Observations of an ex pat: Perfect Storm

The world appears to be heading for a perfect storm.  It just needs a catalyst to blow it onshore or—hopefully—a change in the political winds to divert it.

The storm is being driven by the forces of nationalism, historic conflicts, a sense of justice and injustice, and the absence of a coherent diplomatic strategy. It is fed by ill-judged rhetorical bluster which creates political hostages to fortune.

The United States – almost certainly in conjunction with the two biggest European military powers Britain and France—is on the brink of responding to the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed Assad regime. (Editor’s note: This was written before the attacks overnight but due to technical issues is only just being uploaded now.)

Russia has vetoed all attempts to resolve this repeated atrocity through the United Nations.

Moscow has warned that if Western forces attempt to bomb Syrian air bases, ground forces, or chemical weapons depots than it will shoot down any missiles involved in the attack. Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, ominously added:” If there is a strike by the Americans, then…the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,”

If there is a Russia attack on an American destroyer or submarine or the British sovereign airbase inCyprus… well, then the storm will have hit.

This approaching disaster did not materialise overnight in a vacuum. It has been brewing for years. Obama’s foreign policy was weak, especially in Syria where hisinfamous Red Line exposed an unwillingness or inability to act decisively.

Trump has been no better.  He dropped a hail of bombs on a Syrian airbase after a chemical weapons attack last April but it was a one-off.  He too has failed to develop a coherent response to the Syrian civil war. This is unsurprising because he has intentionally decimated his own diplomatic corps.

Trump has been over-focused on North Korea, the economic threat of China, immigration, the Mueller investigation, dismantling legislation from the Obama Era and initiating a spate of trade wars driven by 19th century nationalistic ideals of the type that led to world wars in the 20th century.

Putin is every bit as bad when it comes to nationalism. His stated aim is to restore Russia to the glory days of the Soviet empire. His problem is finding the means to achieve this end. He is spending heavily on military hardware, about 8 percent of GDP. But the GDP is down because of Western sanctions and a corrupt and criminally mismanaged economy.

But at the same time, Putin views the West as weak, ineffectual and politically divided.  Trump is a joke. His commitment to NATO is in doubt.  The EU and Western Alliance has been damaged by Brexit. Racist-inspired populism is dividing almost all the Western countries.

Putin, however,  does not want a war. He would lose, and if he didn’t the cost would be a pyhrric battle for all concerned. So he conducts a running hybrid guerrilla war on several fronts to unbalance the West and continually test and weaken its resolve in much the same way that Hitler did in the 1930s. He sends green men into Ukraine; shoots down airlines; murders dissidents seeking refuge in Britain; conducts cyber attacks against the Baltic States; bombs aid convoys and interferes with the US presidential elections.

Each time Putin is accused, and each time—in the face of overwhelming evidence—he denies the accusations and puts forward a set of “Alternative Facts”. The latest, involving Syria, is that the White Helmets were responsible for the latest chemical attack, which, according to the Russians, never happened anyway.  The White Helmets are a band of Syrian volunteers dedicated to rescuing the victims of the Syrian civil war. They were nominated for the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.

Putin has firmly planted his flag in Syria. The Assad regime has become to Russia what Israel is to America: A priceless geostrategic asset in a vital region of the world which neither can retreat.  While probing away, the Russian president may have created the ultimate test for Western resolve, and backed himself into a corner from which a storm could be his only escape.

* Tom Arms is membership secretary for Tooting Lib Dems. He also broadcasts on foreign affairs for US Radio, regularly contributes to Lib Dem Voice, lectures and is working on a book on Anglo—American relations which is due to be published next year.

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  • Short of all-out, total war whose aim is the wholesale destruction of a rival state, military action is useless outside of the framework of robust and coordinated diplomatic activity with a consistent policy and a clear goal.

    Such a framework is almost impossible to conceive of today, with the EU in tatters, the US capriciously oscillating between isolation and random spasms of violence, and the UK utterly lacking in a bench of principled statesmen. What is the policy? What is the goal? How do airstrikes further that goal? How will we know if they have been effective or not? Can we affect the policy of other nations by giving them a clear path to follow if they decide to play ball?

    We have no answers to these questions because we have no one in power competent enough to even pose these questions. The whole notion of foreign policy as the art of communicating power, propaganda, and face-saving technicques, in the name of judicious self-interest, across national boundaries to those who understand these principles has been utterly disposed of. Foreign policy has ceased to exist; there remains only a series of reactive, emotional, futile gestures.

  • The attack was for show. Were any of the Russians or Syrians carrying out chemical warfare hit? No – because Trump told them in advance so they could move to safety. Meanwhile we take almost no Syrian refugees. Astonishing gullibility of anyone who thinks this attack will have any positive effect for Syrians.

  • I assume that the idea of the world moving towards a perfect storm is concerned with those of us in the more comfortable parts of the world. For huge numbers of people the perfect storm is here. Some are in our news media – like Syria – others get much less publicity – like large parts of Central Africa.
    Since the last world war there have been many proxy fights. This is the system which we are seeing now. At some time we might put an effort into achieving peace for all the people living in atrocious conditions, rather than playing war games.

  • These chemical labs, etc. that were hit by the missiles? Isn’t it really strange how Syrian authoritiy personnel are climbing all over the ruins without any protection (especially considering the precautions taken by the UK personnel weeks after the Salisbury incident)..
    We are told that calls were made to Putin to ensure that no Russian personnel or equipment were endangered and it would be naive to believe that Assad was not aware of the targets…
    I watched the BBC news where only May’s statement was shown; Channel 4 news showed her being questioned…On “what next?” her non-answer could be translated as, “I have absolutely no idea” and to, “Why not wait for the inspection report?” she was equally flummoxed….
    Yet again we are blindly following the US president; his “My tweet has painted us into a corner so we must be seen to do do something”, is now UK foreign policy

  • John Marriott 15th Apr '18 - 10:11am

    I’ve said this several times before, although nobody appears to take this on board, but the current situation in the Middle East in general is largely, but not exclusively of our own making. I refer, of course, to the carve up of the old Ottoman Empire after WW1. So you can argue that we owe it to all those ordinary Arabs to try to clear up the mess we created. Let’s establish one factor that most of us fail to recognise, namely that perhaps what we understand as democracy may not work everywhere.

    As regards the recent action, it is quite legal, as far as I know, for HM Government to engage in military action without consulting Parliament. Whether it was a good idea is a different matter. Corbyn’s stance would carry more credibility if his previous career had been less anti establishment. I think even Michael Foot, himself a proud advocate of left wing causes, supported the action against Argentina back in 1982. Corbyn is on record as saying that Britain hasn’t fought ‘a just war’ since 1945. His performance today on the Andrew Marr show doesn’t give me much confidence that he has changed his mind.

  • The Russian threats turned out to be just hot air, as they have in the past. The danger is not escalation but that the Russian strategy of dividing & weakening The “West” is working.
    Given all the delays, everyone must have expected that any stocks of Chemical Weapons would have been moved. These strikes are largely symbolic & the absolute minimum that we could have done.

  • paul barker 15th Apr ’18 – 10:49am
    The Russian threats turned out to be just hot air, as they have in the past. The danger is not escalation but that the Russian strategy of dividing & weakening The “West” is working….

    The Russians stated that they would shoot down any missile threat to their installations or personnel. Trump called to say there would be no such threat…What is your alternative; targeting Russian bases just to see if their threat were real?

    Playing the game of “Russian threats are just hot air” is not a wise strategy.

  • John Marriott is absolutely right when he says “Let’s establish one factor that most of us fail to recognise, namely that perhaps what we understand as democracy may not work everywhere.”

    For democracy to work properly there needs to be many things in place in particular a willingness of all those seeking power to accept that the other team(s) have a right to be in power and so not subvert elections, engage in mass vengeance when coming to power. And for that to work there needs to be a substantial proportion of the public prepared to ensure it happens.

    This is not something that can be put in place overnight, and the dream, and it is a dream, that we can just “give democracy” out to people without huge efforts by them and us beforehand, is really just not facing up to facts.

  • Laurence Cox 15th Apr '18 - 1:11pm

    @David Evans

    Agreed, and not just in the Middle East. Even the Visegrad group of countries seem to be making a hash of democracy despite having all the advantages of being EU members.

  • David Evans 15th Apr '18 - 1:56pm

    Absolutely Laurence. Even for the best prospects, it takes time (generations?) for such attitudes to change and then become embedded.

  • John Marriott 15th Apr '18 - 3:22pm

    I agree with David and Lawrence. However, let’s not beat ourselves up about it. I’m reminded of the speech John F Kennedy gave at the Berlin Wall (the ‘I am a donut one*),. It went something like “Democracy isn’t perfect; but we don’t need a wall to keep our people in”. So let’s cherish it, even though it sometimes drives us crazy.

    * Kennedy should have left the indefinite article out of his phrase “ Ich bin ein Berliner”. A “Berliner” is short for “Berliner Pfannkuchen”, otherwise known as a donut. Nice try JFK. I often wonder how the world would have turned out if you had dodged that bullet two years later.

  • John Marriott,

    I always thought the comment by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam was quite astute. It was along the lines of “If American democracy is in such a godawful state, why are prople all over the world beatting down our door to get in here. I don’t see any mad rush to emigrate to the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China.”

  • John Marriott 15th Apr '18 - 5:14pm

    Good point, Joe. By the way, apologies to all your historians. That bullet that took JFK’s life was fired only a few months after the President gave that speech. Many people reckon that he was on the verge of pulling the USA out of Vietnam.

    Back to Syria. It would appear that what Vince Cable is now more concerned about is whether further action is on the way. I still tend to agree with Simon Jenkins that we should let Assad win. By now the opposition to his rule would appear to be largely equally dodgy. Do we really want to risk WW3? Given the way Russia is behaving at the moment, who knows what might happen? Makes Brexit look like small beer, don’t you think?

  • The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire had commenced decades prior to the Great War (its ‘modern’ phase can be considered to have begun with the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1830), and occurred despite the Ottomans’ progress in internal reform. The Russians were the primary interested parties in this (they wanted unfettered access to the Mediterranean) but the UK played a significant rôle as well. The issue was of particular interest to Gladstone, who wished, on a combination of religious and humanitarian grounds, combined with a peculiarly British racism, to overthrow Ottoman rule throughout the Balkans and beyond.

    The result was the growth of a Turkish ultra-nationalism, ultimately genocidal, which prospered in proportion as the Ottoman Empire lost its non-Turkish population and “Ottomanism” (the notion of an Ottoman identity separate from ethnic, religious, or linguistic criteria) lost credence among Turkish elites. Such is the law of unintended consequences.

  • Peter Martin 15th Apr '18 - 9:28pm

    Maybe slightly off-topic but I was just wondering about the term “ex-pat”. When British people move abroad they are “ex-pats”. But when people move here from abroad they are “immigrants”.

    Have I got that right?

  • Unless I’ve missed something Sir Vincent has gone very quiet.
    Whereas Caroline Lucas has, in my opinion, spoken for many today when she said that May is taking parliament for granted. Be interested to see which way Sir Vincent jumps next week and in how many different directions the Lib Dem MPs jump.

  • @Tom Arms. “the repeated use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed Assad regime.” I presume you are referring to the Khan Sheikoun “chemical attack” in April 2017, which was quietly announced by the US military 2 months ago as probably Syrian govt bombs hitting a rebel chemical storage facility, and not a chemical attack by the regime.
    That US military report has since disappeared since Syrian “rebels” and their supporters aired their video last week to a compliant western media of close-ups of bewildered children rushed into a hospital during bombing and the syrian army advance into Douma, pouring water on them while slapping gas masks on them, claiming a chemical attack had taken place. Cue choreographed outrage (by the gullible? or downright cynical?) of ‘Chemical attack atrocity’ upon civilians somehow known to be personally ordered by Assad.
    But there are no images of any physical manifestations of chemical impact shown (foaming at mouth, burns, eye sores etc). Just naturally bewildered, water-drenched children with oxygen masks placed on them, dramatically filmed. Doubtless the heroic “White helmets” quick action meant that the children were all physically unaffected (see The Tmes coverage, yesterday), naturally still traumatised by being in a war zone, saying the right thing now in rebel-controlled idlib.

    Is the Emperor wearing any clothes, Tom Arms? I’d be very interested to understand what evidence you have seen, to be so sure of an Assad-ordered ‘Chemical attack’ last week, and if you have heard of the US quietly suggesting recently that last April’s Khan Sheikun might not have been an Assad chemical attack?
    Or are ‘facts’ determined upon echoing mainstream media’s received wisdom?

  • I’m troubled by your extolling of the virtues of the “White Helmets”, too. Perhaps you won’t accept:
    – They are explicitly political, working hand in glove with the rebels in the Civil war, acting way beyond truly apolitical NGOs like the Red Cross/ Crescent or Medecines sans-frontiers.
    -Their formal name ‘Syrian Civil Defence’ is a PR-inspired epithet as they lobby against the Syrian regime, which commands considerably more Syrian civilian support than the rebels
    – any footage showing them complicit in executing Syrian govt soldiers or those civilians deemed to be ‘enemies’.
    – the PR agencies involved in the creation and promotion of the group, and nomination of Nobel prize (it smelt too fishy for the judges) , and the film in the Oscars.
    – the questions on the unclear uk govt funding channeled via PR agencies to the rebel’s cause which included the “White Helmets”.

  • Brutal dictator declares civil war on his own people, aided by a major power led by a megalomaniac leader. Yes, My son has been studying the Spanish Civil war at school. Obviously you can never draw exact historical comparisons because every event has a different context. However I do wonder what Corbyn would say to the men and women of the International Brigade and indeed what they would say to him.

  • @David, you have missed something. Vince has spoken about this in live tv interviews and on social media. He spoke sensibly and thoughtfully, recognising that this is a subject that requires nuance, not bluster. Unfortunately, bluster gets more attention, but personally, I prefer the former.

  • Chris Cory 16th Apr ’18 – 7:32am………..Brutal dictator declares civil war on his own people, aided by a major power led by a megalomaniac leader. Yes, My son has been studying the Spanish Civil war at school. Obviously you can never draw exact historical comparisons because every event has a different context. However I do wonder what Corbyn would say to the men and women of the International Brigade and indeed what they would say to him…………

    If you wish to conflate the International Brigade to those foreign fighters in Syria then those fighting for their beliefs are alongside ISIS…Not a door I’d care to open..

  • @expats.
    Sorry if my point was not clearly made. I was suggesting that there was a time when socialists realised that there were times when one had to use force against tyranny. The default position for those on the left now seems to be pacifism (which they obviously deny, but in practice they never support military action how ever awful the event to which we have to respond). This, I suggest, is an historical change.

  • Chris Cory 16th Apr ’18 – 8:10am…@expats. Sorry if my point was not clearly made. I was suggesting that there was a time when socialists realised that there were times when one had to use force against tyranny………..

    What tyranny? I worked in the ME in the 1970/80s and, compared to Saudi and other Gulf states, Iraq, Syria and Libya were far less repressive; religious freedom, gender equality, etc., were accepted as the norm…
    When these countries decided that the West was not their ‘boss’, that is when things changed (We should remember that when Saddam gassed the Kurds he was our friend). Life under Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad was far preferable to the legacy left by our interference; how many boatloads of refugees left these countries prior to our ‘liberation’?

    As for ‘leftist armed intervention’; which side would I fight on? Neither.

  • It’s a civil war mostly fought between a dictatorial regime and some hard-line religious groups. There is nothing to be gained from British involvement or yet another misguided attempt to back the political oxymoron of moderate religious extremists who we would not allow into Britain as we would almost certainly classify them as a terrorist threat. The Arab Spring was heralded in Egypt and then quietly swept under the carpet when the military replaced an inconveniently elected theocratic government. Libya turned out to be a disaster and along with Iraq produced ISIS. Whilst in Afghanistan the results was no better. These military intervention simply do not work and have turned into a bad political habit, because it’s easier for politicians to produce warrior-centric bluster than to admit to the almost complete failure of the Bush/Blair legacy/tradition of bombing for democracy. Basically, it’s 1900 century style gunboat diplomacy gone techno.

  • Tomas HJ,

    there may well be reasonable doubt as to whether Assad was responsible for the alleged chemical attack in Douma.

    It is, however, appropriate to remember that in the early years of the holocaust (up until 1941–2), isolated incidents were reported back to Jewish and Polish communities in Lodz and even in London, from those who had escaped. It appears that in the early years of the war, these claims were dismissed as unbelievable fabrications.

    However, as time went on, and the claims became louder and more frequent, allied forces began taking these claims seriously and started conducting aerial surveys of the areas surrounding Auschwitz, with a view to looking at the feasibility of bombing the infrastructure and surrounding transport links, in 1944.

    It is clear therefore that by at least 1944, suspicion was rife across Europe regarding these mysterious camps, their designation and their ultimate purpose.

    We may never know the full extent of war crimes committed by the Assad regime and the opposing Islamist factions.

    Whether Assad was responsible or not for the Douma chemical attack is in some ways not really relevant. There is no doubt that he has been responsible for chemical attacks in the past as well as indiscriminate bombing of civilians , hospitals and schools and the torture and execution of prisoners. Consequently, any actions to degrade his military capacity to murder unarmed civilians can be justified; but should always be undertaken with a view to bringing about a political settlement to the conflict.

    The Islamist factions within the rebel groups publicise their torture and executions of prisoners. There is no doubt of the war crimes committed by these groups, and they should receive no material or political support of any kind from the International community.

  • JoeB
    The attempted extermination Jewish people would have gone on war or no war. It was industrialised genocide. What Assad has done or is alleged to have done, is more like the extensive use of Napalm or Agent Orange. In truth conventional weapons are every bit as brutal and disgusting as the banned ones and just as capable of inflicting suffering. They blow limbs off, blind people, burn people to death, suck the air out of lungs, rip people apart and so. The notion that some weapons are more moral or less abhorrent than others is more about the psychologically of making war look cleaner and more acceptable than the level of suffering involved in the use of gas v shrapnel and fire. Really, we should be more repelled by the deaths and injuries caused by weapons than by the kinds of weapons causing them.

  • Peter Hirst 17th Apr '18 - 3:13pm

    I don’t agree, Glenn. Though all weapons are abhorrent the use of chemical weapons is different, banned by international treaty and like cluster bombs is indiscriminate and ghastly in its use. The users have no regard for human life, dignity or suffering.

  • Peter Hirst
    Bombs can be petty indiscriminate and napalm certainly is. . Children have been killed and maimed by conventional weapons.

  • @Tom Arms, @JoeB, @Peter Hirst: How do you know there was a Chemical attack in Douma? Here is an independent report from a UK reporter wandering around Douma unchaperoned this weekend: https://uk.yahoo.com/news/search-truth-rubble-douma-one-202500065.html
    Douma is the exact opposite of the 1941 Lodz analogy. The Syrian regime has already been thoroughly demonised and blamed 100% for the whole Syrian war. An atrocity is fully attributed to it within hours of the supposed incident, without any consideration of the co-ordinated pronouncers.
    This is the inverse of the 1941 UK media/authorities ignoring many independent voices on the atrocities made by the Nazi govt at war on Britain, which took years before taken seriously.
    I wonder how many years it will take before the UK media will start to accept the Syrian 2011 uprising was never just about peaceful demonstrators, but islamist sleeper cells and groups funded, armed and organised by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as part of a specific policy to de-stabilise the Syrian regime through in the early 2000s by Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheyney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz- the US politicians who are culpable parents of the Syrian Civil war. When will those people face criminal charges?
    When will the UK media start to peel away the veneer of Western govt moral indignation to expose a western mainstream media narrative that propelled ISIS success, almost overthrowing the Assad regime in 2013 before ISIS declared themelves, through funding and cheering on ‘Freedom Fighters’ like a real Miss Jean Brodie on the Spanish Civil War?

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