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?

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The Trump Enigma

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I am starting to wonder if “they” are on to something. In my novel “Dreams Defiled”, one part of the plot involved one of the protagonists put into one of the most powerful governing positions on the planet, and of course part of the story involves how she fell from that position. One of her problems was she wanted to get things done, but she did not bother too deeply about building the necessary political links to get things done. She was her own woman. Sound familiar, other than the gender? There were two major differences, though, between her and Trump: she had no ego, and she restricted herself to simply doing. One of the criticisms of her was she did not pay enough attention to her public image.

Which gets me to the James Comey sacking. Look at the uproar, especially from the Democrat politicians that not so long ago were baying for Comey’s blood. Now as far as I am aware, there was nothing illegal about Comey’s sacking. As far as I can make out, major appointments in government agencies in the US are political. However, in my view, Trump showed serious failings in the way he presented this accomplishment. In my opinion, this is an example of when less is more. My recommendation is that Trump should have announced something like this: “I recently sacked General Flynn because he made statements that he admitted misled the Vice-President. James Comey admitted giving misleading evidence to Congress, even though under oath, and the Director of the FBI, above all else, must follow the highest standards of legal procedure. Therefore I have no option but to also sack James Comey. If Flynn does not get the benefit of any mistake, neither does Comey.” After that, say nothing. But instead, Trump and associates gave out a strange mixture of various explanations. What Trump needs more than anything else, in my opinion, is a strong disciplinarian as Chief of Staff, who will tell people, including Trump, when to shut up, and when they are speaking, make sure what they are saying is self-consistent.

So, what follows? People are claiming Trump did that to shut down the investigations into his Russian connections. I doubt that, but if he did he was wasting political power. One of the pieces of advice my fictional protagonist was given is that when put into a very high position you are given a bag of power. The more you use it yourself, the more that power gets depleted. The more you can get others to do what you want done, the fuller that bag becomes. I think that is good advice for Trump. (If you take it, Donald, an acknowledgement would be gratefully received.) As for the investigation, surely nobody thinks Comey was investigating personally? At the Director level, his job would be to ensure that his immediate underlings were ensuring major projects were being carried out, and making sure the political reporting was appropriate. The actual investigation would be done several levels lower, and that will not stop. In fact it is probably out of the hands of the FBI now that an ex-director of the FBI has been appointed as a special Counsel toinvestigate whether there was cololusion.

Following that, there was the tweet where Trump seemingly threatened Comey if he went public. That was appalling, and, for that matter, stupid. Much better would have been for Trump to have reminded Comey (publicly) that his employment contract included confidentiality clauses, and he would expect those to be honoured. Yep, more advice: stop tweeting. It does you no good at all.

Not that it stops there. As expected, Comey took hand-written notes of a discussion with Trump, and these have been leaked to the NY Times. In this, Comey was apparently “asked” if he could put the investigation into Flynn to bed. The significance of that depends on what “asked” actually means. Trump would be out of bounds to order the investigation to stop, but it is not necessarily wrong to ask Comey to hurry up and get to a conclusion. The FBI must only investigate crime, not political “appropriateness”. Meanwhile, how come the FBI is leaking a Director’s confidential notes? That itself is a crime, so who is investigating?

Then, even more bizarrely, the Washington Post, using an anonymous source, claims Trump gave the Russian Sergei Lavrov classified information about ISIS, specifically about ISIS preparing to attack aviation using laptop computers, presumably modified to contain explosive. National Security Advisor General H R McMaster denied anything classified was discussed. My first response to this is that Trump has recently banned laptop computers from being taken on board aircraft destined for the US, so that is hardly secret. But wait, there’s more! Seemingly the Democrats have finally realized that maybe the information was not that confidential, so Nancy Pelosi went on the attack and said Trump had no right to give the Russians information, even if it were in the public domain. I suppose there is something in that; the news media is so full of fake news and political speculation, why give the Russians clues as to what is true? Of course it may have eluded the baying horde that Russia and the US are supposed to be fighting ISIS, not each other. However, now there is more still: the information was not Trump’s to give – it belonged to Israel. Presumably it is better to kill some Russians than get the ownership rights wrong.

Meanwhile, I am somewhat critical of the activities of US agencies. As most will be aware, there has been a major outburst of cybercrime in the form of ransomware. I suspect anyone unaware of this has been living under a flat rock and won’t be reading this, but the point I want to make is that critical pieces of code for this attack were apparently stolen from the NSA. Stealing from the National Security Agency? How secure! After that, it was apparently sold on the web. Did the NSA not know about the theft? Are they not monitoring the web? Exactly what are they surveilling? Perfectly legal (or questionably illegal) discussions between Americans and Russians? Meanwhile, their code helps create the tools to bring havoc to hospitals, etc, around the world. If they are watching all the web why can’t they detect who was using their code and bring the miscreants to justice? This is not one of the highlights of NSA activity.

Syria, Iraq and Ukraine: Is Secession right?

Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall a number of posts on some of the issues involved in these countries. What is common to these countries is that all have armed uprisings to achieve either overthrow of the government, or secession. We might also note that many in Scotland want to secede, BUT they are going about it by having the Scots vote on it. Further, my guess is that if Scotland secedes, there will still be a substantial fraction of the Scots who do not wish to. If we think of Ukraine, the question of secession by the East may well be answered differently if only the east votes, or if all Ukraine votes. Majority have to win a vote, but the majority of whom? If there is an armed uprising, for the uprising to end, there has to be a good reason to lay down the arms. So to end the uprising, either concessions have to be made, or the rebels have to be removed from the field, either by arrest or by killing. Now, not everybody can get their way, so why do they want secession? Alternatively, why does Union work?

The most obvious example of where union works is the US. There we have fifty states, many of which would qualify as powerful countries, and they are held together by a Union. The United Kingdom almost works, but is apparently a little creaky at the seams. So what are the differences here? The most obvious one is history. Scotland and England spent many centuries warring. The parts of the UK still consider themselves separate countries within the Union, which makes it different from the US. One important aspect of the US is that the educational system imprints the importance of being United, and the citizens accept that. So, in my opinion, a United system works best when everyone speaks a common language and has no more than location to identify citizens as being different. Notwithstanding that, a Federal system works quite well when there are regions with different languages and different cultures, provided the Federation accepts the differences and shows pride in them. Thus Canada, although occasionally a little creaky, basically works well. In the US there are differences between states, and again these are accepted and praised. The Federal government makes a major effort to see that all states are treated more or less equally. Also, a fair application of fair law is required.

Now if we look at our troublesome regions, Ukraine is plagued by a section that uses a different language, and worse than that, the Western Ukraine has in the past seemed to want to suppress that language, and there is no reason to believe that attitude will change. Poroshenko has promised that suppression will stop, but the problem there is nobody believes him. That gets to the next obvious requirement for a Union: the various parts have to trust the whole to treat them according to agreed rules. Ukraine fails because law is not strongly founded there.

When we look at Syria and Iraq, the problem is reasonably clear: governments based on religion do not work when there is more than one religion. Governments must be secular. It is here that the West has failed these regions. Yes, Saddam and Bashir are not exactly examples of good governance; they have been brutal and of course they are/were anything but democratic. However, provided you obeyed the rules, you were generally safe there, and until the West started bombing Iraq the first time, Iraq was prosperous, secular, safe, and reasonably liberal. Now it is a feeding ground for Jihadis, who cannot wait to get revenge on the West. Now, the Shia government has decided to get revenge on past suppression, and it is actively discriminating against the Sunni minority, which is hardly desirable when that minority provided most of the military class previously. The US hardly helped either by effectively making the Kurdish part a separate entity.

The question now is, what should be done? My view is that everybody else should keep out. Yes, what is going to happen is not going to be pretty, and a lot more blood will be spilt, but this is largely due to outside intervention. There has been no sign of competence so far, other than in bombing, so why does anyone think there will be an improvement? The problem is, politicians visualize the ending they want; they do not seem capable of visualizing what they do not want.

Why should my comments count? I have no special experience that makes my opinion more important than yours, and my one and only experience that is relevant was being caught up in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which I talked to people from both sides. On the other hand, I have thought quite a bit about the issues in general because in the future history novels I write, I have “invented” various forms of governance to support the themes related to abuse of power. After all this thought, I do not know the answers, although I think I can guess what will not work. If you, the reader, feel you can contribute, please do.

Finally, remember the reduced prices on my Mars novels this solstice; see the previous post for details.