In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I speculate on how the Ruso-Ukrainian War will shape future regional security dynamics. We start with NATO and work our way East to the Northern Pacific. It is not comprehensive but we outline some potential ramifications with regard to Western, Russian and even Chinese responses to the war. Bottom line is that no matter what the outcome, Russia comes out of the war diminished on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts, which in turn changes the regional security landscape moving forward. The episode is here.
After a brief hiatus, the “A View from Afar” podcast is back on air with Selwyn Manning leading the Q&A with me. This week is a grab bag of topics: Russian V-Day celebrations, Asian and European elections, and the impact of the PRC-Solomon Islands on the regional strategic balance. Plus a bunch more. Check it out.
In this podcast Selwyn Manning and I look into the tensions surrounding the threatened Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the geopolitical backdrop, diplomatic standoff and practicalities involved should an invasion occur. In summary, Russia wants to “Findlandize” more than the just the Ukraine and, if it cannot do so by threatening war, then it can certainly do so by waging a limited war of territorial conquest in parts of the country where ethnic Russians dominate the local demographic (the Donbass region, especially around Donetsk and Luhansk). It does not have to try and seize, hold, then occupy the entire country in order to get its point across to NATO about geopolitical buffer zones on its Western borders. In fact, to do so would be counter-productive and costly for the Kremlin even if no military power overtly intervenes on Ukraine’s behalf.
You can find the podcast here.
So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.
This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.
Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.
Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.
in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.
Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.
The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.
For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.
Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?
Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.
Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?
Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?
NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.
NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.
Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.
Much ether and pulp have been expended analysing the Daesh phenomenon and its consequences. The range and acuity of interpretations is broad yet often shallow or incomplete. Since it is a rainy weekend on Auckland’s west coast, I figured that I would alternate playing with the toddler with compiling a brief on the multiple interlocked layers that is the war of Daesh.
I refer to the irregular warfare actor otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL or IS as Deash because the latter is a derogatory term in Arabic and denies the group its claim to legitimacy as a state or caliphate. Plus, Isis is a common Arabic female name so it is insulting to Arab women to use it.
Much like the famed Russian dolls, the conflicts involving Daesh can be seen as a series of embedded pieces or better yet, as a multilevel chess game, with each piece or level interactive with and superimposed on the other. Working from the core outwards, this is what the conflict involving Daesh is about:
First, it is a conflict about the heart and soul of Sunni Islam. Daesh is a Wahabist/Salafist movement that sees Sunni Arab petroligarchies, military nationalist regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Asaad and MuammarÂ al-Qaddafi, nominally secular regimes like those in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, and moderate monarchies such as those of Jordan and Morocco as all being degenerate and sold out to Western interests, thereby betraying their faith. The overthrow of these regimes and the prevention of anything moderate (read: non-theocratic) emerging as their political replacement are core objectives for Daesh.
Secondly, Daesh is at the front of a Sunni-Shiia conflict. In significant measure funded by the Arab petroligarchies who opportunistically yet myopically see it as a proxy in the geopolitical competition for regional dominance with Iran and its proxies (such as Hizbollah) and allies (like the Syrian and post-Saddam Iraqi regimes), Daesh has as its second main objective eliminating the Shiia apostates as much as possible. To that can be added removing all ethnic and religious minorities for the Middle East, starting with the Levant. Because Daesh is racist as well as fundamentalist in orientation, it wishes to purge non-Arabs from its domain even if it will use them as cannon fodder in Syria and Iraq and as decentralised autonomous terrorist cells in Europe and elsewhere.
Thirdly, Daesh is engaged in a territorial war of conquest in Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to geographically situate its caliphate. This has allowed it to gain control over important oil processing facilities in Iraq and Syria and use the proceeds from the black-market sale of oil (including to the Assad regime!) to help fund its recruitment and weapons procurement efforts.
Fourth, Daesh is the source of inspiration, encouragement and sometimes training of decentralised, independent and autonomous urban guerrilla cells in Europe and elsewhere that use terrorism as the tactic of choice. The strategy is a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory of guerrilla warfare whereby cadres receive common training in a secure safe haven then return to their home countries in order to exploit their knowledge of the local terrain (cultural, socio-economic, political as well as physical) in order to better carry out terrorist attacks with high symbolic and psychological impact. In this variant Daesh uses social media to great effective to provide ideological guidance and practical instruction to would-be domestic jihadis, thereby obviating the need for all of them to gain combat experience in the Middle East.
Like Lenin and Guevara, Daesh understands that its terrorism will attract the mentally unbalanced and criminally minded seeking a cause to join. Along with disaffected, alienated and angry Muslim youth, these are the new Muslim lumpenproletarians that constitute the recruitment pool for the guerrilla wars it seeks to wage in the Western world. In places like Belgium, France and arguably even Australia, that recruitment pool runs deep.
Fifth, through these activities Daesh hopes to precipitate a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale. Â It sees the current time much as fundamentalist Christians do, as an apocalyptic “end of days” moment. Its strategy is to fight a two-front war to that end, using the territorial war in the Middle East as a base for conventional and unconventional military operations while engaging in irregular war in Europe and elsewhere. The key of their military strategy is to lure Western powers into a broad fight on Muslim lands while getting them to overreact to terrorist attacks on their home soil by scapegoating the Muslim diaspora resident within them.
Daesh may be barbaric but its political and military leadership (made up mostly of Sunni Baathists from Iraq) is not stupid. It has not attacked Israel, knowing full well what the response will be from the Jewish state. In its eyes the confrontation with the Zionists must wait until the pieces of the end game are in place.
A critical component of Daesh’s strategy is the so-called “sucker ploy,” and it is being successful in implementing it. Basically, the sucker ploy is a tactic by which a weaker military actor commits highly symbolic atrocities in order to provoke over-reactions from militarily stronger actors that deepen the alienation from the stronger actor of core prospective constituencies of the weaker actor. That is exactly what has happened in places like the US, where opposition to the acceptance of Syrian refugees has become widespread in conservative political circles. It also is seen in the bans on refugees imposed by the Hungarian and Polish governments, and the clamour to halt refugee flows from conservative-nationalist sectors throughout Europe. We even see it in NZ on rightwing blogs and talkback radio, where the calls are to keep the Syrian refugees out even though no Syrian has ever done politically-motivated harm to a Kiwi (the projected intake is 750).
Sowing disproportionate fear, paranoia and the blind thirst for revenge amongst targeted populations is the bread and butter of the sucker ploy and by all indicators Daesh has done very well in doing so.
There is more to the picture but I shall leave things here and resume my asymmetric campaign versus the toddler.
One final thought. For the anti-Daesh coalition the fight must assume the form of a conventional war of territorial re-conquest in Syria and Iraq, run in parallel with a shadow urban counter-insurgency campaign in the West that is fought irregularly but which is treated judicially as a criminal matter, much like an anti Mafia campaign would be. Eliminating the territorial hold of Daesh in Syria and Iraq will remove their safe haven and training grounds as well as kill many of their fighters and leaders. That will help slow refugee flows and the recruitment of Westerners to the cause and facilitate the domestic counter-insurgency campaigns of Daesh-targeted states. The latter include better human intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing by and among erstwhile allies and adversaries in order to better counter dispersed terrorist plots.
Of course, the long-term solution to Daesh, al-Qaeda and other Islamicist groups is political reform in the Arab world and socio-economic reform in the Western world that respectively treat the root causes of Â alienation and resentment within them. Â So what is outlined in the previous paragraph is just a short-term solution.
In order for even that to happen, there has to be a tactical alliance between all actors with strategic stakes in the game: Russia, major Western powers, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Kurds, Iran and a host of irregular warfare actors including Hizbollah, the Free Syrian Army and assorted Islamicist groups not beholden to Daesh. It will be a hard coalition to cobble together, but the common threat posed by Daesh could just well force them to temporarily put aside their differences in favour of a workable compromise and military division of labour between them.
Of course, should that all occur and Daesh be defeated, then the old fashioned geopolitical chess game between Russia, the West, the Arabs, Kurds and Iranians can resume in Syria and Iraq. The conditions for that game depend on who emerges strongest from the anti-Daesh struggle.
Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin is smiling.