Monday, September 28, 2015

G-Zero: US-China Relations in the Age of Xi

A few years back, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State declared that G-2—a US-PRC great power condominium much dreaded by advocates of a muscular attitude toward the Chinese menace—was dead.

Don’t worry, China hawks.  G-2 is still dead.

What’s left is G-Zero: a world in which the PRC and US governments go their separate ways and have less and less to do with each other.

As a result, the PRC’s bar for “success” in official and state visits to the United States is extremely low.  Decent venues, nice photos, no embarrassing incidents…

The baseline for humiliation is Hu Jintao’s 2006 official visit to the United States.  The atrocities were documented at the time by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank:

The visit began with a slight when the official announcer said the band would play the "national anthem of the Republic of China" -- the official name of Taiwan. It continued when Vice President Cheney donned sunglasses for the ceremony, and again when Hu, attempting to leave the stage via the wrong staircase, was yanked back by his jacket. Hu looked down at his sleeve to see the president of the United States tugging at it as if redirecting an errant child.
China wanted a formal state visit such as Jiang got, but the administration refused, calling it instead an "official" visit. Bush acquiesced to the 21-gun salute but insisted on a luncheon instead of a formal dinner, in the East Room instead of the State Dining Room. Even the visiting country's flags were missing from the lampposts near the White House.
If only the White House hadn't given press credentials to a Falun Gong activist who five years ago heckled Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in Malta. Sure enough, 90 seconds into Hu's speech on the South Lawn, the woman started shrieking, "President Hu, your days are numbered!" and "President Bush, stop him from killing!" 

Bush and Hu looked up, stunned. It took so long to silence her -- a full three minutes -- that Bush aides began to wonder if the Secret Service's strategy was to let her scream herself hoarse. The rattled Chinese president haltingly attempted to continue his speech and television coverage went to split screen. 

Much, much better this time.  Top drawer reception, lots of nice pictures, demonstrators kept at a remote and silent distance, PRC media flooded the zone with favorable coverage at home,  Xi Jinping looked in control and at ease in the aerie of the cranky and contentious US bald eagle and got his “world leader” ticket punched.

All this despite the fact that the US has moved overtly into an alliance with Japan to contain the PRC in East Asia, and pretty much the only positive subject the two countries really have to talk about is climate change.

There was no official communique; instead the US acquiesced as the PRC issued a laundry list of 49 “outcomes” that looked suspiciously like a summary of 49 things the two countries talked about but never quite agreed on.

By the way, note to posterity:

The Wall Street Journal mis-characterized Xi Jinping as saying “China’s President Pledges No Militarization in Disputed Islands” in its headline and “Xi Jinping made a commitment…” in the lede.

What he actually said was: “China does not intend to pursue militarization of Nansha Islands in South China Sea….”

That’s not a “pledge” or “commitment”, folks.  It’s a statement of “intent” under current circumstances but contingent upon future developments.  Let’s see where the goalposts show up when the South China Sea jostling resumes.

The overall “same bed different dreams” anomie in the loveless official relationship was also on display during the joint press conference.  The U.S. press corps and President Obama let their preoccupation with the seemingly less than world-historical issue of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s resignation run away with them.  By my estimate, President Obama spent half of his response time to questions by Western journos musing on Boehner’s departure and the prospects for a government shutdown, while President Xi presumably (no split screens this time) either played Angry Birds on his smart phone or pondered the inspiring or encouraging spectacle of American democracy valiantly staggering forward despite its self-inflicted wounds.

President Xi had his relatively low expectations met, I believe.

For the US press, on the other hand, there is no standard is too high to which a visiting Chinese dignitary can be held, especially when US-PRC relations have entered the cybercrime/South China Sea/dissident crackdown/screwed-up stock market phase.  The task was made infinitely easier by the near-simultaneous visit of Pope Francis, the massive, ecstatic reception given the pontiff, and the contrast it provided with the scripted, plodding US-PRC summit.

The Guardian’s Tom Phillips mocked PRC fawning coverage of Xi’s visit with a tweet “Pope?  What Pope?”

Reuters helpfully pointed out:

The ex-Ambassador of Mexico to the PRC, Jorge Guajardo, who assiduously tends the anti-PRC vineyard from his current residence in Washington, contributed this inadvertently revealing insight to Reuters:

"To be contrasted with someone who has no military, no economic might and be completely eclipsed, I think it’s astounding. I don’t think the Chinese are noticing the contrast in messages,” said Jorge Guajardo. 

The actual message, perhaps imperfectly grasped by Ambassador Guajardo, is that Pope Francis’ agenda, which challenges the prevailing capitalist, political, and spiritual orthodoxy in this country, is not regarded as a threat to the US because Pope Francis has zero clout.  The PRC, on the other hand, is playing the same amoral, moneygrubbing, and bullying game we are—and, thanks to its military and economic muscle, is making life difficult for us in ways Pope Francis can’t even dream of.

Somebody else who “missed the message” was CBS News’ Mark Knoller, who tweeted:

Ending hour-long joint news conference, Pres Obama and Xi shake hands. Obama walks Xi to his car. A limo, not a Fiat. 

What, no rickshaw? I tweeted in reply.

The relevant comparison for Xi, of course, is not the Pope and his funky Fiat, it is President Obama, whose ride of choice is The Beast, a $1.5 million dollar armor-plated limousine—with a supply of the president’s blood in the trunk!-- escorted by a phalanx of black SUVs filled with submachine-gun-wielding Secret Service agents.

Clearly, the US media and, I expect, many citizens of the US are much more comfortable dealing with the fantasy of flying heavenward on Pope Francis’ wings of mercy and compassion, not the grubby reality of wrestling on the White House lawn with a mean, fat panda for dominance of the 21st century economic and military order.

Funny thing is, the PRC has a similar combination of affinities and aversions, unpleasant realities and comforting fantasies, as was exhibited on Xi’s next stop: the United Nations.

The PRC had worked out a nice deal to co-host a UN conference on gender equality, the Global Leaders' Meeting on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment “chaired by Xi Jinping” on the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, a monumental gender equality conference in Beijing, and taking place in New York just before the UN General Assembly’s 70th anniversary confab.

In early 2015 the PRC had detained the “Feminist Five”, women who had attempted to promote a national movement of the type that the CCP abhors, in order to bring attention to inequities against women in the PRC.  The government, presumably mindful of the grisly optics this provided the conference, had freed the women in March, but that did not preclude the US from beating on the subject. 

Freed from the onerous obligation of hospitality demanded by the state visit, the United States government leapt at the opportunity to rain on Xi’s parade on the occasion of the UN conference.

Samantha Power, the US Permanent Representative to the UN had announced that the US would commemorate the conference by honoring twenty women political prisoners, the most conspicuous of whom was Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer, albeit not a feminist but indeed a woman imprisoned as part of a crackdown on nettlesome lawyers.  Wang had bravely defended many activists, including one of the “Feminist Five”.

Despite the generally pretty good status of women in the PRC—especially when compared to the gender equality shortcomings of humanity’s-flavor-of-the-week Pope Francis, let alone Saudi Arabia, whose elevation to the chair of the UN Human Rights Council was hailed by the United States (and excused by Samantha Power as “just a procedural position”)—the gender conference was deemed worthy of a US boycott, as the New York Times’ Jane Perlez reported:

The Chinese government planned Mr. Xi’s prominent role to show that he is committed to the empowerment of Chinese women. The ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, thinks otherwise.

Ms. Power…was present when Mr. Xi addressed the summit, but unlike the scores of international leaders at the event, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President François Hollande of France, she did not speak.

President Obama did not attend the session, a decision by the administration to signal its distaste for the idea of Mr. Xi celebrating women’s progress in China amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent, including the arrest of female activists.

Victory of principle, or churlish own-goal along the lines of US resistance to the AIIB and boycott of the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade.  You decide!

Hillary Clinton, presumably by virtue of her “present at the creation” participation in the original conference in Beijing in 1995, felt empowered to weigh in with this tweet:

Hillary Clinton @HillaryClinton
Xi hosting a meeting on women's rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless. #Freethe20 -H

So, from her individual account, Clinton called out Xi by name, and called him “shameless”.  In Chinese, “shameless” doesn’t mean, Hey, he sure has thick skin/big balls/a bold indifference to criticism/what a cool, edgy, transgressive bro!  It translates as 无耻 , meaning a person without a sense of shame and beneath contempt.

It’s a major insult, one whose import—with the added offense of applying the epithet directly to Xi, literally in his face—perhaps escaped Clinton and the functionaries who manage her twitter account.  Global Times took up the cudgels on Xi’s behalf, while declining to quote the tweet, an indication of its odiousness.

Since the CCP leadership already cordially detests Clinton for her upfront role in orchestrating the pivot and promoting the diplomatic and military ostracization of the PRC—remember Xi Jinping’s “back trouble” when Clinton visited Beijing on her farewell tour as Secretary of State?—maybe it’s no big deal.

Except that it will further concentrate the attention of Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership on restructuring the PRC’s foreign relations so that unpleasant engagement with a United States government--possibly soon to be run by President Hillary Clinton--can be minimized as much as possible.

Indeed, that was the theme, ignored by the US-centric Western press (but hammered home by the PRC press non-stop), of Xi’s current visit.

A few awkward hours in Washington, bookended by outreach to business leaders in Seattle and a major public relations push in New York to buttress the UN—and claim an increasingly central role in a non-US-dominated international order—by the PRC.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Xi was able to offer up some crowd-pleasing initiatives that put some meat on the bones of the PRC’s idea of the UN as a viable venue for its foreign policy and international relations—and an alternative to the unipower priorities of the United States.

He promised $1 billion over ten years to a fund to support the UN.  If this works out to $100 million per year--and ends up in the coffers of the UN, instead of expended by the PRC on initiatives it deems worthy--it might represent about a 1/3 increase in the PRC’s underwriting of the UN budget.

Add $100 million to the African Union to assist in its peacekeeping operations.

And the pledge of a standing, standby force of 8000 men as a reserve for UN peacekeeping operation, thereby offering the possibility of the UN having significant muscle on tap and providing a viable alternative to helpless reliance on the US and other national forces to enforce UNSC resolutions.

Add to that announced initiatives to support South-South exchanges and, in the US “sub-national” exchanges between Chinese and Americans.

And a $2 billion assistance fund plus debt relief for poor countries.

All in all, a concerted effort to diminish the US government as a factor in PRC foreign relations, and eliminate the need, as much as feasible, for PRC leaders to engage in onerous, expensive, and humiliating visits to the United States in order to wangle grudging and partial acknowledgment of PRC peer status by the United States.

Prospects for the PRC buying and bullying its way into a multi-polar world are looking pretty good.

The US should get ready for G-Zero…and maybe be more careful what it wishes for.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rising Sun, Setting Sun: Japan, the United States, and the Security Laws

The passage of the collective self defense bills-- enabling Japanese participation in military activities beyond its home territory under restrictions that appear to be rather elastic--

In case Japan faces “a survival-threatening situation,” in which the United States and other countries that have close ties with the nation come under an armed attack by a third country and that poses a threat to the existence of Japan and the livelihoods of Japanese people, Japan now can use minimum necessary force.

--had a feeling of inevitability to me.

They give more freedom of movement to the Japanese government in its security policy, more leverage in its foreign relations, and more gravy to the corporate sector.  These are opportunities that most modern governments, especially a right-wing government like Abe’s, would be eager to exploit.

And I think it’s accurate to describe them as a “normalization” of Japan’s international status, especially if “the norm” is understood to be a downgrade from the Japan’s previous condition, in other words a decline from the idealistic, pacifist aspirations of Japan’s US-imposed constitution to ordinary government-business-and-media driven war-grubbing.

The Japanese people as a whole appear to be more at home with these aspirations—which they grew up with—than the Abe ambition to restore Japan as a regional security player despite the risk it poses to Japanese lives, treasure, and honor.

Abe had to abandon his plans to revise the constitution to make “collective self defense” legal, and ignore the fact that an overwhelming majority of constitutional lawyers regarded his Plan B—“reinterpretation” of Article 9—as BS.  Then he had to turn his back on massive demonstration against the bills to push them through the legislature.

It was ugly.  And Japan’s somewhat less special now.

The temptation is to blame rising, scary China and the PRC’s messing with the Senkakus.

However, Abe’s been pushing an anti-PRC containment “diamond” ever since his first administration in 2007, when the PRC was not yet officially “scary”.

Abe has always wanted his “normalized” “remilitarized” “no more apologies” Japan and he got it…with an assist from the United States.

The United States under President Obama decided to take the plunge and openly commit to a China containment strategy keystoned on Japanese participation.

Even as many Asian nations—not just the PRC—expressed ambivalence over the re-emergence of Japan as a potential regional military force—US strategists have enthusiastically promoted the process, doing their best to dismiss popular opposition, the violence done to the constitution, and to the grotesquely counterproductive effort to force the Futenma base plan down the throats of the Okinawans.

The feeling, I suppose, is that all this shall pass—or can be managed—and we’ll have a capable, willing ally ready to help us execute our China strategy and toeing the US line thanks to the  restraints imposed by the constitution and the security legislation.

US Asian-natsec strategists are, I believe, delusional. 

I predict we’re not going to get Japan as our “UK in the Pacific” i.e. a slavishly obedient ally that has decided, as a fundamental national principle, to join itself to the hip to the United States in security policy.

We’re going to get something more like our “Israel in the Pacific”, an occasional, contentious, and conditional partner advancing its own agenda, an agenda that may well turn out to be more reckless and confrontational than it would be otherwise thanks to the moral hazard of strong US backing.

A while back I wrote in Asia Times Online:

Japan, the linchpin of the US pivot strategy —  and a source of orgasmic pleasure to US China hawks when it revised its defense guidelines to permit joint military operations in East Asia with the United States — already plays its own hand in Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar, as well as the Philippines.

Historically inclined readers might note 1) these are all countries that Japan invaded and/or occupied as a matter of national interest in World War II and 2) Japan is run by the spiritual heirs—or in the case of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the direct heirs — of people who ran Japan back then and implemented that policy until the United States defeated them.

When you anoint Japan as a theater-wide anti-PRC military ally, you’re not getting the same ally you had when Japan’s main job was hosting US bases and poking around in its own territorial waters and airspace.

And the ability of the United States to “manage” Japan and “lead” Asia is on a downward trajectory:

[T]he pivot to Asia is, in my mind, fundamentally flawed because it is built upon the premise of US leadership in Asian security, and ‘US leadership’ looks to be a wasting asset.

It’s not just the PRC.  Everybody’s getting bigger, and the US’s relative share is shrinking.

PricewaterhouseCoopers took the IMF’s 2014 GDP numbers and worked the spreadsheet magic using projected growth rates.

In 2050, here’s how they see the GDP horserace playing out, in trillions: China 61; India 42; USA 41; Indonesia 12; Brazil 9; Mexico 8; Japan 7.9; Russia 7.5; Nigeria 7.3 and Germany 6.3. Poodlicious Euro-allies UK, Italy, and France will be out of the top ten in 2050.  Australia drops from 19th place to 28th.

Put it another way, the US will have 14 percent of the world’s GDP and Asia, the region we’re purporting to lead, will have 50 percent.

America’s Pacific Century…is not going to be pushing around overmatched, grateful, and anxious allies like the UK, Poland, and Germany while trampling on small borderline failed states in the Middle East.  It’s going to be contending with half a dozen rising Asian nations, all with experiences of empire and aspirations to at least local hegemony…and on top of them, there’s China.

I think Asia is robust enough to accommodate and restrain the ambitions of the PRC…and resist US attempts to “lead” it.

Ditto for Japan.

I wouldn’t be surprised if historians look back at the passage of the Japanese security bills and regard them as a milestone in the decline of American influence in Asia…one that was eagerly and shortsightedly celebrated by US strategists at the time.

Maybe we’ll be saying September 19, 2015 didn't just mark the end of Japanese pacifism. We’ll say that the sun began to set on America’s Pacific Century…before it even had a chance to rise.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hidden History of Syria Regime Collapse Strategy Begins to Emerge

…though, to be accurate, loyal readers of China Matters knew the skinny as it happened, three years ago and the Western media is now playin’ ketchup.

Russia proposed more than three years ago that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, could step down as part of a peace deal, according to a senior negotiator involved in back-channel discussions at the time.g

Former Finnish president and Nobel peace prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari said western powers failed to seize on the proposal. Since it was made, in 2012, tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions uprooted, causing the world’s gravest refugee crisis since the second world war.
But he said that the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.

As the Guardian ruefully points out, most of the quarter-million fatalities and millions of refugees were generated after early 2012.  The total death toll in early 2012 was…less than 10,000.

Also consider this an instance of neoliberal ass-covering, as if the Western allies were just waiting for Assad "to fall."

I guess now the "foreign backed insurrection worked so well in Libya and only Russian and Iranian support is standing in the way of an identical democratic nirvana in Syria" alternative history has exploded, it's time for Plan C a.k.a. "the toothpaste is going BACK IN THE TUBE, people" (Plan A the optimistic "indigenous democracy movement will take down Assad while we cheer from the sidelines and provide just a teensy bit of arms & support" stance of 2011, Plan B being 2012 to date "the jihadis will lick Assad with a big assist from us you betcha.")

Nope, the full story of Syria in 2012 includes multiple sins of commission, not just omission, chief among them promoting a strategy of foreign-backed insurrection that tossed most of Syria and its people into a meatgrinder for three years...without bringing down Assad.

The facts that the domestic insurrection had failed in late 2011 (with the crushing of resistance in Homs) and that the EOA (Enemies of Assad i.e. the GCC, Turkey, the US, and its EU pilotfish) had switched to a strategy of externally supported regime collapse was clear to objective observers as it happened.

As evidence, I attach two pieces of mine.  The first one, from one from November 2011, The Syrian Revolution Hijacked, mordantly concludes:

The democratic revolution ship has sailed.  What’s going on today is a foreign-supported insurrection.


The Syrian revolutionaries were too weak to get the nation they wanted.

They’ll have to make do with whatever state that Turkey, the Gulf powers, and the western democracies decide to give them.

It also includes a sinister cameo from Victoria Nuland, a guest appearance by Islamist muscle imported via Turkey, and a startling prescient prediction by M. Badhrakumar concerning a possible Turkish incursion into northern Syria.

The second piece, July 17, 2012: the Day America Exited the 9/11 Era...By Entering an Alliance with Al Qaeda uses recent tittle tattle to update a piece I wrote in 2012 a week after a botched decapitation strike/regime collapse operation engineered by the United States.

To placate the TL;DR crowd, here’s the main takeaway from that piece:

July 17, 2012, the day the US, Europe, Turkey, and the GCC optimistically thought they could wrap up the Syria crisis in a few weeks with a well-timed campaign of terror and insurrection starting in Damascus.

Recently, a Beirut based newspaper, As-Safir, published a report on the July 2012 bombing (not aerial bombing, a C4 boobytrap) that wiped out Bashar al-Assad’s “security cell” a.k.a. his national security team during their daily strategy session in Damascus.

As translated by an outfit called Mideastwire, As-Safir claims the bombing was a decapitation strike as part of an elaborately choreographed scheme by the U.S. to collapse the Syrian government and military and smooth the way for a drive on Damascus by the Free Syrian Army and the elevation of defecting general Manaf Tlass (who possessed limited capacities beyond a firm jaw well suited to Churchillian cigar-clenching but was adored by the French, perhaps because his socialite sister had allegedly been the mistress of a French foreign minister) to the presidency.

I am inclined to believe As-Safir, apparently a lefty, Syria-friendly outfit with a large circulation, because shortly after the bombing I drew the same conclusion, immortalized in my July 28, 2012 piece for Asia Times Online:

[A] funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn't collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria's official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

This piece also features a rather farcical cameo by Juan Cole.

As the anti-Assad front cracks, I think we’ll see more of these sorts of reports leaking out, albeit framed as classic passive voiced "Assad didn't collapse" instead of "a massive West-supported regime-collapse effort failed completely to dislodge Assad while destroying Syria so now it's time to cut our losses, ignore responsibility,and MOVE ON."

Ironically, of course, these reports will be leaking out in outlets like the Guardian, whose fact-and-logic-challenged cheerleading for the collapse strategy will probably remain unexamined.

My personal feeling is that most of the EOA including President Obama have grown tired of the game and would like to wind it down.  Even the GCC, hemorrhaging from self-inflicted oil war and Yemen invasion wounds, may be willing to give the anti-Assad jihad a rest.  Among governments, Turkey looks like the last “Assad must go” outlier in the official coalition, as part of its apocalyptic high-stakes anti-Kurd policy in northern Syria.

But then there’s Israel.  I suspect hardliners in Israel, the US natsec establishment are still holding out for a military solution not just because they HATE ASSAD but because stringing out the Syria crisis offers the most effective way to drive wedges between the West and Russia and, more importantly Iran.

The hardliner/Likud Middle East policy is based on maintaining the Iran vs. civilization existential threat dichotomy, which is threatened by President Obama’s efforts at rapprochement via the nuclear deal…and the wholesale stampede of European powers eager to shed the sanctions incubus and do more business with Iran, which is (ironically, if you want to put it that way) the only reasonably stable, war-free oil power in the Middle East. 

The best way to keep Iran on the other side of the fence from the West, in other words, is to sidetrack any talk of peace/transition negotiations, sustain the assault on Assad, and elicit ever more overt and off-putting support from Russia and Iran (which see the possibility of closing the books on the Syria adventure and are determined to keep Assad hanging on).

At the very least, a second win for Iran (in Syria) is forestalled.  At best, during an escalating crisis, Iran gets painted as an enemy of all that’s good and decent and the wheels are pulled off the nuclear deal buggy—by instituting new US sanctions against Iran, perhaps, which is apparently seen as a dealbreaker.

Enough predicting.  Time will tell, I guess.

Here are the pieces covering the evolution and execution of the EOA regime collapse strategy in 2011-2012.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011
The Syrian Revolution Hijacked

The Syrian revolution—a broad-based, non-sectarian, democratic anti-despot national movement—has failed.

Mass demonstrations never materialized in Damascus and Aleppo.  The military and security forces didn’t crack.  The Alawite on Sunni crackdown (Alawites form the backbone of the army/security forces/irregular goon squads) fomented sectarian divisions, with most non-Sunnis minorities cleaving desperately to the Assad regime.  Prosperous Sunnis have presumably been hedging their bets by donating to the anti-government cause in recent days but have not explicitly abandoned the regime.

The Gulf powers and the West would have welcomed a Ba’athist regime collapse at the hand of domestic anti-government demonstrations.

That didn’t happen.

As the peaceful democratic movement has faltered, there has been no move from the Western/Gulf powers to encourage reconciliation and reforms.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

Whenever Assad makes an offer of reform, the Western powers dismiss it as too late and/or insincere.

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, counseled Syrian dissidents to defy the Assad regime’s offer of an amnesty in return for handing in illegal weapons, as the LA Times reported:

Syria accused Washington of "inciting sedition, supporting the acts of killing and terrorism," the official Syrian news agency said, quoting an official source at the Foreign Ministry.

The comments came a day after State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared that she would counsel Syrians to reject the amnesty, in which those the government terms arms violators were asked to turn themselves in with their weapons "to the nearest police station" during a one-week period that began Saturday. Those who surrender and have not killed anyone "will be released soon," the Interior Ministry vowed.

"I wouldn't advise anybody to turn themselves in to regime authorities at the moment," Nuland told reporters in Washington.

Nuland, by the way, is married to PNACer and neocon pundit Robert Kagan.  Recalling Dick Cheney's enthusiasm for driving to Damascus post-Iraqi Freedom, maybe we should call the Syria enterprise Clean Break II: The Do-Over.

Anyway, democracy didn't work.  Time for Plan B.
The foreign powers interested in Assad’s fall—and stripping Iran of a regional ally--have made the decision to piggyback a foreign-supported, foreign-funded insurrection on the faltering anti-government movement.  

More accurately, the democratic revolution is now an uncertain and unwilling passenger on the Gulf-funded military machine rumbling toward Damascus.

Havens for anti-Assad fighters have materialized in Turkey, and arms and money are flooding in from all over the place.

Weapons and money for anti-Assad insurrectionists has been trickling in for months, to the blissful disregard of western news outlets fixated on the images of democracy demonstrators struggling against oppression.

Now that the political option is sliding off the table and it is clear a foreign-funded insurrection is needed to remove the Assad regime, the gusher of arms and cash has become too big to ignore.

But the story doesn’t require old-fashioned reporting anymore.

Just go down to a Turkish foreign ministry presser for tea, cookies, and a targeted backgrounder.
Turkey has positioned itself as the indispensable Western/Gulf proxy on Syria’s northern border.

Iran’s IRNA news agency passed on a report in Turkey’s Millyet tabloid a major Turkish news outlet.  IRNA is sometimes selective and/or inaccurate in its presentation of international news, so I’m passing it on with a caveat, but the report as presented passes the smell test for me:

According to Milliyet, as cited by IRNA, France has sent its military training forces to Turkey and Lebanon to coach the so-called Free Syrian Army -- a group of defectors operating out of Turkey and Lebanon -- in an effort to wage war against Syria's military.

The report added that the French, British, and Turkish authorities “have reached an agreement to send arms into Syria.”

The Turkish daily said that the three have informed the US about training and arming the Syrian opposition.

According to Milliyet, a group of armed rebels are currently stationed in Turkey's Hatay Province near the border with Syria.

The report comes as an earlier report had revealed that the British and French intelligence agencies have reportedly tasked their agents with contacting Syrian dissidents based in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli in order to help fuel unrest in Syria.

Reports also said that French intelligence agents have been sent to northern Lebanon and Turkey to build the first contingents of the Free Syrian Army out of the deserters who have fled Syria.

For those of you who prefer to get your Turkey/Syria news from a reliable Crusader source, here’s an eyebrow-raising item from the Daily Telegraph, albeit via Hurryet on November 27:

Syrian dissidents held secret talks Nov. 25 with Libya’s new authorities and Turkish authorities in Istanbul with the aim of securing weapons and money for their insurgency against Damascus, the Daily Telegraph has reported.

Syrian opposition group requested “assistance” from the Libyan representatives and were offered arms, and potentially volunteers, during the meeting, the daily reported Nov. 25.

“There is something being planned to send weapons and even Libyan fighters to Syria,” a Libyan source said on condition of anonymity. “There is a military intervention on the way. Within a few weeks you will see.”

Preliminary discussions about arms supplies took place when members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the country’s main opposition movement – visited Libya earlier this month, said the daily.
“The Libyans are offering money, training and weapons to the Syrian National Council,” said Wisam Taris, a human rights campaigner with links to the SNC. Last month, Libya’s interim government became the first in the world to recognize Syria’s opposition movement as the country’s “legitimate authority.”

Large shipments of weapons have not yet been sent, said activists, mainly because of logistical difficulties.

But proposals for a “buffer zone” inside Syria, monitored by the Arab League, or the likely emergence of an area inside the country controlled entirely by rebels, could solve this problem. “The [Libyan] council’s offer is serious,” said Taris.

Sources in the Libyan town of Misrata suggested that some weapons may already have been sent. Some smugglers were caught selling small arms to Syrian buyers in Misrata, said a man who trafficked guns to Libya’s rebels during the country’s civil war.

Libyans feel closely aligned to the Syrian cause, said Hameda al-Mageri, from the Tripoli Military Council.

The Tripoli Military Council is the creature of Islamist strongman Abdelhakim Belhadj.

Belhadj is the preferred in-Libya muscle of the Gulf States—“proxy” is perhaps not too strong a term.  He recently found it expedient to issue a non-denial denial that Qatar had dispatched nine planeloads of arms to Tripoli for the exclusive use of his forces.

Belhadj was denied a seat in the new Libyan cabinet thanks to Western anxiety over any overtly Islamist tinge to the proceedings. In an inspiring demonstration of the give-and-take of new Libyan democracy, a representative from Zintan was able to leverage his town’s continued and suspiciously prolonged local custody of Saif Qaddafi into a winning bid for the defense slot.

Instead, Belhadj now has the opportunity to pursue profitable mischief in Syria on behalf of the Gulf states and their anti Sh’ia/anti-Iranian counter revolution (and perhaps dissipating the intimidating shadow of Belhadj and a number of his well-trained and hardened fighters from the streets of Tripoli).

In an amusing sideline, Belhadj--presumably on his way to the Istanbul meeting--got a friendly hazing at the airport from his Zintan buddies.  The brief detention was noted by the local Libyan press; the thing about the money was apparently glossed by a pro-Gaddafi website (they still exist!):

The battalion of Zintan men has arrested him after the discovery that the passport is registered with the competent authorities and carrying fake name. 

After the arrest the rebels received a call from the President of the Council Mustafa Abdul Jalil asking the Alzentan and officials at the airport in Tripoli to allow Hakim Belhaj to leave the country, this has been found on the large sum of money inside the bag Khuwaildi Belhadj.

The democratic revolution ship has sailed.  What’s going on today is a foreign-supported insurrection.

The Chinese and the Russians have a clear-eyed understanding of what’s going on.

The PRC is loath to get on the wrong side of Saudi Arabia, its largest energy supplier, by going too far to defend Syria.

Moscow, which has a real stake in its Iran alliance and cares about the fate of Assad’s regime, has shown no such qualms.

A selection of headlines from RIA Novosti gives an idea of what a responsible multi-lateral response on Syria—as opposed to a hurried military ass-kicking enabled by global anti-Iranian forces meant to obscure the failure of a peaceful "color revolution"—would have looked like:

Syria welcomes Russia as intermediary in reconciliation talks 

Syrian opposition should not boycott reforms—Russian FM 

Moscow calls on Arab League to work for peace in Syria

None of this is happening, of course.

As to where this all ends up, I will outsource the increasingly plausible endgame--Turkey is ready to invade Syria--to the estimable M. Badhrakumar of Asia Times (and his personal blog, Indian Punchline):

Turkey and its western allies are transferring the Libyan fighters whom they trained and armed to depose Muammar Gaddafi to Syria. Around 600 Libyan ‘volunteers’ have entered Syria. Daily Telegraph reported that secret meetings were held on Friday in Istanbul between the Turkish officials and the Syrian opposition representatives and the Libyan fighters. Large-scale infiltration of weapons from Turkey and Jordan have been going on for months to create civil-war conditions in Syria, but this is the first move to introduce ‘volunteers’.  

The move is necessitated by the failure to induce defections form the Syrian armed forces, except a mere handful. Turkey and the western powers are desperate to create the myth of a ‘Syrian resistance’ force without which their blatant aggression will be in full display. 
Things seem to be heading for a flash point, indeed. The sure sign is that US V-P Joseph Biden is heading for Ankara in the weekend. It is a major signal of the US giving the go-ahead to Turkey to act on Syria without fear. Again, Jordanian King, Abdullah, travelled to israel. He is Saudi Arabia’s ‘back channel’ to Israel and a key regional ally for the western intelligence. 

Turkey is indeed shedding its fear of the unknown and is coming out into the open on the Syrian situation. Turkish FM Ahmet Davitoglu indicated today for the first time that Turkey is all set for invasion of Syria once it gets the green signal from its western allies. He said this before heading for the combined meeting of EU foreign ministers and Arab League representatives (read Saudi Arabia and Qatar).  

The day Davutoglu spoke, November 29, will stand out as a notable date in the chronicle of the Turkish Republic that Kemal Ataturk founded. Ataturk’s ‘red line’ used to be that Turkey should never get entangled in the affairs of the Muslim Middle East but should instead concentrate on its own ‘modernization’. Evidently, the Islamist government in power today thinks Turkey is today ‘modern’ enough already and can now go back and reclaim its Ottoman legacy. 

A Turkish army moving into an Arab country - it is a historic point. It is a century after the Turks were driven out by the ‘Arab revolt’. The matrix is dripping with irony. The Arab revolt against the Turks was instigated by Great Britain. And Britain, although a far weaker power today, is still playing a seminal role - except, it is encouraging the Turks to return to the Arab world. One hundred years ago, Britain successfully pitted the Arabs against the Turks. Today, Turks join hands with some Arabs who have a grouse against some other Arabs.  

The Syrian revolutionaries were too weak to get the nation they wanted.

They’ll have to make do with whatever state that Turkey, the Gulf powers, and the western democracies decide to give them.

Thursday, March 19, 2015
July 17, 2012: The Day America Exited the 9/11 Era…By Entering an Alliance with Al Qaeda

I note with interest that Thomas Friedman, the premier moral imbecile of American journalism, is spitballing the idea of using ISIS to roll back Iran.

Friedman is still an outlier.  The moderate voice in hawkish Middle East policy today, on the other hand, belongs to analysts calling for supporting al Qaeda as the preferred US asset against Iran and, for that matter, ISIS.

This marks a sea change in American Middle East public punditry and a sign that the United States has moved beyond the 9/11 era, in which our national policy and indeed our national identity was largely defined by getting those AQ bad guys who had knocked down the World Trade Center, blown a hole in the Pentagon, and killed over 3000 Americans on a single day in 2001.

Now, the oppose-Iran obsession has resumed center stage, at least for the Beltway-friendly commentariat, and al Qaeda is seen as a suitable and acceptable partner, especially since the current Sunni extremist champion, ISIS, is enduring an ass-kicking at the hands and boots of the Iraq government, Shi’ite militias, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard units.

It is sobering to consider that the United States has done less to un-f*ck-up the Middle East in 14 years than Iran has been able to accomplish in a few months of campaigning in eastern Iraq.  Another sign, if anybody is paying attention, that Iran is the least dysfunctional polity and partial democracy in the Middle East, while Uncle Sam is trapped driving in circles in a clown car fighting for the wheel with Saudi Arabian autocrats and Israeli apartheidists.

No wonder President Obama wants rapprochement with Iran and a quick pivot outta here to the peaceful and prosperous precincts of Asia.  Good luck with that!

As to the odious al Qaeda alliance, the bad news is that it is more than the fever dream of frustrated Beltway analysts.

The de facto US-AQ alliance has been going on in Syria for almost three years.

In fact, I think I can put a date on its formal unveiling: July 17, 2012, the day the US, Europe, Turkey, and the GCC optimistically thought they could wrap up the Syria crisis in a few weeks with a well-timed campaign of terror and insurrection starting in Damascus.

Recently, a Beirut based newspaper, As-Safir, published a report on the July 2012 bombing (not aerial bombing, a C4 boobytrap) that wiped out Bashar al-Assad’s “security cell” a.k.a. his national security team during their daily strategy session in Damascus.

As translated by an outfit called Mideastwire, As-Safir claims the bombing was a decapitation strike as part of an elaborately choreographed scheme by the U.S. to collapse the Syrian government and military and smooth the way for a drive on Damascus by the Free Syrian Army and the elevation of defecting general Manaf Tlass (who possessed limited capacities beyond a firm jaw well suited to Churchillian cigar-clenching but was adored by the French, perhaps because his socialite sister had allegedly been the mistress of a French foreign minister) to the presidency.

Why should we care?  With the cataract of blood and rubble and anguish that has hurtled into the Syrian abyss since then, why should we care that three of Assad’s henchman got blown up in July 2012?

Because a) the aftermath of the attack revealed the essential robustness of the Syrian regime and command structure and apparently convinced President Obama that strategies predicated on quick regime collapse either by covert action or indignant rhetoric were unlikely to remove Assad from his perch; b) Assad’s view of Western/GCC negotiating sincerity was probably tempered by the awareness that they had tried to murder him ; and c) the helter-skelter scheme revealed for the first time the presence of armed extremists under the Al Qaeda banner as US auxiliaries.

I am inclined to believe As-Safir, apparently a lefty, Syria-friendly outfit with a large circulation, because shortly after the bombing I drew the same conclusion, immortalized in my July 28, 2012 piece for Asia Times Online:

[A] funny thing happened last week. The Assad regime didn't collapse, despite an orchestrated, nation-wide assault (coordinated, we can assume, by the crack strategists of the international anti-Assad coalition): a decapitating terrorist bombing in the national security directorate, near-simultaneous armed uprisings in the main regime strongholds of Damascus and Aleppo, and the seizure of many of Syria's official border crossings with Iraq and Turkey.

Points 1 and 2 are covered in the As-Safir article, which apparently draws on tittle-tattle from a French diplomat.  As to the third point, seizure of the border crossings, in July 2012 I wrote (refer to my ATOl article for the links):

Juan Cole of the University of Michigan laid out the big picture strategic thinking behind some of the border seizures on his blog, Informed Comment:

If the FSA can take the third crossing from Iraq, at Walid, they can control truck traffic into Syria from Iraq, starving the regime. The border is long and porous, but big trucks need metalled roads, which are few and go through the checkpoints. Some 70% of goods coming into Syria were coming from Iraq, because Europe cut off trade with the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad. The rebels are increasingly in a position to block that trade or direct it to their strongholds.

According to an Iraqi deputy minister of the interior, the units that seized the border were perhaps not the goodwill ambassadors that the Syrian opposition or Dr Cole might have hoped for:

The top official said Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.

"Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers."

They reportedly also raised the al-Qaeda flag.

The forces participating in the operation at the Turkish border crossings were also an interesting bunch - and certainly not all local Syrian insurgents, as AFP reported:

By Saturday evening, a group of some 150 foreign fighters describing themselves as Islamists had taken control of the post.

These fighters were not at the site on Friday, when rebel fighters captured the post.

Some of the fighters said they belonged to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), while others claimed allegiance to the Shura Taliban. They were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket launchers and improvised mines.

The fighters identified themselves as coming from a number of countries: Algeria, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates - and the Russian republic of Chechnya…

Nice to remember that Juan Cole, who embarrassed himself mightily by cheerleading the Libyan debacle, also applied his mad analytic and tactical skillz to the Syrian fiasco.
Anyway, the appearance of armed Islamist extremists as part of a meticulously if not particularly intelligently planned regime change gambit in 2012: that’s what matters today.
Because even after the decapitation & collapse strategy failed, the extremists stayed, presumably as executors of an open-ended “success is not an option” “bleed Syria (and Iran)” strategy funded by Gulf interests, supported by Turkish infrastructure, and condoned by the United States.
And bleed Syria did.

The result is a butcher’s bill of nearly one quarter of a million dead and 3.5 million refugees, over 90% incurred after the domestic insurrection failed in February 2012 and the combined genius of the Western, Arab, and Turkish worlds was turned to engineering regime change via external means.

As the sage said, success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.  So it is reprehensible but not too surprising that the Syrian horror is now described in the ultimate hands-off passive voice fashion as “a tragedy” and not “the knowing murder of hundreds of thousands and the immiserating of millions by the funding, supply, facilitation, and diplomatic support of thousands of paramilitaries by the United States, European states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and now Israel (which is now providing medical facilities to wounded AQ fighters at the Syrian border)”.

It is also darkly amusing that the worse IS does, the more pre-emptive squealing one hears from the West about the as yet unmaterialized threat of massive human rights violations against Sunnis by Shi’a forces in areas recovered from IS.

And, to cap it, you get chin-stroking in the press about common cause with AQ and/or ISIS to stop the Iranian menace.

Which reminds me of the final indispensable element in regime-change choreography: credulous, vociferous, enabling media.

According to as-Safir, it was clear at the early July 2012 Friends of Syria conference in Paris that something was afoot:

When a French diplomat stopped two journalists, a French and an Arab, in early July 2012, near a café adjacent to the French foreign ministry, the lights of the Friends of Syria conference had grown dim at the conference center following two exhausting days of debate that provided the impression to the meeting participants that the toppling of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is now a fait accompli.

…[T]he diplomat revealed what he had in mind and advised the journalists to slow down with their packing because a major event was going to take place in July. The bets to topple Al-Assad in Paris and between the “Friends of Syria” had turned into a mere matter of time

I will be charitable and say, despite these manifest signs (and, for that matter, the fact that an externally choreographed regime change jamboree was under way was apparent even to an outside observer like me), it was not clear to the legion of Western journos covering Syria that they were getting played as part of some PR charade whose primary purpose was to stampede Russian into abandoning Assad and supporting a UNSC resolution condemning him, preferably with an Article 7 stinger approving the use of force, thereby enabling transition to the West/GCC-backed opposition.

At the New York Times, Neil McFarquar (with considerable assistance: “Reporting was contributed by Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Rick Gladstone from New York, Ellen Barry from Moscow, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Elisabeth Bumiller and Eric Schmitt from Washington, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.”) asked if the death knell was being sounded for Assad’s regime:

The impact of the day’s events reverberated on multiple levels, piercing the psychological advantage that Mr. Assad’s superior military strength has provided in preserving the loyalty of his forces and frightening much of the public into staying home. With the opposition energized and the government demoralized, analysts wondered if other military units and trusted lieutenants would be more inclined to switch sides — and if the government would retaliate with an escalation of violence.

The idea that a poorly organized, lightly armed opposition force could somehow get so close to the seat of power raised questions about the viability of a once unassailable police state. 

In its final form, the title of the piece is “Syrian Rebels Land Deadly Blow to Assad’s Inner Circle”.  I suspect the original, more optimistic drift of the piece is embodied in the URL:

Despite the telephoned and optimistically spun blandishments of President Obama, Putin didn’t bite (I expect he was still feeling the “Libya no-fly-zone burn”), and the anti-Assad coalition had, in addition to botching the putsch, failed to strip the Assad regime of Russian support.  In fact, the Russian Federation doubled down on its support of Assad instead.  Which, I imagine, feeds the “Bad Vlad” resentment that permeates Western capitals and editorial offices…

…exacerbated, certainly, by Putin’s sabotaging of another brilliant Western scheme, this time in Ukraine…

…which, come to think of it, explains my extremely jaundiced opinion of the reportorial and analytic capacities of the pro-Kyiv journos, who exhibit a similar paired obliviousness to incompetent, catastrophic, and morally bankrupt Western strategic gambits with credulous retailing of anti-Russian novelties as their outlets and colleagues previously displayed in the matter of Syria.