Tag Archives: Military Escalation

Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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Putin’s Foray into Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on September 30th signalled arguably one of the most significant change of events in the Syrian Civil War since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is answering the necessary charge in order to act “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” While Putin more recently reaffirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying ground forces in Syria, the air campaign by conservative estimates is expected to last a minimum of one year. Above all, the aggressive move has firmly embedded Russia’s commitment to Assad’s Syria and opened the door for further Russian diplomatic leverage in the conflict and wider region.

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s control over the country has been reduced to only 20-30% of the country’s area, accounting for around 60% of the population. At least 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011, though the most active watchdog group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has put the figure at between 250,000 and 340,000 as of October 15th. Assad has welcomed the Russians with open arms, and made his first visit outside the country since the war began to coordinate the effort with Putin in Moscow. Iran’s invitation to the negotiating table over Syria has also strengthened Assad’s bid to stay in power while also strengthening Russia’s role.

The lion’s share of the Russian air raids have been focused in the northwest of Syria, rather than the northeast where ISIS strongholds are concentrated. SOHR said Russian airstrikes have killed 370 individuals: 52 from ISIS, 191 rebel fighters from other groups, and 127 civilians. There has been significant controversy over Russia’s thus-far preference in targeting opposition rebels groups closer to the West rather than extremist groups like ISIS. The US has both warned and criticized Russia’s actions in Syria, but has relatively done little that would sway Putin from changing course.

In addition, Iran is now sending thousands of troops to Syria to bolster the new regime offensive, dropping pretenses for a more overt participation. Backed by the Russian air raids, Syrian government units, Lebanese Hezbollah armed fighters and Iranian forces targeted rebel positions around Aleppo and Homs. Iran has also been active in fighting alongside Iraqi army forces and irregular Shiite militias in Syria’s neighbor to the east. Reports indicate recent key gains have been made in Iraq, as ISIS may soon be fully ousted from the north-central city of Baiji, site of the country’s largest oil refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has welcomed Russia in the fight against ISIS, and several strikes have already struck inside Iraqi territory.

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Coordination between Russia and the US in the Syrian airspace remains tense especially as any incident would further escalate the situation to neither’s benefit. Obama and the US’ credibility has taken a hit while hesitating over how to more fully respond to the dramatic geopolitical shift. Russian statesman Iliyas Umakhanov remarked, “[The US] is going to have to recognize that Islamic State is the real threat that has been countered only by the Syrian regular army commanded by President Bashar al-Assad.” Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern that the Russian involvement will only further the regional crisis, and US officials on several occasions have requested restraint from Russia to no avail.

Whatever the military outcome will be, the increased Russian involvement has added a huge obstacle to any effort at a political Syria without Assad. Western countries that previously claimed “Assad must go,” including the US, will find this position less and less feasible over time as the alternatives flounder. Over the last four years the effort to find, support, or build a moderate opposition have fallen far short, and these new changes will only make those options tougher to pursue.

Furthermore, Russia is flexing it’s muscle in Syria not just for Assad or the country itself, but to also project influence and power in a tumultuous time. Rather than pulling back from chaos or biding time, Russia is trying to paint itself as a savior by entering into a new conflict. While the US and West have rightfully questioned Putin’s true goals in the Middle East, their commitment and grasp on the region are also coming under greater scrutiny. Russia will be fighting in Syria for the foreseeable future and has launched a strong bid to be the primary shot caller in the crisis. Further hesitation from the West in responding will solidify that bid, for better or for worse.

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Japan’s Fistfights and Foreign Wars

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an unabashed advocate for changes in Japan’s defense policy, seeking the goal for his country what he calls “proactive pacifism.” Increased regional tensions, most notably with China, and internal political posturing have fueled the fire for a more outwardly minded Japanese military. A key change is underway with the ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.  

The above renunciation of war has been in effect for over 70 years, and Abe proclaimed that within the framework of Article 9 Japan has the right to collective self-defense, which includes engagement in the defense of an ally. Controversial legislation that is set to pass resulted in a physical scuffle on the floor of the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, but has failed to reverse the inevitable. The new set of bills are expressed in a way that allow for the government justify the use of combat action abroad for the first time since World War II. Abe states that it will give Japan a more “normal” position militarily, while his detractors have voiced fears of being co-opted into American combat intervention overseas. While the Prime Minister and his coalition have the votes on their side, some opinion polls say only 30% of Japanese surveyed support the change and large public protests have dogged the proceedings.

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

Due to the restrictions of the constitution and Article 9, Japan has for decades relied heavily on its alliance with the US for defense while becoming very accustomed to the American military presence. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are expressly prohibited from conducting combat missions, and according to recent statistics they amount to one-sixth the size of North Korea’s armed forces and approximately a tenth the size of China’s.

Japan’s defense budget increased in 2013 for the first time in 11 years, and has increased every year since in a reversal of trend that has gained both significant traction and provoked worried criticism. Additionally, beginning in 2013 Abe was instrumental in the successful adoption of a five-year plan to procure new military hardware and capabilities, including drones and amphibious assault vehicles. While still paling in comparison to the defense budgets of China or the United States, the move has drawn ire from the former yet welcome from the latter.

China has openly and harshly criticized Japan’s new laws, with the official Xinhua news agency arguing,Japan‘s military stance has potentially become more dangerous as its hawkish and historical revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now holds an active war button following the country’s parliament in the early hours of Saturday enacting laws that could usher Japan into war again for the first time in 70 years.” On the other hand, many US and UK officials applauded the move towards more international assistance and a greater Japanese role in global peacekeeping operations.

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

So far unfettered by a critical China, Abe’s moves away from strict pacifism will test the regional relationship further over time. Japan will likely use the changes as a bargaining chip on the strategic table, especially regarding the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, and perhaps even North Korea. The US now has a unique opportunity to scale back its forces to let Japan reassert its own military future, but it should also seek to resolve conflict with both Japan and China on the diplomatic table simultaneously.

Ambiguity in the new military laws will be a testing point of contention domestically for Japan, and any foreign military action will almost assuredly come with more protests and demonstrations. Japanese defense policy is set to change in a way that will usher in a new chapter for Japanese relations abroad, and it must navigate carefully if it wishes to achieve new regional and global goals.

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Testing the Waters of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the disputed islands

Referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea have been a serious source of contention in the region since the 1970s. The historical claims to this area that encompasses only seven square kilometers date back to the 14th century according to the Chinese claim, and the late 19th century via Japanese incorporation and later administration. Taiwan also lays claim to the island group and refers to them as the Diaoyutai Islands, though their stake has been less incisive. Located southwest of the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and southeast of China, the islands are important today because of nearby oil reserves, busy shipping lanes, and regional power projection. Outright control of the islands would signal a key strategic loss for the opposing side, and thus there have been many incursions both directly and indirectly to test the waters.

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

The debate over the islands is most importantly reflective of the greater battle for regional influence between China and Japan. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel’s skipper was detained by Japanese Coast Guard officials prompting a diplomatic crisis. After initially refusing to set the skipper free, China ceased exportation of rare earth minerals to Japan and Japan capitulated by releasing the sailor. The fiery incident was short-lived, but the escalated tensions persisted in the aftermath.

In 2012 the Japanese government further asserted its control over the islands via purchasing and nationalizing three of the islands from their private Japanese owner for over $16 million dollars. In response Beijing released a scathing criticism denouncing the move and reiterating their own claim. That year also saw a wave of official proclamations from high ranking officials on both sides noting the importance of how the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were integral to the sovereignty of their countries.

The Japanese in 2012 and Chinese in 2014 both launched websites purporting their respective justifications for the reasoning behind their claims. According to the magazine The Diplomat, in early 2015 both countries were quietly posturing around the islands in a sign of military buildup, which included the construction of a new Chinese base that could potentially be used for greater military readiness. An official from the US Naval Institute concluded after analyzing the situation that China may perform a “short, sharp war” against Japan to snatch the islands quickly. Furthermore, nationalist rhetoric surrounding the claims has increased the stakes and brought greater attention in East Asia to the sparring factions.

Japanese protestors

President Obama in 2014 clarified the US stance supported the Japanese claim, declaring that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japanese bilateral security treaty. While Japan has de facto administered the islands for decades, the Chinese claim contains more historical justification behind it. In a way the controversy is similar to how Beijing politically approaches Taiwan: it would undermine their authority to recognize anything other than the stance they have held on to for so long. Likewise, Japan sees the islands as a symbolic possession that they would be devastated to lose. Regardless of the justification behind the ownership or control of the islands, their significance comes because they are at the crux of Japanese and Chinese foreign policy goals. 

Chinese protestors

In the time of a geopolitically rising China, the controversies over such islands as the Senkaku and similar areas, such as the Spratly Islands, are microcosms of how relations between China and its neighbors will play out. If China continues to become more aggressive, as it has in the past few years in response to Japanese saber-rattling and the positioning of resources around key shipping lanes, both its neighbors and the world at large should take note. As was seen by the Russian action in Crimea, there are definite benefits and consequences to flexing strength near strategic points. It should come as no surprise that the Senkaku Islands will continue to play a unique role in the South China Sea.

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