Emerging hotspots

Print edition : April 27, 2018

The besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, on February 27. Photo: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

A demonstrator holding the Palestinian flag during clashes with Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the occupied West Bank on February 23. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

People inspect the damage after an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition in Saada, Yemen, on February 22. Photo: REUTERS

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro with first lady Cilia Flores in Caracas on February 27 after the formalisation of his candidacy for the presidential election. Photo: AP/Ariana Cubillos

Some of the crisis points around the world that have the potential to escalate and the imminent threats to the U.S.’ claim to sole superpower status.

“Today, we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding. We are facing increasing global disorder, characterised by the decline in the long-standing rules-based order,” declares the Pentagon’s latest National Security Review. The anti-terrorism campaign that characterised the United States’ foreign and military policies in the last decade has now been replaced by a policy to contain nation states that could pose a challenge to its hegemony in the future. Among the countries the National Security Review mentions as major threats to the U.S. are Russia and China. North Korea and Iran have also been classified as threats but have not been put in the same league as Russia and China, which are viewed as more imminent threats to the U.S’ claim to sole superpower status.

Admiral Harry Harris, the head of the U.S.’ Pacific Command, has identified China as a threat to the U.S.’ superpower status. In a statement to the Senate in mid March, he asserted that China was emerging as a formidable threat to the U.S’ vital interests in the region. He particularly expressed grave concerns over China’s expanding naval footprint and growing prowess in missile technology. The Pacific Command’s goal, Admiral Harris stressed, “is to maintain a network of like-minded allies and partners to cultivate principled security networks, which reinforce free and open international order”. Admiral Harris added that the network would eventually grow to include India, further extending the encirclement of China.

Venezuela is another target identified by the war planners in Washington. President Donald Trump has been making military threats against the country, which has more than 40 per cent of the known hydrocarbon reserves in the world. The U.S. and its ally Israel would like nothing more than seeing the destruction of the Hezbollah, a lean and mean fighting force that emerged in Lebanon in the 1990s. The Hezbollah proved its worth when it fought Israel after that country invaded Lebanon. It is part of the “Axis of Resistance”, which continues to fight for the rights of Palestinians and to end the Israeli occupation of Arab land. The other members of this alliance are Syria and Iran. The Iraqi government provides tacit support to this anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli alliance.

India as partner

The U.S. military has once again reverted to its old “Cold War” formations. In the Asia Pacific, troops of the U.S. and its treaty allies, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines, have been deployed to face China across a line extending from the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The U.S. is trying to rope in new military allies such as India more deeply into the alliance. India has signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the U.S. and France, and participates in joint military exercises with the U.S. and its two main allies in the region, Japan and Australia. The U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Alex Wong, said in the first week of April that it was in U.S’ interests that India played an “increasingly weighty role in the Indo-Pacific”. The U.S., he said, would help India fulfil such a role “so that it becomes over time a more influential player in the region”.

In Europe, the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies follow a similar strategy against Russia. In the last couple of years, large-scale NATO military exercises have been held on a broad front, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Incidents of Russian and NATO planes buzzing each other in the East European air space have started occurring with increasing regularity. The U.S. and NATO build-up is happening despite the Russian side showing no signs of aggressive intent towards the West. Moscow only seeks to preserve its traditional sphere of influence in the Russian-speaking territories of the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine, Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia. It wants to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from becoming part of NATO and wants the West to stop the export of “colour revolutions”, such as the ones that occurred in Georgia, Serbia and Ukraine.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama had kick-started the hawkish policy in 2014 against Russia by authorising the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), under which NATO forces could be deployed in the “front line” Baltic States and Poland. The Pentagon is now asking for $6.5 billion for the EDI so that it can stockpile sophisticated arms, including the latest missiles, to counter Russia on European soil. The U.S. Centcom (Central Command) chief, Gen. Joseph Votel, also identified Russia as the main threat in the West Asian region. He charged that China was enhancing its military presence in the region by establishing a military base in Djibouti and managing the port of Gwadar. These projects contributed to China's “military posture and force projection”, Gen. Votel asserted.

Undermining Iran deal

The U.S’ two major allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, seem to have succeeded in convincing the Trump administration to scrap the historic nuclear deal the Obama administration had signed with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under the deal, which was supported by the international community barring a few exceptions in the region, Iran had agreed to cut its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 per cent. It has now restricted its stockpile to 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium. Iran had also agreed to ratify an additional protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which allowed expanded monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, one of the most intrusive any country has voluntarily submitted to.

Despite the concessions made by Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia—which are now openly aligned—want the U.S. to start another war in the region, this time against Iran. The devastating war in Syria has still to completely wind up. Around 500,000 people have lost their lives so far in Syria. Trump had said in 2016 that his number one priority if elected President would be to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal. With the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Adviser and Mike Pompeo as the Secretary of State, Trump seems to be on the verge of carrying out his promise. The previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, along with the Defence Secretary, James Mattis, had cautioned Trump against dismantling the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton has been wanting to bomb Iran since the beginning of the last decade, even advocating the dropping of a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert to send Tehran a message. Pompeo as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director even implausibly claimed that there was some sort of cooperation and understanding between Al Qaeda and the Iranian leadership. Both Pompeo and Bolton are known to be extremely close to Israel and its powerful lobby inside the U.S.

According to many security and disarmament experts, if the U.S. scraps the deal, Iran will have no option but to go for a nuclear weapon. Such a development would further increase tensions in the already-volatile region. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has said that his country would also go nuclear if Iran gets a bomb. Israel says that under no circumstances will it allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Trump, unlike his predecessor, stands solidly behind the two countries. The U.S. President has said that the twin threats of jehadism and Iran “are creating the realisation that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problem”. The Palestine issue has been confined to the back burner. The recent killing of 60 unarmed Palestinians by Israeli security forces has been glossed over by the Trump administration. Even many of the Arab governments were muted in their criticism. The Saudi Crown Prince belatedly criticised Israel for the massacre. But his statement came after he gave an interview in which he said that Israel had the right to exist on Arab land.

Targeting Yemen

Another flashpoint in the region is the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which is now more than three years old. More than 15,000 Yemenis have perished as a result of the war unleashed by the Saudis and their allies on the poorest country in the region. The Saudi war effort is completely backed by the U.S. Yemen’s infrastructure has been devastated. In the first week of April, Saudi airplanes again attacked civilian targets in the blockaded port of Hodeidah. Fourteen people, most of them children, were killed in the attack. The Houthi alliance in control of the capital and the north of the country retaliated by firing missiles into Syria. Every time the Houthis retaliate, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia blame Iran. Most observers of the region acknowledge that Iran’s support for the Yemenis only extends to the diplomatic and political sphere.

Any conflict in the Korean Peninsula, most experts agree, would lead to a war that would probably cause more devastation than the Second World War. But the threat of war, thankfully, is diminishing after North Korea made some dramatic initiatives from the beginning of the year. The leaders of North Korea and South Korea are scheduled to meet soon. Then there was the dramatic announcement that Trump will meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in May. The North Korean leader met with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, in late March. China has now supported the North’s call for dialogue and for a peaceful resolution of the conflict which has dragged on since 1952. The international community and strategic affairs commentators have also classified a major military confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir or terrorism-related issues as a serious threat to U.S. security. The Indian and Pakistani armies, the largest in the region, possess lethal nuclear weapons. The two sides have been exchanging heavy fire across the Line of Control (LoC) for more than a year now. The Pakistani army says if there is an Indian military incursion, it will reserve the right to retaliate with low-yield short-range tactical nuclear weapons. There is a real danger of things going out of control in South Asia because of a strategic cross-border strike going awry, or nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jehadists and fanatics. There is no shortage of these elements on both sides of the border.

Venezuela in the cross hairs

Meanwhile, the U.S. is working overtime to realise its elusive dream of regime change in Venezuela. It was Obama who reinvigorated this move after the failed CIA-backed coup attempt to overthrow the socialist government of Hugo Chavez in 2002 by the Bush administration. In 2014, the Obama administration declared Venezuela as “a threat to U.S. national security”. The Trump administration is now openly calling for the violent overthrow of the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Rex Tillerson issued an open call to the Venezuelan military to overthrow the government while on a visit to the region late last year.

The Trump administration has instituted more economic sanctions against Venezuela at a time when its ordinary citizens are suffering. According to the U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot, U.S. sanctions aim “to prevent an economic recovery and worsen the shortages [of essential medicines and food]” in Venezuela. There are reports that with the Trump administration’s encouragement, Colombia and Brazil are massing troops along the border with Venezuela. Colombia has been a steadfast military ally of the U.S. Brazil today is under a right-wing government.

In many parts of Asia and Europe, the soldiers of the U.S. army and those of Russia and China are operating in very close proximity. In the Baltic region and in the South China Sea, there have been aggressive military exercises. U.S. ships and planes conduct exercises and flights in or near disputed areas claimed by China. A Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. naval plane on a reconnaissance mission in April 2001, when tensions were running high between the two countries. The Chinese plane crashed, killing the pilot. A small incident in any of the crisis points in the world has the potential to escalate and have unintended consequences for humankind. There is a glimmer of hope. however. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, says he is willing to seriously discuss de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Trump announced in early April that he plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and meet up with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, very soon.

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