Sunday, 20 August 2017

2017: Notes on the Coming US War with Iran.

On July 29 2017, Iran's Revolutionary Guard accused the US Fifth Fleet ship USS Nimitz of firing warning shots at a rocket bearing vessel in the Persian Gulf near the Resalat oil and gas platform. During the US election, Trump had vowed that any Iranian ships that harass the US navy would be 'shot out of the water'.

While a military exchange in the Gulf has not yet broken out, a state of hostilities between the US and Iran has been developing amidst an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and paranoia-'War consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known'.

Hobbes' view of war applies directly to the circumstances of the Greater Middle East in 2017, where there is no US diplomacy with Iran going on to deal with their growing distrust of each other and where there is a zone of instability and war stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean right through to the Persian Gulf region.

A US War with Iran has been on the cards from the start of 2017. From Trump's campaign rhetoric about the nuclear deal 2015 being a bad one to Michael Flynn's statement in January 2017 that 'Iran was being put on notice', the President has taken an increasingly aggressive stance towards Iran using threatening language.

Throughout the summer of 2017 the Trump administration has demonised Iran for playing a 'destabilising' role in the region as a consequence of the expansion of its military role, through proxy forces, in Syria, Iraq, Southern Lebanon and Yemen. This is seen as part of a revolutionary Islamist threat replacing IS.

IS is a Sunni jihadist group, which was formed in 2013 from splinter groups from the Gulf State backed FSA and jihadi groups in northern Iraq-and that required Iranian assistance in defeating-is being downplayed as the Caliphate was destroyed. In its place, Iranian backed militias are gaining ground and seen as 'the new threat'.

The danger is President Trump could use any clash between Iranian and US forces, or proxies, at any time, as a pretext to launch a war. It's an ominous possibility for a leader beleaguered at home by accusations of collaboration between his election campaign team and Russia. His presidency has been a lame duck one.

For a President who came to power promising to 'Make America Great Again', the temptation to start a war to make good on his determination to restore both his own image as strongman and ramp up his executive powers, as well as to force a hostile media to align patriotically behind the nation, is bound to be tempting.

Domestic policy is one area where US politicians can circumvent the President and get on with things without him. On foreign policy, this is not at all possible as the President has imperial powers. Trump is so unpredictable that there is basically no attempt at diplomacy going on with the regional powers in the Middle East

So US influence is not being used to balance power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The end of the Caliphate has depended on Iranian backed militias in Iraq and Syria, but in eastern Syria there are clashes between them and US backed forces. Iranian drones and a Syrian air force fighter were shot down in June 2017.

To the east, in the Persian Gulf, the spat with Qatar has been interpreted by some US leaders as the fault of Iran trying to split the GCC countries, the better to expand its regional power. Trump simply doesn't have the diplomatic skill to keep Saudis under check while engaging with Iran to bring about a regional peace.

That makes clashes leading to a direct confrontation possible, rather like the US and Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War, with the difference that there is no diplomacy in place as there was after Nazi Germany was defeated. With no common enemy to unite the otherwise hostile rivals, a collision is inevitable.

This is making for a hot war, as both sides in the Greater Middle East, the Gulf States and Iran, are polarised into two competing power alliances with Great Power backers beyond the region, though Russia is not formally allied to Iran in the Syria war. Russia's interests in the Middle East overlap with Iran but don't coinicide

Trump is impetuous. While dealing with Russia by diplomacy over Syria as this would be one way to 'escape forwards' from domestic criticism and a way to defeat 'Iranian expansionism' in the region, a threat to the dominance of the Gulf States. This has nothing to do with 'humanitarian intervention' and is about geopolitics.

The Saudi lobby is an important influence in Washington among even Democrat politicians. A war with Iran would win them over and dampen down the focus on Russia and force them to align behind the President 'in the national interest', with dissenters portrayed as traitors and 'anti-American' by White House figures.

Just as the war on Iraq in 2003, the temptation is to fight a war for geopolitical supremacy against Iran, a regional power whose influence extended westwards precisely because the Iraq War overthrew a Sunni minority dictator and created a sectarian war in which the Iraqi Shia became dominant in the new democracy.

However, the problem in a democracy such as the US, is that there has to be an ennobling justification for war with Iran in 'public diplomacy' beyond the obvious one that its about defending the dominance of the Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia, because of lucrative arms deals and the GCC hosting Western military bases.

Iran and 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'.

On June 27, Iran was accused of being responsible for any chemical weapons attack carried out by Assad. It had knowledge of a 'planned attack' that would be responded to by force. The White House provided no evidence Assad 'planned' a chemical weapons attack but its threat was assumed to have deterred their use.

The alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad in April provided a much needed opportunity to be use the image of gassed civilians, especially children, to justify the US repositioning itself on the regional chessboard as a decisive heavyweight player after Russia and Iran had gained the upper hand in the Syria War. 

The missile strikes against an Assad air base had insignificant military value. But it signalled Donald Trump's determination to set his stamp on global politics as a 'tough' President prepared to act against a Russian and Iranian backed dictator and in defence of its interests in the region and credibility as a Great Power.

The humanitarian pretext was invoked as a means to ensure the US remained a credible actor in Syria's endgame as its military to the east in Iraq set about using a combination of air power and native ground troops to crush IS there and in Mosul. This was achieved by July 2017 with around 40,000 civilian believed dead.

Trump 'let the generals of the leash' to get faster results in defeating it in order to rival Putin's use of air power to defeat Sunni jihadists in east Aleppo in December 2016, one that would restore the US image of being a military superpower and to prepare for the next stage of the struggle against Iranian regional domination.

The crushing of the Sunni rebels in east Aleppo was the decisive defeat of the Sunni revolutionary threat to Assad's administration in Damascus. It was a global humiliation for the US and its attempt to preside over an alliance of powers that had been intent since 2012 on the line that 'Assad must go': this needed to be avenged.

In actual fact, there are few differences between the Russian defeat of Sunni jihadist groups in east Aleppo and the US led defeat of IS in Mosul. This is one reason a pliant media in the US and Britain has generally failed to give any media coverage to the fall of Mosul at all with the honourable exception of Patrick Cockburn.

While the UN hand Amnesty International have accused the US and Iraq forces of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, even of war crimes, with the US using banned white phosphorus munitions on IS held Raqqa, the media has screened out these brutal realities whereas Russian brutality was given saturation coverage.

As Russia is a Great Power with nuclear capabilities, the revenge target for US and Sunni rebel defeat in Syria would have to be Iran. The fear in Tehran that the US could target Iran because it did not have nuclear weapons could be a fear worth provoking further by Trump indicating he wanted to end the nuclear deal.

Shredding the 2015 Nuclear Deal with Iran.

The problem with the nuclear deal has lain in the fact Iran is complying with the terms of the deal in which Iran would allow inspectors in to validate that Tehran was not pursuing a nuclear missile programme. This has led Trump to shift to the 'post-truth' claim that Iran is not complying 'in spirit' rather than fact.

Trump issued a veiled threat against Iran on Tuesday, warning Tehran to  stick to the terms of a nuclear deal with world powers or else face "big, big problems." A week after certifying Iran as complying with the 2015 agreement Trump made clear to thousands of frenzied supporters that he did not believe it was complying.

White House officials claimed new economic sanctions against Iran were being prepared over its ballistic missile program. Trump devoted part of his speech in Youngstown, Ohio, to Iran and is whipping up nationalist enmity to it as part of an ongoing political campaign that has not ended since he became President.

"If that deal doesn’t conform to what it’s supposed to conform to, it's going to be big, big problems for them. That I can tell you. Believe me. You would have thought they would have said 'thank you United States. We really love you very much. Instead, they've become emboldened. That won’t take place much longer"

To that end, Trump reacted to the defeat of his reform of healthcare bill in Congress with a round of firings. There is, as yet, flux in Trump's administration and a sense he doesn't know in which way to take his administration. The drive towards war could well provide that sense of 'clarity of purpose' that's otherwise been absent.

The Chief of White House Staff, who has been appointed in his place, is General John F Kelly, formerly of Southcom and a paranoid believer in the cosmic threat of Iran and Hizbollah not only in the Middle East but also even from Latin America and towards the USA's southern borders with in partnership with 'rogue states'.

Trump has also downgraded the role of the State Department and quarrelled with Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, over its validation of Iran's compliance with the nuclear deal. Trump has wanted to open up suspicions that Iran is not being held in compliance in order to deliberately create the impression he wants to ditch it.

Foreign Policy Journal reported on 22 July 2017,

 'The president assigned White House staffers with the task of preparing for the possibility of decertification for the 90-day review period that ends in October — a task he had previously given to Secretary Tillerson and the State Department,” a source close to the White House told Foreign Policy......On Monday morning, work was on track for the administration to again certify that Iran was meeting the necessary conditions, but the president expressed second thoughts around midday. A meeting between Trump and Tillerson that afternoon quickly turned into a meltdown. A third source with intimate knowledge of that meeting said Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist, and Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to the president, were particularly vocal, repeatedly asking Tillerson to explain the U.S. national security benefits of certification. “They repeatedly questioned Rex about why recertifying would be good for U.S. national security, and Rex was unable to answer,” the source said.“The president kept demanding why he should certify, and the answers Tillerson gave him infuriated him,” the source added.'

The sum purpose of Trump's condemnation of the deal could well be to create a self fulfilling prophecy, in which Tehran will be so convinced it's going to be under attack anyway that it would encourage the Iranian hardliners to advocate restarting the nuclear programme. Trump's 'madman act' is partly a means to that end.

Trita Parsi  states 'If this path is continued down, we risk having a scenario where Iran ignites its nuclear weapons program and once again risks putting the U.S. and Iran at war. That's what we're gambling with here. It would be a very different conversation if the Iranians were in violation, if the Iranians were cheating'

Parsi concludes "this only leaves the impression Trump is seeking confrontation regardless of what Iran does or doesn't do." Indeed, Trump told The Wall Street Journal ,as regards whether Iran would be certified compliant in October, "I think they'll be noncompliant. I  think they're taking advantage of this country".

Projecting Iranian Non-Compliance.

Given that most Republicans in Congress opposed Obama's nuclear deal and Trump wants to reassert his authority as a 'real' President, as opposed to a blundering reality television star, the task then would shift towards trying to 'prove' Iran was not complying, despite all the IAEA inspector's factual evidence that it is doing so.

David Sanger reported in The New York Times ,

'..the US has begun raising with inspectors in Vienna the possibility of demanding access to military sites in Iran where there is reasonable suspicion of nuclear research or development. If the Iranians balk, as seems likely, their refusal could enable Washington to declare Tehran in violation of the two-year-old deal'.

Parsi outlines, in more detail, what that would mean,

'Use the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal,to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks—which it will since the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities—Trump can claim that Iran is in violation'

The aim would be to destroy the nuclear deal while projecting responsibility for that and the aggression that followed on to Tehran. Instead of restraining Trump and counselling caution both Tillerson and H R McMasters have tried to advise the President on how to bust the deal while making it appear as though Iran was guilty.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair. Bob Corker, ( Republican ) forthrightly terms this strategic approach as "radical enforcement" of the deal. He claims, gleefully, that "If they don’t let us in "boom." You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the US, because we want our allies with us."

The problem is not 'if' the deal ought to be abandoned and war pursued, but more the way to stage and choreograph the fall out so that the other Western nations that want the nuclear deal are brought onside with the US instead of hoping to pursue diplomacy to keep it. The EU nations could well object-apart from Britain.

Parsi puts it square in continuity with the neoconservative's case for the war against Saddam: 'This is a charade, a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. ..The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts—just as George W. Bush did with Iraq'.

Making the Case for Regime Change.

“I think there is broad view and broad consensus among all in the region, all Arab nations, among Israel, and among others of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region”- Secretary of State Tillerson.

Parsi believes Trump would have far more of a difficulty selling the war on Iran because of the way the American public were 'played' the last time when the Bush administration conflated the global Islamist terrorist threat after September 11 2001 to make the case for war against Saddam on the basis he would use WMD.

This presumes most Americans are 'anti-war' because of the way the Iraq conflict destabilised the entire Middle East and then made possible the growing sectarian enmity between Sunni and Shia Islamist forces that played out in Iraq and then Syria after the Sunni Arab Uprising failed to remove Assad and caused a civil war.

However, the new case for war on Iran would involve blaming the failure of the first American War on it, the reason a second is necessary as IS is defeated. For the destruction of IS was partly needed to protect the Sunni monarchies from facing a threat they helped conjure up by bankrolling Sunni jihadists in Syria after 2011.

As IS posed a threat to control of Iraqi oil reserves, one major reason the Iraq War was fought, though this was derided as a 'conspiracy theory' by propagandists at the time. With IS rolled back and crushed the next threat to that oil would be Iranian control over Iraq, an exaggerated claim but one US politicians fear.

However, the fact the US war of 2003 ended up enabling Iranian influence to spread westwards into Iraq, a geopolitical feat that even the revolutionary war of 1980-1988 was unable to achieve, has infuriated the remnants of the neoconservative right and the right wing nationalists that were first to align behind Trump in 2016.

This includes Newt Gingrich and John Bolton who in July 2017 attended a conference in Paris held by the NCRI, a popular front organisation for opponents of Tehran at which Gingrich ranted 'Iran must be free. The dictatorship must be destroyed. Containment is appeasement and appeasement is surrender.'

Bolton, who almost became Secretary of State, said 'Tehran is not merely a nuclear weapons threat, it is not merely a terrorist threat, it is a conventional threat to everybody in the region". As a consequence, the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs' regime in Tehran.'

To complete both the defeat of IS and the Shia Islamists in Iraq and to knock them out as a regional force of 'terrorism' and 'extremism', certain ideologues have looked towards dissident groups such as MeK. The plan to destabilise Iran had been mooted as far back as 2002 when Bush placed Iran on the sinister 'Axis of Evil'.

That Iran is being accused of regional destabilisation is Orwellian doublethink and ideological schizophrenia. For the most part the majority of the funding for 'terrorism' and 'extremism' comes from the Gulf States, but in accordance with these facts being true, the alternative must be believed that Iran is doing so.

Trump's administration has made a case for 'alternative facts' through spokespeople as Kellyanne Conway The big question is whether the US media would hold a Trump case for war with Iran to account or whether it would simply recycle government claims as 'facts' in the way it did with the Bush administration.

But the deeper reason for the case for 'regime change' is the toxic and corrupting role of Saudi Arabia in Washington. MeK is supported by the Saudis. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and former head of that nation’s intelligence service, was present at the NCRI meeting to offer support.

In Riyadh in May 2017, Trump helped destabilise the Gulf region by aligning firmly with the Saudi Crown Prince and his calls for the creation of a new 'Arab NATO' to check Iran. Trump was gulled into supporting this by the Saudis flattering him as a great leader at the same time as he clinched a $100b arms deal.

If the Iran-Saudi enmity over the Persian Gulf and the growing polarisation between them could lead the US into war on behalf of the Saudis, the main check on this in late 2017 would appear to be the tilt of Turkey and Qatar towards Iran and Russia over determining the diplomatic and territorial endgame in Syria.

The End of the Sunni Anti-Assad Alliance.
The fragmentation of the anti-Assad alliance was consolidated by a Russo-Turkish realignment in early 2017 and the construction of Turkstream pipeline being agreed upon. Previously, after the 2011 'Arab Spring', the Sunni powers of the Greater Middle East had been seen to be in alignment under the aegis of the Western powers.

The complete lack of realism underlying Western grand strategy was demonstrated both by the belief that there was a 'third force' between IS and Assad in Syria that would provide the basis for a Sunni democratic state out of a revolution and war. Even before IS became a power in 2014, the FSA had been hijacked by jihadi militants.

The Sunni powers were never totally aligned with each other. Within Syria, the FSA fragmented partly because Saudi Arabia and Qatar were fighting a 'proxy war within a proxy war' between themselves in trying to bankroll and give financial favour to the faction most likely to win out and serve its geopolitical interests.

The carving up of North and West Syria into spheres of interest and protection between Ankara and Moscow and the gas pipeline from southern Russia under the Black Sea to European Turkey, has put an end to the rival geostrategy of a 'Sunni pipeline' via Turkey and Syria from Qatar, thus refocusing their strategies.

That gas pipeline would have been a major source of gas towards the EU which would reduce its dependence upon Russian energy and to diversify supplies, as would have Iran's rival 'Shia' pipeline from the South Pars gas field it shares with Qatar in the Persian Gulf. This was one reason the EU favoured the nuclear deal.

Russia's decisive military intervention in 2015 prevented both possibilities. But it led Qatar and Turkey back towards realigning with Iran to develop previously undeveloped parts of their respective Persian Gulf gas fields in April 2017. In August 2017 Russia and Turkey agreed to jointly develop new land based reserves.

Saudi Arabia and GCC states have felt humiliated by Sunni defeats in Syria and Shia ascendancy in Iraq. In Syria, the destruction of the non-IS jihadi forces, their abandonment by Turkey and Qatar and the shift towards balancing their regional interests with those of Iran as a counter to the Gulf States has been resented.

While Qatar and Turkey have shifted away from supporting Sunni jihadist forces, Trump aligned firmly behind Riyadh against Doha in the diplomatic war and against Iran which he schizophrenically accuses of 'promoting terrorism'. The word 'terrorism' has largely become a meaningless cant term for militias opposing 'our interests'.

The Saudi ultimatum to Qatar is of a piece with the scaling up of US military action in eastern Syria throughout June 2017 against Iranian backed forces and those of Assad. As the SDF forces contain a large contingent of Kurdish militiamen, Turkey had all the more reason to tilt towards Tehran to prevent irredentism.
The Saudis had an interest in ratcheting up the pressure on Qatar as the crisis broke after Doha and Tehran both agreed to develop their Gulf gas reserves. It was resented because Qatar had previously agreed not top develop them and the assumption was , if it were to do so, they would pass on price concessions.

The fear is Qatar and is cooperating with Iran to set up a rival Sunni power axis in the Middle East between the GCC and Iran. Qatar's support for Islamist groups in the region could lead to disaffected Shias rising up, as was clear in Bahrain back in 2012 after the Arab Spring broke out and Saudi tanks rolled in to crush it.

Already, the Saudis are crushing a Shia uprising within in August 2017. The greatest nightmare of the Saudis is that, in a state increasingly unable to stave off social discontent by diverting dwindling oil revenues towards social projects, with oil prices consistently down, is a Shia uprising in its main oil producing regions.

The Saudis have also failed to contain Houthi forces in Yemen since 2015 which they regards as an Iranian front to divert its energies to the south west and to exert control not only over the strategic chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz but also over the equally vital oil tanker traffic routes via the Bab El-Mandeb Straits.

Israel and Iran .

Hizbollah has been active in Yemen and in the clashes in eastern Syria. Nasrallah has already boasted that after defeating ISIS it could send 'hundreds of thousands' of Shia Islamist fighters to Southern Lebanon if war were to break out between it and Israel. A Third Lebanon War still could break out in the course of 2017.

The immediate threat of a war between Hizbollah and Israel was defused by US and American negotiations with Jordan after the G20 Meeting which created a buffer zone between it and Syria. But the Iranian 'threat' to Israel is still a card the US has to play in justifying war with Iran as the Syria war comes to an end.

One factor in this is the end of the war in Syria also has meant Hamas has been able to come out of the cold after it was left isolated by the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2013 and deteriorating relations with Shia Hizbollah and Iran. Tehran and Qatar are restablishing ties with the group in Gaza.

The Hizbollah 'threat' to Israel and Yemen, in addition to the US fear of a land bridge between eastern Syria, Iraq and Iran, is a factor behind the escalation of US backed forces and fighters in that region. The Caliphate is crumbling and hence the Saudis are more concerned with Iranian and Qatari regional 'terrorism'.

The defeat of the Sunni jihadist groups in Syria in east Aleppo in December 2016 was a blow for Saudi prestige. The GCC alliance is feeling humiliated and has every interest in the US being lulled into a clash with Iran. Trump has failed to offset Saudi aggression by tilting towards Tehran as Obama did in order to defeat ISIS.

Trump's support for the Saudis saw him fall right into the trap they set for him in placing his credibility solely on support for an Arab NATO,  leaning towards them and Egypt rather than the rival Turkey-Qatar axis. As Qatar leant towards Iran, and with Assad ascendant in Syria, Trump's administration refocused on Iran.

Despite the contradictory statements emanating from Tillerson and Mattis in their determination to balance support for Riyadh with acting as honest brokers over its unfortunate diplomatic war with Doha, the Trump administration is unified in regarding the degrading of Iranian regional power as major ambition.

At present, American foreign policy looks in disarray. But Trump's administration is not prepared to have Iran determine any post-ISIS political settlement and, more disturbing, it seems utterly uninterested in engaging in diplomacy with Iran. This has led Iranian diplomats to question whether the nuclear agreement would last.

A US War with Iran in late 2017 or early 2018 is a developing prospect. Russia remains a power it can do nothing about in Syria. However, it would be in a stronger position vis-à-vis Moscow if Tehran's regional power was diminished and it could try military strikes as means to do so, promote 'regime change' and 'knock out' Iran.

August 2017: The War Clouds Gather.

In August 2017, the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria by Assad is being reasserted as the OPCW is criticised by unnamed 'sources'  for not doing enough to assign blame on Damascus. The OPCW is led by a Turk and Turkey is seen as no longer being trusted in coming up with the politically correct verdict on Assad's guilt.

The disturbing aspect about the Iran question is how so many Republicans and Democrat hawks would prefer to risk war rather than keep the nuclear deal of 2015. Trump prefers to shred it entirely, others such as Tillerson as a means to renegotiate it at a time when the real fear is of the decline of the US and its allies as hegemons.

Some might prefer to ditch it to get a better and more forceful one as the reality is that the hostility of the US against Iran is more about its ability to counter the power of the US and its allies in the region than simply about the issue of nuclear weapons. Iran is resented too for having extended its influence in Iraq.

The idea is that if Iran acts as a 'conventional threat', then it cannot 'hold the world to ransom' in other ways just because of the fear it might have developed nuclear weapons had it not been for the deal. Now that IS is finished, the 'new threat'  is of Iran moving in to the vacuum and being able to determine Syria's fate.

This is why Nikki Haley was emitting lines about how Iran was not being held properly account by the atomic agency inspectors on Friday ( i.e. they keep telling the truth and certifying Iran is in compliance ). The Trump administration, far more so than that of Bush, is far more keen on the new 'post-truth politics'.

The pattern is similar to the run up to war with Iraq in 2003. It's also why there are renewed stories of unnamed sources being reported in the media, such as Reuters, that the OPCW is not doing enough to assign clear blame to Assad for chemical weapon attacks the US has already decided both Syria and Iran is responsible for.

This is useful when trying to justify why US backed proxy forces could make a territorial claim in Syria and retain a future stake for the US. But all the evidence is that these forces are not dominant in eastern Syria outside Kurdish enclaves such as Rojava. It's unclear whether Trump would be play the Kurdish independence card.

For President Erdogan has realigned with Russia and with Iran to bring an end to the war by carving out spheres of territorial interest. Turkey is in NATO, so Ankara is free from threats from the US. But such long term initiatives as the development of Iran's gas reserves, along with France's Total, undermine US sanctions.

The US has had its nose pushed out of Syria. Hence the reason for the increased sanctions which are largely about using punitive economic measures as a tool of power and leverage. Basically, the US has very few pieces left on the chessboard with the Turkey-Qatar axis aligning towards Iran to bring about a new balance of power.

It would be better if the US tried to accept it and work with the situation as it is. But it might try to upset the chessboard by attacking Iran and its militias in the region so it could open up the game for it and the regional players aligned with it once more. The cost of this would be to reignite a regional conflagration and destabilisation.

It's unclear whether the Trump administration is aware of the dangers of a war on Iran. The emphasis might well be on renegotiating the nuclear deal rather than scrapping it altogether, not least as the EU powers, especially France and Germany, are adamantly for retaining it. It's not clear if Trump actually cares about this.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Notes on Belarus 2017

Belarus rarely gets much attention in the Western media, other than when there is a disputed election and protests. Venezuela under Maduro gets fare more attention in Britain, partly as it's a major oil producer and Belarus is not. It was also regarded as a model '21st Century Socialism' until Chavez's death in 2013 by some on the left.

On reflection, this is bizarre when it is considered that Belarus is just to the east of Poland's border and that Poland was, until 2015, thought to be a fully integrated EU member, stable liberal democracy and staunchly Atlanticist power in Central-Eastern Europe, with migrant workers living across Europe.

Belarus, by contrast, remains relatively unknown and ignored. The left simply wasn't interested in an anti-Western republic which harks back to a forgotten and drab period of the Cold War. It lacks the exotic appeal of Venezuela and the idealistic appeal of its model. It's citizens are white and Slavonic, a cold land frozen out of the rest of Europe.

One reason, apart from the lack of oil, is Belarus doesn't have much history as an independent nation-state, being variously depicted as a land labouring under 'Europe's last dictatorship', a territory carved out of the collapse USSR that's remained largely indistinct as a separate and independent entity or 'The Last Soviet Republic'.

This interesting analysis below draws attention to Belarus' status as a geopolitical buffer state between Russia and the EU, one that under Lukashenko has tried to survive by playing of rival suitors vying for influence over this strategically located state, one that has resisted being drawn into the EU and NATO or Putin's neo-Tsarist state.

With the tug of war battle over Ukraine's destiny to the south leading to a major crisis in 2013-2014 and a civil war continuing growling away in the eastern provinces, Belarus has remained largely quiescent, though there are stirrings of protest given the deteriorating economy and fear of external political intervention.

It will be interesting to see what happens as Poland shifts towards a more authoritarian system under the PiS party. Under its new regime, Poland has sought to reconstitute itself as a rival Central-Eastern power bloc within the EU as counterweight both to a Franco-German dominated Europe to the west and Russia to the east.

Poland would hardly seek to promote liberal democracy quite as before over the border when it's not committed to it at home. Kaczynski is openly lauding the Turkish model of President Erdogan. Across a broad swathe of territory in what Mackinder called the 'rimlands' surrounding the Eurasian 'heartland', neo-authoritarianism is in.

One of the strange ironies of history could be that far from Belarus moving towards liberal democracy, as was once believed inevitable in every post-Soviet state in the 1990s and 2000s, it offers a model of neo-authoritarianism based on capitalism, a dominant party-state monopower and a minimal social security net.

This new 'model' would be touted as offering 'stability' through security from the 'disorder' of Western liberal freedoms, the threat of 'terrorism' and those hostile alien elements within supported by external powers to disintegrate society and cede control to sinister transnational interests that are conspiring to demoralise the nation.

Even so, this might not preclude both Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Russia, vying for geopolitical influence within Belarus, just as they have over Ukraine, out of nationalist competition and using the plight of ethnic minorities as a pretext for external concern. As this article shows, Russia sees it as a vital buffer state.

In that sense, Belarus is the European western end of the Eurasian landmass just as North Korea is the eastern Asian land tip at the other end. While Timothy Garton Ash refers to Belarus as 'Europe's North Korea', Belarus is hardly a nightmarish totalitarian state threatening its own citizens and the region as Pyongyang does.

Even so, it could be argued that Belarus was were the post-1989-1991 era of democracy rolling east from Europe first 'stopped' after a brief experiment. Lukashenko preceded Putin as an authoritarian strongman after a short and traumatic experiment in a neoliberal market democracy. His regime is a precursor of what was to come later.

Antonia Colibasanu sets out the strategic scene and dilemmas of Belarus' position in 2017 in Geopolitical Futures in Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22.

'Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Moscow will “do its best” to prevent any destabilization that could cause a color revolution in Russia and its buffer zone in Eastern Europe. Putin’s remarks come after the media reported that Russian nationals were arrested in Belarus for taking part in anti-government protests in Minsk on March 25-26.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko used the arrests to send a message to Putin prior to their meeting on April 3. Lukashenko wanted to make clear that he is still in control of his country, despite recent protests and economic problems. And Moscow needs to keep Minsk on its side.

Russia’s essential strategic problem is its vulnerability on its western border. It is susceptible to invasions through the North European Plain and needs access to global trading routes via the Baltic and the Black seas.

Therefore, Russia needs to push its frontier or sphere of influence as far west as possible, creating a buffer zone between Western Europe and its borders. Ideally, the Russian buffer zone would comprise the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine. The Baltics have integrated into the Western alliance system since the end of the Cold War.

After losing Ukraine, keeping Belarus in its sphere of influence became even more important for Russia. Belarus is a key part of Russia’s security strategy because the two countries share a joint air defense system. They also have held joint military exercises every four years since 2009, and Russia hopes to strengthen its military presence in Belarus.

To maintain its influence over the country, Russia needs both a friendly government in Minsk and a stable Belarus. But to keep the government friendly, Russia relies on measures that can fuel destabilization. The poor state of the Belarusian economy has sparked anti-government demonstrations, which have continued for months.

The recent protests against the “social parasite” tax on the unemployed are some examples. After hundreds of protesters were arrested and 150 were jailed, fear has kept people from returning to the streets. But the economic problems remain. Belarus’ economy has been in recession for more than two years.

 Russia’s increasing economic problems since the fall in oil prices have had a negative impact on Belarus, which is heavily dependent on the Russian economy. Russia’s ability to support Belarus financially has declined. This has caused socio-economic problems in Belarus and and forced Minsk to seek solutions elsewhere.

...keeping Belarus in Russia’s sphere of influence is more important than Russian internal politics. Lukashenko doesn’t face a powerful or united opposition. Most of the businesses in Belarus are tied to, if not dependent on, Russian money, either through direct funding or the Russian market.

If Russian support is reduced, Belarus will look to the West, which could lead to a change in government that would not be in Russia’s favor. Therefore, this is a Catch-22 for Russia: It can’t afford to continue spending money on Belarus while it faces problems at home, but it also can’t afford to stop supporting Belarus since another government in the West might instead.

Bibliography and Further Sources on Belarus.

Belarus Digest.
Geopolitical Review.
New East Network, the Guardian,


A Wilson, Europe's Last Dictatorship ( 2011 )
B Bennett, Europe's Last Dictatorship: Belarus under Lukashenko ( 2011 )
I A Zaprudnik, Belarus : At a Crossroads in History ( 1993)
G Joffe, Understanding Belarus. How Western Foreign Policy Misses the Mark ( 2014 )
L Bazan, A History of Belarus. ( 2014)
D Marples, Belarus: A Denationalised Nation ( 1999 )
A Applebaum, Between East and West ( 1994 )
N Davies, Vanished Kingdoms ( 2012 )
N Davies, Europe at War: No Simple Victory 1939-1945 ( 2007 )
T Snyder, Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. ( 2011 )
T Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus ( 2009 ).


A Wilson, Europe Keep an Eye on Minsk, Politico, March 17, 2017
A Sannikov, 'We are not slaves', Guardian, March 2017.
A Colibasanu, Russia, Belarus and a Catch-22, Geopolitical Futures, April, 2017.
A Fedirka, Belarus: Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Geopolitical Futures, December, 2016.
R Astapenia, Belarus is no longer 'Europe's last dictatorship', Guardian, September 2014.
J Steele, Lukashenko's Way, LRB, September 2012.

2010 Election and Protests.

J Laughland, The Technique of a Coup d'état, Lew Rockwell, December 2010.
T Garton Ash, We have to confront Europe's Mugabe , Guardian, December 2010.
C Reilly, Belarus-Image is All, Open Democracy, January 2009.
P Hitchens, The Comb-over Soviet-style Tyrant, Daily Mail, July 2008.

2006 Election and Protests..

M Almond, Less Bizarre than it Seems, Guardian, 21 March 2006
J  Laughland, The Prague Racket, Guardian, November 22 2002.
A Mazhukhou, The Will of the People was heard in Belarus's Election , April 2006.
T Garton Ash, Don't defend the dregs of Soviet Socialism, April 2006.
T Garton Ash, What's real in Belarus ? April, 2006
T Garton Ash, Belarus Needs You, March 2006
J Steele, Europe and the US decide the winner before the vote, March 2006.


The British Media is Silent on Trump's Shift to Confrontation with Iran

When the Independent moved online and ceased its print editions in 2016, this was seen as the beginning of the end of an era. The June 2017 general election in Britain saw too the decline of the populist right wing tabloid media as a decisive force that could determine victories for the Conservative Party.

The rise of social media has fragmented traditional audiences and 'the reading public'. Roy Greenslade has predicted the demise of the 'reactionary' tabloid media in the Guardian. What he hasn't dealt with is the decline of 'mainstream' newspapers as a proper source of information on international power politics.

It's not clear what future the 'serious' quality newspaper heritage media has when it fails to make itself relevant by journalistic coverage of the global politics and events that matter, a tradition being continued at present by a diminishing number of real journalists such as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent and his despatches from Iraq.

The fall of Mosul was barely covered in the Guardian compared with the coverage east Aleppo received when it fell to Assad's forces and Russian airpower in December 2016. The 40,000 civilian casualties have not been even registered in public consciousness nor the roughly 5500 believed killed by Western air power.

By any objective criteria, the liberation of the largest ISIS held city in Iraq ought to have been a major news item. But it was mentioned as if the war against ISIS was largely one in a far off land with little connection to Britain or the US, a footnote in a struggle that has long ceased to have much immediate relevance.

The fact the destruction of the IS Caliphate was downplayed so much might have something to do with lack of interest in civilian casualties that could have been caused by Trump's determination to 'bomb the shit out of ISIS' and to 'let the generals off the leash'. This was raised in the US media, but in Britain-silence.

Also not reported anywhere in the Guardian is the decisive shift of the Trump presidency towards a confrontation with Iran. It got a fleeting mention in an Observer editorial with Iran's ballistic missile 'threat' regarded as one Trump simply wasn't 'dealing with' despite his rhetoric. Nowhere has the Iraq style plan for war on Iran been mentioned.

It might be that the pretexts for war are so flimsy now and, as the Iraq War has demonstrated the US and US publics won't be 'played' by the government and media again, that the emphasis is on a media blanket, in simply not putting anywhere near enough emphasis on reporting the facts or informing the public in Britain.

The Guardian featured one article by Trita Parsi a few weeks ago and one by Trevor Timms lambasting Trump for his 'bloodlust' on Iran: the line is that Trump is the problem more than the Washington elites , both Republican and Democrat, who would be prepared to align behind Trump is he decided on confrontation with Iran.

Parsi is one of many international diplomacy experts who have been writing in the last week of July about the Trump administration's determination to subvert the nuclear deal and project responsibility for its aggressive postures on to Iran. The New York Times has covered this and, to an extent, the Washington Post.

Parsi is clear as to the strategy,
'President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisors have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.  
The unmasking of Trump’s plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began two weeks ago when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the US intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran’s fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster—eventually calmed Trump down but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October. 
Recognizing that refusing to certify Iran would isolate the United States, Trump’s advisors gave him another plan. Use the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal, they suggested, to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks—which it will since the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities—Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting the blame to Tehran.
This decisive shift in the approach of Trump towards Iran was not reported in any British mainstream media outlet, despite the similarities to the build up of the war with Iraq and despite the fact Britain's government regards itself as America's 'first ally' and that any US confrontation with Iran could well drag the UK in.

The Guardian is in danger of becoming a lamer version of the Huffington Post. The international coverage throughout 2017 has been appalling. There is no news coverage of Trump's attempts to shred a deal that could prevent a major war breaking out. Just the mainstreaming information on twitterspats and outrage pieces.

On defence, Richard Norton Taylor seems to have retired and so the shameful concealment of the Saudi role in backing jihadi ideology in Britain simply has not been focused on nor the reasons why the Conservative government is intent on suppressing the 2015 commissioned report into the funding of terrorist activity from the Gulf States.

Those interested in foreign affairs, those wanting quality and balanced, objective reportage simply aren't going to want to pay for Guardian, though they would be if the coverage was better. The Guardian is fine for scanning the headlines, but so is the BBC or any other media platform. It's simply not outstanding on international affairs any more.

The Independent might not be soon. Cockburn is indispensable for understanding the Middle East. But it's disturbing that a large chunk of the shares have been snapped up by a Saudi businessman, Sultan Mohamed Abuljadayel. While it might remain a 'progressive' media outlet, one wonders how long Cockburn might last.

Cockburn has done more than any other journalist in Britain to report the truth and reality of both the war in Iraq and in Syria, that Gulf State funding was a factor in the rise of ISIS and that the 'moderate rebel' propaganda trope recycled in the media was just that: the Free Syria Army had long been hijacked by jihadists.

Moreover, Cockburn is critical about the role of Saudi Arabia in funding global Wahhabi ideology and disseminating jihadi ideology-even in Britain. As he wrote just after the Manchester terrorist attack, the BBC and other media know Saudi Arabia is behind the funding the 'radicalisation' but refuse to report it.

As newspapers go online, British media is actually quite feeble compared to the US. If Trump went to war to Iran this autumn, few in Britain would have any idea that it had been brewing away much of the year or that Trump's administration had shifted towards confrontation or even some form of regime change option.

It's unclear how the US liberal media would react to Trump gearing up for a war on Iran, whether it would swing round to rally opinion behind the President, as it tended to before the Iraq War, or whether it would take a more confrontational and sceptical stance as once it did with Nixon's handling of Vietnam.

At least in the run up to the Iraq War, between 2002 to 2003, people were informed of a British government case for war they could be aware about and question. If war with Iran broke out and Britain predictably aligned 'shoulder to shoulder', it could happen very rapidly and appear as though it came 'from out of nowhere'.

Update Aug 5 2017,

The Guardian has reported more on the potential threat to the editorial freedom of the Independent,
'Sultan Muhammad Abuljadayel works for NCB Capital, the investment banking arm of the National Commercial Bank, which is controlled by the Saudi government and is one of the biggest banks in the Middle East'. News of Abuljadayel’s stake emerged last week, sparking concerns that the website’s liberal political stance and hard-hitting coverage of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and foreign policy could change.  Saudi Arabia’s suppression of freedom of speech has been heavily criticised. It is one of several Middle Eastern countries that has demanded the closure of the broadcaster al-Jazeera in return for lifting a blockade of Qatar.