28 July 2012

What Could be the Syrian Endgame?

As I write this, a serious battle in and around Aleppo is raging. This will very likely end in massacre and human tragedy.

Most commentators have been saying that this is the final chapter in Assad's rule and he is on his way out. Unless they know something that we don't, I don't see how the opposition can drive his powerful army out.

Which got me to thinking that there must be something else that everyone is counting upon.

Since NATO or the US ruled out military intervention, there are two possibilities. One of them is that Turkey, the only regional power with the military capability, will go in.

Some observers actually believe that Turkey is getting ready to intervene militarily. They point to Erdogan's recent visit to Moscow and then to China as an effort to convince them to change their stance (since both Russia and China used their Security Council vetoes after Erdogan's visit, if that was the goal of his visit, it should be considered a failure).

But I am not sure that this was the goal of his visit. I think the aim was to inform Russia of the endgame being planned and remind Putin that Russia should stay neutral as Turkey is a much more strategically important ally. Besides being an ascendant regional power, Turkey is an important economic outlet for Russia. With their bilateral trade reaching $30 billion in 2011 and over 2000 Turkish companies investing and operating in Russia, it is clearly a more important partner than Syria. 

Moreover, Putin knows that, one way or another, Assad's days are numbered and he is too clever to continue to bet on a losing horse.

But the visit clearly indicates that something is being prepared. As I previously enumerated the reasons for Turkey's extreme reluctance to intervene militarily, I seriously doubt that a military push is in the cards. Besides, a foreign intervention might backfire by changing again the shifting alliances within Syria.

A Palace Coup?

This leaves only the possibility of a palace coup. I have no idea whether this is actually the case but a palace coup is the only way Assad could be removed from power in a short period of time. Operationally, I can see how the upcoming Aleppo massacre could lead to large defections within the ruling elite and how this could topple the regime from within.

25 July 2012

Can Anyone Tell Me What is Wrong With Spain?

I was going to write about my favorite Eurozone subject, i.e. whether Greece should default or not. And in the course of checking up some statistics, I realized that something was rotten in the state of Spain.

And it is not what you think.

You see, I kept reading story after story that Spain was in trouble, its economy was in shambles, the austerity measures its conservative government introduced needed to be redoubled, etc. But I couldn't find a single piece that explained to me why this was the case. Not one.

All the articles pointed to the pre-2008 real estate and construction boom and the subsequent bursting of the bubble. The only other element they all mentioned was high unemployment.

I realized that there was something wrong with this picture as this was supposed to be a crisis caused by countries living beyond their means. That's why we need austerity measures, right?

Well, according to Wikipedia, at the start of the crisis period, Spain's public debt was 36.2 percent of its GDP. Even in 2010, Spain's debt was lower than Britain, France or Germany. And according to this map at 63 percent it is still one of the lowest in Europe. Take a look at France, Germany, Belgium and Britain in that map.

Wikipedia puts the debt a little higher than 63 percent but remarks that it is still lower than the Eurozone average: "As of June 15, 2012, Spain's public debt stood at 72.1% of GDP, still less that the Euro-zone average of 88%."

As for unemployment, well, it "stood at 7.6% in October 2006, a rate that compared favorably to many other European countries." Sure, it rose to over 17 percent when the crisis hit, as the construction sector accounted for almost 16 percent of the GDP. And it reached 25 percent with several rounds of austerity measures. But unemployment was not a structural issue, as it has since been commonly reported. It was the dependent variable in the equation, not the causal factor.

18 July 2012

The Significance of the Syrian Suicide Bomb

As you probably know by now, a suicide bomber managed to get inside the National Security Building and killed three members of Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.
Defence minister General Daoud Rajha and Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat were killed and interior minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, were wounded, the channel and security officials said.
I have seen many breathless reporting about how this signals the end of the regime and how this should be marked as a turning point.

I am not so sure that this event presages the imminent collapse of the regime. While it is a major coup for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) they are still no match for the relatively formidable firepower and manpower of the Syrian Armed Forces.

The event, however, is significant in one respect. If the suicide bomber is (as it was reported early on) one of the bodyguards of these officials, I will have to assume that he was one of the thousands of Sunnis integrated into the power structure. Just like General Manaf Tlas who defected ten days ago.

If that was the case, this event signals that the current situation has now become an entirely sectarian conflict. If you remember the Bosnian civil war, even people who were sympathetic to the positions of the other side (or were linked to them through marriage, jobs and other social arrangements) had to choose a side quickly and then they were locked in to that identity for the duration of the conflict (and even beyond).

If a Sunni bodyguard was involved in this suicide bombing, it would mean that a highly trained and thoroughly vetted member of an elite force could now be turned by the lure of a primordial identity. It would indicate that someone who was not previously interested in that part of his identity was now suggestible enough to take his own life to harm what he perceives as "the other side."

That is bad news for al-Assad and the Alewites in Syria.

It is also bad news for the regime in general as it will force them to react to this catastrophic incident. And they have no good options.

One thing they might have to do is to purge the power structure of Sunnis. After Manaf Tlas and this bodyguard they would be fools not to do it. Such a move would inevitably enhance the sectarian nature of the conflict as loyal Sunnis, who served the Alewite minority for decades would find themselves sidelined and thrown under the bus in the middle of a civil war.

Expect mass defections if that happens.

Secondly, the regime might feel obligated to show that it has the upper hand militarily and might do something as reckless as carpet bomb several Sunni strongholds to kill thousands of civilians and ask their Shahiba militias to massacre a few hundred people.

Unfortunately for them, either of these moves would inevitably strengthen the sectarian identities and sharpen the dividing lines between warring factions. And Sunnis outnumber other minorities and they have the backing of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

Conversely, not doing any of these things might be perceived as a sign of weakness by the other side and could embolden them and the foreign forces behind them.

In other words, in my opinion, today's bombing was significant not because it killed a couple of senior Bashar allies. It was significant because it might force Bashar's hand to act in a way that would hasten his own demise.

Stay tuned.


The FSA now claims that the blast was caused by a remote controlled device (instead of a suicide bomber) which was put in place the day before.

If this is true, it strengthens my point further, as such a setup would require extensive assistance from inside. The location and timing of the meeting had to be communicated. The bomb had to be smuggled into the building. And the device had to be planted and armed.

All of this would imply a major inside job involving several people. And Bashar al-Assad's equally unpalatable choices would remain the same.

What is Happening in Saudi Arabia?

Right now, everybody is focused on Syria.

That is understandable. A lot is happening there and with the killing of civilians by the hundreds, widespread torture allegations, the downing of a Turkish plane, and now, the Red Cross declaring that a civil war is underway, the whole thing plays out like a macabre soap opera.

But, as my tiny readership knows, ever the optimist, I see the implosion of Syria not just as a further descent into hellish chaos but as a prelude to something hopeful, a solution involving Kurdish statehood. It is like the apocryphal Chinese character "crisis." Horror leading to a new birth. It won't be easy, it won't be bloodless and it won't be very quick. But I believe something good will come out of this carnage.

I am worried, on the other hand, about the future of a country that is almost always absent from the headlines. A country so ruthlessly autocratic that, from outside, it appears like a paragon of stability. I am, of course, talking about Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is one of the most oppressive, reactionary and misogynistic regimes in the world. It tortures, imprisons and kill its citizens. Saudi women have no social or political rights. Its Islamic police force called Mutaween, tasked with enforcing the Sharia, is so strict that, ten years ago in a school fire it stopped 15 girls from leaving the school because they did not have proper Islamic dresses on them and let them burn alive.

Its political system should properly be called the last absolute monarchy in the world. The Saudi king's legitimacy is derived from two sources. One is spiritual the other is lineage. Together they constitute a very peculiar dynastic alliance.

10 July 2012

Egypt: Tantawi vs Mursi

As I mentioned a few days ago, just before presidential runoff elections, the Egyptian army gave itself new powers and dissolved the parliament on the basis of a recent decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) which found certain aspects of legislative elections unconstitutional.

Yesterday, the newly elected President ordered the parliament to be reopened. His argument was that the SCC simply found aspects of legislative elections problematic and cancelled those elections. The dissolution of the parliament was the army's decision not the SCC's. But since new elections are 60 days ahead, the country needed this parliament as an interim legislative body.

Not unexpectedly, the Court immediately stated that its decision was binding and the dissolution should stand. And the army said that the decision to dissolve the parliament should be respected. This was reported as a "warning" throughout the Western media.

My take is that this is much ado about nothing.

I seriously doubt that the army will intervene in any significant fashion. After all, in the world according to Contrarian Progressive, the two sides are no longer mortal enemies: it was the army that allowed the ouster of Mubarak and opened the way to an Islamist transition. They knew full well that the Brotherhood was going to be the dominant political force and yet they let Mubarak go. Since then, they implemented some measures to ensure that (a) their immense wealth and power will go unchallenged and (b) they had veto power over key issues in case things got out of hand.

07 July 2012

I Never Thought I Would Disagree With Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk is one of my heroes.

He has been covering the Middle East for decades and he knows about the region more than any journalist alive. Given the American media's one sided coverage, he was often the only source that included the views of the other regional actors.

Imagine my discomfort when I found myself disagreeing with such an icon. My contrarian streak finally put me in an indefensible position, I thought. But, in the immortal words of an unconvicted war criminal, it is what it is.

On 29 June Robert Fisk wrote that Bashar al-Assad might remain in power for another two years as the US, Russia and most of the regional powers were about to agree to keep him in power for that time frame.
According to a source intimately involved in the possible transition from Baath party power, the Americans, Russians and Europeans are also putting together an agreement that would permit Assad to remain leader of Syria for at least another two years in return for political concessions to Iran and Saudi Arabia in both Lebanon and Iraq.
 He notes that the current situation is not really working out for al-Assad:
Information from Syria suggests that Assad’s army is now “taking a beating” from armed rebels, who include Islamist as well as nationalist forces; at least 6,000 soldiers are now believed to have been murdered or killed in action since the rebellion against Assad began 17 months ago. 
Despite that, the US is apparently keen on negotiating with Russia to acknowledge Iran's patron saint status for Iraq and Hezbollah to enable Saudi Arabia and Qatar to look after Sunni rights in those places.
The US-Russian negotiations – easy to deny, and somewhat cynically hidden behind the current mutual accusations of Hillary Clinton and her Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov – would mean that the superpowers would acknowledge Iran’s influence over Iraq and its relationship with its Hezballah allies in Lebanon, while Saudi Arabia – and Qatar - would be encouraged to guarantee Sunni Muslim rights in Lebanon and in Iraq. 
In other words, the US spent a couple of trillion dollars, sacrificed over four thousand American troops, killed hundreds of thousands Iraqis, established five big bases all over Iraq only to agree that Iran should have control over it.