Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

One line from a Clint Eastwood movie, but somehow appropriate as the world faces a sequence of crises, so much so that Physics World thought of it and I have followed suit and report some of the more distressing thoughts as the season for jollity approaches. When I was young, the biggest threat to civilization was considered to be nuclear war. We have avoided that, and it seemed as if that was under control, yet the most powerful country in the world has pulled out of treaties and appears to be developing new weapons. Not encouraging.

The biggest problem this year, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, looks like it is being dealt with as vaccines are now coming available. That was a record production of a vaccine, which shows we can respond to crises in a most rapid fashion. Or does it? Actually, these vaccines did not start from scratch. There have been previous potential outbreaks of dangerous coronaviruses that did not spread, and the pharmaceutical companies had been doing vaccine research for coronaviruses for some time. Yes, this was a new virus, so some new work was required, but the general methodology was established, and the companies would have had good expectations of what would work safely. The companies were prepared. The question now is, how well prepared are we for other disasters?

The most spectacular crisis, from a visual point of view, might be an equivalent to the Carrington event. This occurred in 1859, and corresponded to the sun throwing something like 100 million tonne of hydrogen plasma at us. This was spectacular visually; the northern lights were seen as far south as Colombia. Unfortunately, fast moving charged particles cause huge magnetic pulses that in turn induce serious current in electrical conductors. Back then, telegraph lines took on a life of their own. Now, think of all the conductors in our electrical distribution systems? Electric grids would be in real trouble as transformers burn out. Satellites would have their circuits fried, although the rubbish factor may be eased since the atmosphere would swell up and hopefully bring them down. So, how well prepared are we for this? How many spare transformers, etc, are there where we could get the electric systems going again? If the electric supplies ceased, what would be the effect? In short, we don’t know, we are unprepared, and one day we shall find out, but what are the politicians doing about it? How many politicians even care about what is not immediately in front of them?

We have made some preparation for a potential asteroid collision, in that we are studying and cataloguing asteroid trajectories. For any extinction events we shall have plenty of warning, and time to avoid the collision. Further, our space technology has been developed to the extent that avoiding this collision is plausible.

Politicians are now making noises about climate change, and are putting in place some things that will slow the production of greenhouse gases, but to what extent? Have they done the numbers? I have posted previously that the switch to electric vehicles may not be the long-term saviour some think when you integrate the gases over enough time, and include the gases emitted in making the vehicles, the batteries and the electricity. Nevertheless, it could be a step in the right direction if we worked out how to recycle and rebuild the batteries, and were prepared to pay the price of doing so. The problem is, recycling the batteries per vehicle will produce materials worth a few hundred dollars and probably cost thousands to do it. The obvious way around this is to put the appropriate cost of recovery on the batteries when sold, but that would make the electric vehicle so expensive nobody would buy them. As it is, how many realize they will have to replace the batteries in, say, eight years? How much research is being done into replacements? Take biofuels. Most research has been done by companies, and they have opted for the easiest research, and not that which is most likely to produce the largest supply of fuel. By focusing on ethanol from corn, which even blind Fred can see is not a good idea, it fouls the concept for authorities. How much research has been done into geoengineering? Not a lot. How much preparation has been made to ameliorate the effects of increased temperatures? Again, not a lot. The politicians make many speeches about how things will be OK by 2050, but seem remarkably unwilling to do the hard work now.

More on MH 17

Everyone knows that Malaysian airliner flight MH 17 that overflew Eastern Ukraine was brought down by a missile. We also know that previously the western Ukrainian forces had been carrying out bombing raids on the Eastern break-away province, and had lost at least one aircraft to ground missiles. Under the circumstances, some may think that it was totally foolhardy to fly over the area, and also Ukraine should have closed its air space to commercial flights. Mistakes happen, and the eastern forces obviously had missile defences.

However, international investigators have filed charges in a Dutch court, alleging four defendants committed murder. One defendant is Igor Girkin, a former FSB colonel, and at the time the Minister for Defence for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Exactly how he is linked as a murderer is hard to tell at this stage because he would not have been present at the firing of the missile, and apart from the fact he is a rebel in Kyiv’s eyes, his role as Defence Minister does not seem to be that evil. There is no evidence so far he ordered such an aircraft to be brought down. The fact that he was organising a defence against the bombing of civilians brings international justice to an interesting point: what criteria have to be met for a rebellious zone to claim it is self-governing? If people are being bombed, do they have the right to defend themselves? What say you?

The next two defendants were Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov. According to the New York Times article, they worked under Girkin and had been agents of the GRU, which was implicated in interfering with the US election. Talk about guilt by association. The fourth, Leonid Kharchenko is Ukrainian and was apparently a leader of a separatist combat unit. Just maybe he was associated with the event. So far there is no evidence produced that any of these four were anywhere near the missile launch, but of course they may have some evidence and are leaving it for the trial. The basis of Girkin’s charges appears to be that he made a phone call (intercepted) to Russia asking for antiaircraft defence material. If you are a Minister for Defence, and you are being bombed, is that an unreasonable thing to ask for? According to the Dutch prosecutor, they are “just as punishable as the person who committed the crime.” They are also charged with obtaining the missile with the intent to “shoot down a plane”. Well, that is a surprise. Why else would they obtain missiles? Presumably, the Dutch have no missiles, or they would be criminals too.

There is also the question of where the missile came from. Originally, of course, it came from Russia, and it is agreed by all involved that it was a Buk missile. The investigative team said it is “convinced” the missile came from the Russian army’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk. The Russians deny that. They also point out that the outer casing of the missile has been recovered, and the manufacturing number is clearly identifiable. According to the BUK factory, that missile was shipped to Ukraine during the old Soviet Union. It should also be noted the missile is obsolete, and a modern unit of the Russian army would not have them. It is well established that Ukraine had a major arsenal in Eastern Ukraine, so maybe it came from there, but even if Russia supplied arms, then what?

The Dutch prosecutor has also accused Russia of providing no assistance to this case. Apparently, providing shipping details of the missile that does not fit the charges is “of no assistance”. That says something about the nature of the charges. Interestingly, the premier of Malaysia has also denounced the charges, saying “so far, there is no proof, only hearsay”. Malaysia is part of the investigation, and of course it was its aircraft that was brought down.

The case is confused because the Joint Investigative Team is trying to identify two men who were overheard in intercepted communications discussing the movements of a convoy the day before the attack. The team also admits there is no evidence these calls have anything to do with MH 17. This is relevant to the alleged “Russian obstruction”. Apparently, the GRU were supplied with questions demanding to know whether certain people were GRU officers and where they have been moving. I can just see The CIA giving details of who their agents are and what they have been doing.

So where does all this leave us? The current position seems to be that the accused could be linked to arms procurement. Does that make it a crime to supply arms that end up killing civilians? What about those supplying arms to those bombing Yemen? So far, at least 70,000 dead, but the Dutch don’t seem to find that exceptional. If it is a crime to shoot down an airliner, what happened to the US Navy officers that shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft some time ago? The short answer was the US regarded that as an accident, and I am reasonably convinced the US officers taking part in this would not have intended to kill civilians. They made an error, despite being extremely well-trained and having the best equipment available. So why is it not possible that Ukrainian irregulars, with little military training, could not make the same sort of mistake? My view is simple: do not fly over war zones where it is known the defenders are being bombed, and have anti-aircraft missiles. This trial, if it ever takes place, will be simply political. The defendants will be absent, which makes the whole point ridiculous, other than, maybe, to make the Dutch feel good. Then again, maybe that is a benefit.

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?

Trump and Agreements

My scientific background means that I tend to think that decisions should be evidence based, and be formed after analyzing the information available to whoever is making the decision. But a further point, and one I try to put into my novels, is that decisions involving human activity such as politics or confrontation should relate also to the future consequences. If you are going to make a decision that has adverse consequences, there should be the probability that beneficial ones will significantly outweigh the adverse ones. An interesting point here is that very frequently the adverse consequences can be seen fairly clearly and they are likely to happen, while the beneficial ones tend to rely on hopes. Even an act like buying something falls into this. The immediate adverse consequence is that sum of money is no longer available; the hope is the item will be beneficial. In this case you can probably guess that it will be, but on the other hand when you are young and you buy a used car you can never be sure. There can also be unforeseen adverse consequences. When I purchased my first car I had a mechanic check it out, and I knew the motor would need the piston rings replaced. I factored that into the price I offered, but when the motor was disassembled it was found that when originally assembled, someone had put a bearing in back to front, and the cranckshaft had been ground down. That was an unforeseen adverse effect, particularly on my bank balance.

Taking this to international politics, I believe that one important point is that when a country decides to enter an agreement with others, the other parties can accept that the agreement will be honoured. Doubts as to whether the agreement is worthwhile should be ironed out during the negotiations prior to the agreement being signed. In this sense, it is like a business contract. When one company signs a contract with another company, or person, each side assumes that the other will carry out its obligations. If they do not, they tend to end up in court. If there is absolutely no trust, nobody does any business, and if there is no commerce, everybody ends up the loser. Of course, every now and again someone cheats, and the other parties invariably lose. Occasionally, this can become catastrophic. A possible example of this comes from Kobe steel. Generally speaking, Japanese manufacturing has been praised for its adherence to quality control and quality management, but now it has been reported that Kobe Steel has been selling substandard steel for about a decade. Presumably not all has been substandard, but the problem with steel is that it tends to be structural and deep inside something else of considerably more value, so the ripples will go deep if these allegations are true. If so, this situation is now something of a disaster for Kobe Steel, but it would also be very bad for Japanese commerce as a whole.

It is these unforeseen issues that tend to have a lasting effect, but worse is when one side properly follows its obligations and the other side simply refuses, or decides to pull out of the agreement. The threat of pulling out of an agreement if the other side does not make more concessions is a particularly bad procedure. You get all the concessions you think you can, you agree, then after the other side has started to commit itself, you pull out and demand renegotiations. That, at the very least, leaves a bad taste.

Which brings me to President Trump. Since taking office, he has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (and in fairness, America had yet to sign, so he was entitled to do that), he has withdrawn from the Paris Accord, he has threatened to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement, has signalled that he will withdraw from a trade pact with South Korea, and has now “decertitifed” (whatever that means) a multi-lateral agreement designed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In the latter case, international observers all agree that Iran is keeping to its side of the deal. Within the US he seems to have been trying as hard as he can to hobble Obamacare, seeing as he cannot abolish it altogether. It is as if he is a serial offender. Iran has apparently signalled to North Korea that it is a waste of time entering into an agreement with the US. Given that Kim can read smoke signals too, that is not encouraging.

Being destructive is easy. Anyone can tear up agreements. The problem then is, what happens next? Maybe Trump does not care, on the grounds that the rest of the world needs the US more than the US needs the rest of the world. I hope that is not what he is thinking, because it is not true.

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.

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.

Paris terrorism: now what?

The biggest news item of the week was undoubtedly the Paris terrorism, and we need a clear strategy to deal with this sort of activity. The first step in forming a strategy is to clearly define where you are. We all know that ISIS developed as a consequence of inept US management of Iraq, following the Bush led invasion, but thinking about that is irrelevant. We are here, and we cannot alter the past. “Here” involves a large number of religious fanatics following some extreme form of Wahhabi doctrine and who have occupied significant territory in Iraq and Syria; some people, mainly Kurds and Shias, who are fighting back; a huge number of displaced persons fleeing from ISIS; some nations of the West who want to get rid of ISIS, and are prepared to bomb ISIS but will not commit ground troops; Assad, who has promoted a secular government in order to protect his Alawite (Shia) minority, and who sees his control of his country diminishing daily as a consequence of the Arab spring revolutions that were encouraged by the West; Saudi Arabia, which is funding so-called “moderate” opposition to Assad, but is to all intents and purposes funding Sunni extremists who wish to “put the Shias in their place”; Iran and Hezbollah, who will defend the Shias; some nations of the West that want to get rid of Assad and are funding and arming the “moderate opposition”; the “moderate opposition” who are effectively supporting ISIS; and finally the Russians who are prepared to bomb both ISIS and the so-called moderate opposition to Assad. As you can see, where we are is a turgid mess, and in reality it is a lot more complicated than that.

It is not made any easier when we try to define the forces. The West, mainly Europe, has offered sanctuary to a number of Muslim refugees, but many of the Muslims refuse to integrate and accept a secular society. Once there, they see being there as a right, but many of them refuse to accept the obligation of integrating into, or at least accepting, our society. They are welcome to add to our culture, but they have no right to impose theirs. Of course everyone should have freedom of religion, but unfortunately, anyone can declare themselves a Muslim cleric. The net effect of this has been a number of fanatics having an institutional infrastructure to spout hate, to alienate a number of younger Muslims, who have grown up with all the advantages of a Western education, and they have become radicalized. In short, the enemy is within. According to The Telegraph, about 750 young people have left Britain and gone to Syria to train, and many are returning. Once back, they are potential terrorists.

Once we know where we are, the next step is to clearly define your own objectives, and those of your opponent, and here we have a problem. ISIS apparently has no clearly defined goal other than to kill as many infidels as it can. It has the loose objective of wishing to impose its interpretation of Sharia law over the world, but I doubt it really sees this as practical. What about those opposing ISIS? To me, there are only two obvious strategies available: withdraw totally from the region, or wipe out ISIS, but everyone seems reluctant to do either. To be fair, neither has any guaranteed favourable outcome. A further option is to try to get a negotiated peace, and John Kerry has apparently proposed peace talks, but peace talks themselves get nowhere unless there are parties that are prepared to give a bit to gain a bit. When the only objectives of some are totally unacceptable to others, it cannot work. Worse, hidden in this proposal is the concept that there will be elections to get a government, democracy will take hold, and everyone will live happily ever after. This is a classic case of requiring the world to fit in with your wishes, and in general it will not. You cannot have a democracy unless the citizens accept it, and all this will do is get in a different form of tyrant. But it will give Western politicians the chance to say, “we tried, we did something, and it isn’t our fault it all turned to custard.” Unfortunately, it will be their fault, if they succeed in their “negotiated peace”, because while they will get their publicity for “trying”, someone else will pay for the consequences.

In my opinion, ISIS cannot win by force. The problem is, unless we are very careful, we can lose quite a bit. People have the right to go to a concert and not get blown to pieces, and they expect the security forces to stop that. The problem is, if you have hundreds, or even thousands, of citizens that have gone away to train as terrorists, it is rather hard to prevent such outrages. It becomes a lot easier if all peaceful Muslims are prepared to give all information on potential terrorism, but will they? It is also a lot easier if the security forces take on capabilities that we do not like. My guess is, someone like Heydrich would eventually stop the terrorism at home, but do you want to live in that world? It becomes somewhat sad if the right to stay alive means you lose rights to live.

What now for Ukraine?

As the situation in Ukraine seems to deteriorate, the question is, what now? Accurate information is, understandably, rather scarce but from a strategic point of view, most parties seem to be digging in, more with a view to making the problem worse than in improving it. The first step in forming a strategy is to have a clear goal, and from what I can make out, the various parties have goals that are essentially irreconcilable. My guess is that the following is approximately what the goals are, but I could be wrong. Poroshenko wants to exert control over all of what he claims is Ukraine on the basis he was elected president of it, except of course the parts that don’t want him were not given a vote. The leaders of Eastern Ukraine want independence from Poroshenko. Crimea is part of Russia again. The position of the US and NATO is less clear. They claim they want Ukraine united, but the real position may be that they want to put one over Russia, and have military bases close to Russia. Russia almost certainly wants fewer missiles aimed at it, and not in Ukraine, and additionally, it wants to support Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, who reports say either are or most certainly will be oppressed by right wing militias. Missing from all this is what do the average Ukrainian want? Do they all want the same thing?

The West has sent Ukraine various supplies to help those afflicted by the war, and sent them to Kiev, where they have been sent eastwards. From what I can make out, a very high per centage of these have been hijacked and looted. Further, the land near the separatists may or may not have Ukrainian regular soldiers present, but they most certainly have right wing militias and paramilitary groups. The separatists may or may not have irregular soldiers from Russia, and they may or may not have been supplied with weapons from Russia. Everyone says they have, but it should be recalled that there were a number of arsenals in Eastern Ukraine that are now under separatist control, and from what we can make out, most of the weapons used by the separatists are of Soviet age. Thus the BUK missile that brought down the airliner was designed and supplied up to thirty odd years ago.

So, what to do? Germany and France have apparently argued for a demilitarized zone between the east and west and a cease-fire. In my opinion, that is not going to work unless there are good troops there to enforce it. The problem with a cease-fire is that its only real purpose is to buy time until some permanent settlement is reached. Even in Korea, there is a permanent settlement, at least to the extent it has survived for nearly fifty years. But this will not work while the right wing militias want to bring the East to heel. The US is talking about giving Kiev better arms. What that will do, based on recent history, is to first better arm the militias, who are uncontrollable, and secondly they will be looted and sold off, and may well end up in terrorists hands. Worse still, if the US supplies military aid, Russia will be obliged to match it, which will merely escalate things. If the US sends “advisors”, or troops, Russia will match it. The danger of a real war breaking out if someone makes a mistake is only too obvious. Suppose a US weapon was used against Russians in Russia, now what?

So what should happen? My view is that the previous cease-fire was time wasted. What the West could do is to try to get Putin onside by promising not to have Ukraine in NATO and promising not to have missiles there, then offer Ukraine an independently monitored election, district by district, to decide what they want to happen. There must be sufficient external force to guarantee militias stand down, and clear instructions to the parties that undermining this process will not be tolerated. At the end of this, those districts that have a majority to secede should be permitted to do so. I know, people will say, this is interfering with a sovereign nation, but my response is, it is actually offering the people the chance to get what they want, not what various other parties that do not live there want. After the election, if any districts do secede, then there should also be financial assistance to permit those who do not want to be a minority in a district to move. In all probability, the numbers moving each way should be roughly equal. That would be expensive, but nowhere nearly as expensive as an all-out war.

What do you think?