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.