Sunday, 31 March 2013

Smacking children is failure


As I’m watching the recent tension on the Korean Peninsula, there seems to be a connection between the dynamics of the major players and domestic capital punishment. What I mean here is smacking children, whether they belong to you or to someone else. New Zealand now outlaws the parental practice and I support this law. I’d like to quickly explain why.

Punishment is a failure of diplomacy. The role of the parent is to be on the same side of the child, not against them.

To flesh this concept out a bit, one could ask: "what is an effective way to punish your spouse?" Or, "what is an effective way to punish a co-worker?"

The question implicitly implies that punishment is a necessary strategy in changing a person’s behaviour. It also implies that the asking party presumes it is their right to change that person’s behaviour without regard for the other person; a slippery slope.

Punishment is a one of many possible strategies, as long as one doesn't care why people change their behaviour. If one is ok with their child altering their behaviour because they fear their own parents, then punishment is admissible. But wouldn't it be nice to have a relationship based on trust rather than on fear? A relationship where the child trusts the parent and doesn't have to hide the important or scary parts of their life in order to protect themselves from the very person who could actually give them crucially important support?

Would you trust a policeman with your secrets, knowing that anything you say may be used against you?

People who grew up with punishment create and maintain punishment-based institutions. These include, but are not limited to, families, schools (grades, detentions etc.), laws and law enforcement (monetary, corporal punishment, jail), to countries (army, war).

Children are wired to be successful and wired to cooperate. A little bit of post-natal education on child development (such as: what are age-appropriate abilities and tendencies?) goes a long way in helping parents see child certain behaviour as normal and not "bad" and can teach them how to support their children instead of "correcting" them.

Watching and policing is far more tiring and painful than co-operating, co-creating, and holding space in a connected way.

Many parents despair because they only see two possibilities: dominant parenting and permissive parenting. In reality these are only two dots on a vast map of possibilities.

According to some research there appears to be a clear correlation between parenting practices and the willingness of a society to participate in war and cruelty on a massive scale. While parenting skills, or lack of, should not be extrapolated too far, it is important to realise the capital punishment can teach children to lie about their actions (for fear of punishment) or associate punishment with violence.

How does this apply to the present situation on the Korean Peninsula? The North Korean regime has remained bottled in their self-imposed isolation without return to war for over 60 years because the United States and South Korea refuse to use capital punishment. Carl von Clausewitz called war a “continuation of politics by other means”, referring in a way to war as a response to the failure of diplomacy. Human psychology suggests there are myriad methods to manipulate one another, especially children. Reverting to primitive “pain = command” methods is a backwards step.


Assessing North Korea's current military capabilities


Should North Korea decide to launch some sort of military strike on both South Korean and United States forces on the peninsula, just how long could the totalitarian country maintain high operational tempo?

One thing we can be sure of is that Kim Jong Un is not insane. The man was educated at western universities and spent a great deal of time outside the hermetic country living his young life. He is in touch with reality more than is generally assumed, evidenced by appreciation for international sport and a knack for internal politics. And regime continuity aside, his own neck would be on the line if the country collapses if his current adventurism mistakenly leads to launching a premature attack on the South. The latest movements are more directly in line with previous sabre-rattling of his father than an example of a change in tactics.

The tension on the Korea peninsula is something of a cyclic occurrence. In this case, South Korea’s new president has been in office for little over two months. North Korea has in the past tested new South Korean president’s mettle with violent rhetoric and stirring up the water. So what the North is doing is in many ways simply par for the course.

However, as Foreign Policy points out, the new South Korean president Park Geun-hye might not be as amiable as her predecessors. Already a rigid and fiery declaration from Seoul has been sent into the media outlining a right to self-defence against any provocation. This declaration changes the game. If the North decides to push their luck and launch any attack, the South might not turn the other cheek as they have done in the past.

The South Korean military is extremely well trained and equipped. Only the Japanese and United States field better militaries than South Korea. Add the explicit and demonstrable assistance from the United States and the collapse of South Korea as a state due to North Korean attack is all but impossible. In light of this, a quick look at North Korean military capabilities would go some way in gauging the extent of damage of such an attack.

Initially, the most crucial aspect to address would be North Korea’s short and medium range artillery and Scud missiles. The majority of these weapons are concentrated along the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ itself is the most heavily fortified border on the planet and a great deal of any fighting would occur along this line. U.S. forces in Korea predict some of these weapons could strike the South Korean capital of Seoul, although just how much ordnance would fall on the city is unknown but likely to be high.  

U.S. military estimates suggest around 500,000 rounds of artillery shells could be fired at Seoul in the first hour of combat. Of course, the first hour would see significant air-to-ground counter-strikes and anti-battery airstrikes from U.S. and South Korean aircraft and also from ground forces on known and suspected North Korean artillery and missile positions. This would limit the amount of ordnance coming out of the North, but not before significant damage could be inflicted on Seoul and the surrounding cities and countryside.

If the North Korean regime were to send tanks into South Korea they would take one of three main routes.

Every few years the U.S. military revisit their war-plan for the defence of South Korea. What they have discovered is a few constraints based on geography which limit North Korean invasion routes severely. The first is down the road along east coast of the peninsula, but the distance between the mountains and the sea narrows to only about the size of a large warehouse. No tank army will be successful moving down the east coast from the North. The U.S. 6th fleet and South Korean navy are more than capable of interdicting armour on this route.

On the other side of the peninsula, the second route is called the Kaesong-Munsan corridor. This is actually the floodplain of the Han and the Imjin rivers, and was the North Korean’s invasion route in 1950. Coming down through here requires traversing river water, so military engineers will need to bring some bridging equipment. But armour can move fairly well without much obstruction.

However, about 20 kilometres south of the DMZ, in that western part of Korea, the allies have created the largest tank-trap in the world. Its existence is not classified; it is clearly marked on every map. And in order to keep it somewhat hidden from the North Koreans, it is not officially called the “largest tank-trap in the world”, instead it is called Seoul. A city of 14 million people will stop any group of armour moving south just as well as if it were a swamp. It is safe to assume the North Koreans will not take this route into the south either.

The third route relies on a valley in the middle of the country called the Ch'orwon. The valley starts in the north and ends in the south, emptying out just south of the Seoul megalopolis. That route could handle armour and artillery moving through the valley and is the most likely avenue for invasion. However, the Ch'orwon is wide in the north, where Kim Jong Un’s tanks would enter, but very narrow in the south. Depending on how far the North Koreans wish to travel down this valley, they would very quickly find themselves bottlenecked and begin to die in their tanks. Simply put, a ground invasion into South Korea from the north is a very difficult task regardless of which route is taken.

And due to the sanctions and self-imposed isolation from the world, the regime is dangerously low on supplies, both military and economically. The North Korean military are first among equals and get the lion’s share of all goods and energy services. But even if Pyongyang could muster up enough political will to launch an attack, it is doubtful the regime could supply enough fuel or ammunition for its army to conduct a sustained campaign.

For instance, North Korean interceptor aircraft have been recently spotted flying near the DMZ, in patterns suggesting more than simple exercise. The air force mostly comprises older MiG aircraft (of the MiG-15/17/19/21 types), but includes small numbers of more modern MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. These aircraft, mainly deployed around the DMZ, are typically fuelled at 25-35 percent capacity during exercises to avoid pilots defecting to China. Although, just whether such low fuelling indicates fear of defection or true lack of jet fuel is unclear. It is certain that due to shortages of spare parts, fuel, and poor maintenance, some weaponry will not be functional.

Given the obsolescence of most of North Korea’s military, about half of their equipment was designed in the 1960s while the other half is even older, the regime’s military would struggle immediately to fight any modern army. “It is estimated that North Korea’s heavy armoured forces, possessing enough combat hardware to equip perhaps ten U.S. divisions, have an actual capability equivalent to about 2.5 U.S. armoured divisions. With infantry equipment added, North Korean ground forces possess an overall firepower equivalent to nearly five modern U.S. heavy divisions”, according to research from the IISS. By comparison, Iraq was assessed as having six modern division equivalents in 1990 before the first Gulf War.

North Korean airpower, the equivalent to six U.S. wing equivalents in size, corresponds to only two F-16 wing equivalents in estimated net capability.

Nonetheless, despite shortages of spare parts, fuel and training time, North Korea’s conventional capabilities can threaten South Korea’s population. It would also be unwise to discount the threat of chemical and biological, or even crude nuclear, attacks on South Korea. These are compounded with the successful testing of a new generation of an indigenous ballistic missile capable of housing different payloads. The employment of similar missiles in any hot war is already causing alarm in western media. However, such Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) probably do not exist in the North Korean arsenal as anything but satellite lift rockets.

As an example of media panic, the North Korean state media released over the weekend a staged photograph of their leader Kim Jong Un supposedly signing orders putting his Strategic Missile Forces of high alert. A display board in the background of one of the shots shows a missile trajectory path with termination in the continental United States and various American Pacific military bases such as Guam and Hawaii. A quick look reveals the map is either entirely the work of incompetent ballistics experts or meant strictly for theatre. The latter is more likely given the relative success of the North Korean satellite launch. Clearly North Korean ballistics experts can calculate for the curvature of the earth much more accurately than the ridiculously straight lines on the “plans” suggest they can. Otherwise their satellite rocket would have never made it into orbit.

IHS Jane's Defense Weekly editor James Hardy agreed that "there is little to no chance that [North Korea] could successfully land a missile on Guam, Hawaii or anywhere else outside the Korean Peninsula that U.S. forces may be stationed." While Japan and South Korea are certainly well within range of North Korea’s operational missile capacity, none of these rockets can reach India, let alone the United States.

The United States is largely out of range for even North Korea’s longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2 type. This rocket boasts an operational range of around 6,700 kilometres, taking it at most as far as Alaska where little strategic targets exist.

More worryingly than striking sparsely populated Alaska is what many of the North’s missiles could do to South Korea and Japan. Tokyo is probably the most concerned about the recent tensions, aside from South Korea’s obvious anxiety. The Japanese have been the target of rhetoric from Pyongyang in the past and in the event of a conflagration on the peninsula, many of the North’s missiles are within potentially successful strike range of the Japanese islands.

If North Korea really wanted to detonate a nuclear weapon inside the United States it would have more luck by strapping it to a container and sending a ship into an American harbour, than by strapping it to an unreliable and obvious missile. Ultimately it is the South Koreans which will bear the brunt of any hot war. Thankfully, given the above analysis, due to a distinct lack of good equipment any conflict on the peninsula would be crippling for the North Koreans and only painful for the South.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

American bomber diplomacy and North Korean rhetoric


The latest game of brinksmanship on the North Korean peninsula could be pushing both sides closer to the edge than they wish.

In a probably unwise move, two nuclear-capable United States Air Force B-2 stealth bombers flew over South Korea on March 28. The dispatch of the American aircraft, each capable of carrying 16 nuclear weapons, is likely responding to the increased volumes of violent rhetoric from Pyongyang over the past few weeks which culminated in North Korea belligerently cutting off military phone hotlines to the South.

The U.S. military called the B-2 flights “deterrence missions”. Their purpose was to psychologically display American power projection capabilities as being able to fly anywhere at any time and drop whatever bombs they wish. If this message is being read clearly by the North Korean regime, its increased activity near known missile sites seems to suggest otherwise.

A US B-2 stealth bomber (right) flies over a U.S. air base
in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul. - Yonhap via AFP
The American bombers were participating in a joint military exercise involving South Korea and the United States. Flying 10,600 kilometres over the wide Pacific Ocean the U.S. firmly stood up to North Korean belligerency reassuring Seoul of Washington’s commitment to South Korean independence. As part of the exercise, the two bombers dropped dummy munitions about 80 kilometres from the Demilitarised Zone before flying back to the United States mainland in Missouri. The mission was the first of its kind for one of the world’s most powerful weapons.

However, the intended effect of defusing tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul could backfire on Washington.

There are already reports of North Korea placing missile units on standby to attack U.S. bases in South Korea and the Pacific. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un approved the manoeuvre at an overnight meeting of top generals, adding that: “the time has come to settle accounts with U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation”.

While the tea leaves in Pyongyang are not very simple to interpret, their threats are being taken seriously. North Korea does possess short-range Scud missiles capable of hitting South Korea, but its longer-range missiles which could hit U.S. Pacific bases and were recently on display placing crude satellites into temporary orbit, are still mostly untested. 

And looking back to deadly examples of only a few years ago, North Korea not only possesses the capability, but clearly has the political and military will to escalate these tensions into explosive reality.
In early 2010 a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, similar the vessels which visited Auckland at the end of last year, was attacked by a North Korean mini submarine. The strike sunk the warship killing 46 South Korean sailors.

A nearby island called Yeonpyeong was shelled around the same time as the warship was torpedoed, killing four other South Koreans. In the event of similar aggressive movements from the North in the near future, Seoul has issued warnings to Pyongyang that it will respond “exponentially” to any military provocations. This unusual and particularly ferocious South Korean reaction to the North’s recent threats has the potential to quickly escalate tensions into a hot war now that both sides show a dangerous willingness to launch military strikes.

It is hard to see how the American bomber flight was meant to calm the situation on the Korean peninsula. Increased activity around missile sites on the Northern side of the border suggests Pyongyang reads the mission as a vindication of their assertion that the United States is the aggressor.

Undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - AP
Large-scale demonstrations in Pyongyang, while in all likelihood entirely contrived by the totalitarian state, do nevertheless point to Kim Jong Un’s popularity at home. Also important are the North’s recent bout of military exercises. These reveal the continued close connection between the armed forces and Kim Jong Un. Just how much control the young leader of the North Korean state has over his generals is mostly unknown.

In response to all this, Chinese authorities on March 29 called for joint efforts to be made to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula. The U.S. B-2 mission would have rattled the Chinese also. But Beijing has little real influence over the actions of its erstwhile ally in Pyongyang. In the past China has been able to lean diplomatically on Pyongyang when tensions became too great. In doing so Beijing showed to the world its supposed political centrality in concluding the dangerous situation. The message to Washington is that it has the ability to step in at any time to escalate or defuse tensions as it sees fit.  

Yet North Korea appears to run on its own steam for much of the time. If the situation does rise into a hot war, and there is no good reason to discount this disastrous scenario just yet, China would very likely step in. Although a Chinese intervention in a Korean war would probably not be entered into on behalf of the North Koreans.

It has been theorised instead that Chinese forces would probably move to occupy the North Korean peninsula on behalf of the United Nations. After all, it is the North Korean protection buffer between the westernised state of South Korea and the thousands of U.S. troops stationed near Seoul that China most benefits from by supporting Kim Jong Un’s regime.

If the North Korean regime appears to be in jeopardy, and this important buffer on the brink of closing, Beijing would likely use its considerable strength to intervene and prevent the occupation of North Korea by U.S. forces, which would bring American troops that much closer to mainland China.

With such dangerous actions from all sides, the present fear remains of a hot war starting once more between North and South Korea. And with military technology far more advanced and deadly than in 1950, the first hours and days of such a conflict will be unpredictable and probably extremely violent. The potential for conflict is certainly hanging in the air however Pyongyang’s rhetoric will probably decrease in the near future, just as it always has. Once the hermetic regime gets the aid or talks it is likely playing for, it will step back, this much is certain.

Getting to this point without a military escalation will be the trick, and this outcome is less certain. Kim Jong Un is showing at least some centralised control over his armed forces, a conclusion not necessarily decided following his father’s demise. Whether the North Korean generals are all singing from the same song sheet is unknown. A jumpy North Korean missile operator or a hot-headed general on either side could precipitate a return to a nasty war on the Korean Peninsula.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Will humans be needed to screw in light bulbs?


How many people does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, the light bulb screws itself in now. Once humans are out of the equation, they don’t receive money for screwing in the light bulb, thus they have no money to pay for light. But should a human benefit from the light bulb? Without humans, was it even necessary for the light bulb to screw itself in? A human comes along with an idea for a better self-screwing light bulb, but no one has the money to pay for it. What then?

Productivity is up, wages are down; capital is up, jobs are down. It is pure idealism to think that technology has played no role in that. Whether it is a temporary situation or more structural, only time will tell.

Some people suggest the crisis is not from rising automation, but from a lopsided distribution of wealth. While I’m happy to concede this might be the case, I’d be less certain about implementing any policies based on this finding. Plenty of folks seem to cry loudly for redistribution (the OWS for instance) without realising that doing so inhibits entrepreneurial spirit and investment. If the government is simply going to forcibly take one’s profits and give them to others, what motivation would one have to initially invest? Sure, we’re all struggling after the GFC, but a top-down approach is sure to mess things up. I guess to cheapen a summation I’d say a sloppy understanding of socialism is not the answer here.

While I can agree that the nature of jobs will continue to shift away from manufacturing especially, the argument discounts the power of supply and demand to assume large swaths of the population would be unemployed. As unemployment increases, the cost of labour decreases. At some point, there should be a crossing of the cost/benefit curves of machines versus men. Then, employment will once again increases. It could be argued this is a race to the bottom, and that income divide would markedly increase. But that is an entirely different conversation altogether.

That said, a far more likely scenario is that the enterprising and entrepreneurial among us will continue to employ the population, because it is a usable resource. I can’t name a single natural resource which isn’t used by someone to produce something. I’m loathe to discount human ingenuity to find us all something to do. Somebody somewhere will always be willing to trade a little bit of their money, for a little bit of your time.

Then again, as I say in my article, I’m not sure a bottom-up approach will work either. After all, if profits are priority one, and jobs are increasingly completed by machines, then we can’t trust the market to fix unemployment. When I say there “isn’t enough work to go around”, I’m implicitly assuming the amount of total demand for stuff is fixed. But if machines can produce X amount of stuff, why won’t they be the preferred way to produce 5X the amount of the stuff? Why will we use inefficient human labour to make up the surplus? Once a job is taken over by machines it’s probably gone forever, irrespective of the amount of stuff required. So capitalism doesn’t seem to be the answer either.

But then there’s “just-in-time” inventory and centralised planning. With the computing power we now have at our disposal, centralised planning could work. At least for core products and services (staple foods, essential garments, energy, water, etc). I’d prefer a free marketplace remains for ideas and innovation, but the core items could be managed centrally. The more “commodity” the industry, the more that centralisation seems to make sense. The more “creative” or “intellectual” the industry, the more that a laissez-faire approach will encourage innovation and steady improvement.

Basically, the question seems to be: are we done with defining the industry’s inputs and outputs? For something like agriculture, maybe so. For web-design, clearly not. But even agriculture has plenty of technological innovation going on all the time, so it’s only the manual labour part which is a “commodity”. So, better to ask: “can we automate the given industry?”, and if so, “how much?”. Where do we still need/want human beings to be involved.

A good example is online banking. When banks figured out they could offload all the transaction work onto customers (debit, credit, transfers, etc) they were extremely keen. This has saved banks millions of dollars in redundant human workers. Another example is self-checkouts at supermarkets. While they’re not everywhere, they are preferred by customers in shops using them.

I saw another example last year. HOP cards in Auckland have removed almost entirely the need for ticket conductors on Auckland trains. Once the plan to implement them all over Auckland public transport wraps up, why would one need conductors at all? I can foresee the transport machines themselves becoming automated in the future. If it saves business owners money to get rid of drivers, then why wouldn’t they? If there were technologies in place to produce and distribute everything a person might need, why not go for that?
There are already technologies in the works to make this a reality. Google’s self-driving cars, for instance, could distribute food from where it’s grown to where it’s consumed. And then there’s the entire field of robotics. If we can design self-repairing robots, and robots which do all the work for our basic necessities, at some point it’s going to become easier to simply give that stuff to the people who need it rather than trying to sell it. The same goes for clothing, and shelter, and water. Automated systems can be designed, and they can be built, and they can be maintained indefinitely by robots. If people don’t have to pay for necessities in the way they do now, not having to work shouldn’t bother them. But this changes society immensely.
Yet while human labour may not be necessary to create more efficiency and thus capital, most of the economy is composed of unnecessary activities that exist purely for the sake of economic opportunity. In other words, while technology increases the efficiency of the transportation industry such that driverless cars may replace taxi, bus, and truck drivers, that logic applies internally with the goal of improving the efficiency of the transportation industry. The economy as a whole can create new jobs that don’t require efficiency, like making oreos. Nobody “needs” oreos, but they exist because someone can make money producing them and essentially creating a market for their existence
Another way of looking at it is this: the shift to robotic labour will also be one of mind. If we want something in the future, or want to provide a service or product to someone, figuring out a way to do it will be a matter of either (a) figuring out how to “program” a machine to make it for you or (b) simply asking a machine to do it for you. The idea of getting a person to do something for you will seem strange.
It would be a little bit like asking for a way to cross-reference phone numbers of all the people in a city with their street address and show it on a map. If I asked someone from 50 years ago to do this, they would come up with some sort of an index card system to do this whereas to us this is clearly a computational problem. Get the right databases and cross-reference them on a computer. It would never even occur to us to figure out another way to do it. In this way, it would never occur to someone in the future to figure out how people can make things in a factory, or accomplish simple service tasks.
Where I worry, is that western society is founded on principles of work ethic. We compel people to work with things like healthcare and debt to a point where the decision is really work or die. The truly sick part is that we maintain this pressure cooker, in the face of an economy that is rapidly outgrowing a need for workers. Something needs to be done.
Kurt Vonnegut, the modern American prophet, wrote a book about this called “Player Piano”– brilliantly titled. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend picking it up if you’re interested in a future where a significant portion of the population is not needed to work to keep things going.

What about the most interesting question, one I didn’t ask in my previous article: How do business people who want to make money think about making money if nobody else has money to spend, due to not being able to work because there are no jobs? My point is exactly that, as it starts to make less and less economic sense to keep us employed, what happens to us? Do we really need to maintain such draconian social constructions to keep us working in a society that is doing more and more with less and less labour?

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Harsh reality for Middle East religious minorities


As the dust partially settles over the Middle East and new governments try to move past the turmoil of the last few years, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is still exposing deep and raw ethnic tensions. People of all stripes are attempting to find their feet. And with political movement tending to come from Islamic camps, it is very easy to overlook the plight of the Middle East’s minorities.

Among them are the Coptic Christians. Not only have they fled in large numbers - 2 million Christians called Iraq home before 2003 while only 1 million live there now - those who remain are experiencing increased persecution. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and others have all changed in some way during the recent unrest and once stable regimes are radically different.

Those fallen regimes in Egypt, Libya, Iraq and - soon perhaps – Syria, were for many minorities comparatively benign in comparison to today’s states. The strongmen dictators of Gadhafi and Mubarak at least ruled their countries completely giving some stunted implicit protection to these groups. Now, as once maligned Sunni Islamic groups rise into the halls of power, those minorities are feeling less welcome in their own homes and cities.

Courtesy - http://www.ibtimes.com
Old tensions between Egypt and Libya are also heating once again while Coptic Christians are stuck in the middle. Four Christians were arrested in Libya earlier in March for proselytising, while a few days earlier an Egyptian Coptic Church was torched in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. A prisoner exchange is being proposed, but the incident highlights the disturbing new reality of the Middle East.

Under Gadhafi for instance, the regime maintained strict control offering some protection for Christians in Libya. Because of the heavy state control, Muslims and Christians lived in only a wispy husk of peace. Today about 1 percent of Libyans are Christian, however many of them are immigrants. But as Libyan law forbids promoting any other religion beside Islam, the largely unbridled militia groups still roaming the cities have arrested many Christians accused of proselytising. The husk has blown away in the winds of change.

Many other Coptic Christians in the Middle East have already felt the deadly tensions, heeding the warnings. Some departed to explore distant, friendly places such as Scandinavia, Australia or Canada in painful favour of their deteriorating home countries. Others are receiving stilted assistance from new state governments, in Iraq for example, to artificially carve out safer ethnic communities where they might enjoy relative peace.

Still others are being co-opted into the bloody wars of independence in Syria and elsewhere as “natural” allies against spreading Sunni Islamism and rebellion. These fair-weather-friends, of the militant Hezbollah and Alawite types, are unlikely to allot Coptic Christians any political spoils if they eventually defend Syria, so the alliances of convenience will probably be detrimental to the Middle East’s Christian minorities in the long run.

It appears while much has changed on the face, thousands of years of ethnic history and religious feuding is, unsurprisingly, still unable to be purged. The problem is compounded in Libya where state control is weak and unregulated militias without constructive employment release their frustration on Christian minorities. And because most Christians in Libya are Egyptian immigrants, the political tensions between Tripoli and Cairo could be set to rise.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi remains involved in dealing with Libyan apprehension of Coptic Christians. After all, Mr Morsi needs to avoid more upheaval inside Egypt from yet another disaffected minority group. Even though Egyptian Coptic Christians are not known for militancy or retribution, their numbers still make up over 11 percent of the Egyptian population. They could become a nasty headache for Cairo.

Mr Morsi is struggling to effectively lead Egypt, constantly receiving political challenges from all sides. Christians have faced steadily diminishing protection from Cairo since Dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted. And while it is politically wise to defend the Egyptian Christians today, ultimately the hard-line Islamist groups are the key to continued rule for Mr Morsi’s government.

The central story running through the Middle East is of Islamist groups who feel more emboldened by the sweeping success of the Arab Spring. Without dictators to protect minority groups, many of the larger Islamist political movements are taking the opportunity to begin the latest phase of religious warfare with the passion that comes from years of simmering tension.

Political leaders from Egypt to Syria will be of little help for persecuted Coptic Christians. If pressured to choose between ethnic groups, the new governments are more likely to associate with powerful Islamist groups, leaving Christians at the mercy of religious vigilantism and militancy.

In this light, it is no wonder Coptic Christians are leaving the Middle East in droves. 

But it will be the Middle East as a region which ultimately suffers. Many of these people leave with human capital - education and ideas - along with real material goods. Once the dust truly settles in this broken part of the world, it might be a far less dynamic culturally. It certainly will not be a progressive and prosperous home to a melting pot of communities.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Why the religious fight gay marriage


My reasoning on why Christian's are going public with gay marriage is simply a reflection of the lack of power and influence the church has as an institution in the early 21st century. For as long as western culture has existed, Christianity especially has had a veritable monopoly on the tradition of marriage in our culture. Of course, marriage is not unique to the judeo-christian tradition, but inside our culture Christians have indelibly stamped it.

But this monopoly is all that remains of a once all-dominating religion. For a long time there were few aspects of life which Christianity did not lay claim to, all the way up until only about 100 years ago (give or take).

Now, the erosion of influence and the advance of society is turning Christianity into a shell of its former self. People don’t go to church in the numbers they used to, and when they do it’s usually for either a funeral or wedding. Churches still hold weddings because that’s the way traditions work, not because they’re the best place for weddings.

Most people only go to churches for weddings and the church really wants to keep it that way. If that’s the only time they can parse some religious speak on to the heathen public, then they’ll fight tooth and nail to preserve it. One of the last things Christianity had some sort of influence over was homosexuality as a sin, rather than as a natural predisposition. They lost that fight a few decades ago and now all that remains to rail against is gay marriage.

They fight so hard to stop gay marriage because if it passes into legislation, then Christianity will control exactly zero aspects of western society. Everything will appear under the purview of the state. People will only go to church if they feel like it, and it’s going to be a lot more difficult for the church to convince people to attend if they’d rather just sleep in on a Sunday morning after a hard night of gay marriage...

To me though, the rabid fighting from the religious on gay marriage is a frightening reminder of what religion could do to society if it ever gains more power. The American Taliban are some of the most vile people on the planet, and they don’t differ too much from their kin in the badlands of Afghanistan and Yemen. They rant and rave over first century ideas with the express purpose, and intense hope, of visiting them upon the rest of society.

I won’t suggest all religious people are like this, that would be silly. But if you believe a book comes from an inerrant deity, then you’re just a subtle push away from enacting deeply crazy ideas on your fellow humans. The church should be fought on this gay marriage bill to the bitter end. I think it’s necessary because the religious are so close to losing completely that it behoves us to deliver the coup de grace. It will be better for all of us, Christians included, if religion is sidelined in this progressive society. We can’t get hung up on bronze age ideas any longer, we’ve come too far, we have too much to lose.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Unemployment figures highlight dearth of jobs


New Zealand’s unemployed population decreased to 6.9 percent for the fourth quarter of 2012. However the economy still lost 31,900 jobs last year despite gross domestic product growing by 2.5 percent. The sector with the greatest, and most alarming, loss is in manufacturing.

Many other economies are showing healthy signs of recovery and yet surprisingly, unemployment is still a problem for advanced countries. There is an elephant in the room regarding unemployment: greater automation in the workplace is destroying jobs.

Recently, the government’s State of the Nation address declared, “the only way net new jobs can be created is by private investors putting their money into New Zealand businesses.”

And in a February press release, Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman said, “something major has to change with National’s economic approach because it’s simply failing workers and the families who depend on them for their livelihoods.”

Mr Norman’s words echo around the world, but he is critical of the government in not quite the right direction. What if the market has fundamentally changed and the jobs are not coming back?

New Zealand’s unemployment figures are certainly higher than their 2007 low of 3.5 percent, hovering today around 7 percent. But it is difficult to convincingly theorise how unemployment will be consistently reduced in an environment intent on increasing profits and maximising efficiency at the expense of human labour.

The widening gap between rich and poor and a stagnating unemployment situation are only symptoms of an economic structure producing more goods each year with less human labour input. Because of this, the developed world now faces different degrees of the dearth of manual jobs and simple employment.

This is not the fault of any one ideology; it is a natural progression of the capitalist system. Automation is making many industries unprecedentedly more efficient, supplying cheaper goods, but leaving many people without jobs. And we only have ourselves to blame.

Creating jobs is every politician’s first step in securing votes. People appreciate the promise to deal with their most pressing daily concern. But despite election campaign rhetoric, it is almost impossible to create jobs out of thin air.

According to Prime Minister John Key, the New Zealand government is emphasising getting unemployed people participating in the workforce. In an ideal world, new job positions should be created as businesses expand and the economy strengthens.

However, there is no objective law of nature that economic growth always creates more jobs. Business owners may be getting wealthier and industries swelling larger, but they are intent on profits increasing and will explore every possible avenue for smoother efficiency.

In this sense, larger business does not necessarily equate to new jobs. Profit maximisation is capitalism 101 and while jobs have certainly exploded from stronger economic growth in the past, the latest figures suggest the two do not appear to march in lock-step anymore.

Twenty years ago Asia supplied the developed world with unprecedented wealth. The menial tasks New Zealanders and Americans otherwise needed to perform were gladly taken up by eager developing nations looking for investment and jobs.

Of course, cheaper goods and a diminished need for domestic unskilled factory work has been a profitable step for many western countries. Industrial development and globalisation has spread jobs and wealth. But even this trend has an unavoidable consequence.

As the global economy produces enormous abundance, there is a diminishing need for actual, maintained human labour efforts. Folks who just a few decades ago could work on relatively manual tasks are being replaced by automated, and cheaper, machines at a startling rate. Unfortunately for both National and the Greens, human labour is quite simply replaceable.

For example, simple logistics could soon be run by fully programmable computers, while their human controllers contemplate a redundant future. Similar stories are being repeated in industries across the planet.
Even high-level jobs are under threat as companies create smarter programmes to accomplish tasks at close to 100 percent accuracy.

From a business perspective, if goods can be manufactured using little human labour, factories will be built closer to target markets. Suddenly, outsourcing labour to the developing world becomes inefficient if machines are cheaper. Human labour is quickly becoming too expensive.

If any economic law applies, it is this: greater technology automation and motivation for greater investment return is a job-destroying feedback loop.

Mr Norman morally desires employment for more New Zealanders, but he is wrong to point the finger at the current government. The same constraints and the same economic reality exist for whichever party governs New Zealand. To assume any political party can appreciably alter the trajectory of the global economy is wishful thinking.

It is clear the 21st Century will be markedly different from the 20th. The great sea of jobs probably will not return to our shores. As the latest figures suggest, capital growth is decoupling from job growth. Unemployment resulting from automation is not a worry for tomorrow, it is here today.

It is also clear that technology offers both a blessing and a curse. Computers may not subsume all jobs, but a growing chunk of them no longer exist because of automation. As this trend quickens and the New Zealand economy becomes stronger as a result, perhaps the jobs may not come back at all.

This is why outdated political discourse on job creation needs to be updated. In 20 or 30 years fewer real people will be required to create more goods. There will be more stuff to go around with less working hours available.

The discussion must be about how New Zealand will deal with fewer people working in the future, not about trying to fit the square peg of job creation into the round hole of integrated automation.

Jobs are haemorrhaging but the numbers of unemployed people are growing. The political discussion needs to focus on what working-age New Zealanders will actually do if many jobs truly disappear. In parts of Europe, a work week can last for as little as 25 hours. What societal changes will occur when this is becomes a global reality?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

In Zimbabwe, a new political dispensation?


The Zimbabwean government announced in March a successful referendum of a new constitution for the struggling African country was achieved. The constitution appears to reflect serious changes to Zimbabwe’s current dictatorial political system. However, very little has changed to limit the all-encompassing presidential power of which Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is tenaciously determined to retain.

After years of negotiation between the two main rival Zimbabwean politicians - incumbent president Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai - a draft constitution is finally moving through Zimbabwe’s political system. The impact of the constitution will be largely centred on fixing Harare and the political mess stemming from decades of one-party rule of the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Perhaps most importantly for Zimbabwe’s perishing economy, artificial limits on presidential terms will come into effect following this year’s election.

Zimbabwe will go to the polls later this year in June in an attempt to enact at least some of the promised constitutional changes. A maximum of two five-year terms for a single president will make any more three-decade terms impossible.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his notorious reputation and long incumbency, current President Robert Mugabe is of course eligible for re-election this year. As was likely well thought out prior to the final draft, any limit on presidential terms as outlined in the new constitution does not work retroactively. In this way, it is entirely possible the infamous dictator could remain in Harare for another 10 years.

News of the fresh constitution on Zimbabwe media. - Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images
The bullying tactics Mr Mugabe used to initiate talks with his rival political parties around the recently passed constitution are a clear indication of the president’s lack of conviction and interest in any real political reform and democratic process with the potential to remove him from office before he is personally ready to step down.  

According to the new constitution, presidential rulings can only pass with majority consent in the cabinet. Considering the violence of the last election campaign in 2008, and a desire to avoid repeat outbreaks this year, presidential powers to declare a state of emergency will require the approval of at least two-thirds of lawmakers.

Although the trimmings of presidential power should lead to a culture of constitutionalism and not impunity, as Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai recently said, the changes do not do enough to limit Zimbabwe’s enormous presidential powers.

Already the President Robert Mugabe has been in control of the country since 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain. Another 10 years might not be available for Mr Mugabe. His 89 year old health is slowly deteriorating as end-of-life ailments make trips to East Asia for medical treatment increasingly frequent.  

Presently, Mr Mugabe lacks any clear successor to fill the probably imminent void should he either die in office or become incapacitated. In the way Zimbabwe’s president has set up his political regime, Mr Mugabe is the centre of a cult of personality. It is highly likely that in the event of the president’s removal from power, be that via election results or frailty, his party would probably fragment without a strongman leader.

However, until that point real political reforms will be neglected so long as the dictator stays in power. International pressure, especially from the European Union, in the form of sanctions and political observers has already gone some way in ensuring the ZANU-PF are working towards reform requirements. Whether these reform processes are paper thin and designed to entice the United States and the EU to repeal their sanctions, or whether Mr Mugabe is finally beginning to feel the negative effects of a broken Zimbabwe economy, will be borne out in the future.

For the rest of Zimbabwe, the contents of their new constitution include introducing an independent judicial system and enforcing land rights. These changes attempt to address the economic flatline of a once strong, export-oriented Zimbabwe economy. As an example, Mr Mugabe’s controversial land reform policies annexed farms owned by experienced white commercial farmers to the control of inexperienced black farmers. Such policies precipitated a drop in corn production to 833,000 tons in 2012, down from a high of 2 million tons at the beginning of the century.

Alongside this, Zimbabwe’s mining industry received similar treatment from ZANU-PF policies, especially in the platinum industry. The regime made it compulsory for any foreign company with assets over US$500,000 to sell a 51 percent share on to native Zimbabweans. As a result, foreign investment from western nations has the potential to lose traction, driving the economic problems further into the ground. However, the regime has made efforts in the past to encourage foreign investment, from China especially, so pushing their draconian policies too far is undesirable.

If the new constitution is to have a positive effect on the population of Zimbabwe the unity government of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) must pay it more than just lip-service. Already political tensions have eased somewhat since the two parties came begrudgingly together following the election turmoil of 2008.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (front R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (L) - Reuters 

But international observers fear the promised constitutional changes will do little to disincline the ruling party from employing violence and fomenting discontent during elections later this year. While Mr Mugabe is unlikely to outlive a maximum of ten years if victorious, and the ZANU-PF is unlikely to cohere after Mr Mugabe leaves office, the ZANU-PF will do all they can to ensure the next term is a victory for their party. Violence and targeted killings are methods historically used to ensure victory for the ZANU-PF.

With close to 75 percent of working-age Zimbabweans unemployed, remaining in power following the demise of a charismatic Robert Mugabe will be a tough task for a leaderless ZANU-PF. Although inflation has stabilised somewhat following the unification of the two major political parties, with help from Chinese pockets, getting the economy back on track will be an enormous obstacle.

After the 2008 crisis in Zimbabwe, inflation rose to the phenomenal heights of 6.5 sextillion percent. In response, Harare simply created ever-larger denominations for their bills and printed more money to continue trading. The situation became so dire that Zimbabweans adopted the US dollar for official transactions and as a by-product slowly saw their economy recover somewhat. Zimbabwe still has over US$10 billion in foreign debt with little means of repaying anytime soon.

In February, Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Tendai Biti claimed only a balance of US$217 remained in government accounts after paying employee salaries. As this extreme example shows, Zimbabwe’s economic woes are crucial for each rival party to repair as each appears to understand.

Depending on which party is victorious after the June elections this year, the Zimbabwe economy will be a top priority. If the MDC gains power a palpable shift in economic policy is expected. Mr Tsvangirai is already moving towards reversing the trend of state control over various industries and liberalising sectors, especially the mining industry.

On the other side, because of the necessity of keeping foreign companies interested in Zimbabwe, if the ruling ZANU-PF wins similar steps towards liberalisation might also occur, although their scope and speed will be questionable.

Ultimately, the constitution drafted in Zimbabwe will have little effect unless incumbent president Robert Mugabe is willing to admit defeat and leave office voluntarily. As this scenario is unlikely, the election violence will probably return in the lead up to voting in June. Mr Mugabe will go through the motions of cooperating with international pressure to reform to ensure continued control over the country.


Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cypriot economy stuck between Brussels and Moscow


The small Mediterranean island of Cyprus is suddenly became newsworthy across the globe this week, for all the wrong reasons.  Their financial situation is dire, which is why Nicosia asked for assistance from Brussels, but it is the sudden spotlight on the island’s relationship with Russia which is turning many heads.

This week, after Brussels preliminarily agreed to some form of bailout package for the island nation, it is the depositors instead of creditors feeling the heat in the troubled European Union for a change. After Tuesday evening’s vote in the Cypriot parliament, not a single official voted in favour of Brussels’ strict bailout package.

The unpopular tax on bank deposits in Cyprus along with a special levy would have gone some way in collecting revenue for a struggling Cypriot government preparing the country for a proposed €10 billion in International Monetary Fund aid. But the bulk of the proposed austerity measures were to be lumped on foreign investors, many of them Russian. Punishing depositors could be fatal for Cyprus’ economy.

Cypriots protest an EU bailout deal outside the parliament in Nicosia. AFP/Getty Images
Brussels’ austerity measures for the bailout package could be an attempt to fathom the great deal of Russian investment in the island’s banking sector. Russian President Vladimir Putin said as much when he purportedly called the European tax on bank depositors in Cyprus unfair, unprofessional, and dangerous. While Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov darkly called the measure an affront to people’s private property and a confiscation of other’s money.

The Cypriot banking system is closely intertwined with the Greek system and was extremely hurt after Greece suffered a write-down on sovereign debt holdings in 2012. Cyprus is now the fifth European country to request a bailout with ripples spreading through Europe, Russia, and the global economic system with the potential to place significant pressure on relations between Berlin and Moscow.

Cyprus has for many years been at the intersection of worlds. The country is split down the middle between Greek and Turkish interests. But it is with heavy Russian investment that Cyprus traditionally has danced with geopolitics.

The lucky island nation weathered the worst of the financial crisis gripping the bulk of the European mainland. Even though Nicosia will require €5 billion over the next two years just to keep afloat, it has historically been able to look outside of Brussels for assistance, especially to their old partner Moscow.

As well as being strategically located to compensate for a potential loss of control over the Syrian port at Tartus, of which Russia holds a long term lease for its Black Sea fleet, Cyprus is also an extremely popular offshore banking haven for rich Russians and shady Kremlin officials.

Russian involvement in Cyprus stretches into the decades and has evolved over time. Looking to diversify their assets, Russian elites have used the island as a banking thoroughfare taking advantage of some especially favourable legal banking ties. Underground, Cyprus is also relatively well-known as a useful country for Russian money laundering and arms smuggling operations.

But it is not all one way traffic on Cyprus. A loan extended to Nicosia in 2009 by Moscow reportedly came with the attached strings of supplying banking information about wealthy Russian assets on the island. In return Russia helped Cyprus financially when it struggled again in 2011 and sold the country advanced surface-to-air missiles which Moscow refused to sell to anyone else.

During the Cold War, Cyprus and Russia worked closely in political matters and after 1991 the island’s banking industry was one of the few places to continue handling Russian money and investments. Today domestic Russian banks are still unpredictable, with many Russians preferring to maintain the old tradition of diversifying assets into Cypriot banks to keep out the prying eyes of the Kremlin.

Russian investments in Cyprus are estimated to range between €15 to 30 billion, or about half of total deposited money in Cyprus. In the past, deposits of 100,000 euros have been protected by European states to avoid bank runs, so the announcement of austerity took many Cypriots and Russian investors by surprise. After the depositor’s tax was announced, the Kremlin warned Russian business leaders to pull their money out of Cypriot banks.
Cypriot flag fluttering next to the European Union flag in Nicosia. (AFP Photo)

Nicosia was already uncomfortable with the extreme austerity measure tacked on to the proposed European bailout fund. Moscow represents an alternative option for Cyprus, an option which could still be just as unpalatable for the financially besieged nation.

Russia has assisted Cyprus financially in the recent past. The austerity measures Berlin and the EU could soon be enforcing on Nicosia also include pressure to privatise state assets and submit to painful external audits. Ideally Cyprus wishes to receive aid from Russia, who requires none of these provisos, but Russia could be quietly backing away.

One reason for this is the growing partnership between Germany and Russia; another is Moscow’s important strides to stamp-out endemic government corruption. Offshore accounts held by government officials, in Cyprus for instance, are increasingly being examined as Russia attempts to create a culture of trust in its own stabilising banking sector. The Kremlin has even started to ban government officials from holding foreign bank accounts.

In initially submitting to a Berlin-led austerity and bailout package for Cyprus, Moscow sent a clear message to its own citizens that the days of corrupt funds safely sitting in overseas accounts will be coming to a close.

However, Brussels’ austerity measures threatened to confiscate mostly small to medium sized Russian depositor’s funds, potentially causing hardship to a lot of very wealthy and powerful business elites. After the Kremlin recently moved to ban offshore bank accounts for government officials, many Russian elites will have been warned to move their money out of Cyprus before it is too late.

So while initially cooperating with the EU aid package to Cyprus could strengthen the relationship between Russia and Germany, Moscow has to balance an important anti-corruption campaign at home with a potentially heavy hit to equally important Russian investors.

Russia will suffer politically with Europe if it circumvents Brussels’ bailout agreement and chooses to offer its own aid to Cyprus. Yet a powerful group of government officials and businesspeople in Russia stand to suffer financially if the EU package is finalised.

Either way, the strain on Moscow’s relationship with Berlin will intensify, while Cyprus is again left sitting in the middle of two much larger power centres battling for economic security. But without funding Cyprus could face bankruptcy.


Tuesday, 19 March 2013

U.S. and N.Z. re-engagment faces major obstacles


For the last few years it has been impossible to talk about the Asia Pacific region without mentioning the United States. Early in his second, and final, term as American President, Barack Obama made it very clear his nation will switch their strategic focus towards Asia as the fastest growing corner of the globe.

Although the United States seeks economic as well as military objectives in the Asia Pacific the world’s only superpower is embarking on a process to build relations that will require long-term commitments to many nations.

New Zealand is part of that American refocus. Stronger ties are already being repaired after a long period of mutual political estrangement. A minor breakthrough came late 2012 when a ban on New Zealand naval vessels from participating in U.S.-led exercises and from berthing in American ports was finally lifted as a result of diplomatic goodwill.

(AP Photo / Larry Downing, Pool)
However, fundamental disagreements still remain between Wellington and Washington. Wellington’s staunch anti-nuclear stance has marginalised any bilateral military relationship with Washington since 1984.

No U.S. ship suspected to be armed with nuclear weapons is currently allowed in New Zealand ports. The United States will neither confirm nor deny whether their ships carry such weapons, effectively precluding all American vessels from New Zealand. Even though Washington reversed their stance in 2012, Wellington’s anti-nuclear position did not change suggesting New Zealand does not fully grasp the implications of retaining the antiquated ideological decision.

The geopolitical framework of the Asia Pacific has changed enormously in the last ten years. As an example, a few months before the terrorist attacks on America’s East coast a single U.S. surveillance aircraft, similar to a Royal New Zealand Airforce P-3 Orion, was crashed after colliding with a Chinese interceptor jet. The incident threatened to become a diplomatic nightmare for Washington and a still embryonic China, and probably would have been if history had turned out differently.

Now, as the United States wraps up its adventure in Eurasia, begins to tighten its military budget, and reapplies a focus on Asia as a dynamic region, it is discovering just how quickly Chinese and other Asian powers took advantage of a decade of U.S. distraction. 

To counter, or at least somewhat control, China’s rapid rise Washington is setting in motion a strategy to increase its presence and influence in Asia. While China’s military is still relatively weak, a low- to medium-level conflict cannot be ruled out in the future. This is the future Washington’s re-engagement with Pacific countries, including New Zealand, is preparing for.

The U.S. decision to repair and strengthen ties with New Zealand is part of a larger and maturing strategic defence posture in the Pacific creating a buffer of nations with shared ideological and economic interests which could be leveraged against China, if necessary.

                            USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72)

American movements in the Pacific send a calculated and clear message to Beijing that China’s own expansion will not be easily achieved by intimidating Asia-Pacific nations. Re-engaging with New Zealand is one of the many examples over the past few months showing United States commitment to the security of the region promised by Mr Obama in 2012.

A reversal by New Zealand on its anti-nuclear policy is likely still years away, but politics is rapidly changing in the Pacific. With all this movement in the Pacific, it is a wonder why New Zealanders haven’t noticed the need to re-evaluate the antiquated anti-nuclear stance so proudly and courageously adopted decades ago. It is doubtful that New Zealand fully grasps the implications and reality of an offensive China.  

Washington can afford to be picky with whom it chooses to strengthen ties, and how quickly. If Wellington continues to stand against nuclear weapons in the 21 century, then Washington could largely overlook New Zealand as a close strategic ally and focus more heavily on more capable regional powers instead such as Australia and Indonesia.

Washington and Wellington are natural partners. Both countries have shared close strategic ties in the past and will continue to do so in the future. New Zealand troop participation in the Afghanistan theatre has left a positive lasting impression on American commanders no doubt, but the nuclear issue remains a sore point for elites in Washington.

But the point is fast approaching where New Zealand will need to choose either the protection of its long-time ally or face drifting into the widening sphere of Chinese influence. Today’s multipolar world makes the courageous moral choices of New Zealand’s past less prudent for long-term future security guarantees.

U.S and New Zealand cooperation will continue, but there is a good opportunity right now to ensure New Zealand is included in a larger capacity amongst the changing dynamics of the Pacific region.

Wellington can remain a courageous and robust decision-maker and still make the necessary repeals on antiquated ideological positions to strengthen ties with the United States and address the implications of an aggressive China.

Friday, 15 March 2013

In Syria, Rebels Gain Ground But Draw Closer To Stalemate

In the first quarter of 2013 Syria is beginning to reflect less of a sovereign state and more like Lebanon at the height of their violent sectarian splits. Syrian President Bashar al Assad no longer controls huge sections of his country, and is unlikely to regain them in the near term.

He is essentially now the country’s strongest warlord with the most capable military equipment, concentrating his forces on strategically important towns and supply lines. Because of this, Mr al Assad still has the upper hand for a number of reasons:

First, the Syrian Air Force is largely still intact and loyal. Although there are signs munitions are depleting and reports of more anti-aircraft missiles in rebel hands will limit strike and support attacks.

Second, no hard assistance is materialising from outside powers to intervene behind Syrian rebels. Spiralling fragmentation along sectarian lines among the rebels bars western intervention.

Third, the rebels are internally divided between Islamist, less-Islamist, and non-Islamist fighters. Estimates of Jihadist elements fighting in Syria are close to one fifth of total fighters, and rising. Cohesion in strategy is still lacking among Syrian rebels.

After the recent capture of a number of important cities, Syrian rebels are gaining momentum in northern Syria. According to reports, Jabhat al-Nusra, the faction of fighters recently branded as a terrorist organisation by the U.S Department of State, led the attacks in the north.

Regime forces have retained a presence in isolated pockets throughout Syria, but ambush and supply-line attacks are withdrawing troops from the countryside into more defendable areas.

In the east, a temporary alliance of convenience occurred on February 19 between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Sunni Arab rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Connecting these two groups will be highly controversial in the rebel ranks.

The alliance looks good for rebel diversification and points to an inter-ethnic cooperation against regime forces. But while it is a strategic union, it will be temporary. Turkey is also keeping a wary eye on any growing power among the Kurdish population.

In the first quarter, the United States and other western powers could not find sufficient fortitude to intervene on either side. This trend will likely continue into the second quarter.

Although Paris has suggested lifting the EU arms embargo on Syria, Washington is very reluctant to equip what could very easily turn out to be a strong faction of Jihadist fighters if Mr al Assad falls. Syrian rebels are receiving covert military assistance and non-lethal aid from Gulf States and Washington, but it is difficult to see how the rebels can easily defeat Mr al Assad.

Presently, the rebels cannot cohere or convince outside powers to help their cause. Only the flow of arms from Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries is keeping them in the fight. Close to one million refugees depend on the conflict ending soon, but a conclusion is probably not as close as they wish.