Why Japan Is Readying for War Again

Japan flag
The flag of Japan (Bryan Jones)

Ironically, the final vote was accompanied by a fist fight but it’s official: Japan may go to war again. The third largest economy on Earth entering the geopolitical sphere as a military power is absolutely huge. For Beijing, it’s a disaster. For DC, it’s the geopolitical coup of the decade. And for Japan, it’s increasingly necessary.

But why, and how? Let’s get super. Read more “Why Japan Is Readying for War Again”

Russia’s Smart-Dumb Move into Syria’s Civil War

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin attends negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, February 11 (Press Service of the President of Ukraine)

As we are wont to do these days, we cry out, “The Russians are coming!” But their next move is not further into Eastern Europe where too many eyes are trained and a slowly gathering NATO grande armee is being assembled.

It is into another, older civil war that Russian power is now deployed: Syria.

And the best way to view such a move is through Newspeak, for this one is, geopolitically speaking, quite the smart-dumb move.

Here’s why.

Our wondrous cliff notes:

  • Sure, the Russians have been supplying Syria for decades but this is a public escalation of support that includes troops who are supposed to “advise” Syrian soldiers.
  • This goes to show the dire straights Assad’s army is now in, with heavy losses meaning people are more valuable than equipment.
  • But it’s a smart-dumb move because while it serves some geopolitical necessities of Russia, in the long run it’s unlikely to pan out the way Putin wants.
  • It’s “smart” because Russia must be seen as reliable and capable but it’s “dumb” because Russia risks being seen as impotent as Assad continues to lose the civil war or, worse, Russia ends up feeling compelled to deploy power to Syria it needs elsewhere.

So let’s remember why Russia is even interested in Syria

Since the Soviet Union, Russia has supplied Syria with weapons ranging from attack helicopters to tanks to machine guns. Back during the Cold War, Syria was a reliably anti-American Arab client and provided a naval base that bypassed the Turkish straits, then as now controlled by NATO.

After the fall of the USSR, Russia continued to maintain influence in Syria through regular arms deals and a personal relationship between the Kremlin and the Assads. The advantages were the same: Russia maintained a naval base at Tartus that gave the Russian navy a way to avoid NATO-controlled Turkey.

Up until Putin began to reorganize Russia in 1999, this relationship was maintained on the cheap: in fact, for the 1990s, it was necessary for Russia’s survival since arms exports were one of the few industries that didn’t collapse along with communism. The Syrians were always buying.

Once Putin returned Russia to the fore as a global player in the mid-2000s, Syria returned to its more traditional role: a foothold into the largely American-dominated Arab world and a naval base that jumped Turkey.

Which is why, when the Syrian Civil War began, Russia saw the uprising as an American plot

Russian strategic thinking remains colored by the Cold War and its view of world events lacks the greyness of other great powers. To them, the Syrian Civil War was clear: it was yet another American plot to overthrow a Russian-allied regime and replace it with an American one. This is how Putin viewed the Libyan war which he’d authorized mostly because he had no use for the Gaddafi regime.

But Putin had use for Assad; as he prepared to play a much bigger geopolitical game, Russia needed a reliable base in the Mediterranean and an Arab voice that could stand up to the Gulf Cocperation Council and Egypt, both solid American allies.

So Putin was happy to supply Syria with regular arms so long as Syria had the people to use them

But the “people to use them” part has become harder and harder. From the get-go of the Syrian uprising, Assad’s major disadvantage was that he couldn’t rely on numerical superiority: too many of his conscripts were Sunnis with connections in the very villages and cities he was busy bombarding. The nucleus of the Free Syria Army were former regime officers disgusted with the crackdown who took troops and equipment with them as they defected.

That kept the amount of units available to the Assad regime down. (On a sidenote, it’ll be fascinating, once the war invariably ends, to hear the insider story of the Assad regime.) Outnumbered, Assad had to rely on superior arms and organization for victory. This is best exemplified by its air arm: the regime’s air force is crucial.

Two Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships take part in a military exercise, 2011
Two Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunships take part in a military exercise, 2011 (Alex Beltyukov)

But the war is now nearly four years old and casualties for all sides are heavy. The first sign Assad was in trouble was when Hezbollah entered the war in 2013. For a time after that, Assad was winning: reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah bolstered his sagging army while Russia continued to supply the goods he needed to keep his air force flying and his tanks running.

But then the Islamic State happened

The Islamic State’s blitz into Iraq captured a great deal of topline American equipment, allowing IS to go toe-to-toe with dwindling regime forces back in Syria. Worse, while IS continues to gather recruits from around the world, for Assad, each lost soldier has become increasingly irreplaceable.

Having already spent years trying to grind down various FSA factions as well as the capable forces under the command of Al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, the emergence of the Islamic State was just the thing needed to tip the balance away from the regime.

Unlike Assad, IS can replace its human losses. IS suffers from dwindling equipment, not troops, the exact opposite of the regime. That’s a recipe for defeat in a war of attrition.

So now Russia is stepping into the maw to try to stem the bleeding

Syria’s main problem is the lack of trained troops. It has its volunteer National Defense Forces who number many thousands but that’s more of a militia than an army and of dubious quality and reliability.

So who can be trusted to run the regime’s heavy equipment properly? The best answer is the very people who build such equipment.

And this gets to why this is a smart move for Russia

It’s very likely some of these “advisors” will advise the way American troops “advised” South Vietnam. Doing so bolsters the professional Syrian army. It also, most importantly, demonstrates that Russia will go the distance for its allies, up to deploying troops, as the old Soviet Union once did.

This is critical for Putin’s worldwide strategy. Russia must be seen as reliable as the USSR was if it’s to maintain its shrunken network of allies, let alone if it’s to expand its influence. Saving the Assad regime will remind Russia’s allies in Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America that Moscow will do more than veto resolutions in the UN.

Moreover, Syria is the only Middle Eastern client left over from the Cold War and to lose it will be to surrender the region entirely to the United States.

But that leads to the “dumb” part of the move

Because the Russian view that the Middle East will “fall” to America is not wholly true. There are many, many, many indigenous anti-American forces that the superpower has had trouble managing. This misreading of the Middle East in general, as well as Syria in particular, is what will burn the Russians in the end.

Syria’s civil war didn’t begin as an American plot: it was a genuine popular revolt that armed itself when the regime started shooting. The civil war accelerated because regional powers armed their favorite factions, with the main culprits being the GCC and Iran rather than the United States. Believing otherwise is to give the American power it doesn’t actually have. While America semi-benefits from the chaos in Syria, it certainly does not like how it’s become the Islamic State’s homeland.

And what’s worse is that it will only become more expensive over time to keep the regime alive

The risk for Moscow is that Syria becomes its second Afghanistan or, more accurately, a Russian Vietnam. The Vietnam analogy is better than the Afghan one because the Soviet Union suddenly and fully invaded Afghanistan, as opposed to the United States in Vietnam which escalated and dithered until it found itself in a full-blown war.

The amount of power necessary to reorder Syria is staggering. The price tag on the refugee crisis alone can’t yet be calculated. To bring regime power back to all of Syria’s provinces would require a commitment of troops and power that could well cripple Russian efforts to carry out any of its basic defense needs, including holding Ukraine and keeping a lid on Chechnya.

Even to carve out an Assad enclave will be terribly expensive and dangerous. No faction is content with such a slice of the pie: everyone is fighting to the death. To convince the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State to leave the Alawite homeland alone will require an open-ended commitment of troops and equipment that Russia can ill-afford.

Worse, if Russian troops are killed in some headline-grabbing attack, Putin may face pressure to either escalate, as he did in Chechnya, or pull out. He can’t manage Syria as he does Ukraine where he holds the leash to the Donbas rebels’ collar.

Compounding that risk is the Islamic State. Without a doubt, Islamic State forces, especially its Chechen volunteers, will relish an opportunity to fight Russian forces on yet another battlefield.

If Putin chooses to escalate, it will doubtless bring another conflict with NATO. While NATO hasn’t a clue to what kind of Syria it wants after the civil war, it does know that Assad can’t be part of it, even if parts of his regime are. For Russia to enter the civil war more fully will threaten the Turks, who hate Assad, and possibly cause run-ins with the coalition air force currently bombing the Islamic State. In already crowded skies, who’s to say that an American F-22 might not have an accidental dogfight with a Russian MiG-29?

In other words, the short-term gains are not worth the long-term risks but Putin has painted himself into this corner

For now, Russia will seem a valuable ally; its support will, perhaps, change the battlefield calculation and halt the rebel advance into the Alawite heartland. But the long-term risks are great: the longer Russian forces are in Syria, the more likely someone will try to kill them. And should Russia succeed in holding the frontline, it will create a need for Russian forces to remain there until the end of the civil war. That kind of open-ended commitment is precisely what America is trying to avoid in its war with the Islamic State.

It’s possible that a peace deal emerges that allows the Russians and the United States to cooperate on reordering Syria but with much of Putin’s reputation staked on being an anti-NATO strongman, that seems unlikely. America wants Assad out and Putin wants him in; that isn’t likely to change.

Instead, America merely needs to wait for Russia to bite off more than it can chew. That, unfortunately for Moscow, is more than probable.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 14, 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s No Good, Very Bad War in Yemen

Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Prince Muhammad bin Nayef speaks with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh while Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir looks on, January 27 (White House/Pete Souza)

Caveats! “Bad” on this website is rarely used for moral condemnation. So there’s that.

“Bad” here refers to the fact that Saudi Arabia cannot win its war in Yemen. Best-case scenario is they escape with their tails between their legs. Worst case? The cracking of the Saudi state and chaos beyond imagining.

But let’s do some wayback and remember how we got here in the first place. Read more “Saudi Arabia’s No Good, Very Bad War in Yemen”

Arab Gulf States Will Have to Let in Syrian Refugees

Manama Bahrain
View of downtown Manama, Bahrain (Shutterstock)

As the European migrant crisis is giving way to unprecedented humanitarian efforts from first Germany and now the Vatican, more than a few analysts have noted that for all Europe’s generosity, only a few Arab states have opened their doors to the masses fleeing war in Iraq and Syria.

That’s curious when one considers that the ultra-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states are far closer than Europe and the journey there involves no dangerous seafaring. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all have considerable oil and gas reserves and their citizens are much richer than those of other Arab states. Yet GCC governments have stayed mum even as the #ArabConscience has begun trending regionally. Why? Read more “Arab Gulf States Will Have to Let in Syrian Refugees”

The Geopolitical Argument Against Gun Ownership

An honor guard at the United States Air Force Memorial in Washington DC, August 24, 2012
An honor guard at the United States Air Force Memorial in Washington DC, August 24, 2012 (USAF/Christina Brownlow)

It’s often dodgy to wade into the morass of America’s culture wars. For non-Americans, the back and forth of American pundits (and Facebook commentators) seems asinine at the best of times. It’s easy to view the whole exercise as pointless when you realize much of our culture wars revolve around what people like to do for fun, whether it’s shotgun blasting a rusty pick-up truck in the desert or having unprotected sex with people we would never marry.

That being said, there’s still an important discussion to be had here. Last week, a disgruntled (and possibly a bit racist) ex-employee of a local news network killed a journalist and her cameraman on live TV. That came on the heels a recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine people in a traditionally black church.

Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, a cycle asserts itself: Democrats and liberals point to gun ownership and, occasionally, racism, as the proximate causes, while Republicans and conservatives counter that a better-armed society would be more likely to prevent such tragedies. Few minds change; many arguments are peddled; eventually, everyone forgets until the next dramatic shooting.

Within the comments of many a Facebook article lie arguments for gun ownership that are disconnected from geopolitical reality. It was a brief exchange with one such commenter that inspired this article.

I won’t go into the criminology side of gun ownership which is better detailed by more authoritative sources. Rather, I’ll focus on guns in America from a geopolitical perspective.

So please, when you’re writing hate mail about how would I like it if some thugs broke in and raped my whole family as a direct result of being an unarmed society, do remember I’m not even remotely talking about that. I’m focusing, rather, on gun ownership as it affects the geopolitical power of the United States. Read more “The Geopolitical Argument Against Gun Ownership”

Imagining the End Game: How North Korea May Collapse

The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel building in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 5, 2010
The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel building in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 5, 2010 (Roman Harak)

There are few things that touch off more firestorms than speculation. Speculation is easy; any drunk hanging out in front of a local Dunkin Donuts can do it.

But that shouldn’t automatically invalidate all speculation. You can, for instance, look at the clouds in the evening and guess you’ll need an umbrella in the morning. That’s not the mad-cap rantings of a person ideologically committed to morning umbrellas but the rational thought process of someone who’d rather not get wet on the way to work.

You can apply such rationality to geopolitical speculation as well. It’s important not to get too specific — assigning timelines and trying to foretell specific events is invariably doomed to failure. Just as you might guess the next morning will have rain based on the clouds in the evening, you also probably know better than to go bandying about how rain will arrive at 7:13 AM. You know a general forecast; that’s good enough to make a rational decision.

But we have a great deal of difficulty doing this with countries

And that’s because we keep thinking countries are like the people we know.

We all make the mistake of thinking countries act like the people they’re consist of. After all, our leaders are sometimes dismayingly human: they lie, cheat, have affairs, and make all sorts of bad decisions that make us very upset. It’s their bad decisions that makes us think countries have complete command of their fate: When our Masters of the Universe financiers helped lead us to the financial collapse in 2008, it seemed like the crisis was caused by the bad decisions of Wall Street and the financial sector in general. They kept on double downing on risky transactions, which one day came home to roost.

Thus it seems that if we’d only had better leaders, we might have avoided the Great Recession.

But I’d say that’s missing the point, especially when thinking geopolitically.

When viewing the financial collapse as financiers leading us over a cliff, focus on the cliff. Because if there had been no cliff, there would have been no crisis.

And that’s why environment matters and how we can speculate about the fates of nation states responsibility

Think of good leaders as those who see such cliffs and take the right action to avoid them. Think of bad leaders as those who don’t or, worst of all, won’t. Neither of them control the cliff; it exists regardless of what they think or do. They have presented with a choice of how to solve the problem it presents and the divide between good leadership and bad leadership is driven by the results of said choice.

Geopolitical conditions are such physical limits. The American president may be the most powerful man on Earth but geography prevents him from being able to conquer the world. He must measure his power carefully, use it when it will be most effective, or he will be consigned to electoral defeat or the dustbin of history. He must, in other words, find creative solutions to the many, many cliffs that he encounters.

So when we think about the destinies of countries, we must think about their physical limits

Last week North Korea threatened to wage open war on South Korea, which makes just about every Korea watcher ever so tired. The North keeps talking the talking but failing to walk the walk and in each of these crises, one begs the question, how does this end?

To understand, we must think of North Korea’s limits and how they will define North Korea’s eventual demise.

First off, why must North Korea die off? Well, because it’s a buffer state and buffer states only survive as long as someone sees reason to prop them up

North Korea was a base for the Soviet Union to conquer the whole of Korea which would have been a fine base to threaten American-occupied Japan. But when overt conquest failed, the USSR and China decided to turn North Korea into a well-armed and fortified buffer state separating American power from Chinese and Russian borders. (North Korea has a very small border with Russia which in Cold War days would have been a strategic goldmine).

When the Soviet Union collapsed, most of its buffer states went with it. But not North Korea; unlike the Warsaw Pact, China didn’t want Korea united under what might well have been a pro-American state. So instead of letting the End of History take its course, Beijing provided Pyongyang with life support. This didn’t allow North Korea to prosper as it did in its heyday in the 1960s and 70s but it did give the regime the ability to survive the famine of the 1990s.

So long as there is a rivalry between the United States and China, North Korea has value to the Chinese. But if the United States and China go from rivals to allies, or if China bungles it rises to superpower status and succumbs to the rules of dynastic cycles, North Korea will lose strategic value and collapse.

One of those scenarios must come true: a permanent rivalry between China and the United States is impossible. Such rivalries are expensive and dangerous and therefore often short; we’re not talking about another hundred years of North Korea. Either one side will collapse (and the smart money remains on China, though that’s a different article) or both sides will realize geopolitical competition doesn’t serve their interests.

The two historical models are the Cold War and the Anglo-American relationship; in the former, the Soviet Union and the United States competed until the Soviet Union exhausted itself and fell apart. In the latter, the United Kingdom and United States competed until it became clear they had more to gain from cooperation.

Regardless of the outcome — nice or nasty — like the two halves of Germany and Vietnam, it will collapse once its foreign sponsor no longer sees need for it.

But that’s not the only thing that could happen and here’s where things get ugly

Nobody should count out North Korea’s bad leaders from making disastrous decisions.

In neighborhood terms, this is like the old resident who absolutely refuses to evacuate before a hurricane and drowns predictably. Should Pyongyang’s leaders fail to read the tea leaves appropriately, they could well drown as well.

Some of those tea leaves are obvious. North Korea can’t wage a war with South Korea and its allies and win. North Korea’s army is still largely Soviet in make-up and we know that Soviet strategy hinged itself mostly on the Soviet Union being huge in both land and population to make up for its shortcomings. North Korea can’t hope to wear down its enemies through attrition; its small size means its a monthly conquest for the superpower.

Nor can North Korea lose Beijing’s favor. This is where things are getting wobbly: it’s not wholly clear the young Kim Jong-un understands just how key China is to his survival. He’s tested nukes against China’s wishes and the People’s Liberation Army has deployed troops to his border.

In 2009, WikiLeaks even reported that China was trying to convince the United States it was prepared to push a coup to remove the Kim dynasty should they get too erratic. That may have been to placate the Americans but it’s also a solid strategy for a genuine need.

Thus the analogy of a madman driving a rusty, old truck is apt

On a long enough timeline, the truck will break apart from abuse at the hands of such a madman. That is assuming, however, the madman doesn’t drive it over a cliff or into a tree first. This is a worrisome destiny for North Korea: Is the regime still dominated by rational people? Or are the purges carried out by the young Kim Jong-un rendering it an increasingly bizarre place full of extreme yes men? Is the emperor, in other words, still wearing clothes?

This is a deep and troubling unknown. We can only guess from the regime’s actions where its thinking still lays. Thus far, it’s been willing to ratchet up tensions in exchange for negotiations, even at the expense of relations with China. Such bluff can’t last forever. Invariably, a government in South Korea will tire of those kinds of antics and refuse to respond. That will be a critical moment for the regime: will they be willing to start a war they can’t control or will they suddenly implode under their own ineptness?

Within North Korea, there are doubtless forces that understand the country’s position and future. Some of them may be close to the regime, others may dream of replacing it. Should they try to remove the Kim government, they could spark a civil war or revolution that might easily go nuclear.

With the Kim regime growing increasingly willing to risk alienating China, it seems likely the collapse scenario is the most likely one. As China now experiences its own economic downturn, Beijing may not be able to afford the necessary subsidies for North Korea. That could force the Kim regime into a crisis: Should they make the right decisions, they’ll go the way of East Germany, peacefully reuniting with the South. Or they could go the way of Yugoslavia or Syria, with rebellions turning to civil war and genocide.

Peacefully or not, the Kim regime won’t be around much longer.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 24, 2015.