Earlier this week, US officials indicated that they are set to go through with a plan to sail warships around China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys.
“It’s just a matter of time when it happens,” one government source told WSJ.
Over the course of the last six months, we’ve seen China’s land reclamation efforts go from oddity, to spectacle, to alleged “provocation”, to excuse for war as Washington feels compelled to come to the aid of its allies in the South Pacific who cried foul after it became apparent that this was no “normal” dredging effort.
In short, China has created some 3,000 acres of new sovereign territory and the US claims Beijing is effectively trying to redraw maritime boundaries on the way to establishing new military outposts. For its part, China denies the allegations and has responded with a peculiar mix of veiled threats (tweaking the wording of its official maritime strategy), not-so-veiled threats (telling a US spy plane with a CNN crew on board to “go now”), and humorous propaganda (a series of pictures from Fiery Cross depicting women, puppies, and gardens).
Despite efforts to de-escalate the matter when Xi visited the US this month, Beijing looks set to draw a line in the sand (no pun intended) when it comes to allowing the US to sail warships near the islands. Here’s AFP with more:
Chinese media slammed the US Thursday for "ceaseless provocations" in the South China Sea, with Washington expected to soon send warships close to artificial islands Beijing has built in disputed waters.
Following a meeting of American and Australian officials Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned Beijing that Washington will continue to send its military where international law allows, including the South China Sea.
The remarks were backed by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said the two countries are "on the same page."
An editorial in The Global Times, which is close to China's ruling Communist party, condemned Washington's "ceaseless provocations and coercion".
China mustn't tolerate rampant US violations of China's adjacent waters and the skies over those expanding islands," it said, adding that its military should "be ready to launch countermeasures according to Washington's level of provocation," it added.
The warship or ships would pass within the 12-mile territorial limit China claims around the structures to demonstrate that US commanders do not recognise it.
Such a move, the Global Times suggested, could be a "breach of China's bottom line".
"If the US encroaches on China's core interests, the Chinese military will stand up and use force to stop it," the paper warned.
There you go. It doesn't get much clearer than that.
Obviously, there's little doubt that China will use these islands for some military purpose. Whether that purpose will be extremely limited (as Beijing has suggested without explicitly acknowledging the militarization of the reefs) remains to be seen.
One question that one might fairly ask here however, is whether the US really needs to sail by the islands just to see if can do so without getting shot at. It isn't, after all, as though China is on the verge of using the Spratlys as a staging ground for an invasion of the entire South Pacific so one wonders whether it might not be better to wait until there is some legitimate purpose for a pass-by. That way, Beijing can't point to a deliberate "provocation."
Whatever the case, we suppose we will see in the next week or so who blinks first.
Perhaps the most amusing thing about Russia’s intervention in Syria is the degree to which it made the world wake up and question the West’s “anti-ISIS” strategy.
While everyone has been quick to characterize Moscow’s actions as the latest and perhaps greatest example of Vladimir Putin calling Washington’s bluff, it’s important to understand exactly why that’s an accurate characterization here. That is, this is more than just Moscow betting it could support Assad and Washington would simply move out of the way.
This was Russia and Iran realizing that the only reason the US and its regional allies have been able to keep up appearances in the eyes of the public with regard to the “campaign” against ISIS, is because the public has never seen what happens when someone powerful makes a serious effort to eradicate the group. Once Russia moved in, gave the superpower greenlight for Iran to abandon all pretense that it isn’t also directly involved, and began racking up gains in a matter of days, the Western public was left to wonder why the US couldn’t accomplish in 13 months what Russia appeared to have accomplished in a matter of (literally) 72 hours.
Then, just in case anyone was tempted to write off the discrepancy as a lack of US resolve or (gasp) diminishing American military capability, Moscow very publicly asked the US to join Russia in striking terrorist targets. Putin effectively said this: “You’re obviously no good at this, but that’s ok because we’re all in this together, so come help us.”
Of course that’s not what The Kremlin really meant - that was just the line fed to the public.
What Moscow was really saying was this: “Checkmate, Washington. Either i) admit to the public you’re more concerned about ousting Assad than you are about eliminating the group who you’ve held up to the media as the scourge of humanity that must be eliminated at all costs, or ii) tell us you’re sorry and help us bomb the very same groups you helped create on the way to restoring the very same regime you created those groups to oust, or iii) pack up, turn tail, and get the hell out of the way.”
And so, the US is now hoping to muddle through with this excuse: “Russia’s actions will only make things worse.”
Needless to say, even the clueless Western public is beginning to smell a rat here.
Meanwhile, Putin continues to rub it in by making near daily speeches asking (rhetorically of course) why no one wants to help Russia kill terrorists, why it seems like the US has no strategy, and, hilariously, why everyone but Russia and Iran seem to have “oatmeal” for brains.
The point here is that Putin knows damn well what the “strategy” is for the West and its Mid-East allies, but he knows that the public isn’t yet fully aware that standard operating procedure is to use Sunni extremists to destabilize governments. He has now gone all-in on waking the entire world up.
The latest episode of the Putin show finds the President speaking to reporters in Astana, Kazakhstan. Here’s Bloomberg:
Russian airstrikes and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia are aiding government offensives against rebel groups near the western cities of Homs and Aleppo, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Assad’s troops have also made major advances in Hama and Latakia, Rami Abdurrahman, the group’s head, said by phone on Thursday.
“It looks like they are seeking to regain control of the road linking Damascus to Homs and then Aleppo,” said Abdurrahman, whose organization tracks the war through a network of activists. Islamic State has taken territory near Aleppo in recent days and repelled government attacks in areas it already holds, he said.
Earlier this week, we noted that Iran had reportedly sent “thousands” of troops to Syria in preparation for an offensive aimed at retaking the city of Aleppo.
With a population of more than 2 million, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city prior to the war and it’s now run by a hodgepodge of rebels and militants including al-Qaeda, the Free Syrian Army, and ISIS.
To get an idea of the effect the war has had on the city, have a look at the following before and after nighttime light emissions images:
The battle is also notable for the scale of Iran’s involvement. Between Hezbollah and Iranian forces, the battle for Aleppo is shaping up to be the largest ground operation orchestrated by Tehran to date.
Here’s more, via Reuters:
Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters launched an offensive south of Aleppo on Friday, expanding their counter-attack against rebels across western Syria with support from Russian air strikes.Aleppo, a commercial and industrial hub near the border with Turkey, was Syria's largest city before its four-year civil war, which grew out of protests against Assad's rule.Control of the city, still home to two million people, is divided between the government and rebels."This is the promised battle," a senior government military source said of the offensive backed by hundreds of Hezbollah and Iranian forces which he said had made some gains on the ground.It was the first time Iranian fighters had taken part on such a scale in the Syrian conflict, he said, although their numbers were modest compared to the army force. "The main core is the Syrian army," the source said.Hezbollah, which has supported Assad in several battles during the civil war, said the army was carrying out a "broad military operation" with support from Russian and Syrian jets. It made no mention of Hezbollah fighters in its brief statement.Two senior regional sources told Reuters this week that Iran has sent thousands of troops to Syria to bolster an offensive underway in Hama province and ahead of the Aleppo attack.
Russian air cover is backing offensives by Syria's army and allied militias in the central provinces of Homs and Hama, as well as Aleppo in the north and Latakia along the coast.
On Friday, the Syrian army pushed south from the provincial capital Aleppo city, where control is divided between regime and rebels forces, as Russian air strikes pounded the villages of Al-Hader and Khan Tuman and nearby localities.
"The Syrian army started a new front on Friday and advanced to take control of the villages of Abteen and Kaddar" about 15 kilometres (12 miles) south of Aleppo city, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said "dozens" of Russian aerial attacks in the past 24 hours had struck the area, which is controlled by a patchwork of groups including rebels, Islamist fighters and Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front.
In other words, if Iran and Russia manage to retake Aleppo (and you know they will because remember, thanks to Hezbollah, this isn't a team that's going to be confused by the vagaries of urban warfare), Assad's rule is restored.
Just like that.
From there, the situation would morph and what you would have is a kind of Wild West scenario, only in Syria "West" would mean "East" and Assad, Russia, and Iran, having secured most of the critical cities and territory, would be free to simply mount up and push east on a kind of search and destroy mission.
So apparently, the US and its regional allies in Riyadh and Doha have a couple of weeks to figure out what to do here or else this is going to be over and suddenly, Washington will find itself in the awkward position of having to negotiate for a transition away from an Assad government that has been fully restored.
Russian Navy can carry out missile strikes on the Islamic State positions in Syria at any moment, if ordered by the high command, the Russian General Staff said Friday.
The Russian warships operating in the Mediterranean can be used in the fight against ISIL in Syria, if need be, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, head of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff, said in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
"Our group in the Mediterranean primarily supplies materials. For this to go unhampered, a group of attack vessels is deployed there as well. In addition, this group guarantees our base's air defense. We are in no way using these air defense systems against coalition countries," he said.
The Russian General Staff does not rule out the establishment of a military base in Syria consisting of naval, air, and ground troop components, Kartapolov said.
Israeli arms control expert: Iranian long-range missile test is challenge to US - Middle East - Jerusalem Post