Monday, October 6, 2014

The West v ISIS: Air strikes just mean endless war minus victory.

   So there's a US led war party in the desert and every Euro country with an F-16 to spare is piling in to the fray just so they don't miss their chance to get a swing in at the bad guys. Even Belgium rustled up a squadron. It's popcorn material for sure but it's also just an air offensive which means, for Western nations, you've just subjected yourself to never winning a war but continuing it indefinitely. Everyone with a TV or web connection already knows ISIS are the bad guys. Populations hate them. And the ISIS media wing loves this and drinks foreign civilian tears like it's freedom fuel. ISIS have been beheading people on video for a reason. They want attention. The interesting game at work here is the weight of military history working against the idea that air strikes ever won a war. Strategic bombing is nice WWII style but that only works when the enemy have factories to bomb. ISIS have none of that. They've got a loose social network, a hostage civilian population, some stolen Hum Vees and no production capacity of any kind. So where is the win here via JDAM?

   ISIS picked this fight once they started beheading people on your TV screen and nobody nowhere ever picked a fight they believed they could not win. And that's remarkable for what it reveals about ISIS command ideology.

  They really believe they can win this war.

  ISIS have taken a leaf from the 9/11 playbook. A lot of empty places and Iraq got carpet bombed in the wake of the twin towers coming down. But, let's face it, the terrorists won that war a long time ago. If the goal of 9/11 was to damage, degrade and destroy the freedom of Western democracy then 19 religious nuts pulled it off. We're a police state now. In 1970s America you could get on a plane to Vegas just by rolling absently up to the check in counter and claiming you're the guy whose name was printed on the ticket. In 21st century America, your toddler's genitals get felt up by a government agent and the parents say yes sir, diddle my kid, this is acceptable because Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia and we need to be protected from the bad guys who fuel our cars. Let's face it, al-Qaeda won the war on terrorism a very long time ago.

   ISIS, new kids on the block, believe they can top that because they're banking on the fact that we're that stupid.

   One of the strengths of any guerrilla army throughout history is knowing when to stand your ground and when to run like fuck. ISIS will know how to run like fuck. They'll blend away once the rain of US and Euro JDAMs reach a crescendo. But their media wing won't. And that's why I've got serious reservations about 21st century warfare waged the way Western governments are waging it versus ISIS. If you're like me and have been hitting up LiveLeak all week to get some behind the scenes footage beneath the sanitized cool explosions Western news networks have been showing on TV, where the enemy dies clean and there is no unsightly limb separation or agonizing slow death under rubble, then I see an opening for the bad guys. This is where the ISIS media wing will gain some traction through social media. With a proper supply of dead baby footage, they stand a serious chance of enacting some counter narrative of their own.


    Because air campaigns don't do shit v militias.

    Never. Nowhere. Ever in time. 

    Air power is an awesome tool but nobody ever won a war from 20,000 feet.

    Let's talk West Point 101. When you're at war, killing the enemy is always good. Killing the enemy while also killing civilians as collateral damage, while distasteful in the post war analysis (Hiroshima), is, by and large, acceptable  (if you want to win). The interesting new paradigm at work here is what I hate to call the 'dead baby dynamic'. Since 21st century warfare has become a live popcorn munching event thanks to the Internet and 24hr TV news, parading casualties in front of news cameras has become a sort of counter propaganda and anti narrative that would've made Joseph Goebbels jizz his pants. For the defeated, if you can supply enough dead kid videos, there's a serious chance that you can convince a sizable segment of the enemy civilian population that war is bad. 

Because humans are retarded by war.

   But guess what... war is always bad

   That's a given. And the truth is grim. Ask the average war protester what he'd do if an intruder broke into his house to steal all his shit and kill his wife and the likely answer is that he is going to freak. Your mild mannered protester will quickly resort to 'warfare' with that burglar and attempt to beat the living shit out of the intruder via the two by four which once boasted his protest sign that now suddenly comes in handy as a weapon while he swings away to break invader skull open. War, despite what Jesus might say, works as the enaction of a policy where you don't die but the guy breaking down your front door does. It's never pretty. Bear with me here, I know I'm stretching the metaphor but the ISIS threat they're advertising on TV is exactly this.... What do you do if there's a guy hanging out across the street openly telling the neighbors he wants to kill your wife? He could be full of shit or he could be serious. Do you call the police? What happens when you are the police? America's self appointed role and Obama's tech heavy foreign policy is to run the numbers through the NSA's mega computer and the resultant actuary tables say that that asshole across the street needs to die. The risk of an ISIS dirty bomb in Times Square and the global wreckage that would ensue outweighs the right for ISIS to exist; so logic dictates letting loose the greatest advantage any war fighter anywhere ever had.

   The US Air Force.

   My problem is, can you win that war from the air?

   Am I advocating for a ground invasion?

   Nope. I'm just interested in how wars, once put into effect, get won.

   Air strikes without boots on the ground  never work if you're interested in defeating the enemy. What's bothering me about this campaign is the stated objectives. The West says they want to "degrade" ISIS. Surely this is the shitiest and most obscure objective ever enacted as policy. In many ways, war is very simple. You win or you lose. If you want to defeat ISIS you win by occupying the territory they do and leave them no space to run like fuck to. The West is selling this war thinking superior technology from the air can beat 'the idea of ISIS'. The only way you can beat the "idea of ISIS" is to kill every militia fighter hiding in a hole, or, crazy though it might seem, come up with a better idea. Each option is equally impossible so what do you do? Despite the laser guided, infrared and night vision tech getting advertised on our nightly news as a problem solver via destruction, at the very least you need, in order to 'win', a recon team on the ground designating by eyeball who should and shouldn't get killed. That kind of HUMINT shields you from the media explosion of accidentally wiping out a wedding party though it looked, to the pilot, exactly like a terrorist campfire from 20.000 feet.

   And that's how we know there are already US boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

   Western populations demand clinical war now that Wikileaks and Snowden are all over the government's ass. The war we get sold on TV demands precision lest the population back home on their iPhones throw a shit fit if a baby gets killed. Just imagine if WWII had been fought that way? We'd fucking lose every time a Nazi baby died. Proxy wars are hard to fight in a world where information spillage is everywhere, bullshit is rampant and death is as cheap as it ever was, but it does mean that today, more than ever, attack policy can go against foreign policy if governments don't get a serious grip on the narrative. ISIS are media whores operating in an environment where the threat of a dirty bomb in Time Square is nearly as good as actually detonating a real one.


  Because social media penetration is a very profound thing that changes the dynamic of warfare in the 21st century from all that's come before. Napoleon would've cried tears of joy and held Moscow if he'd had a media wing broadcasting to the Russian population just exactly why they should speak French. The Internet is changing how wars get fought..

   Let's get even more technical.


  When you're top dog on the global human hegemony heap like the US military is, conducting warfare while not subjecting your personnel to death is desirable. Obvious right? A functional given since Sun Tzu. Right now, the skies over Raqqa and other places in Syria and Iraq are filled with hardcore Western remote control technology. If you approach a HumVee in Syria or northern Iraq, a guy half way around the world at his work station nods to his supervisor and minutes later, the vehicle and its environs get carpet bombed by a guy who pulled the trigger from the opposite side of the world.

   The military call it suppression.The politicians call it 'degradation' and I call it war via call center and none of it means you win. It just provides a prescription for endless war. ISIS have done their homework and learned how to challenge civilization.

   Let's face it, we're living in Blade Runner.

   Victory will remain elusive for Western governments so long as your population demands safety. And who doesn't demand safety? ISIS doctrine is exploiting this and forcing Western governments to act in a bombing campaign that makes no sense. The world in 2014 is a boiling cauldron of seething rivalry between the great powers but, unlike 1914, nobody can make a big geopolitical move because nukes provide a cap on ambition where nobody can win, so proxy warfare, economic warfare and war via computer espionage have become king. None of the above will work against ISIS.

   Let's state what we know for a fact.

   Energy wars are complicated.

   Any military action by any state actor in the Middle East is by default an energy war.

   ISIS are formidable because the 'idea' behind ISIS recruits angry Sunni youth from many far flung places and that strikes fear into the heart of power elites in Sunni dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and every other Arab state that chucked an F-16 into the recent attack. The Shia in southern Iraq are not afraid of ISIS because they can rely on Iran for support. Mosul has become expendable. 

   Meanwhile, the Kurds, wielding their own excellent militia and capitalizing on US air strikes, will hold Kirkuk, the oil producing gem that cannot be allowed to fall. Interestingly, the Turks, NATO members next door, have chosen to sit the whole thing out because it's getting dangerous for them a) because fellow Muslim foreign fighters are spilling over their borders into the war zone b) because the political situation in Turkey is tenuous and Erdogan got elected by religious conservatives whose goals align with a fundamental idea of Islamic unity and c) because any help Turkey provides v ISIS makes an independent Kurdistan more likely. Remember, ISIS had 49 Turks held hostage a few weeks ago but guess what... they released all of them. Not a single beheading of any kind. Talk about knowing where your bread is buttered. ISIS atrocity is firmly directed against the West. 

   It's a clusterfuck of the first order and a very complicated war fighting environment.

   Meanwhile, ISIS are loving it.

   The only real question for Western policy is, where does victory against ISIS lie?

   The only way to win is via occupation and who has got two million troops to spare to subjugate Sunni Arabia? The cost benefit analysis is exactly what ISIS are exploiting. That's why we get the current air campaign that amounts to a capitulation, Kony 2012 style, to popular opinion because beheading people on TV is making people rage and the public want action.

   Every smart person alive today knows we're living in a kind of dystopia, a best of times, worst of times consumerist cornucopia that would make Orwell shit bricks. That's why I believe it's reasonable to stand back and resort to, and end on, a philosophical question regarding our species. 

  Warlike upright apes though we may be, we're still apes who managed a moon landing and currently have robots scouring Mars via remote control So the question must be why are we wasting our time with this shit? Should we not be directing our attention to a moon base, a human Mars landing and colonizing the galaxy?

   I understand the current tactical fight for resources here on Earth, but how many ISIS fighters, and fighters on every side, are smart enough to realize the fundamental question that has been bothering humanity since Thucydides wrote his terrible account of self destruction in the 5th century BC. That question posed 25 hundred years ago remains terribly relevant in 2014.

   'Why are we losing the war?'

    Against ourselves.


Friday, September 5, 2014

The idea of ISIS: The history and future of the Islamic State.

   The first thing we're going to have to realize in any discussion on ISIS is that, despite the media hysteria, they are not a cyborg army of super muslims spewing forth from Sodom about to gobble up the Middle East in their speedy Toyota trucks. Yes, these guys are well funded, well equipped and Internet savvy but the thing nobody seems to want to mention is that ISIS are in no way a formidable force. ISIS gains its power from its enemies lack of will to confront them because, let's face it, confrontation is pricey and nobody wants to pony up the blood and cash it would take to defeat them. [Update 10/3: The West has ponied up the cash and the air campaign is ongoing]

    ISIS, in the simplest terms, are a bunch of assholes on a roll in a consequence free environment.

    ISIS are also an 'idea' and in a social media world, ideas can be louder than bombs (more on that later). The main ISIS goal right now is cash and territory. Land for the caliphate. Later, they might get more ambitious and hit the soft underbelly of our infidel supply lines and detonate a dirty bomb someplace inconvenient but for the moment ISIS sights are firmly fixed on the easy pickings of post US Iraq and also on the real winners of the Iraq war, the Shia, who've grown fat and comfortable from fortified Baghdad all the way south to Basra. If we're going to talk about ISIS as a Sunni resistance movement, we're not going to be able to resist a little history here so let's go back to Jordan in 2003.

   Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Jihadist is an Al-Qaeda commander and leader of a militant group called "JTJ", who is watching news footage of the first American 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' bombs landing in Baghdad. Iraqi triple A fire searches the night sky to no effect. Stealth bombers and JDAMS have Saddam clearly outmatched. We've all seen the footage. The US news anchor is orgasming on the fireworks but on the crappy satellite feed al-Zarqawi's 'tech guy' has managed to jack into via the dish on the roof, it's different. For a thug like al-Zarqawi, in a ramshackle apartment block on the edge of Damascus and schooled in the ways energy markets work, he comes to a very easy and fast realization. This is the war of his life. The methodology of his war and that of his followers will be via targeted atrocity against US forces and later, against Shia holy sites. Whatever it takes to make headlines. If the West thinks their high tech toys can take the Sunni homeland then he will show them warfare from another age (with the added bonus of advertising his prowess via the West's newfangled communication device, the Internet). He and his followers will show that fanatical muslims can learn HTML too. 

   Zarqawi quickly pencils down a wish list that will later become the ISIS manifesto.

   a) Kick the Americans out of Iraq.

   b) Establish a caliphate.

   c) Spread the conflict worldwide. 

   d) At some point in the future, nail the Israelis.

  Al-Zarqawi's ideas prove more durable then the man himself. He became too trigger happy with the LiveLeak vids and got 'freedomed' by the US via a 500 pounder from an F-16. He was holed up at what was, in hindsight, 'not a very safe house' in rural Iraq. Some stories state that a group of US soldiers stumbled upon the rubble, found him alive and finished him off via pistol. The fun part is, Al-Zarqawi's dead face was all over the Internet within hours and while the clueless Bush Administration were busy celebrating another 'mission accomplished' moment, Zarqawi's death mask went viral and recruited another few thousand disaffected Muslim youths from neighboring countries to the cause.

  And that right there is the problem when you're fighting ISIS. War mixed with some quasi religious message is always harder to win because when the fanatics lose they can handily resort to magical thinking and transmute a battlefield defeat into some kind of message from a god and weave that into a victory speech so long as there are fresh recruits around to buy into the bullshit.

   The pesky thing about the Middle East is that a manifesto written by a dead guy spawns a martyr and spreads like Ebola. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) became the new nomenclature for the "JTJ" and other Sunni resistance groups because, let's face it, Al-Qaeda had by 2006 become a global 'terrorist' franchise with worldwide media recognition and everyone knows that these days, in our corporate consumertopia, if you're going to run a business it helps to have a recognizable brand splayed in bright lights over the drive thru window. Zarqawi's group got with the program and allowed themselves to be subsumed into the wider struggle. For the purposes of Sunni nationalism, the strategy from 2003-07 for a lot of militant groups operating in Iraq and later Syria was to sit back, bomb US patrols and Shia holy sites and allow the Al-Qaeda brand and western journalists to do their public relations and recruitment drives for them. In many ways, it was helter skelter and race war robbed from the sick dreams of Charlie Manson

   And it worked.

   One of the more interesting media tropes from the worldwide ISIS media hysteria (especially after the capture of Mosul in June) is the idea that ISIS were "kicked out of Al-Qaeda because they were too extreme". The fun part is, it's true. Zarqawi's policy of chaos in Iraq at all costs meant that attacking the Shia was profitable for two reasons,

  1) it destabilized the US sanctioned government in Baghdad (the idea of democracy being one of the touch stones of  US involvement and part of the cover story the elites fed to the plebs back home) and

  2) because, for Zarqawi, there was no such thing as bad publicity (except maybe the location of his safe house).

  This 'kill everything' policy might have worked until suddenly, Zarqawi's group got impatient at the pace of change, went 'all in' and detonated a massive car bomb at the al-Askari Mosque, and took out the famed 'Golden Dome', an artistic treasure and the holiest mosque for Shia Islam in Iraq. Unsatisfied with the destruction, the crazy bastard went and did it again a few months later and took down both minarets seriously pissing off not just the Shia, but everyone. The problem was, from Al-Qaeda's point of view, with a nominal interest in global jihad, was that bombing fellow Muslim sites, even the 'filthy Shia kind', was not a sound business strategy liable to impress Muslims worldwide. Al-Qaeda wanted 'the struggle' to focus on Western interests in Iraq,  fun stuff like IEDing Hum Vees and putting bullets in the heads of Iraqi civilians supporting the US occupation. This difference of opinion on targeting led to tension within the organization because invariably in jihad and war, once the blood starts to flow the message gets harder to control.

   Zarqawi had made himself a liability.

   Once he got taken out, his tenuous hybrid organization, still operating under the Al-Qaeda brand, went through a variety of leaders (most of whom got nailed by the US) and eventually found itself in schism. This schism was embodied by current ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi whose strategy of killing anyone anywhere so long as it advanced goals a) through d) of the above agenda meant that Al-Qaeda wanted to cut his group loose. ISIS, the newly rebranded wing formed by elements of Zarqawi's group and others battling Assad in Syria and already operating off reservation, were happy to go their own way.

   Let's talk Iraq 2007.

  The situation on the ground is a mess. With IEDs everywhere and even mainstream US news revealing how much American corporations had been charging US taxpayers every time a marine takes a dump in their branded porta-potty or electrocuted in their badly wired shower, the US public is realizing that corporate interests have played them for a mark like a Beijing businessman at a Vegas blackjack booth.

    The Administration decides upon a 'new' strategy called 'The Surge'.

   The American public, needy for a narrative involving victory but also retreat buys into the bullshit. The Surge involves a slight increase in US troops and patrols but mainly involves handing out millions of dollars in freshly printed cash to every Sunni Sheikh with a beef against the invasion willing to swap outrage for a new up armored Escalade. The Surge is war via pay off. And it works because money is honorable in the desert. The Sunni tribes banded together and formed 'The Sons of Iraq', amassed 30,000 fighters and ditched Al-Qaeda and it only cost the US half a billion dollars. That was chump change compared to what had been spent before. A 'Sunni Awakening' occurred where Sunni tribal elders were promised not only money but weapons to fight the extremists and most of all, Sunni representation in the government down south in Baghdad.

    In the meantime, the US needs someone it can dump the reigns of power on to. An exit strategy. Enter, not a powerbroker but a nobody, plucked from obscurity by the low tech genius of the Bush Administration. With every Sunni and Shia mover and shaker squabbling for a piece of the action, the Americans drop a harmless school teacher type named Nouriel Al-Maliki into the mix. Here's a guy with solid anti Saddam credentials and a humanities degree that should be easy to control. But there's a plot twist.

   Maliki turns out to be full on proof that the Milgram Experiment was not a fluke. 

   Handed power, Maliki goes from mild mannered asthete to Stalin in the space of a few months and engages in a brutal suppression of all things Sunni. He purges the army officer corps and local governments of Sunnis, removing anyone still left after Bremer's Baathist purge (the biggest mistake the US made in Iraq) and eliminates from the Iraqi Army any Sunni officer still left who might reasonably command a rifle squad. Some of the victims of this purge, though they did not know it yet, were to become the steel in the ISIS command structure when they swept south and nabbed Mosul. 

   Next up, the Obama Administration arrives in 2008.

   In many ways, the weakness of democracy, is that a new leader always comes along at regular intervals. That's if you believe the US Presidency actually runs shit and it's not all just theater designed to give the plebs something to argue about come voting time. Either way, with a mandate from a war weary public, democracy puts a neophyte in power, a community organizer so removed from conditions on the ground in a foreign desert and shoe horned by a campaign promise to drag US forces out of Iraq by an arbitrary date, that suddenly the Jihadis are partying like it's 1172. 

   To further complicate matters, the Arab Spring happens.

   Populations rise up some dictators get deposed peaceably but, noticeably, in countries that export even a smidgen of oil, shit gets complicated. Libya becomes a mess with Gaddafi putting up a decent fight until the French and British swoop in to take care of domestic business in the Mediterranean and take out his armor leaving him screwed and Gadaffi gets added to that list of dictators you might not like but, considering the alternatives, were the strongmen needed to hold desert together. Add to this the fact that the average Libyan is far worse off today then under Gadaffi, and it sure is a head scratcher trying to figure out who the winner is here. Here's a list of oil exporting Middle East countries that came out of the 'Arab Spring' better off then they were before.

    a) Libya… nope

    b) Syria… nope

    c) Egypt (no oil but canal owners)… all kinds of nope.

   The ultimate culmination of everything Arab Spring is Syria. The bloodbath of our times. 200,000 people dead, millions displaced and lets face it, a very complicated war fighting environment. In so many ways it was the adventure the Sunnis and ISIS were looking for. Assad, an Alawite and Russian ally, presiding over a country that was not a country outside of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and lines drawn on the desert according to 19th century logic, was fertile ground for newly born ISIS. The rich Sunnis in Riyadh and Qatar wanted Assad gone and so did the US and Euros. And so the money and weapons flowed into Sunni groups. But who's going to collect? Not the idiot on the corner with an AK calling himself a freedom fighter. Inexorably, the real fighters, trained veterans from Iraq, experts from abroad with explosive know-how, ex- officer corps from places like Fallujah, slowly the heavies began to seep into the fray and consolidate the disparate Sunni groups into something larger. The kids with AKs yielded to the serious guys in the know. Fighting Assad's forces to a stalemate was nice but Damascus could come later. Why fight a hard war when to the south and east lay the easy pickings of Iraq?

   ISIS moved the Syrian Civil War south and east and made conquest look natural.

   Worse, they made it look easy.

   Western media interpreted ISIS gains as battlefield invincibility but their advance would not have been possible if they were not already rolling into 'friendly' Sunni territory the Americans had abandoned. Power vacuums never last long in energy rich regions and the Sunni tribes that had once 'awakened' against al-Qaeda were no longer on the payroll and so enmity for AQI/ISIS wasn't generating gold and the Shia government in the south was turning increasingly hostile to Sunni interests. This made ISIS a functioning spearhead for a much larger Sunni nationalistic force. The opposing Iraqi Army, operating off 18 months of training and a meagre but steady paycheck stared down the full weight of ISIS and veteran Sunni tribal militias and that left the Iraqi Army with only one real course of action.

    Run like fuck.

    So fast forward to today and ISIS have their swathe of territory, they have Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, they're the richest militia in history, they're swimming in captured weapons and they're on Twitter. That's the fun thing about war in the 21st century. You can load up on tanks and fancy combat gear but if you're not savvy with social media then you're losing the fight. This is where you have to admire the assholes. The ISIS media wing is top notch and they make their vids in 1080p with surprisingly high production values. They've come a long way from the grainy 'generic terrorists training on the monkey bars' vids that were pumped out post 9/11 and have expanded their range to everything from your standard beheadings, pistol executions, mass execution of guys on their knees and on, mercilessly. to vids of ISIS fighters chasing down cars on the highway, riddling them with bullets while laughing and warbling the obligatory profusion of 'Allah Akbars' as they shock the shit out of you as you try to digest your pizza. Did I mention they also do kitten pics? Seems like they have achieved the ultimate level of Internet awareness...

   Master troll.

   The Syrian Civil War was the proving war where ISIS gained its traction. Well equipped, bolstered by expert fighters, hardened by scrapes with the Americans in towns like Fallujah, tempered, as it were, by fire, they could bring the fight to Assad and show the newbies how war is done without air power or tank support. Experts in avoidance, maneuver warfare and blending into civilian populations, ISIS under al-Baghdadi showed how, in the Internet age, you cannot be killed without consequence, without a way your death cannot be showcased via broadband and molded into some kind of martyrdom to fit the cause.

    Right now, ISIS have become experts in showing how serious they are, grabbing headlines every week with their beheading videos. ISIS, for all its love of the caliphate and worship of medieval theology, knows that though technology might be the unholy language of the infidels they are not so married to Sharia that they can't spot a winner. Putting themselves in your living room every night and making it hard to digest your dinner is a new kind of 21st century warfare aimed squarely at you via your monitor.

   So the question for ISIS is if this brand of crazy buys them any kind of longevity.

   Can shock therapy build an Islamic State?

   Surely the answer is no. They are the most hated people on Earth right now and rightly so. The problem is their gains are based on light infantry, maneuver warfare combined with a heavy dose of terror. Their gains are based on expanding into territory where they are seen, for now, as the lesser of many evils. Their enemies fear them much like Genghis Khan's cavalry. You cannot win but you can do business. ISIS exploits fear and punch above their weight but none of this is going to be enough to capture Baghdad. Baghdad is Shia country these days and Iran has been sending in troops and tanks to make sure it stays that way. If ISIS thinks their caliphate will ever boast Baghdad as their capital then we already know they're operating under a faulty strategy.

   The thing that's most interesting about ISIS is that they're smart but their goals are stupid.

    ISIS have already pissed off too many people to enjoy longevity.

   To the north, Turkey and the Kurd's want them gone. The Turks, interestingly, seem to be sitting this one out. Interestingly, ISIS have done a lot to make an independent Kurdistan a foregone conclusion and ended Turkish hostility to this idea. Kind of.  The Turks and Kurds have been fighting for so long that they've suddenly realized, via an external enemy, that they are in fact unlikely brothers with a mutually beneficial interest in seeing Kirkuk's vast oil reserves piped north into Turkey and exported from terminals on the Mediterranean in a game where every old Ottoman foe gets a fat chunk of the action. Sure the Turks are split on feeding support to the Kurds but Euros seem to like it. Maybe they'll even let the Turks join the club. Hence, the Euros have been flooding the Peschmerga with fancy new toys on the assurance that they only point them at the designated bad guys and not at the friendly and former genocidal Turks.

   Even the Saudis are running scared. ISIS are showing them what happens when you open Pandora's Box and hand out weapons with impunity. The Saudi Royals wanted Assad gone so bad it hurt so they dished out AT weaponry like the brown acid at Woodstock and soon everyone was swimming in blast technology. Trouble for the Saudis is, some of those weapons can get pointed back at you. The Saudis are good at buying off their population with oil revenue but they fear that even their own population are buying into the ISIS hype. ISIS are nothing if not an enigmatic idea, the kind of idea that young men are attracted too. There hasn't been something this attractive to disaffected Muslim youth across the world since '60s Pan Arabism.

   ISIS offers an insidious but beguiling idea to angry youth from Bradford to Marseilles....

   The idea that you could come home.

   They might hate you in the suburbs of Europe, but here in the desert, there's a chance for you to strike back. It's like the allure of '70s Punk Rock. Nobody likes you around here but if you're willing to make an idealogical journey there's a party in the desert and the possibility of making a new home so long as you're willing to do a little axe murdering on the side.

   Can ISIS survive?

   Not at the rate they've racked up enemies. Though they've amassed a healthy war chest and have de facto control of a large swathe of territory which they can milk for cash (they've been exporting oil for 25c on the dollar and running the usual extortion rackets in Mosul and other cities) it's just a matter of time before the hardcore Shia from the South, Peshmerga and Turkish forces from the north manage a concerted crush. Throw in some US airpower and ISIS will be forced to pretend they don't exist until the heat dies down.

   Interestingly, this is where things could get dangerous for the West.

   So much rested on Obama's withdrawal of forces from Iraq that's it's hard to see US ground troops being reinserted into the fray. ISIS would love this because bleeding an empire is their speciality. Their command structure may be solid but their ability to resist US air power is negligible. They were beaten back from the Mosul dam because control of the Euphrates matters.

   The old logic of the 'cornered rat going for the throat' is interesting considering Europe's high population of disaffected Muslim youth. You never know what kind of dirty material (chemical, bio or nuke) you can buy in an Albanian/Georgian dive bar these days. Of course, I'm not talking the dreaded suitcase nuke, I'm talking a transit van, some Semtex and canisters full of gunk from some Soviet era reactor that, blown up at the right time in the right city could set the world on fire and spark all kinds of economic and over reaction scenarios that would certainly be popcorn time.

   ISIS presents that 'clear and present danger'.

   Let's state what we know.

   2014 has been a really shitty year if you're the type of person who believes 'world peace' could 'be a thing'. Libya is on fire, Syria is on fire, Ukraine is on fire and Iraq is on fire. Tensions are rising in the South China Sea. The world economic system depends on stability and with the number of flash points growing, it's getting increasingly hard to see a future without large forest fires.

   It's like trying to predict when, where and how the popcorn will pop.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Russia v NATO: Ukraine, Crimea and the new Cold War.

   Admit it, the second you saw that vid of Russian attack choppers pouring into Crimea, somewhere in the back of your brain you started thinking of nuclear winter, fallout, the best routes out of major population centers and how up-to-date the contents of your bug-out-bag are. Maybe you've got to be a '70s kid and have grown up under the threat of a Warsaw Pact air burst over your local mall to be really jarred by those images, but either way, I sure hit the popcorn pretty hard. Some deep repressed memories perked up when I saw those choppers. It's not often you get to see the Russian Army on the move and the resulting shit storm all over US and European media made for some pretty entertaining TV, especially if you enjoy your talking heads not connected to the reality of the situation in any meaningful way.

   Doesn't anyone on CNN read a history book? If there were truth in news reporting these days someone might admit that Russia pulled a 'smart' maneuver here just like the West did when they secured Iraqi oil, deposed Gaddafi or bombed the rebels in Mali. Russia just joined the club! With nukes in play nobody in the West is going to become embroiled in a Slavic civil war for Ukraine. Right? Let's face it, we just love our post modern self actualizing Twittery, i-Phoney, corporatocracy too damn much to risk our comfort for a bunch of cantankerous Steppe dwellers. 

   The Euros are locked into a co dependent, abusive relationship with Russian oil and gas and the US is way over extended for either to do anything significant about Crimea so Russia gets to keep its new real estate. When you look at it with the cold eyes of realpolitik, Putin pulled off a pretty shrewd maneuver here and the West, despite the outrage on your TV screen, is pissed not because they give a shit about democracy and territorial borders; but because they got outplayed here by Putin and their inability to apply pressure has begun to reveal some frays at the edges of 21st century Western hegemony.

   To see why Putin pulled this rather ballsy gambit into Crimea, all you have to do is consider Russia's strategic position. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian bear has watched NATO expand eastwards into its backyard bringing Poland, Latvia and Lithuania into the western fold. Worryingly for Moscow, Ukraine has seen its fair share of Western NGOs, (really just an acronym for foreign political action committees operating inside your border), and slowly pour $5 billion into the system with the aim of tilting the vast bread basket west. 

   You don't hear much about Russian motivation in Western media though.

   For instance, when Western media ran the Nuland leak tape they did so in a way so divorced from the reality on the tape that I had to check the mirror to make sure I was living in the same universe and it all wasn't an acid flashback to the '90s. Here we have two American diplomats, one of them the US ambassador in Kiev, the other the top US diplomat to the EU (and presumably voicing the strategy of Obama's tech nerds) basically plotting a coup d'état against the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. But all of this got ignored when the the story ran and somehow morphed instead into a titilating snippet about how an Obama official said 'fuck the EU'. Meanwhile, the 'news' stayed tightly focused on the armed "democratic protesters" chucking petrol bombs at the cops. Turns out a whole bunch of them are hardcore Nazis and they've already started bullying members of the Ukrainian parliament and people on the streets.

   But this is democracy, right?

   And let's face it, if Occupy Wall Street protesters started lobbing molotovs at the NYPD, they'd have been gunned down with M4s before their idealistic little fingers made it to their Zippo lighters while Fox News ran a donation drive to buy more ammo for the cops. Yet here we have a mass of armed protesters advancing on the Ukrainian equivalent of The White House and word out of Washington and Brussels was more cheering from the sidelines like they're witnessing freedom and democracy on the march. It reminded me of that time during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 when looters in Baghdad ran off with priceless Mesopotamian treasure from the national museum and Rumsfeld was pushed in front of the TV cameras to inform us that that's what 'free people do'.

   On both occasions, I nearly threw up in my beer.

   Am I saying Russia had justification for invading Crimea?

   Nope. I'm just saying it was a shrewd move. 

   When the West does it, it's sex, when Russia does it, it's rape. The Russians under Putin have been itching for a chance to rebuild some semblance of the Soviet Empire and bring as many energy rich states into a Eurasian Union to counterbalance the Euros. Seeing Ukraine join the EU and NATO would be far too risky for Putin. The Russians know from history that buffer states and winter are useful allies whenever foreign powers try diplomacy by other means and head for Moscow.

   That's why nabbing back Crimea was a natural play, correcting the 'mistake' Khruschev made in 1954 over vodka when he gave it to Ukraine. Of course, back then this was merely an administrative shuffle because in the heady days of Sputnik, no one ever thought the Soviet Union would collapse and Russia might find itself on the wrong end of the deal. When Russians think of Crimea today they think of cheap holidays in the sun and Sevastapol, home of the Black Sea Fleet. And that fleet is pretty critical to Russian geopolitical ambitions. The naval base there allows Moscow an ice free port to exert influence over the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East.

   Although full of aging vessels, the fleet has been earmarked for upgrades, including six new diesel Kilo class subs and some amphibious assault ships with which to press home diplomacy when a little hard pressure is required with uppity neighbors like Georgia. It's also only a few days sailing to Syria where NATO ambitions were stymied in 2013 not least because of Russian machinations.

   Putin grabbed it and let's face it, it's nothing the US wouldn't do. Watching Kerry remark on the Crimean situation last week was a further exercise in the absurd theater of reality. Who writes this shit?  The needle on the hypocrisy meter broke when it tried to push past max level.

   So what are the West going to do about all this?

   This is where it gets interesting. Realpolitik is back and the US is going to have to adjust. The instability in Ukraine exacerbated by a tanked economy allowed Putin to pull this deft move without firing a shot. A remarkable gain considering its two million population and powerful position in the Black Sea. The US initially responded with a call for across the board sanctions which Germany instantly rejected because their economy needs all that sweet Russian energy. The trouble is, unlike China, Russia exports raw materials and energy and advanced Eurozone economies mold that into machines. So for the EU at least, which does ten times more trade with Russia than the US, sanctions are a non starter.

   The new idea this week is 'travel bans' on Russian officials which is kind of funny. Looks like those guys will have to go holidaying to the beach resorts of Crimea this summer. Also, there's talk of asset freezes on all that sleazy Russian money holed up in Western banks. Of course, Russian dirty money in the 'City of London' is exempt from these asset freezes because of some bullshit reason David Cameron's bankers created out of thin air; but really because those in London's financial center need liquidity and cash is always king, dirty or clean.

   In geopolitics and war, you measure how much you care in blood and treasure.

   And by this metric, the West doesn't care that much. Ukraine is cheap and Crimea is part of the Russian Federation now and it will stay that way. The upcoming referendum is a foregone conclusion, I'm gonna guess a 75% vote for Russia. Of course it's all theater but the Russians have learned from the West how to make invasions look legit.

The older generation celebrates the good ole days after the Crimea vote

   The real question is what happens in Eastern Ukraine and this is what I'm saving the popcorn for. For one thing, Britain, the US and Russia signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994 which guaranteed Ukrainian borders in exchange for them giving up all the nukes left over from the Soviet Union. That sure looks like a shitty deal right now doesn't it? 

  The hard lesson here is... never give up your nukes. 

   Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim Ukrainian prime minister, said "If you do not uphold these guarantees which you gave in the Budapest memorandum, then explain how you will convince Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear status." Note to Mr Yatsenyuk: North Korea has nukes, you don't, so tough shit on that analogy sir, you lost your nuke bargaining chip in the international casino 20 years ago. Also, Iran has the 4th largest oil deposits on the planet and gargantuan natural gas reserves where you have lots of empty fields for growing grass so I'm sorry to inform you sir, but nobody gives a shit. Wheat is cheap right now but oil is precious. Different rules apply.

   If Russia pulls a 'Sudetenland maneuver' and invades Eastern Ukraine to 'liberate' the Russian speakers from Ukrainian tyranny, it sure has the potential to enter the dreaded 'escalatory spiral' where we're talking  full on global confrontation. This is where I see nukes saving us. Like I've said before, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented because Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the only logic us upright apes truly understand. In this case, the threat of confrontation will force leaders on all sides to the brokering table. That sure will be a complex deal.

    If Russia pours troops into Eastern Ukraine, it will force the West's hand. Proper economic sanctions, Poland will get their missile defense system and Russia will face growing isolation. If a shooting war starts on the ground (awesome multi spectrum air and land battles on mottled rolling green terrain) I sure would hit popcorn overdose. 

   Still, it's hard to see the Ukrainian Forces putting up a real fight. Sure, the figures above look decent on paper but war is never as simple as how many tanks you've got. The Ukrainian military is suffering very low morale due to the political situation, a low state of readiness and a military that is split between ethnic Ukrainians and Russian speakers. The Ukrainian military is unable to offer a credible deterrent right now.  It's also hard to see the forces on both sides engaging in a savage shooting war. After all, Slav historical ties run deep with Kiev itself being, in most Russians minds, a Russian city. That doesn't mean it can't happen but would Putin be prepared to fight for Ukraine killing fellow Slavs... like the Wehrmacht did?

   And yet still, 220,000 Russian troops, 1800 tanks and 400 attack choppers are engaged in "exercises" on the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, Crimea just handed over it's navy to the Russian Federation while more troops and equipment arrive daily from the motherland. If the Russians invade they'll try not to fire a shot and annex Eastern Ukraine where the Russian speakers live, draw a line on a map and seek to de escalate. They'll have their buffer zone, the EU can have the bread basket, Poland gets a missile shield and the border becomes a Berlin Wall running along the new border with massive build ups of military forces on both sides.

   It's Cold War Part Deux.

   The beginning lines drawn in a multi polar 21st century.

   All those neoliberal economic ties and global interdependence is supposed to make the 21st century a century where war is impossible outside of the odd Third World resource grab or minor proxy war. Major wars are not supposed to happen say the architects of the new century because we will all buy tonnes of shit from each other and our need for more toys will mean our greed will save us from war.

   I must admit I'm pretty curious to see how that theory works out.

   Russia v Ukraine is surely its first major test.