Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Syria: Fantasy war in the desert!

   Anyone watching the Syrian Civil War right now through the eyes of Western media is like some  guy who figures he knows what WWII was all about because he just watched Inglourious Basterds. Sure, it's a fun movie but it does fall a bit short on the historical accuracy front. Kind of like world popular media today. The Syrian narrative being presented on the nightly news is of brave rebel fighters battling oppressive dictator Assad whose forces go around shelling civilians and murdering babies. And while some of that is certainly true, the real devil lies in the details and omissions; truth being the first casualty of any war since the first shot gets fired. Hardcore war in the heart of the Middle East is complex and prone to lies especially these days when all the major powers are scrambling for the last easily tappable energy reserves on the planet; but that kind of big picture view never fits into a soundbite even if a foreign public wants to hear it.

  Which they don't.

  Still, for those who happen to care, the Syrian conflict is damn compelling in its wider implications for regional and global security in what's sure to be a very messy 21st century.

  Right now, the battle for Aleppo (Syria's largest city and the home of the business elites) is being billed as the make or break battle for Syria. It's hard to know what defector talk to believe but all of this final stand "talk" makes me think the Free Syrian Army are playing right into Assad's hands here. Let's face it, the major strengths of any guerrilla army since Spartacus are hit and run type tactics and not all out decisive battles against the enemy's frontline "teeth" divisions. Major battles involving light infantry versus heavy infantry, tanks and air power, even in urban areas, is not the kind of warfare that puts guerrilla troops to their best use. In fact, 'decisive' confrontations play mainly to the strengths of Assad's army where it's easier for him to motivate his government troops by telling them they're embarking on a big final push against the rebels. The alternative, years of attrition type warfare with no end in sight, is the kind of protracted war your troops may not think worth the paycheck.

The first casualty of the Syrian War is Photoshop!

   Another thing that's confusing is the Western media's constant insistence that the rebels are outmanned and outgunned. Sure, they're outgunned barring the occasional stolen T-72 or BMP but outmanned they certainly are not. If one fifth of the unemployed young men that make up 50% of Syria's angry youth can get their hands on an AK (and when has it ever been difficult to get your hands on an AK anywhere in the Middle East) that's a healthy dose of rebel fighters sending 7.62mm the Syrian Army's way. And that's not even taking into account all that Saudi money supplying covert arms through Lebanon and the plethora of foreign special forces running around observing the burgeoning mess. But nope, this Western portrayal of the rebels as oppressed freedom fighters fits with the whole Arab Spring narrative the West likes to push whenever there's energy in the vicinity. Democracy and all that other funny talk.

   These days, democracy is just a feel good word the suits on TV say when they want you to know who the good guys are.

   Democracy is likely to deliver up another theocracy like what's happening in Egypt in the aftermath of Mubarak. Let's face it, these rebel fighters (and they seem to come from all kinds of sketchy demographics including the Al-Qaeda franchise) are no saints. Setting up shop in dense urban areas among the civilian population, drawing artillery and rocket fire and then posting the inevitable parade of corpses on YouTube isn't exactly a Mother Teresa maneuver. Even she knew where to draw the line when shaking people down. Making the enemy look bad is one thing but hiding behind civilians and chucking corpses in front of news cameras is quite another. It's not exactly the honorable tactic of the good guys.

   Ooops! I just made myself spew beer all over my keyboard. Yup, I just said 'honorable' and 'war' in the same sentence. Perhaps it's just the romantic in me, hoping for an honorable desert war like maybe Afrika Korps v 8th Army in North Africa in 1942. But that kind of major army v army action on sandy terrain isn't going to be happening anytime soon in our desert proxy war timeframe. Unless of course if something really fun happens like Turkey invades Syria. That right there my friends is my secret little fantasy war in the desert that'll never happen. I'll indulge more in that later.

   Right now, if the FSA are serious about winning this thing they should stick to the tried and true tactics of guerilla warfare that have proven solid since time immemorial, that is, interdicting the enemy's logistics and supply routes with hit and run raids and ambushes. Instead, they seem determined to duke it out with frontline armored divisions using urban areas as cover. Also there's that old Mao maxim about controlling the countryside to control the cities but maybe that doesn't work so well when the countryside is a desert. In guerrilla warfare there's always the Sun Tzu tactic of trading land for time, a tried and true tenet of guerrilla warfare and time would seem to be on the rebel's side here because one thing seems for sure, the longer this war goes on, the weaker the Assad regime becomes. And then there's the whole atrocity factor that's playing in the FSA's favor when civilians start dying. That might be the whole rebel plan in the first place. Sure, it's a dirty tactic but clean went out the Mosque door a long time ago. It's a play straight from the old Vietnam playbook where the side with the big guns like the US (the Syrians in this case) drops an errant bomb that wipes out 40 women and children in some bamboo hut village and suddenly you've just recruited 100 peasant rice farmers into the Vietcong. I figure the FSA strategy here is that by fighting in the cities they can provoke Assad to naturally play to his strengths, artillery and heavy armor, thus racking up plenty of civilian casualties that'll swell the FSA with new recruits.

   It's dirty war and the dirtier it gets the bigger the FSA becomes.

   Maybe that's the whole crazy plan.

   The FSA could not hold the pockets they established in Damascus a few weeks back but Aleppo may be a juicier target to set up shop in. For one thing, Aleppo is primarily made up of Sunni middle class businessmen who have supported Assad up to now but only because he's left them and their cash alone. With the war reaching Syria's richest city it's a pretty good sign that the tacit agreement between Assad's Alawite leadership and the Sunni business class is cracking.  It's hard to say for sure what the Sunnis think now that Aleppo is on fire because polling a populace under shellfire ain't easy. With the FSA forcing Assad to level his business districts this means more Sunni refugees fleeing and more Sunnis recruited into the FSA with the added bonus of a small chance of foreign intervention. The Saudi's are already pumping millions into the FSA and there's also the Turkish factor which brings me to my favorite fantasy about this whole war.

  When the Syrians shot down that Turkish F-4 Phantom a few weeks back my war-dar started registering blips right off the scale and I got excited about the possibility of a regional war in the desert. But that's just the Rommel in me. I just got high on the possibilities for mechanized warfare in the desert not seen since El Alamein. Turkey invades Syria. That right there would make for an honorable tank duel in the desert.

  Truth is, who isn't tired of shitty heavy civilian casualty warfare where well equipped armies go up against guys with AKs? I'm talking the multitude of proxy resource conflicts where a bunch of goat herders go up against Predator Drones and find that their early warning radar (goats) are pretty shitty at warning early because no notifications get bleated when the Hellfire comes down the chimney pipe of the mud hut and wipes out four generations of Pashtun or Yemenis or Iraqis. Yeah, those bearded dudes in the graveyard of empires are resilient but that doesn't make the US mission in Afghanistan entertaining. Hell, you can IED a US convoy these days and not even make the nightly news. Let's face it, wars are pretty dull right now. Even the mainstream media doesn't give a shit. You know you've either lost or won a war when a war stops being news.  For the US, Afghanistan is kind of like watching your dog take a shit on someone's lawn. Do you walk away quickly and not give a fuck or stand there looking responsible while acting like you're going to pick up the turd with a Costco bag? That's the US mission in Afghanistan right now. Maintaining the illusion of responsibility. Sure, that war has always been ambiguous and mostly awful. But you know what would be less awful war-wise right now?

  Watching two equally matched modern nations going head to head in a wider regional war.

   That right there would at least be entertaining in the current sea of shitty heavy civilian casualty wars. Battles like Fallujah, Misrata and Aleppo suck because one side has all the heavy weapons. But proxy resource wars are par for the course these days as the planet gets increasingly overcrowded. With supply chains long, food resources subject to the vicissitudes of climate change and oil production pretty much maxed out, it's only a matter of time before the major powers clash directly for what's left. That's the scary future that makes this squabble in the desert a minor preliminary salvo.

   For the Turks, losing an F-4 Phantom wasn't exactly a major loss militarily. Sure, it's a bummer the pilot didn't bail out but Phantom's are basically Vietnam era flying double decker buses with the maneuverability of a cement truck in rush hour traffic. That Turk pilot never saw it coming and was probably sucker punched by one of Syria's Russian supplied S-300 SAMs (one reason NATO doesn't fancy a rerun of Libya over Syria). One thing F-4s always had going for them even in Vietnam, despite their lack of cannon was a pair of serious get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here engines that allowed the Phantom to run from any engagement it didn't fancy the odds in. To my mind, the Turkish F-4 incursion into Syrian airspace was a move designed to get the Syrians to turn their air defense radars on so they could be pinpointed for NATO airstrikes later on in the event Assad doesn't fall in a timely manner.

   Every time I think of Turks involved in war my mind automatically reverts to the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 when some Byzantine idiot forgot to lock the Kerkoporta Gate and allowed a bunch of Turks in to raise a flag on the battlements that sowed panic in the defenders; a ploy that ultimately led to the end of the last twinkle in the old Roman Empire's eye. Sure, the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Syria is practically zero but I'm not going to let that burst my bubble right now because I'm salivating on the idea of tank on tank action in open desert terrain which is a hell of a lot more fun than a bunch of rebels smoking hashish in a kebab joint getting shelled. Syria has a major beef against the Turks for water rights on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Those pesky Turks have big plans for hydroelectric power on those rivers and that pretty much sucks for the Syrians and Iraqis downstream who need that water for agriculture. The Turk's have a problem too with Syrian refugees spilling over their border possibly further destabilizing a region where their own ethnic Kurds are liable to stir up trouble. A limited invasion into Syria to create a refugee "buffer zone" might not be out of the question. It would also be a nice time for the Turks to redraw their southern border with Syria which is mountainous and difficult to defend. Still, it's unclear if they'd make such a ballsy move. Politicians in Turkey are wary of anything that might increase military prestige in a country where the military likes to throw its weight around the political arena.

   But this war is fun to think about.

   The tank on tank action would pit Turkey's modern arsenal of German supplied Leapord 1s and 2A4s  against Syria's aging but more numerous Soviet era T-72s, T-62Ms and believe it or not, T-55s (the most produced tank in history) but completely out of date. That'd make for a fun turkey shoot in the desert. Add in total Turk air superiority by way of US supplied F-16s and naval dominance off the coast and this war that'll never happen becomes even less fantastic. In fact, it'd get boring pretty damn fast. I see a rerun of the Yom Kippur War in the Golan Heights where less than 40 Israeli tanks held off over 500 Syrian tanks. Maybe the Israelis threatened to bust out a nuke, maybe they didn't, either way, the Syrians retreated.

Rebel held areas of Syria are primarily border regions for easy resupply.

 Bashar al Assad's days in power are surely numbered. Ever take a look at the guy? He's like that tall awkward friendless guy that joined your second grade class whose dad showed up with lollipops for everyone in the hopes that you might like his dick son. Just because dad was alpha and bought off or murdered the competition doesn't mean those genes automatically pass down to your jizz. Maybe there was a predominance of pussies on mom's side of the family that emasculated junior but either way, this war wouldn't be happening if dad was still in charge. One thing is for sure, I don't see Assad Junior going out like badass Gadaffi in some high speed car chase pistol in hand. Nope, Junior will probably opt for some beachfront property on the Black Sea in Russia. If he's lucky.

   Even if Assad bails with a few billion in pocket change what'll be left in Syria is anybody's guess. Very likely we'll be talking partition along old sectarian lines with Alawites, Druze, Kurds and Sunni Muslims looking to draw lines on prospective new homelands. The aftermath could be just as ugly as the war itself. Meanwhile, the major powers all see Syria as part of the global energy chess game. Damascus, the gateway to the Middle East. It certainly was in T.E. Lawrence's day when the British and Arabs recaptured it from the Ottomans during WWI. But these days the prizes have shifted further south and east and the Wahhabis (who even Lawrence knew were insane in 1917) were sitting on the real prize on the sun fried lava of the Saudi peninsula

   Meanwhile, Syria turns into the kind of war zone with a level of destruction not seen in Syria since the crusaders holed up in their citadels and tried to fend off Saladins armies. Even the ancient fortress of Krak des Chevaliers has not been spared, shelled by the Syrian army because some rebels rightly assumed it'd be a good place to hole up. The Arabs sure built wonderful castles back then so much so the crusaders copied their designs. Even Saladin could not break the crusaders at that fortress but then again, Saladin wasn't packing 155mm howitzers. There are reports from all around the country too that ancient treasure sites and museums have been looted so, along with Iraq's Mesopotamian treasures, all will likely wind up on the black market somewhere. Perhaps even venerable Saladin's green silk tomb cover bestowed by Kaiser Wilhelm could end up in some nouveau riche Chinese billionaire's ritzy apartment overlooking the endless grey Beijing smog.

Krak des Chevaliers: Not immune to modern artillery.

   What a sad end to history.

   That, I fear, is a pretty good template for how the 21st century is plays out. Us dumb apes begin to feed on ourselves and our past in search of simpler times, times before the resources got scarce and the planet got too small.

   Along with Iraq and Libya, Syria is the last of the Middle East's low hanging fruit to be subsumed by larger empires. From here on in, things get hotter and direct competition by proxy war gets harder to control. Meanwhile, countries devolve into surveillance and police states as governments try to suppress populations who decry increasing resources dedicated to grabbing the last strategic energy, food and freshwater reserves. Exciting times for those who like watching the world burn.

   Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese love to stymy any Western inspired peace efforts at the UN because bringing Syria under the Western sphere of influence through some brokered peace deal that would get rid of Assad would be just a little too disconcerting now that the West has successfully locked down Iraq's energy reserves and taken Gadaffi out of the picture.

   The Iranians too, who've provided plenty of bumbling covert assistance to Assad would see the last gate in the Middle East fall. They're smart enough to know that if the Syria question gets settled, then the battle lines in the Middle East will be clearly and inexorably drawn.

   Battlefield Iran.

   The Iranians, despite their crazy theocracy, are smart enough to know where the real cross hairs will aim and they'll have to wonder if they will be the next domino to fall.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Arctic Melt: The New Cold War

                                        This article was first published in King's Tribune.

   There isn't going to be a shooting war for Arctic resources just yet.

  Major powers like the the US, China and Russia are still waiting for the Arctic ice to hurry up and melt away. And that process is moving along at a pace that makes the average environmentalist want to sign yet another petition during Nat Geo Channel commercial breaks and bong hits. The Arctic is said to have up to 25% of the world’s oil and gas sitting like Inca gold under all that pesky ice and, with current global oil production maxed out and prices rising fast, the North Pole sure has the potential to be proxy resource war central in the increasingly tense 21st century.

  In 2007, the Russians planted a titanium flag on the seabed under the polar ice which was a pretty ballsy move ripped straight out of the 16th century when European powers had a habit of sailing to foreign shores and planting flags on valuable shit they didn’t own. That flag move was designed by Putin to tell Canada, the US, Denmark and Norway (who all claim a piece of the Arctic action) that the Russian claim theoretically extends all the way to the Pole. Naturally, this pissed off everyone and sets the stage for a Cold War Part II later on this century.

  Another fun thing about the melting ice is the profitable new shipping routes that are opening up. The famed “Northeast Passage” is a handy shortcut from Europe to Asia that bypasses the Suez Canal and becomes ice-free every summer. Lately, that shipping lane along the northern Russian coast is becoming increasingly viable even in winter. The Russians like this because it would mean cheaper export routes for Russian oil tankers to burgeoning energy hungry soon-to-be superpower, China. The Russians recently exported 60,000 tons of oil products to China via northern Siberia on the vessel, Perseverance. A trial voyage for sure, but a whole lot cheaper than building a pipeline to China.

  Meanwhile, the US is engaged in proxy resource war in Middle East deserts and sniffing at regime change in Iran and the opening of the third largest oil field on the planet to sleazy Western oil companies. The Russians and Chinese are playing a longer game here on the global energy chessboard. While blocking concerted action at the UN against Iran and Syria (stymying Western attempts at energy field access in Persia), they see a future multi polar world of more balanced rival powers (as the US loses it singular super power perch) and the ending of US hegemony on global energy supply.

  This sure is an interesting time if you’re interested in how the 21st century will play out.

  The retreating Arctic ice shelf is putting a smaller and much ignored part of the planet into the global spotlight. Ground zero for global resource scrambles in the Arctic right now is Greenland. Nominally a Danish ‘protectorate’ (code speak for Copenhagen owns all your shit), the US has been floating the idea of ‘independence’ for that Euro centric island. This would be handy for US oil and mining corporations to skirt pesky European environmental laws that say you have to clean up the mess after you’re done strip mining. Preliminary reports from the soggy permafrost in Greenland reveal uranium, diamonds, gold and rare earth metals packed under the retreating glaciers and those rare earths are in high demand too since 90% of existing supply comes from a single mine in China. Those rare earths get crammed into plasma TVs and i-Pads and the Chinese have been restricting exports, which are subtle opening salvos in the proxy resource wars that will dominate the 21st century.

  The Greenlanders recently retracted laws governing the digging up of radioactive elements on their soil and decided spilling gamma waves into igloos for cash was a deal they could live with. This has attracted the usual swarm of sleazy corporations looking for mining rights. Fun thing is, these corps represent US, Russian and Chinese mining interests with a host of smaller countries like Canada, Australia, Norway and Finland looking for a piece of the action too. Everyone wants access to the last  non-raped piece of real estate on the planet. Sure, the polar bears won’t like it but let’s face it; polar bears are assholes. They'll just have to make do with shitty zoo swimming pools and dancing for fat fucks on cellphone vids.

   Will there be shooting over these resources anytime soon?


   Climate change still has some work to do to melt away those last bits of polar habitat that'll make the region viable for free-for-all energy and commodity extraction. But if we fast-forward to say 2020, shit starts to get interesting. By then, it'll have fully sunken in to us dumb upright apes that economic growth on a planet is finite and tied to energy supply. Nobody's going to be particularly happy about this. Especially in rich countries where we will get to learn the hard way that the plastic bottle that contains the Coca Cola is actually worth more in real terms than the shitty sugar water inside. When that truth comes down the pipe, along with $200 barrel oil, food price increases and shittier lives, it's going to be somebody's fault. In Western countries, that'll probably mean the Chinese and Russians.

   That's where the seeds of future resource wars will get sown.

   Wars always start with angry people. People who get angry blowing their paychecks on fuel and food and not having enough left over for a new plasma screen. This has been going on ever since some hunter-gatherer tribe killed the last mammoth in the valley and pissed off all the other tribes who also needed new fur coats too. Truth is, despite the dystopian sci fi consumertopia we're all living in today, not too much has changed. We've got satellites and i-phones but we're still dumb upright apes when it comes to killing people who try to take our shit. Killing each other for resources is a proven strategy and civilization is just a thin veneer pasted on top of four million years of naked raw survival. When lower living standards peel that veneer away, shit will get interesting fast. And by interesting I mean war. Thing is, future resource wars are going to go global fast because every tribe is going to want a piece of the last mammoth left in the valley.

   Will the Arctic be worth fighting over?


   The Russians have already started beefing up their Northern Fleet and, I shit you not, have begun building a prototype floating nuclear power station to power undersea drilling. That’s sure to make environmentalists shit bricks. The Norwegians just inked a deal with the US for 52 new F-35 multi role stealth fighters which is a $10.5 billion order and gigantic when you consider Norway’s tiny population. It reeks of a ballsy ambition to stake a claim for some Polar resources but then that’s typical of the Nordics. If the shooting ever starts they’ll be looking at a Finn style rerun of the Winter War in 1939 when the tiny Finns bloodied the Red Army’s nose.

   The Canadians too are gearing up for some possible pew-pew.

   In October, the Canadian Navy announced a $25 billion order for 23 new combat vessels of various types aimed at patrolling the Northwest passage, shipping lanes in the Canadian Arctic that are opening up to maritime trade again due to melting ice. Canada has been running Arctic military exercises every year since 2006 (Operation Nanook) designed to warn the Russkis to keep their filthy titanium flags off Canada’s sea floor.

   The US of course is well positioned to defend any Arctic claim. In addition to a defense budget larger than the next ten countries combined, the US has 50 nuclear attack subs that have been lurking under the Arctic ice for decades and it’s hard to see them being over whelmed in any future resource war.

   But here’s where we come to the fun part.

   In an increasingly nuclear-armed world, are limited resource wars even possible without escalating to full on WWIII take-us-back-to-the-Stone Age action? That sure is an interesting question for the 21st century and the fun thing about nukes themselves. They're really only useful when they never get used. In fact, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented.

   Global power since WWII has been primarily economic and “soft”. Having aircraft carriers and stealth bombers is useful but not game winning when you consider that once a nuclear armed power starts losing a conventional war it’s time to press the big red button of win and sort out WWIV with sticks and stones. Nukes were the mutually assured destruction glue that kept the Cold War from ever turning into a shooting contest. The US and Russia fought through proxies and kept warfare on the down low. But will this paradigm endure once oil production peaks and prices increase to the point where the era of cheap energy ends?

   Right now nukes mean there can be no winner and that has made leaders realize that it is better to trade than conquer. Global communication means there are no ideological divisions right now; every nation is money grabbing capitalist pig and that works pretty well for everything but the planet. As planet conditions change and make human populations more costly to sustain, it sure raises some interesting questions.

  Do we get to stage where desperation creeps in?

  Sometime later this century, a major power may have to make a move on some energy, water, or sea lane because failing to do so would result in a collapse of the state anyway; so war and nuke escalation events further down the road are not impossible the way they are now. Resource shortages later this century are the type of things that result in paradigm shifts. Sure, China right now is happy exporting plastic shit, Russia is having a lulz fest squeezing European natural gas supply and the Americans are having a field day running around ME deserts securing future oil supply. But this kind of status quo has a sell by date and that's coming pretty damn soon.

   It's a scary recipe for the future. In fact, it’s so scary I think I’ll go sign some useless petitions and take a bong hit.