Category Archives: Military

The Big Chill: Tensions in the Arctic

The Big Chill: Tensions In The Arctic

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 31, 2014

 

One hundred sixty eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the 19th century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crewmembers.

 

But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes. How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the arctic will become a theater of cooperation or yet another dangerous friction point. In the words of former NATO commander, U.S. Admiral James G. Stavridis, an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

 

There is a great deal at stake.

 

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and, most importantly, shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off of voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports, and economic growth, especially in East Asia.

 

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage and the easiest to traverse— is still modest but on the uptick. The route has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to 71 in 2013, and, for the first time in history, a Liquid Natural Gas Tanker, the, made the trip. On a run from Hammerfest Ob River, Norway, to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.

 

Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Passage is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.

 

Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states—Norway, Russia, the U.S., Canada, Denmark (representing Greenland), Finland, Iceland, and Sweden—over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries—China, India, the European Union and Japan—that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the sea-bed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chillingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.

 

But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole, based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Seas that allows countries to claim ownership if an area is part of a country’s continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lemonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.

 

Canada’s organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.

 

Copenhagen and Ottawa are at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.

 

The U.S. has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it is constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. However, the U.S. has locked horns with Ottawa over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study. The U.S. maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.

 

The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region, and Norway carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.

 

But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Passage run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a Permanent Observer on the Arctic Council. The latter, formed in 1996, consists of the border states, plus the indigenous people that populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.

 

And herein lies the problem.

 

Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended WW II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the U.S. designed the Treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the U.S. to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over the uninhibited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyu by China and the Senkaku by Japan—because the 1952 Treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it came to a military confrontation, the U.S. is bound by treaty to support Japan.

 

Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles islands, and between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysa also have claims that overlap with China. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.

 

In theory, the potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.

 

Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.

 

Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the U.S. in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region, the so-called “Asia pivot.”

 

The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”

 

The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.

 

At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. A starting place is the Law of the Seas Convention and a commitment to put international law over national interests. The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

 

For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russian and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the U.S. and Britain are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.

 

As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”

 

 

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Parsing the East Asian Powder Keg

China & The U.S.: The Past’s Dead Hand

Dispatches From The Edge

July 22, 2014

 

 

A major cause of current tensions in the East and South China seas are two documents that most Americans have either forgotten about or don’t know exist. But both are fueling a potential confrontation among the world’s three most powerful economies that is far more unstable and dangerous than most people assume.

 

Consider what has happened over the past six months:

 

  • In February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry assured Japan that the Americans would defend Japan in case of a military confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing. That same month, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the Philippines could count on American support if there were a clash with China in the South China Sea.
  • In early May, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces practiced “retaking” islands of the Amami Group near Okinawa in a not-so-subtle challenge to China over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. That same week, U.S. and Philippine forces held joint war games, while President Barack Obama promised “ironclad” support against “aggressive” neighbors seeking to alter “changing the status quo” in Asia.
  • In mid-May, China challenged Japanese ownership of Okinawa, stating it did “not belong to Japan,” challenging Tokyo, and indirectly calling in to question the presence of huge U.S. bases on the island.
  • At the end of May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged Tokyo would support the Philippines, Vietnam, and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in their disputes with Beijing over islands and shoals in the South China Seas.
  • On July 1, the Abe government “re-interpreted” Article 9 of its peace constitution to allow Japan to use military force in support of its allies. U.S. allies in the region supported the move. The Philippines agreed to allow the U.S. military use of the former American base at Subic Bay.

 

American naval vessels have accused the Chinese Navy of playing chicken off China’s coast. Chinese ships are blockading Philippine ships near a number of disputed shoals and reefs. Vietnam claims China rammed some of its ships. Japan scrambled a record number of fighter planes to intercept supposed incursions by Chinese and Russian aircraft. U.S. Senator John McCain called China “a rising threat,” and the Pentagon’s Frank Kandell told the House Armed Forces Committee that U.S. military superiority in the Pacific was “not assured.”

 

In short, “tense” doesn’t quite describe the situation in Asia these days, more like “scary.”

 

A major source of that friction are two documents, the 1951 “San Francisco Treaty” that ended World War II in Asia, and a little known doctrine called the AirSea Battle plan.

 

According to research by Kimie Hara, the Director of East Asian Studies at Renison University College and the author of numerous books on the Cold War in Asia, today’s tensions were purposely built into the 1951 Treaty. “Close examination of the Allies’ documents, particularly those of the United States (which was primarily responsible for drafting the peace treaty), reveals that some, if not all, of these problems were intentionally created or left unresolved to protect U.S. strategic interests.”

 

Hara say the U.S. wanted to create “strategic ambiguity” and “manageable instability” that would allow the U.S. to continue a major military presence in the region. She specifically points to disagreements over the Kurile/Northern Territories Islands, the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Spratley/Nansha and Paracel/Xisha islands, the divided Korea, and the Taiwan Straits. All of these—plus a few others—have led to tensions or confrontations among Japan, China, Russia, the Philippines, Vietnam, South and North Korea, Malaysia and Brunei.

 

Neither China nor Korea was invited to the Treaty talks, and while the USSR was present, it was not a signatory.

 

Sometimes the U.S. directly sabotaged efforts to resolve issues among Asian nations. In 1954, Japan and the Soviet Union restored diplomatic relations and were on the verge of cutting a deal over the Kurlies/Northern Territory islands, essentially splitting the difference: Japan would take two islands, the USSR another two.

 

However, Washington was worried that a peace treaty between Tokyo and Moscow would eventually lead to diplomatic ties between Japan and communist China, and that would have exerted, says Hara, “considerable pressure on the United States to vacate Okinawa, whose importance had significantly increased as a result of the Americas’ Cold War strategy in Asia.” Okinawa was a major base for the U.S. during the Korean War.

 

So Washington torpedoed the deal, telling Tokyo that if it did not demand all four islands, the U.S. would not return Okinawa to Japan. The U.S. knew the Soviets would reject the Japanese demand, which would scuttle efforts to reduce tensions between the two nations. There is still no peace treaty between Russia and Japan.

 

AirSea Battle (ASB) has been official U.S. military doctrine in Asia since 2010, and what it calls for is chilling: the military defeat—WW II style—of China. Not even during the height of the Cold War did the U.S. and it allies envision defeating the Soviet Union, seeking to rather “contain” it.

 

In the 1990s, China began building a military that could defend its coastal waters. Called “denial of access,” it includes a variety of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, stealth submarines, cyber warfare and space surveillance. China’s turn from its traditional reliance on land forces to “denial of access” was given a major push in 1996 when the Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups in the Taiwan Straits during a period of tension between China and Taiwan. Beijing could do nothing about it, and the Chinese military was deeply embarrassed.

 

ASB is designed to neutralize “denial of access” by “blinding” Chinese radar and surveillance capabilities, destroying missile sites and command centers, and, according to Amitai Etzioni of Washington University—author of books on U.S. foreign policy and a former Senior Advisor to the White House under Jimmy Carter—allowing U.S. military forces to “enter contested zones and conclude the conflict by bringing to bear the full force of their material military advantage.”

 

A land invasion of China?

 

The potential dangers involved in such an undertaking are sobering. Since ASB includes strikes deep into Chinese territory, Beijing might assume such attacks were directed at China’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The general rule with nukes is “use them or lose them.” According to Etzioni, the Center for Strategic and International Studies concludes that, “China is likely to respond to what is effectively a major attack on its mainland with all the military means at its disposal—including its stockpile of nuclear arms.”

 

While Pentagon officials claim that ASB is not aimed at any particular country, China is the only power in Asia capable of “access denial” to the U.S. military. Etzioni quotes one “senior Naval official” as saying “AirSea Battle is all about convincing the Chinese that we will win this competition.”

 

The Chinese are fully aware of ASB, which does much to explain their recent assertiveness in the East China Sea. The Diaoyu/Senkakus are part of the “first island chain” through which Chinese submarines and surface craft must pass in order to exit Chinese coastal waters. If Japan controls those islands it can detect—and with anti-ship missiles destroy—anyone going from China to the Pacific.

 

The South China Sea disputes also find their roots in the San Francisco Treaty. China has a good case that Japan’s claim to the Diaoyu/Senkakus violates the 1945 Potsdam Agreement. Potsdam was supposed to dismantle Japan’s empire, including territories that it had seized during its years of expansion. The Diaoyu/Senkakus were absorbed by Japan following the1894-5 Sino-Japanese War, so China has a solid ownership argument.

 

However, it can make no such case for the Spratleys, Parcels or reefs and shoals of the South China Sea. It may be that defense considerations are driving some of those disputes—most of China’s energy supplies transit the region—but oil, gas and fishing rights would seem to loom larger. In any case, China appears to be in violation of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that guarantees countries a 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone.” China, using a 19th century “nine dash line” map claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 3.5 million sq. kilometers of the South China Sea, a sea that borders six nations and through which one third of the world’s shipping passes.

 

While China’s forceful behavior in the East China Sea is somewhat understandable, throwing its weight around in the South China Sea has given the U.S. an opportunity to exploit the situation. Because of tensions between China the Philippines, the U.S. military was invited back into the islands. And China’s unilateral actions in the Paracels has some Vietnamese talking about a military relationship with Washington.

 

All sides need to take a step back.

 

China should adhere to a 2002 ASEAN code of conduct to consult and negotiate its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, and to bring the issue of the Diaoyu/Senkaku before the International Court.

 

The U.S. should back off its blank check support for the rightwing Abe government. Tokyo started this fight in 2010 by first arresting a Chinese fisherman—thus violating an agreement not to apply domestic trespassing laws to fishing violations—and then unilaterally declaring sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkakus in 2012, a violation of a 1972 agreement with China to leave that issue up to negotiations.

 

Washington sould also reverse its expensive expansion of military forces in Asia—the so-called “Asia pivot”—and reconsider the folly of the AirSea Battle doctrine. According to Raoul Heinrich of Australian University, ASB “will greatly increase the range of circumstances for maritime brinkmanship and dangerous naval incidents.” Establishing military “hot lines” between the major powers in the region would also be helpful.

 

The current tensions are exactly what the San Francisco Treaty was designed to do: divide and conquer. But with the potential dangers of escalation embedded in the doctrine of AirSea Battle, local tensions are threatening international order.

 

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WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

WikiLeaks, Ukraine & NATO

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 10, 2014

Is the Russian occupation of the Crimea a case of aggressive expansionism by Moscow or aimed at at blocking a scheme by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to roll right up to the Russia’s western border? WikiLeaks has revealed a secret cable describing a meeting between French and American diplomats that suggests the latter, a plan that has been in the works since at least 2009.

Titled “A/S Gordon’s meeting with policy makers in Paris,” the cable summarizes a Sept. 16, 2009 get-together between Philip Gordon, then assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and French diplomats Jean-David Levitte, Damien Loras, and Francois Richier. Gordon is currently a special assistant to President Obama on the Middle East.

While the bulk of the cable covers an exchange of views concerning Iran, the second to last item is entitled “NATO’s enlargement and strategic concept.” At this point Levitte, former French ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2007, interjects that “[French] President [Nicholas] Sarkozy was ‘convinced’ that Ukraine would one day be a member of NATO, but that there was no point in rushing the process and antagonizing Russia, particularly if the Ukrainian public was largely against membership.” Gordon goes on to paraphrase Levitte’s opinion that, “the Bucharest summit declaration was very clear that NATO had an open door and Ukraine and Georgia have a vocation in NATO.”

Levitte is currently a fellow at the conservative Brookings Institute.

At the April 2008 NATO summit in Romania, Croatia and Albania were asked to join—they did so in 2009—and postponed a decision concerning Georgia and Ukraine until December 2008. But in August, Georgian forces attacked the breakaway province of South Ossetia—possibly under the delusion that NATO would come to their aid—setting off a short and disastrous war with Russia. The vote on Georgia and Ukraine was shelved both by that war and a Gallup Poll indicating that 40 percent of Ukrainians considered NATO a threat, while only 17 percent had a favorable view of the alliance.

The move by NATO to extend the alliance to the Russian border is a controversial one that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of a February 1990 agreement between then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany.

The issue at the time was Germany and NATO. Under the treaty ending World War II, the Soviets had a right to keep troops in Eastern Germany. The U.S. and the Germans were trying to negotiate a reunion of the two Germanys that would remove the 380,000 Soviet troops in the East, while maintaining U.S. and NATO forces in the West.

The Russians were willing to exit their troops, but only if U.S. and NATO forces did not fill the vacuum. On Feb. 9, Gorbachev told Baker “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.” Baker assured him that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward.”

The Baker-Gorbachev meeting was followed the next day by a meeting between Gorbachev and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who assured the Soviet leader that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany. And, in a parallel meeting between West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Genscher told Shevardnadze “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand to the East.”

But none of the assurances were put in writing and, as the Soviet Union began to implode, the agreement was ignored and NATO forces moved into the old East Germany. Despite Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s complaint that NATO’s eastward march “violated the spirit” of the agreement, Russia was in no position to do anything about it.

As former New Republic editor Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, the decision to expand NATO was considered to be “recklessly provocative” by a number of foreign policy experts. “As eminent Cold War historian John Lewis wrote, “Historians—normally so contentious—are in uncharacteristic agreement: with remarkably few exceptions, they see NATO enlargement as ill-considered, ill-timed, and above all ill-suited to the realities of the post-Cold War world.”

But with Russia severely weakened, Cold War triumphalism took over: President Bill Clinton took NATO to war in Yugoslavia in 1995, and put troops into Bosnia. By 1997 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO, followed in 2004 by seven Soviet bloc countries, including former Soviet republics Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” was expanded to include the former Soviet Republics of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

The recent “bailout” offer to Ukraine by the European Union contained a clause that would have tied Kiev to the EU’s military organization.

In short, Russians feel like they are surrounded by hostile forces, a fact critics of Moscow’s moves in the Crimea should keep in mind.

The danger of pushing a military alliance up to the borders of a potential adversary was made clear this week when NATO began deploying forces in the Baltics and Poland, and the U.S. sent a guided missile destroyer into the Black Sea.

The Pentagon announced it was sending F-16 fighter-bombers and F-15 fighters to Poland and the Baltic States, as well as C-130 transport planes and RC-135 aerial tankers. In the case of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, this will result in an increase in NATO forces on Russia’s northern border.

The USS Truxtun is an Arleigh Burke class destroyer armed with cruise missiles and anti-ship Harpoon missiles. Cruise missiles can carry a nuclear warhead. According to the U.S. Navy, the Truxtun’s mission has nothing to do with the crisis in the Ukraine but is simply carrying out joint maneuvers with the tiny Romanian and Bulgarian navies.

It is unlikely that the USS Truxtun will go looking for trouble or that the F-15s and F-16s will play chicken with Russian MIGs and Sukhois, but mistakes happen, particularly when tensions are high. It is exactly the current situation that Gorbachev was trying to avoid back in 1990, and why NATO’s relentless march east puts more than the Ukraine in harm’s way.

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Sudan: Colonialism’s Dead Hand

Sudan: Colonialism’s Dead hand

Conn Hallinan

Feb.4, 2014

Hopefully the recent ceasefire agreement between the warring parties in South Sudan will halt that country’s downward spiral into civil war. But if it does it will have to buck the convergence of two powerful historical streams: a legacy of colonial manipulation dating back more than a hundred years, and the current policies of the U.S. vis-à-vis the African continent.

South Sudan became a country in 2011 when its residents voted overwhelmingly to separate from the Sudan, at the time the largest country in Africa. But a falling out late last year between South Sudan President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, has plunged the country into war. Cities have been sacked, thousands killed, and almost 200,000 people turned into refugees.

The birth of continent’s newest nation was largely an American endeavor, brought about by a polyglot coalition of Christian evangelicals, U.S. corporations, the Bush and Obama administrations, the Congressional Black Caucus, and human rights supporters.

But in many ways the current crisis goes back to November 1884, when some 14 countries came together in Berlin and sliced up a continent.  The players represented virtually the entire Western industrial world, although the key participants were Great Britain, France, Germany and Portugal. As South African geographer Matt Rosenberg notes, “At the time of the conference, 80 percent of Africa remained under traditional and local control.” When the meeting ended a year later, the colonial powers had created 50 countries “superimposed over the 1,000 indigenous cultures and regions of Africa,” thus setting the fuse for future wars and countless ethnic conflicts.

Rich in resources and people, Africa’s encounter with the slave trade and colonialism strangled emerging economies, stripped the continent of a huge part of its labor force, and pitted religions and ethnicities against one another in a continent-wide strategy of divide and conquer.

That history laid the foundations for the current spasm of violence in South Sudan that threatens to spill over into several bordering countries.

In 1886 the British divided Sudan between the largely Arab north and the mostly black south. There had long been tension between the two areas because the southern pastoral tribes—mainly the Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk peoples—had historically resisted slave traders from the North. There was intermittent warfare between the tribes over cattle and land, but they also intermarried and traded with each other.

Since the British did not have the forces to occupy the vast southern Sudan, they created a “Southern Policy” that pitted the tribes against one another in a classic divide and rule strategy. They also blocked economic development in order to “preserve [the] purely African way of life of the southern people.”

In fact, preserving an “African way of life” meant deliberately suppressing the development of regional governmental institutions or creating an educated population. Instead, authority was vested in “tribal leaders,” who had never wielded such power in the past. Colonial authorities deliberately banned contact with the more developed north, suppressed Islam and Arabic in the south, and fragmented the region into a bewildering tapestry of tribes and villages. The ultimate scheme was to integrate southern Sudan into British East Africa, but after World War II that was impossible.

So instead London double-crossed the southern Sudanese.

After essentially creating two countries, the British reversed their “Southern Policy” in 1946 and declared the south  “inextricably bound, both geographically and economically, to the Arab north as far as future development was concerned.” In practice this meant that when Sudan became independent in 1956, the north would dominate the south. “The post independence conflict in Sudan was largely caused by the ethnic division created by the British colonial administration between 1899 and 1956,” argues historian Savo Heleta.

The artificiality of Sudan’s initial creation, coupled with the colonial policies of the British, was a built-in disaster and ignited two civil wars—from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005—that killed some 1.5 million people. The last one led to an eventual separation of the two regions, and the 2011 referendum created South Sudan.

Once again Sudan is at war, and current U.S. policies in Africa have not helped. For the past decade and a half, Washington has seemed more concerned with cornering resources than resolving problems and has been quick to choose military solutions over diplomatic ones.

Oil plays no small role in this. Sudan has one of the largest petroleum reserves on the continent, 75 percent of which are in the south. South Sudan pumps some 245,000 barrels a day, but both Sudans profit because it is shipped through northern pipelines to northern refineries on the Red Sea, mostly ending up in China.

The U.S. is in competition with China over oil and resources—China is Africa’s number one trading partner—and by 2015 the continent will supply 25 percent of the U.S.’s energy needs. A number of U.S. firms are interested in elbowing their way into South Sudan, and Washington is always looking for ways to hem in China’s growth.

The current fighting is not just about oil, however. Christian churches have long been interested in the region, and some of the more evangelical ones see South Sudan as a bulwark against Islam. Most South Sudanese follow traditional religions, but there is a sizable Christian minority.

The Congressional Black Caucus is involved because black southerners have been much oppressed by the Arab-dominated north. And the terrible civilian toll in the two civil wars has drawn support from human rights advocates.

Starting with the Trans Sahel Initiative in 2002, the U.S. has steady built up its military forces on the continent.

The U.S. now has troops in some 35 countries in Africa. Washington has deployed somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 troops in Djibouti on the horn of Africa and at least 100 Special Forces in Uganda and Niger. It is training Kenyans to fight the Shabab in Somalia, Ugandans to track the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is building a drone base in Niger.

In 2006, the Bush administration created Africom, the first U.S. military command organization for the continent, whose coming out party was the overthrow of Libya’s Mummer Khadafy in 2011. As the African Union predicted, Khadafy’s fall spread a tidal wave of arms into the region that fueled civil wars in Mali, Niger and Central Africa.

Indeed, U.S. military adventures in Africa have generally ended badly. Washington aided Ethiopia’s 2007 invasion of Somalia, which led to the rise of the extremist Shabab. The Shabab has not only devastated Somalia, but was behind last year’s massacre at a Nairobi mall that killed 62 people and wounded more than 200.

While the U.S. has put only a modest number of troops into South Sudan, it has encouraged its regional allies to pitch in. Ethiopia is considering joining the fray, and the Ugandan army, was instrumental in retaking the city of Bor from the rebels. But, as a result, Uganda is now aligned with the mostly Dinka-led government against the mainly Nuer-led insurrection. That is hardly a formula for a peaceful resolution to the current fighting, particularly since the Kiir government is demanding that everyone but its own army disarm.

In the long run disarmament is a good idea, but right now the demand will almost certainly be resisted. While American Ambassador Susan Page says the disarmament demand is “voluntary,” those enforcing the government’s policy don’t see it that way. “If they refuse to give up their guns, we will take [them] by any means. Yes, of course by force” one government military commander told McClatchy Press.

The U.S. played a key role in the creation of South Sudan and poured billions of aid dollars into the country. But little of that aid went toward creating a governmental infrastructure or addressing ethnic unrest. Edmund Yakani, director of the Independent Community for Progress Organization in Juba, South Sudan’s capitol, told the Guardian, “We travelled to New York and talked to UN ambassadors, including the US’s Susan Rice. We told them, please don’t ignore the frictions that were hidden due to the war for independence. But they thought about development and said, ‘Let’s just throw money at it.’ The voices urging governance were in the minority and neglected and not heard.”

A studied refusal to pay attention to the colonial history of the region helped ignite the current crisis. And encouraging Washington’s allies to settle political and ethnic divisions with guns and armored personnel carriers is likely to not only fail, but make things worse.

Instead of using military proxies like Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda to enforce its policies on the continent, Washington should be working through the key regional group, the African Union. Had Washington done so in Libya, there would probably not have been a war in Mali and Central Africa.

What the Obama administration ought to do is shelve the guns and armed allies, and fulfill the UN’s Millennium Development goals to reduce poverty. South Sudan would benefit from fewer guns, more economic engagement—without “free trade” strings attached—and a far greater sensitivity to history.

 

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“Are You Serious?” Awards 2013

2013 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 19, 2013

Every year Dispatches From The edge gives awards to news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are the awards for 2013.

Creative Solutions Award to the Third Battalion of the 41st U.S. Infantry Division for its innovative solution on how to halt sporadic attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Zhare District: it blew up a hill that the insurgents used as cover.

This tactic could potentially be a major job creator because there are lots of hills in Afghanistan. And after the U.S. Army blows them all up, it can take on those really big things: mountains.

Runner up in this category is Col. Thomas W. Collins, for his inventive solution on how to explain a sharp rise in Taliban attacks in 2013. The U.S. military published a detailed bar graphs indicating insurgent attacks had declined by 7 percent, but, when the figure was challenged by the media, the Army switched to the mushroom strategy*: “We’re just not giving out statistics anymore,” Col. Collins told the Associated Press.

Independent sources indicate that attacks were up 40 percent over last year, with the battlegrounds shifting from the south of Afghanistan to the east and north.

*Mushrooms are kept in the dark and fed manure.

The White Man’s Burden Award goes to retired U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and an expert on counterinsurgency warfare. McChrystal told the Associated Press that the Afghans don’t really want the U.S. to withdraw, because they are “Like a teenager, you really don’t want your parents hanging around you, but…you like to know if things go bad, they’re going to help.” The General went on to say the U.S. needed to stay because “We have an emotional responsibility” to the Afghans.

The “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News” Award was split between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Turkish Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Greek state television network ERT’s reporting of the widespread opposition to the current austerity policies of the center-right Samaras government apparently annoyed the Prime Minister. Samaras dismissed all of ERT’s 2,700 employees and closed down the station (the fired workers are occupying ERT’s headquarters and continue to broadcast programming). When the government restarted broadcasts a month later, it led with a 1960’s comedy, followed by documentary about a Greek surrealist poet.

Turkish PM Erdogan pressured Turkey’s 24-hour television news stations not to cover the massive June demonstrations that paralyzed much of Istanbul and, instead, to broadcast a panel of medical experts talking about schizophrenia and a documentary about penguins. There are no penguins in Turkey, although the schizophrenia program may have been an appropriate subject matter for the Prime Minister .

The Bad Hair Award to the Dublin city government for spending $6.8 million to promote a Redhead Convention in the village of Crosshaven on Ireland’s southeast coast.

Ireland is currently in a major depression triggered by a banker-instigated housing bubble. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission—the so-called “troika”—bailed out the banks and instituted a massive austerity program on Ireland. The cost of the bailout is approximately $13,750 for every Irish citizen.

The salaries of government workers were cut 20 percent, and 35,000 public employees were laid off. Pensions, unemployment and welfare benefits were slashed and new taxes imposed. Unemployment is at almost 13 percent—28 percent for young people. A survey found that 67 percent of families with young children are unable to afford basic necessities, and are in arrears on their rent, utility bills, and mortgages. Some 20 percent of Ireland’s children live in houses where both parents are out of work—the highest in Europe—and in a population of 4.6 million people, more than 200,000 have emigrated, about 87,000 a year.

Alan Hayes, the convention’s “king of the redheads,” told the Financial Times that the “Festival of ginger-loving madness” would draw Irish from all over the world. It is estimated that the Irish diaspora makes up about 100 million people.

“Ireland has one of the highest populations of redheads in the world and we will celebrate by getting together as many as possible,” says Hayes. The competitions will include the best red hair, eyebrows, and the “most freckles per square inch.”

The Jackal Award goes to the government of France for leveraging its opposition to a settlement between Iran and the U.S. over Teheran’s nuclear program as a way to break into the lucrative Middle East arms market. France’s spoiler role was praised by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan and Morocco.

“France could gain financially from the GCC’s frustrations over recent U.S. policy in the Middle East,” the global security analyst group Stratfor notes. “Significant defense contracts worth tens of billions of dollars are up for grabs in the Gulf region, ranging from aircraft to warships to missile systems. France is predominantly competing with Britain and the United States for the contracts and is seeking to position itself as a key ally of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates as it looks to strengthen its defense and industrial ties with the region.”

The French arms company Thales is negotiating to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s short-range missile systems for $3.34 billion and working on a $2.72 billion deal to modernize the kingdom’s air defense system. Paris is also negotiating an $8 billion contract to supply the Emirates with 60 Rafale fighter-bombers and trying to sell 72 Rafales to Qatar. France is smarting over the recent collapse of a $4 billion deal to sell Rafale aircraft to Brazil, and a big sale in the Gulf would more than make up for the loss.

Israel—which also praised the French stance vis-à-vis Iran and the U.S.—invited French President Francois Hollande to be the “guest of honor” at last month’s “France-Israel Innovation Day” in Tel Aviv. Israel’s aeronautics industry had more than $6 billion in sales from 2009 to 1010, and Israel is the fourth largest weapons exporter in the world. France would like to sell its commercial Airbus to Tel Aviv, as well as get in on Israel’s expanding drone industry.

C’est la vie.

The Confused Priorities Award to the Associated Press for its March 5 story titled “Little Reaction In Oil Market to Chavez Death” on the demise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The authors noted that Venezuela has the second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia, but that the leftist former paratrooper had squandered that wealth:

“Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums in Abu Dhabi.”

When Chavez won the presidency in 2001, some 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. Two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and the gap between rich and poor was one of the worst in Latin America.

According to the Gini Coefficient that measures wealth, Venezuela now has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and “extreme poverty” from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been virtually eliminated, and infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Health clinics increased 169.6 percent, and five million Venezuelans receive free food.

But on the other hand they could have had a copy of the Victory of Samothrace or the Mona Lisa.

The Pinocchio Award to the five countries that violated international law by forcing Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane down and then lying about it.

Morales had been meeting with Russian officials in Moscow when U.S. intelligence services became convinced the leftist president was going to spirit National Security Agency whistle blower Edward Snowden back to Bolivia. When Morales’ plane left Russia, the U.S. leaned on France, Italy, Spain and Portugal to close their airspace and deny the plane refueling rights. Morales was forced to turn back and land in Austria, where his aircraft sat for 13 hours.

When Morales protested, the French said they didn’t know Morales was on the plane, the Portuguese claimed its international airport couldn’t fuel the aircraft, the Spanish said his flyover permit had expired, and the Italians denied they ever closed their airspace. The U.S. initially said it had nothing to do with the incident, but that excuse collapsed once Spain finally admitted it had received an American request to close its airspace to Morales’s plane.

The Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon all protested the actions by the five nations as a violation of international law and international commercial airlines treaties.

An angry Morales said, “The Europeans and the Americans think that we are living in an era of empires and colonies. They are wrong. We are a free people…they can no longer do this.”

The Frank Norris Award to the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency in charge of spy satellites, for its new logo: a giant, frowning octopus, its arms encircling the world, sporting the slogan “Nothing is beyond our reach.” Norris wrote a famous turn of the 20th century novel called “The Octopus” about the struggle between farmers in California and the railroads that dominated the state’s politics.

The Broad Side of the Barn Award to the Obama administration for spending an extra $1 billion to expand the $34 billion U.S. anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in spite of the fact that the thing can’t hit, well, the broad side of a barn. The last test of the ABM was in July, when, according to the Pentagon, “An intercept was not achieved.” No surprise there. The ABM hasn’t hit a target since 2008.

The $1 billion will be used to add 14 interceptors to the 30 already deployed in Alaska and California.

Runner up in this category was Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the maker of “Iron Dome,” the Israeli ABM system designed to intercept short-range rockets. According to Rafael officials, Iron Dome was 80 percent effective in intercepting Qassem and Grad rockets fired by Palestinians from Gaza during last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense.

But an independent analysis of Iron Dome’s effectiveness discovered that the 80 percent figure was mostly hype. Tesla Laboratories, a U.S. defense company, found that the interception success rate was between 30 and 40 percent, and Ted Postal—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who successfully debunked the accuracy claims for Patriot missiles fired during the 1991 Gulf War—says Iron Dome has a “kill rate” of between five and 10 percent.

But a lack of success seems to be a sure fire way to open the cash spigots.

The U.S., which contributed more than $200 million to build Iron Dome, will spend an additional $680 million through 2015. The U.S. will also throw $173 million into Israel’s high altitude Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 interceptors, part of which are made by Boeing.

ABMs tend to be destabilizing, because the easiest way to defeat them is to overwhelm them with missiles, thus spurring an arms race. They also give their owners a false sense of security. And while they don’t work, they do cost a lot, which is bad news for taxpayers and good news for Boeing—also, the prime contractor for the U.S. ABM system—and Toys R Us. Yes, Toys R Us makes the guidance fins on the Iron Dome rocket.

 

The Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin (with a tip of the hat to sub-contractors Northrop Grumman, BAE, L-3 Communications, United Technologies Corp., and Honeywell) for “shoddy” work on the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. History. The plane—already 10 years behind schedule and 100 percent over budget—has vacuumed up $395.7 billion, and will eventually cost $1.5 trillion.

A Pentagon study, according to Agence France Presse, “cited 363 problems in the design and manufacture of the costly Joint Strike Fighter, the hi-tech warplane that is supposed to serve as the backbone of the future American fleet.”

The plane has difficulty performing at night or in bad weather, and is plagued with a faulty oxygen supply system, fuselage cracks and unexplained “hot spots.” Its software is also a problem, in part because it is largely untested. “Without adequate product evaluation of mission system software,” the Pentagon found, “Lockheed Martin cannot ensure aircraft safety requirements are met.”

In the meantime, extended unemployment benefits have been cut from the federal budget. The cost? About $25 billion, or 25 F-35Cs that don’t work.

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Pandora and The Drones

Pandora & The Drones

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2013

In November 2001, when the CIA assassinated al-Qaeda commander Mohammed Atef with a killer drone in Kandahar, Afghanistan, the U.S. held a virtual monopoly on the technology of lethal robots. Today, more than 70 countries in the world deploy drones, 16 of them the deadly variety, and many of those drones target rural people living on the margins of the modern world.

Armed drones have been hailed as a technological breakthrough in the fight against terrorists who, in the words of President Obama, “take refuge in remote tribal regions…hide in caves and walled compounds…train in empty deserts and rugged mountains.” But much of the butcher’s bill for the drones has fallen on people who live in those deserts and mountains, many of whom are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or get swept into a definition of “terrorist” so broad it that embraces virtually all adult males.

Since 2004—the year the “drone war” began in earnest—missile firing robots have killed somewhere between 3,741 and 5,825 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and injured another 1,371 to 1,836.  The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that this death toll includes between 460 to 1,067 “civilians” and as many as 214 children.

But, because how the U.S. defines “civilian” is classified, it is almost impossible to determine exactly who the victims are. Up until recently, it appears that being between the ages of 18 and 60 while carrying a weapon or attending a funeral for a drone victim was sufficient to get you incinerated.

In his May address to the National Defense University, however, President Obama claimed to have narrowed the circumstances under which deadly force can be used.  Rather than the impossibly broad rationale of “self-defense,” future attacks would be restricted to individuals who pose a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people” and who could not be “feasibly apprehended.” The President added that there had to be a “near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured.”

As national security expert and constitutional law professor David Cole points out, the new criteria certainly are a more “demanding standard,” but one that will be extremely difficult to evaluate since the definition of everything from “threat” to “civilian” is classified. Over the past year there has been a drop in the number of drone strikes, which could reflect the new standards or be a response to growing anger at the use of the robots. Some 97 percent of Pakistanis are opposed to the use of drone strikes in that country’s northwest border region.

The drones that roam at will in the skies over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, are going global, and the terror and death they sow in those three countries now threatens to replicate itself in western China, Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, highland Peru, South Asia, and the Amazon basin.

Drones have become a multi-billion dollar industry, and countries across the planet are building and buying them. Many are used for surveillance, but the U.S., Britain, Sweden, Iran, Russia, China, Lebanon, Taiwan, Italy, Israel, France, Germany, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all own the more lethal varieties. The world’s biggest drone maker is Israel.

For a sure-fire killer you want a Made-in-the-USA-by-General-Atomics Predator or Reaper, but there are other dangerous drones out there and they are expanding at a geometric pace.

Iran recently unveiled a missile-firing “Fotros” robot to join its “Shahad 129” armed drone. China claims its “Sharp Sword” drone has stealth capacity. A Russian combat drone is coming off the drawing boards next year. And a European consortium of France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Greece and Switzerland is developing the armed Dassault nEURon drone. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of drone programs worldwide jumped from 195 to 680. In 2001, the U.S. had 50 drones. Today it has more than 7,500.

While drone promoters claim that robot warfare is the future, they rarely mention who are the drones’ most likely targets. Except for surveillance purposes, drones are not very useful on a modern battlefield, because they are too slow. Their advantage is that they can stay aloft for a very long time—24 to 40 hours is not at all unusual—and their cameras give commanders a real-time picture of what is going on. But as the Iranians recently demonstrated by downing a U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone, they are vulnerable to even middle-level anti-craft systems.

“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” says U.S. Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of Air Combat Command. “I couldn’t [put one] into the Strait of Hormuz without putting airplanes there to protect it.”

But over the tribal areas of Pakistan, the rural villages of Yemen and the coast of Somalia they are virtually invulnerable. Flying at an altitude beyond the range of small arms fire—which, in any case, is highly inaccurate—they strike without warning. Since the drone’s weapon of choice, the Hellfire missile, is supersonic, there is no sound before an explosion: a village compound, a car, a gathering, simply vanishes in a fury cloud of high explosives.

Besides dealing out death, the drones terrify. Forensic psychologist Peter Schaapveld found that drones inflicted widespread posttraumatic stress syndrome in Yemeni villagers exposed to them. Kat Craig of the British organization Reprieve, who accompanied Schaapveld, says the terror of the drones “amounts to psychological torture and collective punishment.”

But do they work? They have certainly killed leading figures in al Qaeda, the Haqqani Group, and the Taliban, but it is an open question whether this makes a difference in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, a number of analysts argue that the drones end up acting as recruiting sergeants by attacking societies where honor and revenge are powerful currents.

In his book “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s war on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” anthropologist Akbar Ahmed argues that the drone war’s major victims are not ideologically committed terrorists, but tribal people. And further, that when a drone sows death and injury among these people, their response is to seek retribution and a remedy for dishonor.

For people living on the margins of the modern world, honor and revenge are anything but atavistic throwbacks to a previous era. They are cultural rules that help moderate inter-community violence in the absence of centralized authority and a way to short circuit feuds and war.

Kinship systems can function similarly, and, in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone war ends up creating a broader base for groups like the Taliban. The major target of drones in those countries is the Pashtun tribe which make up a plurality of Afghanistan and a majority in Pakistan’s tribal areas. From the outside, Pashtun clans are a factious lot until they encounter an outsider. Then the tribe’s segmentary lineage system kicks in and fulfills the old Pashtun adage: “Me against my brother; my brother and me against our cousins; my brother, me andour cousins against everyone else.”

Occupying someone else’s lands is dangerous and expensive, hence the siren lure of drones as a risk-free and cheap way to intimidate the locals and get them to hand over their land or resources. Will the next targets be indigenous people resisting the exploitation of their lands by oil and gas companies, soybean growers, or logging interests?

The fight against “terrorism” may be the rationale for using drones, but the targets are more likely to be Baluchs in northwest Pakistan, Uyghurs in Western China, Berbers in North Africa, and insurgents in Nigeria. Some 14 countries in Latin America are purchasing drones or setting up their own programs, but with the exception of Brazil, those countries have established no guidelines for how they will be used.

The explosion of drone weapons, and the secrecy that shields their use was the spur behind the Global Drone Summit in Washington, titled “Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance” and organized by Codepink, the Institute for Policy Study, The Nation Magazine, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild. The Nov. 16 meeting drew anti-drone activists from around the world to map out plans to challenge the secrecy and the spread of drones.

Zeus gave Pandora a box, and her husband, Epimetheus, the key, instructing them not to open it. But Pandora could not resist exploring what was inside, and thus released fear, envy, hate, disease and war on the world. The box of armed drones, but its furies are not yet fully deployed. There is still time to close it and ban a weapon of war aimed primarily at the powerless and the peripheral.

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Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

Poison Gas & Arabian Tales

Dispatches From The Edge

July 4, 2013

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad            used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for 1 percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000 lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing.  At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

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