Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hollande's 75% Tax Isn't Dead--Not Even Sick

More laissez-faire readers are likely to be pretty excited skimming the headlines and learning that the 75% tax on the wealthiest Frenchmen has been struck down by the Constitutional Committee.

Having read this myself, I paused: "how does a constitution possibly bar some arbitrarily high tax rate?" The only reasonable possibility of this in my mind would be if the Committee made a pretty long stretch of one's liberty from unreasonable seizure.

Reading more deeply revealed that the Committee repealed the law due to what are ultimately minor structural details (targeting individuals rather than households, primarily), and Hollande has already declared that a re-structured law will come right back in 2013 with full force.

The first observation here is that the headlines of some very reputable news organizations are simply deceptive in their oversimplification--the casual reader would clearly interpret the headlines below to say that the law is dead. It's very much not--it's in fact going to be quite fine.

What this means for France is that its flow of super-rich citizens to London and Bern won't end any time soon. French national debt is nearing 90% of its GDP (which compares to a staggering 110% for the US) and climbing quickly--obviously losing this income stream will hurt, though France is likely to generate more income from increases on those who stay than it loses by those who leave. Geopolitically this tax wash may not be massively significant, but French unemployment is at 10.7% and--unlike the US, UK, or Germany--has been climbing for 19 months in a row.  France's biggest risk is that it loses those well-suited to launch or fund new companies or projects that will push its economy forward and hire its labor force. French labor & consumer laws aren't exactly business-friendly, but the fact that starting companies is difficult in France makes it even more critical to have individuals that can muster lots of money/resources at once.

And, just for chuckles, Monty Python brings us a timely analogy for the tax law.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Update on Syria: Ground and Political Situation, 12/12

I'd like to make a quick update on the ground situation in Syria. The short version:
1) It's slow and likely will be a long and protracted stalemate
2) The rebels are slowly gaining and may win in the long term
3) The Kurds and extremists may be the big winners
Young rebel fighters in Aleppo

(Brown indicates rebel/Kurdish control, green indicates regime control, and blue indicates a contested city/town)

Map of Control of Syria, 12/12/12. Green indicates regime, brown opposition, blue contested
Desert/East: Majority towns under rebel control with the largest towns still under regime control, but with limited interest on either side to mount an offensive. Note on the map that many small towns off the coast are in rebel control or are contested--Rebels enjoy much of their support from the countryside.

Northern Border: Firmly under rebel and Kurdish control. The rebels use this open operating area to get access to Turkey for supply support, medical treatment, and to create a safe haven for opposition command, likely operating with NATO intelligence support. It is unlikely to fall to the Syrian military any time soon and will keep the battle for Aleppo  fierce as long as it remains open.

The Kurds are participating in the battle of Aleppo, but are hedging their bets to some extent by spending energy entrenching their positions in northern Syria. In any stalemate outcome, Kurds will likely be able to begin partially autonomous administration of this area with support from Iraqi Kurdistan. Interestingly, a decisive rebel win may cause the most reprisal here for earlier Kurdish support of Assad.

Damascus: Firmly held in the center by the government, but the biggest suburbs are under rebel control, with all surrounding suburbs held by rebels. This has held for the past half-year and is unlikely to change too soon.

Homs: 70% under regime control, with battle lines fairly solid. While Homs used to be the center of anti-regime protests, it is now quiet. Don't expect much movement here.

Hama: Firmly under regime control.

Coast: While a few small towns west of Hama are under rebel control, they're not enough of a priority for the regime to be dealt with yet. Most cosmopolitan towns along the coast here are surprisingly peaceful and functional as the war rages on elsewhere. Rebels simply lack the support or geogrpahical presence to make an impact here.

Aleppo: Aleppo is probably the big prize on the table--if one side can take it decisively, it may mark a turning point in the war. The mega-city is the cultural and economic capital of Syria (think New York City), and the most intensely contested for the past 6 months. Below you'll see the current battle lines of the city (yellow is Kurdish, green is rebel, red is regime), though they shift frequently. Rebels have been driven out of significant swaths of the city that they've taken before. Note that army bases ar in the center and west, and serve as local zones of operation for the regime.

Map of Battle of Aleppo, 12/12/12. Red indicates regime, yellow Kurdish forces, green rebels, dark green contested

Rebels have not made significant forward progress since September, but they do have the city "largely" surrounded, according to Stratfor. In particular, the rebels have launched offensives as less-defended towns and bases south and west of Aleppo, targeting its supply lines. These attacks appear to be close to capturing--or at least cutting off--the M4 and M5 highways, which would leave Aleppo completely cut off from regime supply lines (where the Rebels continue to enjoy fresh supplies from Turkey). If the rebels succeed in this offensive, I believe they should be able to slowly (although the final collapse of regime forces would be sudden) take Aleppo.
Supply Lines to Aleppo Nearly Under Rebel Control

That said, to "take" Aleppo is a tenuous term, at best. Many citizens of Aleppo are strong regime supporters, and most others simply want to stay out of the fight. Furthermore, the regime will likely continue to bomb Aleppo and ensure that the rebels cannot "get their feet under them" in the city. Likely, the best the Rebels will be able to do would be to cause a mass surrender/defeat of regime forces after a fairly long siege (in which the city remains surrounded and cut off), and then push the line forward of the city without really holding onto it too tightly. That said, this is a win that should not be under-stated.

Overall: The rebels will struggle to build any governance in major cities (Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Damascus) that they hold. The regime has shown a willingness to use heavy shelling, aerial bombardment, and even recently SCUD missiles to drive rebels out of neighborhoods they own. Unfortunately for the rebels, many locals are just as upset with the rebels as the regime for bringing the fight to their neighborhood.

This war will be slow, but I believe it is starting to look a bit like the Chinese civil war of 1945-1949. Nationalist forces moved increasingly to entrenching themselves in cities, where Communist forces were able to move fairly feely among the countryside, increase their capability, and amass forces for offensives in increasingly large towns, acquiring arms, tanks, and defectors along the way. The rebels of Syria have used similar tactics, buliding safe operating havens in the north and east, and using hit-and-run tactics on major sites--including large air force and army bases--to eliminate the regime's presence near Aleppo without giving the regime targets to hit with aerial bombardment. The regime risks a slow collapse similar to that of the Chinese Nationalist government if it is not able to go back on the offensive to break rebel logistics capability and keep them "scattered." The advantage is to the rebels but there is no quick win in sight.

Many Syrians remain on the sidelines in this fight--ultimately, despite many having strong opinions on the matter, most simply want to be left in peace and enjoy life. And while the regime is certainly guilty of indiscriminate bombing, torture, and many other atrocities, the rebels are not without blood on their hands. For this reason, the rebels are struggling to win the massive popular support that has been seen in many other Arab Spring uprisings.

Defections continue slowly, but they will end. Ultimately there is a large Alawite minority that is (rightly so) terrified that their fall will mean massive retributions. A good example of this was the retributions against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq that were quite painful and led to the Sunni insurgency, which lasted for years. Many of these folks know that very bad consequences await them if they were to lose outright, and nobody can provide a golden parachute for all of them.

The Syrian opposition recently unified--at least on paper--under the Syrian National Coalition, which enjoys the recognition as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian people" from over 100 countries, including most of the Arab League, Turkey, the US, UK, France, Germany, and much of the rest of the EU. This will open up more overt opportunities to fund, supply, and otherwise support the rebels, even if full military intervention remains unlikely. What's not clear is how widely it is supported at home.

In bad news, extremists continue to gain sway in Syria, with at least 30,000 Islamist Mujadeen among the rebel fighters, and many Syrians fear the rebels are picking up increasingly extremist rhetoric. A similar risk came true in a much shorter war in Libya, in which terrorists attacked the Benghazi consulate and killed the American ambassador.

As the war drags out, this extremist cell is likely to grow, and one of the first missions of whoever wins will be to stamp it out.

All included images courtesy of Wikipedia

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Did Israel & Hamas Go to War?

For better or worse, this post is likely to leave the reader with more questions than answers. I'd love any input/comments that readers have on the matter here (as always).

Before the assassination strike on Hamas' military leader Jabari, Hamas political leadership was making serious noise about a permanent truce with Israel (in fact, Jabari was literally reviewing a draft peace agreement the day he was assassinated and had been part of discussions with Israel and Hamas' political wing about making it happen), and West Bank PM Abbas mentioned he was potentially willing to waive Right of Return for Palestinians as part of a final peace deal with Israel. It seemed, politically, that Israel was largely getting its way.

Then why the assassination? Why the war?

There are potential motivations on both sides for going to war, which we'll outline below. Not clear at all to me which was the primary motivator.

Hamas is, of course, far from a united organization. In particular, I must be careful in the use of the word "Hamas" when describing behavior from Gazan militants, as not all are necessarily formally associated with Hamas and may not represent Hamas' interests. In this case, Hamas extremists or other militants likely wished to disrupt the peace process, unsatisfied with its provisions and worried that it might go through if the peace process continued unabated. Hundreds of Hamas rockets were the opening salvo in this eight-day war, and so the above explanation is a reasonable one to answer the question, "why did these rockets launch _when they did?_" If the motivation was 100% on the Hamas side, then we would say that Israel simply "took the bait" and was manipulated into war that disrupted a peace process that they would otherwise be in favor of. The assassination of Japbari, in this case, would have been a strategic blunder to an Israel otherwise very interested in peace.

More legitimate wings of Hamas may have also approved of these rockets in order to sabotage the peace process themselves, in order to make sure there was a clear pretense of peace on the Hamas side without risking having to actually stick to it, in order to win the support of the Arab world, in particular Morsi. If this was the intent, it worked--Morsi was able to broker a ceasefire and very clearly backed Hamas in the war, which would be the first time Egypt supported Hamas against Israel since the 1970's.

Frankly, the Israeli defense authority is highly sophisticated and I believe it is unlikely they simply made a mistake and, in response to rocket fire, assassinated _in error_ the man most likely to be able to broker a peace deal with Hamas permanently. The reason I am particularly suspicious is that the assassination of Jabari was among Israel's first strikes, rather than simply strikes against Hamas' rocket sites. I believe, like in the case of Hamas, there are some political incentives that made parts of the Israeli government want to disrupt the process as was.

One explanation is simply that Netanyahu could not appear "soft" during negotiations. If Israel calmly/peacefully negotiated peace as rockets hit its civilian cities, it could potentially be seen as "soft" on Hamas and thus in a weak bargaining position. If Israel saw Jabari as trying to play both ends--authorizing strikes against Israel and also trying to push a peace deal--then Israel may have intended to send a message to his successor that "playing both sides" against Israel would not do. Unlike Israeli troops, Hamas rocketeers are generally woefully under-accountable in the international media for their attacks, and if Jabari intended to use this to his advantage, Israel may have felt the need to put a quick lid on it and allow Jabari's successor to restart such negotiations with more caution and restraint.

Israel could have also "read" Hamas' intent--if it was to simply gain an upper hand with the Arab world through credible noises of negotiation, rather than actually push for peace--and wanted to stop this process in its tracks before it lost leverage in the region, though Israel seemed to summarily fail in this.

Israel's current leadership may well not intend for peace with Gaza any time soon. Peace in general may simply be unacceptable to an administration that sees Gaza as an eternal threat for Iranian influence and other forces that may be out for the demise of the Jewish state. Israel may have a quiet policy of no peace with Hamas until Israel's legitimacy as a state is recognized. For various reasons, Israel may see constant war with Hamas (including a blockade of Gaza to minimize the armaments and militants that can enter) as a safer alternative to peace, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. If this is the case, it will continue to sabotage peace efforts until there is a better way to guarantee security in a free Gaza situation, or until a more short-term risk-accepting administration takes the helm.

Finally, Netanyahu may simply want to take advantage of wartime fear for his own election in January. Hamas rockets may have been just the pretense a Machiavellian-style Netanyahu (if that is actually his thinking, which is not clear) would need to have a brief flare-up with Gaza in order to convince swing voters in Israel to vote for Likud rather than Kadima or Labor, keeping Netanyahu in power for another term.

Whatever the reasoning, it is more or less evident at this point that some parts of both Israel and Hamas had interest in disrupting the peace process, and took advantage of this time period to act. To set the record straight, Hamas' rocket attacks on Israel did happen before the assassination of Jabari and seemed unprovoked--this accounting of events is not clear in all texts. But I also believe it is fairly naive to think that Israel's assassination of Jabari specifically (rather than simply a precision strike against Hamas rocket sites, which it also successfully executed) was simply part of a general defensive strategy rather than a very political move.

Such an interpretation would suggest that peace is likely to be elusive in the area for some time to come.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Link: China's Foreign Policy Under Xi

Professor M. Taylor Fravel, a mentor and teacher of mine, has a great post in The Diplomat about what we can (and can't) infer about upcoming foreign policy changes from Xi's rise to lead China.

Just wanted to share.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Short: Morsi's Power Grab

Egyptian President Morsi's recent power grab has been all over the news. To the surprise of some (but not others), Egyptians are protesting fairly vigorously against the power grab and have already clashed with authorities (though the crack-down in the anti-Mubarak revolution has not yet been seen). The opposition is calling Morsi a dictator, and the Army has been surprisingly quiet.

This is Morsi's second such move, this time taking power from the courts--last time, it was from the once-supreme military. I want to just explore a few questions on the grab:

Quick detail--what powers were taken?
Morsi took for himself the power to order (re-)trials of the ex-Mubarak regime, and forced out the country's lead prosecutor, who he thinks failed to properly prosecute. 

More importantly, Morsi declared that he had all powers necessary to protect the revolution, and that Presidential decrees would be immune from challenge by the courts or parliament. Obstensibly these powers are to make sure that the struggling constituent assembly (building the constitution) is able to finish its job, and that the powers would be temporary.

Why the grab?
When Morsi took power, there were four major factions majorly split in power:
1) Muslim Brotherhood, which had won parliamentary elections (his party)
2) Liberal parties, deeply divided and prone to walk-outs
3) The Army, which had power after Mubarak's fall
4) The Judiciary, the last vestige of actual Mubarak loyalists

The Liberal parties are too weak to be a major issue for Morsi, but the Army and Judiciary would prove an eternal foil to Morsi's agenda if it differed from their interests. Morsi--in Bismarckian style--managed to replace the old Army leadership with supporters of the new regime, and they bowed aside as he took most of their political power away. This left the Judiciary.

The prosecution of the Mubarak regime is a massive symbolic issue that likely represents the "end" of the transition out of the Mubarak era. The Judiciary had mostly let the Mubarak regime go, and to Morsi, this was a sign of an arbitrary loyalty to the old regime that could prove fairly dangerous. Morsi, unable to simply replace the judges, made a move to declare power for himself in order to take this third group out of his way.

If this grab proves successful, there will be no major political players in Egypt to stand in Morsi's way, and we'll be able to see him begin to push his own agenda--whatever that is.

How is this like/unlike Mubarak's authoritarian regime?
The biggest difference here is that Morsi actually holds real power in his hands, rather than simply being a puppet of the Army. So those that think Morsi is a copy of Mubarak are likely over-estimating Mubarak's personal powers. But Morsi, lacking the full backing of the Army that Mubarak had (as an Army "puppet") may be more vulnerable, as well. The Army may currently support him, but could act if he starts acting out of line. Morsi risks having "over-reached," and if the Army sees itself as the steward of Egypt's democratic transition, it may consider unseating Morsi and "starting over," though this has its own dangerous consequences.

What does the future hold?
In this case, there is little that can be done without a major showdown. Either the political rustlings will quell into simmering and grumbling, or else the Army, courts, or people will make enough of an opposition that Morsi will likely back down.

Morsi is new to power and may risk being reckless out of a sense of impatience for political change. This seeming recklessness may pay off for his regime--if his opposition remains in disarrary, then his new powers may simply become the status quo. 

For the Egyptian people, they may inherit an "elected dictator" kind of democracy, in which the individual they elect to the Presidency is the only real political authority in the nation. This would make presidential elections into high-stakes showdowns. This, of course, assumes that Morsi is more interested in the democratic process than his own power--if not, he'll use his newfound powers to limit opposition capacity to run against him, and he'll just become the next Middle Eastern autocrat.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Breakdown of US Presidential Candidates' Foreign Policies

This will be our second breakdown of presidential foreign policies in as many presidential elections, making the event at this point a bit of a tradition. Our aim is to keep it simple, objective, and to the point.

So what of the candidates' foreign policies? Ultimately, despite attempts to simulate wide gaps, there are few. The president has, over the past four years, moved to a more traditionally conservative foreign policy stance, and Romney has more or less given up trying to find new ways to be even more aggressive on the international stage.

There are a few key differences, but we can mostly summarize their vision for the United States as such:

Obama, channeling Teddy Roosevelt, advocates that we "speak softly and carry a big stick."
Romney, on the other hand, differs mostly on the desire to "speak loudly and carry a bigger stick."

(Bonus points to readers who caught the Looney Tunes reference, though the comparison to Sam is not meant to be derisive of the Romney approach.)

Because they're more interesting, let's highlight the differences first.

Actual Differences:

Rhetoric: This is important to highlight because you may notice some other glaring gaps in the list of differences below. Romney and Obama obviously believe in having very different rhetoric (Romney's of a "strong America" and Obama's of a more "understanding America") behind very similar policy behavior. Romney is likely genuinely concerned that soft rhetoric is going to weaken the United States' credibility of deterrence (critical in the Pax Americana state in which the US tries to keep a lid on major warfare), where Obama believes that the United States will lose its ability to lead if it is not loved.

Both approaches have flaws. Obviously opinion of the United States crashed during the Bush administration of tough-talk, but it has also gone down since Obama took office in 2009, particularly in Muslim countries where the attempts of compassionate rhetoric have been strongest.

Russia: Romney sees Russia as a long-term threat that must be contained, where Obama sees it as a nation that can be bargained with and potentially partnered with. No doubt Russia's influence and military might are growing, and the United States must address Russia (where in the '90s it was largely able to ignore Russia completely). The two questions on the table here are whether Russia is a credible future threat and whether the US should be moving to oppose it and contain it, or whether it should be working with Russia to make it part of the wider "good guy" community. 

Israel: Short version: Romney sees Israel as an ally that can take action in the Middle East that the US simply is unable to, and can serve as the bastion of force against Iran. Obama sees it as a dangerous ally that can get the US reined into unwanted conflicts. Paraphrasing Bill Clinton on Netanhayu, "he doesn't know who the superpower is." 

Priorities in US Military Spending (and Strategic Approach): Obama's priorities in US military spending have focused on the ability to execute tactical strikes to deal with terrorist threats--more funding for drone strikes and a focus on special forces has been his focus (where Navy and Air Force spending--the big ticket items--has dropped). Romney, though unlikely to decrease this, wants to beef up the size of the US Navy with two extra Aircraft Carrier Groups in order to better position the US strategically against potential threats with more credible "hard" assets like Iran, Russia, and China. These Carrier groups would be used to protect the Strait of Hormuz, Taiwan/Japan/Korea, and the Baltics, as well as generally make sure that the US controls trade sea trade routes throughout the world.

Iraq?: There's a question mark here because it's not clear whether there will be any real change in action or just rhetoric. Romney is frustrated at the lack of the Status of Forces Agreement over the past 4 years and wants to use US troops to keep influence in Iraq and serve as a second force bastion against Iran.

Key Similarities:

While the candidates share a great deal in common, we will highlight the key--and sometimes surprising--similarities between their approaches. 

American Primacy / Exceptionalism: Despite Obama's 2008 rhetoric about the United States being a bit of a bully, his rhetoric has changed to embrace US Exceptionalism and, generally, its role in the world. Romney and Obama differ on how the US should posture itself with rhetoric and "outreach," but generally they both see the US as the force that should be running around keeping a cap on bad stuff. Both believe in "Pax Americana."

Iran: Ultimately both sides see the critical need to stop Iran from developing a nuke and want to oppose Iranian influence at all turns, which is why Obama (for example) is supporting the rebels in Syria. Romney is tougher-worded but not foolish enough to want war with Iran--both will have similar policies there.

War on Terror: Both will continue the new "precision" style War on Terror that was pivoted into around 2007 as the War in Iraq started to wind down. It will be a war of precision strike from drones and special forces as the US continues to support operations by Afghanistan, Kenya, Somalia, Egypt, Iraq, etc to eliminate terrorists locally.

Afghanistan: The War in Afghanistan is unpopular and will come to an end no matter who is president. It is unpopular as well to pull out immediately (fears of a Vietnam-style collapse remain) so the 2014 departure will be stuck to by both presidents.

China: Both will be aggressive with China about trade policy and keep the implicit threat of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan on the table in case there is any tricky business in the Senkakus, but neither is going to either back down on Beijing nor try to incite war. 

Author's Notes: Both candidates are going to have statements on their websites different from those above. We encourage you to take a look, and we're also writing with some interpretation and analysis (rather than simple aggregation of what's already written). Our intent is to write what we believe will be actual policy enacted (or attempted) by each candidate, rather than simply what they're declaring.

We can talk at length about why they have strong incentives to say-one-thing-and-do-another--we obviously saw a great deal of this from Obama in the 2008 campaign and how much the presidency has changed its tone since coming to office--ultimately, a state's security interest generally takes over unless something very strange happens, and there's no reason for that to happen here, which is why we'll see so many similarities going forward. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Senkaku Islands Dispute as a Distraction for the Chinese Public

You've probably heard about major protests, warship movements, and maybe even talk of war over a few islands between China and Japan. These are called the Senkakus (by the Japanese--"Daiyou" by the Chinese, but we're going to stick with Senkaku for simplicity and the fact that you'll hear "Senkaku" on the news. Dear Chinese readers--please note that I am not taking a side on this conflict by using the word "Senkaku."), and they're a small chain of almost entirely uninhabited rocks with very little strategic value (unlike the Spratlys, which may have all sorts of oil / gas underneath and have East Asian countries in an ongoing dispute, as well).

I wanted to take a quick moment to share my own pet theories on the conflict. First, some background:

The Senkakus were occupied by the United States after WWII until 1970, at which point they were transferred to Japan. Of course, much of Japanese territory at the end of WWII did not necessarily belong to Japan  beforehand, but most of it went right back.

The complicated part about the Senkakus is that they were uninhabited islands, so there was no really obvious indicator as to who they belonged to. If you look back over history, both Japan and China have, at different times, had official maps/documents that both claimed them as sovereign and also marked them as belonging to the other country. So both sides have fairly questionable claims on them (I won't get into the details on this because they are boring and not helpful here), but nobody else has any claim at all, so they're up in the air between the two countries. Since the 70's, there has been some tension between the two countries as to who should have them, but the Japanese have "administered" the islands for the past forty years and have occassionally

But the recent flare-up makes little sense without context. Suddenly, it seems, the Chinese have become particularly aggressive about Japan's control of the islands. Some of this is likely provoked by the Japanese government purchasing the islands to solidify its claim, but the reaction is blown somewhat out of proportion. What we're seeing in China is massive protests that have led to huge damage in Japanese buildings / businesses in China (and leading to the Japanese shutting down factories in China for protection), Chinese activists heading to the Senkakus to plant flags, Chinese government vessels and even Chinese warships going to the area.

Let me be clear here: these islands are of zero import. They are about 7km total area, devoid of natural resources, and uninhabited. On their own, it seems absurd to be upset about them. To be fair, China is obsessed with not giving any ground on its territorial claims (consistency is very important for China to have precedent in case they have major territorial disputes over places like Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet), but territorial claims here through the 70's have been inconsistent and China loses little by making a more strategic decision about whether to pursue or renounce the islands.
For China, the issue is almost certainly one of distraction. If we look at China internally (and China's only real focus is internal, as it has ever been), we see two things going on: first, there are economic issues bubbling up. Second, there is a power struggle in the Communist Party.

Economic issues are sufficiently obvious that they're somewhat out in the open. Even the People's Daily, a state-sanctioned paper, is writing articles about how the economy needs to change (though certainly the Party is already planning on this if it's being written about). China's wealth gap continues to grow, even as hundreds of millions are brought out of poverty, and the wealth gap is always a painful, risky thing. Inflation was high and growth slow during the past few years, and a lot of fear of a "hard landing" is still out there. Wall Street Journal says the "hard landing" has been avoided, but that doesn't mean the population is convinced of it yet. To be clear: the Communist Party's grip on power depends almost entirely on its ability to continue to drive unprecedented growth in the country, and a Japanese-style "lost decade" would be crippling to its power. It's also clear to the populace that massive corruption within the party and it's "friends" is unfair to them and potentially bad for the economy as a whole, so it will mean that the population can find ways to blame the party for their own troubles.

Second, you may have seen lots of news about Bo Xilai and the murder trials going on around him. Bo was the predicted heir apparent in China and the sudden, public scandal is clearly the result of a power struggle within the party that he lost, setting up rival factions to potentially take power at the next Congress. The use of the murder trial and other very personal charges is an attempt to take the spotlight away from the Party itself, but there is still the risk that the Party is seen as divided and weak. During this power struggle, until the dust settles, all factions in the Party have a strong incentive to make sure the public doesn't pay too much attention.

Thus, there's a lot of reason right now for a distraction to happen, and the Japanese provided just the excuse. Let me emphasize something: mass protests do not happen in China without government consent--at least not without a massive crackdown. The fact that these protests went on so long and caused so much damage before police intervention means that they were sanctioned and encouraged by the Chinese government. The government is making very sure to stoke anger about the Senkaku islands to bolster nationalism and keep frustration focused on Japan, rather than internal issues in China.

This, at least, is my own pet theory. As it turns out, we're seeing the Chinese government start to back down a bit on its rhetoric and get the protests a bit under control. This may be due in part to the US response (reaffirmation of the US-Japan Defense Treaty but non-involvement in supporting territorial claims), or the observed risk of massively damaging trade relations with Japan, which is a major source of exports for China. But as domestic politics in China settle (after the next Congress, probably), I predict we'll stop hearing about the Senkakus altogether for some time.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Blog Link: Smoke Filled Room's Take on Turkey's Kurdish Strategy

I found particularly fascinating here the insight on how Turkey is working together with the Kurdish government of Iraqi Kurdistan to try to gain influence over bordering Kurdish regions, particularly in Syria--in hopes that it will be able to better deal with the ongoing Kurdish crisis in its own south.

Smoke Filled Room does not think, though, that this is necessarily the best idea.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Breaking Down the "Oil War" Hypothesis

A friend recently used the term "War for Oil" when referring to the War in Iraq, and it got me to thinking: regardless of the intent (I will stay well away from that one as I have little to add and nobody wants their minds changed on the matter), did the US secure a significant, reliable source of oil by invading Iraq? Let's find out.

I first went to understand how Iraq's economy has changed since the fall of the Hussein regime. I knew that oil mining contracts went out in 2009, so this helped.

Browsing through Wikipedia brought me upon this great chart (don't worry, I checked the sources), which gives us an idea of whose companies are mining how much:

So the US and UK mine a fairly large amount of oil. Good, but there are a few things to note that change the equation:

1) The US and UK are being paid $2/bbl to mine the oil. While profitable, the oil mining companies bear most of the the costs of mining (including all operations costs) and are likely making somewhere between 1/10 and 1/20 the profit made at other offshore, well, and oilsands sites (this is speculation on my part based on some oil industry experience). So payback in petrodollars is fairly low.

2) The Iraqi government retains the right to sell much of the oil to whomever it wishes--the fact that the US is mining 16% of the oil does not mean that the US will import 1.5 MBpD.

On the other hand, the US is far and away Iraq's largest export partner, accounting for $11B of Iraqi exports in 2006 (according to US State Dept). 70% of the Iraqi economy is oil, so if we assume that oil dominates Iraqi exports, it means that the US is importing $11B in 2006, or 157MBbl at $70/BBL. Let's say that export rate has grown with Iraq, whose economy has about doubled since then. That's about 310MBbl per year or 0.85MBpD. How does this compare to the rest of the US oil economy?

As of 2009, the US imported 10 MBpD and produced 5 MBpD of crude. Assuming we're comparing apples to apples, Iraqi oil imports account for 5.6% of total US oil consumption.

So this looks like a decent amount, but not game-changing. And it's significant, but a few points about the oil market raise some ambiguity as to whether it has a significant impact on the US oil market.

Besides a few embargoes, the oil market is driven by bidding on open market (given different transport capabilities--some stuff is pipeline only, or rail only, some stuff goes out on barges and can go anywhere, which is the case with most Iraqi oil). Different importers (in our case, free-market refineries) will bid for crude oil and import it, turning it around on the gasoline or diesel market to suppliers that you pump your gas from. Iraq does not have any contractual, legal, etc agreement to guarantee the US any amount of oil or at any price (in particular, being part of OPEC means it has the bargaining power to do just about whatever it wants). At the end of the day, the post-war world increased Iraqi oil production significantly, which reduces oil costs for all importers, but the US has not secured a cheap or even necessarily reliable source of oil. The Iraqi government won't enter into any agreements that guarantee US refineries some portion of Iraqi exports--Iraq gains nothing by it. If the Iraqi embargo (from the Hussein era) had remained, the US would simply get its oil from elsewhere at a higher price. Compared to the $800B cost of the war, the cost-benefit doesn't make sense.

If the war in Iraq was designed to secure oil, it ultimately failed... or at least won't pay off monetarily. There's no doubt that world oil production has increased due to the fall of the Hussein regime and the end of the embargo, and this has lowered oil prices for the moment, but the costs of the war will likely far exceed the benefit from lower oil prices. At 15MBpD of consumption, if oil is worth $5/BBL less (which is more than generous given the size of the oil market), the US economy would save about $27B per year. Not including inflation, it would require about 30 years to pay back the cost of the war.

Hopefully, then, the war wasn't considered an oil investment. If it was, it was probably the worst investment the US ever made.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Some Potential Errata on Turkey & Iran

Two quick potential errata I want to point out from the past few posts I've had that relate to Turkey & Iran (I say "potential" because they are not factually wrong, but run somewhat counter to my recent predictions:)

Turkey: The Kurds of northern Syria have won a great deal of autonomy since the Syrian government has pulled back to Aleppo and Damascus. The Kurds seem less interested in being a key part of the opposition (they make up 9% of the population and likely feel that they would be marginalized in the new government), and more likely are looking to set up an autonomous zone like is found in Iraq. Lots of interesting implications if this happens, including the possibility of those two autonomous zones becoming the beginnings of a de facto Kurdish state.

There is a spike of rebel activity in southern Turkey, likely designed to take advantage of Turkish distractions in Syria and to build momentum for the development of a Greater Kurdistan. Initial thoughts suggest that this rebel activity might cause Turkey to reconsider their involvement in Syria, but they are likely "in too deep" to pull back, and may be hoping to turn a win in Syria into a means of containing the Syrian Kurds further.

Iran: I mentioned that the Arab Middle East is, in general, opposed to Iran's influence, but some recent behavior shows this isn't entirely likely:

All worth thinking about. Clearly a fairly complicated region. Looking forward to any thoughts you guys have.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Syrian Uprising Part IV: Options for Foreign Intervention

Alright: time to pick up right where we left off. Luckily, the timing is good for The Syrian Uprising Part IV: Options for Foreign Intervention.

The outcome of Syria's bloody civil war has powerful implications for the regional balance of the Middle East, and the influence of great powers in the area. Besides simple humanitarian impulses, states with the power to intervene certainly have the interest to do so. Over the past 6 months since last posting, we've seen little in the way of overt action compared to the Liby aconflict, but we have seen a fair amount of diplomatic and covert movement that reveals the motivations and intentions of different states. We'll take a look by state:

Turkey has bet far and away the most on the victory of the Free Syrian Army, openly providing weaponry, sanctuary, and intelligence to the movement. Turkey is waging a very explicit proxy war on Damascus, and is willing to invest the capital and risk to win.

Turkey's motivation is part of a larger strategy to establish dominance over the region. After rejection by the European Union, Turkey turned back to the Middle East, an area that it dominated for hundreds of years until its defeat in the First World War. Turkey's economy and military strength have grown as it has liberalised and accepted foreign investment--at the same time, many of its traditional rivals have been torn by internal conflict and strife (Egypt, Iraq, Syria). Iran remains as its primary rival (Saudi Arabia has great influence as well, though the Sauds are currently in an uneasy alliance with the Turks against Iran), and dismantling the Iranian-backed Assad regime would be a huge blow to Iran's regional power (as an added bonus for Turkey, Iran would lose key supply lines into Lebanon to support Hezbollah). Additionally, Turkey hopes to ally closely enough with the Syrian Opposition that it is able to bake its influence into the formation of a new government.

Really, Turkey has a lot to gain and little to lose--even if the Assad regime should win, it doesn't have the means to retaliate against Turkey (it does not have the influence in the PKK or the financial/military means left to make the Kurds a more serious problem for Turkey). 

The United States:
The US is currently very aligned with Turkey's goals (dismantling Hezbollah and dealing a blow to Iran), so it's allying with the Turks when it might otherwise be quietly trying to make sure that Islamism/Jihadism doesn't take over Syria. The other note about US behavior is that it is trying to set itself up as a long-term "good guy" in the Middle East, and it sees supporting the Arab Spring as a way into the hearts of the inhabitants of the region (in particular, it was "burned" for supporting the Mubarak regime too long in Egypt and doesn't want to repeat that mistake).

Secretary of State Clinton is currently working with Turkey to determine whether it's going to use fighters in a No-Fly Zone over Syria, making US intervention in Syria extremely similar to its work in Libya and neutralizing Assad's jets and attack helicopters. The move would also allow similar scope creep to the Libya mission, in which NATO air units attacked tanks and other ground installations in Syria (under the guise of protecting their own assets). 

Currently, the US is nearly certainly using the CIA to conduct covert operations to support the rebels with advice and intelligence. The CIA is unlikely involved directly in the fighting, but would be able to coordinate airstrikes if Turkey and the US decided to launch their air power in the area. This kind of support could be a turning point in the war, just as it was in Libya. Aleppo would become the temporary "capital" of the opposition, just as Benghazi was. 

Additionally, the United States and Turkey are actively and publicly discussing the Syria "post-game," should the regime fall (which Turkey and the US are at least calling inevitable). This open discussion publicly declares that the US will be helping Turkey extend its influence into Syria in order to stabilize it and make it relatively friendly... without the US needing to get caught up in the dirtier details of the operation.

The Arab States:
The OIC (Organization of Islamic States) has booted Syria from the group over its response to the uprising, and the Arab League has called on Assad to step down. Much of the reasoning here is likely to show their own people that they don't support oppressive regimes (as this would likely spark unrest in their own states), but many of the Arab League states (Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain primarily) have a similar desire to see Iran weakened. 

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly declared that they are arming and funding the opposition. They have the option to become further involved if there is external military intervention. These two states represent the Arabs' most concerted efforts to be able to exert influence in a post-war Syria, in part to keep Turkish influence limited.

Iran's motivations are made clear by the behavior of its enemies, above. Iran currently feels ganged-up-on. It is. Iran is short on "legitimate" allies and Syria is one of its last. Iran would lose almost all influence in the Mediterranean if Syria fell and was replaced by an unfriendly regime (which would be almost certain). 

Iran has stood by Syria throughout the civil war, and will continue to do so until the end. Because there is essentially no chance of an Iran-friendly regime arising in Syria, Iran does not need to hedge its bets--it is all-in with the Assad regime.

To that end, Iran is providing Syria with what weapons and funding it can to keep the regime together. Odds are good that Iran has also sent black flag militias to supplant Syria's more regular forces. Iran's best hope is a crushing victory in Aleppo that gives the government an opportunity to get its feet back under itself.

Russia has a naval base in Syria and thus a great deal to lose if an unfriendly regime should arise--Russia's support of the Assad regime so far would make this likely should Assad fall. While Russia does not depend entirely on Syria for Mediterranean access (it has Sevastopol in Ukraine), it is a key port by which Russia remains relevant in the Middle East. 

Russia has stopped providing weapons to Syria (it was previously), but it has deployed warships to the area. These ships are unlikely an attempt to stop a No-Fly Zone--US and allied fighters would launch from Syria (rather than the sea), and any attempt at an air war with US forces would end quickly and badly for the Russian military. More likely, these ships are in part symbolic, in part designed to defend the base should it come under attack, and in part a means of evacuation for Russian troops and Syrian VIPs, if necessary. Unlike the US, Russia almost certainly cannot field forces directly in the area--while the US would be halting the sorties of an unpopular regime, Russia's only options are to attack civilian populations.

Russia's best hope to keep the Syrian regime alive is to use diplomatic pressure to prevent direct US/Turkish intervention. There is a fair chance that the Syrian government's current siege in Aleppo could break the back of the opposition, given no direct military attacks on the forces that give Assad an advantage--namely, major hardware. 

Israel's best move in the short term is to hold onto the Golan Heights and otherwise stay out of the war. It obviously has a great interest in seeing Hezbollah lose its primary sources of support, and to see a major weakening of military strength in its north. 

The greatest risk of any Israeli movement (or comment) on the matter is diplomatic: new regimes with Islamist influence (Iraq, Egypt, Libya) are still figuring out how they'll interact with the Israeli regime, and Israel's primary strategy with these states is to give them every reason to be friendly.

In the post-game, the biggest risk for Israel will be the potential proliferation of chemical weapons into the hands of Jihadists that are part of the opposition forces. Israel is preparing to enter Syria if needed to secure them. Ideally, this would be left to Turkey or one of the Arab states, but Israel would be willing to take the diplomatic blow in order to make sure these are safe. 

China's primary motivator will continue to be (as it has been since the Civil War) the preservation of the right of the state to manage its internal affairs. China has little interest in the Assad regime directly, but we'll see it continue to oppose direct foreign intervention, because China sees the conflict as internal, and therefore not something which other states have a right to interfere with. Historically, this is important for China because of its "Century of Shame," where foreign domination had China on its knees until the Communists won the civil war in 1949. China's own need to potentially deal harshly with internal unrest, as well as a simple historical sense of insecurity, make its position on the Syria matter fairly straightforward. 

International Jihadists:
Foreign fighters have flooded quickly into Syria, hoping to take down the largely secularist Baath party and influence the installation of an Islamist or Jihadist government there. Currently, despite regional and Western fears of Jihadist influence, they only have serious power in Somalia (elsewhere, they are a frustration for individual states but are not in control of any real resources), and Syria would be a win that could set up a second base of operations. Frankly, Turkey and Israel are very unlikely to stand for it, and will likely intervene further if there is a Jihadist takeover.

It's worth keeping in mind that regime change would have long-term implications that not all actors may be considering as closely as they should. If we cite George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, he predicts that Turkey will successfully expand its influence throughout the Middle East (and eventually the Balkans) to become the United States' primary rival. To support Turkey's relative takeover of Syria would hasten that--or at least make it more likely. Additionally, the promotion of the legitimacy of outside intervention in regime change may come back to haunt the West, as actors like Russia or Iran cite Western-built precedent for their own regime-change operations. There is significant risk for the US and other Western states investing in changing the Syrian regime, but certainly short-term upside in pushing back Iran's expanding influence. 

Foggofwar's Status

Dear Readers,

I've been delinquent in giving you an explanation for both the lack of posts and the travesty that has adopted my former domain name. Here's the short version:

After changing credit cards, my auto-renew with Godaddy wasn't working...
Godaddy kindly emailed me, but it ended up in the spam folder...
I lost the domain name and it was picked up by whatever spam / blogmill service now owns it.

Sadly, they're taking advantage of all the links to the old domain to get traffic. What's particularly heinous is they're under the very transparent guise of trying to help PTSD sufferers. This is fairly disgusting. My request for any of you linking to the old site: please kill the links or change your them to link here, Losing the traffic is painful, but seeing these guys succeed is tragic.

Anyway, there's good news: after some melancholy about the whole issue (in which I more or less gave up and just stopped posting), I've been convinced to get back at it.

So we're going to rebuild Foggofwar. As long as you guys want to keep reading, I'll keep writing. My ops consultant alter ego keeps me fairly busy, so don't expect posting frequency like the glory days of 2008/2009 for some time...

But we're back. Tell your friends.

--Erik, for Foggofwar.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: Part III, "Prospects for Opposition Victory"

Today we continue the third installment of our four-part series on Syria: Prospects for Opposition Victory.

First, let's define victory for the opposition. Most importantly, they want Assad gone. Assad is unlikely to step down in any meaningful way without being toppled completely. If we look to Egypt and Yemen, both have changed figureheads, but the regimes have essentially stayed intact (Egypt remains ruled by the Army; Saleh's VP was the only candidate for president in Yemen, and his sons still hold hihg posts in the military). So victory will mean toppling the regime, and ousting a number of powerful individuals who benefit greatly from staying in power.

After that, "victory" gets complicated. The Syrian opposition wants to build a constitutional democracy, and this likely means ousting the current military regime, which (like in Egypt) is different from Assad in the sense that it is loyal to itself and will not roll over if Assad is to go. Great. To actually have that monopoly, the Free Sryian Army (FSA) will need to remain a united force that decisively establishes itself as the monopoly on violent power in the country. In Libya, the NTC military forces have split up into various regional militias that are struggling with each other for power. This stage, "winning the peace," will be harder.
As for the war itself: Syria is not fighting an effective counter-insurgency war. The US learned (the hard way) in long slogs in Afghanistan & Iraq that armed opposition groups must be won over and included in the political process. Paritcularly, it is clear that army defectors and even civilian instigators will be killed if caught, and this means that now, many people's lives fundamentally depend on opposition victory--and these people will fight until the end, unless there is a credible move to provide some reconciliation or amnesty, and Assad likely no longer has that credibility. What Egypt and Yemen learned is that disposing of the "face" of the old regime can be an extremely effective move in (at least temporarily) quelling unrest. Syria is practicing neither of these, and will likely be unable to simply crush the opposition into cooperation.

The way things are going, it looks like the Assad regime has less than even odds of weathering the uprising and sanctions. The biggest risk to the regime, right now, is that its foreign currency reserves are starting to deplete. It's spending its money at a faster rate than it can funnel in through Iran and other allied sources. Sanctions often don't work, but Syria is facing these sanctions with a very small set of allies helping them, as well as an active war that is draining its treasury.

The end-game for the regime, if it comes, would be a high-level defection of some sort--someone with military influence that loses confidence that the path to their personal prosperity is with the Assad regime (or, heaven forbid, has a change of conscience about the shelling of civilians). I'm not sure how likely this is, but again--I'd give it greater than 50%, due to the strength of the sanctions, the persistence of the opposition movement (and their incentive for their lives to continue to persist), and the seeming volume of military defection. The last of which means not only that the opposition will have the guns to continue fighting (and are almost certainly being supplied by allies in Turkey, and possibly the CIA/Mossad/etc) and that the military leaders will be faced with the fact that continuing to kill civilians will sow greater dissent among the ranks.

This high-level defection would bring with it either a straight coup or a more protracted fight. A coup is more likely--Assad will certianly have military leadership doubting him enough that they could want to be at the front edge of a seemingly inevitable new regime, rather than the villain of it.

That said, this coup may well have outcomes similar to those in Egypt, in which power is not wrested from the military regime. The military will _not_ lead a coup only to then throw itself from power. Such a coup would bring reforms, for sure, but many of the opposition would be disappointed. On the other hand, taking down the military regime completely would require a Libya-style sustained insurgency. This is also possible, given in particular a safe base of operations in Turkey, but would absolutely require foreign support in the form of training, serious armaments, and (likely) air support. We'll talk next time about the likelihood of such support.

So, in short: Assad himself is likely not long for his current chains of office. How we define "victory," though, will color our interpretation of the most likely current outcome, which is the military removing Mr. Assad from office.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: Part II, "The Military Reality on the Ground"

Just to make sure I'm adequately managing expectations: the military situation on the ground in Syria is very fuzzy, and is made up of very contradictory reports of government supporters and Free Syrian Army supporters. We'll do what we can.

What we do know is that the Free Syrian Army is now capable of occasionally holding serious bits of territory. The Syrian Army recently took back a big chunk of Damascus suburbs, and the rebels seem to have taken a suburb of Homs.

That said, I don't think this is going to be a territorial war like Libya was (this is closer to "everywhere at once"), nor as much civilian terrorism as Iraq (though that certainly is happening). It is definitely a wide-ranged insurgency, designed to keep the Assad government off its toes and on the defensive. And it may be working: the anti-Assad international community is increasingly excited about supporting it, though nobody has ponied up (officially) yet. (But more on their prospects later.)

It's still tough to figure out the current size of the FSA. The Army itself says their fighters are above 40,000--and with the amount of trouble they're causing over increasingly large areas simultaneously, this may be right. But it's hard to tell. And if they do have 40,000, they won't all be armed. Many will be in support and logistics roles, coordinating ambush-style attacks. But we know that the FSA is capable of hitting and destroying Syrian tanks (which are mostly sitting ducks in city streets against insurgencies), attacking major bases (like airfields), and even setting up roadblocks in areas near Damascus.

But keep in mind: the Iraqi insurgency, which was far larger, better-funded, and better-armed, failed against the US-led coalition and the burgeoning Iraqi military. That said, the Syrian army is not equivalent of the US army, but the will to remain is incredible. Like the Ghaddafi regime, the Assad regime is very unlikely to willingly go until near the end. Assad is very likely less delusional than Ghaddafi, and will therefore call it quits before death, but a prolonged insurgency won't be enough to cause him to voluntarily leave.

In short: the rebel opposition, made up mostly of the Free Syrian Army, is vast, increasingly organized, and has a safe haven in Turkey. It has serious staying power... as long as it is funded (the Syrian army has coffers to pay their soldiers; the FSA does not). We will see many continued months of insurgent attacks against the Syrian army, likely attempting to convince rank-and-file soldiers or even entire companies to defect. The Assad regime does not have total control on the ground, and this should be a matter of serious concern for the regime.

More to come on what this means with respect to the FSA's prospects for victory, but it'll have to wait until next time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Syrian Uprising: Part I, "The Nature of the Opposition Movement"

Syria is not Egypt, is not Tunisia, is not Libya, is not Iraq, is not Afghanistan. Getting a sense of the nature of the uprising will require a relatively detailed analysis that requires us to more-or-less throw out any preconceived model we have based on these previous uprisings. Let's take a look.

What we'll discuss over the next few posts:
1) The nature of the opposition movement.
2) The military reality on the ground.
3) Prospects for opposition victory.
4) Options for foreign powers and the directions the conflict could go.

Today, we're discussing: 1) The nature of the opposition movement.
Libya's opposition was largely regional: the east and west were largely separated by vast desert, and had developed very separate identities.
Bahrains was largely religious (Shiites dominated by Sunnis).
Afghanistan's is ethnic (mostly Pashtuns).
Iraq's was both ethnic and religious (Sunni Arabs dominated Shiite Arabs and Sunni Kurds).

Of course, the above descriptions are grossly oversimplified (Tripoli had major protests until they were quashed, for example), but give us an idea of where the base of power of the opposition movements come from.

The opposition movement in Syria appears to be primarily Sunni in nature (which is interesting in that Sunnis are the largest ethnic group in the country and the largest group represented by the government), and regionally diverse. If we use protester deaths as a proxy for the intensity of the opposition activity in Syria, we can see below that we have intense protests in all of Syria's major geographical areas, and that they do not focus on a particular religious area. Interestingly, we also don't see significant unrest in areas of Kurdish majority, which has been the case in neighboring Iraq & Turkey (although the Kurds are demanding greater rights & protection under the government).

There are scattered reports that the protesters have an anti-minority bend, particularly against Christians and Alawites. The opposition is, in turn, accusing the Assad government of inciting religious violence. It's not clear how much sectarian violence is actually happening, and how much of it (that is happening) is government-caused.

The demographic diversity of the movement helps us understand the nature of its political aims. The opposition, beyond calling for Assad to step down, is apparently seeking wider democratic reforms and civil rights. This has, of course, been the banner of the opposition movements in other countries, though the opposition groups do seem to be keeping in line with their original ideas so far.

The question for The West will be: is this an opposition that wants a liberal democracy, or one that wants a more Islamist democracy? The former will tend to be more Western-friendly, and the latter tends to be more at odds with US allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel. It'll be tough to say--the Muslim Brotherhood definitely has a strong showing in the area, but in Syria, many other faces make up the various oppositions, and all sorts of strange alliances might arise (and, to be fair, the Muslim Brotherhood is relatively moderate).

So, to some extent, there is a wait-and-see on the political reality of this opposition movement, just as there has been in previous revolutions across the Middle East.

But before we think about it too hard, we need to get a good sense of the military reality on the ground in Syria, which we'll discuss next time.