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.


The Killing of Syrian Evacuees, and MOAB

One of the biggest news items the previous week was “the mother of all bombs” was dropped on Afghanistan. My first thought was, how come the children came first? My next thought was, why did the Americans use those words? Suppose they had said, “We dropped an 11 t bomb to break up the ISIS tunnels,” they could have still shown the same footage, but it would not have sounded so arrogant. Since this bomb had to be dropped from a cargo plane, it would presumably only be used on populations that have no significant air defence. The Americans also claimed that they killed thirty-six ISIS fighters and no civilians. Exactly how do they know that? (Sorry, but I persist. I want evidence, or at least some reasonable explanation that evidence has been seen by someone who will tell the truth.) One of the clips showed the ground around where the blast took place, and there was plenty of green there. Explain to me why there were no tribal farmers there?

Another disturbing event occurred at al-Rashideen, in Syria. Busloads of Shia evacuees from Foua and Kefraya permitted to leave the al Qaeda held Idlib province were attacked by what appears to have been a van-bomb. At least a hundred and twenty-six were killed, and more will die, and of those who died, at least sixty-eight were children. You may recall President Trump spreading empathy for the innocent children who died at Khan Sheikhun; silence on this incident, though, and the question is, why? There was also essentially silence from the Western press. Why, after all the fuss made of the sarin event? Particularly since these people were being evacuated under an agreed exchange whereupon rebels were permitted to leave Aleppo in exchange for free passage for them. They were obviously killed by al Qaeda affiliates, so why no bombing of them? Presumably because they are “nice” Muslims. Has he already forgotten 9/11? More to the point, this is a clear indication that you cannot negotiate with such terrorists because they have no honour.

What should be done about Syria? In my opinion, ISIS and the al Qaeda factions should be eliminated. As von Manstein noted, in terms of military strategy the first requirement is to prioritize. It is true that Assad is currently handling his population rather badly, but nobody else seems to have any constructive suggestions as to what should happen. Everyone says, negotiate a peaceful settlement, but it is difficult to do this when the issues are discrete and if, as shown by the example above, one side will not honour the terms of any agreement. If it is one or the other, the absence of middle ground makes compromise near impossible. Neither al Qaeda factions nor ISIS will moderate their extreme views, so I am afraid they must be removed. Assad at least ran a secular government, and in my opinion, he is the only one visible who has any chance of doing that in the future and do it for long enough to be effective, so swallow the dead rat. The best example of what I fear was Saddam Hussein. Nobody would accuse him of being “good”, but nevertheless he ran a secular government, and under his government, there was no al Qaeda of any significance in Iraq. The US deposed him and executed him, and did not attempt to govern, despite the antics of Paul Bremer. Why not? Insufficient troops. The net result was that disgruntled Iraqi soldiers got tangled up with ISIS, and look where we are now. It is better to do nothing about Syria than make it much worse.

Why do I discount the military option? The troops needed for a military occupation depend on what is expected of the occupied population. During the Czech invasion, everybody expected the Czechs to behave, and from memory five divisions comprised the invasion. That would be somewhere between 50,000 – 75,000 men, and probably about another 30,000 support staff. However, they concentrated on “important” sites. I recall that if you stayed out of city squares, or around things like radio stations, the chances of actually seeing Russian troops were very low. You saw them on roads if they were moving, and of course they had bases, but otherwise they were invisible. I even drove essentially across the country and only saw troops using the road to go from A to B. That would not work in a place like Syria, where you have to assume everybody there will hate you. Al Qaeda and ISIS, and their sympathizers will definitely hate you; the Alawites will most likely hate you for overthrowing their man, and that leaves the Kurds and Turkmen, both of whom will fear your leaving with whatever ISIS morphs into remaining. In an occupation where you are hated, you have to remove all the weapons, you have to check all transport, and have frequent checks on people in the open. That is why Israel, which has recognized what occupation means, does what it does in Palestine, and overall, while the Palestinians hate it, it does a good job of occupying. For Syria, I think you would need at least 500,000 soldiers, and preferably about 700,000. Who wants to pay for that? And on top of that, if you want it to succeed, you had also better spend a lot on reconstruction. To make a job of it, it would probably take ten to fifteen years, and initially there would be a lot of body bags because the likes of ISIS will have secreted arms dumps. Not very attractive, is it?

Chemicals over Syria

The news over the past week was dominated by a “chemical attack” in Syria, and the US response. However, there was then a flurry of various theories as to what had happened, the most usual one being that Assad was at it again, using sarin on his own population. So, what do we know, and what theories are consistent with what we know? In my scientific books, I have maintained that for any subset of facts, the smaller that subset the more likely there is that there will be at least one other theory consistent with the facts. What one then does is design experiments to s falsify some of them, so that eventually you end up with just one, and that is most likely to be correct. With human activities that is a little harder to do, and we have to relax somewhat the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, which loosely translated means, take nobody’s word. With something like Syria, you cannot check everything rigorously, but you can look for self-consistency and reliability.

So what do we know? First, a number of people, including children, died in Khan Sheikhun some time on the morning of Tuesday 4th April. Some survivors were taken to hospitals elsewhere. According to US surveillance, one SU 22 took off from Shayrat air base and dropped objects on Khan Sheikhun. That is about all we know. What is most likely to be true? First, the symptoms of the survivors were argued to be consistent with their having experienced sarin, although one of the hospitals reported the symptoms were consistent with sarin, but the clothing showed signs of chlorine, which implies there were two gases present. Strictly speaking, sarin does not give unique symptoms, and a number of other organophosphorus compounds would also give these symptoms, although not so acutely. One such compound might be methylphosphonyl difluoride, the precursor to sarin.

There are also video clips of white helmets as first responders helping the victims. They had no protection. Sarin is a liquid, and it is absorbed thorough skin. Had this been sarin, we would expect those first responders to die. There is a further problem with white helmets; there are also statements on the web that the white helmets, operating only in al Qaeda controlled territory, give preference to militants, and have staged scenes on behalf of al Qaeda. That does not mean they did so here, but it also raises questions as to the reliability of their statements.

Whether there were one or two agents is also important, and this point is not entirely clear. Two agents is more consistent with a dump having been hit. More confusion comes from one report that the town was struck by one rocket. Further, the town is a stronghold of al Qaeda affiliates, who are not necessarily going to tell the truth. Apparently, UN inspectors are trying to piece together what really happened, and in principle, these uncertainties should be clarified. The US intelligence statement states that at least one of the items dropped from the SU 22 was a canister of sarin, but how would they know that? There are also clips showing a shed that has no bomb damage and hence what came in must have been a gas canister. However, there is no evidence anything came in. The makers of such clips refuse to show holes in the roof, and while there is a clip of what looks like an undamaged munition being tested, from the way it is laying, either it was irrelevant or it had been moved.

There are at least three theories circulating for what happened. The first is the most popular: Assad’s air force dropped bombs with chemical weapons. The second is the Russian version: Assad’s air force dropped bombs on a dump of chemical weapons, or material for chemical weapons. The third is that ISIS/al Qaeda did it deliberately to get US involvement. A fourth might be that ISIS/al Qaeda did it accidentally. At this point it is important to determine whether the delivery was by one rocket. If so, the Syrian air force is off the hook, although the Syrian army could have fired it.

One argument against Assad having done it is that it makes no sense for him to have done so. He is gradually winning the war, and President Trump has indicated the US did not want to get involved with Syria. He would know that the US would be really irritated if he did, so why would he? To do so would be just plain stupid, but unfortunately this argument has a flaw: there appears to be no shortage of stupidity in the world.

Another argument against it is he handed over his chemical weapons. The problem then is, how truthful is this? On the other hand, if he had complied, the likes of al Qaeda definitely did not. They, and ISIS, control so much of Syria it is almost certain they would have had control over some such dumps.

Very shortly after, the US navy fired 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat air base. The US says all fifty-nine reached their target; some reports indicate that only 23 struck it. What happened to the others? Here is an example of the fundamental problem: some people are asserting statements that are not true. However, we have not heard anything of where rogue ones struck, so either Assad missed a trick, or the US story is true. Assad also missed another trick here. The US in some reports claims there were chemical weapons at Shayrat. If so, why did they fire weapons that would liberate sarin when it would almost certainly go to the local residential area? They would be doing what Russia asserts Assad did. So what is the outcome?

For me, the most obvious one is we cannot trust any report on this matter so far. Too many politics are involved. On a lesser scale, President Trump showed that he was not going to wait for evidence from the UN inspectors. He was an action man. What did he achieve by doing this? Apparently he damaged at least six Syrian aircraft, although five of them, from the photographs, look not hopelessly damaged but they also look obsolete. Relations with Russia have taken a dive. For me, there are two consequences I fear. The first is, if ISIS has any chemical weapons, now is the time to use them on innocent civilians. That will bring the US in demolishing Assad’s forces. One of the more bizarre aspects of this incident is that the US has entered a civil war (always a bad idea) and is actively supporting both sides. The second is that President Trump has also threatened North Korea. Bombing Assad’s forces is superficially consequence-free (in the long term it is anything but) but bombing North Korea would reset the Korean war. I only hope some real thinking goes on soon.

Putin and the West

One of the more unexpected items that I saw recently on the web noted some accusations made by Vladimir Putin to the effect that the West, and particularly the US, has made a continual attempt to destabilize Russia. By itself, that is not exactly surprising that he would say that, but the way he argues the West went about it is, assuming this has any truth. And, of course, this continues my theme of asking for actual evidence behind accusations. The following is a précis of Putin’s accusations, together with my comments. The more complete accusations can be found here:

The first point that Putin made was that when Afghanistan was under Soviet control, the Mujahideen were funded from the CIA and the Saudis. That is almost certainly true, but the Soviets should have expected that. The next point was that when the Soviet Union collapsed and fell into total disarray the American attitude was, “kick them while they are down”. There was certainly considerable glee in the western press when the Soviet Union collapsed, but that does not mean they set about to make the situation worse. My guess is the West would be really concerned about what happened to the Soviet nuclear material, so they would not welcome a total collapse.

The next point Putin made was that Halliburton had surveyed the oil potentials of the Caucasus region, and it was huge. That is a mixed statement. The oil reserves are huge, but that was known well before, and in World War II, Hitler had decided that if he could get there, his fuel problems were over. (They would not be because there was still a transport problem, but the oil was certainly known.) Halliburton knowing about Caucasus oil reserves is unsurprising, but that does not mean Halliburton did anything. However, Halliburton can clear itself by proving none of their agents visited the region nor did they send any particular amounts of money there. So far they have not.

Putin then accused the West of trying to keep this oil from Russia. That, to me, doesn’t make sense. Putin then accused a General Richard Secord of organizing revolts. He persuaded two thousand of the Wahabbis of the Afghan Arabs to redeploy into these areas, and he was helped by a CIA agent called Osama bin Laden. Again, multiple accusations. The “Afghan Arabs” had little effect on getting rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and were apparently intensely disliked by the Afghans who were doing the fighting, nevertheless there were about 35,000 of these Afghan Arabs who received military training and about $800 million from the US. You can make what you will of that, and more details are at However, you can reasonably argue that from Putin’s point of view, he is not that interested in fine detail, and Putin’s statement was about these Afghan Arabs. Furthermore, there is evidence that people who were Osama’s closest associates did benefit from US funding. However, there is no clear evidence I could find that anyone from the CIA ever met Osama bin Laden.

General Richard Secord’s plan (according to Putin) was to set up a front company, MEGA oil, which was the agency for bringing the terrorists and arms into the Caucasus. Again, this is a multiple point statement. If MEGA oil was a registered company, the shareholding should be known, but of course these might be nominees. Thus Secord may well have helped set up that company but even of he did, that does not show he had anything to do with bringing in terrorists, i.e. the Afghan Arabs. We need supporting facts. The first success of this strategy, according to Putin, was to topple the elected President of Azerbaijan in a military coup, and replace him with an American puppet. Certainly, the President was deposed, but we have no reason to suspect the Afghan Arabs had anything to do with this.

The Afghan Arabs then turned their attention to Chechnya. A flood of US dollars allowed bin Laden to ensure that Chechen moderates were soon out of the way. Prior to this intervention, Chechens were mainly moderate Sufi Muslims but the Afghan Arabs quickly spread al Qaeda’s hard-line philosophy. Leaving aside the role of Osama, we know the Afghan Arabs did have a serious role in Chechnya, and we have no way of knowing whether the accusation of cash is true, although that would not be surprising if there was such cash, or if there was such cash, its origins. Again, a shortage of facts.

Meanwhile, according to Putin, the Saudi terrorist Ibn al-Khattag was organizing terrorists for a more general jihad. The CIA and Saudi financed terrorists also carried out the October 2002 massacre at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and the September 2004 Beslan school massacre. According to Putin, this activity was funded by, and many fighters were provided by, Osama bin Laden from Kandahar. The objectives were, from the CIA, to destabilize the collapsing Russian federation, while the Saudis wanted to spread Wahabbi fundamentalism. The two named massacres certainly happened, but this was after 9/11, and I find it very hard to believe the US was funding the terrorists then. The more unexpected the statement, the stronger must be the supporting facts, and they are absent. Following the Beslan massacre, which the Russian troops handled poorly, Putin noted that the western media demonized him and Russia, but no mention was made of al Qaeda or the Saudi involvement. That may be because the western media had no reason to suspect Saudi involvement.

The item then noted that by late 2004, Putin had had enough of Chechnya, and ordered a more vigorous response by Russia into Chechnya. What they found was that most of the Afghan Arab terrorists had already fled, and had safe havens in NATO member countries, or reliable US allies. The allegation that the Afghan Arabs had fled Chechnya was presumably true because there is fair evidence they were there, and they were not there when the Russian troops came in, but where they went to must be unknown. My guess is many of them ended up in Iraq or Syria.

So the problem is, many of Putin’s allegations are not supported by evidence that I could find. On the other hand, just because I could not find evidence does not mean they are not true, or, for that matter, they are false. As for Halliburton, their general involvement and incompetence in Iraq may have made them a convenient whipping boy. However, the role of al Qaeda in the Chechen revolt and the two pieces of terrorism in Russia were outlined in a report that the Putin allegation asserts was published by the UN Security Council in 2010. That report is verifiable. Accordingly, I believe that is an endorsement of the truth of that part of Putin’s accusation.

In short, what Putin alleges about the Afghan Arabs and their role in Chechnya appears to be verified, but the argument that the CIA was backing them then has no support that I could find. So, my overall conclusion is there is no direct evidence that the CIA actively tried to organize terrorism in the Russian Federation, BUT they had almost certainly funded and trained the people who were to become terrorists when the US thought they were liberating Afghanistan. In short, our current problems were bred by CIA intervention, and the CIA simply did not understand the motivation behind those it was funding. Assuming it is true, the spending of $800 million on some militant religious fundamentalists may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it ended up being very silly.

The Syrian quagmire ending?

Probably the most newsworthy item at present again involves Syria, with the collapse of the rebel forces in Aleppo, and the associated reduction of that part of the city to rubble. We are starting to get images from the region, and it is clear that an enormous amount of money will be required to rebuild that part of the city. An effort has been made to offer the insurgents transport to insurgent held villages elsewhere, and what we see is a lit of civilians are going as well. To my mind, this indicates that the reason the rebels held Eastern Aleppo is because the civilians were sympathetic. In turn, that strongly suggests the rebellion is now down to religion: Sunnis attempting to get rid of the Shias. With Hezbollah and Iran involved, that is not going to happen.

One of the biggest disasters there is undoubtedly the high number of civilian casualties, and a number of commentators in the West have called for war crimes trials on certain Russians. At the same time, the West has been strangely quiet relating to casualties in Mosul, where the US is bombing, and, strangely enough, the attack is being managed by the Shias. This bombing and the inevitable casualties has raised the issue of justice and international law, and I am afraid from my point of view, many of those in the West are merely arm-waving and arguing that “they are war criminals”. Nobody denies that killing of civilians is bad, but what could Assad and the Russians do? The objective is to remove the rebels, and to be quite clear, the rebels included factions that wished to impose the strictest form of Islamic law. Women should be kept at home and do nothing but housework and breed. As for nobility amongst the rebels, I saw a TV clip from an observer who had been in eastern Aleppo, and saw a family “home invaded” by rebels looking for food. They took everything, and when the mother complained about feeding the children, they shot her through the jaw to stop her complaints. So much for the noble rebels. There is no way those involved in something like the al Nusra front can be expected to change their ways and be persuaded to become peaceful citizens, so Assad either has to defeat them, or let Syria be run by them and ISIS in full Wahabbi extremism.

Let us look at “International Law”. Who is the sovereign entity? Who imposes the law? As far as I can make out, it is at a very similar state to that of ancient Rome, except that there is no clear law-making entity. In ancient Rome, prosecutions were made by citizens, and the results tended to be resolved by the eloquence of the lawyer, or the standing of the participants. Thus during the late Republic, Clodius could organize a gang to beat up a politician he did not like, or even burn down someone’s house. Nothing would stop him. So-called international justice is a bit like that now: victor’s justice.

At the end of WW II, a lot of Nazis were tried for war crimes, not that there were such recognized crimes, although many were guilty of crimes under the German criminal code. Most people are not particularly concerned about the doubtful legality of the process because those found guilty were mainly really very bad people. But there were double standards. Any German who could be of any further use to one of the occupying powers was immediately granted immunity.

Then, if we consider killing innocent civilians to be a war crime, was the fire bombing of Hamburg a war crime? Of Tokyo? Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes? If not, why not? For me, the fire bombing of Dresden had to be a crime, because the war was clearly essentially over, Dresden had no military value then, and 35,000 civilians were killed for no good purpose. Why is that not a war crime? Hopefully, not because it was us that did it, not them. In more recent times, the invasion of Iraq has led to some unknown number of deaths, but certainly in the hundred thousand range.

My view is Syria will be better off with the Wahabbi extremists defeated. If so, and given a somewhat lacking of alternatives, I believe that the Russian bombing of Aleppo was a valid means of pursuing the war. Yes, innocent people were killed, but at least we now see the possibility of an end to the carnage. The question we must ask is, what was the alternative? Just leaving the rebels alone to rearm and reorganize? Prolong the misery indefinitely?

So what happens now? If there is going to be peace, how do you arrange that? Negotiate with ISIS and the al Qaeda derivatives? Separate the country and give them their Caliphate? Or have a secular government, and force the citizens to behave? That would be essentially a return to what Syria was before all this started. If you think you could do this without Assad, then nominate who will be the new government, and outline why will it work. How do you impose order? And most importantly, how do you get the economy of a country bombed to bits back running again? It took Germany many years after WW II, and the US put a lot of money in to get restoration going. Further, there was a well-established industry in Germany. Syria seems to have none of those advantages.

This will be my last post for 2016, but I shall be back mid January. In the meantime, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and all the best for a successful and healthy 2017.

Voting for Aleppo

With the US elections coming up, and enduring chaos in the Middle East, we have to ask, which is the best candidate to sort that out? I am not exactly enthralled by either of them. First, the scenario. As is well known, the US has supported some “moderate” rebels who have the aim of ousting Assad in Syria, and is supporting the retaking of Mosul, apparently with air power. Russia is supporting Assad in Syria. Turkey wants to deal to ISIS in Mosul. This should have a straight-forward ending?

First, look at religion. Assad has support from Shia, including Hezbollah and Iran. The rebels include some moderates, but the important ones are associated with al Qaeda. So here, Russia is supporting Shia; the US is trying to protect Sunni and terrorists. Assad himself operated a secular government, as did Saddam, so an alien observer would presumably conclude that the US is against secular governments, which makes little sense. In Iraq, the US is supporting the Shia government to take out the fanatical ISIS, and will use air power to bomb the terrorists in Mosul. Or at least, that is a somewhat oversimplified account of what might happen. So, what do the candidates say?

Trump seemingly has not clearly defined policy here. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Leaving the place to sort itself out is a legitimate policy, and may be as good as any. The problem, though, is ISIS and al Qaeda. Left to their own devices, they are hardly likely to be beneficial. A second problem is that it appears Trump has not thought about this at all.

Clinton, however, is in my mind just outright dangerous. She has announced she will have a no-fly zone over Aleppo. That raises many questions. First, why? Does she want to nourish al Qaeda, who, as an aside, have killed far more innocent Western citizens than ISIS by a long shot? The nominal reason is to protect innocent civilians, but there are more in Mosul, and the US intends to bomb that, and, of course, there was “shock and awe”, which led to a very large number of dead Iraqis.

However, there is a much worse possible outcome than killing some innocent civilians, which is most certainly bad, but my worry is much worse. What does she do if the Russian air force continues bombing? Does she order the shooting down of Russian warplanes, which happen to be over the territory of, and at the invitation of, a sovereign government. If so, what is the justification? Because we can? That is a rather slippery slope. The US is actually one of the most warlike countries on the planet, and has been at war most of the time since 1890. It has been able to do this because the war is always “elsewhere”, and they cannot do any damage to the US. The result of this is that much of the population is unaffected by such wars. That does not give the US the right to shoot anyone they feel like, though. Russia has two choices: bow down before America, or ignore the threat.

If Russia bows down, then that establishes a precedent. Everybody expects that to happen again, and that encourages (from the Russian eyes) America to do more or less what it likes. It can order Russia out of the Crimea. Now what? Bow down again? Where does it stop?

If the Russians keep bombing, and the US shoots down at least one Russian warplane, now what? Russia can either bow down, or fight back. We don’t know the Russian capability, but we do know they have some ability, so unlike other recent opposition, Russia might shoot down an American plane, or attack an American base nearby. If the American aircraft came off a carrier, what happens if the Russians sink the carrier? The Russians have a carrier somewhere nearby, so the US sinks it. Now what?

Suppose the aircraft came from Turkey. Can Russia accept a border wherein America can come and shoot them down at will with no downside? It would be strange if they did. But if Russia attacks the base, that is an attack on a NATO country, which America could use to activate the NATO alliance. At this point we note that Russia could have done something more constructive earlier. When Clinton announces the no-fly zone, Russia should announce that any attack on Russia as a consequence of Clinton’s announcement from a NATO country will be taken as a declaration of war from that country on Russia. If the country is an aggressor, that should not trigger the NATO commitment. At the very least, some more nervous countries might decide that getting out of NATO is more desirable. Maybe not, but Russia should offer the option.

Now, suppose some missiles are launched from the Baltic states, and assume they are conventionally tipped. Now what? The least we can expect is that Russia sends all its motor rifle divisions westwards. Now what? Contrary to what some people think, my guess is that NATO would offer only moderate resistance, and indeed some of the countries would pull out of NATO on the grounds that it was not their fault that Clinton started all this. It is one thing to defend against an attack on one of their allies, but something else to get their ally out of a mess of its own making. Further, unless Russia makes good progress and has the ability to walk away from this with its head held high, there is little room for later negotiation.

It is hard to see such a war remaining conventional. The US simply does not have a big enough army to conquer Russia, which is a very big place, and it is far from clear that American soldiers want to fight multi-year wars in some of the world’s worst climate. One of the two will sooner or later resort to the nuclear option and a lot of us will be turned to ash.

Maybe there are other futures following such an edict. The Russians may surrender and comply with Clinton. After a brief skirmish, both parties might see sense, but do we want to bank on that? World War I was started almost accidentally. Do we want to start WW III?

Are there solutions to the Syrian conflict?

In my last post, I commented that there was a problem for ceasefires without a solution potentially acceptable to both sides: ” they solve nothing, as both sides try to strengthen their positions, and when one side cannot do much more, it is in their interest to restart as quickly as possible.” Since writing that, the ceasefire has disintegrated and the Russians and Assad-loyal troops are resuming operations against the rebels in Aleppo with more vigour than before. The West accuses the Russians of barbarism, but then again, what war is not barbaric? A number of politicians have attacked the UN for doing nothing to stop this, but in my opinion, that is just simply grandstanding unless the politician also comes up with a possible solution. That raises the question, what are the options to end this violence? Since I write novels with political/economic backgrounds, what can I come up with?

Any option must comply with the major rules of strategy. These include that any strategy chosen must be feasible, and have a realistic chance of success. For the latter, there must be an operational route that can be managed with the resources at hand, and could in principle lead to success. It seems to me there are limited possibilities: one side wins; all sides agree to stop fighting and agree on a common peaceful way the country can continue; one side gives way. Maybe I am too unimaginative to think of other ones, but that list is not very promising.

Suppose one side wins, either though the other side having had enough, or having run out of supply, or through being eliminated. While that would stop the fighting, is it plausible? There is no sign that either side will lay down their arms, and there is no sign that either side will run out of supply, other than through supply not being able to get through. The rebels seem to have unlimited supply through pro-Sunni governments around the Gulf, and from US supplies, much of which probably comes through Turkey. Accordingly, it is in the interests of Russian and Assad-loyal air forces to destroy such convoys. For this option to work, one side has to prevail militarily. If the West does nothing different from what it is doing now, Assad has the best chances of winning, and his chances are better the quicker and more vigorously he can get on with it. The West may not like that, but that is the logic of it.

One option is that the various factions agree to stop fighting, and . . . The problem is, what follows “and”? Someone has to form a government. The rebels could accept Assad, but my betting is, they won’t. The rebels themselves have only one thing in common, and that is a hatred of Assad and his men. They range from soldiers who thought they could dislodge Assad through to al Qaeda, and the West would find the latter even worse. If the rebels were to try to form a government, it probably would not take long before it became an ISIS dominated government. The Alawites would have no option other than to resume fighting, or die because ISIS has shown very little tolerance for any other than those who follow its extreme form of radical Islam. So, if the factions did agree to stop, it would not be long before the Alawites had to resume, except that now they would be far worse off strategically. The UN could claim to guarantee the peace, but the fact of the matter is, the UN are only useful if both sides genuinely want peace, and the UN can sort out minor differences. I would have no faith in them if things got really bad.

Suppose someone “gives way”. Civil wars tend to generate very intense hatred, and the various parties want “justice”. “Justice” means those on the losing side, or the other side, are appropriately punished. The rebels will not trust Assad, and if Assad were to stand down, the rebels, and probably the West, would want Assad either in jail or more likely, his head. So this is not practical for Assad, because if he stepped back, he is a dead man. Further, all his senior aides, and the senior members of the Syrian military would also be dead men, so even if Assad stepped back, the rest would not and the fighting would continue.

The rebels could give way. They would know they could never trust the Assad government either, so they could not remain in Syria. Therefore one option for peace that could work would be for the West to guarantee them asylum, and assist in rebuilding Syria if Assad allows the UN to guarantee the process of extricating the rebels who wish to be extricated. You could argue that the same could be applied in reverse to Assad, but we know that the West would try to get Assad for war crimes the minute Assad is not President of Syria. Accordingly, on questions of trust, only the rebels could be guaranteed believable asylum. That now begs the question, is any country prepared to offer such asylum to a few million Sunni Muslims, many of whom are fairly radical? My guess is, no.

Unless someone can see a flaw in this analysis, the only workable solution appears to be to leave the various parties to slug it out. Yes, that is a terrible option, but it seems to be all that we have left ourselves with. I suppose in principle, an external force could send in an overwhelming military force that removes one of the sides, but I cannot see that as happening either, because that force has to take sides. If the West sent in such a force, either Russia goes away and leaves its ally to its own devices, or it stays, with the risk of WW III. For the West to do that, it would need to commit about three quarters of a million men for at least ten years, and it would have to govern. Practically, the US would have to provide about two thirds of those, or maybe the lot. I cannot see that as either possible or desirable.

So my conclusion is there are no obvious solutions that could reasonably work.