A Game of Homs

What striking about Syria is how so many people insist on speaking about it in profoundly moralistic, Manichaean terms. This is complete nonsense, given that its civil war isn’t a showdown between democracy and dictatorship, but an ethnic and religious conflict. Here’s a more realistic guide:

The Assad regime

The rhetoric: He kills his own people! He is the Evil Overlord (TM)!

The reality: That’s kind of what happens in a civil war. Abraham Lincoln also “killed his own people,” you know. It is obvious why the “regime” fights on: That is what regimes do – as a general rule of thumb, they’re fond of surviving. The rather more interesting and telling question is: Why do key elements of the population continue to back them?

As far as the Alawites and Christians are concerned, it’s pretty clear: The Sunnis have never been particularly well disposed to them, and the past few years haven’t made them any fonder. The last time the Sunnis revolted in Hama in 1982, one of the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.”

In the game of Homs, you win or you die – and the “you” is in its plural form. No wonder Assad has a solid support base.

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What Happens If The US/Israel Attack Iran?

It might happen this June or later, reports RT citing Israeli media. Obama and Netanyahu are at least discussing the prospect.

In previous years I was sure that it would happen eventually, probably before year end 2012. That is because that was the most convenient window between the fielding of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (early 2012) and the completion of most of Iranian hardening efforts (about now). But this hasn’t happened yet, so I think the chances are diminishing fast that it ever will – because the returns to it (in terms of significantly setting back the Iranian nuclear program) are also diminishing fast in tandem.

FWIW, the gamblers who put their money where their mouths are think there is a 10% chance it will happen before June 2012, and a 25% chance it will happen before the end of this year. Those are not odds I would take, however.

If it does happen, however… I think the effects will be rather muted. Iran probably doesn’t have the capability to block the Straits of Hormuz for any significant amount of time and it will probably refrain from even trying (because then the US will have to intervene in a big way). In a just world, types like the BRICS bloc would bank together to punish the US/Israel for acting like rogue states, but I am almost certain that will not happen either. And not because they particularly need trade with the US (even in China’s case – see Myth 3). But because they don’t have any particularly interest in Iran becoming too big for its boots.

Oh they’ll huff and puff alright. But Iran really isn’t a reliable partner to anyone, including to ostensible-allies-but-not-really-or-at-all-actually like Russia. And no nuclear power has an interest in other countries obtaining the capability, because even if their relations aren’t hostile, it still serves to diminish their nuclear power in relative terms. After all having an American Airlines at a poker table doesn’t do you much good if all the others have it too. Furthermore, a nuclear armed Iran would be geopolitically much stronger. Russia doesn’t want that because it will then be less dependent on it. Ideally, Russia wants an Iran that is quite hostile to the West, but not independently strong. The same goes for China. Furthermore, if Russia and China express too much support for Iran, the Iranians may be emboldened to try and close the Strait of Hormuz after all as a fuck-you to the West, delusionally counting on more than rhetorical support from China and Russia. As China and Russia definitely won’t intervene in that one, what will happen in the end is Iran’s total military nullification and perhaps the installation of a pro-Western puppet in Tehran. And that isn’t in their interests at all.

So there will not be any significant reaction from China or Russia to an imperialist attack on Iran.

Alex Mercouris Untangles Syria

He has an excellent article over at his blog discussing the motivations behind the Western smearing of Russia for supporting – well, not opposing – Assad, against the Islamist insurgent freedom fighters. I highly recommend you read the article Russia, Syria, and the West in full; as Mark Chapman correctly notes in the comments, if you only did that then you would “come away better informed than 90% of those who have followed the situation from the outset.”

Basically, the West pretends that Russia is pursuing mercenary objectives in propping up Assad, while its own motives are altruistic and well-meaning. This of course ignores many inconvenient facts:

  • The situation in Syria is in fact a civil war with the insurgents, vast majority of whom are Islamists, not without their own share of atrocities. (And being supported by Western proxies for months now).
  • Western duplicity in supporting regimes like Saudi Arabia which executes people for witchcraft and militarily intervening in Bahrain to put down a Shi’ite revolt. This exposes their protests vs. Russia, China as hypocritical moralistic posturing; the real objective is to undermine Iran.
  • The BRICS as a whole are against the Western moves to intervene militarily in Syria (with Russia taking most of the flak), or create the pretexts for such. This is an eminently reasonable move given the Libyan experience. Libya, by and by, is hardly ever mentioned now in the Western MSM, as that whole democracy and liberal rights thing doesn’t appear to be panning out with daily reprisals, collapse of central authority, and fast-growing influence of radical Islamists.
  • Ignoring Russia’s (and China’s, etc) real arguments and motivations: Not supporting Assad per se (as Putin pointed out, Assad made more visits to Paris than Moscow in the past few years), but preventing the Western powers from usurping the right to make war, regime change, and general hostile interference in the affairs of non-Western aligned states. I.e., holding to the letter of international law.

For a statement of the Russian position on Syria, I recommend Russian FM Sergey Lavrov’s article in the Huffington Post (On the Right Side of History), as well as Mercouris’ earlier posts on the matter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

New Year Special: 2012 Predictions

It’s been a great year! To recap, in rough chronological order, 2011 saw: The most popular post (with 562 comments and counting; granted, most of them consisting of Indians and Pakistanis flaming each other); Visualizing the Kremlin Clans (joint project with Kevin Rothrock of A Good Treaty); my National Comparisons between life in Russia, Britain, and the US; my interview with (now defunct) La Russophobe; interviews with Craig Willy and Mark Chapman; lots of non-Russia related stuff concerning the Arctic, futurism, Esperanto, and the Chinese language; possibly the most comprehensive analyses of the degree of election fraud in the Duma elections in English; TV appearances on RT and Al Jazeera; and what I hope will remain productive relationships with Al Jazeera and Inosmi. Needless to say, little if any of this would have been possible without my e-buddies and commentators, so a special shout out to all you guys. In particular, I would like to mention Alex Mercouris, who as far as I can ascertain is the guy who contributed the 20,000th comment here. I should send him a special T-shirt or something.

In previous years, my tradition was to review the previous year before launching into new predictions. I find this boring and will now forego the exercise, though in passing I will note that many of the defining traits in 2010 – the secular rise of China and of “The Rest” more generally; political dysfunction in the US; growing fissures in Europe, in contrast to Eurasian (re)integration; the rising prominence of the Arctic – have remained dominant into this year. The major new development that neither I nor practically anyone else foresaw was the so-called “Arab Spring”, as part of a pattern of increasing political stress in many other states: Occupy Wall Street and its local branches in the West; the Meetings for Fair Elections in Russia; Wukan in China and anti-corruption protests in India. I don’t disagree with TIME’s decision to nominate The Protester as its person of the year. However, as I will argue below, the nature of protest and instability is radically different in all these regions. I will finish up by reviewing the accuracy of my 2011 predictions from last year.

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Top 10 Sinophobe Myths

Just as with Russia, the Western media (beholden as it is to its power elite sponsors and anti-Rest ideology) peddles many tropes about China that cloud real understanding of this fascinating civilization-state. In the spirit of Sino Triumphalism, this is my attempt to set the record straight and overturn the lazy arguments used to dismiss, Brezhnev-like, China’s imminent rise to superpowerdom. My message to those Sinophobes: talk cooks no rice. For more on this topic see 1, 2, 3, 4, 56.

MYTH: The lack of IP rights curbs innovation, so the Chinese economy will remain based on producing cheap knock-offs of superior Western goods.

REALITY: China now focuses on copying products because its technologically lagging, and as such it is much easier and cost effective to reproduce already existing products than to come up with your own. Much the same can (and was!) said of Japan in the 1960’s, or Germany in the 1880’s – but look at them now!

The lack of IP rights makes this assimilation far easier – why waste money paying rent to foreign software companies when you can use their products for free so easily? You’d have to be their stooge to do this! Throughout history, many successful developers, such as Germany and Britain, flouted IP rights and funded industrial espionage to modernize their economies. They only started praising the virtues of IP rights when they got rich to protect their own new interests.

With China already taking the leading positions in sectors such as High Speed Rail and supercomputers, the time when it joins the developed world in “kicking away the ladder” can’t be far off.

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Future Superpowers – The World To 2100

future-superpowersMost projections of future trends in national power fail to appreciate the importance of three crucial factors: (1) the declining EROEI of energy resources (including, but not limited to, “peak oil”); (2) the importance of human capital to economic growth, especially in developing countries’ attempts to “catch up” to the advanced world; and (3) the impacts of climate change, which are projected to be more and more catastrophic with every passing year. Disregarding these trends produces predictions such as George Friedman’s (STRATFOR) argument that Mexico – a low human capital country experiencing plummeting oil production and growing water stress – will become a superpower by 2100.

Using my current estimates of Comprehensive National Power as a base (an index of power that attempts to express a nation’s economic, military, and cultural power in a single number), I will specially stress the above factors in my analysis of future global power trends. Some results will look plausible and familiar (e.g. China overtaking the US as a superpower by the 2020’s); others will appear utterly bizarre (e.g. Canada becoming a major Great Power in by the end of the century, while India and Brazil plummet back into obscurity). But they are nonetheless all plausible and even likely outcomes, derived from bringing together worlds that all too often are considered independently of each other: the economy; human capital; geopolitics; energetics; and climate change.

There may of course be unexpected discontinuities – popularized as Black Swans by Nassim Taleb – that unravel these projections (the probability of their happening increasing exponentially over time). This will be covered in greater depth below. In the meantime, bear this caveat in mind as you read the rest of the post.

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