Massenbach-Letter: NEWS 07.10.16

Massenbach-Letter. News

· Putin and Erdogan to meet again on Oct. 10 in Istanbul

· Boris Johnson: UK will help Turkey join the EU

· George Friedman: Why Russia Is Threatening the US in Syria

· Kurdpress: US to build military base in Syria’s Hasaka

· How Will the Battle for Mosul Unfold?


· Sigmar Gabriel in Tehran

· Valdai_Report: Russia, China, and USA in Central Asia: A Balance Of Interests And Opportunities For Cooperation

· Three Years On, China’s Belt and Road Initiative to Embrace Greater Achievements …


· The Causes of Germany’s Political and Social Divide

· Zusammenfassung der Papstreise nach Georgien und Aserbaidschan.

è Alert: Trump’s No. 2 Pence won heated vice presidential debate, poll says (DEBKAfile October 5, 2016, 11:11 AM (IDT)

A poll released by CNN late Tuesday night immediately after the fiery vice presidential debate between Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine found that Pence was the winner by six points, 48 percent to 42 percent. ( )

Massenbach*The Causes of Germany’s Political and Social Divide Geopolitical Futures logo

Sept. 29, 2016. The most important challenge for Berlin is the division between eastern and western Germany.


The latest regional election results indicate that the German political system has started to fragment. The differences between Germany’s east and west are the most important challenge for the German political elite. The evolution of German politics will highly affect the European Union’s future, as Germany is the bloc’s de facto leader.

· After unification, the east wasn’t fully integrated with the west. Different socio-economic dynamics shape the current political challenges and widen the gap between the political elite in Berlin and the rest of the country.

· The east has never lost its militarism. People in the east and west have different expectations of leadership, as the east is still adapting to Western democracy and the market-based economy.

· The current regional divisions are a product of Germany’s history. This includes the separation of the country into two states after World War II and the divisions between northeastern Prussia and the regions in the southwest.


We are currently observing the fragmentation of the European Union, with Germany its de facto leader. Here, we will take a deeper look at Germany’s challenges because we consider them to be at the core of Europe’s challenges.

The division between the eastern and western parts of Germany is the most important challenge for the leadership in Berlin. This divide will shape how Germany evolves and defines itself as a European power. However, the current regional disparity is a product of Germany’s past, including the separation of the country into two states during the Cold War. Therefore, for the purposes of this Deep Dive, when we speak of “the east,” we are referring to the regions that were part of East Germany, which was officially called the German Democratic Republic. “The west” refers to the regions of West Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany.

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The two were divided for 45 years until 1990. Prior to World War II, German society was divided along different lines. The northeast, dominated by Prussia, was different from the southwest, which encompassed in part the states that are currently called Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate. Geography has played the most important role in defining not only German politics and economics but also the multiple layers of differences within German society. Germany has experienced fragmentation throughout its history, and each time was a painful struggle for the country’s leadership and people.

Different Socio-Economic Dynamics

Berlin’s local elections have revealed two realities in German politics. They confirmed that the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is visibly gaining ground at the national level. They also showed that other non-mainstream parties are becoming more popular and that the German political system is starting to fragment. This indicates, as elsewhere in the European Union, that the gap is widening between the elite and the electorate. Both trends started in the east and are now gaining ground in the west and point to a potential political crisis in Germany.

Some blame the rise of populist movements in Germany on the country’s socio-economic problems and the refugee crisis. But, according to the election map, populism and nationalism have risen faster in the east than in the west. AfD’s greatest level of support is in the east, where it has been popular from the very beginning. While the refugee crisis has clearly contributed to the rapid success of AfD at the national level, this doesn’t fully explain why it has been so popular in the east. The unification process in the early 1990s didn’t solve the existing divisions between East Germany and West Germany. The transition in the east from communism to capitalism is comparable to Eastern European countries’ transition process, in that the east has not yet completely integrated with the west. History also helps explain the current challenges Germany’s leadership is facing when dealing with the two regions’ differences. The east is still influenced by German militarism and struggles to adapt to democracy and the market economy. The west, in contrast, has had six decades of democracy and economic growth and has fully integrated into the Western system.

Throughout the four decades between the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War, the west evolved differently than the east. At the end of the Cold War, the geographical borders were redrawn, but the divisions between the east and the west remain. The east needed to reinvent itself as it transitioned from a centrally planned economy to a market-based economy. The west was happy to have a larger workforce but soon discovered that it needed to invest in educating workers from the east, as they had different standards. At the same time, migration to the west has left the east with an unproductive workforce and inefficient industries. Even though the west poured a lot of money into reforms, the gray atmosphere of the eastern industrial cities was not completely erased.

The east remains the poorest part of Germany, with a GDP about 25 percent lower than in the west, and it is suffering the most from the current EU crisis. If you travel from the west to the east, you will notice a difference in architecture and also society. The east resembles Eastern Europe more than it resembles western Germany. The open fields and large farms reflect the fact that agriculture is the largest contributor to GDP in the east. The reliance on agriculture also explains the low population density in the east. Leipzig and Dresden are the exceptions because they are university centers and most of the communist-era industries were concentrated there.

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Neighborhoods with gray apartment blocks, reminiscent of the Soviet era, surround the traditional German downtown core in cities in the east, while industrial sites are usually only partly functional. After unification in 1990, companies and factories in the east had to suddenly compete with their more advanced counterparts in the west and many went bankrupt. Unification also led to high unemployment rates in the east, which are currently at about 10 percent, double the rates in the west. Economic activity in the east has increased since the early 1990s as a result of governmental programs – subsidies and investment in infrastructure – mostly paid for by revenue generated in the west.

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Unlike the multicultural German towns in the west, eastern cities are inhabited mostly by people who are ethnically German. Young people often seek better-paying jobs by migrating to the west or elsewhere in Europe. The people living in the east see the refugee crisis as decreasing the number of job opportunities. It has been hard enough for people to reinvent themselves and survive capitalism after communism. Now, they see the refugee crisis as another challenge.

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In such an atmosphere, nostalgia is growing for the good old days under communism when everyone had a secure job and a home (or at least that was the perception). Socialism doesn’t have the same meaning in the east and west. The slogans of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) are different in both regions to accommodate the greater support for populism and the Left Party in the east. Former members of the Socialist Unity Party (which governed East Germany) have become supporters of the western version of socialism, sometimes without fully understanding the differences. At the same time, the east has seen growing support for nationalist and anti-immigration parties, like the National Democratic Party, AfD and PEGIDA.

Tolerance for foreigners is very low in the east. Statistics show that there are more hate crimes in the east. A recent government report says that attacks on foreigners reached a peak in 2015, as incidents carried out by radicals from both sides of the political spectrum have increased. However, religion is not a factor. The large majority of the population of the east is not religious, while most of the west is Christian – predominantly Catholics and Protestants.

In the east, dictatorship and authoritarianism shaped society for more than six decades. Throughout these years, the state’s constant control over private life gave people a different mentality than that of their western counterparts. People in the east expect more from their leaders – their problems need to be fixed from above, even if they do not expect the solution to be efficient. As is the case for most of Eastern Europe, the market economy and democracy are relatively new concepts. So is multiculturalism. They see no need to accommodate immigrants who pose a risk on multiple levels. The west has had the chance to get accustomed to democracy and the market economy since the 1950s and has already gone through the experience of accommodating migrants. The west understands that there is a cost, as well as a security risk, attached to receiving refugees and it is willing to absorb these costs to a greater extent than the east.

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The Historical Divide and Diverging Ideological Paths

To understand the way political fragmentation can affect Germany and Europe today, we need to look at the way politics developed in the east and west prior to World War II, as well as in East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War. These factors have built the divisions that the current leadership in Berlin is struggling to manage.

At the end of World War II, the Allies decided to dissolve Prussia. Historically, the core of Prussia was East Germany. It was not Prussian culture but Prussian governance and its political model that allowed fascism. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, external powers viewed Prussia positively. The state, founded in 1871, was seen as the best outcome of Germany’s historical evolution, a model for rational administration and economic progress. The Prussian state was perceived to be the liberator of Protestant Germany from the Habsburg Empire and Bonapartist French influence.

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Prussia’s efficient administration and geography were largely responsible for the fact that Germany didn’t go through the transformational processes that France, the U.K. and the Netherlands had gone through in the late 19th century. The “bourgeois revolution” was not necessary for Prussia because it was doing well economically. This meant that traditional elites maintained and increased their influence over what was a military and rural society. These elites were referred to as the Junkers: the noble landowners located east of the Elbe River. They fought back against the liberal tendencies in the German south from Bavaria to western Rhineland.

The Prussian model, through its traditional and militaristic leadership, slowly allowed intolerance and illiberalism to grow as a means of maintaining power. This “special path” that the Prussian state chose allowed the rise of the Nazi dictatorship and led Winston Churchill to say in 1943 that Prussia “is a source of recurring pestilence.” But the cause of this “pestilence” was actually the political system built by the Junkers, who ran the country prior to the Nazi regime.

The Allies dissolved Prussia in 1947, when they signed a law that officially divided Germany into the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany. East Germany was a Soviet satellite state during the Cold War. Similar to other states in the Eastern Bloc, East Germany was governed by its version of the USSR’s Communist Party – the Socialist Unity Party. It implemented similar economic policies – central planners set prices and the state ran almost all economic activity.

West Germany included the three Allied Occupation Zones, held by the U.S., the U.K. and France. The Americans really managed the territories and, as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer took office in 1949, West Germany fully aligned with the West. American funding gave West Germany the ability to recover from World War II and become the world’s third largest economy in just a decade after the end of the war. East Germany was the most successful USSR satellite state, but the standard of living was not comparable.

In East Germany, communism replaced fascism – but it didn’t fully eliminate it. Stalin had no reason to do so. In fact, he used it to his advantage. After all, Stalin’s regime was also illiberal and intolerant. Therefore, Moscow encouraged former SS officers to join the Stasi, East Germany’s state security service. The Stasi created an effective network of informants that spied on civilians, with the stated purpose of enforcing the regime’s will. This was completely different than what was going on in West Germany, where the Americans implemented a denazification program to remove remnants of the Nazi regime from public life. While the program was criticized in West Germany for being just a procedure to allow rehabilitation of many Nazi party members, there was no comparable program in the east.

West Germany’s success encouraged many East Germans to migrate there. But once the wall went up in 1961, migration from east to west was almost impossible. East Germans believed that the Americans were responsible for closing the borders, which is what the Soviets told them. This added to the German perception that the U.S. was the true victor of the war – it was really the U.S. entering the war that ended it. Soon, it was the Americans who were responsible for the problems in both East Germany and the USSR. The U.S. became the enemy. There was also anger against the Americans in West Germany, where American troops were seen as occupiers – which they were. But for West Germany, regaining economic stability compensated for the loss of independence.

The anti-American sentiments in East Germany were also fueled by the country’s militarism, which was mostly left intact during the USSR occupation. East Germany was the root of the Prussian Empire – its army was at the core of the establishment of the German state. East Germans grew accustomed to having a strong military and could not easily accept defeat. The transformation of the army into a border police force and the Stasi compensated somewhat, as East Germany had the largest border guard force of the Eastern Bloc countries (47,000 troops).

These differences between East Germany and West Germany are still visible today in a number of ways. First, the idea that Germany needs a powerful military remains a core belief in the east. But the west sees the military more as a security provider and less as an intrinsic part of German culture. Second, anti-American sentiments are still more pronounced in the east than in the west. Third, the east seems as agrarian as it was during the Junkers’ time – something the east holds against the west.

The question, then, is what are the political ramifications of these differences? Because of the weaker economy, the gap between the electorate in the east and the mainstream political elite in Berlin existed before the current refugee crisis and the EU financial crisis. The electorate in the east wants Berlin to address its socio-economic problems. But Berlin’s willingness to absorb more migrants, while the east continues to face these challenges, is a source of friction. The Left Party has been a contender for second place in local elections since the 1990s. Since the AfD was founded, it has taken votes away from both mainstream parties, the SPD and Christian Democratic Union, as well as the Left Party. According to a recent poll released by the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Left Party is the second most favored party for one out of three Germans who vote for AfD. Such political fragmentation can lead to difficulties in governing the country.

Alexander Gauland, one of AfD’s leaders, said that cooperation with the Left Party is possible, in particular when it comes to the euro crisis. Both non-mainstream parties have populist platforms and both understand the population’s nostalgia for the past, whether communist or fascist. This is dangerous for Germany, as such tendencies could spread from the east to the national level. Since Germany is at the core of the European Union, such problems could accelerate the EU’s disintegration.


The continued transition from communism to a free market economy in the east, coupled with deep differences in mentality between the west and east, are the real challenges facing the elite in Germany. Rising nationalism in Europe is natural considering the socio-economic problems countries are confronting. But in Germany, the divide between the elite and the population is a reflection of the divide between the east and the west. The two regions have different views when it comes to social policies, defense and even Germany’s relationship with the U.S. It was easier to reconcile their positions in times of economic growth – it is difficult to do so when faced with both economic and security problems.


Putin and Erdogan to meet again on Oct. 10 in Istanbul

DEBKAfile October 4, 2016, 5:32 PM (IDT)

President Vladimir Putin will meet his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on October 10, the Kremlin said Tuesday. This will be the second meeting since their reconciliation at St. St. Petersburg earlier this year. In addition to a face-to-face, Putin will address the World Energy Congress which takes place this year Istanbul.

Nicht eingefroren! Die ungelösten Konflikte um Transnistrien, Abchasien, Südossetien und Berg-Karabach im Lichte der Krise um die Ukraine

13, Juli 2016 Die Annexion der Krim, der Krieg im Donbas und die Krise im Verhältnis zu Russland absorbieren seit 2014 einen Großteil der Aufmerksamkeit Deutschlands und der EU. Dabei gibt es in der östlichen Nachbarschaft vier ungelöste Territorialkonflikte, die sich seit 2014 zum Teil sehr dynamisch entwickelt haben … [Autoren] … fragen nach der Rolle russischer Politik in diesen Konflikten, ihren historischen Hintergründen, relevanten Akteuren und deren Interessen und nach dem Zusammenhang zwischen Konfliktebene und geopolitischem Kontext … Dabei kommen sie zu dem Schluss, dass sich die Bedingungen für konstruktive Konfliktbearbeitung in allen vier Fällen seit 2014 verschlechtert haben. Dies liegt jedoch nicht nur am geopolitischen Kontext, sondern auch an lokalen Faktoren. Russland spielt eine ambivalente Rolle. Es nutzt alle vier Konflikte systematisch, um seinen Einfluss auf die betroffenen Staaten zu wahren – ohne dabei jedoch die Konfliktdynamiken vollständig zu kontrollieren …

September 2016, English version:

Not Frozen! The Unresolved Conflicts over Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Light of the Crisis over Ukraine …


Policy= res publica

Freudenberg-Pilster* Deutsche Bank Research: Think Local: What Brexit would mean for regional and cohesion policies in Europe

Brexit affects regional policy both in the UK and in the EU27. It has a direct impact via financial adjustments for the individual funds, and indirect effects, possibly influencing the budgetary debates to come and adjusting regional policy priorities. However, the effects are highly contingent on the timing of Brexit and the planning processes and preparations for the new EU budget beyond 2020. The biggest stakes are potential changes to the structural funds which invest all across the EU.

Finally, there is the issue of possible future cooperation between the EU27 and the UK after a Brexit. In principle, regional policy programmes already provide for some options here. However, the specific arrangements and conditions are only going to be defined as part of the negotiations to structure the new relationship.

****************************************************************************************************************** Politics: From Vision to Action


2016-09-27 Three Years On, China’s Belt and Road Initiative to Embrace Greater Achievements …

2016-09-27 … Liu Wei, President, Renmin University of China released "The Belt and Road Progress Report"

… BRI is a long-term and systematic project. It is of upmost importance to win understanding and support from all sides, so as to build real consensus and conduct solid input …

The Belt and Road Progress Research Team at RDCY gives five suggestions for tacking these challenges.

First, China should tell BRI stories to boost cohesion among countries for the Belt and Road construction. China should let the world know solid achievements in Belt and Road construction. The nation needs to improve academic research on the BRI, strengthen theoretical support, and build a related discourse system. China should give full interpretation of the BRI`s connotation and denotation, and build a community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility featuring mutual political trust, economic integration and cultural inclusiveness with countries along the Belt and Road.

Second, China needs to build an overall planning and coordination mechanism for efficient and integrated progress …

Third, China should adhere to the principle of long-term consistent progress and encourage innovative mechanisms and platforms …

Fourth, China needs to utilize global Chinese network to tap into international talent reserves. Overseas Chinese are familiar with foreign culture, have a good command of language, and have formed a network of communication with easy access to technology, capital and information resources. China needs to make full use of existing global Chinese networks such as World Chinese Entrepreneurs Convention and World Federation of Overseas Chinese Associations. A productive network of global Chinese talent can be developed for the progress of the Belt and Road.

Fifth, China should improve its business support system to provide all-around and effective assistance. A more comprehensive business service support system is in need to support Chinese enterprises going global …

The BRI is China`s grand strategy to further boost its opening-up, to build a new pattern of open development, and to practice the nation`s ideas of mutual benefit and win-win cooperation. Higher education institutions should take their responsibility of providing more valuable research findings, and serve as reliable think tanks to ensure the implementation of this national strategy …

Siehe auch/ compare:

2016-09-27 The first authoritative report on "Belt and Road" three-year progress released …

2016-09-26 First authoritative report on BRI three-year progress …


China’s One-Road-One Belt Initiative: A New Model of Global Governance

… Mukul Sanwal … former Diplomat and currently Visiting Professor, Tsinghua University, Beijing … September 29, 2016

South Asia is the least integrated region in the world, and that is not in line with global trends.

This is a major reason constraining India’s economic potential and its re-emergence as a global power. With China now a USD 10 trillion economy, compared to India’s economy of USD two trillion, India is at a defining movement on how the Asian Century will be shaped.

The strategic question is whether Asia will have two poles, as it has had throughout history, or will India remain at Asia’s periphery as a regional power? Does connectivity, rather than institutions and rules, now enable integration and economic growth?

The related question is whether economic development is the best way of reducing the role of the military in polity. The One-Road-One-Belt (OROB) initiative for connectivity, with clear strategic advantages for China, contrasts sharply with existing treaty-based integration concepts where the geographical scope, partner countries, strategy, principles and rules are clearly defined at the outset.

34 countries have already signed cooperation agreements with China. With Asia increasingly the world’s political and economic centre of gravity, the 27th Workshop of China’s Political Bureau, held on October 12, 2015, focused on ‘Global Governance’ seeking a new identity, vision and strategy … China is now seeking to establish its identity as a world class power … It has a vision of major power relations wherein it is an equal of the United States; the China-United States Climate Agreement and Ratification, contributing to global public goods, were announced in China.

China’s strategy is to be a major player in global governance; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is being developed as a multilateral, rather than a Chinese, entity … China’s ‘grand strategy’ looks both to the West and to the East. The OROB Initiative, seen more as a policy indicator than a set of projects, will link three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. China is also looking at a free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific, possibly linking up with the United States. In addition, China is going in for tri-lateral agreements with the United States and European Union in Africa and Latin America, where its interests are not directly involved but giving it a global reach and influence beyond its immediate borders – the hallmark of a global power.

The OROB Initiative was accelerated as a strategic response to the military ‘re-balancing’ of the United States to Asia. The drivers are economic – the ‘exceptionalism’ of China’s growth story, which, it believes, serves as a model for others …

Energy security is another important factor, with pipelines already linking China with the rich gas and oil reserves in Central Asia …

A regional transport network has begun to be put in place. For some origins and destinations, the door-to-door costs for the rail option is already similar to the ocean option …. Iran is excited about being a transit point for a route to Europe via Turkey …

China plans to have free-trade agreements with 65 countries in the six ‘economic belts’ of the OBOR, accounting for two-thirds of the world population and 30 per cent of GDP and consumption.

The areas of cooperation include fibre optics, telecommunication, trade facilitation, monetary policy coordination and arrangements to manage financial risk. Bringing together policy areas that are currently split between the United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions is a long-standing demand of developing countries.

China recognizes that India had these ideas earlier but did not have the resources to execute them. The principal Indian idea was that of an International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC), initiated in September 2000, to bring together India, Iran and Russia in an effort to create multi-modal links (ship-rail-road) from India to Europe, via the Gulf, Central Asia and Russia.

Another multi-modal transport agreement, the Ashkhabad Agreement, which brings together India, Oman, Iran and the Central Asian republics was initiated in April 2011, and linked closely to the INSTC projects …

In three years, China has achieved considerable success with OROB … China is aware that it is investing in a risky environment and that the OROB initiative may not be commercially rewarding.

China has a three-fold solution to these problems.

First, it invites governments to organize summits to identify issues and seek common understandings, cooperation memorandum and people-to–people contact as the basis for regional cooperation.

Second, China is also organizing technical workshops of the concerned countries to facilitate investments and is partnering with multilateral institutions in this effort to give greater legitimacy …

Third, China is using money to resolve security issues, like paying Pakistan for an army division dedicated to the protection of Gwadar and is actively considering setting up a private security agency, borrowing ideas from something the United States has done for decades, but paid for by the companies rather than the government …

President Xi Jinping has staked so much personal and political capital on OROB that it has become a key test of his leadership, and will be made to succeed. China is keen to have India on board and both recognize that working together is necessary for achieving the ‘Asian Century’.

India should seek to ‘redefine’ OROB to add a strong component for a ‘Digital Asia’, as that is where our comparative advantage lies, and for Asian connectivity to have two nodes, in China and in India, as has been the case throughout history …

Valdai_Report: Russia, China, and USA in Central Asia: A Balance Of Interests And Opportunities For Cooperation

The extent and potential for confrontation between the major powers is significantly lower in Central Asia than in the Asia-Pacific region (APR), Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The potential for cooperation is greater because Russia, China, and especially the United States have no vital need to dominate in the region. Therefore, none of these three powers will unleash a war against the others for the sake of Central Asia – as compared to Europe or Southeast Asia, for example. This fact alone could serve as a powerful resource for the development of trilateral cooperation that could become deep and substantive, or remain non-binding in character.

The authors of this report believe that Washington, Moscow, and Beijing hold significant resources for cooperating to provide elements of regional security in Central Asia. Maximum effort should go toward advancing the common good so that confrontation does not dominate the agenda. It is from the report that you can learn about the potential areas and opportunities available to them for cooperation.

About authors:

Timofey Bordachev, Programme Director of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Ph.D. in Political Science.

Wan Qingsong, Research Fellow of the Center for Russian Studies (the National Key Research Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences under the Ministry of Education of PRC), School of Advanced International and Area Studies at East China Normal University; Research Fellow of the Center for Co-development with Neighboring Countries (University – Based Think Tank of Shanghai); holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Andrew Small, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Asia program, German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Download Report in English (PDF) ( )

Download Report in Russian (PDF) ( )


Why Russia Is Threatening the US in Syria Geopolitical Futures logo

Oct. 4, 2016 Moscow’s ability to back up its rhetoric is questionable.

By George Friedman

Yesterday the United States announced that it was breaking off talks with Russia over implementing a cease-fire agreement on Syria. Washington accused Moscow of failing to live up to its commitments in the Sept. 9 deal. It has been a year since Russia intervened in Syria. During that year, combat has continued and intensified. Apart from saving President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from hypothetical defeat, the Russians have achieved nothing particularly decisive in Syria. The Russians’ drama in Syria has come from dealing with the United States and, even more, with Turkey. However, the balance of power now appears to be shifting in favor of Assad and his Russian supporters. A confrontation with the United States is no longer inconceivable.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan Mistura attend the International Syria Support Group meeting, Sept. 22, 2016 in New York. BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian troops backed by Russian airpower and special forces have been closing in on Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and a stronghold of the opposition to what most still call the government of Syria. If Aleppo falls, the last major urban area of Syria will be back in the hands of the Assad regime. This is significant, but not as significant as it sounds as much of the non-urban areas are occupied by the opposition, including a substantial amount controlled by the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurds.

The United States is formally opposed to the survival of the Assad regime. Before the Russian intervention, it appeared to some that Assad’s days were numbered. The appearance was murky as best. The opposition to Assad was poorly organized and in political chaos. The major opposition force operating in the country was IS. The United States might be opposed to Assad, but had no interest in toppling Assad and leaving a vacuum in Damascus that IS might have filled. Too many players wanted Assad gone, but not at that particular moment.

Why, then, did the Russians intervene? Oil prices had collapsed and the economy was staggering. The situation in Ukraine was not evolving in Russia’s favor. President Vladimir Putin had to demonstrate that despite the situation in Ukraine, Russia remained a significant power. In all countries, a national security crisis rallies the public for a while. Russia is no different, and deploying Russian aircraft in the Middle East drove home the difference between Putin’s government and its predecessors. National pride is a serious matter. Putin is an excellent politician and used it.

Putin also wanted to confront the United States in an opportune place. In his mind, the United States had engineered the fall of the pro-Russian government in Kiev, had been instrumental in blocking an effective secessionist movement in Eastern Europe and was now building up military capabilities in Poland and Romania. From the Russian point of view, this was beginning to look like the containment strategy that had ultimately strangled the Soviet Union. The Russians had no significant counter in Europe for military and political reasons. So they had to try a strategy of indirection.

The Russians wanted to achieve two things. They wanted to look good for their domestic audience and to challenge the United States in a region where it had a great deal at stake, but without being forced to take existential risks. Throughout the Cold War, the Russian counter to American containment was to create alliances to the rear of the containment line. Outside of Germany, the most important point in that line was Turkey. Turkey controlled the Bosporus and naval access to the Mediterranean. Russia could not overwhelm Turkey, although it made a number of covert attempts to destabilize it. But Russia could form relationships to Turkey’s south and in the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria were all part of a pro-Soviet alliance system designed to counter containment from outside the line the U.S. had drawn.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, being pro-Soviet lost its meaning in the region. Indeed, the Arab Spring in these countries, which the West had fantasized was a rising as in Eastern Europe in 1989, was in fact directed against the remnant of the Soviet alliance system, driven primarily by the rising Muslim tide. The governments in these countries were ramshackle remnants of this system. They were secular, in the sense that they were hostile to Muslim threats. They were socialist in a way that had once barely made sense and now no longer made any sense. But above all they were military dictatorships. This is not to say these governments did not have substantial support in their countries. The idea that they were lone tyrants governing an entire country by fear was nonsense. They had strong support from tribal, ethnic, religious or other factions. They simply didn’t have enough support to be able to avoid repressing enemies.

Saddam Hussein was taken down by the Americans, who then discovered that his supporters were carrying out an insurgency against them. But in 2011, the other regimes came under attack: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Assad in Syria. In Egypt, Mubarak fell but the army remained intact, so a military commander replaced him. In Libya, Gadhafi was deposed by American and European intervention, revealing that the uprising in Libya did not consist of people hungering to turn Libya into Wisconsin. And in Syria, many in Washington confused the uprising as a pro-Western democratic rising against an oppressive regime.

It turned out it was a rising of people who hated Assad, hated each other and pretty much hated the United States as well. The United States intervened covertly and then with airpower, but the day of the jubilee didn’t come. Assad and his supporters, a substantial minority in Syria called Alawites, controlled the military and carried out massive resistance against the opposition. The United States said it supported a secular democratic faction, and not finding one, pretended there was one. The mess that ensued has become the enduring reality of Syria.

Putin needed a lever against the United States. The period of intense conflict in Iraq was a gift to Putin. He used that time to rebuild Russian power as well as possible and to assert its presence in the former Soviet Union. He invaded Georgia, an American client state, knowing that the United States lacked the force to respond, given Iraq and Afghanistan. If America is bogged down in a conflict in the Middle East, it is unable to act elsewhere. To the extent that Russia could get the U.S. bogged down in the Middle East again, it would retain freedom of action.

More important, Putin needed a bargaining chip. He could not let Ukraine go, but at the very least had to negotiate its neutrality. Geopolitically, Ukraine is vital to Russia and neutrality is the least they could live with. The U.S. had no reason to accept that neutrality, and the Europeans were inclined the same way. If the Russians could create a situation somewhere in which the Americans needed Russian help, the situation around, and ultimately in, Russia would become less hostile for Moscow.

Assad was Russia’s old ally. That meant nothing to Russia. It had no real interest in saving Assad. At most it would get port facilities in Latakia and an air base, but there was little the Russians could do to exploit the facilities, which would be vulnerable to the United States. Moreover, Putin was in the KGB during the Russian-Afghan war. He had seen how a country could get hopelessly bogged down and sucked dry by intervening in the Muslim world. He understood that he lacked the resources and national interest for an extended stay.

Washington was transitioning during this time from a hyper-interventionist strategy to a more distant balance of power strategy. It is still transitioning. From Korea through Vietnam, Kuwait, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, the U.S. strategy was to designate a country as significant, use aid, advisers and covert forces to try to shift the situation in a direction the U.S. wanted, and failing that, move to main force.

Douglas MacArthur had argued against any future land wars in Asia. His reasoning consisted of two parts. First, the United States was projecting force into another hemisphere and that required an extensive logistical tail. More troops would be involved in supporting the war effort than fighting the war. Second, as soon as Americans set foot in Asia (or Europe for that matter) they were facing a numerically overwhelming enemy. Technology could do only so much. Therefore, interventions, let alone constant interventions, in Asia were unwise. A string of stalemates, defeats and premature withdrawals attests to that. The fact that none of the failures caused an existential crisis for the United States indicated that the war was probably unnecessary.

It was inevitable, regardless of who was president, that this strategy would shift. Some people, both among neo-conservatives and humanitarian interventionists, believe that all the United States has to do is show up and it wins. I have no idea why they have this confidence in military force. I think Libya may have been the last humanitarian intervention. I think that Syria was the first attempt to influence events without committing major military force. It was clear that while the United States wanted Assad out, it was not a primary interest of the United States, nor one in which a multi-divisional force would be assigned. The same could be said about IS. Regional powers like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel have a much higher stake than the U.S. has in the region’s future, and they were hostile to each other.

The U.S.’s goal in Syria, therefore, was to influence events and shape others’ interventions. Unlike prior wars, the fact that Syria was of American interest and that aid, training and covert operations were taking place did not mean that the United States was going to engage in a major war. The Russians understood this. In one sense, it weakened their position. Syria was not important enough for the U.S. to bargain other things away. In another sense, it strengthened their position. Their fairly small intervention (smaller than American forces nearby, but much greater and more effective than any other group in Syria) could shape the outcome of things.

Therefore, as Assad’s forces and the Russians headed toward Aleppo, Russia warned the United States that an American air attack on these forces would represent a “tectonic” shift. It is not clear what this means, but it seems to mean a fundamental shift in the Eurasian landmass and a threat, for example, of Russian action not only in Ukraine, but perhaps toward Poland or Romania. If this is what the Russians mean by tectonic, it seems a bit of a reach imagining Russian forces carrying out such massive operations, particularly after the U.S. has demonstrated a willingness to use American airpower in Syria.

The Russians understand the shift in U.S. strategy. They do not expect a significant military response. Nothing that Obama has done since taking office – except Libya, which he called his worst mistake – gives any indication that he will order airstrikes. So what are the Russians doing?

They want to continue to use Syria as a way to bolster Putin’s credibility at home and to give them a lever in negotiations over Ukraine. But a third possibility is emerging. The Russians may want to take a leading role in the Middle East. That would go against everything Putin learned from Afghanistan, and it would take logistical resources Russia doesn’t have. Plus, it significantly hampers Russia’s ability to operate in Europe. Russia has limited military resources, and deploying too much in the Middle East is dangerous. I would have to regard this as unlikely.

But then we also have to remember that the fall of Aleppo is far from the end of the war. The Russians have spent the past year as bogged down as the Americans. Taking Aleppo wouldn’t change that. In fact, the Russians would have to figure out how to feed Aleppo. And finally, Russia doesn’t really play in the American league any more than the Soviet Union did. As adroit as Russian political posturing has been, the most it has done is to save the Assad regime. It has not yet taken Aleppo.

A great deal of the Soviet Union was a giant bluff that led, unpleasantly for them, to a massive military buildup under Ronald Reagan, who chose to believe them. That’s the problem with a bluff. It’s not just that it may be called. It’s that it may be believed. With the U.S. as an adversary, bluffing is a dangerous move. The U.S. can be unpredictable, as the Soviet Union experienced. But even without any dramatic American steps, the Russian position sounds better than it is.

US to build military base in Syria’s Hasaka

The U.S. military plans to build a military base in a Hasaka region that is under the control of the Kurdish forces of Peoples’ Defense Units (YPG) before the upcoming operation to liberate the northern city of Raqqa, Daesh’s proclaimed capital in Syria.

The U.S. plan to create the base in Hasaka region, an important and strategic region that is under YPG control, comes after Washington built military bases in Remilan and Kobani and Qamishli, Kurdish cities in northern Syria also under YPG control.

A source in Free Syria Army told Sputnik news agency that the preliminary activities to build the military base, in Jibis village, have started and it will be ready to use before the planned operation into Raqqa.

It is worth mentioning that the region where the U.S. is building a military base is a region with many oil and gas fields.

News Code: 14295 | Date: 2016/10/02 | Time: 12 : 19 to build military base in Syria’s Hasaka


Middle East

How Will the Battle for Mosul Unfold?

Michael Knights

Also available in

BBC News

October 4, 2016

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