Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Libya struggles to attract economic investment


Speaking June 26 at an event in Vincenza, Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italian oil and gas giant ENI, told reporters that everything in Libya is fine and the democratic process would run its course as expected. Italian businesses, according to Scaroni, have an important place in Libya because Europe consumes 85 percent of Libyan oil.

However the economic situation in Libya is not as smooth as the ENI chief purports and some energy firms are developing cold feet when it comes to investment.

It has been more than nine months since a NATO military intervention in Libya’s civil war collapsed Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and ended his hold on the oil-rich North African state.

The difficult and messy international military work is now done, but Libya’s internal tribal problems are just starting to emerge. Especially concerning the control of the large crude oil and natural gas deposits so critical to Libya’s economy. Libya is remarkably dependant on its hydrocarbon industry. Energy accounted for 95 percent of Libyan export earnings in 2010.

Although the interim Libyan government recently proposed to increase oil production by a third to 2 million barrels per day (bpd) by year-end, with a five-year goal of 2.2 million bpd, a figure that is sure to impress their European buyers, the damage to and neglect of the oil fields is limiting hydrocarbon production.

One problem is that the infrastructure of crude oil development is quickly reaching production capacity, even as May registered the highest barrels per day (bpd) output since the fighting.

Those impressive Libyan oil reserves were estimated in 2010 to be close to 80 billion barrels, and this particular black gold is extremely cheap to extract (some fields price their extraction close to US$1 per barrel).

Before the unrest, Italy received nearly all of Libya’s 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year according to 2009 figures. On top of that, Italy and France together received 43 percent of Libyan oil exports before the fighting in 2011. This could go some way in explaining why Rome and Paris campaigned so hard for a NATO intervention during the uprisings.

Things were different back then. The Europeans bought Libyan energy at very low prices (lower than world market rates) and the difference was then pocketed by Qaddafi and corporations such as ENI. Such energy firms eagerly anticipate those fields coming back online so their investments can begin to return profits once more, but all this will depend on how the security situation holds.

Of the 6.5 million people in the country, almost all Libyans claim allegiance to one tribe or another. Official UN estimates count over 140 tribes, all staking territorial (and overlapping) rights to different parts of the country. Needless to say, these tribes have a long history of antagonism towards one another.

Qaddafi understood this and skilfully played them off against each other during his reign. This is likely a fair chunk of the reason why he remained in power for so long. Now that Qaddafi is gone however, the division amongst the Libyan tribes is complicating the transitional government’s ability to project control from a centralised position

While the transitional government has a semi-functioning police structure, those police forces are still unable to effectively protect the major cities from armed gangs. In fact, armed groups in Benghazi and Tripoli ignore all government calls to disarm, setting up de facto security forces that simply won’t recognise the government police apparatus.

The elections planned for July 7 should go some way in preparing the ground for a more stable political structure, and by extension a stronger economy, even if it doesn’t immediately alleviate the deep tribal differences. The job of the new government will be to draft a working constitution for reconciliation and disarmament of the militias to establish some semblance of centralised security.

With all the unrest however, the potential for immanent unification could be a pipe-dream. Only after the government stabilises the political and security situation will foreign investment be attracted again.

Ultimately the health of Libya’s economy will depend on just how quickly and convincingly the new government can tie up loose political ends and unite the tribes by emphasising national unity over tribal unity. Just how that government will look considering the disparate players involved is unknown.

If the new Libyan government after July 7 cannot control the militants, international energy firms such as ENI, BP and Shell will no longer just remark rhetorically about suspending oil exploration and extraction. Instead they very likely will pull out completely and abandon drilled oil wells to simply wait out the unrest for a calmer time. This will hurt Libya economically as the expense of developing fresh oil production systems becomes more expensive as time goes on.




Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/tribes-slow-flow-libyan-oil-ng-122467

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Mubarak's lingering legacy


As the 84 year old Hosni Mubarak was pronounced clinically dead in the Maadi army hospital in Cairo, his ruling military regime counts the votes of a recent presidential runoff that it skilfully engineered to be irrelevant.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved the Egyptian parliament claiming a third of the candidates were unconstitutional. In doing so the SCAF attained the legislative powers to draft the country’s constitution.

Mubarak’s death will not change which group controls Egypt, he was the international face of the military regime before the protests in 2011 and that regime remains firmly in power today. His death will temporarily divert attention from the election process and satisfy a popular demand of the Arab Spring protests. His death does not change the military’s trajectory to retain their deep power.

The military’s real power lies in the institutions surrounding parliament where the military-dominated justice system is blocking any step the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) takes. There was little more the SCAF could do to stop the MB moving into parliament this week. However, their upcoming constitutional declaration will include new rules for the formation of the constituent assembly including a provision to require the new president to be sworn in before the SCAF, not the lower house of parliament.

Set for July 1, the promised transfer to civilian rule has introduced some urgency to the electoral process. Many Egyptians are sceptical that the old military regime will relinquish their tight control completely, if at all, and certainly aren’t convinced that the MB will have any real power if victorious. Mubarak’s colleagues in the SCAF are extremely unwilling to hand power to the Islamist group just because of an election. The SCAF have controlled Egypt for too long to give it up that easily. The ruling military regime is quietly manoeuvring to ensure against Islamists controlling the Egyptian parliament and presidency.

The SCAF made it possible for Ahmed Shafiq to run in the presidential runoff, even though he was the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak and therefore very unpopular with Cairo’s revolutionaries. The MB has few such problems with the voting public. Their first parliamentary victory displayed how the Egyptian voters would prefer an Islamist republican party to control Cairo, rather than let the painful legacy of Mubarak’s military to continue.

But the military still hold all the keys to all the doors, those were the keys the protestors tried to wrestle away last year.

The Arab Spring was purported to be a long awaited ray of democracy for the Middle East. This region of the world had, according to the Western media’s narrative, been subject to the despotic and occasionally psychotic reign of oppressive men who cared for little more than advancement of their own power. The place needed democracy and it was finally en route in the neat, packaged form of (mostly) peaceful demonstrations.

Mubarak was already in poor health before 2011, and his condition was deteriorating. Mubarak’s idea to transition power to his son, Gamal Mubarak, was an unpopular decision amongst the other ruling military officers and there were rumours in Cairo of a forced retirement for Hosni Mubarak. The timing of the revolutionary fervour was extremely serendipitous for the agitated officers. It offered them a perfect cover to remove Mubarak by appearing to stand with the revolutionaries against the hated tyrant. The Arab Spring protestors viewed Mubarak’s resignation as a sign of their successful patriotism and the inherent beauty of constitutional democracy. However, a closer examination reveals the machinations of the military regime at work, as they retain their status as Egypt’s rulers.

Today the liberal, secular and predominantly young revolutionaries who dominated the protesting in Tahrir Square continue to be marginalised. They have failed to win any real support during the parliamentary and presidential elections. Instead the Muslim Brotherhood, a long dormant Islamic voice kept under control by the SCAF, grew popular, capitalising on the movement and challenged the authority of the military.

Mubarak was cruel, and the military regime he represented kept democracy from the Egyptian people, but those officers knew what would likely replace them if they ceded power prematurely to Islamic republicanism. The SCAF fear that foreign relations, especially with Israel, could sour if an Islamic ideology gains power.

Consequently the SCAF have engineered the electoral process to be irrelevant as to who wins the presidency. The MB may have their man in the top position on July 1 and parliament may fall under their control. But it will be the SCAF who control the institutional levers.

Even if the MB decides to protest the changes, something they have become adept at recently, ultimately the Egyptian political structure on July 1 will be little different to the dark Mubarak days.




Featured in the National Business Review: http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/opinion-egyptian-uprising-hasnt-ended-military-rule-wb-121863

Monday, 18 June 2012

Political engineering in Egypt and Islamist ambitions



Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will retain control of legislative and budgetary affairs in the absence of parliament, Egyptian military sources said June 17. The SCAF soon will issue a constitutional declaration consolidating their powers.

There were some encouraging signs towards future stability June 17 when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood political party confirmed rumours their candidate had indeed won the country’s first free elections. Mohamed Morsy, a US-educated engineer and the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) frontrunner is placed well ahead of the SCAF candidate Ahmed Shafiq with the final vote yet to be tallied. A claim contested by the SCAF candidate.

The elections were already compromised however when the SCAF dissolved the Islamist parliament right before Egyptians were supposed to go to the polls. In doing so the legislative powers to draft the country’s constitution fell to the SCAF. Their upcoming constitutional declaration will involve new rules for the formation of the constituent assembly and will include a provision that will require the new president to be sworn in before the SCAF, not the lower house of parliament. The military council has released a constitutional decree which includes seven provisions allotting the SCAF unprecedented control over the formation of Egypt’s constitution, while significantly limiting the powers of the incoming president.This indicates just how deeply concerned the ruling military regime feels about the potential victory for Islamist politics in Egypt, the SCAF do not wish to lose any power.

Regardless of how this particular step in the drawn-out Egyptian elections eventually results, the SCAF are extremely unwilling to hand considerable power to the Islamist group just because the election is free. The proposed date of July 1 for a true transfer to civilian rule, backed by Washington’s political force, is fast approaching. Many in Egypt are sceptical that the old military regime will relinquish their tight control completely, if at all, and certainly aren’t convinced that the MB will have any real power. As if to confirm this, the constitutional changes underway show that the SCAF still plan to directly influence Egyptian parliament structure well into the future regardless of the electoral outcome.   

While only one third of the Egyptian parliament was deemed unconstitutional last week the parliament was dissolved nonetheless. The political manipulation of the elections process in Cairo is worrying foreign observers. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to discuss the need to move forward with the political transition.

Panetta said Egypt should conduct new legislative elections as soon as possible, referencing Monday’s planned timeline. Tantawi reiterated SCAF's commitment to hold fair presidential elections as scheduled and to transfer power to an elected government by July 1. Due to the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, the U.S. will work with Egypt's newly elected government to advance mutual interests, according to the statement. Panetta did not suggest any caveats pending the election results, presumably because he knows the SCAF will remain in power even if they do not win the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood is an important political voice for the Egyptians but as a civilian entity it simply cannot match the power of the military regime.

After the turmoil of the Arab Spring, a pseudo-revolution that replaced the old military officer Hosni Mubarak with other military officers of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood has been on the rise as a popular political wing. Egypt lays reluctant claim to the scion of Islamist republican politics that has spread throughout the Middle East and Levant. The Egyptian military has long fought to contain the MB group by either imprisoning members or extraditing them, a tactic that all but succeeded in quelling MB politics in the Arab state until they were recently reinvigorated.

Since January 2011 when the first protests began to clog Cairo’s now infamous Tahrir Square the MB have campaigned hard in Egyptian politics to appear legitimate. Strategically they are not yet successful as their parliament was dissolved, but tactically their position is adequate for the moment.

The SCAF and MB have never been friendly and there was every reason to suspect that the proposed “free” election process would be controlled by the SCAF. The MB knows they cannot circumvent military rule and therefore is not opposing the decision to dissolve their parliament. None of the other non-Islamist parties have a clear chance at winning the election. But the SCAF would prefer not to manipulate the election process too overtly to avoid a MB victory, and alienate the Egyptian public, to ensure a desirable outcome. In fact, given the potential for a second, and stronger, MB parliamentary success it is quite possible an MB agreement with the SCAF is being carefully bargained right now.

The ruling military regime is stacking the deck to ensure against Islamists controlling the Egyptian parliament and Presidency. The SCAF made it possible for Ahmed Shafiq to run in the presidential runoff, even though he was the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak and therefore very unpopular with the protestors. The MB has no such problems with the voting public. The first parliamentary victory displayed how the Egyptian voters would prefer an Islamist republican party to control Cairo, rather than let the painful legacy of the military continue. There was little the SCAF could do to stop the MB moving into parliament; instead the military’s real power lies in the institutions surrounding parliament where the military-dominated justice system can block any step the MB take. It is unlikely any public vote will change the status quo of deep military rule.

The Arab Spring was purported to be a long awaited ray of democracy for the Middle East. This region of the world had, according to the Western media’s narrative, been subject to the despotic and occasionally psychotic reign of terrible men who cared for little more than advancement of their own power. The place needed democracy and it was finally en route in the neat, packaged form of peaceful demonstrations. The dramatic displays of defiance that swept the dry Mediterranean lands in 2011 were explained by news agencies as the first pangs of democratic fervour that would ultimately lead to fresh egalitarian societies in an area of the world that had never experienced such governments in all its long history.

Mubarak was cruel, and the military regime he represented kept the Egyptian people away from proper democracy, but those leaders knew what would likely replace them if they collapsed. The pieces of the puzzle not well-reported during the Arab Spring protests were the intentions of the Islamist parties of Egypt to capitalise on the turmoil. Western ambitions of a long-awaited democracy finally beginning in Egypt failed to predict just what results could arise from truly fair elections in a historically complex and highly religious country. The SCAF are very aware that if Cairo is controlled by a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood the future of already tense foreign relations could be diverted to fit with a new Islamist ideology for Egypt. The potential for regional clashes would increase.

Therefore the SCAF are engineering the electoral process to be irrelevant as to who wins the Presidency. The MB may have their man in the top position on July 1 and parliament could even fall under their control. However, even then they must strike an agreement with the SCAF to have any sniff of control over Egyptian affairs. The SCAF will always retain a tight grip on the institutional levers and will dictate how the constitution will divide power between the military, presidency and parliament. Even if the MB decides to protest the changes, something they have become adept at recently, ultimately the military will still be in control and, barring a huge strategic reversal, the Egyptian political structure on July 1 will be little different to today.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Germany uneasy about Greek departure as EU teerers


The Eurozone crisis may not be fully understood by some governments, and greater integration is the solution to the crisis, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the European Parliament on June 13. Barroso said that it is a defining moment for European integration and that the European Union has a systemic problem. Barroso is concerned that the measures being proposed to protect the Eurozone do not take into account the future unknowns.

Today’s construct of the ever-changing idea of Europe ties multiple countries with deep historical grievances together in an artificial pattern known colloquially after their common currency called the Euro. Many of these countries could not have developed to anywhere near their current infrastructure levels without the creation of a unified continent. And it is becoming clearer that many of them simply should not have tried as huge projects such as the Greek Olympic Games have piled on unmanageable debt.

The European Union cannot survive without the interests of Germany and France aligning, for those are the two strongest economies on the continent. It is not however only the Franco-German relationship in jeopardy as Europe spirals downward. Barroso is voicing frustration at what many other leaders in the Union feel are manipulated fiscal debt solutions that directly favour Germany and France but strangle the peripheral countries.

Considering the history of Europe it is not difficult to predict where tensions will crack the thin European surface if the peripheral countries decide they’ve had enough. The European Union was designed to corral the extraordinary power of the German industrial economy, while simultaneously directing that economic power to build a foundation for the post-war recovery of Europe. In the half century that followed, Germany has developed exceedingly well and essentially bankrolled many of the smaller countries, a task it has been happy to undertake so far. Many of the smaller countries are not able, due to geographic or climatic problems, to prop themselves up on their own. They have relied on strong German export earnings to trickle down into their systems.

The continent’s crisis since 2008 is showing no signs of calming; in fact it has evolved from a strict economic emergency into a political crisis. The elections in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece all resulted in unexpected polling gains for minor parties and for what some would have termed “fringe” groups before the elections were held. They are no longer so. The Europeanists who believed free trade and regulation would usher in period of prosperity that could be shared equally around the member nations is fast becoming an unpopular ideal among constituencies.

Euro-scepticism, a synonym for belligerency only a few years ago, has gained increasing credibility in the public mind-set as a progressive opinion, especially in the common painting of incumbent elites as the aggravators of the current financial woes. The public reaction to German austerity measures for struggling Mediterranean nations such as Greece and Spain has been entirely repulsive almost everywhere, including amongst the German public. It appears to many voters that Germany is pushing for austerity measures that favour Berlin, whether those measures are the answer to the European problem is beside the point. The measures outlined so far do not leave those countries in complete control of their accounts, and by extension their governments. Memory is not short on the European continent, and the Greeks more than anyone remember well the last time Germany tried to gain control of its neighbours.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said June 13 that the global economy faces significant risks with the on-going crisis in Europe and slowed growth in many major economies. While the European crisis circles above an potential split, the European Union still has not tapped the potential safety of the IMF and the deep American pockets. The United States has its own financial problems at the moment, but it is in the unique position of experiencing solid growth figures across most economic indicators and it is still the worlds’ largest economy. However, the political decision makers in the US are wary of intervening in the European issue too prematurely, and it is unknown whether they plan to in the future. Geithner said Europe is in the next stage of another major escalation in its strategy to contain the economic crisis. He believes Europe needs a banking union in the near term, adding that it was also important to have a credible financial backstop in place for the countries undertaking reforms.

US suggestions aside, controlling the debt of peripheral European countries is easier said than done. Germany and France understand this, but Barroso is seeing it from a different perspective. The potential expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone will not collapse the system as predicted in a few of the more recent analyst’s apocalyptic predictions. Whether Athens offers to show itself out or is kicked from the party is only going to be the first step.

The real indicator will be when Greece picks itself up and attempts to run its own economy without any access to European funds and trading privileges. Greece will be no longer part of the free trade zone and will have tight trade controls to protect its economy. There could be a long road ahead for Athens to establish viable trade systems with neighbours who are already earning better prices trading with Germany and the Eurozone. On the other hand, if Athens is successful it may encourage other struggling periphery nations currently preparing for similarly harsh German austerity measures to jump ship and try their luck in the outside world too.

German ideals of a prosperous, equal European Union would probably not survive too many nations taking this step, it is debatable it would survive only one or two departures. The free trade enjoyed by Europe is important for Germany; Berlin needs Europe soaking up its manufactured goods to maintain its status as the world’s second-largest exporter. Any precedent for success if a struggling country leaves the Eurozone is why Germany is not excited to push Greece away, just in case the contagion catches.

The disintegration of Europe is not in Berlin’s interests, it is doing very well right now and any future without a Eurozone is unknown, and the unknown is frightening. Since the European Union’s creation France has positioned itself as the partner or even co-leader of Europe with Germany. It certainly is a strong economy compared to most of Europe but it does not have the high export income or consistent year-on-year growth rates of Germany. France also has debt that is three times as large as its GDP figure. French unemployment is hovering close to 8.5 percent; German unemployment is almost three percentage points lower and has a larger population. Germany is so far out from French economic parity that if Berlin did not physically need Paris’ cooperation, it would be the dominant power in Europe. A balance of power exists between France and Germany, but it is not a symbiotic relationship.

France and Germany need to agree on the direction of the Eurozone. The unknown future of the Union if Greece decides to depart is eating away at Franco-German decision making capabilities. There are deep unresolved splits criss-crossing the European continent and the ultimate coherency of the EU relies on everyone continuing to believe that the health of the Eurozone is more important than the personal geopolitical interests of its constituent states. If it is at all perceived to be possible that survival can be achieved outside of the Eurozone, the seeds of doubt will have begun to sprout.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Libya's healthy energy future relies on tribal unity


Libya's Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) has announced July 7 as the new date for national elections, the HNEC chairman said June 10. The story, as reported on Libyan television, said candidates may begin their campaigns once the final candidate list is published, the chairman added. This new date for elections will hopefully create the proposed Public National Conference (PNC) that will be tasked to create a constitution and appoint leaders for the country.

Libya and its international supporters have been soberly anticipating when a set of elections can finally be held. It has been more than seven months since a NATO military intervention led to rebel groups from Libya’s east and south wresting control of the oil rich North African state from leader Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country has swayed between stagnation and outright internal militancy. There was some disappointment amongst the international community when Libyan officials warned early May of a postponement in their planned election dates. The interim government’s seriousness regarding the new election date is yet to be tested, as it has postponed elections before, but it is a healthy sign that Libya is on track for reinvigorating its economy and maintaining the remarkably high oil production that has begun to surpass pre-war levels.

Presently, Libya is ruled by the National Transitional Council (NTC). This group is only one of the heavily armed militia groups struggling for power in the vacuum left after Gadhafi’s death. Clashes between these armed groups are becoming a common occurrence because none can win an outright majority of support amongst the extremely tribal Libyan regions. The power struggle is already counting victims. The May 30 attack on Libya’s chief portal to the outside world, Tripoli International Airport, was carried out by militiamen belonging to a tribe known for its support of the Gadhafi regime. Prolonged fighting carried on into the next week as government forces tried to retake the airport. The often violent and extended clashes between these tribal groups and the police are also dragging in foreign nationals. A British diplomatic convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Benghazi on June 11. One person was wounded in the attack, unnamed security and diplomatic sources said.

The division amongst the Libyan tribes is complicating the ruling NTC’s ability to project control over Libya’s regions from a centralised position, the recent attacks expose how little control over Libya the NTC has. Reconciliation efforts led to a cease-fire after 100 people were killed during six days of tribal fighting in Sabha, such a high number of deaths are part of the reasons forcing the NTC to speed elections along. While the NTC has a semi-functioning police structure to enforce rules, those police forces are unable to effectively protect the Tripoli from armed gangs. In fact, many of the armed groups in Benghazi and elsewhere ignore NTC calls to disarm, setting up de facto security forces that simply won’t recognise the government police apparatus. Unification in the East and West will be crucial for economic development and government coherence after the July 7 elections. But with all the unrest unification is becoming exceedingly difficult.

Gadhafi reigned successfully over Libya for decades because he discovered a method of balancing the various tribal factions. For example, the al-Awfea Brigade, members of which conducted the attack on the Tripoli International Airport, consists of the people from the Tarhuna tribe of the Murqub district, southeast of Tripoli. Gadhafi favoured this tribe while directly restraining other tribes including those from the Zintan region, these tribes eventually playing a strategic role in bringing down Gadhafi in 2011 and introducing a sense of poetic justice to the conflict. Today these tribes remain historical belligerents and some have become more powerful in Gadhafi’s absence.

This is the same narrative reminiscent all across the Middle East and North Africa, before and after the Arab Spring. The strongman in power ensured that no one tribe could gain predominance. He effectively managed the ethnicities of his country, and the long grievances they all harbour, to keep himself in power and avoid the terrible fate of regime overthrow. For a few of these countries, that strongman is now gone and the tribes have reverted to their natural state of territory conflict. Their tribal entitlements are becoming valid once more, but now they have the weapons and equipment to do something about it. Libya is different from the other Arab Spring victims because the government and army actually collapsed leaving doors to the armouries wide open.

Personal interests of tribes are inevitably beginning to snatch importance over the nation’s interests. The NTC originated as a group in Benghazi as the civil war in Libya intensified in 2011. Since the fall of Gadhafi the council assumed transitional control over the embattled country. Libyan civilians have expressed worry that the NTC are simply replacing one regional strongman with another, more group-designed, but just as undesirable, dictatorship. Whether or not the NTC plan to continue in power if the elections fail, they desperately need to conduct them to shake off their poor public image.

But the underlying tribal issues could potentially scuttle the elections before they even begin. Roughly half of the candidates are independents and only a fifth of the registered political parties have promised to compete in the elections, some have even called for a boycott. Add to this the very real threat of a return of Gadhafi loyalists and the situation complicates further. The NTC have already set about banning the participation if religious groups, many of which are explicitly Islamist and are gaining a dedicated and growing following from the Libyan populace. Politics in Libya is a serious game, but it’s clear that few parties are not prepared to lose the power they’ve gained since Gadhafi because of democratic elections. Especially concerning the control of the large crude oil and natural gas deposits so critical to Libya’s economy.

The infrastructure of the Libyan oil development is quickly reaching production capacity, even as May registered the highest barrels per day (bpd) output since the fighting. Libya desperately needs foreign investment to develop a neglected energy industry to try to re-enter that lucrative European market. The elections on July 7 should go some way in preparing the ground for a more stable political structure, and by extension a strong economy, even if it doesn’t immediately alleviate the deep tribal differences. The job of the new government will be to draft a working constitution and sort out the reconciliation and disarmament of the militias to establish some semblance of centralised security. Only after it stabilises the political and security situation will foreign investment be attractive.

If the new Libyan government after July 7 cannot control the militants, international energy firms such as BP and Shell will no longer just remark rhetorically about suspending oil exploration and extraction. Instead they will pull out completely and abandon drilled oil wells to simply wait out the unrest for a calmer time. This will hurt Libya economically as the expense of developing fresh oil production systems becomes more expensive as time goes on. More accessible and lucrative field are opening up around the region and beyond, leaving the world’s energy giants little choice but to move on and away from Libya in the near future.

Ultimately the health of Libya’s economy will depend on just how quickly and convincingly they can tie up loose political ends and form a working government. Just how that government will look considering the disparate players involved is unknown. Many in Libya do not expect the elections to result in a favourable political spectrum, and of course the NTC is unlikely to relinquish control if the elections indicate divisive results.

Monday, 11 June 2012

The draw-down of ISAF troops from Afghanistan


A Taliban suicide bomber disguised in a burqa killed four French troops June 9 in an attack on a market in the main market area of Kapisa province's Nijrab district. The troops were responding to a report of a bomb planted under a bridge when the bomber approached them and detonated his device, a spokesman for the provincial government said. France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the province on Sunday in response to the deaths.

The French Defense Ministry said the troops were on an operation supporting the Afghan army and confirmed the soldiers' nationality, adding that five other French soldiers were wounded in the attack. Four Afghan civilians were also wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility in an email. Soon after the attack French President Francois Hollande restated that all French combat troops would complete the drawback from Afghanistan by year-end.

France joins many other NATO countries by confirming their intentions to end their commitments to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the coming years. France has not hastened the schedule for withdrawal of French troops from the fighting due to the recent bombing, Hollande reassured ISAF leadership, and will see out its commitments to the operation.  France currently supplies around 2,000 combat troops in Afghanistan including French Special Forces and soldiers dedicated to training and logistics. 83 French troops have died in the conflict, the fourth highest casualty rate by country behind Canada, Britain and the US.

While ISAF will see out the extended Afghanistan conflict and likely remain in the country in advisory roles after its combat operations have ceased, signs are appearing that the decade-long war is straining the patience of the NATO and allied countries. There are some fears that other ISAF contributors will bring forward their withdrawal dates as the violence begins to increase during the warmer Afghan spring weather.

The United States is the strongest military force inside Afghanistan with 23,000 troops remaining after the surge. The US military conducts much of the combat operations and incurs most of the casualties. But ISAF plays an important role in peacekeeping and training that the US desperately needs to continue. ISAF military and police enforcement in some of the calmest regions in Afghanistan is building a safe and secure country, and US forces are too thin to control Afghanistan without ISAF.

ISAF troops command many of Afghanistan’s pacified regions where the vicious seasonal fighting experienced in places such as Kabul and Helmand Province are an echo. The lack of sufficient equipment has kept the majority of ISAF troops from front-line deployment, however the steadily draining domestic political will of their home governments is relegating them to training Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). ISAF troops have largely been responsible for shifting the balance of control over to the ANSF and ensuring the majority of Afghanistan is protected. ISAF is looking to leave behind a strong Afghan security service by the time it wraps up in this theatre in the next few years.

Increasingly a more competent force, the ANSF now conducts a good portion of security in the milder regions. Elements from this force managed to contain a strong coordinated militant attack in Kabul on April 15 largely by themselves. ISAF has moved from a counterinsurgency role, leading from the front, to a more advisory role with the view to hand over all security responsibilities by 2014. ISAF and the Afghan national forces will be maintaining security of the delivery of goods into Afghanistan during the spring fighting season. These routes also bring in militants from neighbouring countries, leading to attacks on ISAF forces and the inevitable deaths. This border control mission represents the next step in the evolution of the ANSF force preparing for a post-ISAF/US Afghanistan.

Some governments of ISAF troops have already largely pulled out under pressure from their homelands. While others such as France will be expected to hand over complete control of physical security to the ANSF by the end of 2013, the consequences of not following this deadline will be veritable political suicide for those governments. ISAF is not planning to extend the stay of its troops after the proposed withdrawal deadlines, but there are hints that a residual force of joint ISAF-US Special Operations troops will remain in theatre in a few permanent bases well into the future.

France is only the most recent example of an ISAF member reacting strongly as attacks on their troops in Afghanistan occur. Any deaths of soldiers serving as part of a peacekeeping force will be treated differently than those suffered in combat operations. Afghanistan is a very unpopular war in many ISAF countries and is a common thread permeating recent political debates. While it hasn’t become the focal point of most elections, the constituencies of many governments are less likely to see the war as justified the longer it drags on. Placing a termination date on the conflict has assuaged reasoned fears of another “quagmire” in Central Asia, yet as attacks continue to kill troops those fears are being reinforced in the public mind. The pull-out date of December 2013 is far in the distance however and much could happen in the intervening period.

There is only two true spring/summer fighting seasons remaining for ISAF. Foreign troops in Afghanistan need the 2012 spring fighting season to be decisive. The remaining Taliban militants are certainly struggling to retain power throughout Afghanistan, even where ANSF forces are leading control. There is even encouraging signs that the political process in Kabul may finally be reaching respectable levels of constitutional legitimacy. However the Taliban are an amorphous group that decline combat in the face of overwhelming force in true guerrilla technique, melting into the landscape to fight another day. ISAF are by no means sure their efforts have stamped out Taliban influence in their calmer regions or whether the militants are simply biding their time until the foreign troops pull out. The tempo of attacks in Afghanistan has not reached the carnage of 2010-2011 fighting seasons yet, but clashes are still frequent.

ISAF will leave behind an Afghan security force it hopes will be competent, experienced and willing enough to carry on protecting their country without them. The great unknown is just how the ANSF will react when they can no longer expect ISAF or US helicopters to circle above their operations. Or how they will conduct themselves in law enforcement or combating insurgencies when ISAF instructors cannot step in to provide a force-multiplier or correct a mistake.

The Taliban attack on the French troops sends a clear message to the ANSF. The deaths of the four soldiers remind the Afghan security services they will not be any safer once ISAF departs, they may even be less safe. The Taliban may not be the formidable and omnipresent force of yesteryear, but they demonstrate a sustained ability to strike at foreign troops almost at will. Morale is a huge part of warfare, the most important tool according to Clausewitz, and continued vulnerability of the much stronger foreign troops must be apprehending ANSF commanders as drawdown dates edge closer.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The United States' important commitments to Pacific security


The U.S. Navy will redeploy its ships by 2020 to around 60 percent in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, a change from the current split of half in each ocean, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said June 2 at the 11th Asia Security Summit of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. There will be six aircraft carriers in the Pacific, along with the majority of cruisers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines, Panetta said.

The United States is preparing for an Asian century and the decision to pivot towards the Pacific is an important and inevitable one by Washington. The geopolitical heart of the world’s economy is the Indian and Pacific oceans, through which passes energy to the rising Asian middle-class households. While we tend to think of the global system as connected by transcontinental aircraft flights, quickly transporting goods and people across the planet, almost 90 percent of our commercial merchandise is delivered in containers aboard enormous ships. Moving cargo over water is magnitudes more efficient than over land or through the air.

One of the busiest shipping routes in terms of monetary value and tonnage moved is the South China Sea, the important sea-lane connecting the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. Beijing claims complete territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea where a recent fishing rights spat with the Philippine navy almost boiled over. An increased presence of the powerful U.S. Navy in this essential waterway would go some way in calming any future military posturing by either country.

A principle reason for the success of global trade is freedom to move goods over oceans. Most countries rely on imports for many critical commodities, the majority of which arrive by ship having passed through strategic straights or waterways. While no country would today wish to block these routes in a moment of belligerency, it is a good thing the U.S. Navy and Air Force is responsible for maintaining the free-flow of shipping on the world’s oceans. Regardless of one’s views on U.S. foreign policy and their history of questionable military adventures, the world enjoys heightened living standards largely because Washington divides oceans into segments known as Areas of Responsibility (AOR). Panetta’s redistribution of forces is referring to the U.S. 7th AOR, an area of water stretching from New Zealand to the Kamchatka peninsula including the entire West coast of Asia and the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean. This huge area is approximately 272 million square kilometres in size and boasts nearly 60% of the world’s population.

There is no increase in the amount of Pacific carriers in Panetta’s announcement; the U.S. has committed six to that ocean for many years. These U.S. Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) can range for weeks at a time without needing to make regular port visits. However, the decision to base more of its smaller craft in the Pacific will require an increase in cooperation at U.S.-allied ports. Such a logistical step is already being undertaken in Australia for example, where the development of the Darwin port to prepare for U.S. ships is in beginning stages.

The enormous amount of capital invested in the U.S. Navy annually is set to decrease as budget cuts begin to take effect soon. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not gloss over the fact that these cuts would affect naval spending. Even though the Pacific realignment will take years to complete, the priority of maintaining security in the Pacific will take precedence, Panetta assured. Part of the rational for shifting U.S. naval focus towards the Pacific is to more efficiently use U.S. military assets in a section of the world increasingly moving to the centre stage. As the U.S. concludes a long obsession with the Middle East and begins to free-up military assets again, the Pacific is finally getting the attention it deserves and greatly needs.

Many countries are pleased to hear the news of a planned intensification of U.S. Navy assets in their backyards. The geographic realities of most Pacific nations mean they depend daily on goods arriving by sea; the U.S. Navy ensures that those goods arrive safely. Australia, the Philippines and Japan are good examples of countries that could not exist without secure and reliable import-export routes. It is in Canberra, Manila and Tokyo’s interests to support the U.S. decision to redeploy naval forces to their region.

Strategically important Indo-Pacific nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar are drawing increased international attention as they both call for improved commercial investment. Myanmar is awakening from a long geopolitical sleep to attempt reinsertion back into the global economy. The United States is open to establishing a defense relationship with Myanmar's military if the country continues on its path of democratic reform, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said June 2. The U.S. understands that Myanmar is a strategic prize for all large Pacific powers and is offering to subsidise modernisation in the country.

A durable India-Myanmar relationship is a strategic key to develop India’s isolated northern regions. India is already investing in the reclusive country constructing roads, oil pipelines and port facilities. China also recognises Myanmar, so for Beijing, befriending Myanmar is a cheap ticket to access the Indian Ocean. Beijing realises the need to advance geographically from the South China Sea to secure faster and cheaper routes of transporting energy and goods to its own landlocked south-western provinces.  

China believes it will be adversely affected by any U.S. naval build up in the Pacific, and Beijing is making this perfectly clear. While Panetta tries to assuage Chinese fears of U.S. military encroachment by explaining that the U.S. effort to intensify involvement in Asia is fully compatible with the development and growth of China, Beijing views it as a thinly veiled attempt to contain China and limit their influence. Chinese domination of the South China Sea is of national pride to Beijing, but other countries in the disputed waters are being drawn into contests over fishing and mining rights. The U.S. intends to ensure freedom of navigation in the sea and any attempt to block access to the region will be limited.

Ultimately the United States Navy controls the world’s blue water oceans protecting all shipping implicitly. Any decision to rearrange naval forces cannot be contested by other countries, giving them explicit control over what happens on the high seas. Chinese naval power is growing steadily but this redeployment is not literally about “containing” China. The relationship between China and its trading partners is very healthy, so limiting this dynamic is not in U.S. or global interests. However, the great Chinese economy is rising inexorably and it is crucial to manage such a naturally expanding power. After all, it is not just China that is developing greater sea power. India, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Australia and even Singapore are each modernising their sea fleets with the latest military equipment and systems. Indeed, anyone might think the powerful Indo-Pacific nations are in an arms race to protect their regional interests.

This is why the U.S. Pacific focus is important. For too long, the bulk of world’s only superpower has been fixated on the Middle East and Central Asia. The underlying tensions over historically disputed islands and waters and the poorly negotiated rights to economically develop them has been a barely managed flashpoint for many years. U.S. power in the Pacific is imperative if it is to manage the peaceful rise of China and control the multipolar dynamics of the region. A multipolar system is more unstable than a unipolar or bipolar one as there are more moving parts. The potential for miscalculations or bellicosity is heightened as more powers and interests become embroiled in the mix.

Increasing U.S. power in the Pacific benefits all of nations directly. China might be wary of an increased U.S. presence in its backyard, and rightly so as it limits their freedom to project influence and secure important trade routes. But if the U.S. were to decrease their presence in the Pacific, Chinese-Indian-Philippine-Japanese relations would be much more hostile than they are now. Strategic waterways might be blocked for extended periods, strangling economic growth and scuttling any recovery from the recent economic crisis. So while U.S. involvement could be considered antagonistic elsewhere in the world, diminishing their power from the Pacific system would be entirely detrimental.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Mali's MNLA void their agreement with Salafist AQIM group

Senior members of Malian Taureg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) have abandoned a week-old agreement with Ansar Dine, an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group, to turn the country into an Islamic state, according to a June 1 statement from a senior MNLA member.

According to the Taureg official the pact did not align with the MNLA's secular principles, and Ansar Dine's inflexibility led the MNLA to denounce the agreement and declare all dispositions with the group null and void, according to the statement, which claimed to speak for entire organization. The deal was denounced separately by another senior MNLA member.

Once touted as shining evidence of democratic progress in Africa, Mali is suffering both a military junta and an uprising in its north centred around the major towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The MNLA declared the northern region of the country independent April 6 and it appeared that the MNLA and Ansar Dine had then come to an agreement by creating the joint Council of the Islamic State of Azawad, an independent state.

The stated purpose of the agreement was to set up the independent state to be governed by a strict form of Sharia law. The agreement was strongly condemned by Bamako. But the capital has struggled to contain the rebels in the north, and it appears only because the short term MNLA goals are realised that the rebels have stopped advancing south.

Until second thoughts began to convince the MNLA rebels that a coalition with al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Dine was undesirable, the joining of the two groups was a significant escalation in the current unrest. Ansar Dine is almost indistinguishable from their sister group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and a spread of jihadist influence in central Africa is a dangerous threat made more threatening by the group’s control of the territory of Azawad.

AQIM have therefore never been closer to forming an pseudo-government in their own territory. Ansar Dine initially sought only autonomy in the newly created region, rather than independence, but put aside these objections in favour of a coalition with the secular MNLA. From the MNLA's perspective, including the Islamists in the pact meant they had to temper their own suspicions of religious government for greater defence. Both sides needed to agree on these compromises because neither could gain outright preponderance in the captured region.

The Islamic AQIM fighters joined in the unrest to take advantage of the situation bringing weapons and funding with them. Whereas the MNLA's core principles are to establish a separate autonomous state in Mali where they can enjoy freedom from religious influence, AQIM fought with different plans in mind.

The Sharia law code is not a universal protocol which can be inserted seamlessly into different cultures and many idiosyncrasies of the law are moulded depending on the culture it is in. AQIM is looking for a very austere version of Sharia, which is proving to be unpopular idea with supporters of the MNLA and residents of Mali’s northern cities.

Dropping out of the agreement with AQIM indicates internal disagreements inside the MNLA. The MNLA independence movement base their ideals on the Egyptian and Mauritanian governments. Those countries are held in high esteem by the Taureg senior members.

The cessation in economic activity in northern Mali is also bleeding funds from MNLA coffers. Getting the region’s mines back online and producing is a priority for the rebels and something foreign investors would appreciate. Officials in Bamako are too busy working on the interim government to take meaningful action in the north, so at the moment the newly independent state is largely taking care of itself.

The rebellion has an interesting genesis. Taureg mercenaries hired by the Libyan regime returned to their homes from last year’s fighting in Libya with weapons and equipment. Assuming reports are accurate, thery are well stocked to protect their recent military gains in northern Mali.

These weapons include heavy machine guns, anti-tank guns, and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), although it is unclear just how many SAMs are in circulation. What is worrying Western intelligence is the potential for these deadly weapons to be controlled by AQIM fighters and moved out of the country.

AQIM and other militant groups have indicated a desire to acquire man-portable air defence weapons (MANPADS) in the past; but actually getting hold of them has been a struggle. The weak security situation in Mali offers the Islamists an opportunity to secure these weapons.

But the introduced ideology of AQIM is being fiercely opposed by residents of the Gao and Timbuktu. The reaction to the attempts by Ansar Dine to apparently ban football and turn schools into “madrassas” has exacerbated fears that the MNLA might lose its popular influence.

The United States and France have also voiced concern over the developments in Mali; any further spread of AQIM is a regional threat to the interests of both countries. According to reports, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is preparing troops for possible deployment in Mali.

Down south, the situation is equally poor. The transitional government in Bamako is in no state to activate national forces to quell the uprising and regain control of the northern state. It was unlikely to do so even with a stable government in power. Interim president Dioncounda Traore was flown to Paris to receive medical treatment after civilian demonstrations 22 May turned violent in Bamako. He is leaving behind an uneasy truce between the military and civilian leadership as they plan to repair Mali.

The trouble in the north will not disappear with reconciliation amongst squabbling groups in the south. Mali is so large and geographically isolated that the hourglass shaped country has been effectively a two-state nation for much of its existence. Part of the reason the MNLA made such quick military gains was due to the government’s difficulty of moving troops from the south into the north. The weather conditions on the ground held up vehicles and washed out critical roads and bridges forcing the government to use slower routes.

The Malian government was unable to stamp out the unrest the first time, so there is little confidence they can accomplish it now in a much weakened and distracted frame of mind. The continued rise of AQIM in the region is grabbing the attention of larger countries such as France and the United States, but neither has indicated they wish to commit forces to deal with the threat at this time.

AQIM gaining control of a large swathe of Malian territory through a coalition with the MNLA was a dangerous step for Mali. Now that the power share between the secular Taureg MNLA and the Islamists is no longer valid, the threat has subsided somewhat. But the political situation is still unresolved in Bamako and the MNLA continue to haemorrhage funds on their down-slide to losing control of their new Azawad state. The political future of both the north and the south is uncertain.

The potential for AQIM to fill that void if the MNLA collapses should be taken seriously in the long term. More important for the short term is securing the Libyan SAMs from spreading further afield into other African militant’s possession.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Russian and Iranian motives for supporting Syria's Assad

Iran is using the violence in Syria to gain influence in the region, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said May 31. This underscores Iran's fear of Syria without the regime of President Bashar al Assad. Washington is working to convince Russia and China that allowing the conflict to escalate would result in violence spreading beyond the Syrian borders, Mr Carney said, adding that greater participation by countries such as Iran could lead to a proxy war.

According to a White House news release, Mr Carney said Iran admitted involvement in the Syrian crisis by sending troops into Syria. Washington is focused on preventing Iran from continuing to support the Syrian regime, Mr Carney said.

The deputy head of Iran's Quds force, Ismail Ghaani, admitted May 28 that Iranian forces are operating in Syria in support of the regime. Mr Ghaani explained to the Isna news agency that if the Islamic republic was not present in Syria, the massacre of people would be on a much larger scale.

This exposure of Iranian troops operating in Syria does not reveal anything remarkable about the dire internal situation in Syria. Tehran has been heavily involved on the Syrian regime side during the unrest as there are high stakes in the fighting for Iran. The elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) is quite capable of being deployed abroad, and has shown in the past to be very efficient at fighting clandestinely. Admitting their presence in Syria publicly indicates the importance Iran has placed on the al Assad regime’s survival.

The presence of Iranian troops in Syria will be a morale boost for Mr al Assad’s forces as they clamp down on violent demonstrations throughout the country. The IRGC personnel are likely to exist in an advisory role or supporting intelligence gathering and conducting specialist strike roles.

There were reports back in August 2011 of 3,000 IRGC members and 2,000 Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria. These IRGC men were allegedly leading pro-regime armed teams, while Hezbollah was supposedly killing Syrian soldiers who refuse to open fire on protesters. It comes as no surprise that those forces remain in Syria today.

Iranian Special Forces are not the only elite troops on the ground in Syria. Unconfirmed reports suggest Russian Special Forces are conducting “anti-terror” missions in support of the regime. These troops reportedly landed at the Syrian port of Tartus in mid-March. Russian officials have firmly denied the reports explaining that any Russian troop deployment is for training and security purposes and protection of Russian personnel operating in Syria.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said May 30 that Moscow is not considering altering its position on Syria and attempts to pressure Moscow is inappropriate. The spokesman said Russia's stance would remain consistent during Mr Putin's visit to France and Germany on June 1.

But both Iran and Russia have invested in the perpetuation of the Assad regime. Given the strong words in support of Assad, and the stonewalling of any harsher UN policies towards Syria, Russia clearly views Mr al Assad as a strategic ally for the Kremlin and is doing everything it can to maintain his power.

Under a 1971 agreement, Russia has permanent access to the Syrian port of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast which is operated by Russian personnel. The Kremlin began modernisation of the port to accommodate heavy warships in 2006, the first stage of which was completed this year by dredging the port to allow greater access.

In the past few years the port has received Russian nuclear-armed submarines, battlecruisers, and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, not to mention thousands of tons of Russian-manufactured weapons including surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) such as the advanced SA-24 that have come ashore through the busy port destined for Syrian depots.

With all the talk of a possible Western military intervention in Syria, the sale of these munitions makes a great deal of sense for Moscow.

Any intervention in Syria would be much more risky militarily than recently conducted in Libya by NATO and the GCC. The isolation of Libya, clear demarcation of opposition-controlled territory, the depletion of Libyan air defences and the near-routing of the Libyan military opened a wide window for Western military engagements.

Syria’s armed forces are not only almost entirely intact and strategically positioned throughout the country their air-defence system is extremely robust. Removing a fully functioning early-warning and SAM network is a US Air force speciality. But the possibility of mistakes leading to shoot-downs is always present regardless of force size. Western involvement is therefore unlikely to move beyond rhetoric or clandestine insertion of Special Forces.

Russia is relying on this hedging rationality of NATO decision makers and their adverse reaction to military intervention over Syria. It is election year in many NATO countries and very few of them are keen to risk involvement which might result in large-scale strikes and high civilian deaths, and quite possibly evolve to require ground troops.

Russia has worked hard to develop S-300 SAM sites in Syria to deter any western involvement and secure its own military interests. Tartus is the only Russian naval base outside traditional Russian ports.

The base offers Moscow access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and ultimately the larger blue water oceans. Loss of this port would severely hamstring Russia’s power projection and cut off its allies from supply. Moscow cannot let this happen.The protection of the Syrian regime by both the Iranian and Russian governments directly serves both country's interests.

Iran continues to expand its influence throughout the Levant and the Syrian state is a key piece of real estate for this strategy. Securing the support of Damascus would give Iran a crescent of influence stretching from the highlands of Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean altering the power balance of the wider Levantine region.

Tehran uses its IRGC forces to ensure that whatever happens in Syria the fighting doesn’t spill over the borders, destabilising an area which it feels it is about to control. Employing their traditional proxy Lebanese force of Hezbollah militants is a smart move for Tehran as it offers plausible deniability to international claims of Iran-Syria collusion.

Russia on the other hand - a ghost of its former mighty Soviet Union legacy - anxiously needs to expand influence in the old Soviet stomping grounds of the Middle East. Gone are the days where isolated, young Arab dictatorial regimes looked to the world’s two duelling superpowers for support. Moscow now has to court these regimes to secure trade routes and military cooperation.

Securing strategic points has been a matter of intelligently proliferating vast quantities of advanced, reliable, and cheap Russian weapons. In the same way countries receiving US arms are reliant on American repairs and replacements, Russia creates repeat customers in nations with whom the US and EU countries refuse to trade.

Both Tehran and Moscow see the situation in Syria quite differently to the international community. The two authoritarian regimes are attempting to counterbalance American influence in the Middle East by supporting anti-American regimes and destabilising supportive ones.

No US combat forces remain in Iraq to counter Iranian influence. Unfortunately for the Syrian protesters, their cause, as split apart and dysfunctional as it might be, is a raison d’etre for a continuing struggle for hegemony in the Middle East going far outside their anti-regime goals.