Celebrating the Occasional Posts of Mr. Cook!

Category: International Affairs

Coup in Turkey

At the time of this post, the situation is Turkey is very unclear. We know that elements of the Turkish military have launched coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP Islamist conservative party. President Erdogan has been, as the coup correctly claims, undermining Turkey’s democratic and secular foundations since he came to power in 2002. He has most recently made headlines for his crackdowns of freedom of the press in Turkey, suspected support of ISIS through illegal oil purchases, and his opening of a war on Kurdish nationalists. All this has not made him a popular figure in the West, nor with Russia following his shoot-down of a Russian strike fighter via Turkish F-16.

However, his crackdowns have not been limited to the press. He also attacked the military in 2011 and 2013. The military has traditionally seen itself as the protector of Turkey’s democratic and secular republic as founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. It has led four coups since 1960. Thus as the AKP began to increasingly Islamisize Turkey some have looked to the military to counter it. However, the crackdowns in 2011 and 2013 seemed intended to forestall such a move. The Turkish military did not revolt in response. Most observers have since considered the military to have neutralized as a pro-secular and pro-democratic political force. This coup shows that this assessment was incorrect.

The question now is simply to find out which side wins. Erdogan can be trusted to be ruthless in his response if he wins, so the coup members are not going to just give up. Nor is Erdogan going to back down. A lot is going to depend on just how much of the military is behind to coup. Reports indicate that at least many army units in the vicinity of Ankara are part of the coup. However, the only report involving the Turkish air force suggests a pro-government F-16 taking out a rebel Blackhawk army helicopter over Ankara. The rebels will find themselves in a difficult position if the government can secure the loyalty of units outside of Ankara. Reports of the head of the Turkish army being held by the rebels suggests the coup is not being led from the top of the military, but I think it is safe to say that the rebels and the government are both going to be stretching the truth in their reports in an effort to win support. Daylight will bring more clarity as well as ordinary citizens seeking to make their opinions felt. Neither side is going to control a city the size of Ankara without some level of popular support.

If the coup is not over one way or the other within a few days I fear this will become another protected conflict. If the military is solidly behind the coup it will succeed. If this is an act of desperation by a group of local army units without air force or wider army backing it will fail. The worst outcome will be if the sides are balanced, in which case the outcome could be so bad that I could really see an international intervention occurring. Currently it looks like a part of the military is doing the wrong thing (coup) for the right reasons (protecting secularism and democracy). The role of Fethullah Gulen, former ally-turned-exiled-opponent of Erdogan with many supporters in Turkey is also open to speculation.

The outcome will become much easier to predict in another 24 hours, by which time the balance of forces and popular support for both sides becomes known. The Middle East has been keeping things interesting for the world. That is not a good thing.


US Approach to Syria: Wait, What?

The United States approach to the Syrian conflict is not one that anyone should look back upon with pride. At best, it will be noted that no one has really done much of anything to help end the Syrian civil war, thus spreading the blame, such as it is. Ultimately the right to determine the future of one’s people – even at the cost of war – is fundamental and the right of the Syrian people, but even something as simple as setting up a border security zone near NATO member and aspiring EU member Turkey has yet to be done. And when Turkey does anything, its actions appear to be more about self-interested bombing of the Kurdish PKK than actually helping Syria. Regional support inside Syria has thus far had a decidedly sectarian motivation: Iran and Hezbollah support Assad and Shiites, Saudis and other Sunnis support Sunnis. And when the US made a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and Assad broke it, Obama happily stepped down on the ladder placed by Mr. Putin and Assad. While the removal of chemical weapons from Syria was a wonderful thing, one is fully justified in questioning if Obama going back on the word of the United States to do so will ultimately do more harm in the world than good.

There have been many proposals over the past years of conflict for America to do something. Arm Syrian rebels. Bomb Assad. Suppress Islamic extremists in Syria. Provide air support. Establish a no-fly zone. Each has been firmly resisted by the White House. In the meantime, Assad has been carrying out a rather good plan. He focused on the Syrian moderates that could potentially receive Western backing while allowing Islamic extremists that would never pose that threat to thrive. Thus, ISIS. Once ISIS became a threat, he has enjoyed the development of a de facto partnership between his regime and the West in which Western powers and their allies bomb Islamic extremist groups (primarily ISIS, but also groups that sometimes cooperate with moderate Syrian rebels against Assad). Assad does his part. The Pentagon has pointed out before that use of American air power against Assad would require the elimination of Syrian air defenses. This was cited as the reason not to bomb Assad’s forces or impose a no-fly zone to prevent him from bombing Syrian rebels and civilians. Of course, when the targets in question are in fact Assad’s enemies, he has no reason to use his missile batteries.

This all makes sense. No necessarily intelligent for those objecting to Assad, but at least things have gone according to some plan. Assad’s plan, but still, it is something that makes sense. Except…

The Pentagon has announced that a vetted force of Syrian rebels has been through a program to train and equip them to fight ISIS, and they will be backed by the US, including receiving US air cover and close air support against ISIS and any group that attacks them, including the forces of the Assad regime. Wait, what? What happened to not risking US planes against Syrian air defenses? Or escalating? Isn’t this inserting a proxy army into Syria? Before the air support announcement it was simply a program to help the rebels, but if we are going to defend them as well, some people will argue this is now a proxy army. To fight ISIS, sure. I think everyone against ISIS can agree that is a good thing. But it is still a major policy shift.

Additionally, if these fighters are actually well trained and well equipped then they should enjoy good success against ISIS with close air support. And then? I rather doubt that they have forsaken their rebellion against Assad. Unless Assad is confident that the New Syrian Forces army will be stalemated against ISIS or be willing to come to terms with him after pushing ISIS out of Syria, he cannot help but see this as the threat he schemed so hard to forestall.

On the other hand, the “New Syrian Forces” army apparently consisted of 60 guys. The target number is 5,000, but obviously they have a long way to go. I am not sure which is more shocking, that the US is suddenly abandoning years of non-interventionist arguments and risking an air war against Assad’s army by supporting a de facto proxy army in Syrian, or that that army is so pathetically small? Sure, call it a cadre, but it still started out with 60 guys. Reports are that this number has been cut in half with their commander captured by al-Nusra, so one must question the training this program is providing. One would think that such a tiny “army” would have focused on securing its own headquarters, knowing that Islamists would consider it a prime target. So perhaps Assad won’t consider this a threat after all.

Perhaps the saddest thing is to imagine if this program was started three or four years ago. Before Syrian moderates had been so heavily targeted and there were still many thousands of moderates without disqualifying exposure to the most effective fight forces in Syria, which are the extremist organizations. Of course, that was before ISIS rose to take over vast parts or Syria and Iraq, and without such a malign organization to compel some sort of action this program would never have made it out of the White House. In its current form, it will be surprising if enough “vetted” Syrians can even be found to make this program accomplish much. Too bad.

Listen to this Speech to Tsipras by MEP Guy Verhofstadt

This speech by Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt is an absolute standout, and I encourage everyone interested in what is happening in Greece to listen to it.

Greece’s Ongoing Crisis

Short Observation:

I find it amusing that back in June I was of the opinion that Grexit was going to happen and most felt it would not. Now that the majority of political and economic leaders asked by the media are quick to opine that Grexit is likely to happen, I am more inclined to believe it will not. In any event, the story of the Greek financial crisis has been one of mismanagement and interesting shifts in political opinions and calculations. Thus, nothing should be ruled out. If the Greek government of Alexander Tsipras decides to play hardball and stick to its guns, so to speak, it will find itself with little to show for all the drama the world has seen these past weeks. However, if the proposal expected tomorrow is focused on economic growth and not simply a rejection of austerity and reform, I expect an agreement. My only fear against an agreement at this point is that stupidity could once again rear its head, as it so often does. While I still feel Greece would be better off in the long run with its own currency, I cannot recommend the pain of adjustment that such a move would entail. Especially when other countries are willing to lend one money to reform – assuming a growth-oriented proposal comes out tomorrow. Fingers crossed, eh.

Forget What I Just Said

Greeks have rejected the bailout terms in Sunday’s vote. With the Eurogroup members making clear they are open to continued negotiation, Alex Tsipras may be about to prove wrong those who doubted his approach. It depends on how much the Eurozone and IMF are willing to compromise. The latest proposal from the Greek government agreed to all but three points of the last creditor proposal. The points are trifling things in wider context, so an agreement should be well within reach on Monday. Not to dismiss the possibility of intangibility on both sides, but the probability is for an agreement soon.

Grexit Cancelled

Short Post:

I believe the past week of bank closure and warnings from Eurozone leaders have done the work of convincing the Greek people to vote yes and accept the bailout conditions on the table. Prime Minister Tsipras and his government also seem to be chastened if the latest proposal from them accepting all but a few conditions is any indicator. They clearly see the way the winds are blowing and if the populist alliance loses power, they are unlikely to get it back. However, Germany and other Eurogroup members have made it clear there will be no negotiations until the vote, which is a useful lesson in not making an enemy of your negotiation partner when you still need their help. If Tsipras keeps his word, the Syriza government will resign after the probable yes vote on Sunday, and a new Greek government will accept the bailout conditions. Overall, good drama, bad governing.

Grexit Update

Short Post:

Greece has requested a 29.1 billion euro loan from the European Stability Mechanism. Given that such a loan would probably take more than a month to negotiate, require similar conditions to the ones Greece is currently rejecting, and the debt payment is due today… I think it is safe to call this a red herring.

What is all the more remarkable is how uniformly people across Europe and Greece are against Grexit. Virtually no one outside of members of a few conservative groups have come out for it. The pain Greece would feel from Grexit would be great. And yet, this seems to be where we are headed. I suppose the saying that a committee can make a decision dumber than any of it members comes to mind…

The options should be Greek reform underwritten by billions of euros from the Eurozone, or Greek reform underwritten by Greek hardship. The second gives Greece the right to chose its own system and removes the Europe-wide uncertainty we are experiencing. The former would certainly be more comfortable for Greeks and likely force more reform, if not the right kind of growth-enhancing reform Greece needs. But sometimes the hard road is necessary. Hard roads for hard heads, I suppose. And there are a lot of hard heads currently making decisions in Athens.

On the popular opinion front I am impressed with the level of recognition we are seeing in the European media that the Eurozone loans were largely wasted and will never be fully repaid, but I still feel the train wreck that Alex Tsipras has set in motion will prevail. It sets the agenda, if you will, and leaves a choice of yes or no. That does not leave much room for further negotiation. It leaves none, and based on media reporting Greeks do not sound as worried about the implications of a no vote as they should. What should be a referendum expressing a nation’s rejection of austerity in favor of a more effective prescription (growth-enhancing reforms and investments such as cutting red tape, reducing inefficiencies, and fostering entrepreneurship) is instead an in/out vote on the euro, framed by the Tsipras government as a negotiation tactic. Clearly there is a great deal of foolishness to go around in this saga. At least Grexit will force the hard choices that Tsipras currently rejects making. What will be especially interesting is what happens after the first default. As several economists have pointed out, there is no actual mechanism to force a country out of the euro. Tsipras does not actually want to go. It could get messy.

Grexit: It’s Happening

Short Post:

When one party becomes fed up with the other party in a relationship, cooperation becomes difficult. When said offending party is convinced that he or she need only play a better game of Chicken and the other party will fold, and this is not the case… well, let’s review the game. In Chicken, two cars are driven straight at the each other and the first driver to blink/swerve away is the loser. In this game between the (solvent) nations of the Eurozone and Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has effectively decided that unbolting the steering wheel and tossing it out the window will bring Greece victory over its creditors. While a bold strategy, it unfortunately ignores the reality that what the Eurozone leaders are in fact driving is a train.

Little details like that are important when you play games at this level.

I suppose it is possible that the Greek voters will chose to accept the offered terms on July 5th. However, that does not seem to be the national mood. Everyone wants done with this unpleasant state of austerity and brinkmanship, Eurogroup leaders included. Greece cannot repay the hundreds of billions of euros she owes. While an argument can be made that five years of austerity politics and no growth have done an adequate job of reducing Greek wages for Greece to be economically competitive, a Greece running its own currency would do still better. As long as Greece is in the Euro, it will lack a key fiscal tool its economy needs. Nor is Greece willing to accept control of its public policy in exchange for the massive cash injections it would need to remain in the Eurozone. Unless the unpleasantness of the next week after the June 30th IMF default is enough to make Greeks change their minds or European public opinion leads the Eurogroup to blink, on June 6th Greeks will return to the drachma. For a preview of that, Iceland in 2009 shows how things could look. Or worse – Iceland just owed a lot of money. Greece has more fundamental systemic issues to deal with as well.

I doubt that Greece will exit the EU, though. There is no reason outside of spite for that. Greek should be in the EU. It should never have been in the Eurozone. This will be a harsh corrective, but as the saying goes, there is no time like the present.

Stabilizing Iraq Via Airstrike

It is depressing how often pessimism proves itself the most accurate forecast in the Middle East. Prime Minister al-Maliki should be gone now, in the best interests of Iraq. He is not. The temptation that power represents is a consistent challenge to humans; history and philosophy leave us in no doubt of that. It is a shame that al-Malaki could not overcome it for the good of his people. Now that Shia Iraq has rallied itself to stop ISIS (now just the Islamic State, or IS), it is Iraq’s minorities that shall suffer next.

IS has taken over the primary towns of Iraq’s remaining Christian population, as well as the Yazidi religious minority. Both face some combination of rape, torture, slavery, and death if caught. (Can I again mention that IS is a truly vile organization?) An uncertain number (probably around 40,000-50,000) of Yazidi refugees are trapped on Mount Sinjar and face genocide without immediate aid. Even President Obama, hardly a man known for boldness or taking action or making a decision, has authorized limited assistance and airstrikes to hinder IS. But to what end?

The Islamic State is not going away do to a major international ground invasion. Al-Maliki needs to go for mainstream Sunni Iraq to see its future as being with Shia Iraq. That has not happened, so it probably won’t happen any time soon. Therefore, the best that can be expected is containing IS. So now that Obama has actually made a decision, we should see limited humanitarian assistance and airstrikes sufficient to stiffen Kurdish defenses against further IS advances. Many Yazidi people will never make it off their mountain without more assistance that it currently appears they will receive. That assistance should be increased immediately. Hopefully this will happen, but trying to save 50,000 people trapped on a mountain, isolated save for the merciless army trying to slaughter them, at the eleventh hour… it is a very tall order. Even with full political support it is very hard. This may end very badly. I dearly hope it will not. But it could.

The other refugees are in a better situation. That really isn’t saying much, but at least they aren’t trapped on a mountain of death. With Obama, though, you really don’t know if US airstrikes will last. The Iraqi Kurds and Christians and Yazidi and other minorities need them to last. Airstrikes mark a new chapter in the Iraqi Civil War. Whether this new chapter includes Kurdish forces pushing IS forces back under cover of US airstrikes and genocide averted or it merely sees a temporary setback to IS and the death of thousands or tens of thousands of Iraqi minorities remains to be seen.

More Ukraine

This is a good commentary on the Ukraine crisis by Lindsey Hilsum; one cannot envy Ukraine’s government right now.