Europe: Shaking The Temple

Europe: Shaking The Temple

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Feb. 12, 2015

 

In the aftermath of last month’s Greek election that vaulted the left anti-austerity party Syriza into power, armies of supporters and detractors—from Barcelona to Berlin—are on the move. While Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble was making it clear that Berlin would brook no change in the European Union’s (EU) debt strategy that has impoverished countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, left organizations from all over Europe met in Barcelona to drew up a plan of battle.

 

As Schaueble was stonewalling Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, the Party of the European Left (PEL), along with assorted Green parties, gathered for the “1st European South Forum” in Catalonia’s capital to sketch out a 10-point “Declaration of Barcelona” aimed at ending “austerity and inequality,” and promoting “democracy and solidarity.”

 

At first glance, the past two weeks look ominously like September 1914, with opposing forces digging in for a massive bloodletting.

 

On one hand the European Central Bank (ECB)—one of the “Troika” members, that includes the European Commission (EC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—brusquely denied Greece the right to sell government bonds to raise money. Representatives of the Greek government also got little support from other leaders of EU member countries to reduce Athens’ unsustainable $360 billion debt. Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Osborne, grimly opined that “The standoff” between the Eurozone and Greece was “endangering the global economy.”

 

On the other hand, the Syriza government made it clear that Greece was finished with the austerity policies that crashed its economy, made more than a quarter of the population jobless, and shredded essential social services. And the Barcelona Declaration is a direct challenge to the economic formulas of the Troika and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Merkelism is not invincible. Austerity can stop. Europe can change,” reads the document,

 

Behind the trenches, however, the situation was far more complex than two sides bunkered down in a winner-take-all battle, and the politics around economic policy more fluid than one might initially conclude.

 

While Greece will certainly not go back to the failed formula of selling off state-owned enterprises, huge budget cuts, layoffs and onerous taxes, neither is it eager to exit the Eurozone. The latter is composed of 18 out of the 28 EU members that use a common currency, the euro.

 

For all the sturm und drang coming from Berlin and EU headquarters in Brussels, Syriza’s program is anything but radical, more social democratic than Bolshevik. And a growing number of economists and Europeans are concluding that taking a hard line on Greece might, in the end, endanger the entire EU endeavor.

 

As a strategy for getting out of debt, austerity has an almost unbroken track record of failure, starting with Latin American in the late 1980s. It has certainly been catastrophic for Greece and, to a lesser extent, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, and virtually no European country has dodged its impact on employment and social services.

 

“Austerity” is not just about cutbacks and budget tightening. By increasing unemployment, and introducing “temporary” labor contracts, it severely weakens unions and the ability of workers to bargain for higher wages and improved benefits. Indeed, according to the International Labor Organization, since 2007 wages have either stalled or fallen in most EU countries.

 

Austerity also accelerates economic inequality. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the top 1 percent now control 48.2 percent of the world’s wealth, and inequality in Europe is the highest it has been in a half century. More people are poorer than they were a decade ago, while a few are richer than ever. The latter will be reluctant to moderate the policies that have given them a half-decade of unalloyed profit making.

 

The Greek election was a shot across the bow for this strategy and a warning that, while wealth and political power may be related, they are not the same thing: Governments can be overturned.

 

But compromise on the Troika’s side will be difficult, in part because the austerity strategy has been so lucrative for the EU’s elites, in part because the intransigence of many EU leaders is driven by multiple devils.

 

There is the “why not us?” devil. The ruling parties in Ireland, Portugal and Spain are spooked, because if Syriza gets a deal on the Greek debt that doesn’t involve crucifying most its population, their own impoverished constituents are going to be asking some hard questions and demanding something similar.

 

Spain’s right-wing Popular Party is nervously looking over its shoulder at the growing strength of the anti-austerity Podemos party. It was no accident that the ELP chose Spain for its conference: Podemos is drawing 24 percent in national polls and is the only party in the country currently growing. It is now the second largest in Spain. With local and national elections coming up this year—the former in May, the latter in December—Spain’s two mainstream parties are running scared.

 

So, too, are the governments in Portugal and Ireland that went along with the austerity demands of the troika and now face expanding anti-austerity parties on their left.

 

Another devil is the right, although last May’s European parliamentary elections demonstrated that when the left clearly articulated an anti-austerity program, voters picked it over the right. What those elections also showed, however, is that when the center-left went along with austerity—as it did in Britain and France—the right made gains.

 

German Chancellor Andrea Merkel is apprehensive about losing votes to the right-wing, anti-EU Alternate Party for Germany. British Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to fend off the rightist United Kingdom Independence Party, and French President Francois Hollande is running behind Marine Le Pen of the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic National Front Party.

 

There are strong right-wing parties in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, although, in the latter two, their poll numbers fell in the European parliamentary elections.

 

What those last May elections suggest is that any effort to co-opt the right’s politics or base by moving in its direction does little more than feed the beast. Greece’s experiences are instructive. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party is also anti-austerity, but Syriza trounced them in last month’s election. At the same time, Syriza’s warning that austerity fuels the politics of the right is almost certainly true. In an economic crisis there are always those who turn to the dark side and its simplistic explanations for their condition: immigrants, Roma, Jews, and “slackers.”

 

While the European right is worrisome, it has generally lost head-on battles with the left, because the right has little to offer besides the politics of racism and xenophobia.

 

And Europe needs answers. The Greek crisis is a crisis of the entire EU. To one extent or other, every country—even Germany, the EU’s engine—is characterized by falling or anemic wage growth, increasing economic inequality, spreading deflation, and an overall decline in living standards. It is this general malaise that the Barcelona Declaration is taking aim at.

 

Pierre Laurent, head of the French Communist Party and president of the ELP, told the Barcelona forum that “2015 is a decisive year, the year of change,” and that Syriza’s victory will “have a huge impact throughout Europe because for the first time since the crisis, it will force all European governments to discuss and alternative to austerity.”

 

The Declaration proposes a program for relieving unemployment, creating sustainable development, expanding credit, resisting “racism and xenophobia,” and a European debt conference along the lines of the 1953 London Debt Agreement that relieved Germany of half its post-World War II debts.

 

How the Greek debt crisis will play out over the next few months is not clear.

 

The troika may take a hard line, in which case Greece may be forced to leave the Eurozone, a move that Berlin claims would have little impact. Other analysts are not so certain.

 

“The predominant German view” that a Greek exit would be a “minor shock for the Eurozone and a non-event for the global economy” says Financial Times analyst Wolfgang Munchau, “could not be more wrong.”

 

Faced with a possible meltdown of the European Union or the Eurozone and a growing insurgency on its left, the Troika may blink and give the Greeks part of what they want: a reduction in the interest rate on the debt—maybe even a write-down on some of it—and an extension of the payment schedule. What they will not get—because the Greek electorate has made it clear they will not accept—is more austerity.

 

That is the contagion—sometimes called the “Greek virus””—that is already spreading to Spain, Portugal and Ireland and which is likely to jump to Italy, France and Central Europe.

 

The Greeks have shaken the pillars of the temple. Inside the mighty tremble.

 

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The Greek Earthquake

The Greek Earthquake

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 28, 2014

 

Almost before the votes were counted in the recent Greek elections, battle lines were being drawn all over Europe. While Alexis Tsipras, the newly elected Prime Minister from Greece’s victorious Syriza Party, was telling voters, “Greece is leaving behind catastrophic austerity, fear and autocratic government,” Jens Weidmann, president of the German Bundesbank, was warning the new government not to “make promises it cannot keep and the country cannot afford.”

 

On Feb. 12 those two points of view will collide when European Union (EU) heads of state gather in Brussels. Whether the storm blowing out of Southern Europe proves an irresistible force, or the European Council an immovable object, is not clear, but whatever the outcome, the continent is not likely to be the same after that meeting.

 

The Jan 25 victory of Greece’s leftwing Syriza Party was, on one hand, a beacon for indebted countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. On the other, it is a gauntlet for Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and the “troika”—the European Central bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—the designers and enforcers of loans and austerity policies that have inflicted a catastrophic economic and social crisis on tens of millions of Europeans.

 

The troika’s policies were billed as “bailouts” for countries mired in debt—one largely caused by the 2008 financial speculation bubble over which indebted countries had little control—and as a way to restart economic growth. In return for the loans, the EU and the troika demanded massive cutbacks in social services, huge layoffs, privatization of pubic resources, and higher taxes.

 

However, the “bailouts” did not go toward stimulating economies, but rather to repay creditors, mostly large European banks. Out of the $266 billion loaned to Greece, 89 percent went to investors. After five years under the troika formula, Greece was the most indebted country in Europe. Gross national product dropped 26 percent, unemployment topped 27 percent (and over 50 percent for young people), and one-third of the population lost their health care coverage.

 

Given a chance to finally vote on the austerity strategy, Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the parties that went along with the troika and elected Syriza.

 

Now it gets tricky, starting with the internal situation within Greece.

 

Because Syriza fell two seats short of controlling the Greek parliament, it has gone into coalition with the small, right wing Independent Greeks party. While initially it seems an odd choice—the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the Greek Communist Party also have deputies, and Syriza is only two seats short of a majority—Greek politics are, if nothing else, complex.

 

The Independent Greek party—a split from the former ruling conservative New Democracy Party—is an odd duck by any measure. It has a streak of racism and xenophobia, and its leader, Panos Kammenos, believes that jet contrails are chemicals used to control people’s minds. But it is staunchly anti-austerity and will not likely waver in the face of the troika or German Chancellor Andrea Merkel.

 

What would seem like a more compatible alliance with PASOK, however, is precluded by that fact that the Socialists supported the austerity package. There is a new party, To Potami, but it has yet to publish its program, and it is unclear exactly what it stands for. As for the Communists, the Party’s leadership says they have no intention of working with the “false hope” of Syriza.

 

As convoluted as Greek politics are, the main obstacle for Syriza will come from other EU members and the Troika.

 

Finnish Prime Minister Alex Stubb made it clear “that we would say a resounding ‘no’ to forgive loans.” Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, says, “We have pursued a policy which works in many European countries, and we will stick to in the future.” IMF head Christine Lagarde chimed in that “there are rules that must be met in the euro zone,” and that “we cannot make special exceptions for specific countries.”

 

But Tsipras will, to paraphrase the poet Swinburne, not go entirely naked into Brussels, but “trailing clouds of glory.” Besides the solid support in Greece, a number of other countries and movements will be in the Belgian capital as well.

 

Syriza is closely aligned in Spain with Podemos, now polling ahead of the ruling conservative People’s Party. “2015 will be the year of change in Spain and Europe,” tweeted Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias in the aftermath of the election, “let’s go Alexis, let’s go!” Unemployment in Spain is 24 percent, and over 50 percent for young people.

 

Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein—now the third largest party in the Irish Republic—hailed the vote as opening “up the real prospect of democratic change, not just for the people of Greece, but for citizens right across the EU.” Unemployment in Ireland is 10.7 percent, and tens of thousands of jobless young people have been forced to emigrate.

 

The German Social Democrats are generally supportive of the troika, but the Green Party hailed the Syriza victory and Die Linke Party members marched with signs reading, “We start with Greece. We change Europe.”

 

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi—who has his own issues with the EU’s rigid approach to debt—hailed the Greek elections, and top aide Sandro Gozi said that Rome was ready to work with Syriza. The jobless rate in Italy is 13.4 percent, but 40 percent among youth.

 

The French Communist Party hailed the Greek elections as “Good news for the French people,” and Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Parti de Gauche called for a left-wing alliance similar to Syriza. French President Francois Hollande made a careful statement about “growth and stability,” but the Socialist leader is trying to quell a revolt by the left flank of his own party over austerity, and Paris is closer to Rome than it is to Berlin on the debt issue.

 

While the conservative government of Portugal was largely silent, Left Bloc Member of Parliament Marisa Matias told a rally, “A victory for Syriza is a victory for all of Europe.”

 

In short, there are a number of currents in the EU and a growing recognition even among supporters of the troika that prevailing approach to debt is not sustainable.

 

One should have no illusions that Syriza will easily sweep the policies of austerity aside, but there is a palpable feeling on the continent that a tide is turning. It did not start with the Greek elections, but with last May’s European Parliament elections, where anti-austerity parties made solid gains. While some right-wing parties that opportunistically donned a populist mantle also increased their vote, they could not do so where they were challenged by left anti-austerity parties. For instance, the right did well in Denmark, France, and Britain, but largely because there were no anti-austerity voices on the left in those races. Elsewhere the left generally defeated their rightist opponents.

 

If Syriza is to survive, however, it must deliver, and that will be a tall order given the power of its opponents.

 

At home, the Party will have to take on Greece’s wealthy tax-dodging oligarchs if it hopes to extend democracy and start refilling the coffers drained by the troika’s policies. It will also need to get a short-term cash infusion to meet its immediate obligations, but without giving in to yet more austerity demands by the troika.

 

For all the talk about Syriza being “extreme”—it stands for Coalition of the Radical Left— its program, as Greek journalist Kia Mistilis points, is “classic ‘70s social democracy”: an enhanced safety net, debt moratorium, minimum wage raise, and economic stimulus.

 

Syriza is pushing for a European conference modeled on the 1953 London Debt Agreement that pulled Germany out of debt after World War II and launched the “wirtschaftswunder,”or economic miracle that created modern Germany. The Agreement waved more than 50 percent of Germany’s debt, stretched out payments over 50 years, and made repayment of loans dependent on the country running a trade surplus.

 

The centerpiece of Syriza’s Thessaloniki program is its “four pillars of national reconstruction,” which include “confronting the humanitarian crisis,” “restarting the economy and promoting tax justice,” “regaining employment,” and “transforming the political system to deepen democracy.”

 

Each of the “pillars” is spelled out in detail, including costs, income and savings, and, while it is certainly a major break with the EU’s current model, it is hardly the October Revolution.

 

The troika’s austerity model has been quite efficient at smashing trade unions, selling off public resources at fire sale prices, lowering wages and starving social services. As a statement by the International Union of Food Workers argues, “Austerity is not the produce of a deficient grasp of macroeconomics or a failure of ‘social dialogue,’ it is a conscious blueprint for expanding corporate power.”

 

Under an austerity regime, the elites do quite well, and they are not likely to yield without a fight.

 

But Syriza is poised to give them one, and “the little party that could” is hardly alone. Plus a number of important elections are looming in Estonia, Finland, and Spain that will give anti-austerity forces more opportunities to challenge the policies of Merkel and the troika.

 

The spectre haunting Europe may not be the one that Karl Marx envisioned, but it is putting a scare into the halls of the rich and powerful.

 

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Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2015

 

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the winners for 2014.

 

The Pandora’s Box Award to Israel and the U.S. for launching the world’s first cyber war and creating a monster in the process. In 2010 both countries secretly released the Stuxnet virus to disable Iran’s nuclear energy program, in the process crashing thousands of Teheran’s centrifuges.

 

According to a report by the security company Cylance, “Stuxnet was an eye-opening event for the Iranian authorities, exposing them to the world of physical destruction via electronic means. Retaliation for Stuxnet began almost immediately.”

 

The Financial Times now reports that “Iranian hackers have penetrated dozens of international organizations, including six top-tier oil and gas companies, six international airports, seven airlines, a blue-chip U.S. defense contractor, 10 prestigious universities, and the government computer systems of several Gulf states.”

 

An Iranian hacker program dubbed “Cleaver” has, according to Cylance, “extracted highly sensitive materials” from governments and key companies in Canada, China, France, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Britain, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

What ye sow, so shall ye reap.

 

The Golden Scold Award to Germany and Chancellor Andrea Merkel for lecturing the Greeks on profligate spending and forcing Athens to swallow crippling austerity measures, while at the same time bribing Greek military officials to spend billions of dollars on useless weapons.

 

According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, arms dealers—mostly German, but also French, Swedish, and Russian—handed out close to $3 billion in bribes to secure $68 billion in weapons contracts over the next decade. One arms dealer dropped off a suitcase with over $800,000 in it at the Greek Arms Ministry.

 

Athens spent $2.3 billion to buy 170 German Leopard II tanks, which are largely useless for fighting in Greek terrain. In any case, the tanks were sent without any ammunition (although this past August The Greek Defense Ministry coughed up $69.9 million to buy ammunition from the German company Rheinmetall)

 

The Greeks also paid more than $4 billion to purchase German submarines that are still in dry dock, and, from all accounts, are very noisy. It is not good to be noisy in the silent service. According to Der Spiegel, the German company that makes the U-214 shelled out over $2 million in bribes to land the contract.

 

In the meantime, the austerity policies forced on Greece by the “troika” of international lenders—the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Union—has impoverished millions of people and driven the unemployment rate to over 20 percent (50 percent for those under 25). Since 2008, Greek infant mortality has risen 21 percent and child mortality is up 43 percent. Suicides are up 45 percent.

 

In exchange for the military spending, the Greeks got submarines that sit on the land, tanks they can’t use, and lectures from Merkel about saving money.

 

The Misplaced Priorities Award goes the Indian government for spending $33 million on a nearly 600-foot bronze statue of Indian independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel, while, according to the UN, 213 million Indians are undernourished—the most for any country in the world and constituting one out of every four hungry people on the planet. Some 48 percent of children under five are below weight, and India and Nigeria account for almost one-third of deaths among children under five. Inequality in earnings is worse in India than in any other emerging economy in the world. Life expectancy is actually better in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

 

Independent investigative journalist P. Sainath, who has covered rural India for decades, writes that “A total of 2,960,438 farmers have committed suicide since 1995.” In virtually every case the cause was debt to moneylenders and landlords.

 

Dispatches suggests Indian government leaders design a program to aid farmers, feed the poor, and take a moment to read Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias.”

 

The Shoot-In-The-Foot Award to the Obama administration for ending the purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines as part of U.S. sanctions leveled at Moscow over the crisis in the Ukraine. The RD-180—a cheap, reliable workhorse engine that has lifted U.S. Atlas III and Atlas V rockets into space since 1997—will cost $1.5 billion and six years to replace. A new engine means that launch vehicles will also need to be re-designed and satellite programs delayed. In the end, that could cost $5 billion.

 

In retaliation for the RD-180 ban, Russia will no longer lend its Soyuz rockets to supply the international space station. Asked how astronauts will get to the station, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested they “use a trampoline.”

 

The European Space Agency (ESA) will also take a hit. Besides losing the Soyuz taxi service to the space station, the ESA will lose access to the RD-180 engine as well, and will have to accelerate its troubled Ariane VI rocket program to replace the Agency’s Ariane V. The “VI” has been criticized as too big, too inflexible, and much too expensive—$4. 2 billion.

 

Russia announced it would shift monies it spends on the International space station to joint space projects with China.

 

 

The Dog Ate My Homework Award to the British Foreign Office for “accidently destroying” documents which would have shown that London was deeply—and illegally—involved in the U.S. CIA’s rendition program. Renditions moved terror suspects to countries that allowed torture, or kept the suspects in secret “black bases” where the CIA carried out its own torture program.

 

Britain allowed over 1,600 CIA flights in and out of the country and permitted suspects to be held at the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Complicity with the rendition program is a violation of British domestic laws against kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial. It also violates international laws against torture.

 

“It’s looking worse and worse for the UK government on Diego Garcia,” says Cori Crider, director of the human rights organization Reprieve. “They need to come clean about how, when, and where this evidence was lost.”

 

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmons says the records were lost due to “water damage.”

 

The Mouse That Roared Award to the Marshall Islands for hauling the nuclear armed powers—the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—before the International Court of Justice at Hague for violating Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI calls for the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” India, Israel and Pakistan are not treaty members—North Korea withdrew—but its hard to argue with the Marshallese on the subject of nukes: in 1954 the U.S. vaporized Bikini Atoll with a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb and irradiated thousands of islanders.

 

Over a period of 12 years, the U.S. detonated some 67 nuclear warheads with an aggregate explosive power of 42.2 megatons in the Marshalls. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal found the U.S. liable for $2 billion in damages, but so far Washington has only paid out $150 million.

 

It wasn’t just Marshall Islanders who got zapped either. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the U.S. Navy decommissioned some of the ships that had taken part in those tests at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The Navy then buried the nuclear waste around the island, creating numerous “hot spots.” Some 2,000 low-income or homeless San Francisco residents—who live in subsidized housing on the island—were assured there was nothing to worry about, and then instructed not to let their children dig in front or back yards (“Look, Mom, this rock glows in the dark!”).

 

Nuclear contamination was also found at several other California bases, including Alameda Naval Air Station, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and McClellan Air Force Base near the state’s capital, Sacramento.

 

Radiation, the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin for its $1.5 trillion F-35 stealth fighter-bomber—the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history—that can’t get its software to work, won’t fly in the rain, and burns up trying to get off the ground. In fact, foreign buyers are beginning to have second thoughts about buying the plane at all. Canada just tested the F-35 against the old U.S. F-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France’s Dassault Rafale and found the only difference was that the F-35 was much more expensive: between $116 million to $160 million per plane, vs., respectively, $60 million, $90 million, and $64 million apiece.

 

The U.S. was forced to cancel the F-35’s debut at the prestigious Farnborough International Air Show in Britain because a plane caught fire trying to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The F-35 has since been restricted to lower speeds and three hours flying time, not enough to make the hop across the Atlantic.

 

Lockheed Martin and Austal USA also scored big in the Lemon category with their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the USS Freedom and the USS Independence. The $37 billion LCS program will build a fleet of shallow draft, high-speed warships that, according to a recent Pentagon study, won’t survive combat. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, says Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom and Austal’s USS Independence, are “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment and are not intended to be employed in a manner that puts them in harm’s way.”

 

Translation: if they get in a fight, they’re toast.

 

But that might not be a problem because the LCSs high maintenance requirements means the ships can’t get to where the action is anyhow. The USS Freedom spent 58 percent of its time in Singapore port—more than twice the average for U.S. Navy ships—and the USS Independence spent most its time tied up in San Diego.

 

A Farewell to Fred Branfman, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at 72. Branfman helped expose the secret U.S. air war against Laos that killed tens of thousands of civilians and sowed that tiny country with millions of unexploded bombs, weapons that continue to inflict pain and death on Laotians today. The U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping almost a ton of bombs for every person in that country. Branfman help to found the Indochina Resource Center, which documented what he had seen in Laos as an aid worker. He later wrote “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.”

 

Presente!

 

 

 

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Syria: Turkey In The Fray

Syria: Turkey In the Fray

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 16, 2014

 

The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together, but the situation is extremely fragile, which is not good news in a region where sabotaging agreements and derailing initiatives comes easier than sober compromise. But while many of the key players have already begun backing away from their previous “red lines,” there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.

 

Back in August, Abbas Habib, coordinator of the Council of Syrian Tribes, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to explore the possibility of a “preliminary conference” of the antagonists, first in Moscow, then in Syria. In November, the Russians also met with Qadri Jamil, a leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, an in-house opposition party that functions inside Syria. The outcome of the November talks was an agreement to “promote the launch of an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiation process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.”

 

The 2012 Geneva agreement called for “the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would include members of the present government and the opposition, an inclusive National Dialogue process, and a review of the constitutional order and the legal system.” Implementation dissolved in the face of intransigence on all sides, and stepped up support for the armed opposition by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, plus the U.S., Turkey, and France.

 

But two more years of brutal warfare has accomplished very little except generating millions of refugees, close to 200,000 deaths, and widening instability in neighboring countries. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad admits there is no military solution to the war, and the U.S. has backed away from its “Assad must go” demand. According to David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, most of the rebels and their backers have also concluded that “Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks.”

 

In essence, most of the players fear the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) more than they do of the repressive Assad regime. As Harland puts it, “Better to have a regime and a state than not have a state.”

 

But that approach runs counter to Turkey’s strategy, which has as its centerpiece the ouster of Assad. Indeed, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that the threat of the ISIS is secondary to overthrowing the Damascus government, and that once Assad is gone, the Islamic extremists will disappear.

 

That analysis—shared by virtually no on else in the region—is why the Turks have locked horns with the U.S. by resisting to supporting the Kurds fighting to hold the Syrian border town of Kobani against the ISIS. Most of the Kurds involved in that battle are members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s long-time nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As Erdogan told reporters, “The PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey. It is wrong to view them differently. We need to deal with them jointly.”

 

But aside from the Syrian Army, the PYD is the only serious military force resisting the ISIS, a fact that even the U.S. has come around to recognizing. Initially reluctant to support a group tied to the PKK—officially designated a “terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union (EU)—the Americans have done a 180 degree turn, supplying the PYD with arms, ammunition and food.

 

Under pressure from the U.S., France and Britain, Turkey allowed a modest number of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross the border and fight in Kobani, and agreed to train insurgents, including Kurds, to fight in Syria. But who those soldiers will fight is hardly clear.

 

So far, the Erdogan government has refused to allow the U.S. to use its huge Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq unless Washington agrees to support Ankara’s four demands: a no-fly zone over Syria, a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, training of rebels, and equal targeting of the ISIS and the Assad regime.

 

The Americans are already instructing rebel forces in Jordan and Qatar, are preparing to do so in Saudi Arabia, and appear willing to pick up the bill if Turkey opens up training camps. Washington, however, is less enthusiastic about a “safe zone,” which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “premature.”

 

What a “safe zone” would actually involve is unclear, although Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Darutoglu says it should include the five northern cities of Ibid, Latakia, Hasakah, Jarablus, and Kobani, a significant slice of Syria.

Establishing it would certainly violate international law unless it had UN sanction, and Russia is unlikely to permit that. It would also put the Obama administration at odds with its Kurdish allies in Kobani, who see the “safe zone” as just an attempt by Ankara to meddle in Kurdish affairs.

 

The “no fly zone” would require the U.S. to smash up Syria’s air defense system and ground its air force. That would not be terribly difficult—though it has risks—but it would mean that the U.S. would essentially be at war with Syria. “No fly” zones also don’t have a particularly good track record in the region. The U.S. imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, but it took the U.S. Army to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

 

As for equally targeting the ISIS and Assad, not even the Turkish public supports that. A recent poll found that 66 percent supported military action against ISIS, but not Ankara’s goal of regime change, and only a slight majority thought Turkey itself should take part in military actions against the Islamic State.

 

Part of this hesitation is the fear that the war will spill over into Turkey, something that has already happened to a certain degree. There have been several car bombings on the Turkish-Syrian border, and last year car bombs in the Turkish town of Reyhanli killed 43 people and wounded dozens more. While Ankara blames Syria, the locals blame the Syrian rebels.

 

In October, Turkish authorities in Gaziantep, a city 40 miles north of the Syrian border, seized dozens of suicide vests, hundreds of pounds of powerful C-4 explosives, grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. Local authorities say that ISIS is active in the area and has cautioned westerners they might be potential kidnap victims.

 

There are also proposals for local ceasefires that might lay the foundation for a general peace agreement. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffen de Mistura, is trying to work out an armistice in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Russia supports the proposal and de Mistura said the Damascus government expressed “constructive interest” in such an agreement.

 

De Mistrua met Dec. 7 with Hadi al-Bahra of the western-backed National Coalition and the following day with various rebel groups in Gaziantep

 

According to Al Monitor, the plan would “focus on the real threat of terrorism as defined by the resolutions of the Security Council,” reduce violence, and move toward a “political solution.” Under the terms of the ceasefire, all groups would keep their arms. This latter point is an important one, because an earlier ceasefire in Homs required disarmament, an action that many of the opposition groups interpreted as surrender.

 

But the Erdogan government is not happy with a focus on “terrorism” that doesn’t include the Assad government, a posture that has isolated Turkey regionally and internationally. At the 60-nation meeting in Brussels on Dec. 3, Turkey’s argument equating the ISIS and the PKK received zero support. “Erdogan’s fixation with regime change in Syria has blinded his practical decision-making,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of Parliament for the President’s Justice and Development Party told the Financial Times.

 

Ankara’s obstinacy around Kobani touched off riots that killed more than 30 people in Kurdish towns and villages all over Turkey and threatens to derail one of the Erdogan’s more successful initiatives, peace with the Kurds.

 

Ankara is certainly in a position to cause trouble. It has already permitted rebel groups, including ISIS, to infiltrate fighters and supplies through its long border with Syria, and it is hard to imagine a lasting peace without a buy-in from Turkey.

 

The Erdogan government is not the only player in the Middle East that would like to see the Syrian civil war continue. Israel has been aiding rebel forces in Southern Syria and has bombed suspected government weapons depots on several occasions.

 

Getting all the rebel groups on board will be no picnic either. The ISIS is not interested in talking with anyone, and the Free Syrian Army has little support inside the country. The Kurds are willing to talk, but about what? Autonomy? The very thing that Ankara fears the most? Will the newly resurgent Republicans in the Congress—including some Democrats and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—balk at anything that keeps Assad in power, if only temporarily? And in the end, the Syrian government may be deluded into thinking it can win a military victory.

 

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist James Traub, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the proposed plan could lead to “an end to the war, a comprehensive reform of the constitution, and internationally supervised elections.”

 

There are myriad ways that a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war can be derailed, but the pieces for an agreement are on the table. Failure to put them together will accelerate the destabilizing effects of the war in neighboring countries and deepen the misery of the Syrian people.

 

 

 

 

                                                                        —30—

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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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The Syrian Labyrinth

The Syrian Labyrinth
Book Review
Dispatches From The Edge
Conn Hallinan
Oct. 13, 2014

Inside Syria:” The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect “ by Reese Erlich
Forward by Noam Chomsky
Prometheus Press, New York 2014

Reese Erlich’s informative and insightful book “Inside Syria” brings to mind the Greek myth of a vast maze under the palace at Knossos, with one exception: King Minos’ labyrinth on Crete concealed a single Minotaur, Syria is teeming with the beasts.

Erlich has spent almost three decades reporting from the Middle East, and he brings his considerable knowledge of the region into this analysis of the Syrian civil war. A winner of the Peabody Award and the Society of Professional Journalists explanatory journalism award for “Inside the Syrian Revolution,” Erlich combines on-the-ground reporting with an encyclopedic background in the region’s history. It is a combination that is particularly useful for a subject as complex and nuanced as the current war, one that has gradually drawn Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, along with the U.S., France and Britain.

The mainstream media generally considers history an afterthought, which explains why it does such an awful job reporting on the Middle East. Journalists like Erlich, Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn understand that the history of the region and current events are one and the same, a sort of paraphrase of William Faulkner’s observation that history is as much the present as the past.

While understanding the historical context of a story is a pretty good rule of thumb for producing competent journalism in general, that is particularly so in the Middle East, precisely because many people think they know about that past. Didn’t they see “Lawrence of Arabia”? Read “Exodus”? Or—God help them—read the mainstream press or watch television news?

The book begins with the initial revolt—“The Uprising That Wasn’t Supposed to Be”—and then backs into broader historical context, including a chapter on T.E. Lawrence (if this particular period is of interest to readers, they also might consider picking up Scott Anderson excellent book, “Lawrence In Arabia”). How Syria was created, and the imperial machinations of her architects, Britain and France, is essential to understanding not only the internal dynamics of the country, but its place in the region. The current hostility between Turkey and Syria has roots that reach back almost a century. If you want to understand Lebanon—a key player in the Syrian civil war—knowing how it was created and the strategies of ethnic division that France employed to maintain its colonial grip on this small but strategically placed country is essential.

The book covers Syrian history without bogging the reader down. This is, after all, a report on the on-going civil war. But Erlich does not glide over the important details, including how the U.S. camel first put its nose under the tent. Two chapters cover the period just after World War I, the impact of World War II, and the appearance of the Assads in 1970.

Erlich maintains that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s economic “reforms” helped impel the current uprising. Adopting neoliberal policies, Assad sold off state-owned enterprises—generally to regime allies and insiders—and opened the economy to outside competition. The result—aided by a long-running drought—was growing impoverishment and lots of unemployed youth. Joblessness and economic crisis is a volatile mix and needs only an “incident” to set it off. That happened in March 2011 in the southern city of Daraa, when Syrian security forces brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators.

After laying the historical groundwork for his reporting, Erlich follows with a detailed chapter on the 2011 uprising.

While Erlich has a clear point of view—he detests dictatorship and neo-colonialism in equal measure—he is a careful and thorough reporter. His discussion of the use of chemical weapons is a case in point. Erlich carefully unpacks the evidence that the Assad regime used Sarin gas and finds that some of it has been exaggerated or even possibly fabricated. Which doesn’t mean the Damascus regime is innocent. His discussion weighs the charges on all sides and concludes that we really don’t know. What we do know is that U.S. intelligence didn’t think the evidence against Assad was a slam-dunk, a fact that the Obama administration deliberately obscured. It is a fascinating treatment of the subject—there were several incidents involving the use of chemical weapons, not just the most horrendous at Al-Ghouta that killed several hundred people—and a good example of Erlich’s diligence as a reporter.

His chapters on “the Uprising begins,” and “Who Supports Assad” are a must for anyone trying to figure out who is who in this complex tragedy. Erlich details the various factions, how they interlink and how they differ, and why the U.S. policy of arming “moderate forces” is doomed to failure. These chapters are essential for understanding the internal dynamics of the two sides, which are more like a Rubik Cube than two opposing poles. The book includes an invaluable appendix on the groups involved, as well as a useful timeline of the current uprising.

Syria is part of a much larger picture, and its strategic placement—bordering Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon—means what happens in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus. Why is Iran backing Assad? Is this all about religion? (Hint: nope). What will this mean for the 30 million or so Kurds trying to form their own country? Do all the Kurds want to form a country, and, if they do, what will moving that particular piece on the Middle East chessboard do? How might this affect the on-going fight by the Palestinians to form their own country?

The Syrian civil war has morphed into a proxy battle with Iran and Russia on one side, and the U.S., Gulf monarchies and some NATO members on the other. While the battle is not over religion per se, religion greases the movement of arms and aid. “To the pious go the guns,” writes Erlich, which means that adherence to the reactionary brand of Islam favored by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies is a litmus test for whether you get arms and ammunition. It is not an atmosphere in which the American’s favored “moderates” can thrive.

Erlich says the White House recognizes that the “ultra-right wing Islamic groups” like the ISIS, Al-Nusra, and the Islamic Front are growing at the expense of the less extreme or secular groups and at one point considered simply “re-defining” the extremist Islamic Front as “moderate” so it could send aid to that organization.

Because Erlich is one of those old-fashioned journalists who believes that you need to talk to the principals involved, the readers get an opportunity to listen to what Kurds and Palestinians have to say. This combination of street interviews, suite discussions— he beards the U.S. State Department in Foggy Bottom—and historical background makes for a thoroughly engaging read. While he generally keeps his distance, Erlich injects himself when needed, or when he wants the reader to know that this is his opinion, not God’s. He also has a sense of humor. There is a wonderful moment when he gets off a bus in Gaza to be met by Hamas officials.

His final chapter—“U.S., Russia, and outside powers”—discusses the international dimensions of the civil war—virtually anything major that happens in the Middle East, with its enormous oil and gas reserves, has an international dimension—and what ought, and ought not, be done, to solve it.

The Obama administration is slipping into a quagmire that some have even compared to Vietnam. That analogy is probably flawed, but it should still gives us pause—for one, Vietnam demonstrated that air wars don’t work unless you have reliable allies on the ground. Once again, the U.S. is at war. Once again, the U.S. is ignoring international law and choosing to use military force over diplomacy. Once again there is a logic at work here that leads to yet another dark tunnel of escalation.

In 1966 journalist Robert Scheer wrote a small book, “How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam,” that undercut the popular narrative about Communist aggression and toppling dominos. The book shattered the official paradigm and gave the infant anti-war movement ammunition for its confrontation with the administration of Lyndon Johnson. Erlich’s “Inside Syria” has similar heft and should be widely read, because we are once again at war without the slightest idea of where it leads or what its ultimate goals are.

—30—

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Let A Thousand Poles Bloom

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

“Let A Thousand Poles Bloom”

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 29, 2014

 

At the very moment that the Americans and their allies are trying to squeeze Russia and Iran with a combination of economic sanctions and political isolation, alternative poles of power are emerging that soon may present a serious challenge to the U.S. dominated world that emerged from the end of the Cold War.

 

This past summer, the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—created an alternative to the largely U.S. controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added 1.6 billion people to its rolls.

 

The BRICS construction of a Contingent Reserve Arrangement will give its member’s emergency access to foreign currency, which might eventually dethrone the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The creation of a development bank will make it possible to by-pass the IMF for loans, thus avoiding the organization’s onerous austerity requirements.

 

Less than a month after the BRICS’ declaration of independence from the current strictures of world finance, the SCO—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—approved India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia for membership in the organization. It was the single largest expansion of the economic cooperation and security-minded group in its history, and it could end up diluting the impact of sanctions currently plaguing Moscow over the Ukraine crisis and Teheran over its nuclear program.

 

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization began as the Shanghai Five in 1996, and five years later became the SCO. Even before the recent additions, SCO represented three-fifths of Eurasia and 25 percent of the world’s population.

 

A major focus of the SCO is security, although the countries involved have different agendas about what that exactly means.

 

Russia and China are determined to reduce U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in Central Asia to what it was before the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The SCO has consistently rebuffed U.S. requests for observer status, and has pressured countries in the region to end U.S. basing rights. The U.S. was forced out of Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan in 2006, and from Manas in Kyrgyzstan in 2014.

 

“At present, the SCO has started to counterbalance NATO’s role in Asia,” says Alexei Maslov, chair of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and the new members, he says, want in to safeguard their interests.

 

Given the current confrontation between NATO and Russia over the Ukraine, and tensions in the East China Sea between the U.S., Japan, and China, Moscow and Beijing may not agree on a number of issues—in 1969 they came to blows over a border dispute—but they are on the same page when it comes to limiting Washington’s influence in their respective backyards.

 

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan said last year “China is ready to work with Russia to…expand the scope of bilateral defense cooperation.” Last month Russia’s Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov declared that, “Russia is ready to make joint efforts with China to lift the relationship to a new high.” China has been supportive of Russia in the Ukraine crisis.

 

For Iran, SCO membership may serve as a way to bypass sanctions currently pounding the Iranian economy. Russia and Iran signed a memorandum in August to exchange Russian energy technology and food for Iranian oil, a move that would violate U.S. sanctions. But Moscow—already weathering sanctions that have weakened its economy—may be figuring that there is little more the U.S. can do and still keep its European allies on board. Russian counter sanctions on the European Union (EU) have shoved a number of European countries back into recession, and the EU is worried that Russia will turn east and Europe will lose much of its Russian market share.

 

To a certain extent, that is already happening. When the 2,500-mile “Power of Siberia” pipeline is completed in 2018, it will supply China with about 15 percent of its natural gas, Russia’s Rosneft and China’s National Petroleum Corporation are jointly exploring oil and gas reserves in the arctic, and the Russians have also offered China a stake in the huge Vankor oil field in East Siberia. Since January 2014, some 30 percent of Russian oil exports have gone to Asia.

 

Teheran is reaching out to Beijing as well. Iran and China have negotiated a deal to trade Iran’s oil for China’s manufactured goods. Beijing is currently Iran’s number one customer for oil. In late September, two Chinese warships paid a first ever visit to Iran, and the two countries navies carried out joint anti-piracy and rescue maneuvers.

 

For India and Pakistan, energy is a major concern, and membership in the oil and gas rich SCO is a major plus. Whether that will lead to a reduction of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir is less certain, but at least the two traditional enemies will be sitting down to talk about economic cooperation and regional security on a regular basis.

 

There are similar tensions between SCO members Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders, and both countries, plus Tajikistan, have squabbled over water rights.

 

Most SCO members are concerned about security, particularly given the imminent departure of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan. That country might well descend into civil war, one that could have a destabilizing effect on its neighbors. Added to that is the U.S.-NATO-Gulf monarchy jihad against the Assad regime in Syria, a conflict that is raising yet another generation of mujahedeen that will some day reappear in their home countries—some of them SCO members—trained and primed for war.

 

From Aug. 24 -29, SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in “Peace Mission 2014,” an anti-terrorist exercise to “subdue” a hypothetical Central Asia city that had become a center for terrorist activity. The drill involved aircraft, 7.000 troops, armored vehicles, and drones, and according to China’s Chief of Staff, Fang Fenghui, was aimed at the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”

 

The problem with General Fang’s definition of “terrorism” is that it can easily be applied to minorities or local groups with legitimate complaints about their treatment by SCO member governments.

 

China has come down hard on Turkic speaking Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, who have been resisting marginalization by China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. Uyghur scholar IIham Tohti was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatist activity.”

 

Beijing has also suppressed demands for independence or more autonomy by Tibetans—who it also labels “separatists” –even though China has no more a claim over Tibet than Britain did to India or Ireland. All of them were swept up by empires at the point of a sword.

 

The BRICS and the SCO are the two largest independent international organizations to develop over the past decade, but there are others as well. In Latin America, Mercusur—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela—is the third largest trade grouping in the world. Associate members include Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Mexico and New Zealand have observer status. The newly minted Union of South American Nations (USAN) includes every country in South America, including Cuba, and has largely replaced the Cold War relic, the Organization of American States (OAS) that excluded Havana. While the U.S. and Canada are part of the OAS, they were not invited to join USAN.

 

What role these new organizations will play internationally is not clear. Certainly sanction regimens will be harder to maintain because the SCO and the BRICS create alternatives. South Africa, for instance, announced that it would begin buying Iran oil in the next few months, an important breach in the sanctions against Iran. But being in the same organization does not automatically translate into having the same politics on international questions.

 

The BRICS and the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza are a case in point. China called for negotiations. Russia was generally neutral (but friendly toward the Netanyahu government, in part because there are lots of Russians in Israel). India was silent—Israel is New Delhi’s number one source of arms. South Africa was critical of Israel, and Brazil withdrew its ambassador

 

In comparison, NATO was generally supportive of the Israeli actions, Turkey being the odd man out. There is more political uniformity among NATO countries than there is among SCO and BRICS nations, although there is growing opposition in the ranks of the European Union (EU) over Washington’s hard line approach on the Ukraine. The U.S. does $26 billion in trade with Russia, the EU $370 billion. Russia also supplies Europe with 30 percent of its natural gas, although that reaches 100 percent for countries like Finland. Most EU countries—the Baltic nations and Poland being the exceptions—see little percentage in a long, drawn out confrontation with Russia.

 

These independent poles are only starting to develop and it is hardly clear what their ultimate impact on international politics will be. But the days when the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury could essentially dictate international finances and intimidate or crush opponents with an avalanche of sanctions are drawing to a close.

 

The BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are two nails in that coffin.

 

 

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