Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The German bubble

Bubble economies are abundant nowadays in the Western world. And Germany is held for us as one of the few non-bubbles. But is it?

Germany's export success depends to a considerable extent on a low euro and South European countries with trade deficits. But that is an unsustainable situation. Germany is already paying a lot for it in the form of loans that may never be paid back. The fact that that isn't taken into account is problematic in itself. And it may become much worse when that happens what many have been fearing for a long time: a burst of the eurozone.

Not attacking problems when they are small is one way that bubbles happen and the euro is a classical example of that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Obama: how not to implement change

I have been watching with some astonishment to the way Obama is operating politically. For the past few years he has been following a rather conservative policy in the financial are and now at election time he is suddenly advocating radical policies. This is exactly the wrong order.

The point with policies that mean a break with the status quo is that they always embody a risk that they will bring disaster. Political opponents will eagerly grab this opportunity. On the other hand, if they work well, these radical policies may become the new normal.

Reagan and Thatcher were people who understood this. They implemented their changes with confidence. And even though certainly not everything went fine life stayed normal enough that their ideology became the new normal.

Compare that with Obama. Important parts of his health care law will only be implemented after the elections - giving his opponents a nice opportunity to paint all kinds of catastrophes that might happen when they become implemented.

His behavior in the economical realm was even more unlucky. A broken bubble means that there is less money for everyone. The logical thing to do is to have the rich pay most for the bubble. This not out of some left wing ideal but for the simple reason that when poor people have less to spend the consequences are much more disastrous: failed mortgage payments and bankruptcies are a common effect. In addition one has to consider that much of the benefits of the bubble usually went to rich as capital gains. So ending the tax cut for the rich would have been a logical policy. That Obama didn't take it last year was a major failure of leadership. He now is advocating to end the cuts. But if he had done so a year ago it would now be the new normal, while now it still seems a radical policy and his opponents are grabbing the opportunity to paint disastrous consequences.

For the Keystone XL pipeline the decision was delayed to 2013. For the main bridge vitually all negotiations were left to the Michigan State government.

Asking the voters for a seal of approval for radical reforms is also in another way unlucky. The voters gave Obama already a general seal of trust by electing him a president four years ago. By now asking their rather explicit approval for specific reforms Obama is burdening him with their job. The success of a reform depends to a large extent on the detailed way it is implemented. This is not something the voters want to be bothered with. Unfortunately he health care reform has done little to improve Obama's image as a man who has the eye on detail needed to implement as reform.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Is the Annan Plan fake?

I am getting increasingly the impression that the Annan Plan is fake. That just as the Libya resolution it was proposed by a deceitful American diplomacy in order to achieve goals that are completely different from what the plan at first face proposes.

The first point of the Annan Plan is negotiations. Yet Annan hasn’t made a single move in that direction. There have been no talks, the opposition hasn’t appointed delegates and Annan hasn't even asked for them. The excuse is that there is to much violence. But there is nothing in the plan that makes talks conditional on a well functioning truce. One might well argue the opposite: that talks are needed to establish the trust needed for a truce.

The plan specifies a number of elements for a truce. But Annan has taken one of those elements – withdrawal of heavy arms from the cities – and claims now that that could be implemented separately, as a gesture of good faith by the government. But this would mean surrendering the cities to the opposition and seeing government supporters expelled from them or even killed.

The Annan Plan was brought to us as an alternative to the US position that rejected any talks and demanded that Assad should resign first. When we look at how Annan is implementing it it looks like a carbon copy of that position.

The conclusion: It looks like Annan doesn't care about a negotiated solution. He is now just buying time while the US and its allies keep up their efforts to strengthen Syria's opposition. I expect him one day to say - feigning surprise - that a peaceful solution is no longer possible and an intervention is needed. Annan discussed that scenario probably already with US diplomats before his plan was adopted. His plan for a Syria Contact Group looks like another trick to circumvent the Security Council.

Can we please replace Annan with someone who does care about negotiations??!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Syria and Yugoslavia: same destructive treatment

There are a lot of similarities between the destructive way the West drove Yugoslavia into an ethnic war and the way it is doing the same now with Syria.

It started both times with demonizing the local dictators: Milosevic and Assad. Both men had before the trouble started rather clean reputations that only got worse later on. They were no angels but certainly no Saddams either. There image was rather that of bureaucratic bores.

Both men got in trouble with the US that decided they had to be removed: Milosevic for being a "communist" and a threat for the turn to capitalism of the formerly communist countries; Assad for being not helpful enough during the US occupation of Iraq.

And so the obstruction started. Milosevic was undermined by encouraging the republics of Yugoslavia to secede, Assad by encouraging a rebellion.

In both cases international law was violated. In both case the international rules on non-interference. In the case of Milosevic also the Yugoslav constitution and the Helsinki Accords that border changes can only happen with mutual agreement.

In both cases the US and its Western allies adopted a rigid position that negotiations were not allowed. In the case of Yugoslavia the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia and there already adopted constitutions were presented as near scared while a very scary picture was painted of what might happen if borders were changed. In Syria negotiations with Assad are either simply refused or denied with the claim that there is still too much violence or that Assad has too much blood on his hands.

In both cases we see in the Western media a traditional witch hunt in which these dictators are demonized. Any policy that might favor them is demonized too - even if there are sound arguments in favor of it. Public figures seen as too close to them are publicly humiliated for it.

In both cases the population group associated with the dictator (Serbs resp. Alawites) is demonized too, although to a lesser extent.

In both cases the opposition is at the same time eulogized as freedom loving people. Their extremist sides (Croat fascism and Sunni fundamentalism) are ignored or discarded as irrelevant fringes. Their crimes are discarded as less important as those of the others and as easily repairable with some international "guidance".

In both cases this leads to an increasing polarization and in the end to outright war. In Yugoslavia between the Croats and Muslims on one side and the Serbs on the other; in Syria between Arab Sunni's on one side and the minorities on the other side. In both cases we also that on the insurrectionist side there is a steady radicalization while the government side - feeling powerless to restore order as it believes should be - resorts to increasingly violent means.

There is still a way back to a peaceful solution. But I doubt whether Obama and Clinton have the courage to ignore those who thrive on hatred and to follow a path a negotiation and reconciliation.

Peace versus justice

The NY Times has an article (Peace Must Not Be the Victim of International Justice) by Ian Paisley jr. in hwich he worries about how the quest for justice hinders peace. He notices:

If the I.C.C. had been in existence during the Northern Ireland peace process, or in 1995, when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work, there would no doubt have been calls for it to intervene and prosecute those accused of violence. This would have driven old enemies even further apart in recrimination and hostility, hobbling the chance for peace.

I am not making an argument against I.C.C.’s existence: In places where there is no functioning government, or the government is hostage to one section of society, or where there is no viable reconciliation process, the international community has a duty to ensure that the court is the guardian of justice.

But the pursuit of justice should not replace or undermine ongoing national reconciliation efforts. The foremost challenge facing the I.C.C. is to determine whether its intervention will help or hinder the cause of peace. The wheels of justice must be allowed to turn at their own pace, but that they must not impede the peace process.

He goes on to notice that the Kenyan government is now trying to get the head of the opposition indicted by the ICC and that that is definitely not the way to solve what in essence is a tribal conflict.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Syria links

This page is for storing interesting Syria links. Please note that some of my posts are also regularly updated collections of links:
- The Houla hype contains all the news about the Houla massacre.
- Syria's stolen revolution contains news about those from the opposition who don't like the violent turn of the uprising.
- Foreign involvement in the Syrian rebellion is a very extensive collection on that subject.

Conflicts forum "aims to shift Western opinion towards a deeper, less compartmentalised understanding of Islam and the Middle East." The site contains lots of interesting articles.

Ousted priest committed to peace in Syria tells the story of the flamboyant Father Paolo Dall’Oglio who was recently thrown out of Syria and now resides in Lebanon.

Russians and Syrians, Allied by History and Related by Marriage tells about the many Russian women who have married Syrian men. There are some 20,000 of them living in Syria - result of many decades of Syrian men studying in Russia.

Disorganized like a fox is an article praising the diversity of the opposition. The author wrote also a larger report: Syria's political opposition.

The Syria Paradox. A rather short article that looks at the upper class of Syria (usually not Alawite as Alawites were primitive country bumps half a century ago). But the conclusion is not very clear although it seems that the author believes that a revolution is necessary.

Syrian Tribal Networks and their Implications for the Syrian Uprising: As you can expect from Jamestown - a thorough study. But it is always good to keep in mind that the CIA pays part of the bills at Jamestown.

Syria: Armed Opposition Groups Committing Abuses is a HRW report dating from 20 March 2012.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Are the Christians in Homs persecuted?

There are strongly conflicting reports on the Internet about the fate of the Christians in Homs. It is clear that many have left, specially in last February and March. But reports differ on now many and how they left.

On the numbers the figures differs quite a lot. Some report that Homs once contained 160,000 and that now about 1000 are remaining. Others that 50,000 have left and 1000 are remaining. Yet others that 90% of 80,000 have left. Mainstream media ignore the issue and most reporting is in religious publications.

Sources from the Syrian Orthodox Church report that: the city [Homs] has been emptied of almost 90% of its Christians. It is expected that a complete "cleansing" of buildings owned by Christians will occur within a matter of days or weeks by armed men from the Wahhabi "Faruq Brigade."

A source in the Orthodox metropolitan's office told al-Haqiqa that armed men from the Faruq Brigade went to the homes of the Christians, house by house, in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan el-Diwan, informing them that they must immediately leave their homes and the city of Homs. [...] The church sources said that the armed men informed the owners of the homes before they departed that if they did not leave immediately they would be shot and pictures of their corpses would be sent to al-Jazeera with the message that the government had killed them. The source emphasized that all those who were expelled "were not allowed to take any of their possessions with them, not even extra clothes. Immediately after they left their homes, the buildings were occupied by armed men who considered it 'war-booty from the Christians!'" It should be noted that the Faruq Brigade is operated by armed elements from al-Qaeda and various Wahhabi groups and it includes mercenaries from Libya and Iraq. Last month they destroyed two churches with rocket fire, burning one and severely damaging the other.

However, the Roman Catholic Church, while first republishing the reports from the Orthodox, then came with reports from local clerics that the departure from Homs had been voluntary and due to the violence. Britain used this even as an argument to increase the aid to the rebels.

Interestingly more recently the Roman Catholic Fides came with a report about what looks like a clear case of ethnic cleansing: A disturbing news reaches Fides from the province of Hama, in the north of Homs: armed men have expelled all Christian families in the village of Al Borj Al Qastal, in the province of Hama. The news, spread by some international agency, is confirmed to Fides by local Church sources. The sources said that armed groups – of the militias of the composite Syrian Liberation Army - have penetrated into the village, driving out all Christian families, taking possession of homes and turning the Church in the area in military headquarters. The village of Al Borj Al Qastal is in the province of Hama, and welcomed about 10 Christian families, now displaced, innocent victims of conflict. (PA) (Agenzia Fides 12/5/2012)

So what is true? My guess is that the Orthodox and the Alawites are the primary targets for the rebels and seen as allies of Assad while the Roman Catholics are seen as a bit more connected to the West that supports the uprising.

Another factor that may play a role is follow-up cleansing. It has been reported that Baba Amr, the heavily contested quarter of Homs, has been largely deserted by its inhabitants. The question is where these people have gone. It wouldn't surprise me if they had gone elsewhere in the city and driven out people who they felt were connected with the regime in order to get a house. In this context one may remember that something similar was done in the early 1990s by Croats who had been driven from the Krajna by Serb separatists.

A third factor is hope for the future. Christians are afraid that painting this as a conflict between them and Sunni's will only further polarize the situation and lead to it that they will even more be targeted. Polarization might also make it more difficult to return once the conflict is over.

A fourth factor is that it is also official government policy not to publicly distinguish people by sect or religion.

Problem is that now even cities like Qusair - with 50% Christians - are targeted by the rebels and that the US is supporting them in that.

16 June 2012: This article ("Syrian Islamist opposition casts out Christians") tells that Christians in Qusair are forced to leave. David Enders of McClatchy claims that there is no persecution: The group also has been accused of targeting Christians in Homs. But interviews with Syrian Christian refugees who’d fled to Lebanon from Homs and Qusayr uncovered no evidence that Christians were targeted because of their religion. Rather, Christian refugees from Qusayr said that a Christian man and 16 others working with government security forces in Qusayr had been captured by Farouq fighters in March, prompting some Christians to flee. Members of Farouq confirmed the story, as well as the arrests..
26 June 2012: This article (Weeks spent with Syrian rebels reveal a force of Sunni Muslim civilians) mentions that Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. While they have participated in the demonstrations against Assad, they have preferred to flee rather than take up arms.. The article mentions that many people participate in the uprising because of family relations. Another article (Rebel-held town in northern Syria struggles to keep army out, avoid sectarian strife) tells how the uprising leads to rising tensions between ethnic groups.