26 December 2014

Sierra Leon nurses strike over Ebola hazard pay amid lockdown

Dec 26, 2014

Some 30 nurses at the Mabenteh Hospital in the town of Makeni said they had been refusing to work since Wednesday because of "the non payment of risk allowance" by the government for the month of November.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone: Nurses at a public hospital in northern Sierra Leone were on strike on Thursday to demand hazard pay for treating Ebola patients, as the region was under lockdown in a bid by authorities to combat the killer virus. 

Some 30 nurses at the Mabenteh Hospital in the town of Makeni said they had been refusing to work since Wednesday because of "the non payment of risk allowance" by the government for the month of November. 

A spokesman for the nurses, Henry Conteh, told public radio: "We are not going to attend to any patients who are already admitted and will not accept any new cases until we are paid." 

"The matter is serious and needs to be settled urgently," he said. There was no immediate information available on how much money the health workers were owed or how many patients had been turned away. 

The manager of the Mabenteh Hospital board, Ibrahim Bangura, said he was working "to resolve the issue with the authorities so that patients' lives will not be at risk." 

The strike action came as Sierra Leone's northern region marked the second day of a five-day lockdown as part of intensified government efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic, with many public Christmas and New Year celebrations also banned. 

Ebola has killed more than 7,500 people over the past year, almost all of them in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. 

Sierra Leone recently overtook Liberia as the country with the highest number of infections, recording 9,004 cases and 2,582 deaths, WHO said in its most recent update. 

Markets and shops were shut in the country's north on Thursday and travel between districts was strictly forbidden save for Ebola health workers and authorised personnel. 

Except for Christmas Day mass, no public gatherings were allowed. The resident minister for the Northern Region, Alie Kamara, told AFP that despite the many restrictions there was "much compliance" with the lockdown. 

The Sierra Leonean government already imposed a nationwide shutdown for three days in September in a bid to halt the spread of the disease, when more than 28,000 volunteers went house-to-house to raise awareness about Ebola. 

Russia battles to contain Black Sea oil spill

Dec 25, 2014

A Russian Black Sea city declared a state of emergency on Thursday after a burst pipeline spewed oil into the landlocked water body, with stormy weather hampering cleanup efforts.

MOSCOW: A Russian Black Sea city declared a state of emergency on Thursday after a burst pipeline spewed oil into the landlocked water body, with stormy weather hampering cleanup efforts.

The pipeline near the city of Tuapse burst late on Tuesday, according to ChernomorTransneft, a subsidiary of Russia's main oil transport company Transneft.

"The wall of the pipeline broke due to... a landslide," the company said in a statement, adding that the rupture caused 8.4 cubic metres to leak out into the Tuapse river, which empties into the Black Sea.

Environmentalists warned however that the volume of the spill could be nearly 100 times greater than claimed by Transneft.

A sign that reads 'Prohibited area! No entry!' hangs on a barbed wire fence outside an area of Tuapse oil refinery in the Russian Black Sea coastal town of Tuapse. (Reuters photo)

The oil transport company said the damaged section of the pipeline — about nine kilometres (five miles) from the Black Sea coast — was under construction by a subsidiary of oil giant Rosneft and was not yet in use by Transneft.

Rosneft also operates a major oil refinery in Tuapse.

Russia's sea and river transport agency said a cleanup mission was launched on Wednesday afternoon, though stormy weather precluded the use of boats.

By Thursday, the local authorities declared a state of emergency in Tuapse and more than 300 workers were at the scene, according to the Krasnodar regional government website.

"There is a state of emergency for Tuapse city," a statement on the Krasnodar regional government website said. "Work is complicated by a storm, with waves two to three metres (up to 10 feet) high," it said.

Oil leaks are seen at the Tuapse river in the Russian Black Sea coastal town of Tuapse, December 24, 2014. (Reuters photo) 

World Wildlife Fund said on Thursday that the spill already polluted 15 kilometres of the Black Sea shore, and accused Rosneft and Transneft of failing to act quickly and understating the real extent of the damage.

China readies sea-based nuclear deterrent against U.S.

December 26, 2014

So far, China could strike the U.S. only with land-based missiles.

China is set to reinforce its nuclear second-strike capability by mounting on some of its submarines long-range ballistic missiles, which could target the U.S.

So far, China could strike the U.S. only with land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. But with western advancements in surveillance that could track their location and movements, these weapons had become vulnerable to a U.S. first strike, gravely undermining Beijing’s nuclear deterrence.

However, China is on the verge of a course correction, says a report submitted in November to Congress by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission has concluded that the Chinese are set to acquire a reliable, hard-to-destroy sea-based deterrent. A cluster of 12 JL-2 missiles, with a strike range of around 7,350 km, are being mounted on its JIN class of submarines.

China has three JIN-class nuclear-powered submarines, which began entering service in 2007. Despite their fairly high noise level, their lethality has now multiplied, following the integration of the new missiles, giving China a credible second-strike capability.

Alaska within reach

Rebels without a cause

December 26, 2014

PTI"The size of Assam state's police machinery is inadequate to deal with the problems it faces." Picture shows a village house after it was set abalze by National Democratic Front of Boroland militants, in Phulbari.

The National Democratic Front of Boroland (Songbijit) does not seem to have any clear and tangible goal apart from that of spreading mayhem and terror

The massacre of innocent men, women and children in Sonitpur and Kokrajar districts of Assam is a familiar, cynical, bloody cycle of violence that is never far away; it is a testament to the simmering cauldron of suspicion, fear and hate stalking the Assam valley and hills. Can there be any ‘reason’ that can even begin to justify such murders of children, some of them barely a few months old?

The butchery indicates a set of well-planned and coordinated operations that clearly caught law enforcement agencies and the State government by surprise. The marauders had been under pressure for some time, with police forces inflicting recent losses on them in Sonitpur district. A breakaway group of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) named after its elusive leader, I.K. Songbijit, is the group responsible for the killings, State police and administrators say. The faction is opposed to talks between the larger NDFB group and the Indian government but does not seem to have any clear and tangible goal apart from that of spreading mayhem and terror.

It recently told the local media that it would show that it is capable of tough retaliation if the pressure continued. But the use of weapons against women and children in the northeastern region is not new or limited; such abuse and brutality has been extensive not just in Assam, but also its neighbouring States. In Meghalaya for instance, earlier this year, a Garo armed group shot dead a young woman in front of her children. There are allegations of abuse against armed groups in Nagaland and Manipur as well.

What has also made such groups difficult to tackle is the fact that they camp on the forested and lightly patrolled border tracts of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, according to officials. The latter was the camping ground, until 2003, of three major armed groups — NDFB, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation — which were using it to organise attacks and recruit members in Assam. That year, they were attacked, devastated and driven out by the Royal Bhutanese Army. There have been reports that some groups have relocated to these thickly forested and sparsely populated areas.

No rationale

Nun in Sierra Leone brings joy to children affected by Ebola

December 26, 2014

Christmas gatherings have been cancelled in Sierra Leone, but 900 children in one town have been brought some cheer by celebrating it early, thanks to the foresight of a local school teacher.

Sister Mary Sweeney, an Irish special needs teacher, has been distributing presents to children whose families have been hit by Ebola in Makeni, a busy commercial hub three hours north of Freetown, after private donations of 1,000 shoeboxes stuffed with presents arrived from schools in the U.K.

“We started to distribute the presents because we wanted them to have something. We couldn’t bring them altogether because of the ban on gatherings this Christmas,” she says.

“They were all so beautifully wrapped and it was a joy to see the little ones’ eyes light up. They were so excited. There were the most gorgeous things inside: socks, shoes, sunglasses, notebooks, markers, football jerseys. In one of them a child had even put in a few pound coins,” said Sister Mary, who has lived in Sierra Leone for 42 years. “The gifts are bringing a lot of joy to the children, despite the grief that they have to deal with.”

The boxes arrived at St Joseph’s school for the hearing impaired in early December after supporters in the U.K. decided to take action in the absence of an international response to Ebola in Makeni. The Christmas delivery was one of 12 pallets of freight to be sent out since September by U.K. supporters. Although humanitarian aid is flooding into Sierra Leone, little was reaching Makeni in the first few months. The pallets cost about £14,000 to get through customs, more than half the charity’s annual funds.

The Bombali district, of which Makeni is the capital, is one of three hardest hit by Ebola in Sierra Leone, but got its first treatment centre only this month. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

Assault on democracy

December 26, 2014

The mass raid and arrests of journalists, screenwriters and television news producers across Turkey on December 14 stand as glaring evidence of an impinging crisis in its democracy. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that these arrests were a move towards eliminating the “parallel state”, a network of the loyalists of Sunni cleric Fethullah Gülen, who are accused of attempting to overthrow the government and seize power. The arrestees include the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, head of the TV channel, Samanyolu, and about two dozen other persons. 

Condemning the arrests, Human Rights Watch said, “The public detentions that appear to be without sufficient evidence they committed a criminal offense will harm media freedom and chill free speech.” The European Union criticised it for being “incompatible with freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy.” Taking a snipe at the already waning EU-Turkey relations, Mr. Erdogan responded saying, “We have no concern about what the EU might say, whether the EU accepts us as members of not.” Not coincidentally, it was in December last year that allegations of corruption erupted against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in which Mr. Erdogan and his inner circle of ministers were said to be deeply implicated. Calling it a conspiracy plotted by the Gülen Movement, Mr. Erdogan responded with a media clampdown and purged the police and judicial investigations. Since then, the clash between Mr. Erdog˘an and the Gulen Movement has only been intensifying.

After serving as the Prime Minister for three consecutive terms and elected as the President with about 52 per cent votes in August this year, Mr. Erdogan can no doubt lay claim to popular support in Turkey. During the initial term, he was fairly successful in maintaining economic growth, keeping the military out of politics, implementing education and health reforms and improving relations with the West. But since then, he has also been criticised of authoritarianism and religious orthodoxy. The Taksim Square protest in the summer of 2013, which was quelled by excessive force, is evidence of the growing unrest against his policies. Studies report that Turkey arrested more journalists than any other country worldwide in 2013, and a recent Freedom House report suggests that it has one of the most repressive Internet regulation policies globally. Along with a rising religious orthodoxy, Mr. Erdogan has also been criticised for his views on abortion and contraception. Turkey may claim to have a legitimate electoral political system, but a stable democracy is one that promotes free speech, protects liberties and safeguards minority rights. Turkey, unfortunately, seems to be drifting away from this path.

Honouring complex legacies

December 26, 2014

By conferring the highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, on former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, who was president of the Indian National Congress more than once before Independence but was better known as the founder of the Banaras Hindu University, the country has recognised the contributions made by these leaders to public life and India’s political evolution. The decision of the Bharatiya Janata Party government is also indicative of a certain resoluteness to emphasise its own political tradition — Mr. Vajpayee was the first BJP Prime Minister of India, for 13 days in 1996, and again, from 1998 to 2004; Malaviya was among the founding leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha in the early 20th century. 

Mr. Vajpayee, now ailing, still retains appeal that cuts across political divisions because he was particularly mindful of seeking a larger consensus on national issues. As Prime Minister his tenure was eventful, marked by a war with Pakistan, a series of terror attacks including the hijacking of IC-814 and the Parliament attack, and India’s decision to go publicly nuclear. Through all this, Mr. Vajpayee’s statesmanship and his ability to demonstrate strength and large-heartedness simultaneously, only got better. Freedom-fighter, journalist, educationist and social activist, Malaviya belonged to the Hindu nationalist stream within the Indian National Congress. He was fiercely opposed to Congress participation in the Khilafat movement and disfavoured separate electorates for different communities proposed by the British government. An important figure in the Non-Cooperation Movement, he was a delegate in the First Round Table Conference in 1930. But Malaviya’s living legacy is the BHU that he founded in 1916 in the city of Varanasi with the help and support of Annie Besant.

Previous ‘Bharat Ratna’ awards have had their share of controversies, and accusations that many dispensations have used it to further their own political interests and negate those of opponents are not unfounded. The fact that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was conferred the Bharat Ratna only in 1990 when a government in which his followers had influence was in power is a telling example. Historical figures often leave mixed and complex legacies, and Mr. Vajpayee and Malaviya are no exceptions. Honouring a personality is not necessarily an endorsement of all of his politics, or being blind to his failures and shortcomings. It is also not about jettisoning disagreements in our public space. It would be unfortunate if the highest civilian award of the country becomes a matter of political disagreement rather than of collective celebration and endorsement of those who have contributed in significant measure to the making of India as a diverse and multifaceted nation.

Pakistan’s New Strategy to Beat the Taliban

Dec. 23, 2014

The Peshawar massacre must mark a turning point in Pakistan's battle against Taliban militants 

Nearly a week after Pakistan’s worst-ever terrorist attack resulted in the death of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar, the grief has turned to anger. As the Pakistan army pounds militant targets, the country’s politicians have achieved rare unity against the Taliban. For the first time, there are large protests outside mosques in Islamabad notorious for their pro-Taliban sympathies. 

None of this should be surprising. No society can remain unmoved by the mass slaughter of their most vulnerable. That message appears to have finally registered with horror-hardened Pakistanis in a way that hasn’t been the case these past several years. “We are not making any differentiation,” Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Defense Minister, said of the new approach. “All Taliban are bad Taliban.” 

But many are right to question the durability of this new resolve. After all, in the past, Pakistan has seen assassinations, massacres of minorities, attacks on high-profile installations, even the seizure of large territory. Each time, there would be a bout of public outrage that would inevitably dissipate. Old arguments about whether the Taliban should be confronted or negotiated with would be revived. 

Fixing America’s Aid to Afghanistan and Pakistan

By Jordan Olmstead
December 23, 2014

The US needs a more strategic approach in providing assistance to the two troubled countries. 

Foreign assistance programs are a major component of America’s strategy to build stable states in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Policymakers reason that by improving governance and military capacity in those states, the U.S. can reduce the risk of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i-Taliban from finding safe haven in ungoverned spaces and planning attacks against the U.S., or threatening Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. However, as NATO’s presence in Afghanistan begins to draw down, the tide of American foreign aid dollars into Afghanistan and Pakistan is receding. According to data provided by the Security Assistance Monitor, a project of the Center for International Policy, the total amount of U.S. military and police aid to South Asia will drop to just below $520 in fiscal year 2015, from a peak of $12.7 billion in 2011. Aid provided to South Asia by USAID under the Foreign Assistance Act is also set to fall from a wartime peak of $6.8 billion in 2010 to $2.4 billion next year.

This precipitous decrease is unsurprising. Critics have charged American aid programs with a myriad of ills, and it is hard for members of Congress to justify pouring billions of dollars into Pakistan and Afghanistan to consolidate gains in an already decided war, especially when a recent Pew poll found that out of 19 options for cutting government spending, “only…reducing foreign aid was supported by more than 40% of Americans.”

While the urge to tighten the aid spigot is tempting, and in some cases quite justified, the allocation decisions reflected above do little to address the problems associated with American assistance programs, and cut promising programs unduly.

It’s first important to note that in general, the prospects for foreign assistance programs yielding substantial improvements in the quality of governance or economic development are generally slim. Critics of aid programs often point to scholarship which finds that American aid programs have had a negligible impact on improving economic growth (here, here) democratization (here, here), and governance in target countries. Dishearteningly, studies suggest that military aid may undermine programs intended to promote economic developmentand democratic institutions.

However, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, Afghanistan and Pakistan face blowback from American aid program in their own unique ways. In Pakistan, a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service charged that “many observers question the gains [of aid programs] to date, variously identifying poor planning, lack of…transparency and capacity [and] corruption as major obstacles” to reform.

As a response to allegations of corruption, money wasted on paying the salaries of foreign aid “experts” who often operated with little accountability, and threats to aid workers (especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces) the U.S. government moved to channel more aid directly through Pakistani NGOs and government agencies in 2010. Despite this shift in policy, a report issued in 2011 by the Inspectors Generals of USAID, the State Department and the Pentagon found “USAID has not been able to demonstrate measurable progress” in “conducting pre-award assessments of local implementing partners” and establishing “oversight entities to ensure that aid funds are protected from fraud and theft.” This failure was predictable, as much of this aid was sent to dangerous locations where U.S. personnel could not properly monitor their Pakistani partners.

China Urges Companies to ‘Go Global’

December 25, 2014

Increasing China’s outbound investment is part of Beijing’s long-term economic and political strategy. 

China’s State Council issued a statement promising to promote outbound investment by Chinese firms, Xinhua reportedWednesday. Beijing plans to increase financing support to encourage Chinese companies to both invest and operate abroad. “The move will raise the international competitiveness of Chinese products, especially equipment products, boost structural upgrading of foreign trade and push manufacturing and financial sectors to a medium-high level,” the statement said.

The move to emphasize outbound investment is part of China’s push to revamp its economy, shifting away from a traditional reliance on domestic production and exports. With excess capacity at home, and a growing stockpile of foreign exchange reserves, Beijing is nudging Chinese firms to consider moving operations and investments overseas.

In fact, Chinese officials expect China’s outbound investments to surpass inbound investments for the first time in 2014. Chinese investments abroad could reach nearly $130 billion by year’s end, while inbound investment is expected to come in at less than last year’s $118 billion total. As the government adjusts to a “new normal” of slower economic growth, Chinese companies are being openly encouraged to invest in other markets.

Reuters reports in more detail on the financial policy changes in store. First, Beijing is removing red tape on currency exchanges, which will mean Chinese firms can exchange money without having to register with the government. The central government will also provide more support for “major equipment makers” seeking to grow their operations outside of China.

Within the general framework of supporting investment abroad, there are clear priorities for the Chinese government. Data on Chinese investments abroad gathered by the Heritage Foundation shows a clear emphasis on the energy sector – nearly $400 billion of China’s $870 billion in total investments worldwide are in the energy field. That includes major overseas oil and gas operations by Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as China’s increasing focus on nuclear power. Given China’s growing energy needs, it’s hardly surprising that outbound investment would focus on securing energy supplies.

The second largest sector for China’s outbound investment, however, is transportation, which accounts for over $134 billion. This sector is poised to grow exponentially in coming years, as China continues to push forward its “one belt, one road” Silk Road projects. From building railroads in Eastern Europe to upgrading the Suez Canal, China’s Silk Road vision will require massive amounts of investment in infrastructure connecting East Asia with Europe – and Chinese companies, encouraged by Beijing, are at the front of the line for realizing these projects.

For China, transitioning to be a net investor rather than recipient of investment is a logical next step in its economic development. Beijing also sees a clear opportunity to meld strategic goals and foreign investment. In some countries, however, Chinese investment faces an uphill battle. A contract for a Chinese company to build a high-speed rail line in Mexico was scrapped soon after it was announced, due to scrutiny over the bidding process.On Monday, protests against a Chinese-run mine in Myanmar turned fatal when police shot and killed one of the demonstrators. Concerns over environmental impact and fair treatment of locals have dogged other Chinese projects, particularly in the developing world. China’s ability to regulate overseas operations by domestic companies is a work in progress — something Beijing will continue to work on as it pushes its companies to “go global.”

South Korea Wants China's Help Investigating Hacking Attack on Nuclear Plants

December 25, 2014

The cyber attack, which set off warning bells in Seoul, has been traced to IP address in Shenyang, China. 

While the world followed the strange saga of the hacking operation against Sony Pictures, allegedly carried out by North Korea in response to a film depicting the assassination of Kim Jong-un, a separate cyber security breach unfolded in South Korea. South Korea’s nuclear plant operator, the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. Ltd. (KHNP), said on Monday that its computer systems had been hacked, with “non-critical” data (including the personal information of 10,000 employees as well as designs for two reactors) stolen and leaked online by the attackers. The incident raised major concerns about the ability of South Korean infrastructure to withstand cyber attacks – especially given the attractiveness of this asymmetric capability for Pyongyang.

Though Seoul and KHNP were adamant that the hack did not threaten the operations of South Korea’s nuclear power plants, the incident has prompted soul-searching over cyber security. President Park Geun-hye herself called the security lapse “unacceptable.” “Nuclear power plants are first-class security installations that directly impact the safety of the people,” Park told her cabinet, according to The Guardian.

South Korea’s government is investigating the attack on KHNP. Messages posted on Twitter by a user claiming responsibility for the attack demanded that three nuclear power plants be shut down; the authenticity of the messages could not be verified. So far Seoul has not officially accused Pyongyang of being responsible for the hacking, but government officials say the activity originated from Shenyang, a Chinese city near the North Korean border, believed to be an operations base for North Korean cyber experts. Given that, Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn told the Korea Times, “We aren’t ruling out the possibility that North Korea was behind the latest hacking attack.” South Korea previously blamed Pyongyang for a series of cyber attacks on banks and media outlets in 2013.

Given that the attack was traced to a Chinese IP address, Seoul is seeking cooperation from Beijing in its investigation. A senior official from the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office told the Korea Times that Seoul was already “closely cooperating” with both China and the U.S. in its investigation. A South Korean official told Reuters that South Korea was specifically seeking China’s help in physically investigating the location of the IP addresses involved in the attack. “There is a possibility that the IP addresses in China are not the final source but used in a routing,” the official explained.

In the wake of the Sony hacks, the U.S. has also publicly called for Chinese help in preventing North Korean cyber attacks, to little availthus far. But there may be more hope for China-South Korean cooperation on this front. Cyber security issues are a fraught topic in the U.S.-China relationship right now. There’s not even a dedicated platform for discussing them, as China called off its participation in the cyber working group to protest U.S. legal action against alleged hacking activity by PLA officers. However, the cyber question is far less weighted for China and South Korea, making discussions more feasible. Plus, Beijing and Seoul are in the midst of a warm period of relations, meaning China will be more likely to cooperate if South Korea makes it clear the investigation is a top priority.

The Asia-Pacific in 2015: What to Expect

By The Diplomat
The Diplomat looks at the trends to watch across the region in the coming year. 

Prediction is a risky business: There are few easier ways to look foolish than to have your carefully extrapolated forecasts derailed by the unexpected. Still, while “Events, dear boy, events,” as Harold Macmillan may or may not have said, are often unpredictable, broader trends can be identified and tracked.

Look at the Asia-Pacific in 2014, where the slowing economy in China, political change in India, political trouble in Thailand, the derailing of Abenomics in Japan, and continued maritime tensions in East Asia were all more or less predictable at the start of the year.

So as we move into 2015, we asked our writers and editors to nominate the trends they think we should be watching across the region.
China’s Domestic Affairs

More political infighting, more corrupt “tigers” caged.

In 2015, China will begin preparing for leadership change at the 19th Party Congress due in 2017, when five members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), excluding Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will step down. Barring the unexpected, Hu Chunhua (currently the Party secretary of Guangdong province) and Sun Zhencai (the Party secretary of Chongqing) will get promotions. Other “candidates” will fight over the remaining three seats, and their 2015 performance will be critical.

On the economic and anticorruption fronts, Xi and Li will continue to push for reform, adopting new land reform policies that will allow some village land to enter the marketplace. Also look for real estate registration legislation to come into effect in 2015, a major step in preventing corrupt officials from owning vast property portfolios. We will also see legal judgments against “big tigers” like Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou, an historic moment for China’s legal system. Meanwhile, reports of the Zhou Yongkang case provided hints that other “tigers” will find themselves in cages in 2015.

The government will tighten its grip on domestic online media, including social networking platforms like WeChat and Sina Weibo. In 2015, China will speed up the process of passing an intelligence law; that and China’s anti-espionage law will together form a new legal basis for reforming China’s internal security apparatus. In the future, we could see China creating its own versions of the U.S. CIA and FBI.

China’s Strange Fascination with the Soviet Navy

December 23, 2014 

“We Will Die, but … Sink the Enemy’s Entire Squadron: We Will Not Cause Our Navy to Lose Face”

Russia is back in vogue among Chinese strategists, at least for now. Undoubtedly, this excitement is partly the result of recent geopolitical developments in Eastern Europe, but the trend was also evident before the Ukraine Crisis. Whereas discussions of direct historical links between Chinese and Soviet strategy had been a somewhat taboo subject for decades, these discussions are now becoming ever more common. Arecent Chinese book published by the Chinese military, for example, describes in extreme detail the critical Soviet aid given to the establishment of China’s naval air force back in the early 1950s. However, these discussions go well beyond history to draw major overarching lessons for future Chinese naval development, including “缓解…本土战略压力 [relieving strategic pressure against the … homeland].”

One late 2014 study from the November issue of 东北亚论坛 [Northeast Asia Forum] relates how the Soviet Navy, by the time of the late Cold War, possessed no fewer than 1,880 ships, including 361 submarines. With a “远洋进攻性” [far seas offensive type] doctrine of naval power, “… the Soviet Navy had become a significant strategic factor.” This edition of Dragon Eye will evaluate that particular article, which was the result of a multi-year project supported explicitly by the Chinese military. Its authors, moreover, are both affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing. Some American China specialists evidently regard this Chinese-language academic journal as not worthwhile to examine, but I respectfully disagree.

These Chinese military analysts dwell on the historical origins of the Soviet Red Navy, in part, no doubt because the history parallels quite closely to the humble beginning of the PLA Navy. In both cases, the imperatives of revolution, civil war, and regime consolidation clearly superseded any notion of sea power, so that “the sea was abandoned.” Undoubtedly, the first naval tasks evolved out of the immediate need for coastal defense within the overarching concept of “小海军” [small navy], focusing on submarines, fast boats, mines, coastal artillery and shore-based aviation. To be sure, the Chinese analysts note that such a strategy had the obvious defects of “extinguishing the most potent offensive capability that navies provide,” and also making “the navy effectively into a subordinate arm of the ground forces.” A somewhat curious omission in the Chinese analysis is any discussion of the Red Navy’s combat record in the Second World War.

As expected, the bulk of the essay concerns the tense Cold War on and under the world’s oceans. In a description with a discernible echo of contemporary tensions in the Asia-Pacific, the authors observe that: “The Soviet Union confronted the U.S. creation of a 围堵进攻态势 [offensive encirclement strategic situation] along the Eurasian rimland.” Such a circumstance created the imperatives for a Soviet Navy that could both “break through the blockade,” as well as develop “favorable strategic situations.” Nikita Khrushchev’s blatantly anti-naval perspective, holding that warships were nothing but “floating coffins” in the nuclear age, comes in for stinging criticism. The Chinese analysts conclude: “As a result of the neglect of naval forces, the Soviet Union in the Cuba Crisis did not have any significant surface force that could be deployed …” and had to rely on a small force of conventional submarines. Demonstrating an impressive awareness regarding the latest historical accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the authors explain that the Soviet submarine captains seriously considered the resort to employing tactical nuclear weapons (nuclear-tipped torpedoes were on board). Directly quoting the Russian officers from another Chinese source on the crisis, the grave situation is described as follows: “We will die, but we would sink the enemy’s entire squadron. We will not cause our navy to 丢脸 [lose face].” The Chinese analysts go on to describe the massive Soviet naval buildup that followed inspired largely by the humiliation of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

ISIS Closing in on Israel from the North and the South

December 23, 2014

The war against ISIS is taking a dangerous, perhaps inevitable turn. The terror organization has been keen to expand to southern Syria and the Syrian capital of Damascus. Now it says it has recruited three Syrian rebel groups operating in the south of the country in an area bordering the Israeli occupied Golan Heights — that haveswitched their loyalties to ISIS.

This switch means that Israel, the U.S.’s closest ally in the Middle East, could be threatened from the southwest by the Egyptian ISIS group of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis in Sinai and by ISIS in southern Syria.

The ISIS war is not going well at all for the US-led alliance in Syria. ISIS and al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, are still the dominant rebel groups in the country. The U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army is still not a reliable fighting force.

The three rebel groups that just joined ISIS could make that situation even worse. Two of the groups are small in number, but the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade has hundreds of fighters. The Yarmouk Brigades has been at odds with al-Nusra Front and switched now to join what leaders of all thrwee groups believe is the future of Islam.

“If Israel was attacked by ISIS, America would expect a proportionate response by Israel, which is militarily capable of defending itself,” said Geoffrey Levin, a professor at New York University. “America would counsel against sustained Israeli involvement because it could threaten the tacit alliance between America, Iran, Turkey, and several Arab states against ISIS.”

“More recent reports indicated a closer alliance with [the Islamic State] due to tensions with JN [al-Nusra Front],” said Jasmine Opperman, a researcher at Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC). She said al-Nusra attacked the headquarters of the Yarmouk Brigade in southern Syria in early December 2014 following clashes between the two groups.

Al-Yarmuk Martyrs Brigade controlled an area near the Jordan-Israel border in March 2013. That same month, the brigade took as hostages some of the United Nations peacekeeping mission soldiers. Even so, Israel reportedly allowed the brigade to have its wounded fighters treated in Israeli hospitals.

ISIS has been known for launching surprise attacks and opening new battlefronts when it seems to be losing. ISIS also has been criticized by many Arabs and Muslims for not taking its fight to Israel and instead fighting fellow Arabs and Muslims. An attack aimed at Israel may boost ISIS’s popularity in the Arab world and refresh its recruitment and funding efforts.

On the other hand, some of ISIS’s top military commanders were former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army, and they may resort to what Saddam did in the 1991 Gulf War when he attacked Israel with mid-range rockets, hoping to drag the Israelis into a conflict that he was losing.

An Israeli retaliation in 1991 could have jeopardized the U.S-led coalition that then included Arab countries like Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The same is true now.


ISIS Shoots Down Arab Fighter Over Eastern Syria and Captures Pilot

Ben Hubbard
December 24, 2014

ISIS Shoots Down Jet From U.S.-Led Coalition, Syrian Monitors Say

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Militants from the Islamic State extremist group have shot down a fighter jet over Syria deployed by the United States-led coalition that is battling the group and have captured a pilot from an Arab country, a Syrian monitoring organization said on Wednesday.

The monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the militants had fired an antiaircraft missile to bring down the jet near Raqqa in northern Syria. It did not give the pilot’s name or nationality.

If confirmed, the strike and capture would signal the harshest blow yet to the coalition and could affect the resolve of the Arab nations that have joined the United States in its air campaign to weaken the Islamic State — also known asISIS or ISIL — in Iraq and Syria.

The coalition was formed this year and includes Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

While American officials have lauded the contributions of their Arab partners, they also acknowledge that the majority of the strikes have been carried out by the United States, with its partners often playing a supporting role.

The United States’ Arab allies have avoided giving much detail about their role in the campaign, mostly over fears of retribution by the Islamic State or to avoid domestic blowback from citizens who support the extremists.

The capture would be the first of a coalition pilot, and the militants could seek to use the hostage to obtain ransom or concessions.

A spokesman for the United States Central Command said it was seeking to verify the report.

Supporters of the Islamic State on social media said the captured pilot was from Jordan and posted photographs of a man in a white T-shirt surrounded by gunmen.

Jordanian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Malaysia’s Moderate Voices Urge Islamic Law Reform

December 25, 2014

An open letter urging discussion has attracted widespread support among Malaysian moderates. 
Something significant is taking place in Malaysian politics. An open letter urging a rational discussion on religion signed by 25 former senior servants and addressed to Prime Minister Najib Razak has gained popular support. The group, which came to be known as the “prominent 25,” is petitioning Najib to lead a peaceful dialogue about the application of Islamic laws in Malaysia.

The letter raised several issues concerning what they think is the excessive and unfair implementation of the shariah law in many aspects of governance. They questioned why some religious bodies are “asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction,” such as in the issuance of various fatwa that violate the Federal Constitution. They also cited the indifference of authorities over the “rise of supremacist NGOs accusing dissenting voices of being anti-Islam, anti-monarchy and anti-Malay.” And they pointed out how the Sedition Act “hangs as a constant threat to silence anyone with a contrary opinion.”

“These developments undermine Malaysia’s commitment to democratic principles and rule of law, breed intolerance and bigotry, and have heightened anxieties over national peace and stability,” they added in the letter.

They wanted Najib to “assert his personal leadership” in reviewing the implementation of Islamic laws in the country: “Those who act in the name of Islam through the administration of Islamic law must bear the responsibility of demonstrating that justice is done, and is seen to be done.”

In recent years, some hardcore Islamic and nationalist Malay leaders inside Malaysia’s ruling coalition have successfully lobbied the government to act against perceived threats to Islam and the dominance of the Malays in the affairs of the country. Those who opposed or criticized their views are often accused of conspiring to undermine either Islam or the state.

The views expressed by the “prominent 25” echoed the sentiment of many academics and activists who have been resisting the rising religious intolerance in Muslim-dominated Malaysia. But these voices were either ignored or derided as negativist commentary.

Thus, the decision of the 25 retired senior officers of the government to sign their names in the letter has been a shot in the arm to the campaign to protect Malaysia’s secular democracy. The signers have instantly symbolized moderate forces unhappy over the growing power of extremist and ultranationalist leaders in the bureaucracy.

SOCOM Looking for New Contractor to Run Its Fleet of Medium-Sized Surveillance Drones

Paul J. McLeary
December 24, 2014

Special Ops Looking to Industry to Fly Small Drones

The Special Operations Command is looking for a new contractor to provide and manage a fleet of medium-range drones, and has put out the call to industry ahead of an early 2015 lapse in its contractor-provided ISR support.

While details are classified, the Medium Endurance Unmanned Air System (MEUAS III) bid would be a follow-on to the February 2013 deal with Boeing subsidiary Insitu Inc. to provide ScanEagle aircraft for ISR missions.

The commando command inked the $190 million, 25-month deal with Insitu after a previous contract with Textron’s AAI fell through.

While little is known as to what happened between SOCOM and AAI, we do know that the company beat out Insitu in Feb. 2012 for the drone services bid, signing three-year, $600 million deal to provide its Aerosonde small UAV.

But just a year later—after reports of the Aerosonde having propulsion problems—SOCOM issued a statement that it was signing a new deal with Insitu, as “due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the Government’s control, there is an immediate requirement to mitigate a critical ISR services gap. This proposed contract action is to ensure continued operational capability.”

The 30-40 lb. ScanEagle can travel about 80kn and stay aloft for up to 24 hours at a time, reaching a ceiling of over 19,000 feet. Insitu began performing fee-for-service operations with the drone in support of the US Marine Corps during their 2004 fight in Fallujah, Iraq.

SOCOM held a series of meetings with industry reps in early December, and word is expected soon as to the next step in moving forward with the program.

ISIS Fighters Rout Hezbollah Forces North of Baghdad

Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss 
December 24, 2014 

Islamic State routs Hezbollah Brigades unit north of Baghdad 

The yellow and green patch of the Hezbollah Brigades is visible on the shoulder of a militiaman killed near Yathrib.

The Islamic State has released pictures online purporting to show its fighters routing a unit from the Hezbollah Brigades near the towns of Yathrib and Tal Gold in Salahaddin province. Based on the date given in the photo set, the fighting took place on Dec. 19.

The photo set was disseminated on Twitter by Islamic State supporters after being posted elsewhere online. The photos bear the title of Wilayat Shamal Baghdad (North Baghdad), which encompasses the area of Yathrib, Tal Gold (or Tal Dhahab), Dujail, Balad, and Duloaiya. The wilayat is just one of the 20 proclaimed administrative divisions of the Islamic State.

A number of pictures detail Islamic State fighters engaging the Hezbollah Brigades unit with small arms fire, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and with at least one technical. The last few pictures detail the weapons, ammo, and gear that were taken from the dead bodies of Hezbollah Brigades fighters, as well as their identification cards. Other photos, which are too graphic to be reproduced here, show the corpses of at least 12 Hezbollah Brigades soldiers.

The pictures were released while a joint effort is underway between the Iraqi Army and several Shiite militia groups to retake Yathrib and its surrounding areas. The current offensive on Yathrib, which is reportedly being led by the Iraqi 17th Division, follows an offensive launched earlier this month. On Dec. 4, the Hezbollah Brigades claimed that the Tal Gold area was completely cleared. On Dec. 5, the Iraqi Army said that its flag flew above Tal Gold and that all the checkpoints in Yathrib were under its control. On Dec. 7, Asaib al Haq, (or the League of the Righteous), another Shiite militia supported by Iran, released avideo showing its forces with the Iraqi Army near Yathrib making a similar claim.

However, on Dec. 18, the League of the Righteous released a new video claiming to be making preparations for the liberation of Yathrib. On Dec. 22, it wasreported that at least seven villages were taken back by the Iraqi Army and its Shiite militia allies. The current status of Yathrib is unclear, but the area has long been a contested area, with the territory changing hands many times.

The Islamic State is not the only anti-government force operating in the Yathrib area. The Islamic Army of Iraq, an Islamist insurgent group that has allied with jihadists in the past, took credit for shelling Joint Base Balad in Yathrib on Dec. 11.

Dual Engagement: The Saudi Factor in an Iran Rapprochement

December 24, 2014 

For the United States to advance its national interests in the Middle East, Obama should pursue a policy of dual engagement with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

As the last pillar of America’s dual containment policy crumbles with an Iranian nuclear deal on the distant horizon, President Obama risks a further break down in relations with Saudi Arabia. This comes at a time when Washington requires both Riyadh and Tehran’s support in advancing its core national interests: ensuring a free-flow of oil to global markets through the Gulf, preventing nuclear proliferation, and curtailing the emergence of ISIS and local Al Qaeda affiliates from threatening America’s homeland and its interests and personnel abroad.

Washington’s long engagement in the region has been based on strong relations with key regional states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. These stable alliances have enabled the U.S. to advance its core interests, and avoid the temptation of extension, despite the brief reckless adventurism of the Bush administration. Entering office in 2009, President Obama has muddled between realism and liberal interventionism in an attempt to pivot the U.S. away from the unilateralism of his predecessor andto vaguely leading with others. 

Pivoting geopolitically, the President initially sought to stake out a more assertive political, military, and economic legacy in Asia with an envisioned de-escalation in the Middle East. Underlying his proclivity to tone down Washington’s emphasis on democracy promotion in the region, Obama quickly dispatched a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offering engagement and mutely responded to the violent crackdown of the Green Movement’s 2009 protests. Seeking a quick exit from Baghdad in 2010, President Obama acquised to Prime Minister Maliki’s rejection of a residual U.S. force in Iraq, and tacitly acknowledged Tehran’s political, economic, and military presence in the post-2003 Iraq. At the same time, Obama assured long-time Arab leaders that he would de-emphasize democracy promotion.

This broader disengagement policy soon ran up against the popular activism, protests, and insurgency in the Arab world in 2011. Instead of maintaining course, Obama weakly embraced the popular protests in the region to the angst and anger of a number of his allies in the region, who looked on with apprehension as Obama hesitated and then pushed for Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. At the same time, the president reluctantly remained silent as the host of the U.S.Fifth Fleet, Bahrain, enveloped into sectarian strife that resulted in an armed intervention by the GCC.

Both privately and publicly, Riyadh has expressed concern and anger at Obama’s weak commitment to U.S.allies at a time of crisis, most notably in the case of Hosni Mubarak, and more broadly, Obama’s inconsistent actions and rhetoric in the face of these broader regional shocks. Obama has “led from behind” at a time when America’s regional allies have looked for the U.S. to be a credible military detterent to regional threats to their interests and security. 

Is Saudi Arabia Trying to Cripple American Fracking?

DECEMBER 23, 2014 

Well, it's said as much, but the real reason for the flood of new Saudi oil is more complicated. 
Michael Moran is author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power, and most recently, The Fall, a novel of the Berlin Wall. The opinions expressed here are his own. 

In a country that never tires of hearing itself described as “a nation of innovators,” the idea that one such innovation — the shale oil boom — has galvanized the world’s most powerful cartel, OPEC, to launch a campaign to snuff it out has obvious appeal.

But like most Hollywood notions of reality, however, this one is too good to be true.

Despite repetition in countless media accounts and analysts’ notes over the past few weeks, though, the idea of a “sheikhs vs. shale” battle to control global oil supplies has precious little evidence behind it. The Saudi-led decision to keep OPEC’s wells pumping is a direct strike by Riyadh on two already hobbled geopolitical rivals, Iran and Russia, whose support for the Syrian government and other geostrategic machinations are viewed as far more serious threats to the kingdom than the inconvenience of competing for market share with American frackers.

Among the world’s oil producing nations, few suffer more from the Saudi move than Tehran and Moscow. At a time when both are already saddled with economic sanctions — Russia for its actions in Ukraine and Iran for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons technology — the collapse of oil prices has put unprecedented pressure on these regimes. For Russia, the crisis has hit very hard, with the ruble losing 40 percent of its value to the dollar since October. This is particularly problematic since Russian state-owned oil firms have gone on a dollar-borrowing spree in recent years; now, servicing that debt looks very ominous.

True, Saudi OPEC minister Ali al-Naimi insisted last month that the move was intended to target shale. But he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, his OPEC counterparts were standing beside him — including the OPEC minister from Iran.

The fact is, Saudi Arabia has little to fear from shale. Saudi Arabia’s huge reserves of conventional oil can and probably will be produced for decades after the shale boom has run its course — which the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects to happen by 2050 or so — and at much lower costs.

The numbers indicate that Saudi Arabia’s suffering from the so-called “shale revolution” has been quite minimal. Think of current oil prices as the result of new supply sources combined with lower growth (and thus oil demand) in China, the European Union and a host of other medium-sized economies: While the U.S. surge in tight oil production has brought the country’s production to over 9 billion barrels per day (bpd), rivaling Saudi output at 9.8 bpd, the missing Chinese and European demand more than equals the additional U.S. supply. Experts differ on the tipping point for the decline in oil prices, but a strong case can be made for the October meetings of the International Monetary Fund, following a very bearish IMF quarterly updatethat showed emerging market growth down significantly.

But the United States is importing less oil, you say, and the Saudis don’t like that. Perhaps, but it is not really hurting them much. Because U.S. refineries are geared to accept very particular grades of oil, the sudden appearance of an ocean of domestic U.S. “light crude” means that almost all the “lost” market share has fallen on African oil producers: Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria, in particular, whose own light grade crude has been displaced by oil from the U.S.-based Marcellus, Bakken, and Eagle Ford shale fields.

Another fallacy is the idea that there is a “bottom” for U.S. tight oil producers — that is, a price at which the shale revolution will grind to a halt. While it may make sense to discuss that concept with a monolith like Russia’s state oil industry or even PEMEX in Mexico, U.S. tight oil derived from shale looks more like a constellation. Industry estimates vary greatly on how low prices would have to go to shut down a significant portion of shale production, but most agree that even at $60 per barrel a majority of players will remain solvent — particularly in a world where all the other factors suggest prices will ultimately bounce back up.