Chaos in the Gulf?

What is going on in the Gulf of Oman? Four tankers off the UAE port of Fujairah had been struck on May 12, and two further offshore on June 13.  The most obvious consequence is that the world’s oil supplies are going to be threatened because already the owners of tankers are starting to stop sending them to the Gulf until this situation resolves itself. As of the time of writing, it is unclear who is responsible, although the US has immediately blamed Iran. Iran has previously threatened to close the gulf, and it is easy to jump to the conclusion they are doing it, but the fact is the latest happened at the same time as Japan and Germany are working to ease tensions and to ease sanctions. There was a visit from the Prime Minister of Japan to Tehran so surely that would be a stupid time to do that, especially to Japanese ships. It would be more likely that someone would want to prevent the Japanese from getting friendly with Iran.

The cause of the explosions is believed to be limpet mines. We “know” that because after the explosions, the US released a video showing the Iranian navy sent a boat to rescue sailors on the Japanese ship, and they disabled and removed an unexploded limpet mine. This prodded the US to accuse them of having put it there. There is the question as to why they got there so quickly, but one reasonable answer is the Gulf of Oman is rather narrow, they regularly patrol, and if Iran were innocent and the naval boat heard an explosion and saw smoke coming from a ship, it would be natural for it to go and assist since it could be by far the closest possible source of help.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, immediately blamed Iran, stating his blame was “based on intelligence” and they have the ability. He claimed nobody else had the ability, then he stated that the US will defend its interests, stand by its partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability. He offered no evidence for his claim and took zero questions.

An immediate problem here is that Pompeo has previously told blatant lies about Iran, and at an audience at Texas A&M University he seemed to boast that when he was Director of the CIA, “We lied, we cheated, we stole.” In short, he is not a man to be taken at face value, and worse, the US has a history of using lies and false flags to justify military intervention. You may recall the “firm intelligence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction”. John Bolton is also known to be a liar when necessary to achieve his goals, he was a strong advocate for the Iraq war, and he has made statements to the effect that there should be military action against Iran. Back to Pompeo, he was reported here as stating, in response to a question of why Iran would do it, that if you keep poking someone in the eye with a stick, you have to expect a response. That does not prove that Iran did this, but it does strongly suggest that the US has a strongly malevolent policy towards Iran. It also makes a lie of Pompeo’s claim that the attack was unprovoked. If Iran did do it, the sanctions applied to Iran, and Pompeo’s “poking its eyes with a stick” could be regarded as acts of war, and whatever else, they would not be unprovoked.

The next question is how were these mines attached? There would seem to be only two methods: from a boat at sea, or in a harbour. A ship at sea, if there is any sort of watch, would see the perpetrators. There appear to be no reports about this. These were limpet mines, which would be difficult to attach to a moving ship anyway, so perhaps they were attached while in harbour. It should be noted the mines were attached above the waterline. The US video that has shown the Iranians removing an unexploded mine (assuming that was what it was) has the Iranians standing on the deck of a patrol boat to reach it. This would be difficult to attach at sea. Images of the other ship show corresponding holes well above the waterline.

Perhaps we should look at cui bono– who benefits? The Japanese Prime Minister was in Tehran attempting to negotiate a de-escalation of US-Iran tension, and Trump had given his blessing to it. Why then attack a Japanese ship? Why rescue the crew and remove the limpet mine? All this at a time when Iran was busy negotiating with Europe. Why attach explosives so high above the waterline? The only reason for doing that is that you do not wish to sink the ship. Why not? Presumably because you do not want any accidental evidence that it was you who did it to blame you for the damage. So who wants to merely be a nuisance and strictly limit any damage?

There are other players. The region is torn with the struggle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Iran is helping Shias and has fought Sunni extremists, including ISIS, in Iraq and Syria, and it supports the Houthis in Yemen, who are being bombed by the Saudis on a regular basis. Against Iran is a group of countries including the Sunni states, probably the Sunnis in Iraq, al Qaeda and its offshoots, and, for totally different reasons, Israel and the US. The problem for the Sunni states such as the Saudis is that while they have a lot of money and buy a lot of armaments, and are happy enough to bomb the defenceless, they are not soldiers and do not want to fight on the ground. Accordingly, they might well want to goad the US into going to war with Iran.

So who did it? I do not know, but common sense suggests to me one more likely suspect would be some Sunni fringe group, such as al Qaeda, or one of its many offshoots, out for revenge against Iran. They cannot get it themselves directly, but they would have their revenge if the US went to war against Iran. There is reasonable evidence consistent with it having done that in Syria with the so-called chemical weapon attacks. The area is a powder keg.  Against that, why protect the ship against sinking? If ships sank, the US would be more likely to go to war. However, despite what some in the US may have us believe, I believe it really does not want to get into a war with Iran. While Iraq had an ideal landscape for mechanised war, Iran does not, and unlike the Iraqis, the Iranians have had some battle experience. A war there would be much worse for America than Afghanistan was, and that was not exactly good.

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Venezuela in Chaos

Venezuela has enormous oil reserves, it has been selling oil for nearly a hundred years, and its people are impoverished. So what went wrong? Some say it is a fine example of the failings of socialism, but in fact it was plutocratic capitalism that set the rot in place.

Venezuela was possibly the richest country in South America before it struck oil. Because there was so much of it, foreign oil companies poured in, as did their money. This caused the local currency to increase wildly. The oil companies paid locals huge salaries or wages, and the growth was so pronounced that any reasonable contractor worked in the oil industry. That meant that people left agriculture and manufacturing by locals was squeezed for capital.

Worse, when the politicians become corrupt, which is easily done when law and order is weak and there is money flowing like water, the average person was overlooked and they slid into poverty. At first the plutocrats simply walked off with the profits but by 1950 the government reformed the industry and required half the profits to go to the state. This had the effect of making the government essentially totally dependent on oil money. For Venezuela the effect has been so dramatic that oil now accounts for about 98% of its exports, and up to 50% of its GDP. In the 1970s, the Venezuelan government received huge incomes, which led to rampant mismanagement and embezzlement. In the 1980s oil prices plummeted and Venezuela sustained rampant inflation and massive debts, in part due to government investments offshore that were not exactly wise. The IMF gave its usual recipe: austerity, and there were major riots. Austerity hurts the poor, while the rich remain unscathed, which may be why the bankers of the IMF favour it.

In 1998, Hugo Chavez was elected President on a socialist pledge, and while he did significantly improve the lot of the average Venezuelan, he also badly mismanaged the oil industry and the economy in general. Chavez also bailed out Cuba by supplying it with oil, and also managed to greatly increase national debt. His government was authoritarian, and when he was replaced by Maduro, the latter has probably become more authoritarian.

Maduro inherited a mess, and he was not gifted with luck. Between 2014 – 2016, oil prices slumped by a factor of three. The government gets out of its debt problems by inflating the currency, which may be running at a million per cent now. The effect of this is the impoverishment of the middle classes. The very rich get richer by picking up assets at a huge discount in forced sales. Currently, 90% live in poverty.

There are various opinions on what should have been done. The most obvious one is to have strong law and order and fiscal responsibility. The second is to ensure the wealth is controlled. A good example of this is Norway, where oil contributes 80% of its exports, but only 22% of its GDP, and huge reserves are being held for the future. Another good example where I have lived was Calgary. The state government poured money into health care, which was extremely cheap when I was there, and they had excellent roads and general infrastructure. My opinion is that such resource-rich economies must invest a large amount of the income in broadening the economy. In Venezuela’s case, there has been economic broadening, although agriculture contributes only 3% of GDP. It is largely a food importer, for no good reason. Nevertheless, while exports total $32 billion, imports only total $17.75 billion. The problem is with government finance. It has income of almost $93 billion, and expenses roughly twice that.

Maduro replaced Chávez in 2013 and narrowly won an election. There was a recent election that Maduro also won, but which the opposition boycotted. There are accusations that the elections would be rigged, and since then there are accusations that they were, but if there were no opposition candidates that seems somewhat moot. It is one thing to complain that elections were rigged; an entirely different matter to assert they were going to be rigged. Two weeks later, Juan Guaidó, leader of the legislature, declared himself acting President. The US government has declared support for Guaidó and refuses to recognize Maduro, and threatens that if he does not step down, they will make him. They declare the election was illegitimate, but do not cite any grounds. Exactly how Guaidó declaring himself President is more legal eludes me. If the opposition did not stand, it is hard to see how Maduro could not win, and if simply boycotting an election was sufficient to overturn an election, why Mr Trump could consider what would happen if Hillary had boycotted their election. The US claims the majority prefer Guaidó, but arguably the majority voted for Hillary, and I don’t see Trump stepping down. Nor should he, at least on that ground. The rules are the rules. Trump has even hinted at military intervention. Other countries have backed Guaidó. Macron has argued he should note the protests on the street. So should Macron. Hypocrisy runs strong when politicians have a deep problem and they can divert attention from their own failings.

The Venezuelan military is at this moment behind Maduro, and while that is the case, short of a massive US invasion, he is likely to stay there, and the Venezuelans are likely to stay poor. US sanctions are not helping, but US sanctions have been there for quite a long time and are not recent, although the recent freezing of oil money will hurt the poor even more. The history of US intervention is not good, the worst example being, in my opinion, the removal of Allende in Chile, which occurred because (a) he was a socialist, and (b) US corporations could control the copper. The fact that Pinochet murdered a large number of Allende supporters bothers not the US conscience. I heard one speech where it was stated that control of the oil industry would make things better for Venezuela and the US. So at least someone in Washington thinks US corporations should have the Venezuelan oil.

So how do they get out of this mess? Who knows? The economists say Venezuela must diversify its economy and do a number of other things, but the problem is with most of the population impoverished, they cannot start much. One thing I have learned while running my own business is that if you have no money, you are screwed. So what will happen, other than the poor becoming poorer? Who knows?

International Tension

There have been two situations on the international scene lately that have the potential to bring the close of 2018 into the likelihood of a serious deterioration in international peace and prosperity, although the first is probably going to be put to one side after more arm-waving and pontificating. This one involves three Ukrainian naval vessels trying to get from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, and in particular to their port of Mariupol, the port for south east Ukraine. These vessels were stopped, some by ramming, and arrested by the Russian coastguard, possibly the navy, and FSB officers. The incident occurred at a place that would be within the territorial waters of Russia, although Ukraine does not recognize Crimea as being part of Russia, which would alter the argument. Ukraine states that it started just outside such territorial waters, but has not provided accurate and detailed coordinates and in any case the Ukrainian ships proceeded into clear territorial waters. There is apparently a 2003 agreement that the Kerch Strait is a shared waterway, which allows free passage.

This has created the usual heat and not much light. Time magazine had an opinion by retired US Admiral Stavridis that makes a number of interesting statements. The first is that Putin more or less engineered this because the Mueller investigation is “coming to a head” (really?) and there was a need for the US to persuade its allies to take a firmer stand with Russia. (How does the second follow from the first?) Also the US should bolster Ukrainian defence, presumably to make Putin regret engineering this. Leave aside the bluster, notice anything? The Ukrainian ships had to enter the waters around the Kerch strait, so Ukraine controlled the timing. That makes it difficult for Putin to have engineered it. A further statement was that Russia needed to secure communications and control this Strait “to truly consolidate Crimea”. Needless to say, what is missing from this article is the fact that Russia has secured communication by building a bridge across the Strait. Access to the Sea of Azov requires passing under the bridge, which involves a relatively narrow piece of waterway. As an Admiral, he should know something about ship handling. Do you want two ships coming head-on into a very narrow choke-point? The Russians argue that anyone can pass through, but they must register the intention so that traffic control can be maintained. That seems reasonable to me. The Ukrainian sailors apparently have said they did not register, and they were ordered to ignore Russian controls. Form your own opinion, but it seems to me that Ukraine was deliberately trying to prod Russia. Why? Well, one theory is that Ukrainian elections are due in a few months, Poroshenko currently would be lucky to get 25% of the vote, so why not generate a foreign crisis? The significant point about this, for me, is the US position as stated by this Admiral: what is stated is at best half-truths, and the really important information is left out.

The second incident was that Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of Huawei, has been arrested at Vancouver airport in order that she be extradited to the US to face unspecified crimes, but ones that probably relate to the fact that Huawei is selling telecommunications equipment to Iran. That is about all we know for sure, but apparently John Bolton knew this could occur in advance and presumably approved of it.

Going back a bit, a number of countries signed a deal with Iran that they would trade with it if Iran agreed not to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons. The US then pulled out of the deal, seemingly on the basis  that Trump believes that if when a deal has been struck, if he then pulls out at some future random time he can add more concessions to make a new deal more favourable to himself. Iran has refused Trump’s rhetoric, which is basically to side with Saudi Arabia against Iran. So the US imposed sanctions against Iran, and has stated it will sanction anyone else who deals with Iran. A number of other signatories did not impose sanctions when Iran has seemingly complied with the deal. The EU has stated that the EU will continue to trade with Iran as long as it maintains its part of the nuclear weapons deal. Thus the usual explanation for Meng’s arrest is that Huawei is breaking US sanctions by supplying to Iran. If this is so, does this not introduce a rather ugly precedent?

Thus we have the situation where if another country continues with a deal that the US joined, but then arbitrarily pulled out of, then the US requires the other countries to follow the US dictates, and if they do not, the US will arrest their citizens. That makes the president of the US almost able to dictate to the rest of the world.

Huawei is having a bad time, thanks to the US. A number of countries have been told by the US they should not implement Huawei 5G technology for undefined security reasons. As far as security goes, why does the US feel its technology is so secure? If it is secure, why are various politicians making continual assertions of election hacking? As it happens Huawei 5G technology appears to be more advanced than any US technology in telecommunications, and this has the ugly theme of if you can’t compete fairly, you will bully the opposition. This to me is the misuse of power. However, China is not really a country that will bow down to bullying. Apparently China had made concessions to Trump to buy more US exports before they knew about this arrest. What is the bet this won’t go ahead? But worse than that, by what right do you arrest a citizen of another country who is following the law of the country they live in just because (a) that country is in a spat with the US, and (b) the person was apparently in a transit lounge. A person cannot follow two contradictory laws, so why does the US think its Presidential edicts prevail everywhere?

Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 3.

I returned to the kiosk at five, as requested, and was surprised to be invited by the woman in the kiosk to stay the night at their apartment. So I drove her home, and she must have been a bit surprised at the car, particularly now that before setting off I refilled the clutch hydraulic oil. The leak was now getting rather bad, and there were only so many clutch usages before a refill, and the number was getting smaller. Anyway, we made it to her apartment, where I met the husband. The Heitlegnerov (I apologise if I got the spelling wrong from memory) apartment was compact, but it seemed to have everything I would expect in a modern western apartment. The previous year I had been in Calgary, so I knew what a modern North American apartment looked like, and the Czech one was much better than where I was in England.

This family had a rather bad history. First, they were Jews, and had spent most of WW II hiding in the forests, living in huts with dirt floors. The husband had been part of a resistance to the Germans, and when the war was over, he had actually helped get the communists into government, only to find the communists in Czechoslovakia were also anti-Jewish. Back to mud floor accommodation for a while. Gradually things got better, and when Dubcek came to power, they got up in the world sufficiently to get this apartment. Now they saw it all coming down around their ears. However, by accident, their daughter, Alenka, was in England on a short stay to help her learn English. The parents had discussed this, and they wanted to send a message for her to stay in England, and would I take some family heirlooms and some of her property? Of course I would, with volume restrictions on obviously women’s things.

The following morning it was announced that the road to Linz was open at the border, so I set off early. Somehow, the day seemed grim, and very quiet. For a major city, nothing was happening. The day did not get better, and when I drove through České Budějovice the continued absence of activity maintained the depressing feeling. It was just as I was leaving České Budějovice that I noticed two young Czechs hitch-hiking. Since I had not seen any cars for a long time, their prospects were poor, so I stopped. They first wanted me to smuggle them out, but I pointed out that was impossible. Any cursory search would find them, but I would take them to the border, let them out before it and they would be on their own. I would wait on the other side for a while, in case they made it. Then they wanted me to smuggle something else: a petition to the United Nations, signed by (according to them) half a million identified signatures. I agreed. I had a tall cardboard box in the boot, and for my trip behind the iron curtain I had taken emergency food: canned food, drink, fruit and rye bread. I had kept the waste, including opened cans because I could not find anywhere to dump rubbish. The petition was wrapped in pastic bags and went to the bottom, a piece of a different cardboard box went on top, just in case although that was probably worthless as a deception, the cans went on top, then rotting fruit, then some mouldy bread, then some fruit that was technically still edible, then the remains of the rye bread, then can openers, cutlery, etc.

When I got to the border, the guards were Czech, but they still did a search. When they came to the box, they asked what was that? I pointed out I was just being tidy and tried to look as iunconcerned as I could. They started ferretting but it got increasingly distasteful and they gave up. The barrier went up, and I was in “no-man’s land”. When I got to the Austrian guards, there were the two Czechs, beaming with triumph. They had got throough before me, while I was being searched, and had told the Austrian guards about the petition. They thought this was mission accomplished. I had no option but to hand the petition over, and while the expressions on the faces of the Czech guards was worth seeing, I was thoroughly depressed. I had taken a huge risk, and for what? The Austrian guards would at best destroy the petition; at worst hand it back to the Czech authorities. Austria was never going to annoy Russia. As I headed to Linz I was stopped by a journalist who wanted the story and a picture of me and my beatup Anglia carrying a Czech flag. I have no idea whether it ever got published.

When I got back to England on the first Saturday I went up to London and to the address where Alenka was staying. It was a grey day with light rain, and the family, being orthodox Jews, left me there standing in the rain. Alenka came to the door, I handed over her valuables, and tried to give as cheerful account as I could of her parents and their feelings. I asked her what she wanted to do. Apparently there were a few scholarships being made available to Czechs who could find a place in a University, and I promised to do what I could at Southampton for her. As it happened, I found a Post-doc was treated as staff, and on my recommendation she could go there, but as it happened, somewhere else was found for her (I think East Anglia). However, that did not last, and eventually she got homesick and returned to Czechoslovakia, where things were seemingly improving a little. It would not be helpful for someone in a communist country then to be corresponding with the West so I never heard from her or her parents again. I am naturally curious as to where her life took her, but I guess I shall never know.

Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 2.

In my last post, I had managed to get my rather aged Ford Anglia up the side of a bank from a riverbed, the bridge having been taken out. I drove through a belt of trees, and found myself at the back of a Russian military camp. There was nothing for it. Fortunately, I realised that whatever else I did, I must not stop, and I must not look sideways, but equally I must not ignore those on the side of the road. I tried to look as if I were supposed to be there, and drove on at about 20 mph, and tried to give puzzled expressions or a “bored look”. This must have been weird for them. A beat-up right hand drive car coming from the base of their camp carrying a Czech flag, with the road definitely cut behind it. What I was hoping was that the ordinary soldiers there would think it must be something concocted up by authority, and one thing I noticed at this time was that Russian military discipline was good. More on this later.

Anyway, I drove through the camp unhindered, and on towards Praha, but keeping a good look at my rear vision. When nothing seemed to be following I accelerated up to a reasonable cruising speed.

As I entered Praha, great relief: there was a petrol station selling petrol. I joined the queue. It may have been rationed, but the person at the pump saw my flag and enthusiastically filled up my tank. That was a big worry off my shoulders, and I unloaded more crowns there.

As I was to rejoin the highway, I noticed tanks driving up. I darted onto the road, on the basis that I knew what a Division looked like in size, and while I had no idea how much of one was being deployed, why take risks? So there I was, with a T54/55 right behind me. (I could not tell the difference between the two options, which, as an aside, are rather modest, but I knew they were the main battle tanks of the Soviets.) Then, as this odd little convoy entered Praha, people were lined up on both sides of the road. They saw me and cheered, then jeered at the tank. I discovered that a T54/55 loses power on its cruising speed at about 22 mph, but the next gear down roars at about 23 mph. It was one awkward speed zone, so I oscillated in it, keeping a clear look at what the tanks was doing. The T54/55 had a crash box, and the driver’s double clutching technique left a little to be desired, and not helped by the huge difference in engine revolutions for the two gears at the same speed. Accordingly, there were a number of satisfying crunches from the tank’s gearbox, which brought loud cheers. I even had some flowers thrown my way. It was one of the weirder experiences of my life, and I will never have anything like it again.

Eventually I reached somewhere near the centre, and I knew this had to stop, so I turned off to find somewhere to park, have lunch, and another Czech beer. Then I went for a bit of a walk around central Praha, hoping to find information. Two chilling memories of the time. The first was from back in Olomouc. I remember looking down a side street where a wedding must have been going on. The bride came out, looked around, and burst into tears. Back on my walk down a street in Praha, the number of people out walking were few, but when I heard a burst of machine gun firing, everybody dived towards the walls of the buildings, and looked at me as if I were mad for just continuing walking. I could tell the guns and bullets were not in this street, but just in case my cover was going to be the gutter at the edge of the street. Only thing was, I did not want to take such cover until I had to, because diving onto concrete can hurt, and gutters are dirty.

Then, I found what I needed: an information kiosk. I asked for information, and what I found was not exactly what I needed: the borders were all closed. One might reopen tomorrow. So, was there somewhere where I could spend the night? Come back at 5.00. So I could be a tourist for the afternoon. It was not long before I noticed a protest march, so I “joined/followed” it as it went into Wenceslas Square. That was ominous. Across the middle of the square the Russian military had painted a yellow line. Some meters back was a row of Russian soldiers with machine guns. The protest stopped, and it was clear that they could do what they liked their side of the line, but that line was not to be crossed. Gradually the noise became louder and I sensed this was a good time to be somewhere else, preferably with stone/concrete between me and what was going to happen. I got around the corner of a building, and the machine guns opened up. One of the odder moments of my life was ten years ago, when I was washing dishes while listening to the radio, and I recognised this pattern of lmg firing. There had been no announcement as to what it was, but I told Claire it would be about 2.30 pm, August 24, Wenceslas Square. Of course I don’t know whether it was for sure, but I felt confident. The sound was an introduction to a program marking the 40th anniversary, and they never said when and where the recording was made, but it seemed just what I heard that day.

Later in the afternoon, I wandered onto the Charles Bridge to look at the Vltava, and Russian soldiers camping on the riverbank. Interestingly, it appeared that at least some were not issued with socks, and they wrapped their feet in rags before putting on their boots. Anyway, while I was watching this, a Russian officer came up and stood beside me to look down at the river. Apparently, he wanted to talk, which was a problem because the only common language was German and neither of us were proficient. Judging by his epaulette, I guessed Major or Lieutenant Colonel, but I was not familiar with Russian ranks and emblems. Anyway, what I managed to gather was that the Russian soldiers were quite perplexed. They thought they were here at the request of the Czech people, and all they got were protests, insults, and there was no cooperation. I tried to point out they thought this was an occupation, and I added I had seen tanks with Okkupanti and swastikas painted on them. (Yes, spray paint cans were in full use). He agreed, which surprised me. It also turned out that the protests of one town really hurt them because there was no protest. Everybody was subdued and extraordinarily obedient. The town was Lidice. We talked for a while, and I realised that the average Russian officer was not exactly happy about this invasion, but orders were orders. They thought they were going to do good things for the citizens and they did not like what they saw, and the whole situation was bad for both sides. They were not really well supplied, and expected the Czechs would help with food, but all the food got hidden away.

Interestingly, as far as I could tell, the Russians did not pillage. Instead, they tightened their belts, arranged for more supplies, and as far as I could tell, the ordinary soldiers behaved well. The Czech citizens were respected as long as they did not “cross a line”, and while I suspect there would be incidents of soldiers doing what they should not have, by and large that did not happen. Russian military discipline was good.

All of which was all well and good, but I was still there. Time to go back to the information kiosk, and what happened next, I am afraid, is for yet another post, next week.

Meanwhile, you may be interested in https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/world/europe/prague-spring-communism.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I found this article interesting, but it is not entirely representative. The most obvious difference is the black and white photos give the impression of overall grimness, but actually the weather was absolutely clear, and yes, there were plenty of protests, but they were not that grim looking. All the Czech flags being waved actually gave a colourful impression. The photos give the impression of chaos, destruction and rubbish everywhere, but that was not the case either. What you see there are isolated incidents. There is a photo of a tank burning, but that would be exceptional. There were protests, insulting graffiti on tanks, but by and large all protests were peaceful. There would be mistakes. The photo of a young man shot while trying to put a Czech flag on a Russian tank may well have arisen because there are no obvious places to place such a flag. Had the man tried to open something, the tankers would have to assume something dangerous, such as a Molotov cocktail, could be thrown in, and they would shoot. There would be damaged buildings. You cannot fire all that ordnance and not do damage, but by and large that was atypical, and concentrated around key parts of Praha. It said there were food queues. I had no difficulty buying food. The photos would be real, but exceptional and not really representative of what was happening at large.

More Bombs for Syria

Now that ISIS is essentially beaten as a state, a number of questions arise, and the last two weeks has brought the need for answers. The first question is, what happened to the ISIS fighters? A number of them were killed, but from what we can make out, a lot of them from Raqqa were allowed out by the US forces in the area and they seemingly went in the direction of Deir ez-Zor, which is on the Euphrates, and nominally has a population over 210,000, although these days, who knows? Deir ez-Zor was surrounded by ISIS for about three years, but it was recently liberated by the Syrian Army on the Western bank of the Euphrates after considerable fighting.

What happened next in this area is unclear. What I think might have happened is that the Syrian army crossed the Euphrates and moved towards what they think is the last bastion of ISIS (and recall a lot of ISIS fighters were permitted to head in this direction) when they were bombed by the US air force, killing about a hundred of them. What we next here is the US claimed the bombing was in self defence. How come an armoured infantry unit was attacking the USAF? Obviously, it wasn’t, so what was happening? Eventually, it became clear that “self defence” without a further explanation was not exactly convincing, so then we find, they were defending “a secret US base.”

That raises more questions. First, if it is that secret, maybe the Syrians did not know it was there, and they were attacking the ISIS or al Qaeda people believed to be there. For the purpose of this essay, al Qaeda refers to whatever it has been rebranded as. al Nusra was effectively al Qaeda, but it too has rebranded itself, seemingly more than once, but it has not changed its terrorist ideology. So did the Syrians actually know? Had the US told the Syrian government they were putting a military camp in their country? Just imagine what the US response would be if it turned out that North Korea had such a camp in the US.

The next question is, what were these US soldiers doing there? The official answer appears to be, “training moderate rebels”. US intervention led to al Qaeda after the US abandoned those who had helped get the Russians out of Afghanistan, and it was instrumental in forming ISIS after it had no idea what to do with the Iraqi army after the GWB invasion. Given that we know ISIS fighters headed in this direction, how do we know the US isn’t simply training and supplying the rebranded version of ISIS? As the week has progressed, the explanations from the Americans has also changed, so it is unclear what the truth really is, other than there is a US base more or less on an oilfield, which in turn is preventing the government of Syria from getting access to the oil.

All of which raises the question, why is this base located there? The answer to that seems ominously familiar: it appears to be located near or on an oil field managed, and maybe part-owned, by Conoco. Was the US action to protect the business interests of an American company against those of the legal government of the country it was in? Also, why has this oilfield been rather untroubled by the terrorism? We know ISIS was gaining most of its funds from selling oil, and most of the Syrian oil comes from this field. So at first sight, ISIS fighters leaving Raqqa and heading towards Deir ez-Zor might indicate that they were to make a last stand there, but from a strategic point, this makes no sense at all because it could never sell the oil. Another possibility is that the fighters were going to merge with the rebranded al Qaeda units, who seemed to have US blessing because they were labeled as “moderate” opposition to al-Assad, so here was a chance to get protection before . . . Before what? My view is, whatever they are thinking, those terrorists are not suddenly going to turn into model citizens working for peace and economic growth. The ugly option is that the US could not care less who it helps as long as it gets rid of Assad.

So, Assad is a bad leader. Maybe he should be prevented from getting his hands on the oil. But then comes the next question: how will Syria be rebuilt? The only real source of potential money to do this is from the oil. Both the Americans and the Russians have carried out extensive bombing to get rid of ISIS, and that may seem to be legitimate, but somebody has to rebuild Syria, and there is no sign whatsoever that the US wants to help do this.

Another event in Syria was the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by a surface to air missile from another rebranded al Qaeda hold-out. Now, where did that come from? We can probably eliminate Russia or China, so that effectively means Israel or the West. The US denied giving such missiles to Syrian opposition forces, and that is almost certainly the truth if we add, “directly”, but what about from places like Saudi Arabia, which buys a lot of sophisticated US military equipment. Interestingly, the Russian air force immediately began bombing heavily the area where the missile came from, without any further response. That suggests that if they know they are there, they are less troubled.

Finally, it is worth noting what the effects of such bombing are. Mosul was “liberated” in July 2017. Right now, approaching seven months later, they are still digging bodies out of the rubble. The bombing has essentially made the city uninhabitable, and many major earthquake zones seem rather impressively sound in comparison, but what happens to the citizens? They are on their own, although they seem to have been given tents. Are those people going to thank the “liberating bombing”, or have we created the next generation of terrorists?

Fragmenting Nations

One of the more interesting questions that have arisen lately is should a region of a country have the right to break away from the country and be independent, and if so, what are the obligations of the participants? The classic way of breaking away is to have a war. The US got its independence from Britain that way, as did Eire. Does nationhood depend on “might makes right?” It can, but surely there are other ways.

It certainly helped Kosovo, and Kosovo is of interest because it was effectively US air power and NATO forces that won the war. Clinton described the activity as “upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace”. Strictly speaking, this action had no UN Security Council approval, therefore it could be regarded as illegal, and it was described as illegal but justified. Whether the Serbs would agree is another matter, and it then becomes interesting that violating the law is fine as long as you think it is justified. Who says so? The guys with the most guns?

The background to Kosovo is of interest. Some in Kosovo wanted independence, particularly those of Albanian origin, and apparently things got out of hand when the Kosovo Liberation Army made four attacks on Serbian security people. The Serbians soon began calling the KLA terrorists (and since they carried out sneak murders, that is probably fair) while the Albanians saw them as “freedom fighters”. Up until 1998, the US government described the KLA as a terrorist group, but suddenly it changed its mind and used NATO to intervene. End of Kosovo Serbians’ hopes. US intervention had another effect: it took the Monica Lewinsky affair off the news table for President Clinton. The US used cluster bombs, and did serious damage and caused considerable civilian casualties, including to Albanians in Kosovo, but the net result was that Kosovo apparently has declared independence. However, not everyone recognizes this, and it remains to some extent under UN administration.

It would seem fair for a split if those leaving did so by winning a referendum that was fairly executed. Scotland had such a vote and decided to stay, so the issue does not arise, however I believe had the vote been yes, London would have agreed. Of course this raises the question that if they keep having votes, sooner or later they will get one result to leave, and that would be irreversible. So maybe there has to be a limit to the number or spacing of referenda.

However, votes can also be rigged in favour of some end. The vote to have a separate Kurdistan would probably win for the Kurds, but would they take Kirkuk? To make sure they would, when the Iraqi army fled from ISIS, a large number of Kurds poured into Kirkuk, and so I guess they would win a vote. But if you pour in the appropriate number of extras to win the vote, is that the right way to go? My guess is no. Then the question is, is the vote fair? When Crimea seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia, this was done with a clear majority vote favouring it, but the Russians had poured in a number of soldiers and they ran the voting system, and as a consequence a number of people do not believe it was fair. My guess is, it probably was because there were a lot of people of Russian descent there, but we cannot be sure. In Crimea, it probably was a case of “might makes right”, but if the Russian military did not come in, the Ukrainians had the might, and as can be seen in eastern Ukraine, they are prepared to use it.

Suppose we look at Catalonia. There have been widespread claims that Catalonia should be independent from Spain, and they held a referendum, which gained 90% in favour. So that is clear evidence, right? Maybe not. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in riot police. Those not in favour of independence may well have considered the vote illegal, and they wanted no part in it. It now turns out that only about 40% of those eligible to vote participated, so maybe this was not as conclusive as the enthusiasts claim.

The next question is, why do people want independence? Presumably because they feel they would be better off independent. The Catalans apparently are net donors (tax paid less benefits) to Madrid of about 10 billion euros. However, this might be a little misleading because there are a number of Head Offices of Spanish companies in Barcelona, so company tax from all activities in Spain would be paid from Barcelona. If Barcelona were in a separate country, presumably the activities from Spain would remain taxed by Spain. In Scotland’s case, one can’t help wondering whether the politicians had their eyes on the North Sea oil revenues. In my opinion, in such a breakup, existing royalties and such should be divided between the original members based on population, in which case the returns would be a lot less.

That leaves the Lukansk, Donbass and Donetz oblasts in Eastern Ukraine. Should they have independence? A lot of opinions in the West say yes; territorial integrity should outweigh grumpy citizens. In this case, Western Ukraine has quite different objectives; they want to join the EU while the East wants closer ties with Russia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this, in my opinion there has been enough shelling and bombing of these oblasts that the citizens there will not accept the Western domination. The West complains about Russian intervention that has helped the Eastern Ukrainians. In doing so, they conveniently forget Kosovo. Also, it is now very doubtful Ukraine could join the EU, and if they did, they would find EU financial impositions on Ukraine would make Greece look somewhat attractive. My guess is, Germany would not be willing to carry an even bigger load.

So, what are the conditions for breaking up? I rather fancy there is no recipe. The various places have to find their own salvation. Nothing could be worse, however, than encouraging a breakup, and leaving one part without adequate resources, or encouraging them, and then walking away after the event.