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Monday, September 28, 2015

Incoherent, ineffective U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq continues to create opportunity for Iran and Russia.

Links: A. Putin steps up rhetoric against the West.
           B. Russia, Iran and Iraq set up military joint coordination cell.

Everyday the media presents the international community with another example of motivated, well-planned Russian activity vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq.  Three weeks ago, the Russians announced their intention to become directly militarily involved in Syria, and since that time every day brings additional evidence of the arrival in Syria of Russian troops, personnel accommodation, artillery, mobile surface-to-air units, tanks, and air resources.  Week-by-week, northeastern Syria, so recently threatened by both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, becomes more militarized; soon we can expect to see Russian jets flying sorties against ISIS positions.  Putin has already demanded that the Allied Air Coalition, led by the United States, must coordinate its activities with Russia, although he made no mention of advising the Pentagon regarding Russian military deployments in Syria.  Interestingly, the Russians are becoming more active in Iraq, having the confidence to openly announce the creation of a joint military coordination cell.  Given that the Russians have recently started construction on two large military bases on the border with Ukraine, and that negotiations are underway for the creation of a Russian Air Base in Belarus, the events we are witnessing are obviously part of a much broader, long-term strategy which is aimed at eclipsing the United States as the world superpower, and they couldn't have asked for a more compliant U.S. president.

Putin has managed to push Ukraine completely off of the headlines, which is one goal achieved, and his willingness to accept the mantle of "defender of the west" against ISIS will do wonders in reforming his image in Europe.  The Russian diplomatic maneuvers, including the establishment of the Baghdad military coordination cell, alongside the relaxation of tension in Ukraine and the building of military bases, obviously point to the existence of a much more intensive Russian agenda.  Putin has signed on with Iran, who will play a pivotal role in the new world that Putin envisions.  Russia has fought hard in the United Nations on Iran's behalf.  Any one of a dozen efforts to punish Iran for violating international treaty regarding their nuclear research, could have put the Iranians back another decade from their end goal.  But Russia stepped in as they always do when creating a client state (see Hafez al-Assad and Syria), and blocked any real effort to bring the Iranians into compliance.  Russia realized that it was only time until Barack Obama, in search of a "Legacy" event, would step up and lead the emasculated Europeans right into a Treaty with Iran which requires nothing of Tehran, and gives them what they most need: not continued nuclear research, but access to the international arms market sans sanctions.  Now that Russia has declared her intentions in Syria (to defeat ISIS), Turkey and the United States had better be prepared for the damage coming vis-à-vis the proposed "ISIS-free zone".  Turkey will give Russia a free-hand in Syria for the moment, in order to not compromise the all-important natural gas pipeline plan, even though watching Assad use up another one of his nine lives must be driving Erdogan bananas.  And the United States?  As long as Obama is in office, Putin, Iran and Russia have an open playing field.  You see, Obama will not take any action that might endanger his legacy nuclear treaty with Iran.  He knows that many Iranians, especially in the religious extremist community, are opposed to any treaty with "The Great Satan".  He will not approve any diplomatic or military action that might offend the Iranians.

There can be no doubt that Russia intends to make martyrs out of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.  Expect Iranian activity in Iraq to increase dramatically in the next few months, with the possibility of Iranian troops either swelling the ranks of the militias incognito, or with the intrusion into Iraq of the Iranian Army at the invitation of the Iraqi govt.  Very soon the political stalemate in Baghdad will work itself out, with one of three outcomes: first, the Abadi govt. holds firm, but the failure of the Iranian Security Forces in Ramadi and the real threat to the capital posed by ISIS compels Abadi to welcome Iranian military involvement; second, Abadi falls and is replaced by a compliant, pro-Iranian govt., which immediately begins to cross the Iran/Iraq border; or third, the Iranians just do as the wish and cross the border on their own schedule, as the United States won't complain much.  The next month will probably provide an ample supply of fireworks, and demonstrate just how prostrate the United States has become internationally.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Russians wasting no time building up military presence in Syria, and at the same time expanding diplomatic activities in Iraq.

Links: A. Russian military hardware increasingly present on Satellite Imagery.
           B. Russians coordinating militarily in Baghdad with Iranians and militias.

Vladimir Putin has wasted no time in committing Russia militarily to the conflict in Syria.  Northeastern Syria, including Hama Province, the strategically important al-Ghab Valley, and the large port city of Latakia.  In the last year, ISIS made inroads in this part of Syria, which is home to the politically influential Alawite community, and the Assad family home.  These successes came at the expense of regime forces, and increased pressure on Assad to act.  Within the last six months, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the armed militia that is aligned with Al-Qaeda, has complicated the issue by repeatedly defeating ISIS in Hama Province, and occupying towns that were formerly under ISIS control.  As for Assad and the pressure exerted by the Alawite community, regime forces have been increased and air sorties have become much more frequent.  The question is, who are they bombing, JN or ISIS?  I assume at this point it doesn't matter, since both groups are opposed to the Ba'ath Party and Bashar al-Assad.  As if the scenario wasn't crowded enough, the Russians appear to have chosen northeastern Syria as the location for their initial military foothold.  Besides the troops and supplies that have already arrived in Latakia, new satellite imagery identifies a number of Russian jets on the tarmac at Bassel al-Assad Airport/Airbase in Latakia (the Airport was named after the late brother of de facto Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).  Visible on the imagery are a number of SU-30SM (multi-role fighter), SU-24 (all-weather attack/interdictor), SU-25 (close air support), HIND-24 (attack helicopter, and an IL-76 (strategic airlift).  It would appear that the Russians almost have enough air power present in Latakia to kick the shit out of both JN and ISIS, at least in northeast Syria.  But we can expect to see many more air elements before the Russian military takes the offensive.

As an indication that Putin is determined to go after ISIS in Iraq as well, Russian and Iranian military officials have set up a military coordination cell in Baghdad.  This development is the best news to hit the capital in some time, as a Russian military presence almost totally discounts the possibility of Baghdad falling to ISIS.  But this depends on the Russians making a firm military commitment in Iraq as they are doing in Syria.  Working with the Iranian military and Shi'a militias in Baghdad are a clear indication that Putin sees Russia's conflict with ISIS to be international and not limited to Syria.  This makes sense; for Putin to be declared the hero who vanquished ISIS and saved the lives of all the Syrian migrants who would have drowned, it is necessary to defeat ISIS in its entirety.  We have evidence of Putin's determination and long-term strategic thinking, which leads us to believe that Russia will commit itself completely to this campaign.  The media in Moscow is already onboard, with news stories about their international hero-President, again being thrust into the danger zone, to tackle an enemy that has totally emasculated Barack Obama and the west.  In recent weeks, state-sponsored media in Russia has made repeated references to the absolute determination of the United States to avoid American "boots on the ground."  No doubt the brave Russian soldier isn't frightened of ISIS. 

At the end of the day, Putin and Russia are filling a hugely important role.  Every second of every day, the Islamic State (ISIS) becomes stronger, and expands its global footprint.  Billions of dollars in funds continue to fill their coffers, with the identity of the originators always unknown.  Actually, intelligence organizations across the globe have had little difficulty tracing much of the funding for ISIS to Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Kuwait, and Bahrain.  Its not politically correct to make any public accusations, but the host governments are aware of the problem.  The dilemma is, exactly how do ancient Arab royal families govern themselves?  How does a multi-millionaire nephew instruct his older, more influential multi-millionaire uncle how to spend his money?  If the Russian military begins to make short-work of ISIS, which is what we expect, the funding will dry up on its own, and ISIS will have to go to ground, mirroring Al-Qaida.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Iraqi Security Forces remain committed to retaking Ramadi.

Link: Political troubles distracting Iraqi government from ISIS campaign.

In spite of recent efforts by the Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) to oppose and discredit the reform agenda by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, the Iraqi government continues to voice confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) attempt to retake Ramadi.  Drip by drip, local Sunni Tribal Militia recruits complete training in Habaniya and join their compatriots outside Ramadi.  The Iraqi Army and its Special Police Units have been making very slow progress, but ground is being taken.  The ISF is not attacking Ramadi from only one direction; the effort is to invest the town from the east, west, north, and south.  Ideally, this would have led to the isolation of Ramadi more quickly, but it hasn't happened.  ISIS continues to have access to its forces in both Ramadi and Fallujah.  The ISF has identified the roads which allow both cities to be accessed, and an effort is underway to shut them down.  One road which is still open to ISIS actually leads from Fallujah to Ramadi.  Why the allied air campaign hasn't turned this road into dust is a mystery, although if it continues to be heavily traveled by civilians, then bombing would be out of the question.  What if ISIS disguises their reinforcements and supplies as civilian traffic, as they have done repeatedly in both Syria and Iraq?  That is a question that as of yet has no answer.

The PMUs continue to destabilize the situation in Baghdad, as ISIS increases its attacks in the city and also in Baiji and Thar Thar, south of Samarrah.  Its obvious that ISIS is attempting to exploit the showdown between the Iraqi government and Shi'a militias, by securing territory already occupied and launching attacks on fresh targets.  The Iraqi government has the obvious support of the great majority of the population, including the Shi'a.  But this is a population that has seen tremendous violence and has been terrorized for decades from the end of a gun barrel.  The militias are threatening to treat any pro-reform demonstrations as a security threat, and as they have already declared themselves the de facto authority in both Baghdad and Basra, it must be assumed that they won't hesitate to shoot unarmed protesters.  Abadi knows that the popular support of the people, along with the consistent support of Shi'a religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are all he can rely on as the ISF and police are occupied in Anbar.  But Abadi appears understandably hesitant to call the people to the streets, for the showdown that would result which he cannot hope to win.  With the army and police occupied on the front lines, there is some question as to why the militias haven't attempted to remove Abadi from office by force.  Certainly there are enough Maliki supporters and Iranian hacks in the Iraqi government and Parliament for a new cabinet and administration to be formed, one that wouldn't try to enact all of the anti-corruption reforms that threaten Maliki so much.  The reality is, any effort to remove Abadi would have to be approved by Tehran, and right now the Iranians are basking in the glow of their new-found reputation as Russia's partner in countering ISIS in Syria.  The Iranians are just as anxious to move into the vacuum left by the United States, to take up a leadership role alongside the Russians in Syria in Putin's plan to stand up to ISIS.  This effort, along with the new nuclear treaty written by the United States, a few European countries, and Iran, make Iran so squeaky clean that they can barely stand themselves.  An Iranian-sponsored government change in Baghdad, with the battle of Ramadi raging to the west, would not be seen as a productive development.  For this reason more than any other, Abadi is safe....for the moment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Greece re-elects Tsirpas, who is now obliged to implement the exact austerity reforms that he swore to oppose in his first successful presidential election.

Link: Tsirpas wins with almost the same exact plurality.

Do you remember the days, when to discuss Greece meant to recall a fantastic cruise in the Mediterranean, or a month of sun-soaked relaxation on a Mykonos beach?  In the 19th century, the English upper class believed that for a young person to have a fully rounded education, then a trip to study the classics and ruins in both Greece and Italy was a requirement.  Personally, I enjoy reading about Greece's more modern history, including the 1821-1832 war for independence against the Ottoman Empire, or the valiant guerilla war against the Nazis in World War II.  Today's younger generations no longer have to be instructed about Greece in a classroom, because Greece is frequently the subject of an international news story.  Unfortunately, the news stories are not  documentaries about Plato or Ancient Sparta.  For roughly the past decade, the newsworthy events generated in Hellas have been dominated by economic news.  In particular, the rest of Europe has become very interested in the state of the Greek economy.  Greek is a member of the EU, which appears to be validating the old cliché that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link (somewhere deep in Les Invalides, Napoleon just rolled over).  The brilliant minds that constitute the European Commission's Economic and Financial Affairs Office (Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs) keep a close eye on the economies of all the member states.  The Greek economy was not very strong when the EU offered Athens membership, but the belief was the Greek system would be reformed, modernized and improved by its association with its fellow EU states.  But the last ten years, played out in the European Press almost like a soap opera, has been one Greek economic crisis after another.  The evolution of the original crisis, which was addressed with a fat loan from the EU, should have been an indication to the Economic and Financial Affairs folks that Greece was going to be a problem that would refuse to go away.  The timeline will include an additional loan, mass demonstrations by the Greek people, protesting both their government and the EU who provided the loans, and the possibility that Greece may become the first country to join and depart the EU.

The actual issue isn't complicated.  The Greece government, which is the nation's largest employer, continues to grow in all directions.  Greeks are living longer, and each decade another generation enters the rolls of pension-collectors.  The Greek government only takes in so much in taxes (income tax, tariffs, transaction fees, tourist taxes, etc.).  With the growing number of pensioners, and the continual growth of social programs, migrants, etc., the Greek government runs a huge deficit.  Every year, the government spends more money than it takes in.  To make matters worse, the Greek economy is in dire need of reform.  The Unions are all-powerful, and they fight tooth-and-nail any attempt to modernize equipment or processes, for fear that it will result in a smaller workforce (which is probably true, but the profit made should be put into enlarging the business, which creates jobs as well).  The cycle is repetitive.  The Greek government is under-water and can't pay its pensioners, so it asks for help from the EU.  The EU responds with a loan offer, tied to a requirement for reform.  The Greek people go ape-shit, calling the German members of the negotiating team "Nazis", and pressure their government to initially refuse the offer.  Cooler heads eventually prevail, and the reform package is accepted.  The bailout cash arrives, but the Greeks do not effectively implement the reforms as required, which sets us up for the second-running of the cycle.  The unreformed Greek economy (again) is unable to meet its obligations, so again a request for assistance arrives at the EU.  Another loan package is put together, along with another requirement for austerity and reforms to the Greek economic system.  More demonstrations, cars burned, governments toppled, but in the end, a deal is reached.  The money is delivered, but the austerity and reforms and other requirements related to the repayment of the loan are put aside.  Believe it or not, there was a round three of this absurd game.  It would have saved everyone so much money and time, if the EU would have just written a check to the Greeks each time they needed money.  The reforms, which are the only way the Greek economy will evolve and grow to function successfully alongside its EU neighbors, seem impossible for the Greek people to accept.

Current Greek President Alexis Tsirpas, was elected last year on a platform of intransigence and opposition to the EU.  But once he took office, he got a lesson in reality.  Greece had two options: either agree to the conditions set by the EU and receive ANOTHER loan, or leave the EU.  If Greece leaves the EU, then access is lost to a number of other programs and initiatives that have been very helpful. Also, Greece would lose access to the financial support that has actually kept Greece from complete economic collapse over the past decade.  Regarding membership in the EU, some of the wealthier countries like France and Germany, probably end up losing money at the end of the every year, but the idea of a European Federation means so much, that they are willing to give a little.  On the other side, countries like Greece (and Italy, sad to say), have really become dependent on the EU to keep them from total economic collapse.  What is most interesting is that the countries who truly embrace socialist-style economics (Italy, Greece, Serbia) are a complete economic mess, while free-market economies like Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and France, never have to ask for a hand-out.

After taking office and realizing that he had no choice, Tsirpas accepted the deal offered by the EU.  He faced an almost immediate rebellion in his own party, and his popularity numbers went into free-fall.  But Tsirpas is one smooth operator (he reminds me of a young George Papandreou), and he decided to call new elections to answer calls for his resignation.  If Tsirpas had agreed to immediate presidential elections, or at least stuck to a reasonable timetable, he would probably have still lost.  But he scheduled the election after the people had digested the issue of reforms, and gave his astute political machine time to rebuild his image, as the young Greek warrior who stood up to the German Harridan Angela Merkel.  One thing no one can deny: the Greek people love their drama!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Obama Administration continues to fail in all areas of diplomacy and foreign policy, and Putin works to build an anti-ISIS coalition.

Links: A. U.S. begins training anti-ISIS fighters in Syria.
           B. Obama spends 500 million to train 5 anti-ISIS operatives.
           C. Putin intentions in Syria.

It was only last May, that President Obama announced that the United States would begin training an "anti-ISIS" force to act as "boots on the ground" and supplement the U.S.-led allied air coalition.  Since then, there has been a remarkable dearth of information on the training program, although a few titles were tossed to the media, including "Free Syrian Army" and "New Syrian Army".  During the summer, while ISIS expanded its operations in Iraq, and increased its hold over Syrian territory, we wondered what had become of this expensive initiative.  Certainly someone needed to stand up to ISIS besides Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), who, aside from their direct affiliation with Al-Qaeda, at least had a decent record in combat with the Islamic State.  This week we learned that up-to-now, the first part of the training program was complete, and after spending $500 million, the U.S. had a grand total of five operatives ready to stand up to ISIS in Syria.  Granted, the Pentagon is quick to point out that over the next three faces of the program, another one-hundred twenty operatives will complete their training, but that leaves us with one-hundred twenty five, to take on roughly thirty thousand rugged, experienced ISIS members.  This Administration knows how to spend money like nobody's business; at least it gives us some idea how the United States went from $3 trillion in debt, to almost $20 trillion, in less than seven years.  But that is a subject for another day.

From a foreign policy perspective, this Administration hangs its hat on three accomplishments: the killing of bin-Laden, the signing of the New Start Treaty, and this new nuclear treaty with Iran that has yet to be ratified by Congress.  I would have added a fourth accomplishment, but the Obama Administration doesn't talk much anymore about the quick withdrawal of troops of Iraq, probably because ISIS dived right into the vacuum left behind.  The disaster known as the New Start Treaty has already been dissected on this blog, as has the nuclear treaty with Iran.  So how does the Obama Administration stack up, as diplomatic accomplishments go?  Obama began his term in office with what is affectionately known as "the apology tour" through the Middle East.  When the Arab Spring blossomed, we were nowhere to be seen.  We were in no position to respond effectively to any of the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  We become totally reactive, trying to jump quickly as soon as something happened.  When Russia invaded Georgia, we had little response, and when Putin charged into Ukraine and swallowed up Crimea, Obama looked in someone else's ancient playbook and decided to lead our brave European allies in a new sanctions regime.  As the Russians increased their aggression, the sanctions grew, and we were told that the Russian economy would eventually crack.  I had to ask myself if ANYONE in this administration knew the slightest thing about the Russians.  If you want to intimidate or persuade the Russians to change their policy, don't waste your time on an economic approach.  The Russian people are insulted when someone tries to starve them into acquiescence; they understand what it means to cut back and do without, and if it means giving the finger to the U.S. and Europe, they will tell you to bring on your sanctions!  I understood this simple cultural quirk when the crisis began, here we are, over a year later, and those mighty sanctions have still not managed to bring the Russian bear to its knees.  In fact, I think the Russians are actually expanding their footprint internationally, sending troops and tanks to fight ISIS in Syria.  I guess they figured someone had to do it, and unless it can be wrapped up in a sanctions regime or dropped from a jet fighter high up in the sky, Obama and the United States are not going to step up to the plate.

For every international crisis that has occurred since 2008, the United States has failed miserably in its response.  It truly resembles amateur hour at Foggy Bottom.  All the while, the Russians have truly started stretching their wings.  No doubt Putin chose the Syrian city of Latakia as the arrival location of the first wave of Russian troops and equipment for a number of reasons.  Latakia is on the coast, and would make an ideal location for a Russian naval base to access the Mediterranean.  Also, NW Syria is home to Syria's influential Alawite minority, not to mention a number of other ethnic minorities including Christians.  Putin, as he embraces the mantle of "International Leader", will guise himself as the protector of all the various religious and ethnic minorities in Syria.  And what makes Putin's position so enviable, is that he is ready to back up his new role by putting Russian troops and tanks on the ground to confront ISIS.  The United States could have made the same choice, and would probably have been better equipped and experienced to wipe out ISIS in record-time.  But Obama doesn't appear to care much for the U.S. military, and makes use of our Armed Forces only in specific scenarios.  First and foremost, we must not put a soldier or pilot or sailor in harms way.  Military deaths do not translate well into Democratic votes.  Given how the leaders of Europe snivel at his feet whenever there is a joint appearance, there is no question that they would have directed their military to join an Obama coalition to destroy ISIS.  But Obama was not up to the task, regardless of how quickly the job could have been accomplished and how few casualties would have resulted.  So Putin has moved into the vacuum, and so far, is doing an admirable job.  Cheers to you, Vlad.  Take out a couple of those ISIS bastards for me, will ya?  

Friday, September 18, 2015

The world needs a leader to stand up to ISIS; can Putin fill the role?

Link: Putin using media and military to make headlines in Syria.

Over the last two years, the world has become a much more dangerous place.  Russia seems intent on presiding over the dismemberment of Ukraine, Libya has become a magnet for jihadist groups, Iran, arguably the world's foremost exporter of terrorism, has been given open access to purchase modern military equipment, and ISIS seems unstoppable as it racks up battlefield victories in Iraq and Syria.  What the international situation calls for is the arrival on the scene of a true leader.  Barack Obama does not have the courage or the conviction to be that leader, and the various European Heads of State  are permanently frozen in "surrender" mode.  Whose left?  What about Vladimir Putin?  Sure, I'm disturbed by Russian aggression in Ukraine, but the situation in Donbas and Crimea does not present a current threat to world peace.  Let's take a serious look at the danger posed by the continued existence of the Islamic State for Iraq and al-Sham, or the Islamic State for a Caliphate in the Levant, or ISIS/ISIL, or whatever name suits you.  Simply put, this Islamic Extremist Organization is about Death.

ISIS claims to be singularly focused on the creation of a new Islamic Caliphate.  The most recent Caliph was embodied in the form of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  What is a Caliph?  A Caliph is the spiritual leader of the Islamic World, and the Caliphate is intended to be whatever geographical area that accepts his total authority.  At times, ISIS has claimed to be only interested in Syria, but that interest was expanded to include Iraq, upon the ill-timed withdrawal of U.S. troops.  Now we here the area of interest has expanded to include "The Levant" which is a colonial term used to describe Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan.  The reality is, ISIS is a plague with world domination goals.  The organization has spread to Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.  Quite a reach for a group only interested in The Levant.  As for its Modus Operandi, ISIS flourishes through the spread of tyranny, domination and mass murder.  The tools most frequently utilized are terror and fear.  Its ability to spread to so many disparate communities, including the Philippines and Kenya, allows ISIS to spread its message like a virus.  How are they able to convince so many young people to join?  ISIS provides the one thing missing in the lives of young people from the poorest corners of the earth: hope.  For the individual, ISIS provides sustenance, and in many instances, a little money to send home.  And at the end of the day, anyone who dies in pursuit of the Caliphate, will most certainly qualify as a martyr.  For the hundreds of thousands of unemployed, hungry young men in places like Cairo, Nairobi, Damascus, Sana'a, the Balkans, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Somalia, and Libya, ISIS puts a gun in their hands and gives them not only something to do, but something powerful to belong to.

Again, anyone one of a dozen nations, if properly motivated and mobilized, could defeat ISIS on the present battlefields of Iraq and Syria.  Even with their F5s and stolen Iraqi Migs, I believe the Iranians could vanquish ISIS.  In fact, a coalition of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait could probably get the job done as well.  Ideally, the United Nations would sponsor the creation of an international military coalition to destroy ISIS.  There was a day when the President of United States would ideally fit into the role of political leader of this coalition, given the amount of diplomatic relationships and influence the United States enjoys.  But it doesn't appear that our current President is up for the job.  Just when it appeared that no one was willing to take the job, Vladimir Putin announces that Russia has decided to aggressively re-engage in Syria, in opposition to ISIS.  Vlad puts his money where his mouth is; Russian heavy tanks, artillery, and necessary troop-support equipment has started to arrive in Latakia, on Syria's northwestern coast.  If the Russians so chose, a dedicated offensive campaign against ISIS, that utilizes whatever resources are necessary (and with the "no troops on the ground" assistance from the U.S. and Europe), would eventually crush ISIS.  But the elephant-sized question in the room, is can we allow Putin to become that leader of an international coalition to defeat the worst of the bad guys, when in the first paragraph, we identified Putin as one of the (lesser) bad guys?

In every post on this blog that focuses on Ukraine, I have made my pro-Ukrainian stance obvious.  I'm not Ukrainian, nor do I have any close Ukrainian friends.  I support Ukraine simply because they are a nation attempting to become more free and democratic, that has been invaded by its more powerful neighbor.  I will continue to support Ukraine, but I'm willing to avert my gaze for a period of time, if it will encourage Putin to dive head-first into the battle to defeat ISIS.  I recognize this evil organization for what it is, and what it has the potential to accomplish.  The time to smash ISIS is now, when it is still basically in its infant state.  Can you imagine the kind of conflicts that are raging in Iraq and Syria, also happening in South Africa, Argentina, and Thailand?  Unfortunately, its not as far-fetched as it was a year ago.  Someone with international influence has to stand up and build a coalition to destroy ISIS, and it needs to happen now.  Since no one else wants it, as far as I'm concerned, Putin has my total support to assume the job. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Russia steps up aid to Syria's Assad.

Links: A.  Russia providing military aid to Syrian regime forces.
           B.  Russia delivers military aid to Syria's Assad.

Last Spring, when ISIS started to become a household word in Europe and the United States, the Obama Administration made clear its feelings by announcing the formation of the Allied Air Coalition.  This coalition, which included warplanes from Kuwait, U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Kingdom, allows European nations and the United States the opportunity to militarily strike against ISIS, without risking the lives of one soldier.  Russia chose not to be a coalition member, probably because it would have impacted in some way Russia's close relationship with de facto Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  How did Syria and Russia become so close?  Decades ago, when Israel was being threatened by its neighbors with the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War, the United States aggressively supported Israel, both diplomatically and with military aid.  At the time, Russia was still the biggest part of the Soviet Union, and played the part of America's foil on the Cold War game board.  When the Arab states would begin to plan attacks on Israel, the Russians were always nearby with T-54/55 and T-62 tanks, Artillery, and Mig warplanes.  I always assumed that the Russians supported the enemies of Israel solely because the United States supported Israel so strongly.  I'm sure the issue is a bit more complicated, but the close relationship between Damascus and Moscow survived the death of the Soviet Union (1991) and of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez (2000).  In earlier posts we commented on Vladimir Putin's often stated goal of having a port on the Mediterranean Sea for the Russian Navy.  Long before ISIS appeared on the scene, the idea of Russia building a naval port on the Syrian coast near Latakia or Tartus was something considered by NATO intelligence experts and the Pentagon.  Over the years, the Russians certainly built up enough good will.  The issue probably didn't become a serious topic for the Russians until Putin took office.  Given the invasion of Crimea and the support for separatists in Ukraine, he obviously pictures Russia as a nation with expanding national boundaries.  Giving the Russian navy (and submarines in particular) a base from which to repair, refuel, rearm, etc. on the Mediterranean Sea would be a coup for Putin.

Most of the summer, when the media provided the world with daily stories from Syria of regime defeats, Putin seemed to be purposely keeping a low profile.  Granted, the Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, not to mention the destruction of a civilian airliner by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile, must have kept Putin quite busy.  We began to wonder if maybe Assad's plight had become so precarious that even the Russians had jumped ship.  I was half-expecting to see loads of family members boarding flights to exile in Russia, with their suitcases filled with money and antiquities.  But no such luck.  Assad has shown a willingness to see this thing through.  I think Gadhafi expressed the same willingness, though, and look where it got him.  Basically, Assad's regime forces are limited to defending everything west of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range.  Two-thirds of Syria are presently occupied by either ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and its allies (give a few towns in the north to the Kurds, who as always, have fought with tremendous courage and determination).  Putin may have arrived just in the nick of time, as JN has been expanding its attacks in the northwestern province of Hama, and onto the strategic al-Ghab plain.  The Alawites of northwest Syria, always so loyal to the Assad's, are coming under great pressure from JN, and they are making their feelings known in Damascus. 

Last week saw the arrival of  Russian T-90 tanks to Latakia (the number of tanks is still being debated), and enough living pods for 1,500 persons.  One can assume that the Russians will also be sending in intelligence officers and humanitarian aid personnel, so it can't be assumed that all 1,500 are earmarked for use by soldiers.  Russia has also delivered artillery and loads of smaller arms, ammunition, and military equipment.  Putin obviously believes that Assad can yet win the day.  That cannot be accomplished with the military forces at Assad's disposal today.  For ISIS to be defeated, the Russians either have to join a coalition with Europe and the United States to destroy ISIS for good, or move in enough Russian forces to combine with the remaining regime units, and finish off ISIS on the battlefield.  ISIS is strong, but ISIS cannot defeat the Russian Army.  In fact, ISIS would be hard-pressed to last more than a month against the military of France, the UK, Germany, Israel, China, even Iran.  Putin doesn't scare easily, and he doesn't blink very often either.  We believe he still has intentions for building a Russian Naval Base in Syria, and in order to accomplish this, he must keep his puppet as head of state.  If the Russians lead a military offensive that sends ISIS packing, and Assad is hailed as a hero, how will Erdogan in Turkey take the news?  Many of Syria's neighbors are anxious to see Assad deposed, but not at the risk of creating the ISIS Caliphate.  What would be in the best interest of all, is if a western leader would emerge, who would lead a military coalition including the United States and Europe, and destroy ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.  Where can we find such a leader?  Lets hope one shows up soon, because ISIS is only getting stronger.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blatent militia involvement in kidnapping of Turkish workers in Baghdad exemplifies the struggle for authority.

Link: Militia releases video of kidnapped Turkish workers.

A previously unknown Shi'a militia identifying itself as "Death Squads" has taken responsibility for the kidnapping of eighteen Turkish workers on September 2, and released a video of the captives.  In all likelihood, this new group is a recently concocted cover for Kata'ib al-Hezbollah, the Shi'a militia which was strongly suspected from the beginning of being responsible for the kidnappings. In the video, the kidnappers demand a number of concessions on behalf of Turkey, in order to secure the release of the eighteen construction workers who were in Baghdad to complete the building of a new sports stadium.  The "Death Squad" is demanding that Turkey "seize gunmen" who are transiting through Turkey to Iraq.  Turkey is also required to halt the transfer of "stolen oil" from Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkey.  The Shi'a militias and Iran are opposed to the Iraqi Kurds having access to oil and using it to develop an economy, as this might help legitimize and Kurdish claim to statehood.  The last demand was the most interesting from my perspective.  The kidnappers are demanding that the Turkish government end all support for Jaysh al-Fatah, a Syrian rebel coalition led by Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.  Recently, Jabhat al-Nusra has dealt a number of staggering military defeats on Syrian regime forces.  In fact, in northwest Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra is expected to begin an offensive soon that will sweep down to the strategic al-Ghab Plain and put pressure on the Alawite community and Assad's hometown of Qardaha.  In the past six months, Nusra has become much more effective at combating regime forces than the handful of other anti-regime military groups, which explains why the militias, who are directed from Tehran, would demand that Turkey stop aiding Nusra.  I have yet to see direct proof that Turkey is aiding Jabhat al-Nusra, but it is possible, given Turkish President Erdogan's personal obsession with removing the Assad family from power in Syria.

The government has very little it can do to rescue the kidnapped workers.  Most Special Police Units are fighting outside Ramadi, and the militias present a difficult target.  Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi can take solace in the continued support from Iraqi and Shi'a cleric the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has ordered the kidnappers to release their hostages, making note of the damage being done to the authority of the state, by those who are pledged to protect Iraq.  Little good it did, as the kidnappers  pray to the Ayatollahs sitting in Qom, Iran, not Najaf, Iraq.  But Sistani's continued aggressive support of Abadi provides valuable bona fides to the reform movement in the eyes of the Iraqi Shi'a.  It also puts other Shi'a leaders on the spot.  For instance, Moqtadah al-Sadr, who is the titular head of the Mahdi Army, one of the larger Shi'a militias, has called for the government to immediately take action to free the hostages.  During his public comments on the kidnapping issue, Sadr referred to some of the Shi'a groups as "brazen militias" that should be boycotted by the Popular Mobilization Committee.  Sadr is no friend to Abadi or the reform movement, so he must either be feeling some pressure regarding the kidnapping, or he is using this opportunity to remove Nouri al-Maliki from the scene altogether.  Its quite possible that Sadr, who has definite visions of future power and grandeur, considers Maliki a threat because of Maliki's previous good relationship with the Iranians.

These developments give us an opportunity to examine the animosity between Turkey and Iran, two militarily powerful Muslim nations who share a common border.  Erdogan is aggravated to no end by Iran's use of Hezbollah in Lebanon as a proxy to provide extensive military support to Bashir al-Assad.  The Iranians have always considered the Turks to be tainted through their historic and military ties to the United States, and in the 1990s, when the Turkish Armed Forces started conducting joint military maneuvers with the Israelis, you could just sense the Imams and Ayatollahs in Qom chewing on their turbans and crashing their flying carpets in to the walls.  Now that the Russians have decided, very late in the game, that Assad is worth saving, Iran has an ally on the  battlefields of Syria besides Hezbollah and the regime forces.  The pro-Assad groups are relatively easy to distinguish, but the rest is one big stew of different names, individual ideologies, loyalties, intentions, and complaints.  I'm not sure where Nusra fits in as opposed to the Syrian Kurds.  And what about the free Syrian Army?  And then there exists a handful of smaller groups, operating on their own agenda, including groups of former U.S. servicemen who have volunteered to go back to Mesopotamia to fight ISIS.  Turkey may very well end up playing a large role in how this drama eventually plays itself out.  Outside of Syria and Iraq, they have the most serious security concerns because of the conflict.  If the Turks made the decision to commit themselves totally, they could probably destroy ISIS in Syria in a matter of weeks, although no guarantees about collateral casualties.  Its the one question which troubles me the most: since everyone recognizes ISIS for the real threat to world peace that they hope to become, then why haven't we committed ourselves militarily to their rapid and total destruction?  Heck, the Turks, Iranians, and even the Israelis could join the party.  For now we watch developments in Iraq, to learn if the Abadi regime can survive both an assault by the anti-reform militias, and the possible failure of the Anbar offensive.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi continues pushing reforms, as 123 senior government officials are sacked.

Links: A. Abadi dismisses 123 senior government officials.
           B. Iraqi Deputy Justice Minister kidnapped.

Iraqi Prime Minister continues to exhibit a tremendous amount of determination and courage, as his administration has announced the dismissal of 123 senior officials from a number of different ministries.  Abadi has stressed that the reform agenda is not political, and has been careful to evenly distribute the dismissals so that one party does not stand out.  It will be interesting to see if the positions are eliminated altogether, or if there will be attempts to refill them in the future.  Abadi is determined to stick to his agenda, regardless of the saber-rattling on behalf of the various militia groups that have announced their opposition to the reforms.  Last week, eighteen Turkish workers were kidnapped in Baghdad while working on a stadium construction project.  Kata'ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades) is strongly suspected of being responsible.  On Tuesday of this week, Iraq's Deputy Justice Minister, Fares Abdul-Karim al-Saadi, was kidnapped in broad daylight, the day after he opened an investigation into alleged human right abuses by militia groups.  Again, Kata'ib Hezbollah is suspected of involvement.  Its obvious that the militias are determined to erode the security in Baghdad, in order to discourage the pro-reform demonstrations and put into question the Abadi administration's ability to protect Iraqi citizens.

The purpose of the efforts at destabilization on behalf of the militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) is to scuttle Abadi's attempts at reform.  The reforms intended by Abadi will deprive former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of much of his influence, as many of his supporters are finding their high-level government positions eliminated.  The militias finally decided to become involved when Abadi started pushing his National Guard Law, which would have placed the militias and all similar groups directly under the authority of the Iraqi government.  In other words, if Iran wants to send fighters to help in the struggle against ISIS, then great.  But while they are in Iraq, they come under the authority of Baghdad, not Tehran.  Under pressure from the militias, who claimed that the National Guard Law was a conspiracy of "The United States, the Ba'ath Party, ISIS, and certain Arab countries", the Iraqi Parliament's Council of Representatives dropped the Bill.  Although the Iraqi government claims that it has authority over the militias regardless of the failure of the National Guard Law, the activities of Kata'ib Hezbollah in Baghdad and the Badr Group in Basra, highlight its limited control.

Fortunately, Abadi does not get easily discouraged.  He will continue to push through various aspects of the reform agenda, and do his best to counter-balance the efforts of the militias.  The majority of the members of the militias should be on the battlefield, as Fallujah was basically "assigned" to them.  They appear to have had just as much difficulty with their target as the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have had with Ramadi.  A major military victory at this moment would be very welcome, to unite the Iraqi people in celebration, and remind both pro and anti reform zealots that the real enemy is ISIS.  Hopefully the retaking of Ramadi is within sight.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Security situation in Baghdad deteriorates as militias and opponents of reform demonstrate their level of control.

Links: A. Washington Post editorial on Iraqi reform crisis.
           B. Gunmen kidnap Turkish workers in Baghdad.

We've been following the evolving reform crisis in Iraq since Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi publicly announced his intention to eliminate the office of Vice President.  At the time, that particular office was held by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and it demonstrated from the very beginning that we were witnessing the opening salvo in a political struggle that will determine if Iraq remains politically independent, or becomes a satellite state of Iran.  Abadi was faced with a very difficult decision.  The lauded Anbar Offensive which began in late May was still bogged down outside of Ramadi, and the Iranian-back militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) were engaging the enemy to the northeast, in Fallujah.  Any action which would upset the militias might lead to a withdrawal of their forces, which would undoubtedly compound whatever problems the ISF was having outside Ramadi.  But Abadi had very little room to maneuver with regards to timing.  A popular groundswell of anger, frustration and determination had swept through the capital, and found its way to many of the other Iraqi cities as well.  People were demonstrating for reform and an end to corruption.  Actually, they were demanding it.  Everyday the crowds grew larger in Basra, Baghdad, Baqubah and al-Kut, and they were protesting the endemic nepotism, bribery and outright theft that they believed existed in the Iraqi government.  This movement was supported by the media, who daily would print articles detailing hard-to-believe examples of kick-backs and "skimming" that was prevalent not only in Baghdad, but in the provincial administrations as well.  Abadi needed to take advantage of this public demand for change, and he bargained that the militias wouldn't walk off the battlefield because by doing so they would walk away from their main source of influence and authority.  Abadi was also helped to a great degree by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose open calls for reform were co-opted by Abadi and the reform movement.  Once Abadi started down the road of abolishing offices, eliminating redundancies, and cashiering thieves, he was determined to finish the job.  Those of us on the outside anxiously waited to see how many friends Maliki could still depend on, and how aggressive would the opposition be.

Any hope that Maliki had lost his influence and that the militias would play nice, ended with the Badr Organization's announcement that they would be enforcing the law in Basra and that illegal gatherings (meaning pro-reform demonstrations) would not be allowed.  The government, with its police fighting alongside the army in Anbar, had few law enforcement resources to counter the move by Badr, which certainly succeeded in shutting down the public cacophony from Basra.  The PMUs sided with Maliki in opposition to the reforms.  Simply put, with reforms, the Iranian government saw the potential for a stronger, independent Iraq.  Tehran is intent on creating a Shi'a client state in Iraq, with the militias forming the basis for an Iraqi Republican Guard Corps.  During his term, Maliki proved to be a dependable yes-man for the Iranians, and the militias, even with the majority of their resources in the field fighting ISIS, still controlled large numbers of armed soldiers in every large Iraqi city.  Once the word came down from Tehran, the militias started acting aggressively in opposition to Abadi's reforms.  By making Baghdad more difficult to govern, the militias damage Abadi's credibility and influence.  With the kidnapping last week of eighteen Turkish workers in Baghdad, Abadi's opponents hope to call into question the Abadi Administration's ability to protect foreign nationals in the nation's capital city.  It is strongly suspected that the kidnappings were carried out by Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the more prominent militias.

The militias have the ability to bring the Abadi government down, but in doing so, they risk benefitting ISIS to a great degree.  The militias, with basically unlimited manpower and a steady flow of money and supplies from Iran, can make Basra, Baghdad, Al-Muqdadiyah, Samarra and Nasiriyah buckle to their authority through the simple use of curfews, and the control of water and electricity.  What could the Iraqi government do in response, given that they invited the militias into Iraq to help fight ISIS?  Certainly the government could pull troops back from the front to retake control away from the militias, but you can be sure that ISIS would take quick advantage of that opportunity to solidify their hold on Ramadi and Fallujah, and complete the occupation of Haditha.  Some heave questions remain: how far will the militias go in opposition to Abadi's reforms?  One of the most important new laws dealing with the National Guard and the entire militia issue altogether, has already been scuttled. Not surprisingly, the militias opposed the law, which would have brought them under the authority of the government in Baghdad.  Another important question: how far will Abadi go, and will he try to mobilize the public to protect his reform movement?  The most unfortunate element to this evolving situation is that the only apparent winner at present appears to be ISIS.    

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Blame to go around as the Anbar Offensive against ISIS sputters to a halt on the outskirts of Ramadi.

Link: The Anbar offensive appears to be failing.

Over the past few weeks, we've scoured news sources coming from Iraq, trying to get an accurate perspective on the offensive in Anbar Province that the Iraqi Security Forces' (ISF) launched in May.  The offensive operation, which included a simultaneous attack on ISIS-held Fallujah by the Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), had been planned to the smallest detail and included the training and equipment to deal with remote detonation explosives, booby-traps and urban warfare.  The last few days of May slipped away, then June.  In July, the Iraqi government started hinting that progress was being made, and that bit-by-bit, landmarks on the outskirts of the two cities had been secured.  In July, the government responded to questions about the slow pace of the offensive by reminding the media that the ISF wasn't singularly tasked with removing ISIS from Ramadi; the ISF was also responsible for locating and removing/defusing all the explosives and booby traps being left by ISIS to greet the returning residents of Ramadi.  The Iraqi government added that all the lessons learned from the last ISIS occupation of Ramadi were being considered in the staging of the current offensive.  That explanation sure sounded good to me, especially when the Iraqi government also took the time to thank the coalition air campaign for its accurate and decidedly helpful bombing sorties.  As August started to roll by, I was distracted by ISIS attacks in Diyala Province and the concerns regarding Baiji and Haditha.  Then the government announced its reform agenda, which immediately pushed Ramadi from the front page, and temporarily from my mind.  So we've waded through the reform issue, knowing as we did beforehand that Nouri al-Maliki would call in every marker owed to him to fight off this assault on his power base.  Now that the militias have cast their lot with Maliki, the political battle-lines are drawn.  But with the militias in the mix, we may end up seeing more violence on the streets of Basra than we are seeing on the streets of Ramadi.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's bold moves to reform the Iraqi political system will play out as a backdrop to developments in Anbar.  The Iraqi government's most immediate concern must be the growing impression that ISIS has not only fought off the Anbar offensive, but has started harassing the outlying villages around Baghdad as they had done before.  Iraqi Major General Qasim al-Mohammadi, the head of Anbar Operations Command, is quick with assurances that the offensive is still on track, and that it takes time to clear out every housing cluster, every shop, and every abandoned structure, taking care to remove all unexploded ordinance.  The fact that we've heard this line before doesn't make it any less accurate. From the beginning, our sources stressed that the Iraqi operational plan was built on lessons learned from previous encounters with ISIS.  Also, the Iraqi Army had a serious morale problem that had to be addressed before the Anbar operation.  One of the most frequent complaints was that officers showed indifference to the lives of the frontline troops.  The training modules for the Iraqi Army, including officers, now address that issue.  The slow rate of advance could be a reflection of Iraqi officers being more careful when putting troops in danger.  But Major General al-Mohammadi also expressed frustration with the allied air campaign.  He was very clear, as he was interviewed from his hospital bad after surviving a suicide bomb attack, that the allied air resources are stretched too thin, that there are too many competing targets.  The Pentagon was quick to deny this claim, pointing out that the U.S. spends roughly ten million dollars everyday on the allied air campaign, and that over the last year, coalition warplanes have carried out over four thousand airstrikes in Iraq. 

If history is any indication, then bad news is just around the corner.  Normally, when fingers get pointed, accountability is a no-show, and vital questions remain unanswered, then something is about to fall apart.  We were surprised to learn from the linked Washington Post article that ISIS maintains contact between its Fallujah and Ramadi cells, through the continued existence of a well-known road.  Why hasn't this road been obliterated by airstrikes?  How is it, that after months of news releases from not only the Iraqi government but on occasion by the Pentagon, pointing out the growing encirclement of ISIS units in Ramadi and Fallujah, that we now learn that ISIS forces in Ramadi and Fallujah are not isolated and are actually in regular contact with each other.  Given the ground resources poured into this operation, and the complete lack of heavy armor and very limited use of artillery on behalf of ISIS, how is it that after almost four months, the enemy is still able to re-enforce and re-supply its forces in Ramadi?  What about the F16s delivered to Iraq a few months back- its my understanding that their pilots spent years in the U.S. learning to fly those birds.  So why aren't they out there, bombing the hell out if ISIS in Ramadi and Fallujah?  More training?  I know that only four planes are being delivered at a time, but when the enemy has NO air resources and very limited anti-aircraft equipment, I would imagine that those F16s would be out there everyday.  True, they will face the same obstacles as the allied air coalition, including unpredictable weather shifts and sandstorms, so maybe they are out there, doing as much as mother nature will allow.  I hope so.  At the end of the day, I don't see how the Abadi Administration can survive a failure of this magnitude.  A crippled government may be the smallest problem, though, as ISIS appears to be ready in a moments notice, to jump back on the offensive.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The migrant crisis becomes an international problem.

Link: Austria welcomes new migrants from Syria.

At times I am tempted to avoid posting on certain issues for fear of alienating my audience.  We all have strong opinions about particular issues, but some subjects can be more emotionally charged than others.  The heartbreaking photo of the three-year old Syrian boy who drowned trying to reach Europe, and washed up on the shore in Greece, has really energized the western media.  The horrible reality is that young children die unnecessarily everyday, some by starvation in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, others as victims of war in Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria.  The immediate response to this particular photo will be typically knee-jerk and focus on a quick-fix for the symptom, without addressing the root problem.  Because this young boy, who was traveling with his family from war-torn Syria to an unknown future in Europe, drowned and has his picture taken, all the major governments in Europe met to discuss their particular response to the issue of undocumented migrants, and the only question the media wanted answered was, "how many of these people are you willing to accept responsibility for and allow into your country?"  In reality, what the activist European and American press wanted was an announcement that the European Union intended to establish a blanket policy for accepting all applicants for Asylum and Amnesty, no questions asked.  Would this provide an answer to the growing number of migrants from the Middle East, Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia who are looking for a new place to live?  Yes, but at the same time it would bankrupt the EU and destabilize the cultural balance and identity of its member states.  Anyone who seriously wants to address this problem must address not only the symptom, but also the root cause.  These people come from somewhere; why are they leaving?

I live in Texas, therefore I am very familiar with the issue of undocumented migrants/immigrants.  The term has changed over the years, as liberals decided that the terms "illegal" and "alien" were too harsh to use when discussing human beings.  Again, just another distraction from facing the actual root of the problem.  The United States of America, through a variety of mechanisms, financially supports the United States of Mexico.  We accept their unemployed, and we provide a market for the narco-trafficking that has made Mexico its super highway.  The Mexican nationals who live illegally in Mexico return a staggering amount of money back to Mexico to support family.  This financial windfall has become a pillar of the current Mexican economic system.  Simply put, roughly five to ten percent of Mexicans control the wealth of Mexico; it has always been this way, and the average Mexican has no reason to believe that it will ever change.  Mexico is a wealthy country; although its petroleum deposits have started to dry up (all the easy stuff has been pumped out; only the hard-to-reach deposits remain), Mexico continues to have a tremendously bountiful agricultural sector, not to mention car-manufacturing and a growing textiles and high-tech industry.  The government keeps a tight control over much of the economy, which allows a small percentage of Mexican families, utilizing endemic corruption, to steal much of the nation's wealth.  The under-and-unemployed just cross the northern border into the United States to find work and create a life for their families.  Mexico is in need of a real revolution, to rebuild the government so it works for the people, not vice-versa.  The people need to become so desperate, that they take the issue into their own hands, and drag the thieves, corrupt politicians and narco-traffickers into the streets, and distribute a bit of mob justice.  But this will never happen as long as the United States is willing to accept, feed and house the struggling Mexican under-and-unemployed, before they have reached the necessary point of desperation.  This is a lesson that some in the United States are beginning to learn (thanks, Donald Trump), but I just don't see Europe ever having the courage to take the steps necessary to defend itself.  Until the migrant believes that Europe offers no sanctuary, then the numbers will continue to grow.

In reality, it may be too late for the United States.  President Obama will no doubt use Executive Action to sign an Amnesty Bill into law that provides a path to citizenship for at least twenty million Mexican nationals living illegally in the United States.  Mind you, Obama isn't interested in providing a path to Legal Permanent Residency, his intent is to create citizens and new voters for his Democratic Party.  But that is a story for another day. When we speak of addressing the genesis of the migrant problem in Europe, we must examine the circumstances that created this particular flow of refugees.  The war in Syria, which has been raging for more than five years, has been displacing hundreds of thousands of people.  Europe and the United States have welcomed many of these refugees already, and Turkey is already dealing with a refugee crisis.  But the migrants aren't only coming from Syria.  The majority actually come from Africa, and pay to be ferried across the Mediterranean in all sorts of dangerous, unseaworthy craft.  Many are hopeful of finding a home and a steady job so they can support their immediate family, and eventually send for the rest.  South Africa has been dealing with a refugee crisis since the end of apartheid; Nigerians, Ghanians, Zimbabweans, Congolese, all headed to South Africa, convinced that a good job and a new life awaited.  Australia has been dealing with refugees from Southeast Asia since the end of the Vietnam War.  The reality is, the prosperous western nations of the world do not have enough wealth to support its refugees.  The math just doesn't add up, which is very frustrating, because the planet is nowhere near reaching the limit of its ability to support the human population.

Accepting the refugees as new European citizens will only guarantee an increased number of refugees.  Europe's generosity is actually to blame for the direction of many of these refugees to begin with. Europe has always been willing to take Turks, Somalis, Algerians, Albanians, Palestinians, and others who are fleeing conflict, searching for the opportunity for a new life.  But the problem has become so big that the only solution is to deal with it at its source.  Syria is in upheaval because of the spread of ISIS; the Iraqi Refugees, especially from the north, are also beginning to make their presence felt. Since the entire world acknowledges what a horrific threat ISIS is to free people everywhere, then why hasn't some European or United States statesman risen to the occasion, and led an allied military campaign to destroy this human pestilence?  Its not as if ISIS is willing to confine their expansion to the Levant; they have created cells as far away as South America, Canada, and The Philippines.  Their stated goal is our destruction, so why haven't we solved the Syrian/Iraqi refugee crisis and the ISIS threat with a united military effort?  In Africa, the refugee problem stems from what appears to be an inability for an African government to function outside the boundaries of institutionalized corruption.  Even humanitarian aid has a habit of ending up in the hands of one smuggler or another.  Since the end of apartheid, the ANC has started to follow in the footsteps of the Mugabes and Mobutus, with government ministers using public funds as a private bank account.  If a nation does not have the resources to support economic growth, stagnation and recession occur, and the people will have no jobs.  We can't invade Africa and force corrupt-free governments on the continent; it must be something that is decided at home.  The same is true for Mexico.  I have often heard that the United States should just invade Mexico, use the military to root out the narco-traffickers, and make Mexico work for the Mexican people once again.  But its not our place; the people of Mexico have to decide when the time has arrived for a political sea-change, even though it does impact our national security when terrorists are able to utilize the same undocumented immigrant pipeline to enter the United States as the Mexican worker.

It's heart-warming to see those in need receive succor.  I'm pleased that the various European governments have made the decision to address the migrant crisis this week.  But what about next week, and next month?  What about next year, when we may be dealing with hundreds of thousands?  The total lack of shame on behalf of the wealthy Arab nations as they refuse to accept refugees, is very telling.  They understand that once the spigot has been turned on, its difficult to shut off.  Again, I argue, wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest if we destroyed ISIS together, while it is in its infancy, and bring some relief to the people who have yet to become refugees, and also give the current migrants a place to return to?    

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Shi'a militias line up in opposition to reforms in Iraq, threaten to disperse demonstrators in Basra with bullets.

Link: Voice Of America considers the impact of reforms in Iraq.

In the last few days, a line in the sand has been drawn in Iraq, between those who support anti-corruption initiatives and government reform, and those who are in opposition.  A number of Shi'a militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have come out in opposition to the reforms being introduced by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.  Former Iraqi Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, who exerts a fair amount of influence with the militias, was schedule to lose his job, as the elimination of the position of Vice President was one of the more prominent features of Abadi's reform package.  The reforms are designed to tackle redundancy in various Iraqi Ministries, which would negatively impact Maliki's political party and his overall position of authority.  Abadi did not invent the issue of reform; in the past few months, the Iraqi people have begun to mobilize and demonstrate in every large city, calling for an end to government corruption and the passage of legitimate, effective reform.  The media in Iraq has had a field day highlighting the countless instances of corruption within the Maliki Administration.  Probably the most prolific and often-discussed example was the creation of a 55,000-strong "ghost army" within the Iraqi Armed Forces.  Maliki's government began paying the salaries of 55,000 soldiers who didn't in fact exist.  The money was graft and was spread around to various military officers in an effort to bolster Maliki's support within the military.  Maliki didn't invent corruption in Iraq; much of the waste and bribery that occurred during his administration was just a repeat of business-as-usual during the days of the Ba'ath Party.  Maliki insisted that anyone who was appointed to a useful position in the government must by loyal to him and his political party.  This rule crippled some Iraqi Ministries, as persons with no experience or knowledge about their particular job, found themselves in charge.

Maliki eventually was replaced by Abadi, who seems determined to succeed in his effort to clean up the government and isolate Maliki altogether.  Abadi appeared to have caught some head-wind, with the support of the Council of Representatives in Parliament, and the backing of the huge crowds of demonstrators that continued to choke the downtown areas of Baghdad and Basra. Both Shi'a and Sunni Iraqis were in approval of his reform efforts.  The Abadi Administration made efforts to explain the importance of proceeding with caution with regards to the Ramadi Offensive, because it was also necessary to locate and destroy all the booby-traps and bombs that ISIS had left to greet the returning civilians.  The people seemed to accept the need for patience, even as ISIS continued his campaign of SVBIEDS and VBIEDS in all the provinces surrounding the capital.  Abadi can even count the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'a population, as an ally.  Maliki seemed to be unstoppable, although behind the scenes, we all were whispering about the level of Maliki's influence with Iran and the militias.  During his administration, the relationship was at times strained, at least with certain groups, including the Badr Organization and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, which had trouble trusting Maliki because of his ties to the United Kingdom and the United States.  In the last few days, though, it has become apparent that the militias have come out united in support of Maliki and opposed to Abadi's reform agenda.  Although the militia movement does not have the opportunity to impact the reform issue at the ballot box, they have no problem intimidating people from the end of a machine gun.

One of Abadi's targets in the reform campaign was the Iraqi judiciary.  Historically rife with bribery and the target of countless complaints, , Abadi saw an opportunity to appease the masses and also push along the reform agenda.  Medhat al-Mahmud, the head of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council and the first and current Chief Justice of Iraq, is an ally of Maliki, probably only because he wants to keep Abadi from cleaning out Iraq's Judicial Council, so to speak.  Mahmud has been quite fortunate over the past decade, presiding over the creation of the Iraqi Judiciary, then finding himself as its first Chief Justice.  This position has given him tremendous influence and made him a rich man.  Under Mahmud's watch, the Judiciary was subject to no other authority, although the Constitution calls for oversight by Parliament.  Abadi's reforms have made Medhat al-Mahmud and the Shi'a militias strange bedfellows, as the expression goes.  Interestingly enough, the head of Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Qais al-Khazali, met with Iraqi President Fuad Masum on August 25, and asked Masum not to finalize the Iraqi Parliament Council of Representative's decision to eliminate Maliki's Vice Presidential post.  We don't often speak of Fuad Masum because his job is usually ceremonial, but every avenue is being used to thwart the reform movement.  There has been no indication that Masum would give in to the request of Khazali, but the issue has yet to be resolved.

Now that the players are in place, the real struggle over the future of reform will begin.  The anti-reform side does not have numbers in its favor, so it will resort to other means to sabotage the reform agenda.  Already, the militias have announced in Basra that any protests or demonstrations were illegal and would be met with an aggressive response from the militias.  Business as usual for those guys, I assume.  We can expect the militias to use whatever is necessary to intimidate the opposition and scuttle the reform agenda.  This development could impact the military situation, as the militias have been vital to the efforts in Anbar Province.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Conservative factions in Ukraine increasing pressure on Poroshenko.

Link: Violence between right-wing protesters and police outside Kiev Parliament.

The announcement by Ukrainian officials of a ceasefire with separatists has resulted in angry demonstrations from conservative and right-wing protesters outside of Parliament in the capital city of Kiev.  The conservative political groups in Ukraine have traditionally been strong, and the crisis in the east of the country has only added to their influence.  Ukrainians living in the west of the country are particularly incensed with the lack of progress in combatting the separatists, and the shaky coalition that President Petro Poroshenko requires to stay in power is under great pressure.  Conservative Ukrainians were not satisfied with the provisions of the "Minsk II" agreement, which really never got off the ground, because the separatists began violating the agreement almost as soon as it was announced.  Some of the more controversial provisions of "Minsk II" never saw the light if day, until now, when they were repeated as part of the new ceasefire agreement, scheduled to begin on Tuesday, September 1.  The Ukrainian right-wing objects to the agreement for declaring a "special status" for the disputed areas, and also for introducing the idea of autonomy to the negotiations.  On the other hand, the government claims that the ceasefire agreement only calls for the decentralization of authority, designed to give more power to local government.  In reality, the demonstrations in Kiev were coming, sooner or later, as Conservative Ukrainians grow more dissatisfied everyday with the current situation in the east.  The number of Ukrainian troops in the east is almost matched by the number of volunteers, who have picked up weapons and transported themselves to the front line, "to fight for the freedom and integrity of Ukraine", as one protester explained.  Poroshenko and his EU puppet masters must understand that this outpouring of rejection is not only in response to this latest ceasefire agreement, but also a message that the people of Ukraine do not believe in any more treaties with the separatists.

Since the genesis of this crisis, every agreement with the Russian-backed separatists has been violated by the rebels.  Actually, the modus operandi of this movement mirrors typical fascist behavior.  Violate every agreement, but continue to sign them, as long as the enemy is stupid enough to continue negotiating under the pretense of "good faith".  While the separatists continually violate agreements, the Russians keep lying about the involvement of the Russian military and use of Russian equipment.  The obscene fact that even after the overwhelming amount of evidence, the Russian government and the separatists still refuse to admit that a Russian "Buk" missile destroyed Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (MH17), killing all 298 on board.  in July 2015, a draft resolution to set up an international tribunal into the MH17 air disaster was put before the United Nations Security Council.  Malaysia had requested a tribunal to take place, but the proposal was blocked by a Russian veto.  It was the only nation on the 15-member UN Security Council to oppose the request.  There can be only one reason why the Russian government would oppose an investigation by the world's leading experts on the subject: to hide its complicity.  We don't believe the Russians themselves fired at the airliner.  We are convinced that the basically untrained separatist volunteers who were manning the Buk missile launcher, mistook the airliner for a large Ukrainian Air Force cargo plane, a hypothesis which is supported by evidence, including recorded cell phone conversations from one separatist unit to another.

The citizens of Ukraine who are opposed to the current agreement stood by Poroshenko for some time.  He was a sympathetic figure, attempting to do his best to appease the European and U.S. governments, and also continuing to look strong in the face of Russian aggression first in Crimea, and then in Donbas.  Poroshenko was forced to walk a tricky tight rope.  From his perspective, Ukraine would be lost without the steadfast support of Europe and the United States; therefore, if France, Germany and the Obama Administration advised compromise, then Poroshenko would compromise.  Hollande, Merkel and Obama told Poroshenko that the Russians would eventually be obliged to back down, because the sanctions regime was going to cripple the Russian economy.  As we predicted last year on this blog, Putin never had any intention of backing down because of the sanctions.  He understood as we did; that the Russian people take particular offense at that type of punishment.  The Russians are made of tougher stuff than that.  They won't be made to compromise because a few items disappear off the shelves and everyone has to tighten their belt a bit.  So the sanctions have failed, and Poroshenko has authorized negotiators in Minsk to compromise with the separatists and Russians, as directed by the Europeans and Americans.  What was the result?  Two agreements that were violated by the separatists before the paint was dry.  In the last year, the separatists have expanded the territory under their control, to include the strategic town of Debaltseve.  There has been no offensive activity on the part of the Ukrainian Army, not really.

So its clear why most Ukrainians have lost faith in Poroshenko and why demonstrators were protesting in Kiev.  Its not just for this terrible agreement, but for the previous two which were violated, and for the failed sanctions regime, which was supposed to force Russia to compromise.  Putin is winning this chess game hands down, because Europe and the United States are too frightened to allow Ukraine to take any Russian pieces.  Earlier this year, we called for the United States to begin providing weapons to the Ukrainian Army, including F16s and Abrams tanks if necessary.  The Ukrainian people have no love-lost for the Russians, and they have already watched Putin steal the Crimea right from under their nose.  They are anxious to settle this issue on the battlefield, but the Obama Administration has hamstrung the Ukrainian Armed Forces by refusing to sell them weapons and equipment.  Why don't the Ukrainians just go to someone else to get weapons?  Because everyone else who is not in Russia's orbit, is following the lead of the United States.  Its a tremendously depressing situation.  Poroshenko would probably like to be more militarily aggressive, but to be so would probably cost him the support of France, Germany and the United States.  We expect the Ukrainian people to bring about another change in government, which may result in full deployment of the Ukrainian military to eastern Ukraine for the purpose of ending the illegal separatist movement.  But if the Russian military becomes directly involved, the Ukrainians will be hard-pressed to keep up, without an influx of new equipment and supplies.  The end of this drama will probably result in a new Ukraine, minus the industrial southwest.  And Putin will be man of the year in Sevastopol and Donetsk.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Iraqi government faced with mounting lawlessness in Basra.

Since 2003, when the southern Iraqi city of Basra celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has always followed a direction uniquely its own.  Although the city has a distinct Shi'a majority, and the various militias make their presence apparent, Basra refuses to follow anyone's "party line", so to speak.  In 2007, following the departure of British forces, organized crime and the Shi'a militias became entrenched in Basra.  Given its strategic location as a entrepot of sorts,  a great deal of goods and merchandise transit Basra, especially in the form of imports and exports.  This type of traffic lends itself to all sorts of graft, which is how Basra became the organized crime center of Iraq.  In 2008, coalition and government forces launched a major operation in Basra, and successfully restored state-control, but since that time, the same players have returned and discreetly picked up right where they left off.  The Iraqi authorities have few options, as military operations elsewhere in Iraq have pulled troops normally posted to the Basra Governorate.  The police do what they can, but everyone is basically just trying to stay alive.  To stir the pot even more, Basra has been the scene of some of the larger anti-corruption demonstrations in the last year, and kidnappings for ransom have become a real problem.  To sum it up, there's a lot going on here!

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi doggedly sticks to his reform agenda, he faces the daily threat of Iraq breaking up under his administration.  Since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people rarely miss an opportunity to gather and demonstrate.  Lately, Baghdad itself has become the location for the largest of the protests, although Basra continues to hold the crown for duration.  No matter what else is happening in Iraq, chances are there will be a demonstration in Basra.  Al-Abadi has been impressive in his determination to follow through on promised reforms, and also in his support for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), who have methodically bottled up Ramadi, and are beginning to re-occupy the city, one neighborhood at a time.  But sometimes it seems as if Abadi and the entire governing structure of Iraq are hanging by a shoestring. For all practical purposes, the Kurdistan Parliament and the PUK/KDP govern northern Iraq, central Iraq is under siege by ISIS, and everything south of Baghdad appears to be under the influence of Shi'a militia or another, depending on where you are at the time.  Abadi, his Cabinet, and the Parliament sit in Baghdad, debating reforms that hopefully will help to keep Iraq from becoming even more regionalized.  At the moment, the Iraqi people and the political forces that matter are standing behind Abadi, and he shows no indication of slowing down.  But the outbreak of lawlessness in Basra must be treated as a national security issue; Basra is too important strategically and economically to not address the problem immediately, even if it requires pulling some troops from the Anbar operation.  The cities of Basra and Umm Qasr are non-replaceable pieces of the Iraqi economic lifeline, and will only grow in importance as the country moves away from war and diversifies.  It is possible that Abadi can co-opt one or two of the larger, more traditionally stable militias, and use them to help get the situation under control.  However its done, this problem won't go away without movement from Baghdad and the ISF.