Too quiet for too long, I know

Yes, I have been quiet here but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. I have completed my life coaching course. Now I’m in the process of building the website, lots happening there. I’m looking forward to using my life experience, personal and professional in helping people be a better version of themselves.

As I develop my coaching business I will also have more time for photography and writing as well as other activities. I’m still watching the world very closely, just because I haven’t said much recently about the world situation, does not mean I don’t have many thoughts. We are living in a time when history will be made, for good or for bad.

So watch this space, yes I may be quiet at the moment, but when the time comes there will be very many things to talk about

 

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Global Politics in 2017

Welcome to 2017. If you thought 2016 was an interesting year just wait for what will unfold this year. We can look forward to fresh developments in the MIddle East, Russia, China, USA and Europe. Global politics is changing and under the surface so are economic developments. I’m sure some things will be quite a surprise. Saying that, I’m going to attempt to present what can happen based on current situations.

Syria: While Assad has broken the back of the opposition, with the determined backing of Russia and Iran, resistance is bound to continue in different areas of the country. It is safe to say that Assad has held onto power, for now. The fact that he was prepared to see the destruction of his country and displacement of millions of the population are of no consequence to him. He has sworn to take control of all Syrian territory, including Daesh and Kurdish held areas. This operation could continue for some time yet and may never come to a total conclusion. Winning the war is one thing, winning the peace and rebuilding the country is quite another. The only way to control ex rebel held areas is through an iron fist of military rule. As part of this, Russia has sent hundreds of military police to Aleppo. Then there is the economic situation, the country is in ruins, large parts of the infrastructure destroyed, roads, bridges, water and electricity supplies are out of action. It is going to cost billions to rebuild. Syria does not have the money to rebuild, Russia can’t afford to help rebuild the country and neither can Iran, their economies are not strong enough. Many wealthy Syrian business people moved to Gulf states such as Dubai, also Canada and the USA, it has been suggested to me that they will move back to Syria when things calm down and re-open their factories. Whether this happens by choice or through the threat of having their factories taken over by the government remains to be seen. Assuming factories can be brought back on line, the surrounding infrastructure they need, such as water and electricity is less than reliable. I can also see a strong possibility that a lot of forced labour will be used, mainly of the remaining Sunni population, to begin the enormous task of cleaning up the country. Assad now has a mandate from the global community to mistreat his people as he sees fit and you can be sure he will not disappoint. For the future, Syria will remain a broken country, violence will continue and oppression will increase. Assad himself could not have held onto Syria without the help of Russia and Iran, as a result he will be obliged to do as he is told when it suits his saviours. The only way therefore for Syria to rebuild is if Arab states take out their cheque books and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power. There will have to be a transition to a Syrian leader more acceptable to the Arab states before they consider handing over any money. Who the new leader will be is not clear yet but it will be someone from inside the existing power structure of Syria and most probably a Sunni, not an Alawhite, not from the first tier of government but most likely from the second tier of power. If relative calm can be brought back to Syria there would be massive investment potential. Before the war, Syria had the most diverse economy of any Arab state and it has natural resources for producing phosphates and cement, as well as agriculture and textiles. To bring its economy back can only happen if the country is rebuilt and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power, financial interests will see to that. How any power transition plays out will be watched very carefully by Iran, they do not want to lose their influence in Syria as part of the Shia crescent they have constructed which stretches all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Russia in its new role as power broker in the region will be looking to maintain its influence in Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran as it negotiates a new power structure in Syria. Failing this, Syria will never be rebuilt. Where this will leave the Kurds in their semi-autonomous region of Syria remains to be seen, particularly as the USA has been stepping away from the region for some time now. Its only real remaining interest in the region being Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey: Turkey has had a terrible year with many bombings and shootings. Since the failed coup attempt last summer President Erdogan has clamped down hard. Not just clearing out the military and police but also lawyers, judges and teachers. The so called ‘parallel structure’ full of Gulanist supporters as he asserts. He has gone well beyond those who had anything to do with the coup attempt. As a result, the fractures in Turkey between those who support Erdogan and those who don’t have become a chasm. Erdogan has to now keep the pressure at a high level to stop any dissent. Personally I see the potential for civil war in Turkey and I am going to stick my neck out and say the foundations for civil war are being laid now. Also of note is the fact that it was Russia, Turkey and Iran that laid the framework for a ceasefire in Syria. The USA was nowhere to be seen and not invited. This is a clear demonstration that Turkey is no longer looking west as it had done in the past. At the same time, don’t imagine that all is rosy between Turkey and Russia, their’s is a business relationship only and there are still areas of conflicting interest between them. Erdogan will not tolerate any Kurdish semi-autonomous state inside Syria and it will act unilaterally if Assad and Russia don’t end it. But I want to keep the focus on Turkey’s internal stability, or lack of it. The number of attacks by Kurds and Daesh increase, Erdogan’s policies are alienating a large part of the population who were used to having power and influence in the country. I believe the fuse has been lit in Turkey.

Russia: Flush with a sense of victory, Russia is back on the world stage and projecting its geo-political influence and military strength. With the USA stepping away from involvement in the Middle East, Russia has stepped forward to fill the vacuum. From the outside, Russia looks strong but the projection of power masks internal weakness. Its economy is in bad shape, the middle class is shrinking rapidly and the price of oil and gas is nowhere near high enough to help the Russian economy recover, its economy is now about the size of Italy’s according to World Bank data. Despite military success in Syria, war is very expensive and has been sucking up money from other parts of the economy. There is also the question of what Russia will do next. Emboldened by victory, inaction of the West and a soon to be new President of the USA, will Russia be tempted to strike out elsewhere? Russia can’t afford two wars and now that its operation in Syria is being scaled back, maybe soon will be the time when it increases activity in Ukraine. Just because Ukraine is not in the news much these days does not mean the situation in the east of the country is quiet, there are daily shootings and bombings, but not on a level high enough to get on the news. Will Russia now look to expand operations again in Ukraine and capture more territory? It is a possibility and it can do so in the knowledge that nobody can stop it. The big question is if Russia will try and capture territory from Estonia and Latvia, which have a significant Russian speaking population, the same as in eastern Ukraine. Will Russia gamble on NATO/OTAN backing down in the face of an invasion of those two Baltic countries? With incoming President Donald Trump showing a lack of enthusiasm for Nato, as well as seeming to be more isolationist, could Russia get away with it? Certainly European members of NATO would not be able to stop Russia in its tracks and Turkey would refuse to get involved in any way, despite also being a member of NATO. I think Russia will wait a while to see what Donald Trump actually does as President, and if he shows no interest in the region, Russia will take it as signal and go ahead. Maybe not in direct invasion but will use tactics similar to those used in Ukraine.

Regarding the internal situation in Russia, it should be pointed out the increasing power of the Orthodox church. Working with the Kremlin, its role seems to be that of getting the message to the people, telling them to endure economic hardship as a part of their faith and that Vladimir Putin is something like a living saint, sent to save the country from the rest of the corrupt world. In so doing, the Orthodox church is coordinating a campaign against all who do not uphold ‘traditional values’, including those who do. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were persecuted and sent to gulags during Soviet times for their political neutrality and talking about their faith, are once again under attack, labelled as an ‘extremist’ organization and their website is now banned in Russia, the only other place it is banned is in North Korea. The Orthodox church is the main perpetrator of this attack on basic rights of freedom of worship. It wants to control the message and the message is that Putin is some sort of saviour on a religious level. In the meantime, the Orthodox church is increasing its wealth while the people suffer increasing financial hardship. The country is returning to how it was during the time of the czars, A small rich elite, almost no middle class and the uneducated peasants who are constantly being fed news of how great their country has once again become.

What should be understood about Russia, is that it always tries to put the blame for difficulties on external situations but in the end it always tears itself apart from the inside. The Orthodox church with its growing power and influence over the masses, could, when the time comes, be the factor to cause upheaval in the country, give it time as it consolidates its power and influence in the ruling structure and education system of Russia. Very similar in a way to the ‘parallel structure’ that was developed in Turkey and led to the coup attempt last year.

USA: With a new incoming President it is not easy to say what is going to happen but 2016 was a difficult year for the country. The divisions in its society are increasing, Black Lives Matter is a case in point. Many people are struggling to earn enough, pay for medical insurance, get a decent education. It is against this backdrop that many decided to vote for Donald Trump, if only just to try something new, as the existing political establishment tends to look down its nose at the working poor. Will Trump help them? Time will tell and I wont try to second guess what will happen regarding this. What I do think will be different is foreign policy. Trump is a business man, making money is what drives him and he has a reputation for being quite ruthless. However, his skills wont necessarily translate into effective diplomatic negotiation. An example would be his comments on the ‘One China’ policy, by which Taiwan is recognized as a part of China, even though it has a democratically elected government. Trump suggested this policy should be renegotiated, with China making economic concessions in return for continued acceptance of this policy. For China the ‘One China’ policy is a red line and will never be acceptable for use in any economic negotiations, China will react and react strongly if Trump decides to go down this road. Being known for the size of his fragile ego, he takes offense very easily and has a tendency to seek revenge. When he realizes that he is being played by Russia, the consequences could be dramatic to say the least. Unless there is an economic argument, I don’t see Trump taking much of an interest in Syria or Yemen or any other humanitarian crisis. When it comes to oil, as with all administrations in the USA, Trump will take keen interest. But I keep coming back to is his total lack of experience in dealing with foreign governments, there are only common interests in global politics, never friendship and Trump is the sort of person who hates getting the less profitable side of the deal and he takes these things very personally. So I think it is safe to say, when it comes to foreign policy, things could become rather volatile. On the other hand he might take a back seat, delegating foreign policy and concentrating on the domestic interests of his business friends in the USA. With regard to the USA economy, I think he will borrow to spend on rebuilding the infrastructure (roads, bridges, power grids etc) of the country, which is in a desperate state of disrepair and if something is not done about it soon will have a direct effect on the economy.

Europe: With Brexit, Europe is losing its second largest economy, some of its biggest banks are in a fragile state and in Italy many of its smaller banks are in very bad health, if one of these small Italian banks were to fail it could start a cascade effect and potentially take the country out of the EU. Austerity has not worked as planned, wages are stagnant and populist political parties are on the rise. There will also be a massive business scandal to come out of Europe, which I’m not at liberty to talk about at the moment but the fall-out will be immense. In the Balkans, tensions simmer between Serbia and Bosnia, that war can happen again, in fact it would take very little for the region to erupt in violence. Terrorism in Europe is a continuing threat and will probably increase. The use of trucks to run down innocents is, sad to say, much more effective than someone with a AK47 and easier to get hold of for use as a weapon. I expect to see more attacks like these. I hate to say this, but I would not be surprised to see high speed trains being derailed as a means of terrorism. It is very easy to do and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.

There you have it. I think we will have an interesting 2017 for many different reasons.

The EU, dead man walking

The EU is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet. Chatting today to a friend who has been involved in the buying and selling of European banks. I asked him today about the situation of Deutsche Bank, he said it will be renamed DLB, (Deutsche Lehman Bank) Letting it fail would create a global financial meltdown. Germany will have to break every rule in the EU rulebook to keep Deutsche afloat. Then Italy will ask for the same treatment from the EU for its banking sector, which is also in crisis. There just won’t be enough money to go around and the result will be a political and financial fracture which will rip the EU apart.

Russia, Syria and the United Nations

In quite extraordinary scenes at the United Nations security council, Britain, France and the USA directly accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria. The accusations are based on the use of bunker-busting bombs and other heavy weapons in east Aleppo where many civilians are trapped.

Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN said “Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.” Then, along with his French and American counterparts, they walked out in protest before the Syrian government representative began speaking.

What all this shows is just how powerless the UN really is. Because each permanent member of the UN security council has a veto and can block any decisions it doesn’t like, the whole thing can be brought to a standstill. It is obvious that Russia and probably China will block any resolution about taking action to bring the blood, death and misery in Syria to an end.

Maybe the UK, France and the USA will invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of November 1950 (resolution 377 (V)). This states ‘the Assembly may also take action if the Security Council fails to act, owing to the negative vote of a permanent member, in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Assembly can consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.’

This resolution hasn’t been used very often but the feeling is that now there is genuine anger, spilling over into direct and less than diplomatic speech by certain security council members at the actions of Russia in Syria. At the end of the day, this resolution can only make recommendations. In 1980, the General Assembly convened in a “Uniting for Peace” session and passed a resolution demanding the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviets merely shrugged. Russia would mostly likely do the same if such a resolution were passed today.

The biggest irony for me regarding Russia’s actions in Syria is that it claims to be a christian country, in fact the link between the Orthodox church in Russia and the Kremlin would take many by surprise. It is directly influencing the making of laws in Russia. Where is the church’s role in this? Giving guidance on morality or where are the politicians who claim to be christian asking themselves, ‘what would Jesus do in my situation?’ You would have to wait a very long time indeed for that to happen.

There we have it, the UN is basically pointless, it can’t live up to its charter, it is unable to stop wars or give all the aid needed to the refugees caused by those wars. The big powers simply ignore the UN when it suits them. The UK, France, USA and China are just as guilty as Russia, it is basically a toothless old dog that needs to be put down. In fact if there were no UN it would make it much easier for countries, acting alone or as a group to take action and intervene. Instead they are all stuck in an organization which is unable or unwilling to do anything. Innocent people continue being slaughtered. Well done UN, you are 71 years old now, maybe it is time you were retired.

Pokemon Go, Watching You!

The Pokemon Go craze is beyond me but I’ve never been into computer games. As the craze kicked off and I learned what the game is about and how it works it got me thinking. Is there something more to this game than meets the eye?

How the game works is cool, no denying it. Get people running around their local towns, chasing down Pokemons which are computer graphic characters layered on top of the real world view of your smart phone camera. But then I started thinking more about how the creators of the game could use it in other ways. When you play the game, a huge amount of information is collected, it has access to your GPS location, camera and microphone. For this reason I began to understand how Pokemon Go could quite simply be the biggest intelligence gathering tool of the digital age. In general Pokemons are scattered around, waiting to be caught in parks and on the street etc. But they can also be inside buildings and other private spaces. Today I was reading in the Independent newspaper, the Israeli army have been banned from playing because of the fear of sensitive information being leaked. The article also tells of a Palestinian player in Gaza who was playing but couldn’t capture a Pokemon because it was inside a Hamas run government building.

This is the point, if you want to collect information about locations and what is happening there, plant a Pokemon and wait for a player to go after it. If there is a player who works in the Hamas run government building and is not aware of security, they could be running around the building capturing all sorts of camera footage for whoever runs the data collection for the creators of the game.

In fact, some companies I know, have banned playing the game on their premises due to the risk of sensitive information being leaked. With data security being such a big issue these days, even if the game is not being used deliberately to gather intelligence the fact remains, your data from the game, camera footage and GPS location plus most of the other permissions on your phone, are being captured stored. This is a goldmine of information for hackers, you can be sure they will try to steal it. So either way, I will not be touching Pokemon Go with a barge-pole

Turkey, where goes the future?

Whether Fethullah Gulen was behind the failed coup attempt or if President Erdogan staged it himself is unimportant. What is important is what is happening now. The general impression appears to be that a large part of the population supports Erdogan, if only because it is better to have a bad politician as leader rather than a military leadership. The Syrians I know who live in Turkey support Erdogan, the last thing they want to see is the country slide into chaos after escaping the bloodshed of Syria.

This does not mean the dangers have receded and the country will not yet face fresh instability in the future. With emergency powers in place, actions are happening which I believe to be part of a longer term strategy.

The main consequence so far is the ongoing purge, not only and understandably of the military but also of judges, civil servants, teachers and heads of universities. Leaving the military purge to one side, the purge of civil institutions reminds me of the purges that happened in the USSR under Lenin and Stalin. It also makes me think about what happened in Iraq after the fall of Sadaam Hussein. His Baath party ran all the institutions of the country, the USA decided to remove everybody connected to the Baath party, the institutions that ran the country were hollowed out and is a major reason for the chaos we see in Iraq today. Erdogan is going down the same road, by removing so many people for ideological reasons he is weakening the institutions that hold the country together. Many people are losing their jobs and on a practical level dealing with the civil service will become much harder. With so many judges having been fired, the legal process is grinding to a halt. Any country without a functioning legal system is on a very slippery slope.

We can all see what is happening but more interesting are the potential reasons why. Obviously Erdogan wants all the power for himself, he is authoritarian. But more interesting is how he is using religion, Islam, as an instrument of power and the part it plays in his long term objective. The Turkish constitution is secular, Erdogan is Islamist, for the last two years he has been increasing the role of religion in politics. His ambition is for Turkey to once again be the spiritual leader of the Sunni muslim world as it was during the time of the Ottoman empire. For now, that role is held by Saudi Arabia and Erdogan wants it back. This is the reason for his purge, he is clearing out secularists from the judicial system, education and the civil service. The replacements will be Islamists. In so doing Turkey will be able to promote itself as more ideologicaly pure than the Saudi kingdom, where outside of the elite class many see only corruption in their leaders. Erdogan is also pushing his anti-USA rhetoric as part of the plan, many Islamists have negative feelings about the USA, with its drone strikes and bombings that often kill innocent people and its ‘corruption’ of the muslim world with its military bases, particularly in Saudi Arabia. As a part of that I can see the real possibility of Turkey refusing to allow the USA to continue using its air bases to launch strikes against Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. I would go as far as saying that Turkey could well withdraw from NATO, if it isn’t pushed out first, as part of Erdogan’s ideological drive. Turkey is no longer looking west, its gaze is now firmly set on the middle east. Religion is just a tool used to increase power and influence

As part of that strategy it has repaired its relations with Russia and one of the main reasons for this is Syria. If Erdogan can offer Russia something of real value it may well withdraw its support for Bashar al Assad and force him to step down and bring some stability back to Syria. If Erdogan can pull this off he will outmaneuver both the USA and Saudi Arabia and his influence in the middle east would dramaticaly increase. Saudi Arabia is aware of this and is also trying to tempt Russia economically and strategically with influence in the middle east in exchange for withdrawing support from Bashar al Assad. There is now a power race between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, you can be sure there will be a lot of dirty tricks on the road ahead.

Coming back to the situation inside Turkey today, yes a large part of the population are Islamists and support Erdogan but there are also many who are secular and educated, the military has never wanted to see the power of religion increased in Turkey. It is by nature secular. The purges will remove as many secularists as possible but in my opinion I think the seeds for civil war are being sown as we speak and it will be a religious war, for and against.

Panama papers leak – first impressions

What strikes me about the variety of political leaders and those close to them who use or have used offshore company Mossack Fonseca to hide great personal wealth from the eyes of the public and also perhaps their spouses.

Panama Papers. Mossack Fonseca

My first thought is this, who got hold of the information and leaked it. Probably we will never know for sure but it is interesting to note that neither the United States nor Israel are touched in any way by the release of these documents. When so many diverse countries around the world have ties to Mossack Fonseca at such a high level, it is unusual to find that nobody from the political level of either country has been using its services when so many others have. Also both countries often work together on hacking projects, so you can be sure that Mossack Fonseca had been guarding its data as strictly as possible, particularly as its business is built on trust. It would have required state level hacking to steal the information.

The second interesting thing to note is that it appears those in the released papers had at least a few days prior warning of what was to come. The first hint came in an article I read in the Moscow Times of March 28 stating Kremlin Says Journalists Preparing Hatchet Job on Putin adding, The questions involved information about the president’s family, his childhood friends, “businessmen Kovalchuk and Rotenberg, some offshore companies, entrepreneurs that Putin has never met,”  Then another article I didn’t understand at the time, as to why Putin would say this at this particular moment. Now becomes clear, as you can read from April 1, Putin Advises Journalists to Publish Their Income, Journalists Say ‘No, Thanks’, which stated “We recommend that media professionals and other workers whose professional activity is connected with the provision of public interest and attracting increased public attention, to publish information on their income, expenses, assets and property obligations on official websites or to publish the above information in mass media,”

This is just the first day of the release of these papers and the full repercussions are yet to be felt. What is clear is that those who have access to this financial information can access anybody, it doesn’t matter how rich you are. The Edward Snowden document leaks have had a huge impact on how we see privacy. The Panama Papers will be about who can really pull the strings of the super-rich. This is going to become interesting.

Refugees as a weapon of war – update

After writing an article in early February about how Russia is exacerbating the Syrian refugee crisis by attacking population centres in Syria as a way of increasing pressure on the European Union, NATO and the British media are finally catching up. They are only a month after my article but better late than never:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/russia-and-syria-weaponising-refugee-crisis-to-destabilise-europe-nato-commander-claims-a6909241.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/16/refugees-are-becoming-russias-weapon-of-choice-in-syria

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2016/03/02/NATOs-Gen-Breedlove-Syrian-refugees-are-weapons-against-Europe/5391456934721/

 

Refugees as a weapon of war

Russia has been intensifying its bombing of Aleppo in Syria but the thing is this, the Syrian government even with the help of Russia is simply not strong enough to hold onto control of the city. The rebels aren’t strong enough to win and neither is the government. So what is behind the current Russian action of indiscriminately bombing the city?

This is about creating more refugees, doing so will put huge pressure on Turkey and Europe. Speaking today to my Syrian friend, Muhannad Najjar, who has been living in Turkey for the last year, he told me that in the first four days of the Russian bombing campaign of Aleppo some 25,000 Syrians decided to flee the city, and that is just the beginning. Interviewing some of the escaping families, all said their goal is to reach Europe. This is on top of the hundreds of thousands who have already made the journey to  Europe.

One of the things Muhannad told me is that the majority Sunni population feel betrayed by Europe and the USA, not because they don’t accept more refugees but because they haven’t done something about Bashar al Assad so they can live in peace and rebuild their country. I’m inclined to agree, the Assad family has also treated the lower classes of Alawite from his own tribe with similar contempt. The problem now is that a significant minority of those forced to flee their homes could be tempted to support Daesh (ISIS), not because they like them but because they feel there is no other choice.

Politicians in Europe and the USA think they can isolate themselves from the dangers by doing nothing in Syria but their inaction is actually increasing the danger. Russia is using this situation to its full advantage. Refugees have become a weapon of war as Russia uses the refugee crisis to try and break Europe. There are two reasons for this, one is because of the economic sanctions placed on Russia, the other is to try and force the USA and Europe to accept terms for any settlement of the Syrian crisis, if they don’t then Russia in its support of Bashar al Assad will make sure the flow of refugees only increases.

These pictures were taken in the last few days of Syrians who are fleeing the Russian bombing of Aleppo and trying to cross the Turkish border. All photo credit to مصطفى سلطان Mostafa Sultan

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The political battle to be number one

International geo-politics – The strategy is like a glass of water, fill the glass with water to the top, full but not overflowing, this is relative stability, the water being political and military tension. It gives no room for your enemies to add more water to the glass and make it overflow because this is instability and war. The glass is now full but there is a lot of international pressure to keep filling the glass with water. It is only a question of when not if the cup runneth over.