Friday, July 18, 2014

This Means War?

A pro-Russian separatists looks at the crash site.
Courtesy Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev.
When I looked at my computer yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought something had gone terribly wrong with the BBC’s servers, or I was suffering from some serious déjà vu, because there was no way another Malaysia Airlines plane had crashed. There was definitely no way that it crashed over the Ukraine, or that it had been deliberately shot down. But as the afternoon wore on, it became apparent that the nightmare was, in fact, reality: a plane flying from a NATO member country to Malaysia had been downed with what looked like a surface-to-air missile strike, killing the almost 300 people on board and setting the stage for World War III.

Tensions are high, but rhetoric (with the exception of good old Uncle Joe) has remained relatively low-key as countries wait to find out who launched the attack. Calls for investigations by an international body, or by the Ukrainian government, have come from every corner. The UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting today to discuss how the international community can move forward. Yet for a few hours yesterday, it looked, and felt, like NATO was about to go into Ukraine, and Russia would inevitably follow, and the world would be left to watch in horror as another global war broke out.

That the missile used to strike the plane was likely Russian-made is the one of the most dangerous aspects of this latest crisis. The Ukrainian government has been accusing Russia of supplying the rebel separatists in the east with advanced weaponry, including antiaircraft missiles, for weeks, and has been met with staunch Russian denials. Despite the accusations that the rebels or the Russians shot down the plane, representatives of the People’s Republic of Donetsk deny they can shoot down planes over 10,000 feet, and the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down from 32,000. The rebels (and Pres. Putin) have accused the Ukrainian government itself of shooting down the plane, in an effort to earn the separatists international condemnation.

Yet one of the rebel leaders posted on social media Thursday that they had shot down a Ukrainian military transport, a suspected misidentification due to the similar colors in the Malaysia Airlines logo. Once the news broke that the plane was a passenger jet, the post was removed. The attack also came just one day after the US confirmed that Russia had fired its first missiles into Ukraine, and had imposed further sanctions on Russia as a result.

Given the climate of heavy suspicion against Russia and its separatist proxies in Ukraine, one can understand Putin’s call for peace talks this morning, as well as his direct request to the rebels that they lay down their arms. Yesterday, he had accused the Ukrainian government of the attack; today, he appears to have moderated his stance, but “did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.”

Buk missile system, the suspected culprit.
One guess is, as has happened many times before in the US-Russia geopolitical struggle, Russia simply didn’t consider the consequences of arming a proxy war. Rebels often go against the wishes of their supposed masters, and it is difficult to control what inexperienced separatists will do with advanced weaponry once it has been given to them. It appears at this point that if the rebels did shoot down the plane, they did so believing that it was a Ukrainian military transport, of which they’ve already shot down two in recent weeks.

What is certain is that determining responsibility, while the first item on the international community’s agenda, will be difficult given the lack of access to the area. AP reports that to get to the crash site from rebel-held Donetsk, one must pass through five checkpoints with document checks at each. The confusion of the rebels who are currently grappling with an international incident with very little, if any, experience doing so, is apparent in the differing statements given by their representatives. While one reported this morning that no black box had been found, another said that eight of twelve recording devices from the plane had been recovered.

Compounding the tragedy are the three hundred lives that were senselessly lost in a conflict that most, if not all, had nothing to do with. More than collateral damage, their deaths represent the danger of arming proxy groups with such advanced and dangerous weapons, only to let them loose in another country. The victims included a large contingent of high-level AIDS researchers en route to an AIDS conference in Kuala Lumpur, and their deaths have caused an torrent of grief in the scientific community.

Whoever is responsible, the greatest danger now is that miscommunication or the lack of communication between the US and Russia will allow this international incident to spiral into regional armed conflict, one that would likely include Russia and NATO forces. Yet if Russia disavows the rebels, coaxes them into a cease-fire or peace deal, or even helps Ukraine to suppress them, this could be an opportunity to improve frosty US-Russian relations. If cooler heads are allowed to prevail, and a solution for the situation in the Ukraine can be found out of this tragedy, then the 300 lives lost will not have been completely in vain.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Have Neocons Finally Learned Their Lesson?

Just over ten years ago, the United States was beginning what would be two lengthy military campaigns in the Middle East. On one hand, in Afghanistan, intelligence suggested that the Taliban had been supporting Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network, effectively abetting in their attack on the World Trade Center. On the other hand, in Iraq, less-reliable intelligence suggested the presence of WMDs, and it was decided that while securing these weapons, the U.S. should depose the violent dictator who had ruled the country for decades, Saddam Hussein.

In both cases, eventually, neocons suggested that these campaigns were, more broadly, necessary evils in order to preserve democracy and promote American interests abroad. There was an outpour of this type of justification as the death tolls and monetary costs continued to grow, and while popular support gradually waned, Americans begrudgingly accepted these justifications as truths.

Today, American watches as Iraq implodes, with the militant faction ISIS inching ever closer towards Baghdad as the government scrambles to establish a more inclusive parliament that represents the interests of the complex array of sects and ethnicities that make up the constituency.

And in Afghanistan, what appeared to be a promising democratic election threatened to erupt into chaos when the results were dismissed as illegitimate, and both leading candidates declared themselves the rightful winner. It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry has for the time being successfully ameliorated the tension, but a stable, legitimate government still seems a long ways off.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Never-ending Posturing in Asia: What's China's Next Move?

China, long seen as the instigator of Asia and, more broadly, wherever the United States is involved diplomatically, is again posturing in the region in an effort to weaken the ties President Obama has sought to strengthen over the past several years with Japan, South Korea, and other up-and-coming Asian nations. Once considered a grand pivot of influence, Obama's decision to build rapport in the region and fortify militarily seems to gradually becoming undone, if recent weeks are any indication. And just as the region was seemingly figured out, with various alliances being established, things appear to be shifting quite rapidly - developments that President Obama will have to watch carefully if the U.S. is to remain an influence in regional politics.

In it's not-so-subtle move to damage U.S. influence in the region, Chinese President Xi Jinping is in Seoul currently, meeting with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye. The two will be discussing China's interesting move away from North Korea, who has continued to defy all regional and global demands to cease testing short-range missiles. President Jinping has thus far made no attempt to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye

Why the sudden warmth for South Korea? Well, because South Korea's ties with Japan have been damaged as of late. Japan - the United States' predominant ally in the region - recently restructured their pacifist laws to enable the country to join with allies in military combat under "self-defense" conditions. After months of disputes over various territories in the region and other tensions that have flared periodically, Japan is signaling their resolve to use combat if necessary, something that should worry other regional players. In addition to this change to their constitution, Japan has also vowed to "review" an apology made to South Korean women who were forced to work in droves as sex slaves during the World War II era. South Korea has lambasted Japan for the move, a low diplomatic blow.

The last piece of the bizarre puzzle being put together recently is Japan's unusual warmth towards North Korea. North Korea has set a unique precedent by forming a panel to investigate claims of Japanese nationals being abducted and held in North Korea. In response, Japan has vowed to lift some of its unilateral sanctions on the country, bringing the two closer together and in effect, pushing South Korea and Japan even farther apart.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

How can China capitalize on all of this? Meeting with South Korean leadership is a good start. The United States will have to ensure that they are not squeezed out of the region with an increase in a positive Chinese presence. China still has ways to go, specifically when it comes to bolstering trade between themselves and others in the region and making concessions on territorial disputes, but they are certainly making a concerted effort to head in the right direction.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Part 2: From Anbar to Aleppo and Back Again

The most recent violence in Iraq did not appear suddenly, as if from nowhere. It’s been brewing since the US troop withdrawal in 2011, and was established during the US occupation, as discussed in Part I of this essay series. The insurgency’s fires have been flamed by the civil war that has been raging in Syria for roughly the same period of time. The conflict’s regional extension is the topic of Part 2 of my essay series on the increasingly likely Iraqi civil war.

Part 2: From Anbar to Aleppo and Back Again

ISIS may have been born in Iraq, but it came of age in Syria. Founded in 2003 as a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dedicated to combatting the US occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq was one of many AQI-led terrorist groups that carried out attacks against both foreign forces and the newly elected Iraqi government of Nouri Al-Maliki during the civil war of 2006-2007. The group has long operated out of Al-Anbar province, while receiving aid and fighters from Syrian provinces across the border, where tribal connections run deeper than national boundaries. Despite a lull in attacks during the US surge, ISI operations began to ramp up as troop withdrawals began in 2009. The civilian death toll in Iraq has only continued to climb and each year reaches new, morbid heights:

And then came Syria. Already the launching ground and regrouping point for ISI attacks in Iraq, the rapid disintegration of government power in Syria provided the perfect vacuum for the group to step in and claim to join those fighting for freedom. At the same time as the final US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Syria was descending into a civil war that would eventually act as a magnet for extremist groups including ISI, all of whom wanted a piece of the post-war spoils. The Islamic State in Iraq quickly transformed into the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (or “and Syria,” or “and the Levant”) to denote its expanded mission, and has now declared its name as simply “Islamic State,” indicating its goal of creating a caliphate that spans the Muslim world. In July 2012, ISI declared the “Breaking of the Walls” campaign, which culminated with over 500 militants freed in a prison break from the infamous Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad in July 2013. It broke off from Al Qaeda in January 2014, when arguments among the leadership over tactics and strategy apparently caused an irreparable rift.