Author Archive

Realpolitik: Big Boy Games, Big Boy Rules

merkel

Today we learned of a fracture in the western alliance system as French and German leaders head off to Russia for peace talks on the Ukrainian crisis. This is a desperate and misguided attempt to reach a resolution, which in all likelihood is going to fail. The inescapable fact is that Russia is an aggressive state with a belligerent leader, who has thus far only played the realpolitik game. Already torn up is the German-brokered ceasefire from late 2014, not to mention treaties from the nineties which guaranteed Ukrainian border integrity. Without anyone effectively challenging Putin, there is no reason to believe that he will sit down and settle a political solution. The famed strongman of world politics will only back down and make terms when the alternative for him, continued belligerence, is the worse option.

One can only wonder where Angela Merkel’s reputation as the Iron Lady of Europe came from. So far she has only continually reiterated her country’s unwillingness to fight or supply arms to the Ukrainians as well as opposing proposals for new stationing of NATO troops in Eastern European countries. This stance is undoubtedly popular in a Germany which is still dealing with war guilt towards Russia and is more sceptical of its relationship with the United States. Merkel has also previously been praised for her understanding of Russia, having grown up in East Germany and for her fluent Russian. However her understanding had an obvious blind spot in the Crimea crisis. German-backed energy deals with Russia were no hindrance to the illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of East Ukraine. Europe has effectively been caught with its pants down. Continue reading

All Guns Blazing – The Fickle Nature Of Lethal Force

Je_suis_Charlie,_Montreal,_7_January_2015

Recent cases of hostage stand-offs in Australia and France have been ended by force, bringing this tactic into the limelight once again. Unfortunately this means of ending a hostage siege is unavoidably dangerous even amongst the most highly trained of police or military units, and their use should be limited to cases where all other avenues have been exhausted. In particular, negotiated surrender risks falling by the wayside as a viable option. Because society tends to value the hero who dramatically takes lives rather than the hero who quietly saves them, we risk a selection-bias in examining the optimal means to end hostage scenarios.

As a credit to the police units involved, yesterday’s stand-offs in France seem to have been a ‘home-run’. The Kouachi brothers were both killed while the single hostage escaped unharmed, although it appears that they exited without him, determined to die fighting. While four hostages died in the kosher supermarket, earliest reports suggest that they were murdered before the police raid took place. This success is commendable but should not set a precedent to the exclusion of other alternatives. In contrast, the Sydney siege saw the death of two hostages during the rescue and the injury of three others in still unclear circumstances. These cases demonstrate the fickle nature of such raids. Continue reading

Crisis Year: International Relations 2014

putin

In a morose way, 2014 has been a fascinating year for those with an interest in International Relations. Resurgent Russia and Islamic State have presented two prominent challenges to western liberal world order. The optimistic ‘end of history’ liberalism of the 1990’s now feels like a golden bygone era of stability and prosperity. In its place is a world where the hegemonic power of the United States is limited by insurgencies and despotic powers. In the field of international relations, realist scholars have had a long awaited ‘we told you so moment’. John Mearsheimer has ruffled many feathers with his article in Foreign Affairs ‘Why the Crisis in Ukraine is the West’s Fault’. Regardless of how palatable it is, Mearsheimer’s argument is frustratingly robust, and he presents credible counters to his critics. EU and NATO expansion has encroached into a region that Russia considers critical to its own security, and the latter has firmly drawn a line in the sand, violating international treaties and norms in a display of pure power politics. Although Russia is paying a price, it has asserted itself outside of its own borders in a way that the west cannot prevent. It seems that at long last, balancing is occurring, and the ‘rest’ are pushing back against the ‘west’ after a decade of diminishing US legitimacy and soft power. Continue reading

Autarky In Weaponry- Russia’s Not So New Option

putin

Russia’s resurgence is reminiscent of the Cold War in numerous ways, and already, some of the same mistakes are being made. In particular, Russia’s latest move towards self-sufficiency in weapons production is doing it no favours.

Over the last few months Russia has announced moves towards domestic procurement of weaponry to offset reliance on imports. Famously we have the French built-aircraft carrier now floating idly in port after France was pressured into halting the transaction.  Vladimir Putin announced moves to invest in domestic high-tech industries. This is the kind of rhetoric that politicians wheel out to appeal to patriotic sentiment, but in the reality is simply untenable and hinders a country militarily. Full-spectrum and autonomous weapons production was once a necessity to be a great power but in the globalised age is untenable. Continue reading

Some Fights Are Right: Obama’s IS Strategy

obama33

Barack Obama has received criticism for his recent expansion of strikes against IS to include Syria. On the far left are those who object outright to liberal intervention, while on the right of the spectrum Senator Rand Paul labelled him a ‘neo-con’. However despite his perceived hesitancy, Obama’s strategy looks set to hit a sweet spot between reckless and cautious that is grounded in sound principles and is the best reasonable response to the current threat posed by IS.

IS are the closest the 21st century has to the Nazi’s- fundamentally motivated, exceptionally violent and on a quest that is their downfall before it has even begun. Their so called caliphate has no precedent in history. Killing Shia as easily as they behead innocent westerners or massacre Yazidi Iraqis, the group’s strategy is founded on brutality, with no room for any form of tolerance or compromise, to the point where they have drawn condemnation from Al-Qaeda. Mass murder of civilians and trafficking of women for as sex slaves are par for the course with IS . This incarnation of radical Islam is now the richest terrorist organization in history.  It has also shown itself to be a master of cinematic and striking (and ironically western style) media campaigns in a way that Al-Qaeda never was, making it the most hot brand of radical Islam. The stunning videos are a draw for young radicals of fighting age as well as rich benefactors who may be sympathetic to their cause, and is possibly the greatest threat posed by IS. However despite capturing swathes of Iraqi and Syrian cities (and open desert), the groups has united even larger swathes of the world against it through its actions. General consensus already exists. This includes almost every parliament and head of state in the world, as well as mainstream Muslim groups in western countries (see the “Not in my name” campaign if you feel like blaming regular Muslims). Continue reading

Joan Burton Squares Off With Mary Lou McDonald

marylou

Heated debate took place this morning on Newstalk between two of the most prominent women in Irish politics. After tossing over the topical issues of the day the segment developed into a scrap on Sinn Fein’s legacy of association with Republican violence.

Burton criticised a lack of discussion and transparency on what she called recently at a Labour conference the ‘Sinn Fein – IRA nexus’. Some certainly may be tired of Burton’s approach, the usual refuge of Irish politicians who come under fire from Sinn Fein TD’s. Mary Lou retorted with a very articulate criticism of Eamon Gilmore’s alleged involvement with Official IRA groups. However there is no doubt that many Irish people are still troubled by the issue Burton discussed and it seems likely that Sinn Fein will have to distance itself further from association with the republican violence. Although the significant ground made by Sinn Fein was the main story of the recent elections, it should also be noted that many middle-leaning voters seem to have favoured the disgraced Fianna Fail party over Sinn Fein. This, in the face of the fact that we were voting against a government that has implemented several unpopular austerity budgets, tells us Sinn Fein have not yet moved into the political mainstream of Ireland. Continue reading

Obama’s Dilemma And World Hesitation

OBAMA

Over a year ago I contributed a piece to this website which mentioned the use of torture by Syrian government forces in an organised fashion. It should be no surprise to us that the Assad regime has gone ahead and used gas on its own people. The Assad regime is without a doubt an evil regime hell-bent on maintaining power in any way possible. It is disheartening and tragic that this can continue in the twenty first century. We are essentially sitting watching another Rwanda happen, albeit over a longer period of time.

Living in the large shadow of the Gulf War II it is to be expected that western powers are going to be hesitant to intervene in another Middle East conflict. Assad’s regime is reportedly preparing for a U.S. strike, with reports coming through of troops, ordinance and sensitive documents being moved to civilian buildings and discreet locations. Obama’s decision to delay any possible action seems to be allowing time for Assad to prepare for this possibility. However the decision is hugely complex and Obama will have a number of motivations for his decision.

Following on Britain’s example, Obama is seeking Congressional approval for his action. One can easily see the allure of having a strong consensus built behind military action, given the disaster that was Iraq. Domestic factors may be present in the president’s mind. Intervening without Congressional approval (as in Libya) would leave Obama and the Democrats open to criticism from Rand Paul et al, hailing the UK as an example of how a democracy should decide on entering into a war. This would be an easy card to play to an American public which may balk at the prospect of another drawn out war. They have seen enough American boys come home in body bags.

Syria is also stocked full of new Russian anti-aircraft technology, and the supply chain will not halt any time soon. The UN is also unlikely to reach a strong consensus due to Russia and China’s position on the Security Council. This is an issue which needs to be changed as the current setup of the security council prevents it functioning to its full and proper potential.

There are numerous other complications so boggling that nobody can say with any certainty what will happen. The Islamic fundamentalist elements among the Syrian rebels are a mysterious threat. During this week, Iran threatened retaliation against Israel if Syria were struck. The war has already spilled over into Lebanon. Egypt, once reliable as a bastion of stability, is now more chaotic than any other point in recent years. One cannot blame America for being apprehensive about beginning to bomb a region that could inflame the whole region.

The great tragedy of these complications is that the carnage continues. This was the second gas attack by Syrian government forces, twice crossing Obama’s ‘Red Line’. The UK’s rash decision to avoid war, and America’s hesitation will send out the wrong message worldwide. This message is clear when we hear reports of the Syrian government taunting America’s aversion to war and loss of superpower status. To prevent mass war crimes against whole peoples in the future, perpetrators must understand they will be brought to justice. John Kerry has a reputation as a dull operator, but he has been an ardent supporter of intervention. He is one of a few prominent politicians with the conviction to call the Syrian government for what it is.

The firm line taken by France is hardly surprising given their willingness to become involved in former colonies like Chad and Mali.

Obama had missed the opportunity to be decisive and take a firm line on Syria. The UK has essentially forfeited its chance to help. The memories of Iraq, and the continuing deadlock of the U.N. Security Council means we are facing into more misery and more dead civilians with no end in sight.

Gaza, Israel And The Real Winners Of The 2012 Violence

The dust has settled in the Gaza strip as an Egyptian-brokered truce has taken hold. The flare up in violence may cause some to despair. It seems that the lessons were not learned from the previous war has not been learned and once again civilians were the losers. But looking closely at the recent conflict reveals that this time, there were significant differences which may one day help towards a long-term settlement.

The worldwide perception of Israel came out much better than in 2009- a strange scenario given that they initiated the conflict. The assassination of Ahmed Jabari was also a strange choice given the lull in hostilities and it has yet to emerge what the exact rationale was for his assassination, given the context and time. However this man was a long time enemy of Israel, publicly committed to kidnapping as many Israeli soldiers as possible, to use in prisoner exchanges. The manner of his death was a sure Israeli show of force. Spies deep within the Hamas network were able to pinpoint his exact location, to a car fitted with a secret tracking device.

The nature of the Israeli bombardment was also much more ‘clean’ and ‘precise’, insofar as an air bombardment can be. Somewhere in the region of 1500 targeted strikes during the few days killed fewer than 200 people, a sizeable number of which were Hamas fighters. This demonstrates that the real targets were weaponry, rocket sites and supply tunnels. Tragic as the civilian deaths were, and there were civilian deaths, it takes concentrated effort to reduce them to this level. The Israeli military has demonstrated a visible effort to reduce the number of women and children killed. This was a success for Israel. They did not draw nearly as much condemnation as before.

In fact, the world rhetoric was considerably mild towards the Israeli side. Barack Obama spoke strongly of Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks and did not condemn the air strikes as much as might have been expected. However he may be left with little choice, as his position of moral authority is considerably weakened with mounting criticism of his drone campaign.

The Israeli campaign was one based on intelligence and technology. Their means of pin-pointing the location of Hamas rocket-sites, arms dumps and even the real-time location of leaders was based on technology and human spies. The buzz of drones hanging over Gaza was always present and the street execution of six alleged spies was evidence of a growing Hamas frustration with the level of infiltration. The Iron Dome also received its first baptism of fire and was as successful as was hoped.

The decision not to conduct a ground war was a wise one.  It was probably an obvious choice following the2009 war. Barging into a crowded urban territory behind a wall of fire only leads to needless deaths. Prolonging the war would also have rallied the Palestinians around Hamas further. Although they are the dominant party in Gaza it is not without dissent from people who want to move towards a deal for peace, as well as more radical factions.

Essentially, the conduct of the war has shown Israel to be a rational and legitimate actor to all except those fundamentally aligned with the Palestinian cause. They inflicted significant losses on their enemy but demonstrated some restraint in front of the world. Hamas, on the other hand, conducted the usual indiscriminate bombardment of Israel. Its legitimacy in the eyes of the world is now even more questionable. It has also cornered itself as it is unable to inflict any worthwhile damage on Israel while having to sustain huge punishment to its own infrastructure. For Hamas there may be no way forward as long as it refuses to recognise Israel. It can merely pose an inconvenience to the lives of some Israelis in largely futile attacks.

This is a long way from the ultimate solution: Israel lifting its blockade and Hamas recognising Israel. In the past few days, Israel has allowed Gaza fishermen out beyond their previous limit, and relaxed the tension around border areas by allowing local famers near Israeli soil. However the choking blockade still remains in place and is likely to for the foreseeable future. The current talks will be concerned with relaxing the blockade in return for the safety of Southern Israel from rockets. Behind their defensive shield and capable military, it is Israel who are in the favourable position.

Obama and the Drone Wars

If Star Wars had the ‘Clone Wars’, in the 21st Century we have the ‘Drone Wars’.

While drones themselves are nothing new, their place in warfare is. Even at the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict, the US possessed merely a handful of unarmed drones. Today the US operates huge purpose built strike drones across the world. Although most drone attacks occur in lawless provinces of Pakistan, they have also taken place in Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. It was President Bush who began the drone attacks, but the Nobel-prize winning President Obama has stepped them up considerably, with attacks occurring almost weekly. As reported in the New York Times, Obama insists on Presidential authorisation for drone strikes outside of Afghanistan. This means that he is presented with the best available intelligence and must decide whether the risk of civilian casualties is worth the potential death of a Taliban leader.

And so far, the offensive has been effective. The top brass of the Pakistan Taliban has been decimated, all with no risk to American lives or the cost of troops on the ground. Some see it as a sort of ‘silver bullet’ from the sky. The recent death of Al-Qaeda number two in a typical drone strike was hailed as huge blow to the terrorist network. Abu Yahya al-Libi was considered a major unifying force between Egyptian and North African factions within the movement, and his death is predicted to have a destablising effect.

However the mounting civilian casualties has drawn official condemnation from the Pakistan government and Foreign Ministry. Tensions remain high even after Pakistan has this week reopened road supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan. These were closed after the death of 24 government soldiers in a US strike last November. Drone attacks were temporarily suspended, and American personnel were evacuated from the air base they secretly operated from. However with no resolution in sight attacks were stepped up two months later.

Despite the fact that the Pakistan government secretly harboured the drone strikes for years, it seems they have finally turned due to mounting collateral damage. Numbers of civilians killed are disputed, but the foreign ministry claims they reach into the hundreds. The usefulness of this type of offensive must now be called into question. How far can the CIA move down the totem pole of an already decimated Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership?
Will the mounting civilian casualties and accusations of extrajudicial killings deter Obama, or will he proceed with an effective anti-Taleban tool that presents minimal risk to US lives? For now the attacks continue at the same rate as ever.

Drones have now had a lasting impact on modern warfare. Even in the 60’s it was predicted the majority of military aircraft would eventually be unmanned, and this will likely come true in the next few years. While the US can seemingly hunt its enemies anywhere in the world from the comfort of control rooms in the states, their enemies will not be left behind forever. In 2007 Israeli fighter jets shot down a Hezbollah reconnaissance drone, a surprising step forward for the supposedly primitive group. In another famous incident, Iraqi insurgents hacked into live video feed from a US drone over Baghdad.

Syrian Misery Continues

The world watches as Syria has descended into chaos. Reports by human rights groups claim there are over two dozen government torture centres open across the country. It is suggested that the scale of this torture could constitute crimes against humanity. The stories are certainly worthy of a horror movie, victims report having taser stun guns used on their genitals and being stapled in the chest and ears. We have known for months about the government’s indiscriminate attacks on populated areas. The crimes committed by the Assad regime have surpassed those committed by the Libyan government, yet the West seems much more hesitant in taking action.

There are many reasons for this. The Libyan no fly zone-cum-aerial campaign was a success for Libyan rebels and Western politicians alike. Despite months of tensions between factions and militias, Libya has recently held its first free elections. The military campaign was relatively undamaging for politicians. Their goals were achieved without the loss of pilots lives or costly ground operations. Syria however provides a different challenge.

For one, Syrian air defences amount to the most formidable in the region, possibly even surpassing Iran’s in sophistication. The Syrian military purchased advanced Russian weaponry in 2007 after an Israeli air strike which destroyed what they alleged was a nuclear weapons facility. This prompted the Syrian military to completely upgrade their hardware, also allowing them to send their 70’s Soviet-era hardware to Hezbollah. Rumors now suggest that the downed Turkish jet was shot down by a brand new SA-22 system. A retired Air Force General is quoted in the Seattle Times: “We can deal with the Syrian integrated air defenses…It is much, much more challenging than Libya”. Syria has also taken delivery of the feared S-300 missile system. This makes the possibility of pilots killed much more likely in any potential aerial campaign, and with that comes the damaging political consequences in what is an election year in the US.

The Obama adminstration would also be reluctant to become involved in another military campaign, just as it was slow to react to the Libyan situation. After Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is much less swashbuckling in international affairs. The Nobel prize winning president does not want to become involved in another drawn out conflict.

In Libya it was the European leaders who were most vocal in condemnation and most eager to take action. However it was the US who did actually become the backbone of this campaign. Even when it was French, British or Italian jets in the Libyan skies, they were often dropping US provided bombs. The Royal Navy no longer has strike jets and they instead had to await the arrival of the RAF jets to NATO bases in Italy to begin operations. This campaign can also be seen as a sign of the deterioration of European military power, as they were unable to function effectively without US assistance, right on the doorstep of Europe.

A successful campaign as in Libya also requires troops on the ground. Despite the repeated assurances from Obama, youtube videos show a limited number of Western special forces and/or military contractors were assisting rebels on the ground. These strictly camera-shy men were there in a limited role that did not draw enough attention to cause a political scandal.

A rebel delegation has arrived in Egypt to try and convince world leaders that they are a suitable governing body for Syria. However serious differences between the factions have emerged. Recently, both sides in the civil war declared their intentions to continue fighting as the best way to achieve their aims. For the time being, it seems the carnage will continue.