Russia. Sanctions are biting

I received an interesting nugget of information yesterday. A good friend has a parent who is director of one of the hospitals in Moscow and has been ordered to reduce staff levels by 20%. Not only this hospital, but all hospitals across the country have been ordered to do the same

These orders originate from within the Kremlin. As sanctions bite, the pot of money becomes smaller and the infighting over it increases. As if they didn’t have enough money for themselves already, how many millions does a person need? As the situation continues, so will the cuts. This isn’t about improving efficiency but rather trying to extract as much money as possible before the rats abandon ship.

What we are seeing now is Russia eating itself from the inside. As always, it is the ordinary people who will suffer the most. Russia is a land of great culture and a beautiful language. I just wonder how much longer the situation can continue without the eyes of the majority of people finally being opened to see beyond the propaganda they so fervently believe at the moment.

Weaponized Oil. A new way to fight economic war?

There have been plenty of wars where the objective is to control resources, as we all know, oil really is black gold, it brings huge wealth and power to those who control it. Here however, I want to look at things from a slightly different perspective.

I have been watching the plummeting price of oil with great interest over the last few months. This year we have seen the price drop from a high of over $105 per barrel to a low, so far, of about $81 per barrel for WTI Crude. It seems the price still has further to go before it bottoms out. There are two immediate reasons for this, the first is the global economy, it isn’t particularly robust at the moment, the second, is the fact there is a now a glut of oil. Oil production in the USA is now at the highest it’s been in decades. The world is now awash with the black stuff.

Oil as a weapon

Oil as a weapon

So where does economic war come into all of this? Market share and geo-politics is the simple answer. The producers are having to battle to maintain their market share in this time of abundance and falling prices. OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, has decided for the time being not to cut production as a way of pushing up prices. It appears it is happy to let the price fall rather than risk losing customers, add to this the fact that its cost of production, for the moment, is the lowest of all the oil producing nations. It can afford to see the price fall for a while as a way of squeezing other producers.

The boom in Fracking in the USA doesn’t come cheaply. Evironmental concerns aside, it costs a fortune to produce oil this way. The vast majority of Fracking companies are taking on huge amounts of debt, billions of Dollars, to finance their operations. As the global price of oil falls the pressure is being increased. If the price of oil remains this low for any period of time then it would appear many of these companies could become bankrupt. Could it be the next big bail-out in the USA will be for these companies? Will taxpayers be expected to take another hit as they did when the banks were given their money for free? I wrote in more detail about the economics of Fracking in the article, Fracking a Ponzi scheme?

The US government might decide helping them to keep producing and building energy independence is a price worth paying as it wants to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin suffer. For sure, current prices are now below breakeven costs for Russian oil. With sanctions now biting in Russia, it is more than ever dependent on oil revenues to prop up its system. It is developing closer ties with China to aid economic development, but there too its economy is slowing. If anything China will be the senior partner in that relationship, its economy is so much bigger and can dictate the terms. Russia will have little choice but to go along, it needs the cash too much. Looking ahead, I don’t see Russia making any big gains out of this partnership.

What this all amounts to is economic warfare. Saudi Arabia wants prices to fall in the hope of putting severe economic pressure on those countries whose production costs are much higher, maybe forcing them to close operations so it can increase its market. The USA is happy to see prices fall because of the huge financial burden it puts on Russia, even if it could well mean a bail-out for its own Fracking industry. There is a race to the bottom going on, to see who will blink first, with the winners being able to take the spoils. If that isn’t war by other means then I don’t know what is!

ISIS. Do we really know what we are doing?

Much is being made of attempts to destroy ISIS but the question needs to be asked, will the current strategy work or will it lead to increased chaos in the Middle East?

ISIS

ISIS

 ISIS, or Daesh as they are called in the Middle East,appear not to be too worried about the USA-led coalition air-strikes. In fact they seem to have had very little impact so far.

The question being asked by governments in the region and around the world is what can be done to stop ISIS. They are effectively re-drawing the map of the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has finally come undone. One of the things I find interesting is how little direct effort the governments of the Middle East as well as Egypt are putting into the fight considering the existential crisis which confronts them. Part of this comes down to culture, diverse Arab cultures do not have a history of being able to work together and coordinate efforts. Organization works along tribal lines rather than being based on national institutions. For this reason it is very difficult for them to collaborate in any coherent fashion.

More importantly however, is the fear of what could happen back home if they start fighting directly against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As an example of this, as reported to me by personal contacts in Jordan, Jordan has chosen not to get involved in the fight with ISIS at the moment due to the sheer number of supporters it has in the country. The cities of Al Zarqa and Ma’en are hotbeds of support for ISIS and in many cases the police are too afraid to enter large parts of those cities. If Jordan were to get involved in fighting directly against ISIS it is quite likely domestic terrorism would be a result. The same goes for many countries in the region, underground support for ISIS is growing rapidly.

The question has be asked, why is this the case? From conversations I have had with sources in the region there seems to be a twofold reason. The first is disenfranchisement of large portions of the populations in the region. Unless you are born into the right tribe or family, your opportunities for education and a good job are severely curtailed. The view taken is that the governments of the region are seen as self-serving, corrupt and not caring about large parts of the population. In this respect, support for ISIS is more political rather than religious. ISIS is seen as a great equalizer, making sure that those who live under its rule will be equally looked after. As an ideal, it is very powerful in the minds of many who have been deprived for so long. It is difficult for our Western mindset to grasp this, but many in the region feel ISIS is the only way to deal with government corruption.

The second reason for support for ISIS is religious. Not in the sense of agreeing with its brand of Islam but rather the US led air-strikes are being seen as an attack on Islam in general. A source told me that when he takes a taxi, he always asks the driver for his opinion of ISIS. Invariably the response is always the same, that while he doesn’t like ISIS, attacks by the USA are understood to be part of a wider attack against Islam and if the situation called for it, he would go fight.

All of this brings us back to the USA’s strategy of how to deal with the extremists. Air-strikes are proving to be ineffective. Even if the decision were made to send in ground forces, it would be unlikely to have success, ISIS are very good at disappearing into the population, when I was in Menbij in Syria last year, it was already in the city but nobody knew it — they were simply waiting for the right time to take over. Added to this, if the USA and allies put boots on the ground, support for ISIS would explode, memories of the last war in Iraq are still very raw for many in the region. ISIS is trying to draw the USA further into conflict as it knows doing so will make it stronger.

So what is the solution? This is not an easy question to answer, at base this is an Arab problem which requires an Arab solution. First, the political reasons for why there is so much support for ISIS need to be addressed, being more inclusive for large parts of the population across the region and reducing government corruption.

Secondly, if there is going to be military action against ISIS it should be Arab led to avoid the strong impression of this being a war on Islam. Can it happen? I’m not so sure. There is too much division in strategy between the various countries of the region. For them to work together would require a huge change in mindset. Unfortunately, I see no end to the current situation and this war has the potential to carry on indefinitely.

For me personally, this is a very sad situation. I have a great fondness for the Middle East, based on my own experience and family history. I’m considered a brother by the Al-Zoubi family — actually they are a huge tribe which spans the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Arab people and also the Persians of Iran, are some of the warmest you could ever hope to meet. Across the region, the ordinary people want to live in peace but are having this opportunity torn away from them because of international politics as well as the governments of the region vying with each other for regional dominance. It is these things which allowed ISIS to grow and I don’t see them going away anytime soon.

This article is cross-posted from digitaljournal.com

International politics and ISIS in a nutshell

From the start it was clear that Syria and Iran wanted ISIS (Daesh) to develop even if they don’t have direct control over them. It is the best way of making chaos in the Sunna regions.

Then there is Turkey, using Daesh to fight the Kurds and weaken them, weakening the PKK is  a main objective. Turkey also has hegemonic ambitions in the region as does Iran.

Finally, the USA is not as anti ISIS (Daesh) as many suppose, it is a useful tool to weaken the overall power of the governments in the region, but ISIS (Daesh) must not be permitted to become too strong itself. USA is interested in making a new balance between Sunna and Shia.

Turkey will become the new dominant Sunna power instead of Saudi Arabia (KSA), their collaboration with Daesh and relationship with the USA indicates this.

Jordan will at some point take control of south Syria, using the rebel Syrian brigades in that area.

Iran is not a religious state as many believe, they simply use religion as a form of control. It seems the new balance the USA wants to create is between Turkey and Iran, the gulf states will become less relevant, particularly as USA and Canadian oil and gas output increase.

As for Israel, it has good relations with Jordan, Egypt, UAE and KSA as well as strong back channel communications with Iran.

This article is based on my own personal experience of the Middle East as well as conversations within the intelligence community.

The plight of Iranian dissident refugees in Iraq

While the world is focused on the battle against ISIS (Daesh), there is another situation in Iraq which has in general passed under the radar of most people who are watching events in the Middle East. That is the extreme hardship and in certain cases summary execution of Iranian dissidents who are living in prison like refugee camps in Iraq.

This situation was brought to my attention by an associate of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). While I don’t get involved in politics, the humanitarian situation is one which needs to be spoken about. First there needs to be some background to bring things into context. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) a major member of the National Council  of Resistance of Iran began in the 1960’s as a group involved in armed struggle against the Shah of Iran. After his overthrow in 1979, PMOI sided briefly with Ayatollah Khomeini the new ruler of Iran. However, a power struggle broke out between PMOI and Khomeni and the Revolutionary Guards, resulting in street battles. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out, Saddam Hussein gave them refuge in Iraq from where they launched military operations into Iran.

In 2003, PMOI renounced all violence and disarmed itself. Since 1985 these Iranian dissidents have been living in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. They basically built it from nothing, a city of some 14 square miles and home to thousands of people. It has all the features of a modern city and is very well looked after. In 2004 the US led Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I) formally recognized all the residents of Camp Ashraf as “Protected Persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention [Coalition Statement, July 2004], and U.S. forces took up their protection. So what went wrong and how did the humanitarian crisis develop?

Camp Ashraf

Camp Ashraf

In 2009, responsibility for the protection of the residents of Camp Ashraf was handed over to Iraq. That same year, Iraq launched an attack against it and again in 2011. The first attack killed 11 and wounded some 500, the second attack killed 36 as well as wounding many hundreds. There have also been cases of summary executions carried out against certain residents. Since 2009, Ashraf has essentially been placed under siege with basic supplies heavily restricted. Considering the fact that they are protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention the question must be asked, why has this been allowed to happen?

The answer is quite simple, the Iraqi government under then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was under the direct influence of the Iranian government. Iran has never forgiven the people of Camp Ashraf for standing against it, even if they renounced all armed resistance years before. Using the Iraqi government, Iran is determined to make them pay. The situation has not changed since the creation of a new government in Iraq under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Iranian influence is still directly felt.

To make matters worse, in 2012 residents of Camp Ashraf began to be forcibly evicted and transferred to Camp Liberty, an ex US base in Baghdad. The conditions there are horrendous, it has been turned into little more than a prison camp, food and medicine is restricted, young and old alike are treated as prisoners. They have lost their freedom of movement to go outside the camp. The Iraqi government has forbidden the use of heavy machinery which could be used to help them build homes and move heavy items. It would appear the government wants to humiliate them as much as possible.

Camp Liberty

Camp Liberty

The question has to be, how is it possible that these people, who have personal letters of protection from the United Nations, giving them protection under the Fourth Convention are allowed to be treated this way, when they were doing no harm to anybody? Yes, they want to see change in Iran, but the armed struggle was given up a long time ago. Camp Ashraf had developed into a modern city where people lived quietly and had a good quality of life. Now they are being kept in a ghetto.

The USA has certainly abdicated its responsibility to these people. It was the US which made an investigation of every single resident to see if they were involved in armed struggle and it was the US which then took on the responsibility of protecting them. Handing over this responsibility, it must have known what would happen as the Iraqi government is so much under the influence of Iran. The US and the UN have effectively turned their backs on these people for purely political reasons. Mainly to keep negotiations on track with Iran as well as its usefulness in balancing the power of Saudi Arabia in the region, add to this the need to keep the Iraqi government on side in the “war on terror”. So what, if a few thousand men women and children have to suffer as a result of political expediency!

 This article is also cross-posted at DigitalJournal.com

A leap in the dark

This was photography just for fun,  a spontaneous moment and they were in the mood for jumping and wanted me to get some shots. So I had them jumping off a chair outside in the pitch black. Flash was on camera, I wasn’t in the mood to do a lighting set up, it would have lost the moment, very basic stuff, but it was fun to see the results.

Gabriella

Gabriella

 

Samah

Samah

Olga

Olga