Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nice coastal enclave you've got there

If you'd been relying on the recent conventional wisdom to understand the Syrian civil war, you wouldn't be predicting subsequent events very well. The rebels can't sustain a presence in Damascus. They can. They're stuck in the eastern parts of the country and can't take new territory from the regime. They can. And they can't threaten the regime's Alawite heartland on the coast, and they can't unify to battle the regime. They can, and they can. Reuters has the latest --

Islamist insurgents including al-Qaeda's wing in Syria, Nusra Front, captured the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, for the first time in the four-year-old conflict ... Islamist groups agreed to unite in the battle for Jisr al-Shughour under the name "Battle for Victory". The formation of alliances by groups before major battles is one of the factors behind the advances, sources say. By taking Jisr al-Shughour, the insurgents have edged closer to the coastal province of Latakia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's stronghold, and are now less than 8 km (five miles) from villages loyal to the government near the coast. "Jisr al-Shughour is more important than Idlib itself, it is very close to the coastal area which is a regime area, the coast now is within our fire reach," Ahmad from Ahrar al-Sham said.

It's about 75km from Jisr Al-Shughour to Latakia.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A noble transaction embiggens the smallest mind

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaking at a trade conference in Washington DC; as with all her speeches, she can't resist the just-so quote --

Let me conclude by quoting one of the sharpest thinkers of his generation. Two hundred years ago, the French philosopher Montesquieu said – and I will give you the French version first: “Le commerce guérit des préjugés destructeurs: et; c’est presque une règle générale que, partout où il y a des mœurs douces, il y a du commerce; et; que, partout où il y a du commerce, il y a des mœurs douces.” 

“Trade is the best cure for prejudice. It is an almost general rule that, wherever there is good citizenship, there is trade, and that, wherever there is trade, there is good citizenship.” 

The most destructive economic prejudice is trade protectionism.

Sacre bleu! She's taking the 200 year old expression mœurs douces, which is typically translated as gentle or agreeable manners, and rendered it as "good citizenship." She's taken Montesquieu's careful discussion of associated changes in societies over time and between each other, and made it into a policy statement that anyone who's against further trade liberalization is like a pre-industrial brute. And she's ignored the rest of his discussion about how trade damages individual relations by forcing more and more interactions between people into a form of exchange.

The hostage curse

The White House statements today on the killing of two Al Qaeda hostages by a CIA drone strike is frank enough but of course words are cheap compared to ultimate frustration of an allied-military death ending to a protracted kidnapping. Words are also cheap compared to the ransoms that might have secured the hostage release. There are particular questions about the Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, who was kidnapped with a German colleague, Bernd Muelenbeck. It somewhat slipped below the radar screen when it first occurred (German, English), but Muelenbeck was released last October. If the White House is doing a comprehensive evaluation of what went wrong in this case, it needs to focus on hostage policy. Italians might be asking the same question.

UPDATE: The statement from Elaine Weinstein is worth reading.

Those strange foreigners with portraits of royalty on the walls

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in the office of Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), US House Majority Leader.

Photo: Emirates News Agency (WAM).

Monday, April 20, 2015

Scotland and Ireland

David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday --

Think about what this means, this is, this would be the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of our country [SNP] would be involved in altering the direction of the government of our country, and I think that is a frightening prospect, for people thinking in their own constituencies is that bypass going to be built, will my hospital get the money it needs?

To the left is Joseph Biggar, one of the foremost practitioners of the Irish Parliamentary Party strategy of disrupting House of Commons business and wielding the balance of power to advance Home Rule in Ireland. This sometimes involved blocking bills that applied to the entire UK, e.g. the Threshing Machines Bill of 1877. It was around this time that he was caricatured in Vanity Fair.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Libyan migrant crisis

The European Union statements today (example) on the Mediterranean migrant tragedy are filled with references to finding the "root causes of migration." That's a tall order, at least if those root causes are supposed to correspond to immediate solutions.

In fact, the problems begin with the definition of the crisis itself: it's seen as too many people risking their lives trying to get to Europe. That's serious, but it's a smaller order of magnitude than the migrant crisis within the Middle East and North Africa -- millions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, at least a million more within Iraq itself (above), and then the extended movement from across the Sahel to go north, the majority of whom won't get as far as a dangerous boat ride to Italy, but will run into plenty of other perils.

The Syrian case also shows the fallacy of linking the migration crisis to the military intervention against Gaddafi: that intervention brought many problems, but so did not intervening against Bashar al-Assad.

There's a high risk that once the EU decides the problem is mainly the sea crossing, the solution will be a de facto blockade of Libya. But that will be nowhere near a solution to a crisis that spans three continents.

Photo: Internally displaced Sunni Iraqis stuck at a checkpoint outside Baghdad; photo Reuters via New York Times.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Back in the USSR

Writing on the Wall Street Journal opinion page, Republican intelligence players Michael Mukasey and Kevin Carroll are outraged about various things, including that current CIA Director John Brennan once referred to Jerusalem as Al Quds (its Arabic name), but they have a solution for all his transgressions --

But the boss has already said that purported concerns about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon are dishonest. Human nature being what it is at Langley as elsewhere, how likely is it that an evaluation suggesting that Iran is up to something would make it beyond operational channels, through reports officers, analysts and CIA managers, up to policy makers? Not very, unless Congress acts promptly to put in place an alternative team of analysts, much as George H.W. Bush did when he was CIA director in 1976 under President Ford. That was an election year, and détente with the Soviet Union was the overriding administration policy. During the campaign, the question of whether our military power was falling behind Moscow’s was a charged issue. Mr. Bush commissioned a team of independent experts known as “Team B” to provide analysis of the Soviets’ capabilities and intentions that competed with the CIA’s own internal evaluation. Team B highlighted dangers posed by the U.S.S.R.’s growing strategic nuclear forces, informing President Reagan’s later determination to counteract those capabilities. 

Here's a good Wikipedia account of Team B. The bottom line is that its analysis was, to use the technical term, shite, and it misread nearly everything about the USSR but especially its potential for aggressive nuclear war and the strength of its economy. But the 1980s saw massively higher defence spending motivated by Team B, jobs for many its members, and its alumni would then play a key role in making the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

And now the Eye of Team B is upon ... Iran!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bank robbers

General Electric (GE) used to run a large financial operation -- a bank: GE Capital. It's decided to get rid of it. As Paul Krugman explains, this is because US regulators decided that since GE Capital was acting like a large bank, it should be regulated like one. That hasn't stopped the howls of outrage about overzealous regulation. The Wall Street Journal adds more. GE Finance wasn't just a bank; it was a tax dodge factory --

In cutting loose its banking business, General Electric Co. isn’t just shedding a profitable lending operation. It’s also losing a rich source of tax breaks.... GE says its effective tax rate could rise to 20% or more in the future, roughly double last year’s rate of just over 10% ... What that means in practice, a person familiar with the matter said, is that GE Capital can borrow in the U.S., using the interest it pays to offset its industrial profits at home, and then make profits by investing the money out of Uncle Sam’s reach overseas.

Just what your friendly neighbourhood bank was meant for!

Jordan tells Saudi Arabia to get out of Yemen while they can

Seemingly oblique comment from Jordan's King Abdullah in interview with Brett Baier on Fox News --

As commander of special operations many years ago, I was involved in training of Yemeni special forces, so I know the complications of Yemen .. I think that .. I would humbly suggest that the quicker we find a political situation to that issue, the better.

Much of the focus of the subsequent panel discussion was on his remarks about his Iran and the general impact of the Arab Spring. Yet he essentially just told his Gulf neighbours, and the US supporters of their Yemeni operation -- based on personal military experience -- that they're backing a loser.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Springtime for Saleh

Reuters, 18 March 2011 --

Gunmen on rooftops shot dead up to 42 protesters at an anti-government rally in Sanaa after Muslim prayers on Friday, enraging the opposition and prompting President Ali Abdullah Saleh to declare a state of emergency. Medical sources and witnesses told Reuters that Yemeni security forces and plainclothes snipers, who protesters said were government security men, had opened fire on the crowds. The Interior Ministry put the death toll at 25, but doctors said 42 people had died and at least 300 were injured. 

Despite widespread condemnation of that incident and others like it, there's never been any accountability for it. Four years later, Saleh is now bankrolling and supporting the Houthi revolt, and his aligned forces include snipers on rooftops in Aden. You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Not least the trick where he cons gullible western governments that he might be the solution to Yemen's endless faction fighting.

Friday, April 10, 2015

It would be a lot easier if they dumped Bashar

Hypocrisy in the Middle East is nothing new but yes, indeed, Iran did issue a blustering condemnation of alleged Saudi genocide in Yemen while being studiously silent about the Assad regime atrocities against civilians in general and Palestinians in the Yarmouk camp in particular. Slight exception: Iran did issue one statement of "concern" about Yarmouk, but entirely blaming ISIS and not the regime siege, and implying that ISIS is an agent of ... Israel!

Monday, April 06, 2015

If you spin a barrel bomb, it's a centrifuge

If we're going to ridicule Barack Obama, rightly, for his Yemen model of success, then how about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Al Quds) presenting as a good model for Iran -- Syria? (CNN State of the Union) --

If you said two years ago, if you said that the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad would remove all the chemicals from Syria, would destroy and remove, dismantle and remove from Syria all the materiel and weapons-making -- chemical weapons that they had, you would have said that's unrealistic. You know, that would have been true then. But the application of subsequent pressure on Syria produced exactly the result that we need here. So, what's unrealistic today with the sufficient application of pressure will become realistic for Iran tomorrow as well. 

Anyone who's been paying attention to the ground news from Syria knows that (a) chemical weapons have most likely been used by all sides, including Assad, since his stockpile was supposedly removed, and (b) the overall pace of killing has increased. That's what happens when you focus on one weapon and one type of use of a general capability.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

New counterparts needed

Seemingly perfectly reasonable White House statement on phone call between Barack Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta --

He reiterated that he looks forward to meeting with President Kenyatta again in Nairobi in July, when the two leaders will discuss how to strengthen counterterrorism cooperation ...

Actual situation today in Kenya (Reuters) --

... as Kenyan churches hired armed guards to protect their Easter congregations.  

The entire anti-terrorism paradigm of the US is they can beef up formal security forces to do the job. But with Thursday's evidence fresh in their minds of a small group of terrorists being given the 15 hour run of a campus to shoot whoever they wanted, Kenyans have concluded they need to do the anti-terror job themselves. Maybe that US anti-terror training will include that someone in uniform has to pick up the phone.

Low ranked refugees

Good BBC News update on the dire situation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee "camp" in Damascus but perhaps a lazy, if understandable, choice to illustrate the story with a photograph -- the iconic UNRWA photo -- which is now 15 months old. There is no doubt that the situation in the district has gotten worse since that photograph was taken. In addition to the increased misery, yet another Syrian war narrative has fallen: this time, that the ISIS can't hold territory in the Assad regime stronghold of Damascus. It's nice for Assad that the foreign policy elites have decided to assume that's in his area of permanent control.

UPDATE: Bloomberg News also uses the 2014 photo for a current Yarmouk story, but at least dates the photo. 

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Afraid of what they wouldn't find

Another Iraq war anniversary season brings another Iraq defence, this time from Judith Miller (in the Wall Street Journal), she being a key media conduit for incorrect intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs --

One could argue, however, that Hans Blix, the former chief of the international weapons inspectors, bears some responsibility. Though he personally opposed an invasion, Mr. Blix told the U.N. in January 2003 that despite America’s ultimatum, Saddam was still not complying fully with his U.N. pledges. In February, he said “many proscribed weapons and items,” including 1,000 tons of chemical agent, were still “not accounted for.”

From the George Bush de facto declaration of war, 17 March 2003 --

All the decades of deceit and cruelty have now reached an end. Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing. For their own safety, all foreign nationals -- including journalists and inspectors -- should leave Iraq immediately. 

Like others looking back at the buildup to war from the perspective of its supporters, Miller focuses on the quality of pre-war intelligence and the extent to which it permitted conclusions like those George Bush and Dick Cheney presented to the public.

But as the essence of Bush's statement makes clear, the logic of war had metastasized into the belief that Saddam himself was the problem. Note that Bush's statement demands that the UN inspectors leave Iraq, dismissing the only mechanism that could have clarified the WMD situation without another war. Once the war was defined as being about Saddam, it could only end with getting rid of Saddam. It's therefore specious to present Robb-Silberman type parsing of intelligence vagueness as a justification for that logic and decision. 

Thursday, April 02, 2015

So nefarious, only Iran could have done it

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Al Quds) --

At the same time, Iran is accelerating its campaign of terror, subjugation and conquest throughout the region, most recently in Yemen.

Today, 147 people were murdered by Somali militants in Kenya, and Yemen is running out of food.

But everything bad that happens in the region is Iran's fault.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Saudi non-scarf non-outrage escalates

The media rules for whether there's more OUTRAGE when a visiting woman does or doesn't wear a scarf visiting Saudi Arabia get more and more difficult to follow. Anyway, in this picture of the US House Speaker John Boehner delegation visit to Riyadh from a meeting with the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) is not wearing a scarf. But since she's not Michelle Obama, the hyper-interpretation machine stays dormant.

Photo: Al Sharq Al Awsat.

Monday, March 30, 2015

But Netanyahu said it doesn't matter whether or not ISIS wins

The joint Republican/Likud foreign policy roadshow today is in Baghdad; seen above House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner meeting the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. The Prime Minister told Boehner that the struggle against ISIS was a national struggle of Iraq and that Hashid Shaabi popular mobilization committee is an Iraqi state institution also contributing the struggle.

Boehner is unlikely to have mentioned in response that in the speech that he hailed as the best he'd heard in 25 years on the sources of threats, Bibi (R-Al Quds) had dismissed the northern Iraq battle as a "Game of Thrones" between Iran and ISIS.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Citizens destroy statue of Baathist dictator

This narrative-jarring image shows an Islamist fighter near the top of a defaced statue of Hafez al-Assad in Idlib city, Syria. Note the nice touch of the boot on top of the statue. But of course there's no celebration in the Western media even though the image is more spontaneous than that of the Saddam-toppling in Firdos Square, Baghdad.

In fact, with an Islamist coalition led by Al-Nusra Front just having taken Idlib, it's probably about time for Pentagon to suddenly remember that the Khorasan Group is there too!

Photographer: Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Remember when four hijacked planes flew into Tel Aviv?

US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner speaks to CNN about his pal Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Al Quds) recent speech to Congress --

I’m glad that he was here and frankly, the speech he gave was the clearest speech I’ve heard in 25 years about the real threats that face our country.

Above, George W. Bush addresses Congress on September 20, 2001.

Hearing, not listening

Jordan news agency (Petra) press release following meeting of King Abdullah with US House Speaker and a Republican delegation which is on a monumental junket that will conclude with a prolonged Bibi/Likud lovefest in Israel --

The King said the Palestinian issue is at the core of the conflict in the region, and called for intensifying international endeavors to revive peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, based on the two-state solution and the international legitimacy resolutions. 

Presumably we'll hear from a plain talker like Boehner on what his response was.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Long time, first time

New York Times article on Egypt's participation in the Saudi-led intervention (IAABOT) in Yemen --

Two unexpected allies, Pakistan and Sudan, also joined the fight. 

Let's take Sudan first. Sudan has always identified as an Arab country, and post-partition (with South Sudan), it clearly is. It borders the Red Sea and Port Sudan was historically a stop on the intercontinental shipping routes which had Aden has their hub. So there's not much unexpected about them taking an interest now, especially with their President just having left Riyadh.

But then there's Pakistan. The NYT article correctly notes Egypt's debilitating participation in the 1960s Yemeni wars ... but not that the troops doing the bulk of the fighting for the Saudis were from .., Pakistan!  Ishaan Tharoor has gathered all the history in much more detail.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Black Swan

Issue 6 
Prepared for: European Aviation Safety Agency

... The significance of this issue [emergency access to the flightdeck] depends on the likelihood of an event where all three risks below exist:
 - there is an emergency situation which requires crew access from the cabin to the flightdeck, and
 - the flight crew are unable to unlock the flightdeck door from the flightdeck by any method available to them, and
 - the emergency means for cabin crew to access the flightdeck does not function.

 Procedures have been used to prevent incapacitation of all flight crew due to common factors such as food or drink poisoning. There could be other factors such as hypoxia, cabin air contamination with noxious fumes or smoke/fire, or windscreen failure (e.g. due to maintenance error or bird impact exceeding the standards provided by the airworthiness requirements. The risk of the incapacitation of all flight crew is considered to be small, but not non-existent (see Appendix 2 for more discussions on flight crew incapacitation). However, there is still a more conceivable risk where one flight crew leaves the flight deck (e.g. to go to the lavatory) and the other flight crew in the flight deck becomes incapacitated. If the emergency means to enter the flightdeck from the cabin does not have a high degree of reliability, the consequences could be catastrophic. Another conceivable risk is where one of the flight crew becomes incapacitated and the other flight crew requires assistance from the cabin crew, but the flight crew is unable to unlock the door from his station for any reason. There have been reports of pilots being locked out of the flight deck5 , with the widely publicised occurrence on a CRJ-100 on a flight from Ottawa to Winnipeg in 26 August 2006.

For more Germanwings foreshadowing, or lack thereof, use your search engine of choice for the term FAR 25.772(c).

UPDATE: The above discussion brings out one important point. The air regulators are now saying that the no-one alone in the flight deck rule that was already partially on the books is the response to the Germanwings case. But that rule itself emerged as a substitute for the originally proposed requirement that there be emergency access to the flightdeck from the cabin even if the door is locked. MH 370 may have met the requirement of both pilots on the flightdeck and still crashed. The issue is after realizing that the plane is under malign control, there should be a way to intervene from the cabin.

It is some kind of storm

The name of the Saudi military operation in Yemen does not translate very well. It's being presented variously as Determined Storm, Decisive Storm, Firm Storm, etc. Among the underlying issues revealed by attempted investigation of this issue by a non-Arabic speaker is that Google Translate still has its limitations. Here's an Al Arabiya article with associated video which explains the origin of the name in an expression of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. However the key phrase translates as babble, which is replicated in all other links to that story or indeed to the phrase itself. With a little more digging, it seems that the name is trying to capture the essence of a historical remark by Abdulaziz, in which he waited patiently for a dangerous situation to be resolved, and when it didn't, he stormed into action to resolve it himself. So it's Intense Action After Biding One's Time (IAABOT), which is a tad long for a stand-alone name.

Still, it's probably a better name that the glory days of Operation Together Forward.

All rebels all the time

From the single worst document produced by the Obama administration, the 2015 "National Security Strategy," launched just over a month ago --

we seek a stable Yemen that undertakes difficult structural reforms and confronts an active threat from al-Qa’ida and other rebels

UPDATE: Zach Beauchamp at Vox has collected some quotes from the last 2 days illustrating the intellectual shambles that the White House has been led to on Yemen, a country they've never understood.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

North Arabia Felix

The President of Yemen, Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, arriving in Riyadh and being greeted by King Salman's son Mohammed. He apparently arrived on a medical evacuation plane but looks happy enough. It's useful to have the President of the country you're about to invade on hand to vouch for your intentions!

Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

One less theory to worry about

National Review article by Tom Rogan, one year ago --

Still, amidst the endless speculation, one important area of consideration has been largely neglected — the question as to whether MH370’s captain or co-pilot had become sympathetic to Islamist extremism. It’s only now, nine days after the disappearance, that we’re beginning to seriously discuss this issue. It’s a sign of how far political correctness has encroached on our ability to think and speak about Islamist extremism. 

Germanwings 4U 9525 makes abundantly clear that profiling is not going to work in these type of situations. It's about the specific details of the individual in the cockpit, which is what makes so hard to understand.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Now we know were some of American Iraq cash went

Note the elaborate gold phone being used by the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to phone Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. And of major geopolitical significance, compare it to the lousy white phone he used to phone Egypt President Sisi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia!

The Media Pilgrimage Industrial Complex

Judy Woodruff on Fox News Sunday yesterday --

I think it [Obama-Netanyahu] clearly -- sorry, Bob [Woodward], but I think it clearly does change the overall relationship. You know, I was in Israel last year and they are stunned. They cannot comprehend why the president of the United States is obviously doing more to align American policy with Iran than with Israel.

Not to pick on Judy Woodruff in particular, but the line "I was in Israel" [insert time period] is a hardy perennial of the Sunday show/pundit circuit.  And of course that includes politician guests on the same shows.

Any or all of the following questions should therefore be considered as follow-ups to any guest seeking validation for their views on the basis of recent trips to Israel.

1. Who paid for the trip?
2. Who arranged the meetings?
3. Were there meetings with Israeli government officials, and if so, what were the ground rules?
4. Did the visit include the West Bank in general, Ramallah in particular (to get the views of the Palestinian Authority), and other locations experiencing significant disruptions from settlements?
5. What parts of Jerusalem were visited and under what logistics?
6. How about visits to the Gaza strip?
7. What kind of Israeli government facilitation was occurring at security crossings?
8. Was any attempt made to enter Israel by a land crossing from Jordan, or vice versa?
9. How many Arabs were met in the course of the trip?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Saudi quagmire

Long before the USA got addicted to interventions in Iraq and indeed even before the USA was breaking its addictions to interventions to Vietnam, Saudi Arabia was already addicted to interventions in Yemen. What changes is the external counterpart/foil. In the 1960s it was Nasser. In recent years it is, allegedly and plausibly, Iran.

Since the prospect of another Saudi military intervention in Yemen cannot be ruled out, the poor record of the last one, in 2009, is worth recalling. Following a border incursion by the now ubiquitous Houthis, Prince Khaled bin Sultan directed a large Saudi operation against the Houthis, in conjunction with the Yemeni army. It didn't go very well, the Saudis had hundreds of casualties and eventually withdrew with little more than a verbal promise by the Houthis not to get too close to the border again. Prince Khaled's reputation took a blow and he was subsequently eased out of his position as Deputy Minister of Defence and probably lost whatever position he had in the ultimate succession stakes.

As subsequently revealed by Wikileaks, Khaled's forces did at least manage to avert a fiasco when they realized they were being tricked into a bombing a Yemeni general, Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a rival of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Note that Saleh is widely considered to be a player and likely funder of the current Houthi military sweep through Yemen. One mystery is why, despite knowing Saleh's duplicity, Saudi Arabia allowed him to recuperate in Riyadh from a bomb attack on his palace -- an attack which would have turned out better for the average Yemeni had Saleh lost his life in it. One possibility is that Saleh tricked the Saudis -- again -- by saying that he would stay out of Yemen for good once he recovered. He's back, and making trouble.

The bottom line at this point is that the Saudis probably see little alternative to another military intervention in Yemen, even knowing the dim prospects thereof.  Maybe Benjamin Netanyahu, who's recently be claiming to the voice of the Gulf Arabs as well as Israel, has some advice for them.