Belmont Club

Already Ending or Just Getting Started?

Ooops

Everybody’s getting ready for the UN peace conference on Syria by preparing the political battlespace for advantage.  President Bashar al-Assad is turning the hideously ruined city of Homs into a political theme park showcasing the savage choices of the civil war by reconstructing the neighborhoods friendly to the regime while leaving the rest to pointedly rot.  The lesson, Assad hopes, is obvious.

The Russians, for their part, are busily rearranging the attendance list by killing off those whose presence Putin finds objectionable.  A few days ago, Moscow’s aircraft killed “Zahran Allouch, the head of one of the most powerful Saudi-backed insurgent groups fighting against President Bashar Assad’s government” in a precision strike.  The leader of Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”) led one of the most powerful factions of the broad Salafi-jihadi coalition supported by Saudi Arabia.

Putin’s airplanes were also busy blasting oil convoys allegedly selling ISIS’ contraband in Turkey in a further effort to squeeze the Saudis even as the Kremlin was trying to split Erdogan off from the Gulf States.  The Turkish president, speaking to the Al Arabiya news agency, said he would not double-cross the West despite Russia’s overtures.

it seems that the developments in Syria have affected the situation in Iraq. Syria, Iran, Iraq and Russia have formed a quartet alliance in Baghdad and asked Turkey to join, but I told President [Vladimir] Putin that I cannot sit alongside a president whose legitimacy is distrustful.

That was good of him especially since the Obama administration has been in secret contact with Assad for years according to the Wall Street Journal, in a failed attempt to persuade him to step down.

The Obama administration pursued secret communications with elements of Syria’s regime over several years in a failed attempt to limit violence and get President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power, according to U.S. and Arab officials.

Early on, the U.S. looked for cracks in the regime it could exploit to encourage a military coup, but found few.

Obama may be in touch with Assad again since analysis of the UN peace conference draft resolution by National Interest shows that the parties in Geneva will principally argue over “President Assad’s future” a point some hope can be resolved through UN-supervised elections.

Some analysts counsel that, given the ferocity of the civil war, it would be unwise to bet on UN elections . Michael Knights in War on the Rocks argues the present civil war is just an undercard to the scheduled main event; that all the parties on the ground are warming up for the Big One leaving precious little interest for such Western concerns as “fighting ISIS” or worrying about humanitarian catastrophes.

The first priority of most actors is consolidating their control on the ground. The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are staking out their long-term territorial claims. Iranian-backed groups like Badr are carving out principalities in Iraqi areas like Diyala and Tuz Khurmatu. Abu Mahdi al-Muhadis, the most senior Iranian proxy in Iraq and a U.S.-designated terrorist involved in the deaths of U.S. and British troops, is seeking to quickly build the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) into a new permanent institution akin to a ministry, complete with budgets and infrastructure, in order to stave off the risk of demobilization after the Islamic State is gone. His ambition is no less than to grow a new parallel army equivalent to and subservient to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, boosting Iran’s efforts to take over Iraq’s political and religious leadership. …

Local actors’ preparations for the next war — or, likely, wars — helps explain the slow progress of the battle against the Islamic State so far. Iraqi Kurdish leaders are open about the coming clash with Shia militias and other Baghdad-backed forces along the disputed boundary with federal Iraq. The Baghdad Operations Command continues to hold around half of the offensive-capable Iraqi military units in reserve in the capital despite the declining risk of an Islamic State attack on Baghdad. Why? To offset the risk posed by the Shia militias. The Kurds in Syria are readying for a future war against Turkey to preserve their de facto statelet along the Turkish–Syrian border. All these actors will use the weapons provided or captured during today’s war against the Islamic State to fight tomorrow’s wars against each other. …

On one side is the “Axis of Resistance” — actors like Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Iraq like Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ Kataib Hezbollah. Russia has seemingly bet on that camp. … In the other corner is a less cohesive but strengthening alliance that comprises Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and the UAE.

If Obama’s diplomatic train stops in Geneva the rest are bound for points further on. As Iyad El-Baghdadi eloquently put it: “the story of the Arab Spring is far from over” having only just begun.   The “Arab ancien régime, of which the Arab Spring signaled a rejection” is unfinished. “The Arab Spring is more than a wave of political uprisings launched in 2011. It’s an intergenerational shift whereby a new generation of youth rejected regimes built by tyrants from a previous era.”

Putin, according to the New York Times, is preparing for the long trip by re-arming.  The Daily Beast reports the Russian strongman is extending its alliances by “seducing” Iraq’s Sunni tribes.  Even the radical Islamists are looking past Geneva.  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Qasim al Raymi argues a Syrian stalemate will prove that an Islamic State can only be built by first destroying America.

On Dec. 20, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) released a video featuring the group’s top leader (or emir), Qasim al Raymi. Sitting in front of a marker board, al Raymi delivers a nearly 20-minute lecture on jihad and the importance of confronting America. He claims that the US is the primary obstacle standing in the way of the jihadists’ quest to build a truly Islamic state.

Al Raymi describes the US as the “primary” and “real” enemy, because it supposedly props up the jihadists’ adversaries around the globe. …

The AQAP chief criticizes attempts to establish an Islamic nation “in the abode war,” before sharia law can be fully implemented. This is undoubtedly a critique of AQAP’s rivals in Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, which claims to rule over a “caliphate” covering large portions of Iraq and Syria even as it fights multiple actors…. Therefore, al Raymi argues, both he and other jihadists are obligated to “eliminate this obstacle” and “direct” their weapons against America.

In other words the jihad is again preparing to shift its attack to the West.  The administration’s preparations for the coming challenge consists of doubling down on its old approaches, a strategy charmingly characterized as strategic patience. A flurry of recent pieces in flagship media has laid out the talking points: trust in the president. Rick Klein in ABC News describes the strident, panicked tone of the president’s critics. “An anxious nation enters a political year with security and economic fears and with loud, angry voices dominating.

It suggests a quieter year for a humbled president — yet still an ambitious and active one, with a rare window for governing presenting itself through the outside noise. … He’ll be playing more defense than offense, preserving ground gained in those early, heady days of 2009 and 2010. …

“The president has some more tricks up his sleeve,” said Bill Burton, a former White House aide who was among the first campaign workers hired by Obama when he launched his bid for the presidency. … “The longer Donald Trump is in the mix, the more the vast majority of Americans are yearning for an adult in the national conversation,” Burton said.

Fred Kaplan at Slate takes up the idea that the public must defer to its betters and eat its spinach.  He reports that the administration believes its soaring triumphs have gone unappreciated by those who can only see the short term. “The potential for peace, prosperity, and global improvement, arising from his diplomatic achievements, is considerable, even transformative; but the results aren’t yet in … President Obama sees his current poor ratings in polls as stemming from a failure to communicate. Aides say that he plans to spend more time next year explaining his policies and describing what he has been doing both to defeat ISIS abroad and to stop acts of terrorism at home.”

The narrative is that a better sales job will calm the doubting Thomases down. The pitch appears to be: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”

Completing the picture of a president wronged were two articles: a Reuters article announcing that the president was praying for persecuted Christians at Christmas and a Washington Post article describing how the president patiently endured the calumnies of his detractors through the power of his “Christian faith”.  “His faith had been central to his identity as a new kind of Democrat who would bring civility to the country’s political debates by appealing to Republicans through the shared language of their Judeo-Christian values.”

Yet what the administration might call “faith” might to from another point of view be seen as unyielding pride.  Naseem Nicholas Taleb and Gregory Treverton, writing in Foreign Policy argue that inflexible rigidity is often not a sign of strength, but of a fragility. Citing the Arab Spring Taleb points out that the weakest systems were those which could not adapt.

Many pundits argued that Syria’s sturdy police state, which exercised tight control over the country’s people and economy, would survive the Arab Spring undisturbed. Compared with its neighbor Lebanon, Syria looked positively stable. … But appearances were deceiving: today, Syria is in a shambles, with the regime fighting for its very survival, whereas Lebanon has withstood the influx of Syrian refugees and the other considerable pressures of the civil war next door. …

Syria’s biggest vulnerability was that it had no recent record of recovering from turmoil. Countries that have survived past bouts of chaos tend to be vaccinated against future ones. Thus, the best indicator of a country’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

By this measure the Obama administration’s dogged persistence is not the sanctum of adulthood it pretends to be, but the expression of brittleness. Taleb says that “simply put, fragility is aversion to disorder. Things that are fragile do not like variability, volatility, stress, chaos, and random events, which cause them to either gain little or suffer.”

The Obama administration’s penchant for actively doing nothing, what it calls “leading from behind” and doubling down suggests it is a one trick pony. Yet in fairness to the administration the five markers of fragility that Taleb enumerates apply even more closely to the other actors in the international drama.  Europe, China and Russia may be even more fragile than America.

The first marker of a fragile state is a concentrated decision-making system. … The second soft spot is the absence of economic diversity. … The third source of fragility is also economic in nature: being highly indebted and highly leveraged. … The fourth source of fragility is a lack of political variability. Contrary to conventional wisdom, genuinely stable countries experience moderate political changes, continually switching governments and reversing their political orientations. … The fifth marker of fragility takes the proposition that there is no stability without volatility a step further: it is the lack of a record of surviving big shocks. …

When it comes to overall fragility, countries can vary from exhibiting no signs of fragility to being very fragile.

Saudi Arabia is an easy call: it is extremely dependent on oil, has no political variability, and is highly centralized. Its oil wealth and powerful government have papered over the splits between its ethnoreligious units, with the Shiite minority living where the oil is. For the same reason, Bahrain should be considered extremely fragile, mainly on account of its repressed Shiite majority.

Saudi Arabia’s possible fragility may be one reason why Putin is tap-tap-tapping at the foundations of the kingdom. The outlook for 2016 suggests a world struggling to come to terms with a situation that has shifted under its feet, caught up in a crisis it will not recognize.  The forces unleashed during during the “heady days” of 2009 and 2010, far from coming under control are continuing to build their momentum.  The administration has really given up and is going through the motions of preserving a system that is gone.  It is like a dinosaur park supervisor hiding behind a pickup truck in the hope an escaped monster won’t notice it. Maybe the monster will pass it by.  But then again, maybe not.

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