. As a result the Israelis, specifically Netanyahu, have concluded that the US is now disinterested and not willing to be engaged at the national and regional strategic level. Therefore the Israelis will make their own determinations about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it without concern for what the US may or may not want.

Bergman’s reporting should be shocking. And not just to national security and foreign policy hawks. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about the US’s role in the world, or in specific regions of it, and how better to balance other states involvement in the 21st Century global system. Essentially a long overdue discussion about what the global system should be, how it should be organized, who should guarantee a basic level of security within it, and who should be the rule maker or rule makers, as the post World War II and post Cold War international orders break down and need to be replaced. These discussions require intelligence, forethought and foresight, nuance, reason, the ability to negotiate in good faith and communicate across cultures to balance competing interests. From long established powers like the US to emerging powers like China to smaller, but regionally significant powers.

What Bergman describes as happening in the Middle East, as well as in other parts of the world, is not this. Rather it is simply an abandonment, a discarding with little to no thought, let alone apparent planning, for what comes next. This is not a recipe for success. It is a recipe for failure. It is a recipe for upheaval, discord, and ultimately more war, more death, and more destruction. It is both the devolution and the dissolution of a superpower as that superpower, the US, abrogates and abandons the responsibilities it has assumed over the past 70 years and the end of the American Century. This is not the result of being eclipsed by the next, rising hegemon. It is not the result of natural disaster or economic collapse. It is solely the result of a President that has no clear strategy or policy beyond “I will be treated fairly or else”. This is the true Trump Doctrine: I will be treated fairly or else. And only I, President Trump, can ensure that America will be treated fairly or else. Unfortunately for the US, for its allies, its partners, for the people that depend on it, Russia, China, Iran, the DPRK, and a whole host of other state and non-state actors don’t really care if the President or the US is treated fairly. And increasingly they don’t seem to be worrying too much about the or else.

Open thread.



A Battle of Eight Armies: Syria Update

Events have begun to spin out of control in Syria. Last week the Israelis lost an IAF F-16I Fighting Falcon. Though both the pilots were able to safely eject and survived. They came down in Israeli controlled territoryThe Israelis, of course, responded to the downing of their F-16 with a large scale reprisal. This included shooting down an Iranian drone – based on the US drone the Iranians downed in 2011. So we can now confirm that actually happened.

While this Israeli Vs Iranian in support of Syria and backed by Russia engagement was happening, the Syrian/Iranian/Russian coalition stepped up their attacks on Idlib and Ghouta.

The Turks lost a rotary wing (helicopter) craft last week as well. It was shot down by the US allied Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) near Afrin. Two Turkish Soldiers were killed.

Syrian Arab Armed Forces also conducted an attack against the US allied Kurds, which prompted a response from the US led coalition – Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF OIR):

US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are currently stationed in Manbij in a train, advise, and assist mission to the YPG.

It has been reported that anywhere between 100 (the official-ish number) and 600 Russian contractors fighting in Syria were killed in the US Coalition strikes last week.

While LTG Funk, Commander 1st Corps US Army and Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve talked about deconfliction and deescalation in the CNN clip above, he has a battlespace that is becoming more and more complex by the day. There are a lot of moving pieces in his operating environment (OE): Kurdish militia forces being supported by US SOF, the Syrian Arab Army and Air Force, Russian contractors, Iran’s Qud’s Force, Hezbullah’s military wing in support of Syria and Iran, the Turkish military, and Israel. And don’t forget ISIS. They may have lost almost all of the territory they seized to form their caliphate, but they are by no means finished. That is a lot of deconfliction and deescalation!

Moreover, while all of this is going on, and the US is being sucked deeper into the mess that is the Syrian Civil War, Russia continues to expand its interests in the region. In November it struck a deal with Egypt for basing Russian Air Force planes. Just last week the Russians and the Sudanese (that’s the northern, Republic of Sudan of the Sudans) came to an agreement for Russian military support to train and modernize the Sudanese Army.

Finally, it is unclear what the official US response will be. While the US led coalition is sticking with its Kurdish allies in Syria, it is unclear what decision will be made in DC by the National Command Authority. The President’s predilection for Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept the new, Congressionally mandated sanctions from being imposedAnd it appears that the decision to get rid of the Interagency produced, properly put together list of Russians to be named and shamed was made by a senior administration official, which lead to the rush job copy and paste from Forbes that was released.

A “name-and-shame” list of Russian oligarchs who made their money corruptly from their ties with Vladimir Putin was compiled by the US government agencies but then cancelled last week by a senior administration official, according to a Russia expert who was consulted on the list.

It was replaced by an all-inclusive list of rich Russians apparently copied straight from the Forbes magazine’s ranking of wealthy Russians, together with the names of some top Kremlin officials.

While the President has been very solicitous of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan even as Erdogan drags Turkey farther and farther into autocracy, he also warned the Turks against escalating against the US led coalition in Syria. The Turks have disputed the US account of this conversation.

U.S. President Donald Trump urged Turkey on Wednesday to curtail its military operation in Syria and warned it not to bring U.S. and Turkish forces into conflict, but a Turkish source said a White House readout did not accurately reflect the conversation.

“He urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties,” a White House statement said. “He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”

However, a Turkish source said the White House statement did not accurately reflect the content of their phone call.

“President Trump did not share any ‘concerns about escalating violence’ with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” the source said, referring to one comment in the White House summary of their conversation.

 “The two leaders’ discussion of Operation Olive Branch was limited to an exchange of views,” the source said.
Right now there are a lot of moving pieces in Syria. All of them are rubbing against each other in a confined (battle) space. And the alliances don’t really line up with how the President seems to see the world. He’s favorably inclined to Putin and Erdogan. Yet the former is allied with the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbullah and the latter’s actions have the potential to pit NATO allies against each other. Since there is no clearly delineated US policy, or rather policy change, to what the US is trying to achieve in the Syrian part of the Levantine theater from the past administration to the current one, it is unclear what the President really wants to do. How deep he wants the US and the US led coalition involved in the Syrian Civil War. And just what end state he envisions as a result of the US’s actions in this highly complex theater of operations.

Stay frosty!

Open thread!



The Turkish Gambit: Erdogan Issues An Ultimatum To the US In Syria

This broke late last night/early this morning:

ANKARA – The United States needs to withdraw from northern Syria’s Manbij region immediately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.

President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq, including Manbij – a move which risks a possible confrontation with U.S. forces allied to the Kurds.

Speaking to reporters, Cavusoglu also said Turkey wanted to see concrete steps by the United States to end its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara said earlier it had been told by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster that Washington would not provide the YPG with weapons anymore.

There isn’t a lot of reporting yet on this. But this is worrisome as it would be operationally problematic for US forces to pullback from Manbij. It is also troubling because Erdogan, a NATO ally and partner of the US, specifically sought permission from Moscow for its escalating operations in Syria, not it’s US ally’s.

Moreover, less than 48 hours before the Turkish military operation — ironically dubbed Olive Branch — the Syrian regime in Damascus declared that a Turkish air operation would be met by Syrian missiles. The Syrian statement came while Turkey’s army and intelligence chiefs were in Moscow to get Russian approval and thus, the Syrian statement was interpreted as complementing a previous Russian warning against flying over Russian-controlled airspace over Syria.

The moment Turkish F-16s were in action and Turkish tanks rolled toward Afrin, no one was left with any doubt that Operation Olive Branch had the Russian green light.

The Russian position clearly indicates that the Syrian portion of the chessboard is important for Moscow in its game against Washington. Russia apparently saw a further opportunity to weaken NATO and create more fissures between Ankara and Washington by acquiescing to the Turkish military move into Afrin. The imperatives of Russia’s proxy war against the United States have preponderance over the uncertainties and problems that Turkey’s move could entail.

What we’re seeing is Erdogan’s need to shore up domestic support by targeting Syrian Kurdish groups allegedly connected to the PKK combining with Russia’s desire to drive a wedge into NATO as part of its active measures campaign against the US.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has blamed the US of trying to take control of the whole of Syrian-Turkish and Iraqi-Turkish borders by creating alternative authorities in Syria, pointing fingers at the SDF.

“Washington carries out open, and discreet delivery of arms to Syria for transfer to those groups that cooperate with them, especially to the SDF,” he said on Monday.

According to Mensur Akgun, a Turkish international relations professor, Russia’s move was understandable in light of Turkey’s firm stance on the PYD and YPG, and Moscow’s annoyance with the group’s close cooperation with the US.

“They are getting great support from the US. Washington is using the group, particularly in the east of the Euphrates [river], as a balancing force against the other powers there. They are using the group in order to increase the US presence and activities in this region,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I think this has become obvious with the announcement of the new border force planned to be set up there. Moscow, in my opinion, showed green light to Turkey’s operation to decrease the US influence in the region.”

Sergei Markov, a political analyst and a former MP from President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, believes it was Moscow’s way of increasing tensions between Washington and Ankara.

“Russia does not publicly support such a military operation, but it opened the gate for this operation because it basically starts a proxy war between Turkey and the US [through YPG],” he told Al Jazeera.

He added that if the US, Kurds and Turkey fight each other, that would be regarded as a very positive trend by the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and opposes all of those sides.

At this point we have to wait for more information to become available, but this is a very dangerous game being played. The US led coalition needs to maintain a presence in Manbij. It also needs to ensure that Syria’s borders are secure. Both of these have to happen as part of the campaign against ISIS. Turkey’s interest to prevent any Kurdish group from seizing and holding any ground that could be used as the basis for an independent Kurdistan, as well as its increasingly cozy relationship with Russia are very troubling signs. And as we can see with the Russians abandoning their historic support for the Kurds, the Russians are far more interested in rolling back US influence in the region and destabilizing, if not breaking, NATO than maintaining long standing support for a non state proxy. The Syrian Kurds are now learning that they are a disposable piece in Russia’s lukewarm war against the US and NATO. Given all the moving military pieces in play in the Levant, we are far more likely to stumble into something really bad happening here than almost anywhere else on the planet. The question now is, who blinks? The President or Turkey’s Erdogan?

Stay frosty!

Open thread.



The Muhammad bin Salman Gambit: Jockeying for Control and Hegemony Within and Without the Kingdom

While we wait for the Friday evening breaking news, I thought I’d take a minute and focus a bit on what is going on in Saudi Arabia in regard to both domestic and regional activities. Let’s take things one at a time.

1) The Saudi anti-corruption campaign: Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has used the slogan anti-corruption to try to further solidify his position as Crown Prince. From his perspective he’s 32 and the Crown Prince. His father is 80 and in poor health. If he can solidify his position, then he can essentially rule Saudi for five or six decades. I think that this is what a good part of what we saw last week is about. Another portion is that it is a financial shakedown. Muhammad bin Salman is using the anti-corruption label to fine those he’s detained and/or to just strip them of vast sums of wealth. He needs capital to do what he wants, yet because of the price of oil for the past decade and the emergence of alternative energy options becoming competitive as the tech gets better, Saudi’s treasury is in bad shape. Funding a proxy war for regional hegemony against Iran hasn’t helped budgetary matters either.

What I think MBS would really like to do is change the governance dynamic within the Kingdom and these actions are all geared towards this goal. What he wants is not the familial/kinship/tribal style of rule of his predecessors where the Saudi king runs the kingdom like it is one big tribe with a bunch of smaller affiliated tribes in the mix. Rather MBS wants to turn Saudi into a proper, pre 20th century style absolute monarchy. I think we’ll have a better idea if he’s successful within the next 30 to 60 days. His coup proofing and wealth shakedown under cover of anti corruption is either going to be acquiesced to or there will be push back. It would not surprise me if he succeeds. It would also not surprise me if he is dead within two months. Or there is at least a credible attempt on his life. My long term impression of Saudi royal family politics is that it is quite opaque to any but the best informed outside observers who are given at least partial access to the Kingdom and the royal family. I think Saudi royal family internal politics can best be described as being like a bucket of crabs where each crab is trying to escape the bucket by crawling over the other crabs and by grabbing the crabs above them and pulling them down.

2) The Saudi campaign in Yemen: This is absolutely strategically stupid! The Houthis are Zaydis (Fivers), not Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) Shi’a. They had no long standing or historic alliance with Iran until the Saudis decided that there was an Iranian conspiracy against them in Yemen that leveraged the Houthis. So who did the Houthis turn to for supplies when they had no other options? The Iranians. The Saudis made the mess that is Yemen worse. And specifically Muhammad bin Salman did. This is his baby. What we’re watching with the Saudi actions in Yemen are that MBS is a terrible strategist, he’s also a terrible tactician, and what many have long observed is true: the Saudi military is good for parades and presentations and not very good if you need it to fight. They can’t and don’t do joint operations despite long term training programs to teach them to do so.

The only competent military service in Saudi is the National Guard, which is both a praetorian guard like force to protect the royal family (which MBS will now try to remake into protecting MBS since he’s arrested his cousin who ran the Guard) and the descendants of ibn Saud’s desert warriors, the Ikhwan, who were the first and some of the most fanatical converts to ibn Wahhab’s teachings of radical and extreme tawheed.* The Saudi campaign in Yemen has also created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The conditions in Yemen are horrible and abysmal. It is going to cost billions if not trillions to fix the mess Saudi created and by any measure should require prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

3) This leads us to the Saudi led blockade of Qatar. There are some long term issues in regard to who the Amir of Qatar provides financial support to, but what MBS did, in conjunction with his friend and mentor Muhammad bin Zayed the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was also strategically stupid. The US has over 10,000 personnel at al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Those folks can’t just be relocated. Additionally, by putting the blockade in place it created the opportunity for Iran to expand its influence by offering to relieve Qatari food and other shortages created by the blockade, which it did. So here too Muhammad bin Salman’s strategic ineptitude is visible. Instead of checking Iranian influence, he created the conditions to expand it. And the Iranians took the opportunity.

4) Lebanon: This is a mess. Hariri’s party and his family are treating this as a Saudi driven plot. They’ve actually accused the Saudis of kidnapping Harriri, holding him against his will, and forcing him to do this. Regardless it only empowers Hezbullah in regard to Lebanon’s government. And Hezbullah, which is not exactly an ally of Hariri’s, is also now claiming he has been taken hostage by the Saudis. All Hariri’s resignation and flight to Saudi Arabia has done is create another new opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Lebanon. Here too Muhammad bin Salman’s failure as a strategist is clearly evident. His actions have achieved the opposite effect from that he desired.

5) All of this is part of the larger, regional Saudi-Iranian proxy war for regional hegemony. Saudi seeks to be the hegemon and the protector of Sunni Islam. Iran seeks a Shia sphere of influence and near abroad. The difference is that the Iranians have, perhaps, the best strategist in the region – MG Suleimani, while the Saudis are being run by a 32 year old with delusions of grandeur.

As it always does with Saudi, some of this comes back to ibn Wahhab’s radical and extreme version of tawheed (the radical unity of the Deity). As Ahmad Moussalli wrote in Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy:

the Wahhabi muwaheedun have been arguing for over 200 years that they are the true defenders of Sunni Islam, while at the same time being in direct and active opposition to 90% of Sunni Islam.

This also includes ibn Wahhab’s conceptualization of Sunni/Shi’a relations as good versus evil, which leads the Saudis to take an almost religiocidal approach to dealing with the Shi’a as ibn Wahhab’s teachings state the Shi’a must be killed wherever they can be found. This is contributing to the Saudi created mess in Yemen. 

Muhammad bin Salman has indicated that he wants to reform the version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Specifically he wants to modernize and moderate it. That’s great. But a modernized and moderated radically extreme theology is still just a more pleasantly packaged radically extreme theology. The danger of ibn Wahhab’s radical concept of tawheed is that it is not jurisprudence.** It has no madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). Despite attempts to claim it is an extension of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, it isn’t just a more severe Hanbalism. It is not ijtihad (Islamic jurisprudence and legal reasoning). Rather it is theology and doctrine. And theology and doctrine can spread and infect any of the four Sunni madhads. This is what has made it so dangerous because as radical and extreme as ibn Wahhab’s teachings were, they can be further refined. Which is what bin Laden and Zawahiri did for al Qaeda and what Zarqawi and Badghdadi have done with ISIS. And why first AQ’s and now ISIS’s even more extreme versions of ibn Wahhab’s tawheed have been able to spread. They aren’t madhab dependent, so they can travel throughout the Sunni Muslim world influencing theology and doctrine.

6) Finally, and one that is not Saudi specific, the US led coalition has reduced the physical caliphate, but all the conditions and drivers that made the Levant and the Middle East and the Maghreb and parts of Africa and Central Asia a powder keg haven’t been addressed, let alone resolved. There is still a long term regional drought, which was a major driver of both the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi sectarian violence. The proxy war between Saudi and Iran with Turkey trying to edge itself in is still ongoing.  Sectarian issues haven’t been resolved. The Kurds still don’t have independence and now the Barzani faction is angry and seeking support from Russia. Russia is not only determined to keep its warm water port in Latakia, but is trying to put a land route in through the Caucasus to another warm water port in Iran. ISIS may not have much physical territory left, but they’ve got plenty of cyber presence. The Netanyahu government and no one in his coalition has any real desire to resolve the dispute with the Palestinians, let alone allow for the creation of a Palestinian state. The US and NATO led train, advise, and assist mission in Afghanistan has just entered its sixteenth year, or rather we’ve started year one for the sixteenth time again in Afghanistan. As ISIS loses its physical territory, we’ve done nothing to resolve the underlying conditions and drivers that allowed for them to come in to being and to take and hold so much territory to begin with. And we’ve certainly not resolved the problems that make them attractive in parts of the Maghreb, east and west Africa, and southeast Asia.

* Please see chapters 3 and 4.

** Please see chapters 2, 5, and 6.



Catalonia Has Declared Its Independence

The Catalan regional parliament has voted to declare independence from Spain, while the Spanish parliament has approved direct rule over the region.

Catalan MPs easily approved the move amid an opposition boycott.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had told senators direct rule was needed to return “law, democracy and stability” to Catalonia.

The Catalan government said that of the 43% of potential voters who took part, 90% were in favour of independence. But Spain’s Constitutional Court had ruled the vote illegal.

A motion declaring independence was approved on Friday with 70 in favour, 10 against, and two abstentions in the 135-seat chamber.

The measure calls for the transfer of legal powers from Spain to an independent Catalonia.

But the Spanish Constitutional Court is likely to declare it illegal, while the US, UK, Germany and France all expressed support for Spanish unity.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU “doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits”.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has called for supporters to “maintain the momentum” in a peaceful manner.

Crowds have been celebrating the declaration of independence and Spanish flags have been removed from some regional government buildings in Catalonia.

It does appear that everyone’s favorite promoter and funder of neo-nationalist independence movements, Russia, meddled in the election. Russia’s interests in an independent Catalonia isn’t just limited to whatever Snowden and Assange are up to.

Putin sees in the Catalonian referendum an opportunity to convince the European Union, NATO, and the UN that it is time to recognize that Crimea belongs to Russia and to let bygones be bygones. After all, business and political interests in Europe are getting restive. They contend that, after almost four years, it is time to return to “business as usual” with Russia.

The Russian narrative characterizes Catalonia as yet another unintended consequence of NATO’s 2008 recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Russian ally, Serbia. (No mention of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovars preceding independence). Per Russia, Kosovo opened the Pandora’s Box of independence movements, of which Catalonia is but the latest example. In the growing list of self-determination movements – Kosovo, Kurdish Iraq, Scotland, Crimea, Quebec, and now Catalonia — why should Crimea and its new homeland, Russia, be the only ones singled out for sanctions? Says one insulted Russian commentator: The West “has no right to lecture Russia.” The West cannot punish those referendums whose outcome it dislikes and praise those it welcomes.

 Russia claims that the March 2014 Crimean referendum was no different from the other self-determination movements, including Catalonia. According to the Russian narrative, the Crimean vote was spontaneously initiated by patriotic Crimean legislators, alarmed by the takeover of Kiev by nationalist extremists and neo-Nazis. The Crimean referendum took place without incident and without the overt influence of Russian special forces. The “official” Crimean election results, as quoted widely in the Western press, showed a 97% vote in favor of annexation with a remarkable turnout of 83%. The Russian message: The balloting procedure may not have been perfect, but the election results are overwhelming; so why all the fuss?

The Russian narrative has been drummed for almost four years into audiences in Russia and abroad. Attention spans are limited, and few bother to drill into the true story of the Crimean annexation, which has been documented as follows:

Part of Russia’s meddling appears to have been through everyone’s favorite promoters of transparency in government.

Sentiment on the issue of secession has run fierce here for the past five years, but lately, suspected Russian mouthpieces Assange and Edward Snowden — as well as Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik — have been throwing fuel on the fire, tweeting out provocative messages by the hundreds over the past week; every time the government shuts down a voting app, Assange tweets a link to a new one.

But the Catalan situation is unprecedented, in part because of its support from outside the country. Assange and Snowden are widely suspected of fronting for Russia, which as part of its campaign to destabilize Western democracies has supported secessionist movements from Scotland to Texas. Barcelona and the surrounding resort towns along the Costa Brava are favorite vacation and second-home spots for wealthy Russians, including alleged Mafia heads reportedly linked to the Kremlin. Some of them are facing criminal charges by the national government — charges that might not survive a transition to a new, Russia-friendly Catalan national government. “The situation is confusing and highly combustible,” says one longtime resident who declined to be quoted by name, given the intensity of feeling on the issue.

Now we wait to see how this gets resolved, if it can be resolved. And if so, whether the resolution is peaceful.

Stay frosty!



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