Thursday, December 6, 2012

Syria: Will Assad go full chemical?

   The Syrian Civil War just made headlines.


   Because, according to Western media, Bashar al-Assad's regime is so desperate that it's threatening to bust out the chemical weaponry and watch the world burn. Death by chemicals is the kind of warfare that makes comfy consumer populations in the US, Europe and even in Russia and China squirm. Chemicals are destabilizing due to the simple horror aspect of their use. Nobody anywhere wants to die WWI trench style. Sure, the trenches of the Great War are far away in the popular imagination but mustard gas, that persistent, skin lesioning horror chemical remains in the collective memory of anybody who ever picked up a history book. Chemical weapon usage is a sure sign that the Assad regime in Syria  is about to die without an exit strategy.  When you load the bombers with chemical weapons you know you've gone full Tony Montana on the whole situation.

   "Say hello to my little Sarin gas!"

   Suddenly, the world is watching the war in Syria and every major power has a stake in the game.

  Up to now, Russia and China have been blocking UN Security Council votes on intervention because all the major powers see Syria as a valuable pawn in the global energy chess game. The Middle East is ground zero and Damascus is the historic and spiritual gateway to the soul of Arabia.

   Chemical Warfare is the kind of warfare that makes general populations shudder.

   Sure, you could argue the case that it makes no difference how you die in a war. Death via explosives or via bullets or via sarin or mustard gas is all the same, right? You still end up dead so what's all the fuss about?

   Actually, no.

   Death by gas is cheating in the popular imagination. And there is wisdom in this.

   War can be fair. It is possible to kill people opposed to you via exploded metal projectiles aimed down a tight cylinder. You can also kill people via a 2000lb GBU laser guided bomb that turns your target's whole body into red meat spray. But killing by chemical is the worst kind of war by every human calculation. It's deadly and most of all, it's indiscriminate.

   There's the rub.


   At least an artillery strike is aimed at something, right?

   Chemical weapons seep across the land. They infect the body. Even if you survive, the cancer may appear later in your kid. Chemical warfare is deemed terrible by our thinking because, while we can all agree that we hate the enemy and want to kill him, chemicals in our bloodstream shouldn't destroy our children. Just because I want to kill that opposing guy with the AK doesn't mean I want to gun down his kid too. Nearly every human who ever lived loved their kid. Even though it sounds crazy, even war can have rules. 

   And chemical weapons break those rules. Chemical weapons break the rules by wiping out everyone everywhere. They're like messy nukes. At least nukes have the courtesy of vaporizing those at ground zero and are so lethal they cancel out their own use on the mutually assured destruction (MAD) paradigm. Chemical weapons are different. You can sneak them in there and maybe get away with using them. Not of course against the US or her allies. Current US policy on chem usage by foreign entities runs like this:

  "The current US retaliation policy, known as calculated ambiguity, warns potential adversaries that they can expect an “overwhelming and devastating” response if they use chemical or biological weapons (CBW) against the United States or its allies".

  In other words, you get Nagasakied if you try any "funny stuff".

   If Bashar al Assad is loading his fighter bombers with chems than you know he knows he's already dead.

   There is no exit strategy for him and his family.He's trapped, beaten and probably delusional.

   If chemical weapons are used then it's basically an invitation to NATO to walk into Syria and grab some amazing free Middle East real estate. Russia and China will wilt and withdraw support for Assad at the UN Security Council because once you go chemical on your population you've gone full Saddam and nobody anywhere will feel any sympathy for you.

   Assad has a selection of gases at his disposal but they mainly come down to just two. Mustard gas sure  is one ugly compound. First deployed in WWI, it likes to pool and remain skin melting in small depressions in terrain for days. The other choice, Sarin gas, makes your muscles fail on contact and you usually die of suffocation because you can't draw air into your lungs a few minutes after exposure.


   While Syria doesn't have much oil, for Western war planners, it has another quality that's hard to sell on the world market.


   Arabian prestige.

   Damascus is the spiritual heart of the Arab world. Mecca and Medina might be nice but Damascus is the home of the real philosophers of Arabia. Damascus had street lighting while the cities of Europe were black in the Dark Ages. The neighboring Egyptians see themselves as the home of Arabian Sunni identity and their revolution is significant. But the fall of Damascus to new powers will be the most significant war in the Middle East since T.E. Lawrence captured Aqaba.

   If Assad uses chemical weapons against his own population he will instantly lose Russian and Chinese support. It'd be a suicide move. That's why I think this whole chemical story in Western media is overblown. One of those fed to the media via "unnamed government officials" that stinks of CIA subterfuge. Still,  I've always marveled at the existence of Assad. He's the son of a famed father, Hafez al Assad who would've known how to deal with Arab Spring rebellions early. His dad would have killed every protester in the street and called them communists or whatever word was necessary to gain support from a major power. Arab dictators who don't play ball in the energy chess game get designated as the enemy. Arab dictators who play ball in the game get called friends.

   That's why king Abdullah in Saudi Arabia is seen as a philantropist and major US ally and Colonel Gaddafi went down fighting with pistols like a badass from the back of a pick up truck. Life and death in the desert is a precarious occupation. It's always been that way. The difference these days is that the world economy depends on the stuff that's buried under Arabian feet. 

    Either Assad is totally desperate and ready to press the red button that will extinguish his whole dynasty Gaddafi style, or, he's already been told by the Russians that he's gone too far and there is no retirement option in a villa on the Black Sea in his future.

   Anyone who's ever played a hand of poker knows that you double down on the bluff when your credit line just got cut off. Maybe someone will believe that crazy look in your eye. So you push all your chips into the middle of the table. That's Assad right now. Chemical weaponry is a way of breaking the bank.

   Personally, I can't believe Assad is serious here.

   Using chemical weapons would be like Hitler biting into a cyanide pill.

   It's certain death multiplied by the destruction of your country.

   But you know what?

   Wounded animals are more dangerous. Dictators are prone to shitty decision making when confined to a bunker. When you know you're about to die and you've got nothing else to lose, sometimes it's fun to just sit back and set the ignition fuse on the firework.





Thursday, November 8, 2012

China v Japan. Are the Senkaku Islands worth a war?

  China versus Japan sure would be a fun war.

  Fun, of course, being a relative term.

   For those who like watching the world burn, sure, it'd be an interesting fireworks display. At least until cheap Asian labor dried up, killing the world economy and suddenly Walmart has no cheap shit left to sell to subsistence consumers in the US. The world economy right now is married to the idea of backwater peasants, recently liberated from subsistence rice growing, getting subsumed into the brave new world of working for peanuts in concrete warehouses that fill western economies with cheap plastic shit and flashy tech goods. China, the ultimate population behemoth in history, has been rising fast ever since they ditched Maoism and embraced the idea that Marxism, while a nice idea in theory, doesn't work because of a fundamental law in evolutionary science:

   We're all greedy self serving assholes and nature seems to like it that way.

   China v Japan isn't going to happen anytime soon. There are many reasons why and all of them involve history. Even a quick scan of Chinese history tells you that the burgeoning new middle class in China (they bought more new cars in 2011 than the US) are casting a harsh eye on their own history and noticing how they've been screwed over by outside forces (white men) since at least the 19th century. Worse still, for western war planners, the Chinese people are angry and they've got money. It's a critical difference from colonial times. Poor natives complaining about life is par for the course when the Euros ran their empires. But when consumers complain these days, and that's what 300 million Chinese are today, consumers; then the whole equation is radically changed.

   Chinese history makes Chinese people very angry.

   And who would blame them? I mean, the 19th century British won a series of Opium Wars against the Chinese where they basically turned a huge segment of the Chinese fighting age population into junkies just so they could pay for sought after Asian goods in smack instead of silver. The demand for Chinese goods in Europe was so high that Euro treasuries were being depleted of precious metals so the colonials instigated the polar reverse of today's drug war. Heroin tastes nice. It makes life better... for a while. It alters human behavior. Seeing this, the British devised a "new plan". Let's let empire commerce dump tonnes of Opium into China, the country we seek to control. It'll render their population useless. Sometimes history gets surreal. Other times, it's hard to think of a modern equivalent outside of an alien invasion. Either way, try finding the awkward truth of a reverse drug war in your average high school history curriculum.

   The Japanese, on the other hand, are experiencing a 21st century existential crisis.

   Their economy is stagnant, electronics can be made cheaply elsewhere (unlike when they were kings of the business in the 70s and 80s), and they've got 1.4 billion people just across the water who hate their guts for the shit they pulled in Nanking in 1937. The aging Japanese population cannot process this. In truth, the Japanese have never come to terms with their actions in WWII, at least not to the satisfaction of the Chinese. The mayor of Tokyo, a neocon Dick Cheney on crack, worships at a tomb where at least twelve Jap generals buried there have been convicted of "war crimes". The Japanese sure have a sketchy record when it comes to their memory of WWII. Whereas the Germans have been dealing with guilt for the past 70 years and attempting to make recompense for it, the Japanese are classic Basil Fawlty about the whole thing and "don't mention the war".

   The Chinese want an apology for Nanking.

   Unfortunately, the Japanese do apologies the same way they do unconditional surrender. 

   That is, you have to detonate more than one nuclear weapon over a major population center before they'll consider the merits of your argument.

   For the rest of us, if the China v Japan conflict ever entered the shooting phase (ostensibly over these shitty Senkaku islands but really because both sides hate each other's guts), so many escalation events present that it'd be hard to see an end that doesn't involve a nuclear exchange. It'd be like India v Pakistan on bath salts. It'd screw the world economy so hard it'd make Israel's bunker busting dream strike on Iran's nuke sites about as interesting to the global public as Bono talking about Africa at a U2 concert.

   That's why China v Japan isn't going to happen anytime soon.

   Because nukes.

   Yeah, I'm one of these crazy fucks who is a big fan of nuclear warheads. Let's face it, the cost benefit analysis since 1945's "Little Boy" airburst over Hiroshima has been positive once you take into account the conventional war alternatives. Nukes are probably the best thing to happen to humanity since penicillin although it's not really a fair comparison because nukes have probably saved more lives. Without nukes, the Red Army would have stormed through the Fulda Gap and turned Western Europe into a mega death zone. Without nukes, there would've been no Cold War and instead a constantly warm endless Orwellian nightmare Eurasia v Americana conflict where war is continuous but never winnable. Nuclear weapons have this habit of cutting through the bullshit by defining the limits of human madness. The idea that "we all get to die" makes nukes the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented. Sure, penicillin saved a lot of 19th century top hatted sport fuckers from syphilis but Western Europe under Stalin's policies would have wiped out the global economy.

   And that's a lot of dead people. Everywhere.

   Advantage nukes.

   Nukes rule out any immediate China v Japan war because Japan falls under the Pacific hegemony of the US nuclear umbrella. We're still a decade away from the time when the real noose tightens on the world economy (unsustainably high oil prices) and both China and Japan are majorly dependent on seaborne delivery of spice for right now. This makes them nervous. Without an Iraq in your back yard, you tend to seek out every oil deposit you can. Supposedly, the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have offshore oil and gas deposits and that's when you know things are approaching a crisis point.

   Countries start fighting for the leftover scraps in the barrel.

   Even deep sea short term possible oil deposits are worth disputing. But not worth setting the world on fire for.


   How would this war play out if it did happen?

  Apparently, the US was concerned enough about the saber rattling that they dispatched the USS George Washington carrier group to the South China Sea two weeks ago just to remind all parties to keep their shit on the down low. Even though the Japanese navy could handle itself versus China's medium tech surface fleet and its as yet not ready for primetime second hand Russian carrier, that doesn't mean we can laugh at the Chinese Navy.

   We're talking, at least at the outset, a very interesting naval war not seen in the Pacific since Midway.

   Right now I see a rerun of the 1982 Falklands War with one side landing a token troop contingent on an island and declaring an exclusion zone (200km) around it while the UN shits major bricks and scrambles emergency sessions to prevent WWIII. Meanwhile, the naval blockade could be challenged because forum warriors are screaming for blood in both countries. It's funny how civilians ramp up fast to high level assholes once the shooting starts and then ramp down to cowering failures once the local 7-11 runs out of Tootsie Rolls. War works that way throughout time. It's a combination of trading self worth versus self preservation and sometimes it;s hard to predict a winner because people are prepared to die for stupid shit. Either way, the US dispatches three more carrier groups to the South China Sea to try to contain the new internet sensation: Cuban Missile Crisis Part II: Revenge of the Radiation.

   Sure, this is all hypothetical as hell but nobody can deny this war is "fun" to think about.

   Even though Japan might be superior in surface vessel tech the Chinese wouldn't be out of the battle by any account. Their sub surface fleet of diesel submarines is large. Sure, you might giggle at the mention of 'diesel' subs (conjuring up images of sweaty WWII Germans running around claustrophobic pipe laden interiors) but don't be so quick to discount the effectiveness of old 20th century piston and battery designs just because advanced nations have gone nuclear on sub fleets. The Soviet K-19 story is an object lesson in how these designs are dodgy even if everybody these days says technicians sleeping in close proximity to a nuclear reactor is about as harmful as licking the door of your microwave oven. Diesel subs still have a hand in the game especially when you consider the continuing stealthiness of modern diesel designs. Just ask the Germans (master sub engineers), Israelis, Australians, or, in this case, the Chinese. The Chinese managed to surface one diesel submarine undetected in the middle of a USN carrier group in exercises off Taiwan in 2006. The Chinese have a lot of these babies ranging from the useless to the effective but modern sonar technology has shown that even the AEGIS system is vulnerable.

   My favorite thing about this whole hypothetical war that won't be happening for at least 20 years is the cold eye it casts on naval power itself. Modern technology means 19th/20th century naval projection is losing its luster in the 21st century. Every admiral worth his salt these days knows naval warfare is a quaint idea left over from hardier times before today's missile technology. Naval warfare is great for force projection versus lower tech nations but for industrialized nation v industrialized nation, missile tech is so sophisticated these days that surface ships are really just large, floating, meat filled shipping containers, easy to hit hold overs from a different century when having a Dreadnought added inches to your nation's penis.

   The Russians and Chinese have expended years of R&D on satellite guided ways to sink USN carriers but that doesn't mean a carrier group off your shore is not force projection. A US carrier group offshore still means you're probably fucked. But force application these days is not just military. Global 'soft' pressure is economic in the post WWII era of nukes.

   These days it's economic war with a smiley face where the plebs glued to the TV watch where the multi national cola company that owns the politicians mixes feel good moments on TV and some irrigation project in Africa into their advertising campaign and suddenly the thirsty people safely far away benefit from you buying the correct sugar water. It's a different kind of warfare these days. It's you versus humanity. You versus everything you're supposed to want. The dream consumertopia amounts to the same thing. Either way, it's a lot of people working their asses off while the elite host parties in Monte Carlo and you're not invited.

   It's like the Roman Empire but with i-Phones.

   But that doesn't make this hypothetical war any less interesting.

   For one thing, Japans's version of the AEGIS cruiser/destroyer system, the Kongo series based on the US Arleigh Burke class, would go up against China's lower tech vessels spamming anti ship missiles and, if their subs can get close enough, torpedoes. Sure, the Chinese Navy is kinda funny with all their reverse engineered stuff, their dodgy stealth fighter but the newer generation Chinese destroyers do have modern radar and missiles from France and Russia. The fun part is how all these missile trading systems would hold up under the classic "fog of war" environment. Sure, in multi country war-games these designs have been billed as effective, intercepting at best X% [classified] of the incoming but all it takes is 1% of the incoming to get through and what happens if it lands in the nuke belly of a carrier?

   For fun, let's say two Japanese cruisers go down to Chinese torps because they strayed into the hypothetical "exclusion zone". It'd be like the General Belgrano incident on steroids. Instantly, the Japanese would be seeking to enact that clause of their mutual defense treaty with the US where the US comes to their aid in return for them not having a nuke arsenal and maintaining a "defensive" army. God, you gotta love us humans and our bullshit. No country on earth has so far gathered their forces under an "Offense Department"which sure must be some kind of divine comedy for the aliens... if they're watching as we squirm around the petri dish.

   There is no such thing as a defensive sub. They are primary attack weapons and the Chinese have a lot of them so yeah, the naval war will be fun. This is the point where the war must die because the next stage is trading missiles at 'military installations'. At this point world trade has shut down, the world is in emergency session and everybody with half a brain is stocking up on canned goods.

   It's a crazy world.

   Full of deceit, stupidity, genius, luck, madness and sometimes a little common sense. For right now, the Senkaku Island dispute stays irrelevant. Because we're not that desperate.