Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Why Syria Matters: Sunni oil versus Shia oil and the battle for regional hegemony in the Middle East.

   The Syrian Regional War rages on and nobody knows how to put out the fire.

   Up to now, the Obama administration tech nerds have proved pretty savvy when it comes to dealing with foreign war-fighting policy. After all, they got Bin Laden. They buried Gaddafi via tech support so the French and British could get the job done. And every guy sporting an AK in a strategic desert these days knows he's just a drone strike away from oblivion. Even the plebs back home immersed in media driven bread and circuses know they're under 24 hour NSA surveillance every time they hit up Porn Hub. Few care. US defense policy these days is war via computer geek and it's working in this interim decade before the real resource wars get green lit.

   Meanwhile, we've got Syria like a festering splinter in the geopolitical game.

   Syria is proving to be a real head scratcher for Obama's nerds. On the one hand, you've got the "Free Syrian Army", the designated 'good guy freedom fighters', an idea the world media bandied about to describe the farmers in Dera'a that got the whole ball rolling in this 'civil war' when they tagged some graffiti on the wall of the wrong mud hut. Assad's heavy handed response meant Syria got lumped in to the whole Arab Spring narrative and there was all that talking head talk on US airwaves about democracy and freedom and ME dictators being assholes. But as with most stuff on US news networks, it's all a stinking pile of bullshit. All Arab countries are run by assholes because if they weren't they'd  be run my warring tribal militias and that's really bad for the oil business. The Arabs just don't do democracy. Voting booths are for pussies, infidels and ancient Greeks. Arabs respect strongmen going all the way back to Saladin. That's why the Syrian Civil War has got nothing to do with freedom fighting and democracy and everything to do with regional and global geopolitics at the heart of the desert energy chess game. Which is kind of funny when you consider Syria doesn't even have that much oil. But we're not talking geography here, we're talking regional hegemony and control of the human capital living inconveniently in the vicinity of major energy reserves.

   The Syrian Civil War is now a Middle Eastern regional proxy war.

  This war really has two aspects. First and foremost, it's a regional Middle East conflict between the Shia and Sunni. Yep, a good old religious war but religion really isn't a useful term here. Sure, they hate each other's guts but regional energy hegemony is the fuel that makes this war burn. On the one hand, you've got the Shia, that is, Iran, Hezbollah (firmly entrenched in next-door Lebanon) and the newly conquered Shia controlled region of southern Iraq (thanks Dick Cheney), aligned against Saudi Arabia, Qatar and everywhere else in the Middle East Saudi oil money stretches to Sunni client states.

    Basically, we're talking Saudi Arabia's oil versus Iran's oil.

   The Saudis took it really personally when Hezbollah retook the Syrian town of Qusair in pretty impressive fashion last week, fighting that ugly street by street Stalingrad type warfare Hezbollah have been proving adept at lately. This has kicked the Saudi royals back in Riyadh into raging camel mode. Although a long time coming, the Shia v Sunni grand regional war is beginning to take shape. The grand alignment of Riyadh and Cairo (who broke diplomatic relations with Damascus last week and called for a no fly zone over Syria) is kickstarting. Next up to the party, King Abdullah of Jordan (fearful of conflict creep and more refugee spillage across his border), mentioned recently at a cadet graduation ceremony  "Hezbollah must leave Syria... there is no place for Hezbollah in Syria". These are fighting words especially for the Jordanians who've kept their head down during this whole Arab Spring so as to maintain their benevolent dictatorship in the desert.

   What's all this saber rattling about?

   Basically, the Sunni oil Sheikhs fear the Iranian Oil Ministry will dust off the old maps from Ottoman times and build an oil pipeline from Abadan across Shia controlled Southern Iraq to Tartus in Syria and begin making billions exporting oil to Europe via the Mediterranean. Next up, why not build a nice railway line from Tehran to Damascus and on maybe to Beirut. That right there would be the type of Shia strategic encircling axis that makes every oil rich prince in Saudi Arabia want to rage drive his Ferrari Enzo off a cliff with his whole family in the passenger seat.

   Even more so, let's talk methane. The above mentioned pipeline could theoretically supply the Euros with natural gas, the "cleaner" energy the planet loving Euros crave. With the EU mandated carbon reductions set to go into effect by 2020 and Germany axing its nuke plants, suddenly, Shia Iran's South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf becomes a goldmine beyond the dreams of Xerxes. Guess who lays claim to the northern part of that gas field? Sunni Qatar. Yes my friends, dig deep enough into any war and you can ditch religion and always find money and taking other people's shit as primary motivations for any shooting war.

   All this makes Syria ground zero for proxy war central.

   Right now the Saudis have been pumping some serious weaponry into the FSA. MANPADS (quite apart from being the worst acronym for a weapons system ever) are shoulder mounted AA useful for taking down choppers and low flying jets and also supplied, somewhat ironically, are at least 50 Russian made 9M113 "konkors"; wire guided anti tank missiles that can waste Syrian T-72s. The CIA have been supplying weaponry too but through the usual plethora of back channels; shady deals via Euro allies via dodgy corporate warehouses that make the stuff impossible to trace and every government ends up with plausible deniability while the Syrian rebel at the end of the supply chain literally jizzes his pants while unboxing his new laser guided death ray; and then begins crying as he can't read the instruction booklet because it's printed in a language.

The 9M113 Konkurs AT missile. FSA instruction booklet included?

     This war is so interesting it has me glued to Live Leak and I'm getting fat on popcorn.

   One thing that makes me splurge is the second aspect of the Syrian war, namely the geopolitical aspect, and how that's leading to all kinds of complications that drag in Russia, China, the US and Japan, and surely has the policy nerds at the Pentagon tearing their hair out wondering what the best play is in this increasingly complex and risky game.

   If the US goal is to prevent the FSA from losing this war then that's going to require more than covert arms sales via shady transactions through the usual back channels. Let's face it, it's going to require a Gaddafi style no fly zone. As of this writing, Assad's forces are attempting to retake Aleppo, the home of the Sunni business elites, largely abandoned by them now as the squatting, multi denominational FSA fighters holed up there have helped, along with Syrian Army artillery and airstrikes, to turn that once thriving city into Beirut circa 1978. If Syrian forces manage to retake it, like they did Qusair a few weeks back, it'll be a major coup and decision time for NATO and the Sunni alliance of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and even Turkey to make a move. If Aleppo falls to Assad's forces and the Iranian sponsored militias then the FSA initiative will have been lost. And as any general knows, losing the initiative means everything in war.

   That's when it will be decision time for the major powers.

   If NATO decide on a no fly zone, the first thing they are going to have to contend with is Russia's newly delivered S-300 SAM system (if deliveries have been timely and made as Putin promised). These will have to be manned by Russian personnel because of the steep learning curve on operating this complex anti aircraft system. Assad's troops just won't be up to speed if NATO decides on a Gaddafi maneuver. The S-300 is potent but as yet untested in combat but there's no doubt it's a serious contender and at least equal to anything NATO has counter measure wise. The Russians claim it is even effective against stealth aircraft but they would say that wouldn't they? Maybe time will tell. The best bet for any initial strike will be X band radar cruise missile attacks on the launchers and radar installations all of which will be manned, at least for now, by Russian technicians. That will mean the US will have to go all in and I don't think the Obama tech geeks have the stomach for it. If they do, does that mean we get to sit back and jump straight to a fun game of global thermonuclear war when Putin's personnel get vaporized? Nah. Just another shit storm at the UN and more head scratching at the Pentagon.

   From a purely realpolitik view, if the US does nothing, and Assad wins, that's a tremendous victory for Iran and Russia. On the other hand, if the US tackles this via half measures, floods the FSA with the latest shoulder mounted anti air and anti tank weaponry, you might hand the FSA a victory that will leave them hating the US anyway (even if they provide them with all those new fancy toys). The FSA itself is so fractious and made up of so many conflicting groups of martyr worshipping 72 virgin afterlife fucking crazies, including radical Al-Qaeda franchise elements, Sharia law nuts and radicals that, even an FSA win will mean the US will have basically armed another extremist state in the Middle East and created a hotbed for anti Western terrorist training camps that'll make the Taliban goat herders in Afghanistan about as threatening to world peace as Mahatma Gandhi on Xanax.

   Obviously, Obama's computer geeks are stumped.

   Another fun thing about this whole Middle East energy chess game is the stake Russia has in all this. If Assad manages to hold on, then Assad owes Putin big time. Russia loves that warm water but somewhat obsolete Mediterranean military base at Tartus on the Syrian coast. Arms sales to Assad have been booming and the whole Arab Spring thing has left Russia with a serious lack of allies and weapon clients in the Middle East. After the US appropriated Iraq's oil reserves and has that symbiotic relationship with Saudi Arabia's crazy Wahhabi sheiks who exchange petrodollar monopoly funny money for F-16s and Floridian beachfront property, the Russians are loathe to lose that last foothold in the Middle East that still buys their Migs and heavy weaponry. Also, the Russians would like to hold on to the regional influence Damascus provides as the historical and metaphorical heart of the Arab world. Holding on to Syria against NATO encroachment would be a major victory for the Russians who are feeling decidedly small since the heady days of the Soviet Union.

   Also, for the Iranians, Syria is the main supply route for weaponry to Hezbollah, their proxy army on Israel's northern border. Hezbollah proved themselves a serious contender for world's best irregular army when they bloodied the IDF's nose back in 2006 when the Israeli's tried an incursion into Southern Lebanon. For Iran, holding Syria will achieve multiple aims; piss off the Saudis, assert Shia aspirations for hegemony in the region and remind Israel that they've got some allies on speed dial if Netanyahu goes ahead with his dream strike on the Natanz centrifuge facility. A possible pipeline to Europe for oil and gas across friendly territory would be icing on the global energy cake. Hezbollah also proved themselves useful allies for Assad when they went into Qusair and kicked ass and showed the FSA what real idealogical fighters can do when you threaten to fuck with their shit. This furthers my pet theory that heavy infantry armed with state of the art shoulder mounted AA and AT weaponry is the most significant development in warfare since Guderian's tanks and Stukas Blitzkrieged around the Maginot Line.

    That's why the Pentagon are shitting themselves with the trillions they just blew on the F-22 Raptor... it's a pricey ~$140 million per plane option when your enemy fights from second hand Toyota Hilux trucks that cost about as much as a beer and pizza at Yankee Stadium. We're decades away from major power v major power conflict and this makes 5th generation fighter aircraft so 20th century. The future of warfare for the foreseeable future is in the hands of the tech nerds, total information monitoring, computer espionage and satellite controlled drones versus desert guys in sandals with AKs and used Toyota trucks.

   One final fun aspect of the Syrian War is the whole chemical weapons debate.

   Obama called their use a 'redline' moment for US involvement. Trouble is, the FSA are using them too. Also, if you're a fan of YouTube or Live Leak (and who isn't these days),  then you can go ahead and watch an FSA guy eat a Syrian Army soldier's raw heart. That right there is Liberia level warfare and makes death by Sarin gas about as troublesome as a skiing holiday in the Netherlands. Still, for some reason, the general population abhors death by chemical. Sure it's ugly, sometimes prolonged, but death in war is never pretty is it? The average web surfer sipping lattes in Starbucks hates death by gas but somehow maiming and vaporizing via kinetic blast energy is seen as fair game. Chemical weapons are the least of the problems the Syrian War presents except of course if some dissident FSA or angry Syrian Army dissident manages to export some Sarin gas to Times Square. And that's not even a crazy idea anymore.

   The Syrian Regional War can have many outcomes. None of them predictable.

   Only one thing is for sure for whoever "wins" this thing, and I can't resist a little history here courtesy of my old friend Tacitus, the Roman historian who quoted the Scottish chieftain Calgacus after his loss  in 83AD at the Battle of Mons Graupius and said of the Roman legions who defeated him...

   "They created a desert and called it victory".

Thursday, April 11, 2013

North Korea v The World

   The real question Western war planners have been asking since the Korean Armistice in 1953 and especially in the years since the demise of the Cold War and rise of China has been:

   How much incoming artillery can Seoul take?

   Because that's the cost of any war on the Korean Peninsula today.

   For all of the North's bluster the real calculation comes down to a very simple equation. At what point in the cost benefit analysis does the price of appeasement (food, fuel, tech and free HBO for Kim Jong Un) become more expensive than patching up Seoul after a NK artillery and rocket bombardment? To use a crude metaphor, war on the Korean peninsula is a lot like you stepping in dog shit on your way to a party. You've got two choices, wipe it off in public or let everyone deal with the smell. The question here, and bear with me here for a sec, is, who wins this clash of opposing realities; the dog shit or your shoe?

   In many ways, the answer is no one.

   For war planners right now, North Korea is the dog shit. It's just far easier and cheaper to avoid war on the Korean peninsula than win. At least, that's the conventional paradigm that held true during Kim Jong Il's 17 year reign. Western media portrayed Kim Jong Il as a crazy, lonely leader with a penchant for Hennessey, Bogart movies and nukes but omitted the fact that being crazy was the only card he had to play; dealt to him in a pretty shitty poker hand after the Cold War ended and NK lost the Soviet Union as a benefactor. Bluffing his way through the game on two pair got him oil and grain and street cred and there was always the chance he'd go full retard anyway and do something really crazy and launch something significant. Sure, that'd mean his regime's instant demise but the idea behind cultivated crazy is that you just might do it... because you're crazy.

   Crazy buys you leeway and means you don't have to operate under normal "rules".

   His son is trying to play the same hand but doesn't seem to understand that the house rules have changed. For one thing, China is sick of North Korea's shit. They just want to keep exporting Wal Mart inventory and soaking up bank and any war on the Korean peninsula will dent cash flow. Also, it'll mean an influx of destabilizing starving NK peasants flooding across the Yalu river into Dan dong which will be very bad for business.

   China no longer knows how to deal with this war.

   So, like everything war wise at the moment, it's left up to the Americans to figure it out.

  Meanwhile, the South Koreans have done their own cost benefit analysis and are approaching a tipping point. The tipping point where putting up with North Korea's bullshit might not be worth it anymore. With a functional nuke in the mix, it's only a matter of time before real and permanent damage could be done to Seoul and the South Koreans are beginning to total up the possible losses today versus say, three years from now, and suddenly they're realizing that it might be cheaper to take the horrible tasting medicine today and let the air strikes begin. The alternative is North Korean nuke hegemony not only in the Pacific Theatre but 40 miles north of their fabulous and gleaming gangnam capital. That's so destabilizing it makes international capitalism shit a gold brick. Of course, the theory that South Korea can retalitate to provocation only works if the Chinese and US are onboard and we're probably not at that point. Yet. But one thing is for sure and that's that the South will not sit idly by if the DPRK bombards an island or torpedoes a corvette like the shit they pulled on the Cheonan in 2010.

The North Korean's Pentium II based missile tech. Google blocks them from downloading more RAM.

   The US, for their part, would like this to go away. One thing you've got to say for the Obama administration is that they play a smart game when it comes to conflict. Unlike Bush. They are a bunch of smart nerds who play a mean game of Civ II and they'd like a pragmatic result which would be cheap, non messy and non confrontational. This, ideally, would take the form of North Korea collapsing all by itself (something which can happen but will take time) and is itself a risky gambit because it seems all of this North Korean belligerence is driven by internal pressure among the country's elites sensing the end of the gravy train. The problem with further appeasement and stand off soft pressure is that it is likely to lead to a shooting war anyway.

   This war is starting to enter the realm of possibility and it may be time to grab the popcorn folks.

   Just don't microwave it yet. I'm still not feeling this war. The North Koreans do self preservation pretty well and if the shooting starts it will only be because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation on their part. The failure of their society and the internal pressure release valving among their elites is pushing Kim Jong Un, the young neophyte, into crazy territory and that's the kind of mistake failed states make. The bubble you're in distorts the image of the outside reality to the point where pulling a trigger becomes a viable release. If they fire a missile at the wrong place it'll be up there with Gallipoli or, more pertinently, Mac Arthur's failure to properly assess the DPRK's intentions when they invaded the South in 1950 and the Chinese human wave follow up across the Yalu River that hammered the US 8th Army that November.

   Of course, if the trigger gets pulled, this war will be over very quickly. Nothing I've said before about this war changes. The DPRK, despite the media reports on active troop numbers will crumble faster than Saddam's forces in Gulf War I. All that crappy Warsaw Pact era equipment will evaporate to precision weaponry in days and counter battery fire from the South will pin point and neutralize NK artillery north of Seoul pretty damn fast. The only costly part would be having to occupy and take Pyongyang because who wants it?

   Again, it's all a matter of just how much damage Seoul is willing to take in the initial bombardment.

   The real question I heard somebody raise a while back is the moral issue that North Korea presents.

  Remember that argument, often made, that if the Allies really knew (which they did) about the Nazi concentration camps, why didn't they try to do something about it? There are plenty of examples of prison break missions in WWII, like say Operation Jericho, and the question often gets asked as to why the Allies didn't try something similar when it came to the death camps. Sure, there are truckloads of reasons why that wouldn't have been a sound military operation but military history is a fickle beast prone to hindsight.

   And yet in North Korea right now you have all the conditions present for pre emptive war that were not present when the US air dropped a few trillion into Iraq. If Western democracy and specifically the US and UK want to hold true to the 21st century  "bring democracy to the oppressed peoples" narrative they themselves established, then the fair question is, "where will you find a better candidate?" Of course, being realistic, that just means that TV talk and total media saturation is just high penetration bullshit. We already know why not. Still, if the world had principles (if it ever had), 'pre emptive war' would make sense outside of Middle East deserts.

   1) Remove an aggressive, unstable, proven nuclear armed state from a strategic region.

    North Korea sure checks the box on this. Right now, Iran is being sanctioned to hell by everybody and they don't even have a capable warhead. Meanwhile in North Korea everyone is handling those assholes with kid gloves. Sure, China needs to give the go ahead but they weren't too excited about Iraq either. The reason this is not happening is because they've got nothing anybody wants and the cold hard facts of conflict are that nobody goes to war for free; they go to war for resources.

   2) Get rid of an evil regime and bring "democracy" to the oppressed people. (The moral imperative).

    North Korea has death camps. North Korea has slave labor. North Korea is like Saddam Hussein's Iraq on bath salts. And yet nobody gives a shit all of a sudden. Why? Probably it's down to strategic resources, China's proximity and Pacific Theater strategic concerns but let's face, when you cut through the bullshit of war and war's alarms, intervention on the Korean peninsula still fails the cost benefit analysis.

  3) The aftermath of North Korea's 'liberation' would not be pretty. Especially if delivered via foreign weaponry. That's 25 million people switching hard and fast to the 21st century. It'd be on par with teleporting a bunch of  Mayflower Pilgrims to Times Square in 2013. It's going to look like hell multiplied by Jesus divided by where the fuck am I?

   It's not gangnam style.

   It's chaos.

   And nobody wants to pay that price.