Archive for November, 2015

Obama suggests the worst option


President Bashar al-Assad has managed to stay in power throughout nearly five years of civil war in his country, killinghundreds of thousands of his own citizens in the process. According to President Barack Obama, the best way to end the conflict — and defeat the Islamic State — is for the Syrian strongman to simply give up his post. That’s the suggestion Obama made Tuesday, speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande, who is in Washington in an attempt to strengthen the multi-nation coalition fighting the Islamic State in the wake of the group’s recent attacks in Paris. The U.S. president said that the civil war in Syria creates a vacuum that allows the terror group to gain strength, and that the only way to truly defeat it is to get rid of Assad. He then suggested the Syrian president, who has allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people to stay in power, peacefully stand down”.


ISIS, exporting terror


A report from Foreign Policy argues that ISIS has exported terror beyond its “state” in the Middle East, “the Islamic State has emerged over the past two weeks as one of the world’s most aggressive state sponsors of terrorism. If its claims are to be believed, its members carried out sophisticated mass casualty attacks against two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — France and Russia. The carnage in Paris on Friday was the worst attack in France since the end of World War II; the downing of a Russian plane after its takeoff from the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Oct. 31, one of the worst terrorist attacks on Russian civilians since the fall of the Soviet Union. For good measure, the Islamic State also carried out synchronised suicide bombings in Beirut on Nov. 12, killing dozens of civilians in a Hezbollah-controlled neighbourhood”.

The author makes the dangerous point that “We have only recently grown accustomed to thinking of the Islamic State as an actual state, much less a state sponsor of terrorism. For most its history, the Islamic State was a terrorist group or an insurgency. But as it grew in strength, it looked more like a government”.

Indeed its very raison d’etre seems to be to spread both its territory and at the same time terror as far as it can. To think otherwise would be naïve.

The author notes that “Despite the Islamic State’s adherence to the global jihadi ideology of al Qaeda, which urges attacks on the West, it has spent most of its money on state-building in the Middle East and North Africa, with occasional pauses to terrorize neighbours like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The international community could take some small comfort from the Islamic State’s domestic focus — better it spend its money on infrastructure than on financing terrorist plots abroad. But if the Islamic State has now added foreign operations to its government spending, as the recent attacks suggest, the prospects are frightening. It has the wealth of a state, the ambition of an imperial power, and an enemies list that reads like the roll call of the United Nations. It’s al Qaeda with even less of a conscience, more manpower, and way more money”.

He goes on to make the arguement that “State sponsors of terrorism usually support proxy groups because they don’t want their sponsorship known, for fear that their intended victims will strike back hard. Think of the Lockerbie plane bombing over Scotland, reportedly orchestrated by late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. But that’s not what’s going on here. The Islamic State has brazenly claimed the attacks, even if intelligence services cannot yet be sure it actually directed them. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting that the Islamic State wants its powerful foreign enemies to know that it can inflict heavy losses on their civilian populations”.

Interestingly he writes “In the early years, from 2006 to 2010, the Islamic State was not a state by any definition of the word. At most, it was an insurgent group, until the American and Iraqi armies worked with Sunni tribes in Iraq to force it underground. Thereafter, it was a terrorist organization carrying out attacks on civilians primarily in Iraq. But the Syrian civil war and the Americans’ withdrawal from Iraq provided an opportunity for the Islamic State to make good on its name. While other Sunni rebel groups fought central governments, without offering much of an alternative form of authority of their own, the Islamic State went about setting up its own government in the disgruntled Sunni tribal hinterland in Syria and Iraq”.

He makes the kind point that “the United States and its allies have opted for something between containment and swift destruction: strangulation. Working with a mix of local militias in Syria and Iraq, the allies are slowly tightening the noose around the Islamic State’s neck, taking territory on the periphery and moving toward its stronghold in western Iraq and eastern Syria. It has been a slow, agonising process, but it has produced results: The Islamic State has lost a quarter of its territory over the past year. The glacial pace has been harshly criticised, but it has the virtue of giving enemies of the Islamic State time to absorb newly liberated cities without having to take charge of the entire territory all at once”.

He concludes “One positive consequence of the Islamic State’s attacks might be a change in Russia’s attitude toward the Islamic State. Until now, it has not prioritized airstrikes on the Islamic State, preferring instead to destroy the rebels that pose an immediate threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If Russia gets more serious about destroying the Islamic State and finding a way to hasten the departure of Assad, the Islamic State will have done the world a favor. The odds are low that Russian President Vladimir Putin will change course at this point — but repeated strikes by the Islamic State might persuade him to change his mind”.

He ends “Still, the Islamic State’s attacks may have finally galvanised the international community into action, in order to prevent further atrocities like those in Paris. As a result of more concerted international action, the Islamic State will likely see the slow-motion collapse of its government and an increasing denial of its ability to conquer new territory. This isn’t just what happens when a terrorist group overreaches — it’s the risk any state assumes when it uses terrorism as a tool of foreign policy”.

“Iran has disconnected almost a quarter of its uranium-enriching centrifuges”


Iran has disconnected almost a quarter of its uranium-enriching centrifuges in less than a month, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Wednesday, suggesting it is racing to implement an agreement restricting its nuclear activities.  Under the July deal, sanctions against Iran will be lifted in exchange for measures including slashing the number of centrifuges in operation and reducing its stockpile of uranium. Officials have been speculating about the speed at which Iran can dismantle the centrifuges, sensitive machines that spin at supersonic speeds to purify uranium to levels at which it can be used as fuel in power stations or, potentially, weapons. Disconnecting and moving the machines is a time-consuming process if it is to be done without damaging the equipment, making it one of the steps most likely to delay implementation of the deal, and therefore the lifting of sanctions”.

Francis, Benedict and the ordinariates


Amid talk of a civil war in the Church, John Allen notes the similarities between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, “At the level of style, Pope Francis is obviously a somewhat jarring contrast with his predecessor, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. Francis generally comes off as a warm Latin populist, Benedict more a cool German intellectual. Leaders, however, promote either continuity or rupture not primarily at the level of style but rather policy, and on that front, one can make a case that Francis has a surprising amount in common with Benedict. His reforms on both Vatican finances and the clerical sexual abuse scandals, to take one example, are clearly extensions of Benedict’s legacy”.

Allen goes onto notes “A new chapter in this largely untold story of continuity came on Tuesday, when the pontiff tapped 40-year-old American Monsignor Steven Lopes as the first-ever bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, one of three jurisdictions created under Pope Benedict in 2012 to welcome former Anglicans into the Catholic Church. The Ordinariate of St. Peter, based in Houston, serves ex-Anglican communities in the United States and Canada. Our Lady of Walsingham is based in the United Kingdom, while Our Lady of the Southern Cross is in Australia. The Lopes appointment represents continuity with Benedict on multiple levels”.

He then mentions that “Lopes was for many years the personal aide of American Cardinal William Levada, who served from 2005 to 2012 as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Benedict. Levada was, and remains, a close friend and ally of the emeritus pontiff. Lopes himself worked in the CDF from 2005 until his appointment this week”.

Allen fairly writes that “the creation of new structures for former Anglicans was a signature Benedict move that drew criticism on at least two fronts. First, critics saw it as an “un-ecumenical,” a violation of the gentleman’s agreement between Catholics and Anglicans not to go fishing in one another’s ponds. Second, given that most Anglican defectors these days tend to be theological conservatives, critics styled it as example of Benedict trying to drive the Catholic Church to the right”.

Pointedly Allen argues that “Some may have expected that opening to be played down under Francis, but clearly that’s not the case. As a press release announcing Lopes’ appointment put it, Francis’ move “affirms and amplifies Pope Benedict’s vision for Christian unity” and makes the ordinariate “a permanent, enduring part of the Catholic Church.” Francis also recently approved a new set of texts for the celebration of Mass by the ordinariates, incorporating distinctive features of Anglican worship. Those texts will go into use on the first Sunday of Advent on Nov. 29, and Lopes played a key role in producing them. In a Crux interview Wednesday, Lopes said he sees his new job as all about continuity between the two popes. “I worked very closely with Pope Benedict in creating the ordinariates, and I know his vision was of allowing diversity in communion,” he said. “Pope Francis embraces that model and is pushing it through to its logical conclusion.” Francis, Lopes said, is conscious of carrying forward his predecessor’s approach”.

Interestingly he adds “Lopes argued that the experience of the last three and a half years has undercut much of the alarm voiced at the beginning about Benedict’s move. For example, he said he hasn’t witnessed the “tension and blowback” observers expected from the Anglican side. “On the contrary, the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue is continuing,” he said, adding that there have been several examples of the Episcopal Church in the United States “being very, very gracious when whole communities have come over.” He also denied that the former Anglicans he now serves are entirely made up of disgruntled conservatives. “Anglicanism itself is diverse, so the people coming in are diverse,” he said. “To paint the ordinariates with a brush of just one color may be a handy narrative, but it’s false.” At the moment, Lopes said, the ordinariate for the United States and Canada has 42 parishes, 64 priests, four deacons, and roughly 20,000 faithful. It’s in an expansion phase, he said, both because other Anglican communities are still requesting entrance, and because his parishes tend to be keenly missionary and are attracting new members”.

The report adds “Looking forward, he said it’s plausible new ordinariates could be created in other parts of the world, perhaps to serve Latin America and the Pacific islands. Although Africa contains the majority of the world’s Anglicans, Lopes said he would be “surprised” if an ordinariate emerges there. Most African Anglicans, he said, are evangelicals, with different understandings of church authority, the sacraments, and so on, from Catholicism. Taking the long view, Lopes predicted that the basic idea behind these communities – that “unity of faith allows for vibrant diversity in expression … which Benedict believed, and to which Francis is now giving contours” – will stand the test of time”.

“B-52 bombers flew close to islands in the South China Sea”


Two US B-52 bombers flew close to islands in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing and were given verbal warnings from a Chinese air traffic controller, the Pentagon said. It is just the latest challenge from Washington to Beijing over the fate of the Spratly Islands, after the guided missile destroyer the USS Lassen last month sailed past a series of islets in Subi Reef in the Spratly chain. It also comes ahead of a visit to Asia next week by President Barack Obama that will see territorial disputes at the fore of discussions with regional leaders, several of whom have claims in the resource-rich South China Sea”.

Becciu to Saints?


Robert Mickens writes about upcoming curial appointments.

He opens “Francis will not be coming back to anything remotely considered “peace and quiet” in Rome. Among other things, in the coming days and weeks he is set to announce some major personnel and structural changes in the Roman Curia and other Vatican-related departments”.

He notes that “The extensive overhaul of the media sector, which the Pope signaled last June when he established the Secretariat for Communications, is expected to finally get underway. First of all, it appears that Fr. Federico Lombardi, who has headed the Holy See Press Office since 2006, is going to retire by the end of December. The 73-year-old Jesuit has also been running Vatican Radio since 1991 as its program director and since 2005 as its general director”.

Mickens writes that “It’s still not clear if Francis has decided to replace him at the press office with another member of their order, 49-year-old Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, or if he’s opted to name Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, 56, to the post. Spadaro is the editor of Civiltà Cattolica and is the man who conducted the blockbuster interview with Pope Francis that was published simultaneously in September 2013 by Jesuit publications around the world. The pope has given Spadaro freedom to help shape his message and clearly values his younger confrere’s advice. “Spadaro has the pope’s ear,” it is often said in Vatican circles. On the other hand, Rosica has used his fluency in several languages, an impressive theological education (he has a doctorate in Scripture) and extensive experience in developing and running a top-flight communications network (Salt + Light in Toronto) to be a highly effective Church representative in the media. A native of Rochester, N.Y., with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, he is already an at-large English attaché for the Vatican press office. And the pope has known him for several years”.

Importantly he adds that “it is structural changes in the Vatican’s media operations that will be turned up a few more notches next month when the newly created Secretariat for Communications leaves its temporary home at the Vatican Radio building and takes over the offices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. It’s not clear if Mgr. Dario Viganò, the secretariat’s prefect, will be named a bishop. The 53-year-old Milan priest, who is not related to the apostolic nuncio to the United States with the same name, is a specialist in film and television”.

However it would seem odd to have the prefect of the new secretariat not even a bishop. Of course this may be part of the Francis mindset of anti-careerism but not having Dario Vigano as a bishop may signal a weakness in Francis not willing to put the necessary papal support behind the nascent organisation.

The writer goes on to report that “It seems this change of offices is confirmation that the pontifical council will be suppressed and its president, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, given a new post — likely with the promise of a red hat. The career papal diplomat (he served in the Vatican nunciature in Argentina, among other places) will not be 75 until next July, but it’s possible that he could be named Archpriest of St. Mary Major. The current titleholder is Cardinal Santo Abril y Costelló, a former nuncio who turned 80 last September”.

Giving Celli the job of archpriest leaves several others out in the cold, especially the current nuncio to Italy and nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Vigano has served in the United States since October 2011 and is in many ways a Francis man, especially on the subject of money and transparency. It remains to be seen where, or if Vigano will get his reward. He may replace Cardinal O’Brien but this is by no means certain.

Mickens then notes that “Then there’s the question surrounding the future of Mgsr. Paul Tighe, the secretary at the soon-to-be-defunct Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The 57-year-old Dublin priest could end up being named head of one the larger dioceses in Ireland — such as Meath or Cork and Ross — where the current bishops are already retirement age”.

Indeed Tighe, 57, could be sent to Meath. This would place him in good position, if not pole position, to take the place of his archbishop, Diarmuid Martin who has served in Dublin since 2004 to clear up the mess after decades of hidden child abuse. Tighe could have four or so years in Meath and then be named coadjutor to Archbishop Martin or may just take over after Martin turns 75 in 2020.

Mickens goes on to mention “In the coming days Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who has been the Sostituto or Deputy Secretary of State for internal affairs since 2011, will be appointed prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The red-hat post is a done deal for the 67-year-old Sardinian and former nuncio to Cuba. He will replace Cardinal Angelo Amato, 77, an Italian Salesian who was the No. 2 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2002-2008″.

Yet again this leaves more questions unanswered, what is to become of Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer SJ a confrere of the pope and secretary of the CDF. Is he to remain in his post until retirement or will be be given a red hat as custom dictates? With Catholic Education, and now it seems Saints, all sown up what is to become of the Spanish archbishop. Perhaps Francis does not what the row it would cause if he moved Ladaria Ferrer to Saints and instead seeks to bide his time. However if Ladaria Ferrer was moved it would give Francis a chance name someone more to his liking at CDF.

Mickens goes on to mention “And who will get Becciù’s job? There is strong speculation that Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, who turns 57 in March and is currently papal nuncio to Lebanon, is the leading candidate to become the next Sostituto. He was the Assessore (or deputy to the Sostituto) from 2002 up until 2009 when he and his counterpart in the foreign section (does the name Pietro Parolin ring a bell?) were both sent away from Rome and into exile. Pope Francis wisely brought Parolin back to be his Secretary of State. By appointing Caccia he would be reuniting a duo that — for at least their time — successfully prevented the numerous disasters that would later plague the previous pontificate”.

Mckens ends “the current Assessore, Msgr. Peter Wells of Oklahoma, is frequently mentioned as the next papal nuncio to the United Nations organizations based in Geneva, Switzerland. The witty and highly competent diplomat is 52 years old and due to be promoted to the episcopacy. He would replace Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, 75, who has held the extremely important U.N. post since 2003″.

He concludes “Pope Francis finally announced last month what everyone had known for more than a year — that three existing structures would be combined to make one big office to deal with issues concerning the laity, family and human life. But up to now he has not said what exactly the new body will be (such as a congregation or a secretariat) or who will head it. Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, currently president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, would seem to be the leading candidate to oversee the new office, even if lay people have been mentioned as possible heads of various sections. But the pope may think it is time for the cardinal, who was ordained both priest and bishop by Karol Wojtyla-Pope John Paul II, to return to his native Archdiocese of Krakow after spending the last three decades in Rome. He would be a natural replacement for the current archbishop there, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. The longtime secretary of the late Polish pope turns 77 next April”.

He goes on to speculate “Pope Francis could turn to Rylko’s deputy (and former personal secretary to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), German Bishop Josef Clemens, 68. Or he could look to the current president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, 70. On the other hand, both men are still young enough to head up a diocese in their native countries. But the pope will have to discern whether that would really be such a good idea — and for whom. There’s yet another possibility. Francis could name the trusted coordinator of his C9 body of cardinal-advisors, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, to be the first head of the new office for laity, family and life. The affable Salesian will be 73 next month and shortly afterwards will mark 23 years as head of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Now might be the right time for him to take up a new post. Rodriguez is, without a doubt, one of Francis’ most important allies. But he looks suspiciously like the epitome of the so-called “airport bishop” that the pope so strongly criticizes — one who is constantly travelling abroad for speaking engagements and meetings and is rarely at home”.

He concludes “Bringing Cardinal Oscar to Rome would make perfect sense. After all, the man who’s come as close as anyone to being the “vice-pope” is also the one who initially suggested the idea for new super-office for the laity. He actually said it should be a top shelf department at the level of a Vatican congregation, like those for bishops, clergy and religious. These are just some of the personnel changes Pope Francis will be making. There will be more, included with the official announcement that several current departments will be dissolved and folded into one big office for charity, justice and peace”.

“Germany will send 130 more soldiers to Afghanistan”


Germany will send 130 more soldiers to Afghanistan, the government said on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting to discuss support for Afghan forces struggling to tackle an Islamist insurgency. The Taliban’s surprise seizure of the northern city of Kunduz in September, the first time the militants had taken a provincial capital in 14 years, has prompted the U.S.-led military coalition to revise its strategy in Afghanistan. Although NATO has withdrawn almost all of its combat troops, it still has soldiers stationed there to train local forces. Up to about 850 German troops are in Afghanistan on this mission. That number will now go up to 980, the government said. German forces are stationed in the north of the country. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said after the fall of Kunduz that she was open to delaying the withdrawal of German soldiers from Afghanistan beyond next year.

“Not likely under any circumstances to actually do what has to be done”


An piece from Shadow Government blog asks how much President Obama is willing to do to defeat ISIS, “As terrorists multiply their attacks and increase their intensity, public discourse in the United States has grown more coarse and unproductive. Critics continue to pound U.S. President Barack Obama, so he changes the subject to Syrian refugees and calls his opponents cowards for being afraid to let women and children into the country — never mind that the public is with his critics. He has also said that criticism of his policies is succor to the Islamic State. These kinds of responses, the president seems to have decided, are better than dealing with his critics head on and engaging them in rational debate. None of this is going to help us defeat the terrorists, so maybe it is time for a reset on both sides and see what can be agreed upon”.

Interestingly the piece notes that Obama is losing support of the public, “Attacks on Obama’s foreign policy are coming quite literally from all quarters. They are prompted by the horror of the Syrian civil war, where a dictator remains in power after a U.S. president says he has to go; the re-emergence of Russia as a great power in the Middle East; and above all, by the establishment of the barbaric Islamic State caliphate with its tentacles spreading across Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. The attacks come from Republicans, retired diplomats, and retired military, but that is not a big surprise. The public is also weighing in via polls that show majorities want more action against Islamic terrorist groups like the Islamic State, anda recent NBC News poll shows them actually supporting more troops on the ground in the Middle East — 65 percent, in fact. That is also not a surprise given Obama’s low poll numbers”.

Worse for Obama the writer makes the point that “But attacks from leaders in his own party are proliferating as they begin to differ with him in public. We can guess that if Democrats like Sen. DianeFeinstein are disputing with him in public, they have likely been doing so in private for a while. We also know that Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not on the same page regarding Syria and with her recent advocacy for possibly putting more boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State, she, too, counts as a critic. One of the harshest Democratic critics is former Amb. Mark Ginsberg. His critique is rather bracing, as were his news media appearances. Frustration is building in Obama’s own party for him to do more to defend our interests and support the civilised world against the barbarity being loosed on it”.

The author then makes the point that “the president and his critics could set aside their disagreements and work to find a common ground for the next year that can actually begin to erode the success of the terrorists. In other words, we know this commander-in-chief very well now after seven and a half years. He holds to an ideology that finds the United States and other Western powers over the centuries to be the cause and not the solution to the world’s problems. Therefore, we know that he is not going to do anything with the military that he does not absolutely have to do and that means he is not likely under any circumstances to actually do what has to be done: go to the caliphate and wipe it out. In these circumstances, the most we can expect of the United States is to perform some sort of holding action”.

He suggests three methods to help defeat ISIS, “the president can double down on disrupting the Islamic State’s revenue streams from the sale of oil. Experts at the Rand Corporation and other think tanks have commented on this. All relevant agencies of the U.S. government should converge on this task as we have with other malefactors before. Moreover, the president’s guidance to the military that hamstrings them by ordering them not to risk civilian lives must be amended; civilians trafficking in oil for the Islamic State should be legitimate targets. The Pentagon should continue bombing raids targeting the entire chain of illicit oil sales. U.N. resolutions, NATO actions, or just unilateral U.S. actions are all called for to break up the oil economy of the Islamic State. But it is not just the commodity of oil that the caliphate relies on”.

He adds “Second, the administration can work to harm the Islamic State’s image by intensified targeting of its personnel, particularly leaders, wherever they are. Leaders are replaceable but at some point if enough of them die in fiery explosions, the bloom may begin to fade from the rose”.

Finally he writes “Third, the president can call upon all moderate Muslims to denounce the Islamic State and all radical violent Islamists. Yes, I know that in the administration’s eyes this would be a tacit admission that Islam has a problem if you are calling on Muslims to rebuke their own, but he doesn’t have to admit that. Besides, a few moderate leaders already have spoken up; they should be encouraged with public embraces from the White House and the West generally. As to imams like the one in Minnesota who refuses to criticize the Islamic State, the White House should take him and others like him to task; after all, Obama doesn’t spare Christian leaders when he wants to rebuke or shame them”.

“Turkey shot down a Russian jet”


NATO faced being thrust into a new Middle Eastern crisis on Tuesday after warplanes from member state Turkey shot down a Russian jet that Turkish officials said had violated their country’s airspace on the border with Syria. The incident marked a serious escalation in the Syrian conflict that is likely to further strain relations between Russia and the NATO alliance. Russian officials confirmed that a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft was shot down Tuesday morning but insisted it had not violated Turkey’s airspace. Russia’s Defense Ministry said one of at least two pilots probably died during the incident, and a marine also was killed by apparent Syrian insurgent fire during a helicopter rescue operation to retrieve the downed airmen”.

After Paris, Obama changes nothing


A piece from Foreign Policy argues that the recent Paris attacks will not change President Obama’s Syria policy.

It begins “the mass carnage in Paris last Friday was the worst terrorist attack perpetrated in and against the West since the 2004 Madrid train bombings. And there are some who might come to believe (or hope) the severity of these attacks would produce a fundamental change in the Obama administration’s approach to the Islamic State and Syria. But, as I’ve noted before, when it comes to President Barack Obama and abrupt policy changes, anyone caught up on this idea ought to lay down, take a deep breath, and wait quietly until the feeling passes”.

The author goes on to write “Five days after the Paris carnage, it may simply be too soon (and unfair) to make categorical predictions about what the U.S. president will and will not do to respond to Islamic State terrorism. And of course, without a crystal ball, who’s to say if future attacks in Europe, or even a similar attack here in the United States, would fundamentally change U.S. policy. But preliminary indications, based on Obama’s statements at the G-20 summit, suggest that the Paris attacks aren’t going to fundamentally influence or alter the administration’s approach toward the Islamic State and Syria. For now, America’s Goldilocks policy — a mix of diplomatic and military moves that are neither too hot nor too cold and are designed to degrade and contain the Islamic State’s spread over time — will continue to prevail”.

However he writes that the administration is becoming increasingly isolated as countries seek action “other world leaders appear to be shedding — perhaps even breaking with — Obama’s slow-burn game plan and going red hot against the Islamic State: understandably, France and Russia, in particular, two of the Islamic State’s most recent victims. And that is a potentially significant change. Indeed, right now it seems that the Paris attacks aren’t a proverbial game-changer for the United States but another horrific turn in the long war against global jihad. Let’s wait and see whether the Obama administration can take advantage of the horror in Paris to energise its own policies and help its allies to strengthen theirs. Understandably, French President François Hollande reacted to the carnage perpetrated on his homeland with strong words and deeds, promising that France’s response will be pitiless and merciless. The French have used U.S.-supplied intelligence for launching strikes against Raqqa as well as for beginning their own crackdown against potential jihadi sites and safe houses in France and Belgium. Hollande has sought broader emergency powers to do precisely that. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, having officially pronounced that the Islamic State was in fact responsible for the downing of Metrojet Flight 9268, vowed revenge in an appearance during which he emanated an icy stare, one he no doubt cultivated when he served in the KGB”.

Pointdly he writes “the sense you get from worldwide media coverage of the Paris tragedy is that the days of namby-pamby policies against the Islamic State are over — that the time has come for the West to step up. Paris was the tipping point, the game-changer, the proverbial transformative moment that should and would energise the West and the international community to turn the long war against the Islamic State into a much shorter affair”.

This just leaves the Obama administration, “what has been offered up by administration officials seems to be an effort to downplay the prospects that Paris will lead the United States — at least for now — to fundamentally alter its existing (and cautious) policies in Syria. On Sunday, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes agreed with Hollande that the Paris attacks were an “act of war,” but proceeded to rule out any major change in U.S. policy that might bolster that assessment. Finally, he doused with ice water the possibility that more U.S. troops were the answer, arguing that setting up a no-fly zone was too expensive and a misallocation of resources”.

The piece goes on to mention “Obama’s comment at the summit that the Paris attacks were not simply an attack on France but on the entire civilized world was true enough but somehow seemed stale and lacked the freshness and resolve that seemed called for in the moment. So what’s really going on here? In the wake of the Paris atrocities, what’s driving U.S. policy away from a more muscular role and, like a moth to a flame, toward a more risk-averse approach consistent with traditional policies? Here’s what Obama would say to you if he could”.



Rouhani seeks better relations?


The nuclear deal reached between world powers and Iran could lead to better relations between Tehran and Washington if the United States apologized for past behaviour, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying on Thursday. The pragmatist president, who championed the July 14 deal, has pushed for closer engagement with the West since his 2013 landslide election win. But Iran’s top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has continued to rule out normalizing ties with the “Great Satan”, as he routinely calls the United States. In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Rouhani suggested that the United States and Iran could open embassies in each other’s capitals after decades of mutual hostility, but said Washington should apologize, without going into further detail”.

France fights Germany?


A piece argues that France is “at war” with Germany, “Nobody has ever described former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as a graceful loser. “I’m not saying, ‘After me, chaos,’” he told Le Figaro, referring to his eventual defeat by François Hollande, although that is, of course, exactly what he meant. Sarkozy all but taunted the French public, warning that they would sorely miss the fiscal discipline, vigilant defense, and respectable centrism he saw as the hallmarks of his presidency. And, belatedly, it does seem he had a point. Chaos is precisely what France has reaped in recent days. A murderous series of terror attacks has been followed by a nationwide manhunt, and warnings of further massacres to come. Facing a crisis of this sort, most other nations’ natural instinct would be to recoil. The French, by contrast, have indulged their instinct for repaying an indignity. Hollande has already initiated a series of airstrikes on the Islamic State capital in Syria.”

Of far more relevance the author notes that “The French government has also signaled that, on matters both economic and political, it will no longer be content with taking a backseat to Germany in the European Union. France has declared the Islamic State an outright enemy; more quietly, it has started treating German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a new type of adversary”.

The report goes on to make the point that “It might seem ironic that France has responded to its national crisis by setting its national aspirations even higher. But it’s entirely in keeping with France’s national character, and its traditional role in Europe. And it might turn out to be precisely what puts an end to the continent’s own extended moment of crisis. France’s new slogan of resistance, mocked up in cartoons and painted on city walls, is an old one: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur, the motto of Paris itself, inscribed on the city’s coat of arms. (Translation: tossed but not sunk, like a ship on the water.) Old habits die hard, and the sheer outrage of the attacks has reminded even Hollande of how unnatural and belittling German control over French budgeting has come to feel. “The security pact takes precedence over the stability pact,” as he announced at a joint session of parliament, vowing to spend whatever French security requires — however far in excess of European Union deficit caps”.

Of course it remains to be seen whether this nationalist surge will survive or whether it will fade with time and the French will continue to be good Europeans/Germans when Merkel starts noting the rise in the French deficit.

The piece goes on to note “France’s nationalistic insurgency is just the beginning. But with the right pair of eyes, it wasn’t hard to detect in advance. The country’s public, and its political class, have chafed for a long while at Europe’s reigning ideology of Merkelism, an approach to budgetary penny-pinching somewhat like Sarkozy’s but considerably more drastic, and infinitely more German in its commitment to following common rules. Merkel’s approach to keeping the eurozone intact was viewed by many Europeans as everything from bunk economics to moral bankruptcy, and its dead yet grasping hand was invasive enough to stir up memories of the deceptively distant Nazi occupation”.

He goes on to draw a connection between French treatment at the hands of terrorists with the euro crisis, which is quite a stretch. He seems to think that recent French actions against terrorists, given what happened in Paris, will translate into a “war” with Germany over the future of the EU itself. Yet, it is safe to say that French commitment to the EU is still firm, though less firm than it was, and that when time has passed and memories fade there will be little that will separate the two nations again i.e. Germany will tell France what to do and France will obey all the while being called a “key ally” of Germany.

He goes on to argue “Neither victory for the French nor defeat for Europe’s enemies, in other words, will emanate from the managed technocracy of the European Union. It must not have been lost on Parisians, or anyone, that even the national government in Brussels, where the institutions of the EU reside, confessed it could not “control” the “situation” in Molenbeek — that capital’s run-down neighbourhood linked to a string of terrorist plots, the Paris assaults the last. That shamefaced admission was an unforgiving analog of everything cumbersome, aloof, distant, ineffective, and weirdly dehumanized about the EU under German leadership, concerned as it is more about monetary and financial togetherness than unity of purpose on more fundamental political questions”.

He carries on this theme given what could only charitably be called evidence, “France recognizes that the nature of the threat Europe’s nations now face is broader than just Islamic terrorism. From Greece at the outset to Portugal now, “German austerity” has become the all-but-irreconcilable difference pitting nationalists on the right and left against continental elites obliged to follow in Angela Merkel’s footsteps. “What we are seeing,” thundered UKIP chief Nigel Farage late last month, “is an increasingly authoritarian European Union that crushes democratic rights and then actually crows about it. Every single time there is a crisis, it is national democracy that loses.” But the EU’s British critics are marginal, taking offshore potshots from the institution’s sidelines. A turn in France toward popular force, and against bankers’ restraint, however, would be a decisive blow to Merkel’s reign in Europe. No other nation in Europe is consequential enough to have anchored the EU as an equal partner with Germany, and no other can hold its lesser members together with an alternate worldview as firmly established as Germany’s own”.

Interestingly he does write that “Merkel is losing the support of allies including (another irony) the finance minister of Bavaria, one Markus Soeder, who has abruptly proclaimed that “Paris changes everything.” Balkan razor wire and German anxieties have already chipped away at Berlin’s hegemony in Europe on questions of migration; but only French élan can fill the breach and provide a confident alternative to Merkel’s vision. French politicians well to Sarkozy’s right are already preparing to do just that. Backed by another bump in the polls, National Front chief Marine Le Pen has demanded France break with the EU’s quota system for migrant admissions and impose an immediate halt. Le Pen has recognized that the backlash to Merkelism is as politically potent as the reaction to Bourbon despotism had once been in an earlier age. (She seems not to have entirely recognized, however, that France may struggle to capture the heart of Europe if it sours too much on the message of universal liberty, equality, and fraternity.) In all likelihood, the recent decades France has spent on the backbench of Europe will be seen as a classic historical blip. Radical or reactionary, French political opinion has characteristically spoken with prideful particularity to matters of universal European — and human — concern. And wherever its place on the spectrum, the French character has often bristled against the pinching modesty of accountants’ values. A few centuries ago, contempt was aimed at Britain’s nation of shopkeepers. This century, it is Germany’s turn”.

Saudis support Yemen peace talks


Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir voiced support on Wednesday for peace talks on Yemen’s conflict which the United Nations says will take place this month in Geneva. “We hope they will be successful,” Al Jubeir told reporters after a summit of Arab and South American countries in Riyadh. “We support these negotiations and hope they will achieve peace, security and stability in Yemen,” he said. Addressing the summit late on Tuesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that his special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, “intends to convene a new round of peace consultations in Switzerland… this month”. He did not give a specific date but said both the Yemeni government and the Houthis have committed to attend”.

“Obama administration blew it at the last moment”


After the strong message that turned into a muddle in the South China Sea, James Holmes writes what the United States can do to repair the damage, “After finally making a sensible move in the South China Sea, the Obama administration blew it at the last moment. In late October, the Aegis destroyer USS Lassen, a vessel optimized for air and missile defense, cruised past the Subi Reef, located more than 500 miles from China’s Hainan Island. Subi is one of the nine or so islands China has fabricated from undersea rocks. Until recently, Subi was underwater at high tide — but since China started reclaiming islands by dredging up the seafloor, Beijing has been using its recently created flyspeck at Subi to claim adjacent waters and skies as its property. The Lassen cruise was intended to demonstrate U.S. support for freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. But by calling the expedition an “innocent passage,” anonymous officials from the Barack Obama administration bungled away the legal and diplomatic gains”.

Holmes goes on to mention “Officialdom must learn from the Lassen debacle. This means staying on message in future freedom of navigation challenges; predicting China’s next moves in the controversy; and sculpting tactics and operations to outwit and outmaneuver Beijing. The United States and its allies are in the right. Chinese officials correctly point out that fellow claimants, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, have reclaimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi and Manila do not claim the seas and airspace around their man-made islands or seek to dictate the terms whereby traffic may pass.  Accordingly, the Vietnamese and Philippine claims pose little, if any, danger to free passage through regional seaways”.

The scale of the threat from China is made clear when Holmes writes “China’s claims, by contrast, would erase the principle that no one owns the high seas. Beijing claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, meaning that what China says goes. Sovereignty means nothing if not physical control of territory within certain borders on the map. Laws enacted in Beijing, that is, would supersede treaties and customary international law. To preserve the law of the sea, the United States and like-minded countries must gird themselves to defend it — and, indeed, the U.S.-led international order — in a drawn-out twilight struggle”.

Holmes makes the valid point that “First of all, let’s learn from past blunders. Under the doctrine of innocent passage, ships must refrain from certain actions while traversing a coastal state’s 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. For example, passersby may not use force against the coastal state, conduct exercises simulating the use of force, conduct flight operations, or perform underwater surveys. These are all activities China wants to forbid — which is why it refers to freedom of navigation through the China seas as innocent passage. It wants fellow seafaring states to assent to similar restrictions. This is why it’s crucial not to use China’s preferred language in public statements and diplomatic correspondence. If Washington depicts the Lassen voyage as an innocent passage, it implies that it accepts the rules Beijing wants to enforce around its man-made islands and throughout 80 to 90 percent of the South China Sea. Washington’s message should be precisely the reverse: that it rejects China’s vision unequivocally”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “sending a uniform message is tougher than it sounds. There’s no charitable way to interpret the words coming from anonymous sources. In the best case, linguistic sloppiness or ignorance of the law may have been at fault, in which case some remedial education should do the trick. In the worst case, though, someone deliberately sought to sabotage administration policy. That’s far more troublesome. Sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein devised a “razor,” or logical thumb rule, warning against ascribing to villainy what can be ascribed to incompetence”.

Holmes later writes that “Washington must clearly convey that it is upholding not just freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia but freedom of the sea, as manifest in customary and treaty law. Surrendering the full range of nautical freedoms would be relinquishing major elements of the law of the sea. It would also be abandoning the South China Sea as a military theater. Surveillance flights, underwater surveys, and other activities permitted within the maritime commons help acquaint armed forces with the operational setting. Try fighting on unfamiliar ground, against an adversary who’s intimately familiar with it. That’s a losing proposition. Which is precisely the point for China. Beijing hopes to gain a military advantage through lawfare, deploying inventive interpretations of international law as a weapon. It wants to convince the United States to forgo its legal prerogatives and its preparedness for naval conflict in Southeast Asia in the bargain. The island disputes, then, are about far more than legal etiquette or diplomatic one-upmanship. This is about the United States’ ability to stay engaged in a region populated by allies and friends. This is a high-stakes game, not a quarrel over a bunch of rocks or legal trivia”.

He makes the important point that “Washington, then, must be a better coalition-builder than Beijing is a coalition-breaker. It must remain strong in Southeast Asia, reassuring allies like Manila that it can keep its defense commitments. That means convincing allies the U.S. military can fight and win. Signing away its rights to conduct wargames, fly aircraft, and conduct surveys of the surroundings would work against U.S. combat readiness. Far from reassuring allies and friends, letting combat readiness slip would dishearten them — undercutting America’s strategic position in Southeast Asia. That’s what’s at stake in the tussle over innocent passage. Beyond shaping the strategic environment, Beijing will probably reach for the smallest stick possible to enforce its policies. No sane government relishes a fight with a peer adversary. The costs are steep, the hazards and uncertainties many”.

He ends “Washington must be imaginative and creative when plotting strategy for the South China Sea, and it must pay Chinese operational creativity due homage. Foresight schooled by hindsight represents the best weapon in America’s intellectual arsenal”.

“Stopped dismantling centrifuges”


Iran has stopped dismantling centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants, state media reported on Tuesday, days after conservative lawmakers complained to President Hassan Rouhani that the process was too rushed. Last week, Iran announced it had begun shutting down inactive centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow plants under the terms of a deal struck with world powers in July that limits its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions. Iran’s hardliners continue to resist and undermine the nuclear deal, which was forged by moderates they oppose and which they see as a capitulation to the West. “The (dismantling) process stopped with a warning,” Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the National Security Council, was quoted as saying by the ISNA student news agency. Only decommissioned centrifuges were being dismantled to begin with, of which there were about 10,000 at Natanz and Fordow, the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran has said”.

Ukraine: Homophobia over realism


A piece notes that Ukraine has chosen homophobia over closer links to the EU, “On Nov. 10 the Verkhovna Rada refused to pass a law that would have allowed Ukrainian citizens to have the long-awaited privilege of visa-free travel in the European Union. The reason behind the legislation’s resounding defeat? A provision preventing discrimination against gays in the workplace. This provision, which is a precondition for visa-free travel set by the EU, ignited a vociferous outcry, and ultimately turned into a red line which the Rada refused to cross. “As a country with a thousand-year-old Christian history, we simply cannot allow this,” is how Rada deputy Pavlo Unguryan, a member of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s own party, explained it after a previous attempt to pass the legislation on Nov. 5 failed”.

The report adds “This isn’t the first homophobic news to come out of Ukraine this year: On June 6, members of the ultranationalist group Right Sector attacked Kiev’s gay pride parade, brutally injuring numerous marchers as well as police. In July, when a pair of gay activists decided to test the extent of Ukraine’s new Western values by holding hands in the middle of Kiev, they were quickly assaulted by thugs. On Nov. 2, the Kyiv Post profiled Mykola Dulskiy, the founder of a vigilante group called Fashion Verdict, whose mission, according to the article, is to “sweep promiscuity, gambling, sexual offenders and homosexuality from the streets of Ukraine’s cities.” The “verdict” is delivered in a rather straightforward manner: Members of the organization track down and beat anyone they deem degenerate”.

The implications of this can be seen when he notes “But the damage caused by the Rada’s refusal to pass anti-discrimination laws extends far beyond generating just one more negative headline for Ukraine. It undermines the two biggest factors that enabled the country to survive the horrors of the two previous years: Western support and the dream of European integration. EU association is the issue that ignited Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution in November 2013. “Ukraine is Europe” was the rallying call for the hundreds of thousands who flocked to Kiev bearing EU flags following then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to go against the will of his people and cast Ukraine’s lot with Russia. Today, billions of dollars, over 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons, and thousands of lost lives later, a new group of politicians is once again dealing a blow to the dream of EU integration — all in the name of homophobia”.

The report goes on to argue “Some politicians, such as Oksana Syroyid, the Rada’s deputy speaker, hinted in a Nov. 9 remark that the anti-gay discrimination requirement had been suddenly sprung on the Rada. In reality, the EU made it clear as early as 2010 and continued reminding the Rada of its importance in the lead-up to the vote. It must also be noted that Moldova — another former Soviet republic mired in post-Soviet corruption and malaise — already enjoys the privilege of visa-free travel because it managed to pass a similar law. For the past two years, Ukraine has asked the West to provide it with billions of dollars, material support, and training, as well as to enact and sustain sanctions against Russia — sanctions that hurt not only the Russian economy but also the economies of Western Europe. Time and again, Ukrainian politicians fought to keep themselves at the forefront of Western agendas by reminding the West that Ukraine has been fighting not just for its sovereignty, but also for democratic values”.

Crucially the piece argues “By turning down the chance to pass reforms that would enable visa-free travel to Europe, the Rada undercuts the very EU and American support that is keeping Ukraine alive. This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Over the past several months, public statements by American leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, have made it clear that Kiev’s window of opportunity to battle the corruption that continues to plague the ex-Soviet republic is growing smaller. Europe, already strained by dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and rehabilitating the Greek economy, is also running out of patience. “You keep reforming and we will keep supporting. That is the contract we are making with you,” is how Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, put it during a visit to Kiev earlier this year. There is a not-so-veiled flip side to that statement: Support, dear Kiev, is conditional. You stop reforming, we stop supporting”.

Sadly the report adds later that “The ultimate irony in all this is that Eastern Europe already has a country with organizations of homophobic thugs and politicians who use conservative Christian traditions to justify an atrocious record of violating the rights of the LGBT community. That is the very country Ukraine is trying to separate itself from: Russia. In perusing websites and statements by both Russian and Ukrainian far right groups and politicians, one is stunned by the identical tone: Both invoke the imagery of a nation with “a thousand-year history of Christianity” battling back the encroachment of decadent Western values in order to justify their cause. Both use the same derogatory terms for homosexuals. Both insist that their country can have a future only once it is cleansed of “foreign” influences. The only difference is, one set of slogans is written in Russian, the other in Ukrainian”.

It ends “Ukraine’s politicians just squandered the opportunity to justify the bloodshed and horror that so many of their people have endured over the past two years. Instead — and in spite of their loud declarations of being European — they chose to embrace homophobia, placing themselves firmly in line with Russia. Big sister would be proud”.


Early Syrian elections, courtesy of Russia?


Russia wants the Syrian government and opposition to agree on launching a constitutional reform process of up to 18 months, followed by early presidential elections, a draft document obtained by Reuters showed on Tuesday. The eight-point proposal, drawn up by Moscow before international talks on Syria this week, does not rule out President Bashar al-Assad’s participation in the elections – something his foes say is impossible if there is to be peace. “(The) popularly elected president of Syria will have the functions of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, control of special services and foreign policy,” the document said”.

Francis risks civil war


Damian Thompson writes in the Spectator that Pope Francis is risking a Catholic civil war, “Last Sunday, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica carried an article by Eugenio Scalfari, one of the country’s most celebrated journalists, in which he claimed that Pope Francis had just told him that ‘at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask [to receive Holy Communion] will be admitted’. Catholic opinion was stunned. The Pope had just presided over a three-week synod of bishops at the Vatican that was sharply divided over whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacrament. In the end, it voted to say nothing much”.

Thompson goes on to write “On Monday, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Scalfari’s report was ‘in no way reliable’ and ‘cannot be considered the Pope’s thinking’. Fair enough, you may think. Scalfari is 91 years old. Also, he doesn’t take notes during his interviews or use a tape recorder. Of course he’s not ‘reliable’. But that didn’t satisfy the media. They pointed out that the Pope knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. This is the fourth time he has chosen to give an interview to a man who relies on his nonagenarian memory. In their last encounter, Scalfari quoted the Pope as saying that two per cent of Catholic priests were paedophiles, including bishops and cardinals. Poor Lombardi had to clean up after that one, too. Last time round, Catholics gave Francis the benefit of the doubt. This time many of them are saying: never mind Scalfari, how can you trust what the Pope says? We’re two and a half years into this pontificate. But it’s only in the past month that ordinary conservative Catholics, as opposed to hardline traditionalists, have started saying that Pope Francis is out of control”.

Correctly Thompson makes the crucial distinction, “Out of control, note. Not ‘losing control’, which isn’t such a big deal. No pontiff in living memory has awakened the specific fear now spreading around the church: that the magisterium, the teaching authority vested in Peter by Jesus, is not safe in his hands. The non-Catholic media have yet to grasp the deadly nature of the crisis facing the Argentinian Pope. They can see that his public style is relaxed and adventurous; they conclude from his off-the-cuff remarks that he is liberal (by papal standards) on sensitive issues of sexual morality, and regards hard-hearted conservative bishops as hypocrites”.

Thompson goes on to argue that “All of which is true. But journalists — and the Pope’s millions of secular fans — get one thing badly wrong. They assume, from his approachable manner and preference for the modest title ‘Bishop of Rome’, that Jorge Bergoglio wears the office of Supreme Pontiff lightly. As anyone who works in the Vatican will tell you, this is not the case. Francis exercises power with a self-confidence worthy of St John Paul II, the Polish pope whose holy war against communism ended in the collapse of the Soviet bloc. But that’s where the similarities end. John Paul never hid the nature of his mission. He was determined to clarify and consolidate the teachings of the church. Francis, by contrast, wants to move towards a more compassionate, less rule-bound church. But he refuses to say how far he is prepared to go. At times he resembles a motorist driving at full speed without a map or a rear-view mirror. And when the car stalls, as it did at the October synod on the family, he does a Basil Fawlty and thrashes the bonnet with a stick”.

He goes on to write “The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’ gave a temporary boost to climate activists. It was the conference on the family that was historic, but not in a good way. During the synod, ordinary devout Catholics began to wonder if Francis’s judgment had deserted him — or whether he’d always been a far stranger man than his carefree public image suggested. In church circles the worries began in October last year, when the Pope staged an ‘extraordinary’ preparatory synod that fell apart in front of his eyes. Halfway through the gathering, the organisers — hand-picked by Francis — announced that it favoured lifting the communion ban and wanted to recognise the positive aspects of gay relationships. Cue media rejoicing, until it emerged that the organisers were talking rubbish. The synod bishops, who included senior cardinals, didn’t favour either course. Cardinal George Pell, the Australian conservative who serves as the Pope’s chancellor of the exchequer, hit the roof — and when Pell is angry you really know about it. The final vote ditched both proposals. Francis, however, demanded that this year’s synod should revisit the question of communion for the divorced”.

Thompson goes on to note “This first synod wasn’t just humiliating for the Pope; it was also weird. Why did Francis let his lieutenants, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Archbishop Bruno Forte, arrange a briefing that basically told lies? Any other pontiff would have sent Baldisseri and Forte to parishes in Antarctica after screwing up so badly. Instead, to general amazement, the Pope invited them to take charge of the main synod last month. Also invited back was Cardinal Walter Kasper, an 82-year-old ultra-liberal German theologian who wants to sweep away all obstacles to remarried divorcees receiving communion. To cut a long story short, Francis made it clear that he agreed with Kasper. Yet he also knew that most bishops at this year’s synod wanted to uphold the communion ban”.

The report goes on to mention “The synod ended messily, with a document that may or may not allow the lifting of the communion ban in special circumstances. Both sides thought they’d won — and then the Pope, in the words of one observer, ‘basically threw a strop’. In his final address, Francis raged against ‘closed hearts that hide behind the church’s teachings’ and ‘blinkered viewpoints’, adding that ‘the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter but its spirit’. The implication was clear. Clergy who wholeheartedly supported the communion ban were Pharisees to Francis’s Jesus. The Pope was sending coded insults to at least half the world’s bishops — and also, it seemed, giving priests permission to question teaching on communion and divorce. One priest close to the Vatican was appalled but not surprised. ‘You’re seeing the real Francis,’ he said. ‘He’s a scold. He can’t hide his contempt for his own Curia. Also, unlike Benedict, this guy rewards his mates and punishes his enemies.’ Clergy don’t normally refer to the Holy Father as ‘this guy’, even if they dislike his theology. But right now that’s one of the milder conservative descriptions of Francis; others aren’t printable in a family magazine”.

Worryingly Thompson writes “Never before has the Catholic church looked so much like the Anglican Communion — which broke up because orthodox believers, especially in Africa, believed that their bishops had abandoned the teachings of Jesus. In the case of Catholicism, the looming crisis is on a vastly bigger scale. For millions of Catholics, the great strength of the church is its certainty, coherence and immutability. They look to the Vicar of Christ on earth to preserve that stability. If successive popes come across as lofty and distant figures, that’s because they need to, in order to ward off schism in a global church that has roots in so many different cultures. Now, suddenly, the successor of Peter is acting like a politician, picking fights with opponents, tantalising the public with soundbites and ringing up journalists with startling quotes that his press officer can safely retract. He is even hinting that he disagrees with the teachings of his own church. A pope cannot behave like this without changing the very nature of that church. Perhaps that is what Francis intended; we can only guess, because he has yet to articulate a coherent programme of change and it’s not clear that he is intellectually equipped to do so”.

He ends “Loyal Catholics believe that the office of Peter will survive irrespective of who holds it; Jesus promised as much. But after the chaos of the last month, their faith is being tested to breaking point. It’s beginning to look as if Jorge Bergoglio is the man who inherited the papacy and then broke it”.

Afghanistan joins the WTO


Afghanistan on November 11 agreed to terms for joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) at a meeting with representatives from the trade body’s existing 161 members. A WTO official who attended the meeting in Geneva told Reuters that trade ministers will confirm the terms of Afghanistan’s accession during a meeting in Nairobi in December. Afghanistan would become a member of the WTO 30 days after it ratifies the deal”.

A worried GOP


An article in the Washington Post notes that the GOP establishment are worried that either Ben Carson or Donald Trump might win the GOP nomination. It begins “Less than three months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them. Party leaders and donors fear that nominating either man would have negative ramifications for the GOP ticket up and down the ballot, virtually ensuring a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency and increasing the odds that the Senate falls into Democratic hands”.

The report adds “The party establishment is paralyzed. Big money is still on the sidelines. No consensus alternative to the outsiders has emerged from the pack of governors and senators running, and there is disagreement about how to prosecute the case against them. Recent focus groups of Trump supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire commissioned by rival campaigns revealed no silver bullet. In normal times, the way forward would be obvious. The wannabes would launch concerted campaigns, including television attack ads, against the ­front-runners. But even if the other candidates had a sense of what might work this year, it is unclear whether it would ultimately accrue to their benefit. Trump’s counterpunches have been withering, while Carson’s appeal to the base is spiritual, not merely political. If someone was able to do significant damage to them, there’s no telling to whom their supporters would turn, if anyone”.

Interestingly the piece adds “some in the party establishment are so desperate to change the dynamic that they are talking anew about drafting Romney — despite his insistence that he will not run again. Friends have mapped out a strategy for a late entry to pick up delegates and vie for the nomination in a convention fight, according to the Republicans who were briefed on the talks, though Romney has shown no indication of reviving his interest. For months, the GOP professional class assumed Trump and Carson would fizzle with time. Voters would get serious, the thinking went, after seeing the outsiders share a stage with more experienced politicians at the first debate. Or when summer turned to fall, kids went back to school and parents had time to assess the candidates. Or after the second, third or fourth debates, certainly”.

The piece adds “Before Tuesday’s debate in Milwaukee, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had a reception at the Pfister Hotel with party leaders, donors and operatives. There was little appetite for putting a political knife in the back of either Trump or Carson, according to one person there. Rather, attendees simply hoped both outsiders would go away. There are similar concerns about Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who is gaining steam and is loathed by party elites, but they are more muted, at least for now. Charlie Black, who has advised presidential campaigns since the 1970s, said he believes the 2016 contest “will eventually fall into the normal pattern of one outsider and one insider, and historically the insider always wins.”

It ends “the party establishment’s greatest weapon — big money — is partly on the shelf. Kenneth G. Langone, a founder of Home Depot and a billionaire supporter of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, said he is troubled that many associates in the New York financial community have so far refused to invest in a campaign due to the race’s volatility. “Some of them are in, but too many are still saying, ‘I’ll wait to see how this all breaks,’ ” Langone said. “People don’t want to write checks unless they think the candidate has a chance of winning.” He said that his job as a ­mega-donor “is to figure out how we get people on the edge of their chairs so they start to give money.” Many of Romney’s 2012 National Finance Committee members have sat out the race so far, including Peter A. Wish, a Florida doctor whom several 2016 candidates have courted”.

It concludes “Angst about Trump intensified this week after he made two comments that could prove damaging in a general election. First, he explained his opposition to raising the minimum wage by saying “wages are too high.” Second, he said he would create a federal “deportation force” to remove the more than 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. “To have a leading candidate propose a new federal police force that is going to flush out illegal immigrants across the nation? That’s very disturbing and concerning to me about where that leads Republicans,” said Dick Wadhams, a former GOP chairman in Colorado, a swing state where Republicans are trying to pick up a Senate seat next year. Said Austin Barbour, a veteran operative and fundraiser now advising former Florida governor Jeb Bush: “If we don’t have the right [nominee], we could lose the Senate, and we could face losses in the House. Those are very, very real concerns. If we’re not careful and we nominate Trump, we’re looking at a race like Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972, getting beat up across the board because of our nominee.”


France gets revenge


French warplanes launched a ferocious retaliatory assault late Sunday on targets in Raqqa, Syria — the Islamic State’s de facto capital — after coordination with U.S. defense officials who helped with the targeting. The French Defense Ministry said that 10 aircraft dropped 20 bombs on facilities used by the militant group, which has claimed responsibility for Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, striking a command center, a militant-training facility and an arms depot. Opposition activists reached in Raqqa said they counted at least 30 bombs, which they said had hit, among other things, a soccer stadium, a museum and medical facilities. They said the strikes had knocked out electricity in the city of about 200,000 people”.

Cameron’s demands


An article from the Economist notes the recent speech by David Cameron on his demands for a reform EU.

It begins “FOR months David Cameron has refused to set out exactly what he wants from his renegotiation with the European Union before his in/out referendum. That is because whatever he asks for will instantly be denounced as inadequate by the prime minister’s own Eurosceptic backbenchers. Yet at the European summit on October 15th-16th he was forced by irritated fellow leaders to promise to put his demands in writing early next month. And, as he repeated this week, high up his wishlist is a determination to exempt Britain from the treaty commitment to “ever closer union”. The full formulation is an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, a subtle but important addition. This phrase occurs in the preamble to the 1957 Treaty of Rome and in most later treaties”.

The piece adds “until recently even Eurosceptics did not object to what is merely an aspiration. Some other governments have expressed scepticism about the goal. In 2013 the Dutch government declared that “the time of ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”. And in June 2014 the European Council formally said that the concept embraced different paths of integration for different countries, “allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further.” So why is Mr Cameron using scarce negotiating capital to scrap the provision for Britain?”

The article goes on to mention”The short answer is that he needs a gesture to appease his Eurosceptics, who have not had a good week. On October 20th the Confederation of British Industry, the main business lobby, claimed that “the majority of British firms believe that the pros of EU membership outweigh the cons”. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, also called it “completely unrealistic” to seek an individual national veto. A day later the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, declared baldly that EU membership had made the British economy stronger and more dynamic, adding that Britain had been the leading beneficiary of the EU’s four freedoms of movement of goods, services, capital and people”.

Crucially it adds “Ever closer union clearly has political resonance, even so. Mr Cameron claims that, when Britons decided in the 1975 referendum to stay in the European project, they saw it as a common market, not a political union. Yet that claim seems strange given the preamble. Moreover, as Alan Johnson, chairman of Labour’s European campaign, recalled in a speech at the Chatham House think-tank on October 20th, “all the debate on both sides in 1975 was about political union”. Even more important, the phrase may have some legal weight. Jean-Claude Piris, a former chief legal adviser to the EU council, stresses its application to peoples, not states, and says the formula is too vague to have any legal force”.

It ends “The problem that this creates for Mr Cameron arises because the most he can expect from his partners is a protocol enshrining the European Council’s June 2014 conclusions about different paths for different countries. There is no chance of 27 other EU countries ratifying a treaty change that drops the preamble altogether. So the ECJ may go on citing it whatever Mr Cameron wins, making any British exemption less valuable. There are two ironies in all this. First, the preamble was kept in the 1992 Maastricht treaty partly at British request, to forestall an alternative reference to a federal union. John Major, then Tory prime minister, was even praised for adding a rider about decisions being taken “as closely as possible to the citizen”. And second, a decade later, the draft EU constitutional treaty ditched the offending phrase altogether. Yet Mr Cameron’s Tories were among the loudest critics of that treaty—and, when it was rejected by French and Dutch voters, ever closer union quietly reappeared in the 2009 Lisbon treaty”.

“Retook positions in southern Yemen”


Iran-backed rebels retook positions in southern Yemen in a bid to advance on second city Aden, military sources said Sunday as a landmine blast killed 16 soldiers east of Sanaa. The rebels regained the positions they had lost in fighting in recent months, including a hilltop overlooking the strategic Al-Anad airbase in Lahj province which borders Aden, they sources said”.

“Raising doubts about whether Washington is ready to test Beijing’s claims”


An article in Foreign Policy argues that the Obama administration has a muddled message in Asia, “After months of internal debate, the Obama administration last week finally decided to dispatch a warship to challenge China’s far-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea. But in the days since, U.S. officials have offered conflicting accounts of the operation, potentially undermining the whole point of the symbolic mission and raising doubts about whether Washington is ready to test Beijing’s claims at all. The cruise of the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen had been billed as a “freedom of navigation operation” that would make clear that Washington regards the seas around Beijing’s man-made islands in the South China Sea as international waters. But over the last week, Pentagon and administration officials have struggled to explain exactly what the Lassen did when it sailed near Subi Reef, where China has constructed an island dredged from the sea floor”.

Worryingly, “When questioned by Foreign Policy, officials offered conflicting accounts as to whether the ship took steps to directly challenge China’s maritime claims in the strategic waterway — or whether it pulled its punches, tacitly conceding Beijing’s position. Initially, officials insisted the Lassen carried out a freedom of navigation operation, which could mean the vessel operated sonar, had its helicopters take off from the deck, or lingered in the area. But other officials said they could not confirm it was a freedom of navigation mission and that the ship may have refrained from any helicopter flights or intelligence gathering — and instead simply sailed through without loitering or circumnavigating the area”.

The muddle gets worse when the piece notes “Further adding to the confusion, the P-8 surveillance plane accompanying the Lassen appears to have stayed outside the 12-mile range of the man-made island, a boundary that delimits territorial seas and airspace. The administration’s mixed messaging has played out publicly in recent days on both sides of the Pacific. U.S. officials told Defense News over the weekend that the Lassen had merely made an “innocent passage” close to the artificial island at Subi Reef — a phrase with a specific meaning under maritime law that applies to sailing through other countries’ territorial waters. On Monday, officials repeated the same claim to U.S. Naval Institute News, saying the ship and an accompanying surveillance plane took steps that would signal acquiescence to Beijing’s claims”.

The problems of these mixed messages are clearly shown when he mentions, “The reports triggered a bout of speculation and criticism from analysts and scholars tracking the issue, because a warship can only make an “innocent passage” in waters belonging to another country. If the Lassen indeed made an innocent passage, that would imply that the United States recognises Chinese claims around the man-made island — which would be contrary to Washington’s stated position on the question and at odds with the entire purpose of the freedom of navigation operation in the first place. Freedom of navigation operations, in contrast, are carried out in international waters to underscore the global right of free transit. Expert commentators such as Raul Pedrozo, a non-resident scholar at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, flagged in an article what he called a “poorly managed” operation”.

The report continues, “China watchers are still trying to figure out whether the United States really did dial back its ambitions for the long-contemplated cruise or if there has been some sort of public relations error by military officers or U.S. officials who may not be well-versed in the arcana of international maritime law. Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which has carefully tracked China’s island-building binge, called it a potentially “huge blunder.” Jeff Smith, an Asia expert at the American Foreign Policy Council, said he is “stumped” by the administration’s confused description of the operation. “If we portray it as an innocent passage, then we’re saying we’ve accepted China’s unlawful territorial claims,” said James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. “That’s a self-defeating message, not one the Navy or the Pentagon want to send.” Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the administration needed to clear up any confusion about exactly what transpired near Subi Reef”.

Thankfully the author notes that “Unease is mounting in Congress, as well, where top lawmakers have been pushing the Obama administration to take a tougher stance against China’s aggressive behaviour. The “strategic intent” of America’s freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea “should be crystal clear,” a congressional staffer told FP. “The Department of Defense needs to put to rest the nagging questions about the operation and the legal message it was intended to send.” A U.S. military officer told FP that the Lassen definitely carried out a freedom of navigation operation, meant to assert the universal right of any country to sail in international waters, and not an “innocent passage.” And the ship’s captain, Cmdr. Robert Francis, told reporters Thursday that he had carried out a freedom of navigation operation, but he did not offer additional details”.

Confusion is heaped on confusion when he notes “Pentagon officials have yet to make clear if the Lassen performed the sorts of activities necessary to distinguish a freedom of navigation operation from a quick and harmless transit of foreign waters. Those activities can include circumnavigating disputed features, gathering intelligence, or loitering in the area rather than sailing a straight and speedy course. For decades, the U.S. Navy has conducted dozens of freedom of navigation operations each year, forcefully challenging what it considers “excessive” maritime claims by friends and foes alike, including China. After the latest such operation, if that is what it was, and even though the United States seems to have gone out of its way to minimise its impact, China is far from mollified. China’s top admiral warned last week that U.S. actions could spark a war”.

Thus, through complete ineptitude the Obama administration has managed to turn what was meant to be a clear signal of its intent and position of China’s aggressive behaviour into a muddle which has annoyed the Chinese and only complicated matters further. In effect, the worst of both worlds.

The report ends “The Lassen, which was shadowed by Chinese naval vessels as it traveled near Subi Reef, also sailed within 12 nautical miles of reefs claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. Washington has made clear it takes no position on the competing claims from China or other countries in the South China Sea but has urged Beijing to drop its objection to a multilateral deal to settle the disagreements. Still, many countries in Asia, especially U.S. allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, had long been clamoring for Washington to take decisive action and send a clear message to Beijing. The White House weighed the operation near the man-made islands for months, as some officials worried the dispute over the South China Sea could derail opportunities for cooperation with Beijing’s government on climate change, trade, and other crucial issues. The Lassen’s cruise — despite its clumsy aftermath — clearly riled China, but the move as yet has done little to either deter Beijing or definitively reassure allies”.

“Britain’s first new permanent military base in the Middle East”


Work has begun to construct Britain’s first new permanent military base in the Middle East since 1971. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and naval personnel attended a ceremony to mark the start of construction of HMS Juffair at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain. The establishment is being developed to support Royal Navy deployments in the Gulf through the creation of a permanent and improved base. Mr Hammond said it showed the UK’s commitment to the region”.

“it is the left, not the right, which has the upper hand”


A report from The Hill notes recent polls that predicts Bernie Sanders winning a general election, “In a new McClatchy-Marist poll, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) leads Republican candidate Donald Trump by a landslide margin of 12 percentage points, 53 to 41. In the McClatchy poll, Sanders also leads former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) by a landslide margin of 10 points, 51 to 41. The huge Sanders advantage over Trump is not new. In the last four match-up polls between them reported by Real Clear Politics, Sanders defeated Trump by margins of 12, 9, 9 and 2 percentage points”.

The article goes on to make the point “The huge Sanders advantage over Bush is new. In previous match-ups, the polling showed Sanders and Bush running virtually even, with Bush holding a 1-point lead over Sanders in most of the polls. Future polls will be needed to test whether the huge Sanders lead over Bush in the McClatchy poll will be repeated in future polling or whether the McClatchy poll is an outlier”.

The report adds that “It is shocking that the data suggests that Sanders has a lead over Trump that could be so huge that he would win a landslide victory in the presidential campaign, with margins that would almost certainly lead Democrats to regain control of the Senate and could help Democrats regain control of the House of Representative — if, of course, the three polls that show Sanders beating Trump by 9 to 12 points reflect final voting in the presidential election. It would be equally shocking if future polling shows that the Sanders lead over Bush remains at landslide margins”.

The writer mentions that “there are two issues these polls present. First, the national reporting of the presidential campaign completely fails to reflect Sanders’s strength in a general election, especially against Trump, and against Bush as well. Second, and perhaps more important, Sanders’s strength in general election polling gives credence to the argument I have been making in recent years, that American voters favour progressive populist positions which, if taken by Democrats in the general election, would lead to a progressive populist Democratic president and far greater Democratic strength in Congress”.

Importantly the writer goes on to argue “It is a fallacy argued by conservatives and, in my view, inaccurately parroted by the mainstream media, that Sanders and other liberals take positions that are far too “left.” The polling shows, issue by issue, and increasingly in general election match-ups of Republicans running against Sanders, that it is the left, not the right, which has the upper hand with American voters”.


“Patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands”


The U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea about twice a quarter to remind China and other countries about U.S. rights under international law, a U.S. defense official said on Monday. “We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about Navy operational plans. “That’s the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view,” the official said. U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on Monday said there would be more demonstrations of the U.S. military’s commitment to the right to freely navigate in the region”.


Francis chooses Brussels and Barcelona


Rocco Palmo writes about the new appointments in Brussels and Barcelona made by Pope Francis. These come on the heels of new archbishops in Bologna and Palermo.

Rocco opens, “While Rome’s chattering circuit is consumed with the latest round of leak theatrics surrounding Vatican finances and the excesses of some prelates, the Pope has instead taken to doubling down on work and complete a “lightning round” of appointments to several major European posts”.

Rocco adds “Francis named Bishop Josef De Kesel of Bruges, 68, as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and head of a Belgian church that might just be the most bitterly polarised in the Catholic world. In the capital post of the linguistically-split, heavily secularised nation of Dutch and French-speakers, the incoming primate succeeds Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, who only reached the retirement age of 75 in May, after a five-year tenure which has been dogged by controversy from the outset on fronts ranging from the prelate’s comments on the moral culpability of AIDS patients to clergy sex-abuse, which saw Leonard civilly ordered to pay €10,000 earlier this year after being found to have failed to act on an allegation in his prior post in the 1990s. Highlighting the tensions on the wider scene, in two incidents that went viral the archbishop once was hit in the face with a pie during a liturgy and subsequently had water bottles dumped on him by topless feminists who stormed the stage at one of his speaking engagements”.

Rocco adds vitally that “A protege of Leonard’s predecessor, the famously liberal Cardinal Godfried Danneels – whose auxiliary De Kesel had been from 2002-10 – the archbishop-elect (a Gregorian-trained theologian) was the first choice on the terna for the last Brussels succession, but the then-Nuncio, Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, was overruled by Benedict XVI, who personally chose the more traditional Leonard. Shortly after the appointment and his retirement shortly thereafter, a clearly displeased Rauber himself disclosed the face-off in an Italian magazine interview, going on to criticize both Papa Ratzinger and his eventual pick. Now 81, as a coda it bears noting that the former Nuncio was given a non-voting red hat by Francis at last February’s Consistory”.

The report goes on to note “In today’s other major move, Francis has reportedly spurred shock in the Spanish church’s Establishment by tapping 69 year-old Bishop Jose Omella of Calahorra as archbishop of Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest diocese, ground zero in the ongoing fight over independence for Catalonia, the region based in Gaudí’s city, where the 2010 dedication of the architect’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia provided one of the monumental moments of the last pontificate. Named to succeed the native son Cardinal Lluis Martinez Sistach, now 78, according to local reports Omella was raised on the peripheries of the region and grew up speaking its distinctive Catalan tongue, but isn’t said to be given to his new fold’s widespread nationalist tendencies. In keeping with Francis’ usual identikit for his picks, the Barcelona nominee has a long history in the church’s social action work, including a stint as a missionary in Zaire. The Pope’s move on the 2 million-member archdiocese is Papa Bergoglio’s third major shift in Spain – whose hierarchy he knows well, having preached one of its retreats before his election – following last year’s bombshell appointments on the same day to Madrid and Valencia, the latter going to Rome’s then-Liturgy Czar, Cardinal Antonio Canizares”.

Rocco reminds the reader that the appointments “close out a cycle of top-level nods which began last week as – in his first turn at Italy’s traditional “cardinalatial sees” – Francis yet again stunned the natives by naming an auxiliary of Rome, Bishop Matteo Zuppi, 59, as archbishop of Bologna and a 53 year-old Sicilian parish priest, Msgr Corrado Lorefice, to the archbishopric of Palermo, the island’s premier post. As with today’s appointees, both have significant records of pastoring the church on the margins, with Zuppi – a lead figure in the progressive Sant’Egidio movement – having led one of Rome’s largest outskirt parishes, while Lorefice has frequently cited his inspiration in the figure of Fr Pino Puglisi, a searing critic of Sicily’s Mafia bosses who was gunned down outside his church in 1993. Beatified in 2013, “Don Pino” is buried in the cathedral where Lorefice will soon have his seat. When the assassinated cleric’s name was raised following his appointment, the archbishop-elect interjected to reporters that his selection was Puglisi’s “fault.”

Interestingly Rocco adds that “In both appointments, meanwhile, it is understood that the Pope tossed aside the shortlists compiled during the formal consultation process, choosing instead to find his choices after taking his own soundings among the clergy of each place”.

Pointedly he concludes “Given his determination to not be “chained” to the custom of certain dioceses nearly guaranteed a spot in his Senate, as Francis has chosen to send his Italian red hats to places which have never had a cardinal or not seen one in generations, whether the duo will follow their respective predecessors into the College is an open question. In any case, while a February Consistory is again said to be on-deck, the mid-month timeframe when Francis has gathered the cardinals both in 2014 and 2015 is off the table next year due to the Pope’s now-confirmed trip to Mexico, during which the first American pontiff is widely expected to make his long-desired stop somewhere along the US border… and possibly cross over it”.

Kurds re-take Sinjar


Kurdish forces entered Sinjar on Friday, raising their flags over buildings throughout the Iraqi town just hours after controlling significant stretch of a major highway that runs into it. The main road leading to the town is now full of peshmerga fighters, as PKK and YPG convoys roll through the city honking horns and firing celebratory gunfires. Military officers have warned their soldiers not to touch any kinds of wires, fearing the dangers of IEDs, one of ISIS’s infamous defense tactics. As a part of the convoy that left for Sinjar Friday morning, there were teams of technicians charged with clearing such IEDs. In an hour of walking around town, BuzzFeed News did not find any dead bodies, suggesting that the real work of liberating the town may have begun well before the mass of troops started entering Friday afternoon. Peshmerga forces, who pressed ahead in the early hours with a long convoy line of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and Toyota pick-ups mounted with machine guns, had said they were optimistic they would be inside Sinjar today”.

China isolates Russia


An article argues that China is moving away from Russia at the UN. This could have profound implications for Russia and make it even more isolated globally.

It opens, “In late September, a Chinese foreign ministry delegation held a closed-door meeting at the United Nations’ New York headquarters with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and gave him some good news: Beijing was prepared to vote in favour of Ukraine’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council despite a campaign by Russia to thwart its adversary’s ambitions, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the meeting. The move marked a diplomatic setback for Russia, which has sought, and generally won, China’s support at the United Nations in its geopolitical and ideological struggles with the West. It also sent a clear signal that Russia’s closest and most valuable ally at the U.N. is willing to pursue its own interests, even if at Moscow’s expense”.

The report goes onto make the point that “China and Russia consider one another strategic partners and they strive to align their votes at the United Nations as closely as possible, in part to act as a brake on the projection of American power. But maintaining that partnership is exacting an increasing diplomatic cost for China as Russia has grown assertive in ways that have threatened the interests of Beijing’s commercial partners, from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China has expanded its commercial links with Ukraine, which this year surpassed the United States as the largest importer of Ukrainian corn, according to the Financial Times. In the end, Ukraine – which ran uncontested — secured a respectable 177 votes for its Security Council bid from the 193-member General Assembly. Unlike major powers such as Russia and the United States, Kiev will not have the authority to veto Security Council resolutions.

A senior Security Council diplomat said Beijing and Moscow are still aligned on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea. But the diplomat said the alliance is weakening as the two countries find their priorities “diverging” on a range of issues, from South Sudan to Ukraine and Syria, where Beijing favors a more intensive diplomatic push to end the fighting between Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and his enemies.

“It is not in China’s interest that Russia is able to annex Crimea nor to provide such strong military support, with Iran, to Assad,” the diplomat said. “Something is definitely happening. There is a separating of China and Russia.”

A dramatic shift — say open Chinese opposition to a Russian initiative — is unlikely in the near future, the diplomat said. Still, the United States and its Western allies have been encouraging China to distance itself from Russia into order to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most aggressive tendencies. If the effort succeeds in weakening Beijing’s alliance with Moscow, Washington and its partners hope they would be able to apply greater political pressure on Russia to curb its military activities in Syria and Ukraine.

The Russian alliance with China on the Security Council has long stood as a key check on American ambitions at the U.N., preventing Washington from getting its way on many of the most pressing international security issues of the day.

Beijing and Moscow have cast four joint vetoes of resolutions aimed at forcing Assad from power and triggering a war crimes investigation into atrocities in Syria. When China needed help killing off a procedural motion in the U.N. Security Council to block discussion of human rights abuses by North Korea, Russia had its back.

During the Bush administration, China and Russia joined forces to block American initiatives to condemn human rights abuses in Burma in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008. And for years they have worked together to limit the scope of U.N. sanctions against Iran and to prevent the council from confronting human rights abusers around the world. In December 2014, for instance, China and Russia did not show up at a side meeting of Security Council members hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the dire situation in Darfur. They also boycotted a meeting hosted by Lithuania on human rights and press freedom in Ukraine.

Still, there are clear signs of strain in the relationship. When Russia began its airstrikes in Syria last month, China offered a measured, if hardly enthusiastic, response. “We have noted that the relevant military action, as the Russian side put it, is taken at the request of the Syrian government with the purpose of combating terrorist and extremist forces inside Syria,” according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Earlier this month, China voted with the West to reinforce sanctions against South Sudan’s warring parties and to help create a war crimes court to prosecute war crimes. Russia abstained, saying that sanctions would only harden the resolve of key parties to keep fighting. Russia, for its part, stood alone in vetoing two resolutions, including one which would have established a war crimes tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Russia also killed off a resolution in July that would have declared the 1995 mass killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb soldiers a “genocide.” Russia, which has strong historical ties to Serbia, argued that the measures unfairly singled out the Bosnian Serbs for crimes during the blood dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. China abstained in both cases.

Even in areas where they have joined forces, they have done so for different reasons. When Europe pressed the Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing the use of force in the Mediterranean Sea, Beijing and Moscow teamed up to stop the diplomatic push. They didn’t have the same reasons for their votes: Moscow was concerned that the resolution provided too sweeping a mandate to use force, while Beijing worried it might constrain Chinese trade by granting the West the power to board and seize ships on the high seas.

“There have been lot of cases where Beijing is trying to put clear blue water between itself and Moscow,” said Richard Gowan, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Gowan said it was unclear whether China’s separation from Moscow was limited to peripheral issues or whether it amounts to a larger strategic shift, but said he didn’t “think Beijing is going to walk away from the Russians any time soon.”

The Russians and Chinese, he added, need to stand up against the West on a range of issues, particularly Iran, where the United States has warned that it would reimpose sanctions if Tehran is caught cheating on the nuclear deal.

Russia, which has been subject to Western sanctions since its annexation of Crimea, has worked to bolster its ties with China. Putin has tried to build a close relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, meeting more than a dozen times. Earlier this year, Xi attended a World War II commemoration in Russia that had been boycotted by other big powers from the West. In July 2013, China and Russia held their largest joint naval operation ever in the Sea of Japan. In May, they also conducted their first ever joint naval exercise, including live fire drills, in the Mediterranean Sea.

“It’s a very comfortable position, to have such a strong supporter and partner,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, told Newsweek. “We have a strategic partnership with China, including here at the Security Council. We try to vote as closely as we can–not always in the same manner, but we try.”

They don’t always succeed, in part, said a second Security Council diplomat, because Russia and China have a “marriage of convenience more than deep seated ideological convergence.”

“Where the Chinese and Russians do converge they have worked together, for instance on stopping human rights coming up before the council,” the diplomat said. “But China and Russia’s interests don’t always converge and so they won’t automatically vote together.”

Indeed, China’s diplomatic strategy at the United Nations can be hard to decipher. In their public statements, China’s diplomats rarely stray from anodyne proclamations about the need to uphold state sovereignty and resolve conflicts through dialogue. China sometimes appears to be the junior partner, following initiatives taken by Russia, which conducts its diplomacy with far greater bluster, backed by a willingness to use force to achieve its aims.

But officials say in the real world Russia plays second fiddle to China, which despite an economic downturn, can still boast the world’s second-largest economy and which wields its soft power with far greater effect than Putin may accomplish by sending Russian fighters jets and attack helicopters into Syria.

During his first visit to the U.N. as China’s leader, Xi pledged last month $2 billion in development assistance to the world’s poorest countries, and vowed $100 million to the African Union over the next five years to help establish an African standby force and bolster an African program to respond rapidly to unfolding crises. He also pledged to develop a standby force of some 8,000 Chinese blue helmets that could be quickly deployed in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The Sino-Russian relationship is “not a simple as people are trying to picture [it]: that they are close friends versus the West. It’s really not like that,” said Philippe Le Corre, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

Putin, he said, is desperately in need of friends and has been seeking to cultivate closer relations with China. But China, he said, has remained uncommitted and uneasy because of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria.

“They are playing some kind of game: ‘look we are against the West together.’ But they don’t agree on a lot of things,” he said. “The Russian economy is suffering and China doesn’t want to be isolated from the West because it does want to become a global player.”

US attack al-Qaeda Afghan bases


The U.S. military official in charge of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan says U.S. forces have attacked what are believed to be the largest al-Qaida training camps found in the course of the 14-year Afghan war. Army General John Campbell told The Washington Post in a report published Friday that some 160 al-Qaida operatives were reported killed in the attack, which involved dozens of American airstrikes and 200 Special Operations forces. He said the operation that took place on or around October 11 hit training areas that covered an area of 80 square kilometers near Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan. The facilities are believed to have existed for as long as a year. The operation took place just days before U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the greater part of 2016 and some 5,500 troops in the area into 2017″.

Oil, Libya and tribes


An interesting piece discusses the role of oil in uniting Libya.

It begins, “Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. The country has virtually no other industries or formal employment; oil is its only business. According to theWorld Bank, oil revenues account for over 95 percent of the government’s budget. And since about 80 percent of Libyans are on the government payroll, it is no exaggeration to say that oil feeds and clothes the Libyan people. No other country is so dependent on a single resource. This is especially troubling when you consider that Libya is mostly desert, lacking significant arable land — it can’t grow its own food. “Without hydrocarbons revenue, the viability of the Libyan state is very much in question — which is what we are on the cusp of seeing first hand,” said Geoff Porter, a North Africa risk consultant and assistant professor at West Point”.

In the post Libyan civil war era this reliance has risen, “As the Libyan government split in half, most institutions split as well, with mirror versions being set up in the East and the West. Both governments appointed judges to their respective judicial systems, ran their own central banks, and maintained separate military forces. Perhaps the most important split was that of the National Oil Company (NOC), Libya’s government-owned oil producer and exporter. Given the primacy of oil in Libya’s economy, the NOC is the key to the country. While its headquarters has always been in Tripoli, Tobruk announced the creation of its own eastern NOC in December, declaring that all oil firms must deal solely with it. After all, it argues, the eastern NOC is the one associated with the internationally recognized government”.

Interestingly he writes “At a U.N. Security Council meeting in March, diplomats passed a resolution declaring the most important of Libya’s state agencies — especially the National Oil Company — would remain independent and deal impartially with both rival governments. At the time the resolution was signed, most of the oil and exporting ports were under Tobruk’s control, while all contracts and payments were routed through the national institutions in Tripoli. The resolution committed to maintaining this status quo: Revenue would be split between the two governments, and since neither could function without the other, an uneasy union would be maintained. But in the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that the resolution signed in March had little meaning on the ground. Tobruk forged ahead with its plans to set up its own NOC while Tripoli protested, insisting all oil contracts must continue to route through them”.

Interestingly he notes that “most foreign oil companies — including the largest, such as Britain’s BP, Italy’s Eni, and France’s Total — have chosen to continue dealing with Tripoli over the internationally recognized government in Tobruk. The legal contracts that govern Libya’s oil are expensive and binding, and firms are leery of putting them in Tobruk’s inexperienced hands, said a former employee of the Arabian General Oil Company (AGOCO), a Libyan firm”.

He goes on to mention that “any peace deal will include provisions for appointing singular heads of all government agencies, including the NOC. On paper, this would stitch Libya back together — but Tobruk has already demonstrated its disregard for such agreements. It is still actively seeking to draw clients to its rival NOC. Thus far, it hasn’t succeeded in finalizing any deals (at least publicly) — but this could change if it manages to further consolidate its hold on oil production and export facilities. El-Maghrebi recently said that the eastern NOC is planning to ship a million barrels of crude oil to buyers next week”.

He ends “Ultimately, neither the U.N., nor Tobruk, nor Tripoli will determine Libya’s political and economic fate: the militias and tribes will.“If you want to do anything in Libya, you have to involve the local tribes, the local community,” the former AGOCO employee said”.


“Iran has begun shutting down uranium enrichment centrifuges”


Iran has begun shutting down uranium enrichment centrifuges under the terms of a deal struck with six world powers in July on limiting its nuclear program, Tehran’s atomic energy chief said on Monday during a visit to Tokyo. “We have already started to take our measures vis-a-vis the removal of the centrifuge machines – the extra centrifuge machines. We hope in two months time we are able to exhaust our commitment,” Ali Akbar Salehi told public broadcaster NHK. NHK’s website also quoted Salehi as saying it was important that there be “balance” in implementing the deal, signaling Tehran’s stance that all sanctions against Iran should be lifted promptly in step with its dismantling of nuclear infrastructure. Under the July 14 agreement, Iran is to curb its nuclear program under United Nations supervision to ensure it cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the removal of sanctions that have isolated Tehran and hobbled its economy”.


“Brexit risk is very real”


An article in Foreign Policy argues that the UK is sleepwalking into leaving the EU, “Pro-Brexit campaigners could scarcely have chosen a more auspicious backdrop for the referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, which is due by the end of 2017 and perhaps as early as next year. The eurozone remains an economic disaster and has become an anti-democratic monstrosity. EU leaders are at each other’s throats over the fate of Greece, unwanted refugees, and much else. Many Britons feel overrun by EU migrants, besieged by asylum-seekers from Calais, and threatened by the refugee chaos across the continent. And with capital controls imposed in Greece and Cyprus, a razor-wire fence erected between Hungary and Croatia, border controls re-imposed by Germany and its neighbours, and trade and people flows disrupted, the EU is fast unravelling. Leaving has seldom seemed more seductive”.

The article argues that “Many people think Brexit remains unlikely; Open Europe, a free-market and EU-sceptical think-tank, put the chances at less than one in five in its last update this summer. But I reckon the risk is much higher than that. Not because the case for leaving is convincing; it isn’t. But because political leaders, starting with Prime Minister David Cameron, are failing to make the case for EU membership, creating a political vacuum that fired-up anti-EU campaigners are filling”.

Worryingly the piece notes that “because referendums tend to be decided by emotion, not reason. The Out campaign’s pitch is beguiling — freedom from Brussels, regaining control over Britain’s destiny — whereas the In camp is tarred by the reality of the EU, warts and all. Of course, most voters are risk-averse, but it is being complacent to assume that the status-quo option of remaining in the EU will inevitably triumph. Brexit risk is very real”.

The author mentions that “The UK enjoys the best of both worlds: a permanent opt-out from the economic and democratic strictures of the mismanaged eurozone, together with access to a £10.6 trillion ($16.3 trillion) EU single market of 508 million consumers. That boosts trade and lures foreign investment to Britain, raising productivity and pay. Britain’s foreign-owned car industry, for instance, exports most of its output, largely to the EU. Membership also gives Britain a say in setting the rules that govern its economic relationship with the EU, the destination for nearly half of UK exports, along with greater influence globally. Whereas the EU negotiates as an equal with the United States in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks, Britain would have much less leverage on its own”.

Rightly he points out that “Britons also enjoy the freedom to study in France, work in Germany, and retire in Spain with free healthcare, while also benefiting from EU citizens coming to work hard and pay taxes in Britain. (And while it would be morally right and economically beneficial for Britain to admit more refugees, the UK has an opt-out from EU asylum policy, so Germany cannotforce it to do so.)”

However, the British press, especially the Right are bent on forcing the issue to the top of the political agenda. By doing so they give air to a third of the Conservative Party who seem to live detached from reality. These MPs and press sing a Siren song saying the UK will be better off and more respected if only it left the EU. However, they fail to notice that the UK is increasingly an international irrelevance and to leave the EU, despite its massive flaws, would only speed up this trend towards irrelevance.

The writer goes on to make the point that”None of the feasible alternatives to the EU can offer all that. Outside the EU, Britain would have no say in setting its rules. Yet it would still need to comply with most of them in order to access the single market, while also paying into the EU budget, as Norway does. Switzerland has negotiated a panoply of bilateral trade deals with the EU, but these take time, require continual updating, involve a contribution to the EU budget, and don’t cover financial services, in which Britain specializes. While Brexit would enable Britain to limit EU migration, this would be economically harmful and the EU would scarcely agree to trade freely with the UK if it erected labor-market barriers to EU citizens. Anti-EU campaigners claim that Britain could negotiate a better deal than Norway, Switzerland, the United States, or indeed any other non-EU country. In their view, Britain’s trump card is that the EU exports more to the UK than vice-versa, so the EU needs the UK more. But the United States also has a trade deficit with the EU and that hardly gives it carte blanche in the TTIP negotiations. And since exports to the EU account for 14 percent of the UK economy, but exports to the UK account for only 2.3 percent of the EU’s, the UK actually needs the EU more. Above all, EU leaders would likely be tough with a country that had plunged the EU into even greater turmoil through an acrimonious divorce, not least to discourage others”.

Correctly the writer notes that “Undeniably, some EU regulation is excessive. In a post-EU future, Britain might improve or scrap some of it. But pernicious EU regulation is often the result of lobbies that are powerful domestically too. The thicket of protectionist rules and lavish subsidies that cosset farmers might be replicated in a post-EU Britain, given the political sway of rural landowners, farming lobbies, and localist eco-romantics. In general, EU regulation is not a huge burden: the OECD, an international research institute, finds that UK labor markets are the least regulated in the EU and its product markets the second-least, and Britain fares well in global comparisons too. Its most costly regulations, notably unduly restrictive planning laws, are domestic”.

In a measured way he argues “Since the benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs, the rational case for remaining in is clear. But the argument is being lost by default. Prime Minister Cameron has pledged to secure better membership terms for Britain before the referendum. While he will doubtless ultimately campaign for Britain to stay in, maintaining the pretense that he might back Brexit if the renegotiation fails to achieve enough prevents him from making the case for EU membership now. The opposition Labour Party is officially in favor of EU membership, but its new hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a longstanding opponent, so Labour is largely quiet too. The most pro-EU party, the Liberal Democrats, are still licking their wounds after their disastrous showing in May’s general election”.

The piece concludes “For now, then, anti-EU campaigners, for whom the referendum is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leave the hated union, are dominating the debate. By the time the renegotiation is complete and the official campaign begins, the well-funded Out camp, which enjoys powerful media backing, may have the advantage. Cameron’s full-throated support may come too late to swing the vote”.

He ends “Since few Brits have a heartfelt connection to the EU, the In camp’s main emotional card is fear of what an uncertain future outside the EU may bring and of the economic cost and political isolation this may entail. But scaremongering about the potential loss of the 3 million jobs linked to trade with the EU is scarcely credible. Nor do fears of a loss of influence for British officials necessarily resonate with voters. Wheeling out business leaders, financiers, and party grandees to make the case for EU membership may repel as many voters as it convinces. And the EU is too unwieldy for it to make last-minute concessions to win over sceptics. The Brexit battle between perceived freedom and exaggerated fear looks likely to be a close-run thing”.

We will remember them


“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them”.

Putin forces Obama’s hand


A recent report argues that politics and Putin are the main causes for President Obama’s recent decision to send troops into the Middle East, “Vladimir Putin ordered U.S. troops into combat in Syria on Friday. That’s not what White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when explaining the decision to send as many as 50 special operations forces into a training, assistance, and advisory role in that country, but that’s the reality. If the Russian president hadn’t made his move into Syria, the United States would not have felt compelled to finally, belatedly, shore up support for anti-Islamic State and anti-Assad allies in that embattled, long-suffering country”.

The writer argues that “The past three years are how we know that. Those years have been a period during which the president’s own top national security advisors were unable to get him to take more decisive action to stop the decay in Syria — which gave way to the upheaval that now fuels not only the rise of the world’s most dangerous extremists but also the overflow of refugees into Europe and neighbouring countries in the Middle East. But Putin, apparently, has more sway in the Oval Office than Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and a host of others whose counsel went unheeded ever did. Putin’s decisiveness in engaging in Syria has shifted the balance of power in that country. It has not only unquestionably shored up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it has also sent a message that opponents of Assad (including some ostensible U.S. allies among the rebel fighters in Syria) were going to be the targets of the fiercest military attacks rather than the Islamic State extremists the United States and its allies were seemingly seeking to defeat. The Russians talked up their opposition to the Islamic State, but the pattern of their initial strikes indicated that the primary goal was protecting their man in Damascus. (Putin’s long-term motives in Syria remain misunderstood by many in Washington. They do not seem to understand that he does not seek to transform the country or do any of the things that would make Russia’s involvement a dangerous quagmire for him. He simply seeks to ensure that the regime in Syria’s capital is acceptable to him. That means keeping Assad in place or being involved enough to have a clear say in choosing his successor”.

Pointedly the author notes that “the move to send U.S. Special Forces into Syria helps the president address the perception of American inaction that was seen to have contributed to the Russian intervention while also helping to address concerns that the administration’s efforts to train the Syrian opposition have been a failure to date. As far as geopolitics is concerned, it lends credibility to America’s desired role in advancing the multiparty talks about Syria’s future taking place in Vienna this week. It says the United States is involved and also suggests to the Russians that the conflict in Syria may grow more complex for them (as we work toward not always overlapping goals) so it provides a little pressure on that front as well”.

The piece ends “Iran is seizing the initiative as much as Russia is — beginning with but not limited to the collaboration of the two sides in Syria and Iraq. Iran sees America’s swoon and the not entirely unrelated struggles in the region’s Sunni pillar states — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — as an opportunity to gain influence. And in this sense Iran is also doing exactly what Russia has done: gaining control where it can, putting pressure where it can, and extending its sphere of influence. In this case, it must be said that America’s lack of leadership is compounded by the absence of a positive “moderate” Sunni agenda in the region. Like the GOP candidates for president, Egyptian, Saudi and many other Sunni moderate leaders may know what they are against but not what they are for. The result is that anyone with a clear agenda in the Middle East — whether a pragmatic one like the Iranians or a positively demonic one like that of the Islamic State — makes headway in the intellectual, policy, and action vacuum they have created”.

He concludes “And it’s not just a behavioural pattern being played out in the Middle East, China has done likewise in the South China Sea. In each of these instances, calculating international actors have seen America’s inertness, made an educated guess as to where the real red line that would trigger significant U.S. reaction might be, and then taken an initiative that has gone as far as, but not past, the red line. And these actors are making big gains wherever they see zones of U.S. indifference around the world. And the U.S. pattern of reaction is the same over and over. It’s only after these opportunistic actors seize the day that we are roused into action. The kind of action that might make us look engaged but that does not change the situation very much — a destroyer sails around some artificial islands, a few troops and Humvees are deployed in Poland, some special operations forces are deployed in Syria. It is the equivalent of squeaking “Oh yeah?” to a bully who has come up to you on the beach, kicked sand in your face, and walked away with your picnic basket. It’s the Obama special, the illusion of action”.

UK stays in Afghanistan


Britain will extend its military presence in Afghanistan by a year due to the ongoing security challenge faced by Afghan forces, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said on Tuesday. The Taliban has launched sustained attacks since the withdrawal of most foreign troops late last year, straining the limited resources of Afghan forces. Many districts across the country are now fully or partially under Taliban control. Fallon said the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) had been “tested” over the last year but were increasingly professional and competent. “The UK Government recognized it would take time for the ANDSF to develop into a fully-fledged fighting force capable of providing complete security for the people of Afghanistan,” Fallon said in a written statement to parliament”

The one child backlash


In the wake of the end of the one child policy an article examines the public reaction to its ending, “In the wake of the Fifth Plenum, a meeting of top leaders, the Chinese government announced that its controversial, decades-long policy of limiting most couples to a single child was to come to an end. While some Western observers are cheering at the end of the repressive (and sometimes brutally-enforced) policy, one group within China is already speaking up in dissatisfaction: China’s only children themselves”.

The piece goes on to note that “According to a vaguely worded communiqué released on Oct. 29, all Chinese couples will now be allowed to have two children, a right that has thus far only been extended to some. Policy supporters have long argued that in a country like China, with an already huge population and limited resources, unchecked population growth would keep millions mired in poverty and place unbearable strain on natural resources. But the “planned birth policy,” as it is known in Chinese, has not only caused heartache for countless families prevented from having more than one child through massive fines, sterilization, and in some cases forced abortions — it has also wildly distorted the country’s demographics. At the end of 2014, Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women by 33 million, due to a traditional preference for sons and the gender-selective abortions that many have opted for in order to guarantee that their single child is male. Additionally, low birth rates mean that China’s population is aging swiftly. And as the country’s once-explosive economic growth slows, the move to prevent a double economic and demographic decline is unsurprising”.

Worryingly for a regime always in danger of collapse the piece notes “Yet on Chinese social media, a place where criticism of government can sometimes take root and one populated in large part by young Chinese who grew up under the current planned-birth regime, the primary reaction was anger, not joy. The implementation of the rule, critics argue, has became a kind of social contract within China, based on an often explicit promise that the government would repay the sacrifices of its citizens with generous social services. As one common government slogan in the 1980s went: “Have just one child; the government will take care of the elderly.” But many Chinese feel they never received those promised benefits. “When mom gave birth to me, we had to pay our entire family savings as a fine,” went the most up-voted comment on one Oct. 29 post announcing the news on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, written by a user who identified himself as a young single male in China’s southwestern Sichuan province. “The country should compensate me.” After China began its long process of economic reform after 1978, the social services that had guaranteed at least a minimal standard of living in the previously poor communist country were systematically dismantled”.

It adds that “Though reform brought spectacular economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, China still lacks a strong social safety net, such as universal healthcare or reliable unemployment insurance. Along with dramatic GDP growth has come an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, meaning that those not fortunate enough to maintain a comfortable nest egg may all too easily fall through the cracks. This was not the bargain the government struck with its citizens, some argue. Jake Lin, a young Chinese professional from Shanghai now working in Washington, DC, echoed the point. He told Foreign Policy that he believes only children and their families should be compensated for the sacrifices they made”.

Not surprisingly the piece reports that “Many netizens quipped, only half-jokingly, that the so-called “two-child policy” might soon become mandatory. “The old policy measures used to be heavy fines, forced sterilisation, and vaginal rings,” wrote one Weibo user. “Now with the ‘two-child’ policy, the government will offer cash incentives and prizes, and send installments of Viagra and sexy underwear.” Another wrote in a popular comment, “The next step: Fines for those who don’t have two children!” The plenum marked the second major about-face in Chinese birth policies, one that’s straining the credibility of government propaganda. Under late Communist strongman Mao Zedong, ubiquitous posters encouraged citizens to make the country strong by having as many children as they could. But with the advent of the one-child policy, intended partly as a corrective to the mismatch between population and available resources that Mao’s exhortations had created, the government made moral arguments in the other direction. Many contemporary youth grew up surrounded by government slogans painted on walls, or on signs draped across boulevards, reminding them of the virtues of having only one child”.


Iran in Syria talks


Iran has been invited to participate for the first time in international talks over Syria’s future, U.S. officials said Tuesday, a shift in strategy for the United States and its allies as they seek to halt the four-year civil war and eventually ease President Bashar Assad out of power. Iran has yet to reply, the officials said. The next diplomatic round is expected to start Thursday and continue Friday in Vienna, with Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several top European and Arab diplomats attending. Washington had held out the possibility of Iran joining the discussions in future, but is only now offering Tehran a seat after days of behind-the-scenes negotiation, particularly with its regional rival Saudi Arabia. Russia extended the invitation. The United States is taking a gamble. Iran has backed Assad’s government throughout the conflict, fighting alongside the Syrian military, and is seen by Western-backed rebels and U.S. partners in the region as a major source of the bloodshed. The Syrian opposition may balk at Iran’s inclusion in any discussions on what a post-Assad Syria should look like”.

Obama sends troops to Syria


A report notes Obama’s decison to send troops to Syria.

It begins “In a major shift, the Obama administration is now willing to have U.S. troops take part in direct combat against the Islamic State, a move that could lead to American fatalities in Iraq and Syria and that poses political risks for a White House that had long vowed to keep U.S. forces out of the fight. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that the United States “won’t hold back from supporting capable partners in opportunistic attacks against ISIL or conducting such missions directly, whether by strikes from the air or direct action on the ground.” ISIL is an alternate acronym for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS or Daesh”.

The article goes on to make the point “Carter’s comments follow his assertion last week that he is “absolutely prepared” for a larger U.S. ground combat role in Iraq — even though those types of missions would carry the clear risk of American casualties. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, was killed last week during a raid on an Islamic State prison. A 39-year-old father of four, Wheeler was the first American service member to die in combat in Iraq since 2011. Testifying along with Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford added that in addition to special operations raids, he would be open to embedding U.S. troops with Iraqi combat forces to help provide them with intelligence, direct airstrikes, and artillery fire but only if their deployment “had an operational or strategic impact” on the fight”.

Pointedly the piece notes that “The shift in thinking from months of pledges of “no boots on the ground” to one that embraces an active combat role comes as the Obama administration looks for ways to reinvigorate a stalled fight in Iraq, where the Islamic State retains control of several key cities. It also comes amid an intensifying Russian military intervention in neighbouring Syria, where Vladimir Putin has promised to battle the Islamic State but instead has focused most of his airstrikes on the rebels working to unseat Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Carter called the new strategy “Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids,” referring first to the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, followed by the Iraqi city of Ramadi that was taken by jihadi forces in May, and finally to the potential new American ground role in the fight”.

Yet this half hearted strategy leaves open the question, if things are not going well for the Obama strategy then why only put in some troops. Either his strategy has failed and needs a fundamental rethink or Syria and Iraq are not important in which case it is irrelevant that ISIS have large chunks of Iraq and Syria. Obama cannot have it both ways.

The report goes on to conclude “Across the border in Syria, a few dozen Syrian fighters who had been trained and equipped by U.S. forces as part of a failed $500 million program are still in the fight, Dunford said. Despite the cancellation of the program, the general said they continue to receive American aid and have been active in calling in airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Carter also outlined a change in the training effort for Syrian moderate fighters, saying that while the old approach was to identify, vet, and transport fighters out of Syria for weeks of training, the new approach is to work with trusted leaders of groups that are already fighting the Islamic State and “provide equipment and some training to them and support their operations with air power.” Carter and Dunford were repeatedly pressed on the issue of what kind of support the United States was prepared to offer these Syrian fighters when they come under attack, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) repeatedly framing the issue as a moral one. Neither defense official was willing to offer specifics, but Dunford did admit that “we have the authority, and we have the capability” to defend them through air power. But when asked directly if the United States was ready to defend the rebels from Russian airstrikes, he denied that the main U.S.-backed group, the Free Syrian Army, had been targeted by Russian aircraft”.

“An $11 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia four advanced warships”


The US government has approved an $11 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia four advanced warships, officials said Tuesday, amid mounting regional tension. Saudi Arabia is modernizing its eastern fleet, which faces off against Iranian forces across the oil-rich Gulf. The four ships, based on the US Navy’s littoral combat ship, are relatively small but designed to be fast and maneuverable in shallow water and to pack a punch. The statement from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said it had notified the US Congress of the State Department’s decision and was awaiting final approval. The agency said the sale would “improve the security of a strategic regional partner, which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” Dubbed a “multi-mission surface combatant ship” in its export version, the ships carry dozens of Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles”.

Russia, staying till the end?


A report from Foreign Policy argues that Russian troops will remain “until the end”.

It begins “Russian troops in Syria claim in a TV interview that they’ve “been there since the beginning and will stay to the end.” But for now, neither they — nor anyone else — knows just when that “end” will come. New interviews with Russian troops dispatched to Syria, published by France24 Thursday, feature clips of Putin’s army deployed near Latakia, where Russia has built up its military presence in recent months. The soldiers, who asked that their faces remain hidden, told the French television station that they don’t know how much longer they will be required to stay in Syria but assume it won’t be too much longer because the campaign is going “very well.” Russia has come under intense international scrutiny for reportedly targeting U.S.-backed rebels instead of the Islamic State. On Monday, 45 people were reportedly killed in a Russian strike”.

The writer adds “Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russian security told FP that granular details such as who specifically is on the ground in Latakia are hard to confirm. But if there are members of the 58th Army there, they are likely a small minority who were plucked from other posts to oversee specific operations. The majority of the troops on the ground belong to the air force because they’re there to fly bombers and drones, which make up the brunt of the Russian military presence in Syria.

He ends “There have been various reports in Russian media that mercenary-types are recruiting heavily for more Russians to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. However, according to Galeotti, so far the recruiters have found most of their fighters in the Donbass region, which he said could be a win-win for Moscow, which may be trying to disengage from conflict in the Donbass as it pivots to Syria. “If you can get some of these gung-ho volunteer types from the Donbass to Syria, you’re killing two birds with one stone,” Galeotti said. “You’ve got some warm bodies in Syria and fewer in the Donbass.”

“Libya’s dueling governments were left without clear legal standing”


For months, United Nations negotiators have been racing to settle a feud between competing governments in Libya, a rivalry that has crippled the oil industry, provided a foothold for the Islamic State and plunged the country into civil war. On Tuesday, after the mandate of one of two rival parliaments — the only one recognized by Western powers — lapsed before lawmakers could endorse a proposed unity government, both of Libya’s dueling governments were left without clear legal standing and international backing. The failure of warring parties to support a U.N. peace proposal threatens a U.S-backed effort to stabilise Libya and pushes the country into uncharted territory”.

Vatileaks II


A report from Crux notes Vatileaks 2 has come out to the public domain, “The Vatican’s new leaks scandal intensified Tuesday as a book exposed the mismanagement and internal resistance that has been thwarting Pope Francis’ financial reform efforts. Citing confidential documents, it detailed millions of euros in potential lost rental revenue, the scandal of the Vatican’s saint-making machine, greedy monsignors, and a professional-style break-in at the Vatican”.

Allen goes on to note that ““Merchants in the Temple,” by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi, is due out Thursday, but an advance copy was obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press. Its publication, and that of a second book, come days after the Vatican arrested two members of Francis’ financial reform commission in an investigation into stolen documents. The Vatican on Monday described the books as “fruit of a grave betrayal of the trust given by the pope, and, as far as the authors go, of an operation to take advantage of a gravely illicit act of handing over confidential documentation.” “Publications of this nature do not help in any way to establish clarity and truth, but rather generate confusion and partial and tendentious conclusions,” the Vatican said”.

He adds that “The arrests and books mark a new phase in the so-called “Vatileaks” scandal. The saga began in 2012 with an earlier Nuzzi expose, peaked with the conviction of Pope Benedict XVI’s butler on charges he supplied Nuzzi with stolen documents, and ended a year later when a clearly exhausted Benedict resigned, unable to carry on. With the scandal still fresh, Francis was elected in 2013 on a mandate from his fellow cardinals to reform the Vatican bureaucracy and clean up its opaque finances. He set out promptly by creating a commission of eight experts to gather information from all Vatican offices on the Holy See’s overall financial situation, which by that time was dire. Monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, a high-ranking Vatican official affiliated with the Opus Dei movement, and Francesca Chaouqui, an Italian public relations executive, were both members — and now are accused in the leaks probe”.

He goes on to mention “Nuzzi’s book focuses on the work of the commission and the resistance it encountered in getting information out of Vatican departments that have long enjoyed near-complete autonomy in budgeting, hiring, and spending. “Holy Father … There is a complete absence of transparency in the bookkeeping both of the Holy See and the Governorate,” five international auditors wrote Francis in June 2013, according to Nuzzi’s book. “Costs are out of control.” Citing emails, minutes of meetings, recorded private conversations, and memos, the book paints a picture of a Vatican bureaucracy entrenched in a culture of mismanagement, waste, and secrecy”.

Giving crucial context he writes “It might not be far off the mark, given that Francis has repeatedly and publicly warned the Roman Curia against engaging in “intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism, and partiality” and acting more like a royal court than an institution of service. Last Christmas, he delivered an infamous dressing down of his closest collaborators, citing the “15 ailments of the Curia” that included living “hypocritical” double lives and suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” That said, the book is clearly written from the point of view of the commission members, sympathetic to their plight and setting up an “us against them” narrative of the new reformers battling the Vatican’s entrenched Old Guard, without addressing why the Old Guard might have had reason to distrust them”.

Allen mentions that “The book cites a memo listing six priorities when the commission began work, starting with the need to get a handle on the Vatican’s vast real estate holdings. Nuzzi cites a commission report that found that the value of the real estate was some 2.7 billion euros (dollars), seven times higher than the amount entered onto the balance sheets. (A euro is worth about $1.10 US today.) Rents were sometimes 30 to 100 percent below market, the commission found, including some apartments that were given free to cardinals and bureaucrats as part of their overall compensation or retirement packages. The book says that if market rates were applied, homes given to employees would generate income of 19.4 million euros rather than the 6.2 million euros currently recorded, while other “institutional” buildings which today generate no income would generate income of 30.4 million euros”.


Allen ends, “Nuzzi recounts the tale of Monsignor Giuseppe Sciacca, the No. 2 in the Vatican City State administration, who wanted a fancier apartment. Top-ranking Vatican cardinals often enjoy enormous apartments, with some commanding upward of 400 square meters (a little more than 1,312 square feet) apiece. When Sciacca’s neighbour, an elderly priest, was hospitalized for a long period, Sciacca took advantage of the absence to break through a wall separating their residences and incorporated an extra room into his apartment, furniture and all, Nuzzi recounts. The elderly prelate eventually came home to find his possessions in boxes, and died a short time later, the book says. Francis, who lives in a hotel room, summarily demoted Sciacca, forcing him to move out”.


“The bigger challenge may well be reconciling the Saudis and the Iranians”


As Secretary of State John Kerry sat down here on Friday to push for a political settlement of the Syrian war, the immediate tension surrounded his dealings with the Russians and the Iranians. But the bigger challenge may well be reconciling the Saudis and the Iranians, longtime rivals who have turned Syria into the main battlefield in a broadening proxy war for dominance in the Middle East. They have more invested in the outcome than any of the other participants in the talks to end the conflict, now in its fifth year. Until two weeks ago, the idea that Saudi Arabia and Iran would sit at the same table was unthinkable. The Saudis outright refused, and the two countries have been accelerating an arms race to assure they prevail not only in Syria, but also in Yemen, Iraq and, less noticeably, in the street uprisings in Bahrain.

Synod winners and losers


John Allen writes about the winners and losers of the recently concluded Synod on the Family.

He opens “The most significant and contested gathering of Roman Catholic bishops in the past 50 years formally ended on Sunday after three weeks of debate and dispute, but the arguments over who “won” and who “lost” are only beginning. The synod of 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world was the second in a year called by Pope Francis to address how and whether Catholicism could adapt its teachings to the changing realities of modern family life. Traditionalists had taken a hard line against any openings, especially after last October’s meetingseemed to point toward possible reforms. While the delegates made hundreds of suggestions on a host of issues, two took center stage, in part because they represented a barometer for the whole question of change: Could the Church be more welcoming to gays, and was there a way divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion without an annulment? The synod was never going to provide definitive answers; it is only an advisory body to the pope and cannot legislate or bar changes in Church policies”.

He goes on to mention “Yet some on the right saw the lack of an explicit recommendation to allow divorced and remarried Catholics a pathway to Communion as evidence that “conservatives basically ‘won’ this synod,” as Damian Thompson wrote in The Spectator. “…divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can’t receive the sacrament and that’s that,” Thompson wrote. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal’s report called the document passed Saturday evening “an embarrassing defeat” because it did not specifically authorize the pope to approve Communion for the remarried and for his “liberalizing agenda.”

The lack of almost any opening to gays and lesbians was certainly a setback for progressives who had been cheered last fall that so many top churchmen had used unprecedented language in speaking in positive terms about gays and same-sex couples.

But the broader reality is that conservatives, as many of them acknowledged, did not get what they wanted or needed at this synod, and their prospects going forward look even dimmer.

Here’s why:

1. Divorced and remarried Catholics made some gains.

The final report from the synod contained key phrases about individual Catholics in “irregular” situations — such as being remarried without an annulment — using the “internal forum” of their conscience, in consultation with a pastor, to consider their status in the Church.

For decades, the Vatican had effectively barred priests and penitents from using the “internal forum” in the remarriage context for fear it would be abused.

Also, the final document doesn’t mention Communion explicitly, but it was clear — and numerous Church officials confirmed privately — that the language refers to the sacraments and, most important, it gives Francis an opening to take further action, which Church officials expect him to do.

Moreover, if the three paragraphs (out of 94) in the final document dealing with the remarried were not problematic, why did so many bishops speak out so strongly against them in the final closed-door session before the vote? And why did those paragraphs get the fewest “yes” votes of all — in one case, just one vote above the necessary two-thirds threshold for official passage?

2. Silence on gays is preferable to harsh words.

The absence of any breakthrough language on gays was a tactical retreat by progressives who saw that they did not have the support in the synod to get close to a two-thirds threshold.

Even getting close to half would have been hard if not impossible, and would have revealed the deep divisions in the synod on the issue and left the pontiff with an unpalatable option of choosing one side or the other — those who spoke warmly about gay couples and others, such as African Cardinal Robert Sarah, who used harsh and almost apocalyptic language about gays and lesbians.

“It was better to leave the question open for further study and reflection than blocking it with bad paragraph or bad text,” Belgian Bishop Johan Bonny, a point man for those favoring change, told reporters. “That is a point for next time.”

Bonny was in the same small language group as Sarah, for example, and Bonny and others in that group said sentiment against homosexuals was so strong that “there was no way of discussing it in a peaceful way.”

Time may be on the side of those seeking a Church that is more welcoming to gays, even if it will never endorse gay marriage.

While many Africans stood out for their blasts at homosexuality, other African churchmen said that their views were developing on this issue and were catching up with the more accepting attitudes in the West.

Conservatives, on the other hand, painted themselves into a corner at the synod by arguing that the only satisfactory outcome was for the synod to reiterate current Church teachings and practices and bar any future flexibility. That didn’t happen, and they are left trying to explain.

3. The synod showed that the Church can, and has, changed.

That change can seem obvious when viewed from the perspective of history, but it’s been a neuralgic point for those who fear that admitting to any evolution can lead to a slippery slope. Francis hammered home the need to change in his forceful closing address to the synod Saturday, in which he declared that “the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit,” and he called on the Church to adapt to different cultures and conditions.

“A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts,” as he said in his closing homily at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.

Many cardinals and bishops welcomed what they said was an end to a judgmental Church and the start of a more pastoral Church that considers people first and rules second.

But change is never easy for the Catholic hierarchy.

“We are discombobulated. Some defend the past, others dream of a different future,” Cardinal Francesco Montenegro of Sicily, a strong supporter of the pope, said in explaining the reactions of some of his brother bishops. “The fact that there have been so many reactions is a sign that what he is proposing is something new and powerful.”

4. The synod is dead. Long live the synod.

This synod ended, but synodality — the ongoing process of dialogue, discernment, collaboration, and collegiality that leads to new approaches and possibly even doctrinal shifts — isn’t over.

Francis made that clear in what was viewed as a landmark talk during the synod to mark 50 years since these meetings were begun after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But synods had become routine, almost “rubber-stamp” affairs. No longer.

The pope said that the “Church and synod are synonymous,” and that the journey of discernment is ongoing. Church leaders were free to speak their mind, whereas in past years they would have been silenced. Once the flock hears pastors disagreeing and speaking openly about, for example, the value of families led by gay couples or single parents, it’s hard to “unring” the bell.

“The real takeaway from this synod is that Pope Francis has changed the way the Church goes about reflecting on her pastoral ministry. That’s no small thing,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said on Sunday. “You had all this open discussion about issues that the Church is struggling with. You’re not going to be able to close that door in the future.”

That’s not to say that the future won’t be messy at times, and anxiety-producing, especially for traditionalists and for those who prefer a neat and tidy Church.

5. It’s Francis’ turn now.

As long as Francis is the pope, he makes the final call, and he is expected to take the suggestions he has heard in this synod, and in last year’s synod, and the various consultations he has held since he was elected in March 2013, and use them as a launchpad for further, more concrete reforms.

Perhaps the biggest question is how long Francis has and how many like-minded cardinals and bishops he can appoint before he dies or retires. He turns 79 in December and openly acknowledges that his may not be a long papacy.

Vatican expert and author John Thavis last week crunched the numbers and found that Francis has appointed 13 percent of the world’s active bishops in his 31 months in office and 26 percent of the voting members of the College of Cardinals who would elect his successor.

At this pace, the pontiff would probably need six or seven more years to reach a tipping-point majority of cardinals and bishops.

“I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals,” Thavis wrote.

Francis likes to say that “time is greater than space.” The synod gave him space, but he may need much more time to do with it what he wants.

Bibi blames Palestine for the Holocaust


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked a Holocaust controversy on Wednesday, hours before a visit to Germany, by saying that the Muslim elder in Jerusalem during the 1940s convinced Adolf Hitler to exterminate the Jews. In a speech to the Zionist Congress late on Tuesday, Netanyahu referred to a series of Muslim attacks on Jews in Palestine during the 1920s that he said were instigated by the then-Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Husseini famously flew to visit Hitler in Berlin in 1941, and Netanyahu said that meeting was instrumental in the Nazi leader’s decision to launch a campaign to annihilate the Jews. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu said in the speech. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here (Palestine).’ “‘So what should I do with them?'” Netanyahu said Hitler asked the mufti, who responded: “Burn them.” Netanyahu, whose father was an eminent historian, was quickly harangued by opposition politicians and experts on the Holocaust who said he was distorting the historical record”.

Obama spins Syria


A piece argues how Obama is spinning the war in Syria, “Barack Obama maintains Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military actions in Syria are the acts of a desperate man with an economy sinking under the weight of Western financial sanctions. These penalties have indeed done some damage. But far more important to Russia’s economy are lower oil prices and slumping demand in Asia — and Moscow thinks it has already left the worst behind”.

The writer continues, “Obama has laboured to characterise Russia’s military campaign in support of beleaguered Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad as a sign of Russian weakness, rather than an indication that America’s nearly five-year bid to oust Assad is failing. On Sunday, Obama mocked Russia’s strategic vision,telling CBS’s 60 Minutes that “running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in, in order to prop up your only ally,” hardly constitutes effective leadership. He went on to dismiss Russia’s growing role in the Syrian civil war as a lone-wolf campaign that has failed to garner international support. Not surprisingly, Russians see it differently. Putin told an investment conference Tuesday that the country’s economic crisis may have already peaked. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said in an interview Monday that Russia is “turning the corner,” thanks in large part to the economic stabilization policies Moscow has put in place. He said the Russian economy would start growing again next year. By contrast, the World Bank expects Russia’s economy to continue shrinking next year, before growth resumes in 2017″.

The writer makes the point that “Either way, Russia’s economic woes and shrinking budget have not weakened the bear. Moscow’s defence spending rose by more than 30 percent in the first seven months of 2015, the World Bank noted recently. Russia’s economy has been reeling over the past year; its GDP is expected tocontract 3.8 percent this year, its worst performance since 2009 during the global financial crisis. But that’s hardly because of U.S. and European sanctions alone, which have targeted Russia’s energy, finance, and defense sectors”.

The piece continues, “Unlike energy sanctions on Iran, which directly targeted Tehran’s ability to make money by exporting oil, sanctions against Moscow were not designed to cripple Russia in the short term. They are meant to limit Russia’s ability to access Western capital and technology that Moscow needs for oil and gas projects. That includes Arctic exploration and tapping Russia’s abundant deposits of shale oil, both of which will be critical to maintaining the country’s oil and gas output in the next decade. Yet neither currently plays a big part in Russia’s production of exports of oil and gas. A much bigger factor is the low price of oil, which has fallen about 50 percent from the summer of 2014. Cheaper prices translate into emptier government coffers: Siluanov said oil and gas revenues that in 2014 made up more than half the Russian federal budget have slipped to just over 40 percent”.

The author does make the point that “That’s not to say that sanctions have no impact. Just by raising questions about what kinds of deals are permissible can have a chilling effect on investment, trade, and joint ventures that go beyond the boldfaced names in official sanctions designations”.

Interestingly the piece notes “Gaddy, who co-wrote a Putin biography, says Obama’s insistence that sanctions are enough to deter Putin betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the Russian president’s power base. Those affected by the penalties — longtime members of Putin’s inner circle — have more to lose by defying the president than by pressuring him to ease up abroad. “They would not dare, under any circumstances, tell him to back down,” Gaddy said. “There are worse options for them than sanctions hurting them.” And rather than a knee-jerk reaction to domestic economic weakness, Gaddy said, Russia’s intervention in Syria is a way to elbow the country back onto the main stage of international affairs — especially in a part of the world which has long been in Moscow’s orbit”.

“Include al Qaeda offshoots but also fighters backed by Washington”


Almost 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Islamic State, a Reuters analysis of Russian Defence Ministry data shows, undermining Moscow’s assertions that its aim is to defeat the group. The majority of strikes, according to the analysis, have instead been in areas held by other groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which include al Qaeda offshoots but also fighters backed by Washington and its allies. Defence ministry statements of targets hit by the Russian Air Force and an online archive of Russian military maps show Russia has hit 64 named locations since President Vladimir Putin ordered the first round of air strikes three weeks ago”.

“Obama is losing both relevance and influence”


An article notes the problems faced by Obama after Putin’s actions in Syria, “When Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman visited Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Black Sea estate in Sochi this month to talk about Syria, the moment illustrated how much the Middle East’s power dynamics have changed in just a few weeks — and how the Russian president is looking to take the mantle of regional kingmaker away from U.S. President Barack Obama. With Russian warplanes bombing foes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with the United States unwilling to confront the Damascus regime, Moscow has seized the initiative military and diplomatically. That means high-level delegations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf powers are knocking on Putin’s door instead of that of the Oval Office”.

The report goes on to argue “The defense minister’s visit sparked speculation that Saudi Arabia — which has armed rebels fighting Assad’s army — was exploring a possible deal that would allow Assad to retain power longer in exchange for the two sides mounting coordinated efforts against the Islamic State. Former diplomats and outside observers, meanwhile, wondered whether Washington had signed off on Riyadh’s outreach to Putin or whether Saudi Arabia had decided to ignore the administration and pursue what it saw as its own best interests. “If the Saudi visit was coordinated with the U.S., that would be one thing, but if it wasn’t, it was the Saudis again saying to us, ‘You’re irrelevant,’” Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy. In the wake of Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria, Obama faces a crucial test of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East”.

Rothkopf rightly surmises that “By deploying a few dozen warplanes and a few thousand troops, Russia has upended the strategic landscape in Syria and has posed an unprecedented challenge to the Obama administration, leading many of its closest allies to conclude that Washington is looking to disengage from the region and is willing to accept that growing Russian and Iranian influence will fill the void. With Moscow taking the initiative on the battlefield, senior officials from the Middle East have been making pilgrimages to Russia to hold talks with Putin, who has managed to convince key powers — including the United States — that a sudden Assad collapse would be potentially catastrophic and would risk allowing the Islamic State to conquer most if not all of the country. Arab nations that have been demanding Assad’s ouster for years say that he will eventually have to go, but are signaling that his immediate ouster is no longer their top priority”.

Most damning of all of the “policy” of Obama he argues correctly that the “shift is part of a broader dynamic in the Middle East, where America’s key allies — already alarmed by the White House’s nuclear deal with Iran — are increasingly concluding that Obama is losing both relevance and influence when it comes to issues like the bloody Syrian civil war or the faltering fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. president is also being challenged on the domestic front, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, distancing herself from Obama by stressing that he overruled her after she suggested arming moderate Syrian rebels several years ago”.

The writer goes on to make the valid point that “Obama, who has long argued against a major U.S. role in the Syrian conflict, has dismissed Russia’s actions as a strategic blunder that will plunge its forces into a quagmire. In a testy recent interview on 60 Minutes, Obama rejected the idea that Russia is overtaking America as the dominant actor in the Middle East. “I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership,” Obama said. But critics inside and outside the United States say Obama’s approach — which he has described previously as “strategic patience” — carries its own risks. By refusing to directly counter or confront Russia, Washington is seen as steadily ceding vital ground and allowing Putin to insert himself as arguably the most important current power broker in the Middle East. Russia’s aim “is to shore up Assad and to consolidate his position in the western part of the country, and to thereby deal Russia in on any international process for resolving the conflict,” said Stephen Hadley, who served as national security advisor during President George W. Bush’s second term”.

In stinging criticism he adds that “Even some of those who endorsed Obama’s decision not to intervene earlier in the Syrian civil war are now arguing for a firm U.S. reply to Russia’s military actions, particularly over its targeting of American-backed rebels from the air. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, called in an Oct. 4 op-ed in the Financial Times for a stern warning “to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” or else face U.S. retaliation. The 87-year-old author and informal advisor to several presidents was even punchier on Twitter, where he said: “Ambiguity can be a cover for strategy, or a signal of its absence. Increasingly, it seems the US is pursuing the latter in the Middle East.” Other former U.S. officials and diplomats, including Clinton, have urged the administration to set up a no-fly zone in northern Syria to counter Russia and to offer a safe area for Syrian civilians fleeing both the regime and Islamic State militants”.

Worryingly for the future of the US order he notes “Although Riyadh said its position on the need for Assad to step down has not changed, analysts and former diplomats who served in the region speculated that the Saudis are exploring the possibility of forging an agreement with Russia — possibly without bothering to coordinate with the United States — that would trade greater longevity for Assad for more intensive Russian efforts against the Islamic State. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, however, told a news conference in Riyadh on Wednesday that his country remains committed to Assad’s ouster. “There is no change. From the beginning of the crisis, the position of the kingdom is that al-Assad is the problem in the Syria crisis,” the foreign minister said after talks with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. In an embarrassment for Washington, which has carried out thousands of bombing raids in support of the Iraqi Army, the Shiite-led government in Baghdad has warmly welcomed Russia’s air war in Syria and joined an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Moscow in September. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has even appealed to Russia to extend its air campaign to Iraq”.

The piece concludes “The White House is betting Russia will stumble in Syria. But if Moscow succeeds, and leverages battlefield gains into a political settlement of the war, then it will “translate into much more regional influence in the Middle East, it will translate into much more Russian bullishness in Asia and Ukraine,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration and now dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “And also many other countries in other regions of the world may come to the conclusion that it’s not America that’s the indispensable nation,” he said. The Syrian conflict has been a recurring source of grief for Obama ever since he called on Assad to “step aside” in 2011. In February 2012, an American bid to broker a democratic transition in Syria with a U.N. resolution was vetoed by Russia. Later that year, then-Secretary of State Clinton, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then-CIA chief David Petraeus, and the military’s then top-ranking officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, all recommended arming Syria’s rebels. Obama rejected the proposal, though he later approved a CIA program that has had disappointing results”.

Such is the position of the administration’s own policy that “The White House has even distanced itself from its own initiatives in Syria. When it acknowledged in September that a Pentagon effort to build a moderate opposition force in Syria had essentially failed, press secretary Josh Earnest suggested that critics who had demanded the program in the first place were to blame — not the president”.