He’s not buying it

The former head of the British navy is less than impressed by the evidence that has so far been produced for Assad’s complicity in the gas attack near Damascus. No doubt he will be dismissed by many as an “appeaser” comparable to Neville Chamberlain:

Retired senior Naval Officer Lord Alan West has questioned whether the chemical attack in Syria was the work of President Assad’s troops.

“We need unequivocal proof that this attack was done by Assad’s forces – I’m not at all convinced at the moment,” he told Julia Hartley-Brewer.

“All of the reports are coming from people like the White Helmets, who have a history of doing propaganda for the opposition forces in Syria. The WHO reports are coming from doctors who are also part of the opposition.

“If I’d been advising the opposition, I’d have said ‘get a barrel of chlorine, at some stage there will be bombs dropped on you – blow it up and we can blame them, because what we really want is the allies coming in’.”

Lord West added that if proof is provided: “we do need to be part of a coalition,” but that we should wait for evidence.

The widening vortex

That Richelieu feeling

In light of the swirling chaos in the Middle East, which will most likely be intensified by today’s strange “punitive” bombing of Syria, it’s instructive to consider how another great religious and ethnic conflict played out in Europe:

The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. […]

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. […]

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. […]

As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

It’s mildly reassuring that US Defense Secretary Mattis is calling this missile strike a “one-time shot” (for now), but I don’t think anybody believes that we’ve seen the end of US military involvement in Syria. To the contrary, it has probably only just begun — and nobody knows when or how it will end, and at what cost.

“America hand”

Wang Qishan fire brigade chief

Wang Qishan is known in China as the party’s “fire brigade chief”

Fascinating nuggets from a recent FT article about Wang Qishan’s appointment as vice president of the PRC, just five months after he “retired” as China’s anti-graft czar (and the country’s second most powerful official):

The Chinese Communist party’s most trusted crisis manager has returned to front-line politics just in time to face one of the biggest challenges of his long career — managing the fallout from what is likely to be the most dramatic deterioration in Sino-US relations in 30 years. […]

“Wang Qishan has forgotten more about our country than many of our senior people know,” said Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former political adviser who met Mr Wang in Beijing in September. “The level of detail he knew about the US was stunning — the economics of regions, the economics of cities, American infrastructure, the workings of the American economy.” […]

But with the recent departures of Mr Cohn and Mr Tillerson, there are very few senior Trump administration figures to argue for moderation in dealing with China. “Trump is going to be quite confrontational,” said Mr Bannon. “But the Chinese absolutely think the American establishment is going to bail them out and why wouldn’t they, it did in the past.

“The Chinese are going to play for time, engage in dialogue,” he added. “They owned us in Mar-a-Lago, no doubt about it. The globalists were in the ascendancy then, agreed to two ‘strategic’ dialogues [with China] and nothing got done, just more talk.”

I noted the FT piece about Wang’s meeting with Bannon here.

On the Skripal poisoning

Richard Sakwa, a Russia expert at the University of Kent, has some thoughts about the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

These are the circumstances and the consequences, but the whole affair raises many troubling questions. Is the case so clear-cut that the authorities in Moscow, and possibly Putin personally, ordered the assassination? After all, Skripal, a former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer who had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI6, and had then worked as a double agent, had been part of a prisoner swap in 2010, and had lived openly in Salisbury every since. Why would the Russian authorities want to kill him? How would it benefit them, especially in conditions where relations are so bad anyway? If they wanted him killed, there are easier ways – unless of course it was for the demonstration effect, and to alienate the British government even more. These may well be considerations among parts of the Russian security elite, angry at Skripal’s betrayal of a reputed 350 Russian agents. As well as motive, there is also the question of timing. Why now, just weeks before the Russian presidential election of 18 March, when Putin won by a landslide for a fourth term. […]

Let us assess the various theories in turn. The official British government position, outlined by prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on 12 March, is that either the Russian state was responsible, or that the authorities had lost control over the nerve agent, identified now as part of the Novichok family of nerve agents. These, May insisted, were the only two plausible explanations. Later, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 16 March alleged that Putin had personally ordered the killing, and then on 18 March he told the British media that Russia had secretly accumulated chemical and biological weapons. He hinted that the British government had information that the order had come directly from the Kremlin. […]

Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases [Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berzovsky and Boris Nemtsov] has been demonstrated to lead back to the Kremlin. In fact, the argument could be made that these deaths, and others, were ‘provocations’; in the sense that they reflected factional fighting in Moscow and the regions (notably Chechnya), and were ways of signalling threats to the Kremlin to force it to adopt certain policies and not others. […]

Unless serious evidence to the contrary emerges, I would be deeply sceptical that Putin took a personal interest in killing Skripal. What would he gain! Such a version only makes sense if two conditions hold: that Putin has nothing better to do than go around killing opponents who long ago have lost any relevance; and the Russian state is out to subvert the West. As the British foreign office put it in a propaganda video, Russia was out to ‘undermine world order’. This of course is the version repeated in the British mass media, including from some formerly respectable newspapers – but it is nonsense. […]

Novichok [the nerve agent] had been developed in Shikhany in central Russia, and according to the whistle-blower Vil Mirzayanov, it was then tested in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s controls of weapons stores had been notoriously lax, and social media have repeatedly suggested that some could have found its way to Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The material could have been smuggled out of the country by unknown parties, possibly criminals. It is also not too difficult to reconstitute the agent in a laboratory. Britain sent a sample of the Salisbury material to the OPCW, but Russia also requested a sample, as it is entitled to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The British refused.

And here is an excerpt from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

A number of things jump out at me here:

  • The PM did not conclusively blame the Russian government, but rather said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. The statement allows for the possibility that Russia had simply lost control of its stockpile of Novichok. That’s, again, the official position of the British government. By that logic, some other actor could have conceivably carried out the attack, without Putin’s knowledge.
  • Sakwa offers an additional four or five possible explanations for the attack, most of which seem plausible to me.
  • The French government was initially skeptical of the idea of Russian culpability, accusing May of “fantasy politics.” That’s pretty interesting.
  • The British summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an explanation for the poisoning, but refused to provide the Russians with samples of the nerve agent so they could conduct their own investigation. This is a bit like asking someone when he stopped beating his wife. Imagine how this would be perceived by the Russian side if, in fact, they did not order the attack.
  • The question of motive remains unanswered. It’s hard to see what Putin would have to gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and thereby significantly ramping up tensions with NATO. That would not appear to be in Putin’s or Russia’s interests. It could be argued that Putin wanted to “send a message” — but then, what message? Don’t mess with us? If so, the ploy has backfired miserably, as Britain seems to have decided to mess with Russia a whole lot more.

It’s very easy to give in to hysteria on this issue, and jump to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Given the stakes involved — potential war with a nuclear power — I would suggest that it’s very dangerous to do so.

Good call

I’m old enough to remember this cover of The Economist:

Excerpt from the August 31, 2013 issue:

THE grim spectacle of suffering in Syria—100,000 of whose people have died in its civil war—will haunt the world for a long time. Intervention has never looked easy, yet over the past two and a half years outsiders have missed many opportunities to affect the outcome for the better. Now America and its allies have been stirred into action by President Bashar Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons to murder around 1,000 civilians—the one thing that even Barack Obama has said he would never tolerate.

The American president and his allies have three choices: do nothing (or at least do as little as Mr Obama has done to date); launch a sustained assault with the clear aim of removing Mr Assad and his regime; or hit the Syrian dictator more briefly but grievously, as punishment for his use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Each carries the risk of making things worse, but the last is the best option. […]

If the West tolerates such a blatant war crime, Mr Assad will feel even freer to use chemical weapons. He had after all stepped across Mr Obama’s “red line” several times by using these weapons on a smaller scale—and found that Mr Obama and his allies blinked. An American threat, especially over WMD, must count for something: it is hard to see how Mr Obama can eat his words without the superpower losing credibility with the likes of Iran and North Korea.

Last month, we learned this:

The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

“We have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We do not have evidence of it.”

He said he was not rebutting the reports.

“We’re looking for evidence of it, since clearly we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions,” Mattis said.

To my immense shock, the Google search site:economist.com assad mattis for the year 2018 generates no hits. I wonder why not?

At this point, is there a single, solitary reason to believe anything reported by The Economist?

Bomb North Korea, says Luttwak

Busan, South Korea (Oct 2017)

A good rule of thumb is that when Edward Luttwak has something to say… you should listen. I wish he commented on current events more, because unlike most pundits, the strategist known as the “Machiavelli of Maryland” always seems to have a surprising, original and deeply informed perspective on everything he writes about. Like bombing North Korea:

One mistaken reason to avoid attacking North Korea is the fear of direct retaliation. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly claimed that North Korea already has ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach as far as the United States. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration, or rather an anticipation of a future that could still be averted by prompt action. […]

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted. […]

When then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to withdraw all U.S. Army troops from South Korea 40 years ago (ultimately a division was left behind), the defense advisors brought in to help — including myself — urged the Korean government to move its ministries and bureaucrats well away from the country’s northern border and to give strong relocation incentives to private companies. South Korea was also told to mandate proper shelters, as in Zurich for example, where every new building must have its own (under bombardment, casualties increase dramatically if people leave their homes to seek shelter). In recent years, moreover, South Korea has had the option of importing, at moderate cost, Iron Dome batteries, which are produced by both Israel and the United States, that would be capable of intercepting 95 percent of North Korean rockets headed to inhabited structures.

But over these past four decades, South Korean governments have done practically nothing along these lines. The 3,257 officially listed “shelters” in the Seoul area are nothing more than underground shopping malls, subway stations, and hotel parking lots without any stocks of food or water, medical kits or gas masks. As for importing Iron Dome batteries, the South Koreans have preferred to spend their money on developing a bomber aimed at Japan.

[Shaking my damn head]

Even now, casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visibly; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand (most of the 20 million or so at risk would be quite safe even just 20 miles further to the south). The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counterbattery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.

Fair enough, and a case could be made that, assuming a mass evacuation of the city, the destruction of a large portion of Seoul is a price worth paying to prevent Kim Jung Un from joining the nuclear ICBM club. However, I imagine most South Koreans would argue that such a price is definitely not worth paying. Unfortunately, they are not the only people with skin in this particular game, as it is also Japan’s cities, and, potentially, America’s too that hang in the balance.

Complicating matters, South Korean resistance would make an American attack on the North much harder, as George Friedman argued last September:

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

A dangerous game that only seems to get more dangerous, at least until this week’s encouraging news of the first intra-Korean talks in over two years.

I see what you did there

A pretty astonishing story. When Beijing Normal University set up a research base in the capital of Greenland, it forgot to mention to its local partners that the facility would double as a satellite ground station with possible military uses. Just an oversight, I’m sure:

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October.

It would be a shame if something happened to that facility. What if chronic power outages or some mysterious, unfixable technical glitch put it out of commission, perhaps indefinitely? That would really be terrible. Just saying.

On a related note (report from last December):

China’s first overseas land satellite receiving ground station was put into trial operation on Thursday.

The China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station is above the Arctic circle, half an hour’s drive from Kiruna, a major mining town in Sweden.

 

Well, that answers that

From Hong Kong rag The Standard:

When news broke that British politician and human rights activist Benedict Rogers was refused entry at Hong Kong International Airport, I suspected our Immigration Department didn’t make the decision, but carried out an order from a higher authority.

It’s now perfectly clear the decision had come down from Beijing. It’s simply stunning.

Rogers was quoted by an internet news website as saying the Chinese embassy back home in London had warned him via a third party, after it learned about his plan to visit the former Crown colony. The third party reportedly relayed the embassy’s concern that Rogers may visit the student leaders serving jail sentences for their leading roles in protests. Later, he was told his SAR trip would impair the Sino-British relationship, so he would be denied entry.

The Foreign Ministry was straightforward about it. Yesterday, the blunt statement by a spokeswoman was basically related to two points: one, Beijing retains the authority to decide who can come to Hong Kong; and two, Rogers was barred because of fears he would intervene with the SAR’s internal affairs and judicial system. In hindsight, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response prior to the spokeswoman’s statement appeared to be redundant. […]

The issue is that while the decision was made by some policymakers in Beijing, it did more harm than good to Hong Kong, because one of the SAR’s greatest assets is its international reputation, which makes the place distinct from other mainland cities.

The move was like throwing rocks into waters that Hong Kong’s leader is struggling to calm.

I think a little bit of reciprocity is in order. Is there any reason, at this point, not to respond in kind by having the next visitor from the PRC politely turned back at Heathrow customs?

Wild card

George Friedman of Stratfor singles out South Korea as the wild card in the dangerous North Korea game:

[The North Koreans] seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

Comment on this from an author and military vet:

Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea. If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue. That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea’s aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Note that I said “sell” – in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control. China would instantly have kittens – a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn’t be far behind that. If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

It’s worth pointing out that a growing number of South Koreans want nukes of their own:

Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States had stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea. Then, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, and Moscow reciprocated.

The debate over redeploying those weapons is sharply dividing South Korean politics. […]

Still, 60 percent of South Koreans in theory support nuclear weapons for their country, according to Gallup Korea. A poll by YTN, a cable news channel, in August found that 68 percent of respondents supported redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

After South Korea’s defense minister said earlier this month that it was worth reviewing a redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, other administration officials have distanced the Blue House — South Korea’s executive mansion — from the proposal. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said this week that South Korea is not considering the option and has not discussed it with Washington, but she acknowledged that public opinion is shifting toward supporting the option. […]

“The mainstream view is now changing in South Korea,” Kim said. “Even within the governing party, we are now hearing some of these voices who are supporting redeployment or South Korea going nuclear by herself, particularly after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.”

Defense chiefs James Mattis and Song Young-Moo

As for Japan going nuclear:

Then there is the anomaly of Japan’s nuclear status. Defense analysis privately agree that Japan, like Israel, is an undeclared member of the nuclear weapons club. The point was made explicitly in an article by Nick Rufford in the London Sunday Times in 1994. The British Defense Ministry, Rufford reported, had informed Prime Minister John Major that “Japan has acquired all the parts necessary for a nuclear weapon and may even have built a bomb which required only enriched uranium for completion.” Moreover, Japan has long held enormous stockpiles of plutonium for its nuclear power program, and its H-2 rocket, which has launched two satellites into orbit, is regarded as capable of delivering a nuclear strike. Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Marc Dean Millot commented: “This is the stuff of virtual nuclear power. Only a political decision is needed to make it real.”