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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What to expect from the European political scene for 2016.

I was planning on writing about the U.S. primary and caucus battles that are presently unfolding, but after watching a few minutes of the circus that seems to be unfolding tonight in Nevada (and the Trump Show is certainly a circus), I thought it might be more interesting to take a look at the political scene on the other side of the pond.  I am fascinated by the thought of exactly what kind of Europe will be waiting for Barack Obama's successor.  Not surprisingly, the biggest story for the Europeans is the current health and future prognosis of the European Union.  At a time when optimists were expecting a discussion on the admission of new members, instead questions are being raised regarding the long term financial viability of the Union, and the influx of what seems to be an endless stream of refugees from Syria.  Before the refugee crisis exploded in the front page of all the European newspapers, people in Innsbruck and Rotterdam and Gdansk and Palermo and Munich were stressed out about the financial problems laid bare by another Greek bailout (if one never pays back a loan, but continues to borrow, shouldn't you drop the "loan" pretense and just call it "a gift?).  Pathetic Greece can't get a break.  Right after the embarrassment of another bailout dies down, Greece is forced to ask for even more money to deal with the refugee problem.  With the Obama Administration about ready to close up shop, ISIS still killing folks in Syria, and refugees using whatever means at their disposal to get to a "favored" new home in Europe (Germany and France are favored locations, Poland and Hungary are not), are the political dynamics in Europe shifting?

I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but sometime within the last decade, German President Angela Merkel became the de facto leader of the EU.  Whatever policy Merkel suggested, France, England, Italy and the rest were likely to follow.  Interestingly enough, Merkel usually took her lead from the United States (see Ukraine and Syria), which meant that Barack Obama had a lot more power at his disposal than he realized.  As for the Europeans themselves, the year started with most eyes focused on France and the apparent growth of Marine Le Pen's a National Front (NF).  Given the recent problems that France has had with Islamic Extremists, there was real concern that the NF would begin to emerge as a powerful political force, if not a majority party.  Actually, there was never really any cause for concern; France's bizarre electoral procedures can result in the party with the most overall votes, receiving no parliamentary representation.  France remains ripe for a right-wing coup of sorts, regardless of the antiquated political system.  One more terror arrack in Paris and I would expect Marine Le Pen to be carried to the Elysee Palace.

The specter of ISIS has also increased the strength of rightist parties in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.  Austria seems to always have a right-of-center government, and they make no bones sbout their determination to prevent criminal aliens from entering Austria.  Poland and Hungary both have governments that lean heavily to the right.  I'm never sure what to make of Itslian politics, but fortunately we have enough information to note that Europe has taken a hard jump to the right, which no doubt was greatly influenced by both the terror attacks in France and the growing refugee crisis.  Vladimir Putin's sabre rattling also has the effect of increasing support for nationalist political movements.  Whatever president takes office in 2017 will be dealing with a much more conservative, nationalistic, suspicious Europe, and for good reason.  Does this imply that it would be better for a Republican to win the election?  I don't necessarily think so.  A couple of the candidates who are doing really well are not familiar to many voters.  As for Donald Trump, I have no idea what craziness a Trump Presidency would bring to the White House.  At the end of the day, it would appear that the Europesn political scene is s lot more predictable than ours.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Nine LIves of Syria's Basar al-Assad.

Anytime between 2010 and 2015, if you had told me that de facto Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would survive Syria's Civil War and eventually once again preside over a government that was recognized by the  Western Powers, I would consider you to be a bit out of touch with reality.  Let's face it; since the Arab Spring gave real impetus to a budding Syrian opposition movement, things had gone progressively bad for Assad.  The fact that he faced an armed opposition movement wasn't necessarily a surprise, but the ability of the rebels to almost immediately put government forces on the defensive was shocking.  Why?  Because up to the arrival of the Arab Spring, the Syrian Ba'ath Party and Bashar al-Assad, like his father before him, had never faced a legitimate threat to their authority.  For many years, Syria, under Bashar's old man Hafez al-Assad, held a major place on the Middle Eastern chessboard.  Syria was and continues to be Russia's greatest ally in the region.  Interestingly enough, the fall of the Soviet Union did not have much impact on Russia-Syria relations.  Another long-time and trusted ally of Assad is Iran, a fact which has proved beneficial in the evolution of Iran's new partnership with Russia.  Regardless, until two months ago, Assad appeared finished.  Jabhat al-Nusra, a major opponent of the Assad regime, had been making tremendous advances on the battlefields of northwest Syria since Spring 2015.  ISIS was not far behind, harassing regime elements in far east Syria, and also in and around Damascus itself.  Everyday seemed to bring a news item detailing the latest defeat of government forces.  Then Russia and Iran decided to not only stir the pot, but to tip it over completely.  Russia's military intrusion into Syria left very little to the imagination, deploying impressive amounts of military hardware and soldiers from the very beginning. Putin's public announcements attempted to paint Russia's military deployment (and almost immediate targeted bombing campaign) as just another sincere effort on behalf of one of the "good guys", to destroy ISIS.  At the same time, Iran increased effortd to involve itself on the conflict through its surrogate Hezbollah.  Most experts were not fooled.  Putin's vaunted "bombing campaign to destroy ISIS", wasn't targeting ISIS least not in the beginning.  After the first week or so of watching the Russian Air Force pulverize Assad's indigenous Syrian opposition, complaints. started to be directed toward Moscow.  The result?  Now, instead of ten out of ten bombing sorties targeting Assad opposition, now eight out of ten were focused on the regime's internal enemies, with the remaining two managing to drop a few bombs on ISIS Headquarters in Raqqah.

All along, the purpose of direct Russian military involvement in Syria was the survival of Bashar al-Assad.  Personally, I don't see what Putin appreciates so much about trained opthemologist Bashar and his Ba'ath Party buddies.  Russia could easily just have backed the opposition, and with the United States being completely disengaged, they would have no problem creating a new Russian client state through whatever opposition they decided to support. Why was Assad so important?  The answer appears to lie somewhere with Vladimir Putin.  He was bound and determined not to see a Russian loyal puppet regime fall victim to a variety of different armed Syrian liberation movements, including a few that were allegedly supported by the United States and Europe.  Under the previous Bush Administration, it is highly unlikely that Putin would have acted so brazenly (Russian jets killed many rebels who were trained and supported by the United States...remember the Free Syrian Army?).  But President Obama has telegraphed to the world that the United States is "checking out" of complicated foreign affairs during his last year in office.  His 2016 State of the Union Address, in which he once again dramatically downplayed the threat ISIS poses to the United States, and absurdly exaggerated the amount of discrimination that Muslim-Americans face stateside, appears to suppprt that belief.  Today Russia publicly stressed the need for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian situation (after Assad's legitimate opposition has been decimated).  Not surprisingly, the United States and the group of Obama sychophants that pretend to be the leaders of Germany, France, and the UK, have agreed to the Russian proposal.  What are the odds that the Russian plan calls for the return of President Bashar al-Assad to power (rhetorical question, folks)?

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Things in Russia are beginning to seem ominous.

I'm a coin collector.  I love the idea of touching an old sea-salvaged Spanish Real and trying to imagine whose hands had held it previously.  Normally, I focus my coin collecting on French coins, as France has a history of creating interesting coin profiles (and I'm half-French).  Yesterday at the coin shop I frequent, I noticed six 20-franc Gold coins for sale.
When my friend behind the counter told me how much they would cost, I realized that gold had dramatically increased in price (per ounce).  Why am I boring you with all of this background?  Because the price of gold usually ebbs and flows with the price of crude (not always).  The price of oil continues to drop, with many analysts not willing to offer a clue as to when it might reverse the trend.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has benefitted tremendously from its oil deposits.  At times it seemed that the West had nothing to leverage against Russia and its vast amount of crude and natural gas.  A number of former Soviet-bloc nations are dependent on imports of Russian fuel, and the Russians have made it obvious that they are not above freezing people to win a diplomatic stalemate.  But today the situation is vastly different.  The Russian economy is in a crisis.  The sanctions regime applied to Russia by the EU countries and the United States, to protest Russia's interfering with the sovereignty of Ukraine, has really left a mark, as they say.  Russia's commodities-based economy is drying up, as the supply of oil shows no letdown.  In many ways, Russia is dependent on money created by its oil industry.  Russia may have been able to survive the oil glut, and they may have made it through the sanctions regime as well. But can Russia survive both at the same time?

Now that we have reviewed the current situation, what actions might Russia take in response to its difficulties?  There is concern that, taking a page out of the Argentinean military junta's actions in 1982 (Falklands War), Putin might attempt to distract the Russian people from the economic crisis by
starting a war.  Russia already has two going; would Putin consider adding a third?  The Baltic states have been a present just waiting to be opened by Russia for some time.  Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are tempting for a number of reasons: the Soviet Union occupied all three over 50 years, and settled Russian families in all three nations.  Also, none of the Baltic states has an armed forces to make the Russian military even hiccup.  In fact, NATO has been talking about not only bringing in the three as new members, but also deploying NATO forces (in a purely defensive posture) to these countires.  Just the thought of U.S. tanks in Riga, Tallinn, and/or Vilnius (OK, I admit it; I had to look up one of them!) sends the Russias into a furor.  The real question is, if Russia were to create some event of international mischief, how would that help with its economic crisis?  It can be argued that "a nice little war" can do wonders to jump-start an economy, but I don't think that applies in this instance.  Also, maybe a war close-to-home would invigorate the masses with nationalist fervor, which would spread to include an increase in manufacturing hours, a decrease in time-off, more money spent domestically and on government savings bonds, etc.  No matter how I look at it, though, I just can't see it happening.  The world is so different as opposed to when it was possible to use an international event to restart an economy.  In truth, I don't think that Russia can afford another war at this point.  Russia can't redirect its economy overnight.  The Russians desperately need oil to reverse itself, or, after they have successfully returned Assad to power, I predict that Russia will pull out of the war against ISIS.

Monday, February 1, 2016

ISIS and its Global Strategy

Since The start of the new year, the world seems to be paying less attention to ISIS.  So many of us were sitting on pins and needles during the various New Year's celebrations in New York, Paris, London, and other great cities around the globe, hoping not to hear any breaking news stories about terrorist attacks.  We made it through the new year basically unscathed, and I think that with a huge sigh of relief, many of us went back to "business as usual" before the October 2015 Paris attacks and the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino.  The fact that the mainstream press in the United States seems intent on pushing the narrative that ISIS is being beaten on the battlefield, so its OK to do non-stop new stories about Donald Trump and the circus that has become the Republican nomination process (the Republicans are the circus, even though the Democrats are going to nominate a potential felon in Hillary Clinton or an outright lunatic in Bernie Sanders).  Why is the press so intent on downplaying the threat by ISIS?  Because Barack Obama told us that the threat was being exaggerated.  The press always responds in a defensive posture to everything Barack Obama does.  No doubt if he farted at a State Funeral, the press would blame the White House Chef.  So Obama says that we aren't headed to World War III, and that ISIS is not a threat to the United States.  I assume that the family members of U.S. citizens killed in San Bernardino, California, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, by persons claiming allegiance to ISIS would disagree; I know I do.  ISIS has a series of strategies, each one going into effect after the previous has been accomplished (or altered by events).  ISIS has reviewed the current state of the battlefield, which has it in possession of one-third of Iraq and one-half of Syria, and decided that the time is ripe to exploit its surprisingly successful international outreach efforts.  The monsters making the decisions at the top of this organization are no dummies, nor will they put their equities at risk for ideology's sake (are you listening, President Obama?)  We are entering a new phase in the battle with ISIS, and it includes the introduction of a new strategy.

ISIS believes that the key to successfully expand its brand of worldwide-revolution is to dedicate resources to its budding operations in nations with strong Islamic traditions.  This includes all the nations of North Africa, and it includes Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  Most of these nations are in no military position to fight off a serious ISIS invasion, at least not without assistance in the form of "troops on the ground".  ISIS rakes in an incredible amount of money on a daily basis.  Why the Obama Administration has not been able to dent this flow of financial assistance is a mystery to me, because so many pundits in the media seem to know the various sources of this support.  Regardless, ISIS is intent on spreading the conflict outside of the borders of Syria and Iraq.  It has been testing its ability to project itself with operations in Libya, West Africa, and Indonesia, and results have been encouraging.  ISIS knows that any attention drawn to Southeast Asia or North Africa, will draw the enemy away from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.  So by increasing recruitment and eventually, attacks in Tunisia, Libya, and Pakistan, ISIS will be not only spreading the Caliphate revolution, but also forcing the United States and its lock-step European partners to devote resources and attention to other allies and battlefields.  I'm still not sure where Russia fits into the picture; with all the hubbub and hardware that Putin brought to his Syria adventure, I expected much more in the way of battlefield victories by now.  Assad's internal opposition will eventually disappear completely under the weight of daily Russian attacks, and Putin will be obliged to either leave Syria or attack ISIS.

Obama must be aware that ISIS is expanding all over the globe, and yet he still makes public claims diminishing the threat that ISIS actually poses.  If they are so "insignificant", Mr. President, then why haven't we been able to defeat them?  True, we haven't really tried.  What a joke this Administration's entire Syria policy has been.  We still don't know what became of the millions of taxpayer dollars and the "Free Syrian Army" we were training in Jordan to take the place of U.S. infantry.  Obama still has one more year in office; no doubt it will be dedicated to domestic politics.  We all know that an Executive Order of some sort will be in place before the November election.  The uproar this will cause will certainly distract us all from the activities of ISIS in North Africa and Southeast Asia, but what a mess it will leave for his predecessor.