Shots fired in the Himalayas: a dangerous development in the China-India border standoff



Mukhtar Khan/AP

Stephen Peter Westcott, Murdoch University

In the midst of all the stories about China’s oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and its expulsion of foreign journalists, a recent clash on its border with India may pose the greater threat to Asian security.

For the first time in 45 years, shots were fired this week.

Confrontation on the roof of the world

During the evening of September 7, Chinese and Indian troops confronted each other along their undefined, de facto border, known as the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC).

This in itself was not unusual. The two sides have been locked in several tense standoffs along the LAC since May.

What makes this confrontation stand out is it involved the first known use of firearms on the border in almost half a century.

What happened?

China and India have accused each other of provoking this confrontation, which occurred in the Rezang-La heights area, just south of Pangong Lake.

According to Indian reports, there were between 30 and 40 Chinese troops involved. Photographs published in Indian media show Chinese soldiers armed with crude Guandao-style polearms, as well as standard issue rifles.

It is unclear how many Indian troops were involved or how they were equipped.

Pangong Lake near the India-China border
Border tensions have been building for months between India and China.
Manish Swarup/AP

China claims Indian troops crossed the LAC and “blatantly fired shots” when Chinese border troops moved to deter them. India, has strenuously denied this, saying Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC and were blocked by an Indian forward position, who they then tried to intimidate by firing “a few rounds in the air”.

No troops have been reported injured or killed.

Regardless of which side actually fired the shots, the tactic did not work. Both Chinese and Indian soldiers remain in a stand-off, reportedly only 200 metres apart.

Unravelling rules of engagement

This recent exchange represents a troubling escalation between the two countries.
It directly contravenes the rules and norms painstakingly established by China and India to govern behaviour on the border.

Negotiations on the disputed border have always been tough for China and India. The two sides took nearly 12 years of tentative negotiations before signing their first treaty in 1993, in which they agreed to “maintain peace and tranquillity” along the LAC.




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Subsequent agreements were reached after negotiations in 1996, 2005 and 2013. These govern military conduct on the border and guidelines for a diplomatic resolution.

The prohibition against the use of weapons along the LAC was first laid out in the 1996 agreement.

Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns and explosives within two kilometres from the Line of Actual Control.

Until this week, China and India have upheld this agreement, even when previous border patrol confrontations became heated.

However, both sides have been pushing the limits of what the other will tolerate and have trying to exploit loopholes and technicalities for several years now.

Border confrontations have gradually escalated from farcical shoving matches to fully-fledged brawls and stone flinging, which caused injuries in 2017.




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China and India’s deadly Himalayan clash is a big test for Modi. And a big concern for the world


This year has seen both sides up the ante, with the introduction of makeshift clubs in a lethal melee at the Galwan Valley in June and China now seemingly equipping some border patrols with polearms.

Earlier this month, Indian media reported India was using new rules of engagement. This change allows its border troops to use whatever means are available for “tactical signalling” against the Chinese.

A dangerous deadlock

As two of the world’s largest militaries – and two nuclear-armed countries – even a limited border war between China and India would be devastating for regional peace and stability. It would likely ruin what little cooperation there is left and potentially pull in third parties, such as Pakistan or the United States.

Indian leader Narendra Modi points finger during conversation with China's Xi Jinping.
War between India and China would be devastating.
Manish Swarup/AP

It is clear from the flurry of diplomatic activity between China and India over the past months that they feel the gravity of their situation.

But despite both sides proclaiming they seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing standoffs, a culture of mistrust continues to poison discussions.

China and India’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the border standoff in person for the first time since the crisis began.




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Both countries will now need to engage in some masterful and innovative diplomatic work to find a way to rejuvenate their diplomacy.

And find a mutually face-saving way to disengage before the standoff escalates out of control.The Conversation

Stephen Peter Westcott, Post-doc research fellow, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s one thing to build war fighting capability, it’s another to build industrial capability



Shutterstock

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

Amid fanfare last week at the start of the new financial year the government promised to invest A$270 billion over a decade to upgrade the defence force.

It said a side benefit would be a stronger local defence industry and “more high-tech Australian jobs”.

The prime minister’s statement hastened to add that it was already strong

Australia’s defence industry is growing with over 4,000 businesses employing approximately 30,000 staff. An additional 11,000 Australian companies directly benefit from Defence investment and, when further downstream suppliers are included, the benefits flow to approximately 70,000 workers.

But the Australian part of Australia’s defence industry is small and getting smaller.

My analysis of contracts listed on the government’s Austender website shows that while the proportion of defence department contracts awarded to Australian operated firms is usually well above 60%, the proportion awarded to firms that are both Australian operated and owned is much lower, presently 11%.



Austender, authors calculations

It means that while Australians are being employed on defence department projects, the use of Australian firms that develop and own intellectual property is at a near-record low.

Other analysis of the same data shows that the value of the contracts awarded to Australian owned companies is increasingly lower than for foreign owned companies.

This is backed up by the annual Australian Defence Magazine survey of the top 40 defence contractors.

Despite the fact that in the most recent survey two of the biggest contractors declined to take part – the French-owned Naval Group Australia, which has the contract for the Future Submarine program, and the US-owned Raytheon – it has the advantage of including subcontracting relationships not shown in Austender.

Playing second fiddle matters

The survey finds that while the amount of work done by Australian-controlled companies has held up since 2015, it has been increasingly subcontracted to foreign-owned prime contractors.

This subordinate role has important implications for the health of Australia’s industry and national resilience.

For industry it means that Australia is denied the full economic benefits that would come from designing and running projects and owning the intellectual property.

For national resilience it increases Australia’s exposure to events outside its control.




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If foreign-controlled firms withdraw, withhold or otherwise redirect assistance (or if they are directed to do so by foreign governments) it is harder for Australia’s industry to pick up the slack.

The supply chain interruptions caused by COVID-19 have highlighted these vulnerabilities.

Brent Clark, the national chief executive of the Australian Industry and Defence Network says he was “shocked to learn how many of our supplies are sourced from overseas and how quickly those supplies became hard to access as soon as overseas countries required them for their own purposes”.

He says the industry is not asking for a free ride, but it does want to be able to compete for contracts in a fair and equitable manner.




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This isn’t to suggest Australia needs to it do all. Complete self-sufficiency in defence is unrealistic.

But it would deepen Australia’s war fighting capability if Australian firms had the ability to to supply and maintain much of the essential equipment we will need to use.

And it would strengthen our ability to deal with other crises. COVID-19 has shown that industrial capability and resilience are intrinsically linked.

The Government’s rhetoric and policies support home-grown growth. All that is needed now is commitment backed up by accountability.


Louisa Minney, defence consultant, business analyst and company director, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China and India’s deadly Himalayan clash is a big test for Modi. And a big concern for the world.



Michael Kappeler DPA/AAP

Ian Hall, Griffith University

Sometime on Monday, an Indian army patrol skirmished with Chinese troops in the Galwan River Valley, high in the Himalayas.

According to reports, no guns were involved, but the fight left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead from injuries caused by stones, makeshift clubs, and falls down the steep cliffs of the valley.

Although standoffs and even fistfights between Chinese and Indian troops have been relatively common in recent years, there have been no deaths on the disputed border for decades.




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Such confrontations are usually defused by talks between commanders on the ground, leading to choreographed disengagements.

In this case, it appears those processes have failed, and at a moment when relations between China and India – both nuclear armed states – are already tense.

Origins of the dispute

When India gained its independence in 1947, it inherited unsettled frontiers with several neighbours.

That situation was exacerbated by Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s decision to seize control of Tibet – which up to that point had been a buffer state – three years later.

More than a decade of failed negotiations to agree a border followed, to the frustration of all. Then, in October 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mao ordered a sudden attack on Indian forces.

China decisively won this short “pedagogic war” – designed to teach New Delhi a lesson. It gained ground from India, but then withdrew its forces, bringing them back close to their starting positions.

Since then, a “Line of Actual Control” (LAC) has, in effect, constituted the frontier.

Several more fruitless rounds of talks to settle an official border have taken place. And there have been several military standoffs, including one in 1975 that left four Indian soldiers dead.

Mounting tensions and the threat of war

The Galwan River Valley incident is by far the worst to occur on the LAC for some time. It also comes against a backdrop of several years of deteriorating relations between China and India, dating from the rise to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Since 2013, New Delhi has reported a series of incursions by Chinese troops into what it regards at its territory.




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The visits of both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May 2013, and Xi in September 2014, were overshadowed by such incidents.

And in mid-2017, there was a ten-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in Bhutan, in a disputed area called Doklam (or Donglang).

During that crisis, Beijing openly warned that if New Delhi did not pull back, it might go to war.

Disagreement over other issues

At the same time, China and India have quarrelled and competed over a number of other issues.

New Delhi has emerged as a vocal critic of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has tried to dissuade other states in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region from signing on to BRI projects.

China and India disagree over more than their borders.
Harish Tyagi EPA/AAP

India has complained about China’s trade practices, pointing to a growing trade deficit with its northern neighbour, as well as Beijing’s alleged attempts to influence the policies of smaller states such as Nepal.

Meanwhile, India has strengthened security ties with the United States, Japan and Australia among others – to Beijing’s obvious irritation.

The biggest test yet

There can be little doubt that what just happened in the Galwan River Valley constitutes the biggest test yet faced by Narendra Modi’s government.

India’s prime minister has long been portrayed as a “strongman”. This image has been burnished by retaliatory strikes against Pakistani targets for cross border terrorism in 2016 and 2019, as well as by his government’s apparent resilience during the Doklam crisis.

Indian public opinion is already angry with China over COVID-19 and in the wake of the deaths on the LAC, some media outlets, as well as opposition politicians, are calling for retaliation.

There have been protests in India after the Himalayan clash.
Sanjeev Gupta EPA/AAP

Modi’s options are, however, constrained.

If he backs down, or even concedes the area around Galwan River Valley that some think Chinese soldiers are now occupying, he could face a political backlash from Indian voters.

If he orders some kind of military response, he risks a wider war. There have been persistent reports of troop build-ups right along the 3,500 kilometre frontier with China.

There is no guarantee a limited action would not escalate into something bigger, nor that India’s friends and partners, including the US, would support such a move.

All eyes now on China

Much depends on what Beijing hopes to gain.

If Xi is simply seeking to humiliate India for perceived transgressions – and warn it off deepening ties with its security partners – he may now order his troops to pull back, having made his point.

But if he wants to redraw the border and send a message to others – in Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere – that China is determined to take what it claims – then deescalating the situation will be very difficult for New Delhi.




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The Conversation


Ian Hall, Deputy Director (Research), Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is it time for a ‘new way of war?’ What China’s army reforms mean for the rest of the world



Jason Lee/Reuters

Bates Gill, Macquarie University and Adam Ni, Macquarie University

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said,

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Looking at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today, it’s hard to say which of these tactics is most germane.

Getting the answer right will have enormous consequences for the United States and the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Underestimating the PLA breeds complacency and risks costly overreach. Overestimating the Chinese military grants it unwarranted advantage.

Similarly, for the Chinese leadership, miscalculating its military capability could lead to disaster.

As such, any serious appraisal of Chinese military power has to take the PLA’s progress – as well as its problems – into account. This was the focus of a recent study we undertook, along with retired US Army lieutenant colonel Dennis Blasko, for the Australian Department of Defence.

The PLA’s new-found might

By all appearances, the PLA has become a more formidable force over the past decade. The massive military parade in Beijing last October to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China showed off more than 700 pieces of modern military hardware.

One of these weapons, displayed publicly for the first time, was the DF-41, China’s most powerful nuclear-armed ballistic missile. It is capable of hitting targets anywhere in the US.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also expanded its military footprint in the South China Sea. Military experts say China has used the global distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to shore up its position even further, drawing rebukes from neighbours. Tensions have heightened in recent days as the US and Australia have sent warships into the sea for drills.




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In the past few years, China has also stepped up its military exercises around Taiwan and disputed waters near Japan, and last December, commissioned its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, into service with the PLA Navy.

The most recent annual assessment of the PLA by the Pentagon acknowledges China’s armed forces are developing the capability to dissuade, deter or, if ordered, defeat third-party armed forces (such as the US) seeking to intervene in “a large-scale, theatre campaign” in the region.

The report also expects the PLA to steadily improve its ability to project power into the Pacific and beyond.




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A recent study commissioned by the US Congress goes further, saying China’s strategy aims to

disrupt, disable or destroy the critical systems that enable US military advantage.

The report called for a “new American way of war”.

All of these highlight the increasing capabilities of the PLA and underscore the challenges China’s rising hard power pose to the United States and its regional allies. But what of the challenges the PLA itself faces?

A Chinese destroyer taking part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao last year.
Jason Lee/Reuters

Overcoming the ‘peace disease’

Interestingly, many of these problems are openly discussed in official Chinese publications aimed at a Chinese audience, but are curiously absent when speaking to a foreign audience.

Often, pithy formulaic sayings of a few characters summarise PLA shortcomings. For example, the “two inabilities” (两个能力不够), a term that has appeared hundreds of times in official Chinese media, makes reference to two shortcomings:

  • the PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war is insufficient, and

  • the current military commanders are also not up to the task.

Another frequent self-criticism highlights the “peace disease” (和平病), “peacetime habits” (和平积习) and “long-standing peace problems” (和平积弊).

The PLA was last at war in the mid-1980s, some 35 years years ago. Today’s Chinese military has very little combat experience.

Put more pointedly, far more soldiers serving in the PLA today have paraded down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing than have actually operated in combat.




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Owing to these and many other acknowledged deficiencies, Xi launched the most ambitious and potentially far-reaching reforms in the PLA’s history in late 2015.

This massive structural overhaul aims to transform the PLA from a bloated, corrupt and degraded military to one increasingly capable of fighting and winning relatively short, but intensive, conflicts against technologically sophisticated adversaries, such as the United States.

But, recognising how difficult this transformation will be, the Chinese political and military leadership has set out a decades-long timeline to achieve it.

DF-17 ballistic missiles on parade in Tiananmen Square last year.
Xinhua News Agency handout/EPA

In Xi’s estimations, by 2020, the PLA’s mechanisation will be “basically achieved” and strategic capabilities will have seen major improvements; by 2035, national defence modernisation will be “basically completed”; and by mid-century, the PLA will be a “world-class military.”

In other words, this transformation – if successful – will take time.

At this relatively early point in the process, authoritative writings by PLA leaders and strategic analysts make clear that much more work is needed, especially more realistic training in joint operations, as well as improved leadership and greater communications integration across the services.

PLA modernisation depends more on “software” — human talent development, new war-fighting concepts and organisational transformation — than on the “hardware” of new weapons systems. This underscores the lengthy and difficult nature of reform.

‘Know the enemy and know yourself’

The many challenges facing the PLA’s reform effort suggest the Chinese leadership may lack confidence in its current ability to achieve victory against a strong adversary on the battlefield.

However, none of this means we should dismiss the PLA as a paper tiger. The recent indictment of PLA personnel for the 2017 hack of Equifax is a cautionary reminder of the Chinese military’s expansive capabilities.

Better hardware is not what China needs at the moment – it needs to improve its software.
ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA

Rather, it means a prudent assessment of the PLA must take its strengths and weaknesses into account, neither overestimating nor underestimating either one. Should strategic competition between the US and China continue to escalate, getting this right will be more important than ever.

So, is China appearing weak when it is strong, or appearing strong when it is weak? Much current evidence points to the latter.

But this situation will change and demands constant reassessment. Another quotation from Sun Tzu is instructive:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

He added,

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.The Conversation

Bates Gill, Professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies, Macquarie University and Adam Ni, China researcher, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There are 10 catastrophic threats facing humans right now, and coronavirus is only one of them


Arnagretta Hunter, Australian National University and John Hewson, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Four months in, this year has already been a remarkable showcase for existential and catastrophic risk. A severe drought, devastating bushfires, hazardous smoke, towns running dry – these events all demonstrate the consequences of human-induced climate change.

While the above may seem like isolated threats, they are parts of a larger puzzle of which the pieces are all interconnected. A report titled Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, published today by the Commission for the Human Future, has isolated ten potentially catastrophic threats to human survival.

Not prioritised over one another, these risks are:

  1. decline of natural resources, particularly water
  2. collapse of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity
  3. human population growth beyond Earth’s carrying capacity
  4. global warming and human-induced climate change
  5. chemical pollution of the Earth system, including the atmosphere and oceans
  6. rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction
  8. pandemics of new and untreatable disease
  9. the advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technology
  10. national and global failure to understand and act preventatively on these risks.

The start of ongoing discussions

The Commission for the Human Future formed last year, following earlier discussions within emeritus faculty at the Australian National University about the major risks faced by humanity, how they should be approached and how they might be solved. We hosted our first round-table discussion last month, bringing together more than 40 academics, thinkers and policy leaders.

The commission’s report states our species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.

The risks emerging now are varied, global and complex. Each one poses a “significant” risk to human civilisation, a “catastrophic risk”, or could actually extinguish the human species and is therefore an “existential risk”.

The risks are interconnected. They originate from the same basic causes and must be solved in ways that make no individual threat worse. This means many existing systems we take for granted, including our economic, food, energy, production and waste, community life and governance systems – along with our relationship with the Earth’s natural systems – must undergo searching examination and reform.

COVID-19: a lesson in interconnection

It’s tempting to examine these threats individually, and yet with the coronavirus crisis we see their interconnection.

The response to the coronavirus has had implications for climate change with carbon pollution reduction, increased discussion about artificial intelligence and use of data (including facial recognition), and changes to the landscape of global security particularly in the face of massive economic transition.

It’s not possible to “solve” COVID-19 without affecting other risks in some way.

Shared future, shared approach

The commission’s report does not aim to solve each risk, but rather to outline current thinking and identify unifying themes. Understanding science, evidence and analysis will be key to adequately addressing the threats and finding solutions. An evidence-based approach to policy has been needed for many years. Under-appreciating science and evidence leads to unmitigated risks, as we have seen with climate change.

The human future involves us all. Shaping it requires a collaborative, inclusive and diverse discussion. We should heed advice from political and social scientists on how to engage all people in this conversation.




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Imagination, creativity and new narratives will be needed for challenges that test our civil society and humanity. The bushfire smoke over the summer was unprecedented, and COVID-19 is a new virus.

If our policymakers and government had spent more time using the available climate science to understand and then imagine the potential risks of the 2019-20 summer, we would have recognised the potential for a catastrophic season and would likely have been able to prepare better. Unprecedented events are not always unexpected.

Prepare for the long road

The short-termism of our political process needs to be circumvented. We must consider how our actions today will resonate for generations to come.

The commission’s report highlights the failure of governments to address these threats and particularly notes the short-term thinking that has increasingly dominated Australian and global politics. This has seriously undermined our potential to decrease risks such as climate change.




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The shift from short to longer term thinking can began at home and in our daily lives. We should make decisions today that acknowledge the future, and practise this not only in our own lives but also demand it of our policy makers.

We’re living in unprecedented times. The catastrophic and existential risks for humanity are serious and multifaceted. And this conversation is the most important one we have today.The Conversation

Arnagretta Hunter, ANU Human Futures Fellow 2020; Cardiologist and Physician., Australian National University and John Hewson, Professor and Chair, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turkey and Russia lock horns in Syria as fear of outright war escalates


Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

As the nine-year Syrian civil war enters its final turn, Turkey and Russia, long-time allies in Syria, are on the brink of war over the Syrian province of Idlib.

Both sides are sending stern messages of warning as diplomacy to end the conflict has so far failed to de-escalate the situation.

What has led to the stand-off?

In September 2018, Turkey, Russia and Iran signed an agreement (also called the Sochi accord) to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib, where violent hostilities were prohibited.

Under the agreement, opposition forces were classified as jihadist and mainstream. Mainstream forces were to pull heavy weapons out of the zone and jihadist groups to vacate it completely. All sides, including Turkey, set up military observation posts.

Claiming that jihadist groups did not leave the zone after more than a year, Syrian government forces launched an offensive in December 2019. The offensive displaced more than 900,000 civilians.

This was followed by the Syrian government forces attacking a Turkish observation post and killing 13 Turkish soldiers.




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Outraged, Turkey retaliated on February 2 with a counter-attack that killed Syrian soldiers and four members of Russian special forces. Turkey also intensified its military build-up in Idlib’s north.

On February 3, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan openly defied Russia with a visit to Ukraine, where he pledged US$200 million in military aid.

On February 15, Erdogan warned:

The solution in Idlib is the (Syrian) regime withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February.

Russia blamed Turkey for failing to meet its obligations and continued to allege Turkey was supplying weapons to what Russia considers terrorist groups.

Erdogan countered these claims by saying Russian and Syrian government forces were “constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood”.

The greatest fear is an all-out war in Idlib and the inevitable civilian suffering. With more than a million civilians trying to survive in makeshift camps, a United Nations representative has warned of “a real bloodbath”.

Why is Idlib so important?

Capturing Idlib has immense strategic significance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it is the last opposition stronghold in Syria.

Backed by Russia, Assad has been conducting a successful military offensive against jihadist opposition forces throughout the country to regain and consolidate his power since 2015. He has allowed remnants of these groups to escape to Idlib as a deliberate strategy to gather all opposition forces in one location.

So far, Idlib has been controlled by a range of opposition groups. The most powerful is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed by a large faction that split from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in 2017.

Capturing Idlib with the help of Russia and clearing the province of all armed opposition would allow Assad to declare victory and end the civil war.

Turkish and Russian clash of interests in Syria

Erdogan had three main goals in his Syrian involvement. First, prevent the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turkish fear such a development could inspire the large Kurdish-populated southeast regions of Turkey to pursue similar ambitions.

The second is to fight a proxy war in Syria through jihadist groups to topple the Assad regime and establish an Islamist government. Erdogan hoped this would extend his political influence in the Middle East and his ambitions to make political Islam dominant would be achieved.

A third aim is to do with maintaining his 18-year rule in Turkey amid political and economic problems. A war in Syria serves to silence critics.

Erdogan calculated he could achieve his goals if he was to have forces in Syria and collaborate with Russia and Iran. The cost was distancing Turkey from the Western block and increasing its international alienation.




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As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself


Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian government wanted to balance Western and particularly US power in Syria, and if possible to push US out of Syria. Even though their relationships were fragile from the start, these four countries were extremely careful on the diplomatic table and presented a powerful bloc against US involvement in Syria.

The Russian strategy in Syria has been clear from the start – support the Assad government until it regains control over all Syrian territory and defeats all opposition forces. Then Russia can control Turkey so it does not cause serious armed conflict with the Assad regime, while protecting Russian interests in Syria and the greater Middle East.

Russia has invested enormous funds in support of the Assad government. The only way to recoup its costs and have return on investment is if Assad achieves a full victory. Nothing short of capturing Idlib will suffice, even if it means open conflict with Turkey.

What is likely to happen next?

Erdogan is caught in a dilemma. He is unable to influence the Syrian opposition parties in Idlib, but he is also not prepared to forsake them. If he withdraws support, they may possibly retaliate with terrorist attacks in Turkey.

Another flood of Syrian refugees is a serious problem for Erdogan. He lost local government elections in 2019 largely due to the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey.

It is hard to predict what Erdogan will do in Syria. He is either bluffing or is determined to stay the course, even if it means war. He has shown he is not afraid to make bold moves, as demonstrated with his October 2019 military operation in northern Syria and recent military involvement in the Libya conflict.

Bluffing or not, Putin is not backing down and will not hesitate to take on Turkey in Syria. In doing so, Putin will continue to support the Assad forces with equipment, military intelligence, air power and military expertise, rather than being involved in open military conflict. This strategy allows Russia to claim Syria is exercising its legitimate right to defend its sovereign territory against a foreign Turkish military presence.

It is likely Erdogan will avert the risk of war at the last moment. He has involved the US, which has expressed its support for Turkey and hopes to see Assad gone. He has used his NATO membership card and the European fear of another Syrian refugee flood to bring European powers onside at the diplomatic table.

Erdogan will be happy and claim victory if he manages to enlarge the safety zone with a continued Turkish presence there. Russia would only accept this on the condition that all jihadist opposition groups leave Idlib. On these terms, both sides could claim a win from the present dangerous tension.

The likely Russian response is to go all the way in Idlib, regardless of what Turkey does. Any Turkish military success in Syria is highly unlikely. Russia completely controls the airspace and could inflict serious damage on Turkish ground troops.

It is in Russia’s interests to finish this costly civil war once and for all. It is only a matter of time before the Assad government captures Idlib diplomatically or by force.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Political assassinations were once unthinkable. Why the US killing of Soleimani sets a worrying precedent



The assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani has sparked protests in a number of countries – both Muslim and non-Muslim.
RAHAT DAR/EPA

Ben Rich, Curtin University

Since the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the immediate crisis appears to have dissipated. However, the wider ramifications pose a worrying precedent for international affairs.

For many, the killing was unexpected. But this was no Trump administration miscalculation. It’s the latest in a wider decay of the liberal norms that underpin diplomacy, conflict resolution and the day-to-day functioning of interstate relations.

Once championed by Washington, these rules have become increasingly rejected under President Donald Trump. That threatens to inject even more instability into our global system.

What are norms in international relations?

“Norms” is the term foreign policy people use to mean actions that are implicitly or explicitly acknowledged as reasonable for states to undertake – like a rulebook that guides the conduct of international relations. Norms influence everything from human rights protection to when and how it is appropriate to use force.

Norms differ from laws, as they lack formal enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be major repercussions when they are violated.

Norms change over time, often shaped by dominant cultural, ideological and political trends.




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For instance, in previous centuries, war was seen as a natural part of statecraft and something to be celebrated. However, this view has changed markedly, largely due to the catastrophic great wars. Today, war is viewed by most countries as something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort.

This has led to an overall decline in major conflicts and the establishment of a range of international bodies designed to prevent, constrain and moderate war.

Norms provide a kind of “standard operating procedure” for states, which is especially pertinent in times of crisis and uncertainty. Understanding that one’s rivals generally wish to avoid conflict allows states to formulate policies aimed at deescalation and détente.

When countries deviate from these norms, however, it injects unpredictability into the system. This can lead to miscalculation, panicked escalation and, ultimately, violent conflict.

The US was once the biggest proponent of the rules-based international order. Not anymore.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

The rise of the ‘liberal international order’

The most influential body of norms today are encapsulated in what foreign policy analysts call the liberal international order, which emerged from Western consensus after the second world war.

This order does several important things, such as:

  • incentivises collective action over unilateralism;
  • encourages democracy, dialogue and understanding over authoritarianism and aggression; and
  • seeks to lessen violence by providing alternative means of resolving conflict.

The liberal international order rejects actions – such as the assassination of state officials like Soleimani – which are likely to inflame, rather than resolve, tensions.

Many scholars and analysts argue that such norms have been a significant factor in the period of relative global peace since the second world war.

The US and liberal international norms

Over the past 70 years, the US been at the centre of many of the institutions that promote these rules, including the WTO, NATO, UN and IMF.

While the constraints of the liberal international order have not always benefited it – Washington has lost numerous trade disputes in the WTO, for instance – the US has been able to shape the very nature of the international system.

It’s one thing to win in a game, quite another to dictate the rules by which that game is played.

As a result, the US has sought to promote itself not just as an adherent of liberal norms, but as an exemplar of them. Notable exceptions not withstanding, this has been a position held across both Republican and Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Mourners taking part in the funeral procession for Qassem Soleimani in Najaf, Iraq.
ALI Al-MUMEN/EPA

Why assassinations matter to international norms

The US abandoned the practice of political assassinations in the wake of the infamous Church committee of 1975.

This inquiry exposed repeated CIA attempts to kill foreign leaders and officials. Such clandestine activities were seen as out of sync with the strengthening liberal norms of the day. If the US was really committed to promoting the order, how could it engage in actions that flagrantly undermined peace and stability?




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After the inquiry, the US halted its assassination programs, and adopted alternative methods of dealing with troublesome regimes. These included sanctions and funding and training opposition groups.

In the modern era, the targeting of state officials in assassinations is understood to be strictly verboten and reckless. This position allows officials to engage with more confidence and good faith in diplomacy, and dissuades states from engaging in such activities.

Upsetting the balance of the world order

In retrospect, Trump’s willingness to reject liberal norms on assassinations hardly seems out of character for someone who has shown profound hostility for them.

Trump has undermined longstanding alliances and weakened important mechanisms of collective cooperation, all while encouraging the worst predilections of authoritarian leaders.

Trump’s blase attitude towards the importance of liberal norms and institutions has left traditional allies feeling increasingly insecure and unable to rely on the US.

Dictatorial leaders of rival states have felt empowered by Trump’s own penchant for authoritarian behaviour at home, and more confident to violate international norms without fear of significant collective reprisal.

Soleimani’s assassination presents a further worrying decline in the influence of liberal norms. Not only does it position the US as a transgressive state with little concern for the rules of the international system, it also provides precedent for states to engage in such activities themselves.

At the best of times, this would be an unpleasant development.

Within the chaos of our current world “order”, however, the resumption of political assassination poses serious concerns for the future stability of the entire international system.The Conversation

Ben Rich, Senior lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Iran and US step back from all-out war, giving Trump a win (for now)



Donald Trump announced new sanctions against Iran in his address, but said the US would not escalate its military response.
Michael Reynolds/EPA

Ian Parmeter, Australian National University

US President Donald Trump’s statement overnight confirming the US would not take further military action in response to Iran’s missile strikes on American bases in Iraq eases regional tensions for now.

In hitting back at the US over last week’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran was clearly pulling its punches.

The missiles it fired at US bases near Baghdad and in northern Iraq produced no US casualties and appear to have done little damage to the bases. Media reports quoting Western intelligence sources claim that some of the missiles were aimed deliberately short of the target. It’s clear the Iranian regime did not want to give Trump an excuse for retaliation.




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Moreover, the regime has described its missile attacks as a “proportionate” response to Soleimani’s killing – which it obviously was not. It also said its response was “concluded”, implying it would not launch further strikes against the US.

In addition, according to several media reports, Iranian officials have claimed to their domestic audience the strikes killed more than 80 US military personnel, but the US is hiding the real toll. Such statements are aimed at quelling popular pressure for a more robust response.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly called Iran’s missile attacks against the US a ‘slap in the face’.
IRAN’S SUPREME LEADER OFFICE HANDOUT/EPA

Fortunately for the region, Trump’s overnight statement indicates he is prepared to leave matters at that. In addition, the crash of a Ukrainian airliner shortly after take-off from Tehran airport appears to have had nothing to do with the US. The latest indications are the plane was likely struck by an Iranian missile, though investigations are continuing.

That means that, for now, the risk of escalating tit-for-tat strikes or something closer to all out war between the US and Iran has receded. Most in the region will now breathe easier. This is especially true for Iraq, which could have been drawn into a broader conflict as there are still about 5,000 US troops stationed there.

But many questions remain unresolved, any of which could heighten the risk of renewed military conflict between the two sides.

Can Iran pressure Iraq to expel American troops?

A first friction point is whether US troops will remain in Iraq much longer.

Last week, the Iraqi parliament ordered the expulsion of all foreign forces (which include Australian military trainers) from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said he will implement the parliament’s demand – which the parliament itself has no power to enforce.

Abdul Mahdi is also under enormous pressure from Iran to expel US forces. The Iranian regime would clearly see their removal as additional payback to the US for the Soleimani assassination.

But Abdul Mahdi, a moderate, is known to fear a possible resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq. The group’s rise there in 2014 was the reason the Iraqi government invited US forces to return after they had left in 2011. Iraqi forces by themselves would probably not be able to contain IS.

Moreover, the US has given Iraq US$5.8 billion in military aid since 2014.




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A further problem from Abdel Mahdi is that Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq if it expels US forces. He has implied that such sanctions would also include repayment of aid moneys.

While US troops remain in Iraq, there is the constant prospect of lethal attacks on them by a range of Iraqi militias loyal to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia that started the latest US-Iranian confrontation by killing a US contractor in late December.

Another militia strike that resulted in a US death would almost certainly spur a Trump military response against Iran – which Iran would, in turn, likely react to.

It remains unclear whether Iraq’s leader will follow through on parliament’s order to expel foreign troops.
Ali Haider/EPA

What happens with the nuclear deal now?

The second friction point is Iran’s statement following the Soleimani killing that it is no longer bound by the restrictions of the nuclear deal Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in 2015.

This agreement, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile levels with the aim of preventing the country from developing a nuclear weapon.

Iran said earlier this week it would no longer remain bound by the deal’s restrictions, meaning it would, if it chose, exceed the enrichment and stockpiling limitations. At the same time, however, it said it would remain within the deal and continue to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

This playing with words appears to have been aimed at keeping the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany) from re-imposing UN sanctions on Iran if it formally left the agreement.




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Significantly, in his overnight statement, Trump emphasised that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The strong implication was that if Iran is discovered to be enriching uranium to weapons grade, the US will take action to stop this.

Such action would probably be military, though the US has worked with Israel in the past on cyber-technology to stymie Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.

That raises the question of how effective continuing IAEA oversight of Iran’s nuclear program will be. Before the nuclear deal was agreed, Iran was adept at putting obstacles in the way of IAEA inspectors – though it does not appear to have done so since the agreement entered into force.

Neither side wanting further conflict

For all the fragility of the current situation, there are two reasons to hope that calm will prevail for at least the next few weeks.

The first is that Iran’s options are limited. The relatively minor missile attacks on Wednesday indicate Iran does want to take on the US in direct conflict. Iran knows it would suffer.

The second is that Trump appears happy to declare victory and leave matters roughly as they stand.

He can boast to his now fiercely re-energised base that his action in eliminating Soleimani has made Americans safer. He also won’t want to get into a major Middle East conflict in an election year. Indeed, the opposite. He will almost certainly try to remove US troops from Iraq this year – but on his terms, not Iran’s.

So far, this is a win for Trump.


Updates story previously published with new details on plane crash indicating cause was likely an Iranian missile.The Conversation

Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.