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Stratfor: The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War

By Reva Bhalla
Stratfor Global Intelligence

International diplomats will gather Jan. 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria’s three-year civil war. The conference, however, will be far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground. Only days before the conference was scheduled to begin, a controversy threatened to engulf the proceedings after the United Nations invited Iran to participate, and Syrian rebel representatives successfully pushed for the offer to be rescinded. The inability to agree upon even who would be attending the negotiations is an inauspicious sign for a diplomatic effort that was never likely to prove very fruitful.

There are good reasons for deep skepticism. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad’s from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria’s loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying “Don’t expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state.”

Widespread pessimism over a functional power-sharing agreement to end the fighting has led to dramatic speculation that Syria is doomed either to break into sectarian statelets or, as Haidar articulated, revert to the status quo, with the Alawites regaining full control and the Sunnis forced back into submission. Both scenarios are flawed. Just as international mediators will fail to produce a power-sharing agreement at this stage of the crisis, and just as Syria’s ruling Alawite minority will face extraordinary difficulty in gluing the state back together, there is also no easy way to carve up Syria along sectarian lines. A closer inspection of the land reveals why.

The Geopolitics of Syria

Before the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement traced out an awkward assortment of nation-states in the Middle East, the name Syria was used by merchants, politicians and warriors alike to describe a stretch of land enclosed by the Taurus Mountains to the north, the Mediterranean to the west, the Sinai Peninsula to the south and the desert to the east. If you were sitting in 18th-century Paris contemplating the abundance of cotton and spices on the other side of the Mediterranean, you would know this region as the Levant — its Latin root “levare” meaning “to raise,” from where the sun would rise in the east. If you were an Arab merchant traveling the ancient caravan routes northward from the Hejaz, or modern-day Saudi Arabia, you would have referred to this territory in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham, or the “land to the left” of Islam’s holy sites on the Arabian Peninsula.

Whether viewed from the east or the west, the north or the south, Syria will always find itself in an unfortunate position surrounded by much stronger powers. The rich, fertile lands straddling Asia Minor and Europe around the Sea of Marmara to the north, the Nile River Valley to the south and the land nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers to the east give rise to larger and more cohesive populations. When a power in control of these lands went roaming for riches farther afield, they inevitably came through Syria, where blood was spilled, races were intermixed, religions were negotiated and goods were traded at a frenzied and violent pace.

Consequently, only twice in Syria’s pre-modern history could this region claim to be a sovereign and independent state: during the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, based out of Antioch (the city of Antakya in modern-day Turkey) from 301 to 141 B.C., and during the Umayyad Caliphate, based out of Damascus, from A.D. 661 to 749. Syria was often divided or subsumed by its neighbors, too weak, internally fragmented and geographically vulnerable to stand its own ground. Such is the fate of a borderland.

Unlike the Nile Valley, Syria’s geography lacks a strong, natural binding element to overcome its internal fissures. An aspiring Syrian state not only needs a coastline to participate in sea trade and guard against sea powers, but also a cohesive hinterland to provide food and security. Syria’s rugged geography and patchwork of minority sects have generally been a major hindrance to this imperative.

Syria’s long and extremely narrow coastline abruptly transforms into a chain of mountains and plateaus. Throughout this western belt, pockets of minorities, including Alawites, Christians and Druze, have sequestered themselves, equally distrustful of outsiders from the west as they are of local rulers to the east, but ready to collaborate with whomever is most likely to guarantee their survival. The long mountain barrier then descends into broad plains along the Orontes River Valley and the Bekaa Valley before rising sharply once again along the Anti-Lebanon range, the Hawran plateau and the Jabal al-Druze mountains, providing more rugged terrain for persecuted sects to hunker down and arm themselves.

Just west of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the Barada river flows eastward, giving rise to a desert oasis also known as Damascus. Protected from the coast by two mountain chains and long stretches of desert to the east, Damascus is essentially a fortress city and a logical place to make the capital. But for this fortress to be a capital worthy of regional respect, it needs a corridor running westward across the mountains to Mediterranean ports along the ancient Phoenician (or modern-day Lebanese) coast, as well as a northward route across the semi-arid steppes, through Homs, Hama and Idlib, to Aleppo.

The saddle of land from Damascus to the north is relatively fluid territory, making it an easier place for a homogenous population to coalesce than the rugged and often recalcitrant coastline. Aleppo sits alongside the mouth of the Fertile Crescent, a natural trade corridor between Anatolia to the north, the Mediterranean (via the Homs Gap) to the west and Damascus to the south. While Aleppo has historically been vulnerable to dominant Anatolian powers and can use its relative distance to rebel against Damascus from time to time, it remains a vital economic hub for any Damascene power.

Finally, jutting east from the Damascus core lie vast stretches of desert, forming a wasteland between Syria and Mesopotamia. This sparsely populated route has long been traveled by small, nomadic bands of men — from caravan traders to Bedouin tribesmen to contemporary jihadists — with few attachments and big ambitions.

Demography by Design

The demographics of this land have fluctuated greatly, depending on the prevailing power of the time. Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, formed the majority in Byzantine Syria. The Muslim conquests that followed led to a more diverse blend of religious sects, including a substantial Shiite population. Over time, a series of Sunni dynasties emanating from Mesopotamia, the Nile Valley and Asia Minor made Syria the Sunni-majority region that it is today. While Sunnis came to heavily populate the Arabian Desert and the saddle of land stretching from Damascus to Aleppo, the more protective coastal mountains were meanwhile peppered with a mosaic of minorities. The typically cult-like minorities forged fickle alliances and were always on the lookout for a more distant sea power they could align with to balance against the dominant Sunni forces of the hinterland.

The French, who had the strongest colonial links to the Levant, were masters of the minority manipulation strategy, but that approach also came with severe consequences that endure to this day. In Lebanon, the French favored Maronite Christians, who came to dominate Mediterranean sea trade out of bustling port cities such as Beirut at the expense of poorer Sunni Damascene merchants. France also plucked out a group known as the Nusayris living along the rugged Syrian coast, rebranded them as Alawites to give them religious credibility and stacked them in the Syrian military during the French mandate.

When the French mandate ended in 1943, the ingredients were already in place for major demographic and sectarian upheaval, culminating in the bloodless coup by Hafiz al Assad in 1970 that began the highly irregular Alawite reign over Syria. With the sectarian balance now tilting toward Iran and its sectarian allies, France’s current policy of supporting the Sunnis alongside Saudi Arabia against the mostly Alawite regime that the French helped create has a tinge of irony to it, but it fits within a classic balance-of-power mentality toward the region.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The delegates discussing Syria this week in Switzerland face a series of irreconcilable truths that stem from the geopolitics that have governed this land since antiquity.

The anomaly of a powerful Alawite minority ruling Syria is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. Alawite forces are holding their ground in Damascus and steadily regaining territory in the suburbs. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is meanwhile following its sectarian imperative to ensure the Alawites hold onto power by defending the traditional route from Damascus through the Bekaa Valley to the Lebanese coast, as well as the route through the Orontes River Valley to the Alawite Syrian coast. So long as the Alawites can hold Damascus, there is no chance of them sacrificing the economic heartland.

It is thus little wonder that Syrian forces loyal to al Assad have been on a northward offensive to retake control of Aleppo. Realizing the limits to their own military offensive, the regime will manipulate Western appeals for localized cease-fires, using a respite in the fighting to conserve its resources and make the delivery of food supplies to Aleppo contingent on rebel cooperation with the regime. In the far north and east, Kurdish forces are meanwhile busy trying to carve out their own autonomous zone against mounting constraints, but the Alawite regime is quite comfortable knowing that Kurdish separatism is more of a threat to Turkey than it is to Damascus at this point.

The fate of Lebanon and Syria remain deeply intertwined. In the mid-19th century, a bloody civil war between Druze and Maronites in the densely populated coastal mountains rapidly spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus. This time around, the current is flowing in reverse, with the civil war in Syria now flooding Lebanon. As the Alawites continue to gain ground in Syria with aid from Iran and Hezbollah, a shadowy amalgam of Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia will become more active in Lebanon, leading to a steady stream of Sunni-Shiite attacks that will keep Mount Lebanon on edge.

The United States may be leading the ill-fated peace conference to reconstruct Syria, but it doesn’t really have any strong interests there. The depravity of the civil war itself compels the United States to show that it is doing something constructive, but Washington’s core interest for the region at the moment is to preserve and advance a negotiation with Iran. This goal sits at odds with a publicly stated U.S. goal to ensure al Assad is not part of a Syrian transition, and this point may well be one of many pieces in the developing bargain between Washington and Tehran. However, al Assad holds greater leverage so long as his main patron is in talks with the United States, the only sea power currently capable of projecting significant force in the eastern Mediterranean.

Egypt, the Nile Valley power to the south, is wholly ensnared in its own internal problems. So is Turkey, the main power to the north, which is now gripped in a public and vicious power struggle that leaves little room for Turkish adventurism in the Arab world. That leaves Saudi Arabia and Iran as the main regional powers able to directly manipulate the Syrian sectarian battleground. Iran, along with Russia, which shares an interest in preserving relations with the Alawites and thus its access to the Mediterranean, will hold the upper hand in this conflict, but the desert wasteland linking Syria to Mesopotamia is filled with bands of Sunni militants eager for Saudi backing to tie down their sectarian rivals.

And so the fighting will go on. Neither side of the sectarian divide is capable of overwhelming the other on the battlefield and both have regional backers that will fuel the fight. Iran will try to use its relative advantage to draw the Saudi royals into a negotiation, but a deeply unnerved Saudi Arabia will continue to resist as long as Sunni rebels still have enough fight in them to keep going. Fighters on the ground will regularly manipulate appeals for cease-fires spearheaded by largely disinterested outsiders, all while the war spreads deeper into Lebanon. The Syrian state will neither fragment and formalize into sectarian statelets nor reunify into a single nation under a political settlement imposed by a conference in Geneva. A mosaic of clan loyalties and the imperative to keep Damascus linked to its coastline and economic heartland — no matter what type of regime is in power in Syria — will hold this seething borderland together, however tenuously.
 
 
The Geopolitics of the Syrian Civil War is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
 
 

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Stratfor: Hellfire, Morality and Strategy

By George Friedman
Founder and Chairman
Stratfor Global Intelligence

 
Airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles have become a matter of serious dispute lately. The controversy focuses on the United States, which has the biggest fleet of these weapons and which employs them more frequently than any other country. On one side of this dispute are those who regard them simply as another weapon of war whose virtue is the precision with which they strike targets. On the other side are those who argue that in general, unmanned aerial vehicles are used to kill specific individuals, frequently civilians, thus denying the targeted individuals their basic right to some form of legal due process.

Let’s begin with the weapons systems, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The media call them drones, but they are actually remotely piloted aircraft. Rather than being in the cockpit, the pilot is at a ground station, receiving flight data and visual images from the aircraft and sending command signals back to it via a satellite data link. Numerous advanced systems and technologies work together to make this possible, but it is important to remember that most of these technologies have been around in some form for decades, and the U.S. government first integrated them in the 1990s. The Predator carries two Hellfire missiles — precision-guided munitions that, once locked onto the target by the pilot, guide themselves to the target with a high likelihood of striking it. The larger Reaper carries an even larger payload of ordnance — up to 14 Hellfire missiles or four Hellfire missiles and two 500-pound bombs. Most airstrikes from these aircraft use Hellfire missiles, which cause less collateral damage.

Unlike a manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles can remain in the air for an extended period of time — an important capability for engaging targets that may only present a very narrow target window. This ability to loiter, and then strike quickly when a target presents itself, is what has made these weapons systems preferable to fixed wing aircraft and cruise missiles.

The Argument Against Airstrikes

What makes unmanned aerial vehicle strikes controversial is that they are used to deliberately target specific individuals — in other words, people who are known or suspected, frequently by name, of being actively hostile to the United States or allied governments. This distinguishes unmanned aerial vehicles from most weapons that have been used since the age of explosives began. The modern battlefield — and the ancient as well — has been marked by anonymity. The enemy was not a distinct individual but an army, and the killing of soldiers in an enemy army did not carry with it any sense of personal culpability. In general, no individual soldier was selected for special attention, and his death was not an act of punishment. He was killed because of his membership in an army and not because of any specific action he might have carried out.

Another facet of the controversy is that it is often not clear whether the individuals targeted by these weapons are members of an enemy force. U.S. military or intelligence services reach that conclusion about a target based on intelligence that convinces them of the individual’s membership in a hostile group.

There are those who object to all war and all killing; we are not addressing those issues here. We are addressing the arguments of those who object to this particular sort of killing. The reasoning is that when you are targeting a particular individual based on his relationships, you are introducing the idea of culpability, and that that culpability makes the decision-maker — whoever he is — both judge and executioner, without due process. Those who argue this line also believe that the use of these weapons is a process that is not only given to error but also fundamentally violates principles of human rights and gives the state the power of life and death without oversight. Again excluding absolute pacifists from this discussion, the objection is that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is not so much an act of war as an act of judgment and, as such, violates international law that requires due process for a soldier being judged and executed. To put it simply, the critics regard what they call drone strikes as summary executions, not acts of war.

The Argument for Airstrikes

The counterargument is that the United States is engaged in a unique sort of war. Al Qaeda and the allied groups and sympathetic individuals that comprise the international jihadist movement are global, dispersed and sparse. They are not a hierarchical military organization. Where conventional forces have divisions and battalions, the global jihadist movement consists primarily of individuals who at times group together into distinct regional franchises, small groups and cells, and frequently even these groups are scattered. Their mission is to survive and to carry out acts of violence designed to demoralize the enemy and increase their political influence among the populations they wish to control.

The primary unit is the individual, and the individuals — particularly the commanders — isolate themselves and make themselves as difficult to find as possible. Given their political intentions and resources, sparse forces dispersed without regard to national boundaries use their isolation as the equivalent of technological stealth to make them survivable and able to carefully mount military operations against the enemy at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways.

The argument for using strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles is that it is not an attack on an individual any more than an artillery barrage that kills a hundred is an attack on each individual. Rather, the jihadist movement presents a unique case in which the individual jihadist is the military unit.

In war, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting through the use of force. In all wars and all militaries, imperfect intelligence, carelessness and sometimes malice have caused military action to strike at innocent people. In World War II, not only did bombing raids designed to attack legitimate military targets kill civilians not engaged in activities supporting the military, mission planners knew that in some cases innocents would be killed. This is true in every military conflict and is accepted as one of the consequences of war.

The argument in favor of using unmanned aerial vehicle strikes is, therefore, that the act of killing the individual is a military necessity dictated by the enemy’s strategy and that it is carried out with the understanding that both intelligence and precision might fail, no matter how much care is taken. This means not only that civilians might be killed in a particular strike but also that the strike might hit the wrong target. The fact that a specific known individual is being targeted does not change the issue from a military matter to a judicial one.

It would seem to me that these strikes do not violate the rules of war and that they require no more legal overview than was given in thousands of bomber raids in World War II. And we should be cautious in invoking international law. The Hague Convention of 1907 states that:

The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:
To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
To carry arms openly; and
To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

The 1949 Geneva Convention states that:

Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:

(a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
(b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
(c) that of carrying arms openly;
(d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Ignoring the question of whether jihadist operations are in accordance with the rules and customs of war, their failure to carry a “fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance” is a violation of both the Hague and Geneva conventions. This means that considerations given to soldiers under the rules of war do not apply to those waging war without insignia.

Open insignia is fundamental to the rules of war. It was instituted after the Franco-Prussian war, when French snipers dressed as civilians fired on Germans. It was viewed that the snipers had endangered civilians because it was a soldier’s right to defend himself and that since they were dressed as civilians, the French snipers — not the Germans — were responsible for the civilian deaths. It follows from this that, to the extent that jihadist militants provide no sign of who they are, they are responsible under international law when civilians are killed because of uncertainty as to who is a soldier and who is not. Thus the onus on ascertaining the nature of the target rests with the United States, but if there is error, the responsibility for that error rests with jihadists for not distinguishing themselves from civilians.

There is of course a greater complexity to this: attacking targets in countries that are not in a state of war with the United States and that have not consented to these attacks. For better or worse, the declaration of war has not been in fashion since World War II. But the jihadist movement has complicated this problem substantially. The jihadists’ strategy is to be dispersed. Part of its strategy is to move from areas where it is under military pressure to places that are more secure. Thus the al Qaeda core group moved its headquarters from Afghanistan to Pakistan. But in truth, jihadists operate wherever military and political advantages take them, from the Maghreb to Mumbai and beyond.

In a method of war where the individual is the prime unit and where lack of identification is a primary defensive method, the conduct of intelligence operations wherever the enemy might be, regardless of borders, follows. So do operations to destroy enemy units — individuals. If a country harbors such individuals knowingly, it is an enemy. If it is incapable of destroying the enemy units, it forfeits its right to claim sovereignty since part of sovereignty is a responsibility to prevent attacks on other countries.

If we simply follow the logic we laid out here, then the critics of unmanned aerial vehicle strikes have a weak case. It is not illegitimate to target individuals in a military force like the jihadist movement, and international law holds them responsible for collateral damage, not the United States. Moreover, respecting national sovereignty requires that a country’s sovereignty be used to halt attacks against countries with which they are not at war. When a country cannot or will not take those steps, and people within their border pose a threat to the United States, the country has no basis for objecting to intelligence operations and airstrikes. The question, of course, is where this ends. Yemen or Mali might be one case, but the logic here does not preclude any country. Indeed, since al Qaeda tried in the past to operate in the United States itself, and its operatives might be in the United States, it logically follows that the United States could use unmanned aerial vehicles domestically as well. Citizenship is likewise no protection from attacks against a force hostile to the United States.

But within the United States, or countries like the United Kingdom, there are many other preferable means to neutralize jihadist threats. When the police or internal security forces can arrest jihadists plotting attacks, there quite simply is no need for airstrikes from unmanned aerial vehicles. They are tools to be used when a government cannot or will not take action to mitigate the threat.

The Strategic Drawback

There are two points I have been driving toward. The first is that the outrage at targeted killing is not, in my view, justified on moral or legal grounds. The second is that in using these techniques, the United States is on a slippery slope because of the basis on which it has chosen to wage war.

The United States has engaged an enemy that is dispersed across the globe. If the strategy is to go wherever the enemy is, then the war is limitless. It is also endless. The power of the jihadist movement is that it is diffuse. It does not need vast armies to be successful. Therefore, the destruction of some of its units will always result in their replacement. Quality might decline for a while but eventually will recover.

The enemy strategy is to draw the United States into an extended conflict that validates its narrative that the United States is permanently at war with Islam. It wants to force the United States to engage in as many countries as possible. From the U.S. point of view, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because they can attack the jihadist command structure without risk to ground forces. From the jihadist point of view as well, unmanned aerial vehicles are the perfect weapon because their efficiency allows the jihadists to lure the United States into other countries and, with sufficient manipulation, can increase the number of innocents who are killed.

In this sort of war, the problem of killing innocents is practical. It undermines the strategic effort. The argument that it is illegal is dubious, and to my mind, so is the argument that it is immoral. The argument that it is ineffective in achieving U.S. strategic goals of eliminating the threat of terrorist actions by jihadists is my point.

Unmanned aerial vehicles provide a highly efficient way to destroy key enemy targets with very little risk to personnel. But they also allow the enemy to draw the United States into additional theaters of operation because the means is so efficient and low cost. However, in the jihadists’ estimate, the political cost to the United States is substantial. The broader the engagement, the greater the perception of U.S. hostility to Islam, the easier the recruitment until the jihadist forces reach a size that can’t be dealt with by isolated airstrikes.

In warfare, enemies will try to get you to strike at what they least mind losing. The case against strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles is not that they are ineffective against specific targets but that the targets are not as vital as the United States thinks. The United States believes that the destruction of the leadership is the most efficient way to destroy the threat of the jihadist movement. In fact it only mitigates the threat while new leadership emerges. The strength of the jihadist movement is that it is global, sparse and dispersed. It does not provide a target whose destruction weakens the movement. However, the jihadist movement’s weakness derives from its strength: It is limited in what it can do and where.

The problem of unmanned aerial vehicles is that they are so effective from the U.S. point of view that they have become the weapon of first resort. Thus, the United States is being drawn into operations in new areas with what appears to be little cost. In the long run, it is not clear that the cost is so little. A military strategy to defeat the jihadists is impossible. At its root, the real struggle against the jihadists is ideological, and that struggle simply cannot be won with Hellfire missiles. A strategy of mitigation using airstrikes is possible, but such a campaign must not become geographically limitless. Unmanned aerial vehicles lead to geographical limitlessness. That is their charm; that is their danger.
 
Hellfire, Morality and Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Stratfor: The Geopolitics of Shale

By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
Stratfor Global Intelligence

According to the elite newspapers and journals of opinion, the future of foreign affairs mainly rests on ideas: the moral impetus for humanitarian intervention, the various theories governing exchange rates and debt rebalancing necessary to fix Europe, the rise of cosmopolitanism alongside the stubborn vibrancy of nationalism in East Asia and so on. In other words, the world of the future can be engineered and defined based on doctoral theses. And to a certain extent this may be true. As the 20th century showed us, ideologies — whether communism, fascism or humanism — matter and matter greatly.

But there is another truth: The reality of large, impersonal forces like geography and the environment that also help to determine the future of human events. Africa has historically been poor largely because of few good natural harbors and few navigable rivers from the interior to the coast. Russia is paranoid because its land mass is exposed to invasion with few natural barriers. The Persian Gulf sheikhdoms are fabulously wealthy not because of ideas but because of large energy deposits underground. You get the point. Intellectuals concentrate on what they can change, but we are helpless to change much of what happens.

Enter shale, a sedimentary rock within which natural gas can be trapped. Shale gas constitutes a new source of extractable energy for the post-industrial world. Countries that have considerable shale deposits will be better placed in the 21st century competition between states, and those without such deposits will be worse off. Ideas will matter little in this regard.

Stratfor, as it happens, has studied the issue in depth. Herein is my own analysis, influenced in part by Stratfor’s research.

So let’s look at who has shale and how that may change geopolitics. For the future will be heavily influenced by what lies underground.

The United States, it turns out, has vast deposits of shale gas: in Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and elsewhere. America, regardless of many of the political choices it makes, is poised to be an energy giant of the 21st century. In particular, the Gulf Coast, centered on Texas and Louisiana, has embarked upon a shale gas and tight oil boom. That development will make the Caribbean an economic focal point of the Western Hemisphere, encouraged further by the 2014 widening of the Panama Canal. At the same time, cooperation between Texas and adjacent Mexico will intensify, as Mexico increasingly becomes a market for shale gas, with its own exploited shale basins near its northern border.

This is, in part, troubling news for Russia. Russia is currently the energy giant of Europe, exporting natural gas westward in great quantities, providing Moscow with political leverage all over Central and particularly Eastern Europe. However, Russia’s reserves are often in parts of Siberia that are hard and expensive to exploit — though Russia’s extraction technology, once old, has been considerably modernized. And Russia for the moment may face relatively little competition in Europe. But what if in the future the United States were able to export shale gas to Europe at a competitive price?

The United States still has few capabilities to export shale gas to Europe. It would have to build new liquefaction facilities to do that; in other words, it would have to erect plants on the Gulf of Mexico that convert the gas into liquid so that it could be transported by ship across the Atlantic, where more liquefaction facilities there would reconvert it back into gas. This is doable with capital investment, expertise and favorable legislation. Countries that build such facilities will have more energy options, to export or import, whatever the case may be. So imagine a future in which the United States exports liquefied shale gas to Europe, reducing the dependence that European countries have on Russian energy. The geopolitics of Europe could shift somewhat. Natural gas might become less of a political tool for Russia and more of a purely economic one (though even such a not-so-subtle shift would require significant exports of shale gas from North America to Europe).

Less dependence on Russia would allow the vision of a truly independent, culturally vibrant Central and Eastern Europe to fully prosper — an ideal of the region’s intellectuals for centuries, even as ideas in this case would have little to do with it.

This might especially be relevant to Poland. For Poland may have significant deposits of shale gas. Were Polish shale deposits to prove the largest in Europe (a very big “if”), Poland could become more of an energy producer in its own right, turning this flat country with no natural defenses to the east and west — annihilated by both Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century — into a pivot state or midlevel power in the 21st. The United States, in turn, somewhat liberated from Middle East oil because of its own energy sources (including natural gas finds), could focus on building up Poland as a friendly power, even as it loses substantial interest in Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the immense deposits of oil and natural gas in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Iran will keep the Middle East a major energy exporter for decades. But the shale gas revolution will complicate the world’s hydrocarbon supply and allocation, so that the Middle East may lose some of its primacy.

It turns out that Australia also has large new natural gas deposits that, with liquefaction facilities, could turn it into a principal energy exporter to East Asia, assuming Australia significantly lowers its cost of production (which may prove very hard to do). Because Australia is already starting to emerge as the most dependable military ally of the United States in the Anglosphere, the alliance of these two great energy producers of the future could further cement Western influence in Asia. The United States and Australia would divide up the world: after a fashion, of course. Indeed, if unconventional natural gas exploitation has anything to do with it, the so-called post-American world would be anything but.

The geopolitical emergence of Canada — again, the result of natural gas and oil — could amplify this trend. Canada has immense natural gas deposits in Alberta, which could possibly be transported by future pipelines to British Columbia, where, with liquefaction facilities, it could then be exported to East Asia. Meanwhile, eastern Canada could be the beneficiary of new shale gas deposits that reach across the border into the northeastern United States. Thus, new energy discoveries would bind the two North American countries closer, even as North America and Australia become more powerful on the world scene.

China also has significant deposits of shale gas in its interior provinces. Because Beijing is burdened by relatively few regulations, the regime could acquire the land and build the infrastructure necessary for its exploitation. This would ease somewhat China’s energy crunch and aid Beijing’s strategy to compensate for the decline of its coastal-oriented economic model by spurring development inland.

The countries that might conceivably suffer on account of a shale gas revolution would be landlocked, politically unstable oil producers such as Chad, Sudan and South Sudan, whose hydrocarbons could become relatively less valuable as these other energy sources come online. China, especially, might in the future lose interest in the energy deposits in such low-end, high-risk countries if shale gas became plentiful in its own interior.

In general, the coming of shale gas will magnify the importance of geography. Which countries have shale underground and which don’t will help determine power relationships. And because shale gas can be transported across oceans in liquid form, states with coastlines will have the advantage. The world will be smaller because of unconventional gas extraction technology, but that only increases the preciousness of geography, rather than decreases it.
 
The Geopolitics of Shale is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Stratfor: Egypt and the Strategic Balance

By George Friedman
Founder, Chief Executive Officer
Stratfor Global Intelligence

Immediately following the declaration of a cease-fire in Gaza, Egypt was plunged into a massive domestic crisis. Mohammed Morsi, elected in the first presidential election after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, passed a decree that would essentially neuter the independent judiciary by placing his executive powers above the high court and proposed changes to the constitution that would institutionalize the Muslim Brotherhood’s power. Following the decree, Morsi’s political opponents launched massive demonstrations that threw Egypt into domestic instability and uncertainty.

In the case of most countries, this would not be a matter of international note. But Egypt is not just another country. It is the largest Arab country and one that has been the traditional center of the Arab world. Equally important, if Egypt’s domestic changes translate into shifts in its foreign policy, it could affect the regional balance of power for decades to come.

Morsi’s Challenge to the Nasserite Model

The Arab Spring was seen by some observers to be a largely secular movement aimed at establishing constitutional democracy. The problem with this theory was that while the demonstrators might have had the strength to force an election, it was not certain that the secular constitutionalists would win it. They didn’t. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and while there were numerous claims that he was a moderate member, it was simply not understood that he was a man of conviction and honor and that his membership in the Brotherhood was not casual or frivolous. His intention was to strengthen the role of Islam in Egypt and the control of the Muslim Brotherhood over the various arms of state. His rhetoric, speed and degree of Islamism might have been less extreme than others, but his intent was clear.

The move on the judiciary signaled his intent to begin consolidating power. It galvanized opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, which included secular constitutionalists, Copts and other groups who formed a coalition that was prepared to take to the streets to oppose his move. What it did not include, or at least did not visibly include through this point, was the Egyptian military, which refused to be drawn in on either side.

The Egyptian military, led by a young army officer named Gamal Abdel Nasser, founded the modern Egyptian state when it overthrew the British-supported monarchy in the 1950s. It created a state that was then secular, authoritarian and socialist. It aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union and against the United States through the 1970s. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was later assassinated by Islamists, shifted Egypt into an alliance with the United States and signed a peace treaty with Israel.

This treaty was the foundation of the regional balance of power until now. The decision to end the state of war with Israel and use Sinai as a demilitarized buffer between the two countries eliminated the threat of nation-to-nation war between Arabs and Israel. Egypt was the most powerful Arab country and its hostility to Israel represented Israel’s greatest threat. By withdrawing from confrontation, the threat to Israel declined dramatically. Jordan, Syria and Lebanon did not represent a significant threat to Israel and could not launch a war that threatened Israel’s survival.

Egypt’s decision to align with the United States and make peace with Israel shaped the regional balance of power in other ways. Syria could no longer depend on Egypt, and ultimately turned to Iran for support. The Arab monarchies that had been under political and at times military pressure from Egypt were relieved of the threat, and the Soviets lost the Egyptian bases that had given them a foothold in the Mediterranean.

The fundamental question in Egypt is whether the election of Morsi represented the end of the regime founded by Nasser or was simply a passing event, with power still in the hands of the military. Morsi has made a move designed to demonstrate his power and to change the way the Egyptian judiciary works. The uprising against this move, while significant, did not seem to have the weight needed either to force Morsi to do more than modify his tactics a bit or to threaten his government. Therefore, it all hangs on whether the military is capable of or interested in intervening.

It is ironic that the demands of the liberals in Egypt should depend on military intervention, and it is unlikely that they will get what they want from the military if it does intervene. But what is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant force in Egypt, that Morsi is very much a member of the Brotherhood and while his tactics might be more deliberate and circumspect than more radical members might want, it is still headed in the same direction.

For the moment, the protesters in the streets do not appear able to force Morsi’s hand, and the military doesn’t seem likely to intervene. If that is true, then Egypt has entered a new domestic era with a range of open foreign policy issues. The first is the future of the treaty with Israel. The issue is not the treaty per se, but the maintenance of Sinai as a buffer. One of the consequences of Mubarak’s ouster has been the partial remilitarization of Sinai by Egypt, with Israel’s uneasy support. Sinai has become a zone in which Islamist radicals are active and launch operations against Israel. The Egyptian military has moved into Sinai to suppress them, which Israel obviously supports. But the Egyptians have also established the principle that while Sinai may be a notional buffer zone, in practice the Egyptian military can be present in and responsible for it. The intent might be one that Israel supports but the outcome could be a Sinai remilitarized by the Egyptians.

A remilitarized Sinai would change the strategic balance, but it would only be the beginning. The Egyptian army uses American equipment and depends on the United States for spare parts, maintenance and training. Its equipment is relatively old and it has not been tested in combat for nearly 40 years. Even if the Egyptian military was in Sinai, it would not pose a significant conventional military threat to Israel in its current form. These things can change, however. The transformation of the Egyptian army between 1967 and 1973 was impressive. The difference is that Egypt had a patron in the Soviet Union then that was prepared to underwrite the cost of the transformation. Today, there is no global power, except the United States, that would be capable of dramatically and systematically upgrading the Egyptian military and financially supporting the country overall. Still, if the Morsi government succeeds in institutionalizing its power and uses that power to change the dynamic of the Sinai buffer, Israel will lose several layers of security.

A New Regional Alignment?

A look at the rest of the region shows that Egypt is by no means the only country of concern for Israel. Syria, for example, has an uprising that, in simple terms, largely consists of Sunnis, many of which are Islamists. That in itself represents a threat to Israel, particularly if the relationship between Syria and Egypt were revived. There is an ideological kinship, and just as Nasserism had an evangelical dimension, wanting to spread pan-Arab ideology throughout the region, the Muslim Brotherhood has one too. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the most organized and coherent opposition group in Syria. As Morsi consolidates his power in Egypt, his willingness to engage in foreign adventures, or at least covert support, for like-minded insurgents and regimes could very well increase. At a minimum Israel would have to take this seriously. Similarly, where Gaza was contained not only by Israel but also by pre-Morsi Egypt, Morsi might choose to dramatically change Egypt’s Gaza policy.

Morsi’s rise opens other possibilities as well. Turkey’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party is also engaged in a careful process of reintroducing Islam into a state that was militantly secular. There are fundamental differences between Egypt and Turkey, but there is also much in common. Turkey and Egypt are now engaged in parallel processes designed to create modern countries that recognize their Islamic roots. A Turkish-Egyptian relationship would both undergird the Egyptian regime and create a regional force that could shape the Eastern Mediterranean.

This would, of course, affect American strategy, which as we have said in the past, is now rapidly moving away from excessive involvement in the Middle East. It is not clear how far Morsi would go in breaking with the United States or whether the military would or could draw a line at that point. Egypt is barely skirting economic disaster at the moment because it is receiving a broad range of financial aid from the West. Moving away from the United States would presumably go well beyond military aid and affect these other types of economic assistance.

The fact is that as Egypt gradually evolves, its relationship with the United States might also change. The United States’ relationship with Turkey has changed but has not broken since the Justice and Development Party came to power, with Turkey following a more independent direction. If a similar process occurred in Egypt, the United States would find itself in a very different position in the Eastern Mediterranean, one in which its only ally was Israel, and its relationship with Israel might alienate the critical Turkey-Egypt bloc.

Prior to 1967, the United States was careful not be become overly involved in protecting Israel, leaving that to France. Assuming that this speculation about a shift in Egypt’s strategic posture came to pass, Israel would not be in serious military danger for quite a while, and the United States could view its support to Israel as flexible. The United States could conceivably choose to distance itself from Israel in order to maintain its relationships with Egypt and Turkey. A strategy of selective disengagement and redefined engagement, which appears to be under way in the United States now, could alter relations with Israel.

From an Israeli point of view — it should be remembered that Israel is the dominant power in the region — a shift in Egypt would create significant uncertainty on its frontier. It would now face uncertainty in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and while unlikely, the possibility of uncertainty in Jordan. Where previously it faced hostile powers with substantial military capabilities, it would now face weaker powers that are less predictable. However, in an age when Israel’s primary concern is with terrorist actions and uprisings in Gaza and the West Bank, this band of uncertainty would be an incubator of such actions.

The worst-case scenario is the re-emergence of confrontational states on its border, armed with conventional weapons and capable of challenging the Israeli military. That is not an inconceivable evolution but it is not a threat in the near term. The next-worst-case scenario would be the creation of multiple states on Israel’s border prepared to sponsor or at least tolerate Islamist attacks on Israel from their territory and to underwrite uprisings among the Palestinians. The effect would be an extended, wearying test of Israel’s ability to deal with unremitting low-intensity threats from multiple directions.

Conventional war is hard to imagine. It is less difficult to imagine a shift in Egyptian policy that creates a sustained low-intensity conflict not only south of Israel, but also along the entire Israeli periphery as Egypt’s influence is felt. It is fairly clear that Israel has not absorbed the significance of this change or how it will respond. It may well not have a response. But if that were the case, then Israel’s conventional dominance would no longer define the balance of power. And the United States is entering a period of unpredictability in its foreign policy. The entire region becomes unpredictable.

It is not clear that any of this will come to pass. Morsi might not be able to impose his will in the country. He may not survive politically. The Egyptian military might intervene directly or indirectly. There are several hurdles for Morsi to overcome before he controls the country, and his timeline might be extended for implementing changes. But for the moment, Morsi appears in charge, he seems to be weathering the challenges and the army has not moved. Therefore, considering the strategic consequences is appropriate, and those strategic consequences appear substantial.

Egypt and the Strategic Balance is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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Random Musings for Enterprise Managers

On strategy:

  • Strategy is inherently a predictive process, which takes into account past events; former and current trends; present circumstances; and construes from these, the best possible actions to take in the future, vis-à-vis one’s declared objectives.
  • Effective strategy is a natural by-product of the well-informed and optimistic imagination.
  • Strategy sounds like a noun, but thinks like a verb.
  • If growth is your strategy, then optimisation must be your goal.
  • Strategy is like a tree. As with trees, some are more fruitful than others.
    .

On a definition for crowd-funding:

The capitalisation of a common interest by its enamoured masses

.
On bloggers, by way of A. A. Milne:
.
The wonderful thing about bloggers
is bloggers are wonderful things
Their words are made out of faces;
their pictures are made out of strings

.

– courtesy Enterprise Management Association (EMA-I.org)

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Stories Come and Stories Go…

MC sends along the following question:

I just saw this post and tried to go to Debka’s link but it is coming up “server not found” so thought I’d ask you if you’ve heard anything on this alleged deal between USA and Iran in military matters concerning Afghanistan.  Is this for real????

Source: debka.com
Published: Jun 1, 2009

Obama awards Iran role as U.S. military partner
(in Afgan-Pakistan conflict)

The Obama administration wants Iran as its key military and intelligence partner for resolving America’s Afghanistan-Pakistan (known now as “Afpak”) predicament. The shape of this alliance lacks final form; backdoor US-Iranian meetings at various levels are in progress at different venues to determine how far Tehran is willing to go. But the US president has set his course.

Click for Full Text! (not available at this time)

Hi MC,

Server seems to be up now.

Story missing, though.

As I’ve said about Debka before, their news contains a certain amount of conjecture because it’s not just news, but news and analysis. The accuracy of the analysis, and to a much smaller degree the news, will always vary. Nothing is written in stone — especially on the Internet. Use the Eighty-Twenty Rule: Just assume that 80% of what they publish is concrete and that the other 20% may be tainted by the preconceptions of the analyst; mistranslated from another language; or may include (accidentally or otherwise) false information. Your job (as a news reader) is to figure out what belongs in the eighty percentile, and what in the twenty.

The story is probably correct. The US has been looking at Iran as a necessary partner in resolving the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran shares long borders with both countries, all of which meet just north of Zahedan, Iran. Towns like Zabol (Iran) and Zaranj (Afgh) are connected by road and there are also a number of off-road “caravan” routes used for rural trade and contraband smuggling. Sounds as if Mr. Obama is going to trade cooperation on this front for the expectation that Iran will be more forthcoming at future talks, especially the nuclear ones. However, I think it’s unlikely that Iran will prove to be of much real use in this capacity while they’re directly contributing to the on-going conflict in Afghanistan and have been no help (at best) on the Pakistan problem.

Also, please note that Israel is undergoing a major military manoeuvre (a nationwide civil defense drill) that will run all of this week. In such a context, this type of story can inflame public sentiment on related issues — especially since the drill is being held to train for attacks by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, along with a possible military engagement of Iran itself.

Obama’s people and the Israelis have been very tight-lipped on certain aspects of their strategic foreign policy (though very loose on others) and either could conceivably have asked for the story not to be released… yet.

UPDATE: June 24, 2009 – Obama Sent Pre-Election Letter to Khamenei

afghanistan_rel_2003

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Higher resolution
Afghanistan map

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Flashback: Suez Blocked!

Originally published: February 8, 2006
Reproduced courtesy of VizReport.

 

Suez Canal Blocked by 
Cargo Ship
 
Red Isolated from Med 

February 8, 2006 (Photo: Hegemann-Gruppe

cargovesselUpdate: (February 9, 2006) The ship has been dislodged and traffic is now moving along this critical waterway. 

(VizReport) In line with our projections that the Suez Canal would soon be blocked as part of the current phase of disruption in the Middle East, we have received news that a Hong Kong-flagged cargo vessel is now lodged sideways in the canal, blocking traffic in both directions. 

The 93,000 ton Okal King Dor, traveling north during a minor sandstorm and gusting winds, became jammed crosswise in the narrow strait about 10 kilometres south of the Egyptian city of Ismailiya, which means, perhaps significantly[?], “city of Ishmael”

Four tugs were sent to the location in a bid to realign the ship. 

The canal accommodates 8 percent of all world shipping trade, the majority of oil shipments from the Persian Gulf to Europe, and is a major source of Egyptian revenue, providing passage to almost 50 ships per day and generating annual revenues of more than $3 billion. 

This ‘accident’ effectively cut off the Red Sea from all southbound traffic, including naval vessels scheduled to be routed to the Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean from current locations in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The original target vessel for this suspected insurgent action was the decommissioned French aircraft carrier, the Clemenceau, but its transit was halted in the Mediterranean Sea via a legal challenge by the Greenpeace environmental organisation. The carrier was destined for the Indian ship-breaking yards at Aulang, but Greenpeace petitioned the Egyptian government to bar the passage of the giant vessel under concern that all toxic materials have not been removed from it. 

The second major Red Sea incident in a week, the grounding of the Okal King Dor follows the terrible tragedy of the Al-Salaam Boccaccio 98 which sank (with the loss of approximately 1,000 lives) in the northern Red Sea after a fire broke out in its lower automotive deck. That incident has triggered protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak which was already under pressure by groups aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, fronted by Al-Qaeda number 2 man, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

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