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Russia’s Syrian Gamble

Posted by butalidnl on 6 November 2015

On 30 September 2015, Russia started air strikes in Syria to fight ISIS and ‘other terrorist groups’. After weeks  of bombing, it turns out that the Russians are mainly targetting, not ISIS, but other rebels fighting the Assad government. (Note that the Assad government calls all those fighting it as ‘terrorists’)

The Russians’ aim is to ensure its continued use of a naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. They see Assad as the only one who would allow them to stay there and have decided to directly support him initially with air power. This is clearly a gamble. They could have chosen instead to further develop their  lines of communication with the armed opposition (which had gone to Moscow for consultations in the past) in order to ensure that if the rebels win, they will retain their base. Now, by directly fighting for Assad, the chance for a future accomodation with Syrian rebels has been significantly reduced.
In response, a broad alliance of rebel groups (including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army) have denounced what it called the ‘Russian-Iranian Occupation of Syria’, and promised to attack the Russians.

Afghanistan Revisited
The Russian intervention in Syria calls up memories of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union  started by providing military advisers to its Afghan allies who were struggling to retain control of the country. This gradually led to the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet forces eventually withdrew in 1991 after suffering 15,000 casualties.

Syria is not Afghanistan. For one thing, it is not geographically close to Russia. Russian troops could not drive into Syria as they did in Afghanistan; they have to  either go by ship, or be flown in.There are also no ethnic connections in Afghanistan, the Soviets had Turkmen, Uzbek and Tadhzik soldiers who spoke the same language as some Afghans; they don’t have something equivalent for Syria.

But there are similarities enough. The Russian military have been called in to prevent the collapse of an ally. The Syrian government army, like the Afghan communists, could not hold on to large parts of the country. Assad’s loyalist troops are tired, demoralized and increasingly being cut off. It is only a matter of time  before Russia escalates; first bringing in military advisers, then special forces troops and later regular units.
The rebels are also divided into many factions. This makes it difficult to hit one in order to win the war; other groups will simply take their place. And, like in Afghanistan, the Russian intervention will force the various rebel groups to unite.
Another similarity is that the Sovet Union then, and Russia now, suffer under Western economic sanctions.

Ukraine
The ‘green men’ (Russian special forces troops pretending to be Russian volunteers) that Russia will be deploying to Syria used to operate in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Their deployment to Syria would have some effect on the balance of power in the Eastern Ukraine. Russia would effectively be fighting two wars. This is why Putin has worked hard to make the war in Eastern Ukraine into a ‘frozen conflict’. But this will not be that easy – the Ukrainian rebel areas could not remain stable if there was no war. The economy there is in shambles, and there will be no jobs for thousands of demobilized troops. Also, there are many different militia groups there who would cause trouble if they would no longer be fighting the Ukrainian army. The Russian military was quite stretched at the peak of the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
When the Russians will get more involved in the Syrian war, its forces will gradually become overstretched.

Turkey
Russian fighter planes violating Turkish airspace have been met by howls of protest from the Turks and NATO. Russia will probably do its best to avoid angering the Turks, because the Turks can severely damage their Syrian operations. First, Turkey could prevent Russian ships from crossing the Bosporus strait (which allows ships from Russian ports in the Black Sea to go out to the Mediterranean Sea); effectively locking in the Russians in the Black Sea. Second, the new Russian military airbase in Latakia is within artillery range of Turkish batteries. If Russian bombs land in Turkey, the Turks could respond by firing on the base. They did something similar when Syrian planes dropped bombs inside Turkey.
And third, Turkey could tacitly allow Syrian rebels to transit through its territory on their way to attacking the Russians

Peace Talks
The Russians are trying to promote international talks on Syria in an attempt to achieve its aims without getting mired in a quagmire. There will be talks, but unless Russia agrees to dump Assad as part of the deal, nothing will happen to them. Worse, the Syrian government will not be inclined to make any compromise to attain peace, because it thinks that Russian support will ensure its eventual victory. The rebels, on their part, will reckon that they would gain more by continuing the fight; since, after all, the Syrian army is quite weak. They will no longer trust the Russians in pushing for a peace agreement, since Russia is already a party to the conflict.

The Russians are painting themselves in a corner. When the new Syrian ground offensive falters, Russia will be forced to deploy its own elite troops in order to counter rebel advances..
The problem that Russia will have, in a few months is that the rebels will continue to gain ground in Latakia province, where their naval base is. When Russia finally decides to dump Assad, the rebels may not be willing to make a deal with the Russians.

Assad will not be safe from the Russians either. The Soviets replaced their Afghan clients repeatedly during its intervention in Afghanistan. More recently, the Russians have been constantly changing the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples Republic (the main rebel entity in Eastern Ukraine). So, when Assad’s troops start to lose again (even with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) he will  be replaced by the Russians.

Russia’s Syrian gamble will fail. More jihadists will target Russians in Syria, within Russia, or in the rest of the world. Russia will increasingly be isolated internationally, and it will be hated in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world. And, since a post-Assad government will most likely kick out the Russians, Russia will be forced to stick it out even when the toll grows worse.
Mounting Russian military and civilian casualties will increase the Russian public’s opposition to the war, as well as intensify the military operation in Syria.The trend toward miitary escalation is quite irreversible; the only unknown is how fast it will escalate. For example, if it is proven that ISIS caused the recent crash of the Metrojet plane over the Sinai (killing 224 people, most of whom were Russians); it will only result in increased military involvement in Syria, not less.

When the Russians will eventually leave, it will not only have to pull out its newly deployed troops, but all its military bases in Syria, when the Syrian government falls.

 

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No Grexit, but a miserable summer for Greeks

Posted by butalidnl on 7 July 2015

On 5 July 2015, the Greek people voted NO to the 26 June proposal of the Eurogroup. Strictly speaking, the proposals were no longer on the table by that date, since the bailout program it was part of had expired on 30 June. I am sad that the Greeks voted NO – because they unwittingly rejected what was the best deal that their country could possibly get.

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras claims that the NO vote strengthens his hand in negotiations with the Eurogroup. This is not true. The other Euro countries understood the NO as a Greek demand for a fee pass – money without conditions – and they consider this unacceptable.

The EU does not create money to cover fiscal deficits. It is unlike the US which can print money to finance its deficit because the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Money for bailouts has to be sourced from national budgets. The Greek bailouts of 2010 and 2012 were shouldered by the 334 million citizens in all Eurozone countries (or 323 million if you exclude Greece). They paid for these bailouts through cuts in government services and increased taxes in the various Eurozone countries. In the Netherlands, for example, the VAT was raised from 19% to 21%, medical insurance expenses also rose.

Now, 3 years after the last bailout program started, the Greeks have voted NO to austerity in a referendum. This actually means that they want the rest of the Eurozone citizens to shoulder the cost, while they themselves will be exempted. This is what NO means; and this is why a bailout deal after the referendum will be opposed by the majority of citizens of Eurozone countries.
Citizens of Eurozone countries are perfectly willing to support Greece; but only if Greeks implement reforms that will put their national budget in order. For them solidarity means that  Eurozone citizens contribute their money to help Greece, and that the Greeks also do their part.

Reforms Required
Eurozone governments proposed a list of reforms for the Greeks to implement before they give it money. This is the only way that the 18 other countries with the Euro could accept any deal. What Greeks derisively call ‘austerity’ are simply minimal reforms that Euro citizens feel are needed to have a fair deal. Any deal without these measures would simply not be approved by 18 governments.
Any proposal that Greece makes should contain enough reform measures to be acceptable. A particularly important reform will be on pensions, specifically on raising the pension age to 67 years. Greeks in government service benefit from an early retirement scheme in which they can retire as early as the age of 52. Eurozone countries, which have a retirement age of 67, could not accept giving money to Greece so that it could retain its early retirement scheme.

There are other proposed reforms, e.g. a reduction in the military budget (Greece has a bloated military, with a budget comparable to that of Iraq, and more tanks than the UK). I think that there is flexibility in putting together an acceptable mix of these other reforms,

Grexit?
While the NO vote increased the chance of a Greek exit from the Eurozone (or ‘Grexit’), a Grexit is not yet inevitable. There is still a big possibility that a Grexit can be avoided.
Talks will take place between Greece and the other Eurozone countries, and I think there could be enough basis for an agreement on a bailout package. I believe that such a bailout package should include structural reforms, as well as some restructuring of Greek debt..

But it will take time to forge such an agreement.
First, the Greek rejection of the proposed reforms means that it will take time before they can backpedal and agee to most of them.
Second, a totally new agreement has to be made, and for a significantly bigger amount. This is because the previous bailout program had expired on 30 June. Extensive consultations (and parliamentary debates) would be needed before agreement on it could be made. Greeks underestimate this, thinking that all it takes for an agreement is for Merkel to say yes. But in reality, democratic consultations within 18 countries are needed, and Germany cannot dictate the result of these. (Merkel, in fact, seems to be one of the leaders who is most sympathetic to the Greeks.)
Third, the dire state of the Greek finances (e.g. the capital controls and shortages of cash) would need to be addressed by many stop-gap measures. Arranging these will take time, and this will delay the process of negotiating a bailout.
Fourth, Greece’s default on the IMF loan (on 30 June) and an impending default on an ECB loan (on 20 July) are factors that will complicate any negotiations. It would be extremely difficult to get both institutions to participate in a bailout agreement when the Greeks had defaulted on their loans.
Fifth, Syriza’s haphazard, amateurish approach to negotiations would introduce all kinds of delays in the process.
Sixth, after a bailout agreement would be reached, it would still need to be ratified by all 18 countries (with unanimity). This process will mean an additional week delay, or longer.

The Greeks’ decision to have a referendum instead of just negotiating on a deal before the 30 June deadline unnecessarily extended the time such negotiations would take. If instead of declaring the referendum it went on negotiating, the Greek government could have signed an agreement before 30 June, and there would be no bank crisis, or default on the IMF loan. By this time, the Greeks could be talking about debt relief etc with its Eurogroup partners.

At the same time,the ECB would need to take urgent measures would need to be taken to avoid an accidental Grexit (the ‘Grexident’). In order to do this, the ECB would need to be armed with political decisions from EU leaders, because it would require amending or stretching ECB rules.

The Greeks would need to wait a couple of months before a bailout agreement will be signed. There is a chance that banks will remain closed for weeks, with the economy remaining in deep freeze.
In the end, the NO vote would mean that the Greeks had to wait 2 or more months before a bailout agreement is implemented, with conditions similar to the ones they voted against..

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