Monday 24 October, 2016 Update: Anxiety And Confusion In Washington And Manila

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial comments in Beijing last week have cast clouds of anxiety and uncertainty across the globe. Diplomats, government officials and analysts from Washington DC to Manila are attempting to decode the meaning behind Duterte’s proclamation that the Philippines would be severing its military and economic relationship with the United States and pursue friendly ties with Beijing. In the aftermath of the trip, Philippine government officials appeared to be taken aback by the comments as well and began damage control and attempts to clarify. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that Duterte was reiterating his wish for a foreign policy independent of Washington’s meddling and influence. Another cabinet official stressed that the Mutual Defense Treaty would not be abrogated and that the Philippines still consider the United States an ally.

Washington’s reaction to Duterte’s words has been to seek clarification from Manila about its intentions and the future of the US-Philippine relationship. On the surface Washington is projecting an air of calm as diplomats from the State Department arrive in Manila for talks with their Filipino counterparts. While this goes on, the White House is attempting to assure an increasingly anxious world that its relationship with the Philippines will continue and any attempts by Duterte to realign his country with China and Russia will not come at the expense of the United States. The Obama administration will have a short period of time to determine what Duterte’s real intentions are and begin formulating a response. Once the transition period begins after Election Day in the US, the problem will shift to the incoming administration.

The next administration in Washington is going to have to face the matter head on. The situation in the South China Sea could look radically different by January 20th, 2017 and the Asian Pivot, once the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, might be a shattered wreck.

 

Thursday 20 October, 2016 Update: Duterte’s Pivot To China

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If the US-Philippines relationship were a marriage, this would be the day when the Philippines officially filed the divorce papers. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a step that few observers believed would come. In the middle of an official state visit to China,  Duterte announced that he is ‘separating’ from the United States and embracing China as the Philippines newest and most powerful friend in the world. “Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States … both in military, but also economics,’’ Duterte stated during a forum held in the Great Hall of the People. “I will be dependent on you.”

During Duterte’s visit agreements were signed for $13 billion in trade deals between China and the Philippines. Whether or not this pivot is genuine and sincere or an episode of bombastic grandstanding by Duterte remains to be seen. Washington will most likely adopt a wait-and-see attitude and declare that ‘all is well’ as the aftermath of today’s announcement plays out.

If Duterte’s words were genuine and his country is about to reject the United States and embrace China then Beijing has won a major diplomatic victory in the South China Sea and placed the United States in an unenviable position. Washington has little leverage and few options available as it comes to terms with what took place in Beijing. At the very least it severely undermines the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia which has faltered more than once already. On the other end of the spectrum, if Duterte’s announcement becomes reality the US-Philippine alliance might be over permanently.

 

We will discuss this topic more on Monday or Tuesday.

Locking Down Syria

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Even before the ceasefire in Syria collapsed, Russia was already making preparations to reinforce its military contingent in Syria. Since the ceasefire’s premature end and the withdrawal of the US from bilateral talks on the Syrian conflict, Moscow has cast subtlety aside and is moving forward in Syria with little regard for the objections of the US government. Public and social media statements by members of the Russian government this week resembled taunts and with the general state of US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, it probably will not improve anytime in the near future.

Russia is moving additional forces and supplies to Syria. Additional Russian Navy warships have been seen transiting the Bosphorus on their way to the East Med, and another advanced SAM system is on its way to Syria. This one is the SA-23 Gladiator/Giant, known as the S-300VM in Russian military circles. It is an updated version of the SA-21 Growler (S-400) system that arrived in Syria last year. The Gladiator was designed to defend against and defeat theater ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and is also very effective against precision-guided munitions and perhaps even standoff jammers such as the US Navy’s EA-18 Growler.

On the surface it might seem the movement of additional advanced SAMs into Syria is textbook example of sabre rattling. That might be Moscow’s intent. However, the operational implications cannot be overlooked or ignored. With the incoming SA-23s, and the SA-21s and fighters already in place, Russia has the foundation for a very effective no-fly zone at its fingertips. At any given moment, Russia can choose to close off the skies of Syria to all aircraft except for its own and those of its Syrian allies. Such a no-fly zone would be invaluable in the event of a Syrian offensive against rebel groups around Aleppo or other parts of the nation. The US had made noise about targeting Syrian government forces and airbases with airstrikes to help alleviate the crisis in Aleppo. The presence of a potential Russian-enforced no-fly zone essentially kills the possibility of US/coalition airstrikes against government targets.

In a nutshell, what Russia is doing right now is locking down Syria tight. Moscow has gained control of the geopolitical and military situation in the country. Washington’s position in Syria has been largely minimized, due in large part to the mismanagement of the administration and the naïve, pie-in-the-sky expectations that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama adopted when Russia intervened in the conflict last year. Back in September of 2015 it was obvious that Russia was not interested in a partnership with the US either to stabilize Syria and/or combat ISIS. Putin sent Russian forces to Syria to ensure the survival and eventual victory of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Yet Obama and Kerry still went forward in the belief that Syria could be stabilized through US-Russian cooperation. The chances of that happening have evaporated, leaving Washington with two choices: do nothing further or respond to the Aleppo situation with airstrikes and run the risk of escalation and a wider conflict with Russia.

 

Thursday 7 July, 2016 Update: Warsaw Summit Begins Friday

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*Note: This update will be shorter than usual. Apologies*

On Friday, the NATO summit begins in Warsaw, Poland. It might not be overly dramatic to describe the upcoming meeting as the most important gathering of alliance leaders since the end of the Cold War. The timing is not coincidental. NATO summits do not occur at regular intervals, but when there are important matters to discuss. The summit comes at a moment when Europe is unsettled to say the very least.  ISIS and the refugee influx will be discussed and NATO’s role in each debated. However, Russia will be the primary topic of conversation this weekend in Warsaw.

It has been over two years since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the beginning of War in Donbass. Since then, the relationship between NATO and Russia has gone from tense to almost frigid. The theme of this year’s summit will be unity. NATO will hammer out the details and agreements that will allow the placement of prepositioned material at locations in Eastern Europe, ready to be used in the event of a crisis. The authorization of a 4000-man strong Baltic force will also come during the summit. The fact that the summit is being held in Warsaw is no coincidence either. Call it symbolic of NATO’s shift eastward over the last two years.

NATO needs to be prepared for how Russia responds. Moscow will not stand by idle as more troops are committed to areas adjacent to its borders. The shape that Putin’s countermove will take remains to be seen.

We will take a look at what comes out of Warsaw and discuss it in more detail later on in the weekend.

 

Wednesday 20 April, 2016 Update: Obama Arrives in Riyadh

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President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday for talks with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. This will be Obama’s fourth and final visit to the oil rich kingdom.  The meeting comes one day before a summit with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders later in the week. The topics of discussion for the summit, as well as those for Obama and Raman’s meeting, will be nearly identical: Iran, ISIS, Syria, Yemen, plummeting oil prices and continuing sectarian violence in the region. Expectations for Obama’s Riyadh visit and the GCC meeting are low. The president is not expected to present a solid plan for US-GCC cooperation on any of the regional issues. With his second term coming to an end next January, Obama seems satisfied to leave the critical decisions on the future of the US-GCC and US-Saudi relationships for his predecessor to handle.

The visit comes at a particularly tense point in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are in the middle of a geopolitical conflict with Iran for regional hegemony and Riyadh is unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal and the US relationship with Iran. Obama’s reassurances about the US commitment to Saudi security have done little to assuage the Kingdom’s concerns. Saudi Arabia views itself as being in a fight for its life and the reluctance of the US President to openly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its longtime ally is frustrating and bewildering.  The 9/11 bill currently in the US Senate is also ruffling feathers. Should the bill pass it will allow the families of September 11th, 2001 victims to sue the Saudi Arabian government. Even though the Saudis deny any involvement in the terrorist attacks, the families of victims have tried repeatedly to bring the matter to court without success.

Following the GCC summit, it will be time to take another look at the Persian Gulf region and talk about what the region could look like when the new US president is inaugurated next January.