News in brief N°4

A summary of select international news: Siege of Syria’s Ghouta and wilful decisions resulting in continued international warfare, China’s constitutional reform, the Maldives as a piece in the economic and political contest for global power.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee has proposed changes to the country’s constitution. The Central Committee comprises the senior leadership of the governing party. The proposed constitutional changes include removing a clause specifically limiting tenure in the offices of president and vice-president. The proposed statement is: “The term of office of the President and Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China is the same as that of the National People’s Congress.” The constitution currently includes the following explicit limit on the two offices: “they shall serve no more than two consecutive terms.” The removal of this explicit term limit from the constitution is part of the proposal. Xi Jinping is the current president and he is serving his second term in office. The public statement published on the republic’s official press, Xinhua News Agency, includes Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping as principal theorists of the country’s fundamental laws. Xi’s contribution is entitled as “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Reforms to the economic framework of that country further highlight the move to what’s called the development of a “socialist market economy,” as well as internationalisation of the Chinese political economy, or, as the statement puts it, China will “adhere to the peaceful development path and the mutually beneficial strategy of opening-up.”

During this period of continuous challenges to the established international standards and norms of behaviours and balance of forces, outbreaks of geopolitical competition between the world’s great and medium powers continue to unfold. These are visible on multiple fronts, including in Syria and the Indian Ocean. This contest impacts social, political, economic, and military situations the world over.

The region of the Indian Ocean (map) is one of the world’s strategically most important waterways. Through it transits an enormous quantity of cargo shipping, carrying goods and resources to and from China, Europe, India, Japan, South Korea, West Asia (Middle East), and Africa. The area includes the open ocean south of India, the Persian Gulf which is the passage for about 30% of maritime traded crude oil (EIA, 2015), the Red Sea with its access to the Suez Canal, and the Indonesian Seaway’s vital link to East Asia. A live map, by MarineTraffic, of seaborne shipping traffic is a simple illustration of the vital role of this ocean. What is at stake is not so much access to these waterways in order for ships to pass, but rather the power of denial. If a country or alliance has adequate influence or direct control over one or more of the passages with concentrations of shipping or the natural choke points embodied in narrow corridors such as the Strait of Hormuz, then a potential opponent could be denied access to goods and energy that would need to traverse the area. Economic embargoes, for example, often depend on such a scenario. This is one of the reasons that the US, with its global influence over shipping lanes thanks to its alliances, large navy, and sprawl of military bases can enforce embargoes against select countries. The Indian Ocean is therefore very important as it could be used to deny much of the world access to West Asian oil and gas or cut off East Asia from natural resources as well as export markets. In the past, the US and European powers had the upper hand in that ocean, along with the power to deny access: thanks to naval and air bases in the region along with basing rights with the region’s countries. This is being challenged. China is building its own bases alongside a more capable armed navy. It’s also establishing basing rights or engaging in construction projects tying diplomatic agreements with infrastructure projects in multiple regional countries: Pakistan, Iran, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, etc. Roughly, there are two blocs at odds over this space with a third set of semi-independent and neutral parties: the West and its allies of India, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, South Korea, Australia on one side, while China is on the other and trying to establish its own relationships with more-or-less neutral or agitated countries such Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Djibouti. Note that Djibouti provides basing rights to countries on all sides. This activity is related to two broader policies: that of former US president Obama’s Pivot to Asia, and to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (also known as the New Silk Road).

On that note, the very small multi-islands country of the Maldives is in the midst of a dramatic political affair. The many atolls that make up that country are located southwest of Sri Lanka and India. The Maldives is witnessing an internal political crisis that’s tied to international affairs between India, China, the US, and others. Traditionally, the Maldives has been in India’s orbit of influence, yet China’s role in that country is growing. The archipelago transits a key segment of its imports via India, while Chinese tourists account for the largest share of the tourism industry, an industry that’s vital in the country’s otherwise small economy and the primary source of foreign currency. In 2015, the parliament approved changes to the constitution permitting foreign ownership of land as long as the buyer reclaims 70% of it from the sea. In 2012, a contract with India for expansion of the international airport was canceled following Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed’s succession by Mohamed Waheed after the former was forced from office. China was granted the contract instead. The current president, Abdulla Yameen (2013 to present), has been in open conflict with former president Nasheed. The result has been an electoral and judicial crisis. The country’s supreme court judges have been sacked and detained, while not altogether implausible accusations of bribery has been leveled against some of them. The judges were hand picked by the autocratic leader of the country, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for some 30 years in part thanks to being the sole presidential candidate for a good stretch of time. He also gave them life tenure. Therefore, the judges are visibly political actors with their own allegiances and motivations. The judges had ruled that jailed politicians opposing Yameen’s government be released and reinstated into parliament, reducing the president’s governing coalition to minority standing in the parliament. The judiciary had a hand in the 2012 ouster of Nasheed from the presidency, imprisoning him then exiling him from the country. Recently, they ruled that Nasheed could return and run in the next presidential elections. Yameen’s response was to invalidate the judicial ruling and to call a state of emergency to limit legislative and judicial authority, concentrating effective power in the presidency. Prior to Yameen’s 2013 election victory, the US was secretly negotiating a status of forces agreement with the Nasheed led government that would established military cooperation between the two countries. Yameen put an end to such negotiation. There is speculation that Nasheed is collaborating with the Indian government for a return to power, speculation that’s fueled by Nasheed’s own comment during a non-governmental organised meeting on international affairs in India. The former president then tweeted that: “Pleasure to meet and brief Indian Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman on the situation in the Maldives.” The Indian ministry gave a quick response claiming that the meeting was a purely chance encounter and no discussion took place on the matter of the Maldives. Furthemore, Nasheed said the following to the editor of The Hindu newspaper: that he advocates “gunboat diplomacy” on the part of India in order to pressure the existing president of the Maldives. “I am not asking India to send troops to the Maldives to fight. I am asking for an envoy backed by muscle so that President Yameen would listen to India. I am not even asking for a regime change in that sense. What we are looking for is an interim arrangement that will take us to free and fair election,” he said. Meanwhile, an opinion-editorial in the state-run Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, had this to say about the possibility of Indian intervention:

The Maldives is trapped in turmoil. This is the country’s internal affairs and China firmly opposes outside interference. More than that, China should take necessary measures to stop India if New Delhi moves to intervene militarily.

[…] Without UN empowerment, there would be no righteous cause for any armed force to intervene. China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, but that does not mean that Beijing will sit idly by as New Delhi breaks the principle. If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi. India should not underestimate China’s opposition to unilateral military intervention.

It should be reiterated that the Maldives in but one piece in the complex of diplomatic relations, economic entanglements, political machinations, and military agreements that encompass the wider area covering the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, Africa, East Asia, and West Asia. These events are not isolated from one another.

In West Asia, the war of and for Syria continues. Ghouta, a suburb of the capital city of Damascus, is heavily fought over and its residents slaughtered in the ongoing warfare. The region and its people are trapped between “armed besiegers and the armed attackers.” Syrian government forces have been bombarding the region in a fight for control over territory that is mainly controlled by al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra. The Russians, if they are to be believed, last week claimed that an agreement was reached between warring parties for aid to be delivered and civilians to be evacuated, yet the Russian foreign minister also claimed that al-Nusra broke the deal. The truth of any detail in the Syrian war is hard to discern thanks to all sides’ battle over ‘hearts and minds,’ and the partial truths and whole lies deployed in the war of words. One thing is clear, however, that the loss of life and destruction of generations of accumulated wealth and infrastructure has been enormous and will continue until the war is resolved and the international contest over the future fate of that country, West Asia, and its role in the wider geopolitical play of global balance of power is concluded one way or another. It’s simply unrealistic to think that war will suddenly cease in the face of outright and explicit contest for power between the multitude of parties embodied in the governments of Syria, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia, Israel, France, the United Kingdom, and their non-governmental associates, proxies, militias, and semi-secret allies of convenience. Over the recent days, large convoys of Syrian troops and tanks have moved to surround east Ghouta. Direct assault is clearly being threatened while negotiations are claimed for the delivery of aid and passage of civilians, as well as the departure of armed fighters from Ghouta. Perhaps something of the sort is indeed being negotiated and we’ll see a repeat of Aleppo with its bus-loads of civilians leaving along with lightly armed fighters opposing the Syrian government. The pattern would then be similar to that witnessed in Aleppo: siege, relief, siege, negotiated departure, capture, in a wide and bloody war in a country that is yet split by a multitude of forces. This region-spanning war has employed a variety of the tools of war: guerrilla warfare, psychological warfare, and the grinding sieges of Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul (once ISIS held, and in Iraq), and Ghouta. For the Syrian government, their intent is the reunification of the entire country under their authority: that includes the province of Idlib and all Kurdish held lands. For Iran, they seek to avoid the loss of an ally in Syria and the establishment of a stable corridor between them, Iraq, and Syria that would have geopolitical as well as economic consequences for them and countries around the world. The other involved parties each have their interests in the boiling cauldron of fighting over power and survival. Here’s some input from a previously secret US Department of Defense document analysing the early situation in Syria and Iraq, parts of which are copied below. Notice that this document was produced before ISIS declared its rule over a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The general situation:

A. Internally, events are taking a clear sectarian direction.

B. The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria. [Maleki Dispatch comment: AQI is al-Qaeda in Iraq a.k.a. al-Nusra]

C. The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition; while Russia, China, and Iran support the regime. [Maleki Dispatch comment: note that the composition of the opposition is defined in point B]

[…] AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish al Nusra […], one of its affiliates.

[…] AQI, through the spokesman of the Islamic Sate of Iraq (ISI) [note: also known as IS, ISIS, or Daesh], Abu Muhammad al Adnani, declared the Syrian regime as the spearhead of what he is naming […] forefront of the Shiites […] because of its (the Syrian regime) declaration of war on the Sunnis. Additionally, he is calling on the Sunnis in Iraq, especially the tribes in the border regions (between Iraq and Syria) to wage war against the Syrian regime, regarding Syria as an infidel regime for its support to the infidel party of Hezbollah, and other regimes he considers dissenters like Iran and Iraq.

[…] The future assumptions of the crisis:

[…] Development of the current events into proxy war: with support from Russia, China, and Iran, the regime is controlling the areas of influence along coastal territories (Tartus and Latakia), and is fiercely defending Homs, which is considered the primary transporation route in Syria. On the other hand, opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighboring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command center of the temporary government.

[…] If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers [Maleki Dispatch note: “The West, Gulf countries, and Turkey”] to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).

[…] The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

—1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters. ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.

This Defense Intelligence Agency document was issued on 30 July 2012, while Mosul fell to ISIS on 10 June 2014. Well, you can give the Department of Defense credit for its foresight in predicting the declaration of the Islamic State that soon followed Mosul’s fall; and it did indeed cause problems for the governments of Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as the analysts had hoped. Now retired US general Michael Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, and he’s confirmed reading the document in question. He had this to say about it during a 2015 televised interviewwith Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan:

Hasan: Did you see this document in 2012?

Flynn: Oh yeah, yeah, I paid very close attention…

In response to Hasan’s pointed questions regarding the written detail that “[t]he West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition” composed of “[t]he Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI,” and that a proxy war in Syria and Iraq may result in the declaration of an Islamic State stretching through eastern Syria to Mosul as desired by the supporting countries including the US:

Hasan: You are basically saying that even in government at the time you knew these groups were around, you saw this analysis, and you were arguing against it, but who wasn’t listening?

Flynn: I think the administration.

Hasan: So the administration turned a blind eye to your analysis?

Flynn: I don’t know that they turned a blind eye, I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision.

Hasan: A willful decision to support an insurgency that had Salafists, Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Flynn: It was a willful decision to do what they’re doing.

Forward to now: the US government argues that it has the authority to stay in Syria indefinitely. In a letter written by the US deputy under secretary of defense David J. Trachtenberg, dated 29 January 2018, the government representative states that the country intends to stay in Syria even after ISIS and al-Qaeda are expelled, because if the US leaves then presumably and hypothetically these organisations may return. After reading the US Department of Defense document of 2012, you’ve got to wonder who they really consider enemies and who they consider accomplices, in this and in other affairs.

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