Monday, February 20, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: No foreign intervention when you've got no oil?

    Things are about to get really ugly in Syria.

    Uprisings in the Middle East sure were ugly last year but if we're talking Syria, I prefer to use the term civil war. Especially after I watched video coming out of the Syrian city of Homs last week where a father was carrying his dead baby down the street and trying to push brain back into the infant's skull. That's when I knew it was time to turn off the TV and go have a shower or something. Shelling civilians in dense urban areas is pretty much as dirty as war gets these days outside of someone busting out a nuke. The Syrian Army have surrounded the city with heavy armor and are shelling the metropolitan area indiscriminately with the usual array of Soviet era artillery, rockets and air burst mortars. Homs is no minor town either like say, Dera'a, that small provincial southern outpost where this whole Syrian mass protest movement got started back in March last year. No, Homs is a major industrial center and Syria's third largest city with a population of 800,000. It's now considered the capital of the insurrection and mixed up with all those civilians are some elements of the Free Syrian Army (more on them later) holed up in scattered houses with a bunch of sniper rifles and RPGs.

    The fun question is whether NATO or the Russians or even the Arab League will get involved to stop the shooting? And the short answer is no. For lots of reasons, not all of which are predicated on the fact that, unlike say Libya, Syria has no oil so there's nothing obvious for anyone to grab. That doesn't mean that Syria doesn't figure in to our global proxy resource war future. It's geography is pretty critical in Middle East strategic terms and that makes it important enough that Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel and the US all have a stake in how this mess plays out. That, paradoxically, means it's probably too risky for any foreign player to allow a rival power to get directly involved. That's really bad news if you're a Syrian protester dodging artillery fire. This war has long drawn out stalemate written all over it.

    Dictators shelling their own cities is a pretty good indicator that they are not going to go away nicely with a Learjet full of cash to some beachfront condo in Saudi Arabia like Yemen's Salah or Tunisia's Abidine Ben Ali did last year. Syria's dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, is different. He is one of those other kinds of dictators like Kim-Jong-Il; which is to say he's the son of a more famous and hardcore dictator who ran the country for decades, died and passed on dad's pocket police state to their dip shit "Participation Award" winning son. By shelling Homs and massacring thousands, Assad Junior is trying to prove he can be just as ruthless as his asshole father who leveled the Syrian city of Hama back in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood tried an uprising against Alawite power. That resulted in a scorched earth policy by the Syrian Army and at least 20,000 deaths; most of them civilians. Right now, it looks like Bashar al-Assad is trying to beat his dad's high score.

    Who knew that some humble fruit seller who torched himself in a market square in Tunisia last year could kick start an Arab Spring and shake up the entire Middle East where the citizens of six Arab countries could trade-in their ruthless dictators and exchange them for a whole new variety of oppressive bastards? Especially considering the strategic and resource rich nature of the real estate those demonstrators happen to be living on. The problem for the West right now is that the entire power structure of the Middle East has changed in the last year and, especially when you consider Egypt, none of those changes are in the West's favor. Having dictators on pay roll was a nice deal and made Egypt a client state costing a mere $2 billion a year to buy off Mubarak who kept Suez running smoothly and promised not to mess with Israel. That's all gone now. Libya is a mess right now too but at least the oil is trickling out. You could view these protest movements, initially at least, as organic uprisings against repressive regimes but considering we're dealing with the Middle East here, selective foreign intervention from the West was inevitable.

    However, the Syrian rebels can expect no intervention from the West this time around. Sure, on the surface you might say that's because Syria has no significant oil worth declaring a no fly zone over. But the reason why there will be no NATO 'no fly zone' over Syria is more complex and plays into the wider global proxy resource wars that will characterize the 21st century. If we really want to know what's going on in Syria, we have to go all the way back to the Cold War. Sure, that's only two decades ago but that's practically ancient history in today's techno sci fi dystopia.

    Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union in 1956 after the Suez crisis when Egypt decided that they might actually own their own canal so the French, British and the Israelis invaded to tell them they didn't. They were all forced to withdraw however after the US and Russia got pissed at the strategic land grab by the former old world powers and decided to remind those old farts who the new and real superpowers on the planet were. Syria, under martial law at the time and terrified of an Israeli invasion, signed a pact with the Soviet Union. This was a nice deal for both parties. The commies got a foothold in the Levant, a base on the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean and the Syrians got some cool new Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery. Thing is, Syria, like a lot of Arab states is strongman country which means right up until 1970, every guy with an AK tried a power grab and successive mini coups meant the Syrian government kept changing every year.

    It was in this environment that Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970 and organized Syria into a lock down security state mainly to make sure no more strongmen could come along to challenge his rule. Syria today has 57 different varieties of internal security forces making them the Heinz ketchup of desert police states. Like I mentioned earlier, the only serious challenge to his rule was from a bunch of Muslim Brotherhood who considered Assad and the Alawite sect he came from heretical to Islam. Assad surrounded the city of Hama and massacred everyone, to this day considered "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".

    Hafez al Assad died in 2000 after 30 years of strongman rule and the Syrian 'parliament' quickly rewrote the rule book so his 34 year old son could take over (previously you had to be 40 to become el presidente). Junior pulled one of those Saddam Hussein type Baath Party elections where no one runs against you and you amazingly wind up with 97.89% of the vote and call it unanimous victory. Which is democracy by desert standards I suppose. With a new guy in charge, a lot of Syrians were hoping for reform and an end to the "state of emergency" that had been in place since 1963. A bunch of small movements and political forums got started in private homes floating the idea of democratic elections. Bashar al-Assad thought about it for about a minute and then decided against it and instead went ahead with locking up everybody who dared voice a contrary opinion; a new desert strongman had arrived.

    Then came the Arab Spring last year and suddenly throwing out asshole dictators became fashionable in the Middle East. The protests started out as teenage graffiti on a wall in the southern farm town of Dera'a and as usual, just like Mubarak and Gaddafi in Egypt and Libya, the dictator gene kicked in and Assad sent in the army. That resulted in dead people which instead of serving as a warning like it might have done 20 years ago, this time it pissed off people right across the political and economic spectrum. The protests grew in size and quickly spread to other cities.

    And right now this fight is entering civil war territory which means it will get even more ugly. We're talking here Lebanon Civil War style ugly. All the ingredients are there especially when you consider the hodge podge ethnic make up of the country. Though 74% Sunni Arab, there a whole bunch of Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Armenians and Turks who could settle old scores if the traditional power structure falls apart. Even then, they'll probably be left to their own devices and no referee will come and break it all up. There are too many conflicting foreign parties involved for any of them to allow the other to scoop up the prize that is Damascus; the heart of pan Arab prestige and the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet.

    Let's take a look at the complex web of foreign players with a stake in this mess.


    The Russians have a naval base in Syria. A pretty important foreign base for them on the Mediterranean. With ties going back to the Cold War, Russia cannot allow their old ally to fall into the hands of the Western oligarchy. Down and out since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is a wounded superpower with designs on regaining her stature. Watching the US run riot across the planet for the last two decades, gobbling up desert real estate wholesale sure has pissed them off. But there is a silver lining. Russia has all that resource rich land mass and with oil only going to increase in price, they're well positioned for the proxy resource war future.

    It sure made me laugh when the Russians vetoed the Syrian resolution at the UN a couple of weeks back. The US media were so shocked while leaving out the fact that the US has vetoed every UN resolution aimed at Israel for the past thirty years. Protecting your client states via UN votes is par for the course in proxy warfare. What's really happening here is that we are entering Cold War Part II. As Russia's oil and gas reserves become more and more valuable, strategic containment of the West is key. Syria and Georgia are just the opening salvos.


    Iran is a growing regional power and the West seeks to contain it. With Syria being it's main ally, destabilization in Syria is in the West's interest. A main conduit of Iranian arms to Shia proxy armies (Hizbollah, al-Qassam) in Southern Lebanon, Syria is the gateway for arms shipments to these groups. For this reason, Iran would like to keep Syria open for business and the current regime in power.


    Along with Russia, they used their UN Security Council vote just to hamper the West's designs on the Middle East oilfields. In many ways, they did it for the lulz.


     Obviously, Israel would like Syria destabilized but this is a risky game even for them. When Mubarak fell in Egypt, they lost a compliant dictator on their southern border. It remains to be seen if a new regime in Damascus would be compliant enough to settle the Golan Heights dispute. Strangely, you can throw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Sunni Arab US allies in the region in with Israel as they all fear the growing power of Iran. A weakened Syria plays to this interest.

    The U.S.

    The US would like to see Assad fall because it would push Russia out of the Levant and make it easy to consolidate all their gains in the Mesopotamian oil fields. Syria as a compliant democracy would be vastly weakened insofar as its ability to resist Western encroachment. It would also have the side benefits of knocking out an Iranian ally and cutting arms shipments to Hizbollah in Southern Lebanon.  All in all, a win win on the global chess board. Sure, the country might be left a mess and fall into faction on faction religious warfare but even that kind of chaos is preferable to a hardcore dictator who hates your guts and refuses to play ball. With Syria gone, the only domino left to fall will be Iran for total control of Middle East energy.

    So how does all this play out?

    Most likely it will come down to the Syrians themselves. It is certainly true that foreign special forces have been running around inside Syria, fomenting this along. It is also true that Assad's regime has received weapons shipments from Russia and Chinese 'moral support. Ultimately though, this whole war comes down to whether or not the Syrians can do this for themselves. And as usual, when the shooting starts (as it has) you can brush away that quaint idea that nonviolent protest ever changed any power structure in human history. No need to quote me Gandhi or MLK either. Those peaceful movements only worked because there were far more violent guys waiting in the wings if the peace and love fest didn't work out. So apart from suicidal protesters getting gunned down by the Syrian army, does this protest movement have a little more bite?

The Free Syrian Army and their wide variety of small arms.

    It does and it's called the Free Syrian Army. This army is composed mainly of defecting Syrian Army troops and is under the command of a Syrian air force colonel, Riad Mousa al-Asaad. They claim to be 40,000 strong but this figure is most likely inflated and more realistically in the 15,000 range. Composed mainly of conscript soldiers who either didn't show up for duty or refused to shoot at protesters (risky considering Bashar al-Assad is executing men who fail to pull the trigger on unarmed civilians), they are lightly armed with AKs and RPGs. Most of their operations have been interdiction strikes on Syrian Army supply trucks, hit and run stuff which is the best you can do when you've got no air support or heavy weapons. Only time will tell if the defections continue or if the Syrian Army itself, at least the hardcore element, sees Assad as the lesser of two evils; the other evil being total chaos like in Egypt after Mubarak fell.

   Either way, The Syrian Civil War stays ugly for some time and how it plays out will tell us a lot about the future of the Middle East. And the world.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Phase II: Why the US wants to attack Iran

   Looks like the US is playing musical chairs with its carrier groups in the Gulf of Oman.

   The USS Stennis Carrier Group moved to the Indian Ocean last week so the US could transit another carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, through the Straits of Hormuz just to remind the Iranians how screwed they'd be if the shooting starts. The carrier was escorted by the cruiser USS Cape St. George, two destroyers, the Royal Navy anti sub frigate HMS Argyll and even the French got an invite and sent along their own La Motte-Picquet anti sub frigate to fill out the international nature of the party. That's pretty interesting and those frigates show the West's concern at the Iranian submarine threat and the small chance that the Iranians might manage to land a torp in the nuke belly of a carrier. Sure, it's unlikely but the Chinese did manage to sneak a diesel powered sub into the middle of a carrier group during USN exercises off Taiwan in 2006. So nothing's impossible. Also, the USS Enterprise carrier group is on its way and due to arrive in the Gulf in March which is an interesting choice considering it's the oldest nuke carrier in the US fleet, secretly nicknamed the "Mobile Chernobyl" by sailors and due to be decommissioned later this year. Warships passing through the Strait are pretty typical moves but a combined US, UK and French flotilla is unusual and reeks of dick waving to show the pesky Persians what they might be dealing with if they try any 'funny stuff' like mining Hormuz and blocking world oil supply.

   Grab popcorn but don't microwave it just yet.

   I still say this war is way too scary to enter a shooting phase but that's only because I want to believe Western leaders are not insane. And I keep getting proved wrong on that point. This week's naval moves off the Iranian coast had me rummaging through my library for obligatory Sun Tzu quotes and the best I could come up with was  "Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate." The Euros came up with an extraordinary moment of their own this week by way of an oil embargo on Iranian oil purchases that won't take effect till June and is actually a subtle attempt to stop this war from entering the shooting phase. It's a move designed to appease the trigger happy US and Israel so they don't go straight to the bombers and risk setting the world on fire. Of course, the Israelis are still not happy and don't believe it'll stop that theater parity Shia nuke.

   Truth is, nothing is going to stop that nuke.

   Even if the US and Israel do conduct air strikes on Iran's 15 nuke sites, they still can't physically damage an idea. The Iranian nuke program is diversified enough that even a concerted bombing campaign can at best only delay it a few years. Nobody can put the nuclear genie back in the bottle anymore. So this week I got to thinking of this war in wider global proxy resource war terms and that's when things started making more sense.

   Iran is sitting on the fourth largest oil deposit on the planet and has huge reserves of natural gas and that's a sweet energy prize by any account. It's kind of like Inca gold and the Spanish Main in the 16th century... everybody wants a piece of the action. The fun thing about oil is that while it's in the ground, its value is theoretical but not actual. That's actually a plus. For example, when the West grabbed Iraqi oil, they didn't go in right away and start extracting spice like Hungry Hippos. That oil is fine where it is for now. It is control of the real estate above the deposit and a say in how and at what rate those reserves get extracted that really matters. And that's why the Green Zone in Baghdad houses the largest US embassy in the world even after the US pulled out combat troops. Sure, the US can let foreign competitors in to extract the spice and sub contract the work out to other nations, but so long as oil is a dollar based commodity, US economic hegemony of world energy remains intact.

   The interesting player here in all this is China. Though a long way from being a military superpower, its economic power is rising fast, so fast that the US and Europe fear the loss of traditional Western dominance of the global economy. The gaping weakness of the Chinese rise is energy supply. And without a credible naval fleet to protect the flow of spice, the weakness of China gets exposed... Chinese dependence on sea borne oil delivery and their susceptibility to a blockade sometime in our proxy resource war future. What the West really fears here in the global energy game of Risk, is Iran having unfettered control of its own huge energy reserves, selling those reserves outside the dollar to geopolitical rivals (China) and facilitating the rise of a pan Pacific hegemon that could contest Western dominance at some point later this century.

   That's why Iran is in the cross hairs.

   Their whole nuke program is symbolic of their determination not to play nice in the petro dollar chessgame and the question remains, will they get Tomahawked this year because of it?

   Let's get to the fun stuff.

   How would this war play out if the US does attack Iran? In a nutshell, really badly for Iran. Initially at least. The problem for the Iranians is their dated air defence system based mainly around the Soviet S-200 system. For perspective, Gaddafi fielded this against the US when Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 and even pre stealth F-111s managed to do serious damage for the loss of only one plane. These days, with modern EW jamming in the mix, the US and Israel will dominate the skies above Iran unopposed. Also, the US already knows where all these S-200 sites are which makes them really easy to target. Every time those fixed SAM radar antenna get switched on for maintenance or calibration it's like painting a big fat bulls eye on your air defense network. That goes for the more mobile Soviet Tor (SA-15) system too even if it can drive around, stop, find a target and drive off again. Strangely, the Iranians do have a fighter wing of Shah era US F-14 Tomcats which is pretty funny when you imagine some flailing Persian Top Gun Maverick trying to get a lock on a US bogey. In any possible strike scenario, Iran is pretty much defenseless against 5th generation Western tech. Along with the usual rain of Tomahawk missiles, air delivered bunker busters and the Israelis ruthlessly following up behind, Iran is going to wake up the morning after the raid with a serious hangover. And, I suppose, this is where we get to the the really interesting question.

   What will the Iranian response be?

   There are so many options it's hard to keep track. One option not often discussed is the concept of Iranian restraint. I've thought about this lately and it does have merits if you're an Iranian general. What happens if they do nothing? Sure, it's a long shot. But what happens if the Iranians let the world see reactors on fire, spewing radiation across the Persian landscape, broadcast pictures of dead babies to the world and try to play this out in the gladiatorial arena of world opinion? You just got sucker punched for a nuclear weapon you don't even have. In a social media world, the idea that Iran could play the wounded stoic here is a viable option and could be worth a try to make it clear who the real 'bad guys' are. Another reason why I like the idea from the point of view of their crazy theocracy is that getting bombed usually results in the "London Blitz effect". Getting bombed by external enemies rallys populations around whatever power structure happens to be in place and sure would hurt CIA funded opposition groups operating in Iran. All those Green revolution kids on the streets of Tehran getting whipped and shot by Basij thugs would suddenly swing rogue if an external enemy bombed their mom's house.

   Smart leaders in history like Churchill capitalized on stuff like that.

   The problem with politicians and the religious freaks who run countries these days is that they are rarely that smart. The Iranian theocracy is no different. So the question remains, do the Iranians go loud and bust out their myriad asymmetrical options and retaliate against the bombers once Natanz is burning? Who knows? Let's examine the Iranian options:

  • Unleash a thousand speed boats and mine the Straits of Hormuz back to the Stone Age. Oil price hits $200 a barrel until US/Euro/Japanese minesweepers clear the Strait. It'll take two months to declare the all clear. Meanwhile, in the West, we cry like babies because feeding our car hurts, bread has doubled in price and nobody can afford a new flatscreen. 

  • The Iranians launch their limited supply of Shahab IIIs against Israeli population centers. Tel Aviv gets hit and the Israelis launch a reciprocal strike on the civilian population of Tehran. The doomsday Iranian theocracy doesn't like it. Escalation possibilities ensue. A nuclear missile versus chemical missile war. Mass casualties happen on your TV. (Unlikely).

  • The Iranians launch Chinese Silkworm missiles (and Shahab IIIs) across the Persian Gulf, hit Saudi oil installations like Ras Tanura and set the world economy on fire. The world enters a new paradigm of what the fuck? Oil hits $300 a barrel, food prices double and you wish you were a farmer who could grow his own food.

  • The Iranians engage in proxy warfare and pressure Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon to bombard Tel Aviv with the thousands of missiles the Iranians have already supplied them with. The IDF responds with a massive attack on Southern Lebanon and attempts to rectify their 'defeat' in 2006. Thousands die but nobody cares in Western countries because food tastes nice.

  • Iran activates their foreign asymmetrical "terrorist" cells in the US and Europe, they blow up stuff in Western cities and make already unruly citizens decry another bullshit war that didn't have to be. Meanwhile, Western countries turn into police states because everybody could be a terrorist. Oh wait, that's already happened.

  • The Iranians do nothing, lament their dead babies and garner worldwide everyman support because they're just another victim of globalization and the ongoing corporate takeover of the world's real estate. Occupy Wall Street protesters finally start wrecking shit.

   What's most disturbing is that Western leaders seem prepared to play this casino game of chance. How will the Chinese and Russians react if Iran is burning? That's the real question in this whole cluster fuck. China is a major buyer of Iranian oil. Russia has provided enriched uranium and scientists to run the Iranian reactor at Bushehr since 2009. If Russian nationals die in that attack and if that destroyed reactor is spewing Fukushima levels of radiation across the landscape, what's next? The Russians may be happy to issue stern protests at the UN while secretly laughing to themselves as oil, Russia's main export, pushes beyond the $150 dollar a barrel mark; the mark that crashed the world economy in 2008. Since the Russians rely on oil exports to keep their economy flowing ($110 a barrel oil is the estimated minimum price to keep that former superpower economically growing and appease their restless but dwindling population), the Russians will benefit from the US and Israel's stupid war against Iran.

   China, on the other hand, will be pissed. With the just announced Euro embargo, the Chinese have already started demanding discounts on Iranian oil. If there's one thing you can say about the Chinese, they're smart as hell and playing the long game. 5000 years of contiguous history and Sun Tzu can't be wrong. They will see a Western attack on Iran as yet another chess move to block their economic growth and secretly take note of who their real enemy is. One billion people can't be wrong as they continue to conscript their cheap village labor into factories to supply American Wal Marts with cheap plastic goods. For now. Even if Iran is burning, China could be smart, like they've always been, and yet again play the waiting game. In the wake of a US/Israeli attack on Iran's nuke sites, China and Russia will supply the Iranians with military technology to prevent such an attack from ever happening again. It'll be a Rubicon moment in their eyes, the moment when the Western energy lust went a bridge too far. Hell, the Iranians might finally receive a shipment of the Russian S-300/400 SAM system that would make a repeat attack orders of magnitude more difficult for foreign air forces. But, of course, it'll take a year to train Iranian crews in the operation of that sophisticated 5th generation technology.

The Russian S-400 SAM system... The Iranian dream...

   Meanwhile, we're all living in Blade Runner.

   Let's face it, the US, the Euros, the Russians, the Chinese, India, Pakistan and the Israelis will eventually have to face the truth of what Oppenheimer unleashed in the New Mexican desert in 1945. This is what Oppenheimer said after the first nuke exploded on earth. It still gives me shivers... "We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In the coming 21st century sci fi dystopia future world, every nation of consequence is going to have nukes. Does Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD philosophy) mean we upright apes get to escape our fate?

   No nation wants World War III right now.

   But then again, no nation ever wanted a World War ever and yet we dumb humans always manage to stumble into one. That's if  20th century history is anything to go by.

   2012 is starting to feel like 1912 all over again.