A final welcome back to those returning back to work today after the long break.
Russia, Islamic State, Syria, China, Iran, Yemen along with continuing concerns in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to provide headlines throughout the year ahead that we would otherwise prefer not to hear. The official definition of geopolitics, the study or the application of the influence of political and economic geography on the politics, national power and foreign policy. Time was when geopolitics would be defined as being about political relations among nations insofar as they involve claims, counter claims and disputes often appertaining to borders and territories but now it is all of the above mentioned things.
As if tensions were not rising enough in various geo-political hot spots, the manner in which the US government is failing to provide the leadership and strength that the world can respect and look up to is alarming. For instance, the announcement by Donald Trump on December 20th that US troops in Syria would be brought home caused consternation and shock not only for many inside the US but for America’s allies as well. The Trump decision to withdraw the 2,000 US troops serving in Syria has now, depending on how one chooses to read it, either been overridden or significantly watered down following welcome remarks made over the weekend by US National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
Hardly the best way to endear yourself to your boss, the National Security Adviser’s decision to override Donald Trump’s surprising and clearly ill-thought out and ill-advised pre-Christmas announcement in relation to a rapid withdrawal of US troops from Syria by his deciding to lay out conditions for any possible pullout would appear to have defused a dangerous and unwelcome situation that played into the hands of not only Islamic State militants but also Russia and the Syrian administration. Bottom line is that John Bolton has laid sufficient conditions for withdrawal that will most likely mean American forces will remain in Syria for many months yet.
The importance of Mr. Bolton’s remarks to reporters which he made in Israel yesterday are that the conditions set for withdrawal from Syria require that US forces cannot withdraw until the last remnants of the Islamic State have been defeated and also that Turkey provides a guarantee that it would not strike Kurdish forces who are allied to the US.
Bolton’s welcome remarks will understandably be seen by many as yet another humiliation for President Trump. The move will however provide reassurance for America’s allies angry at not having been consulted prior to the Trump statement.
John Bolton’s appointment as Secretary of State may have raised some eyebrows but in the months that followed his appointment he has provided some reassurance as to how deep down America really does value its allies. That he has clearly taken Donald Trump on, albeit behind the scenes, will also be seen as an important indication that the Secretary of State is prepared to challenge the worst of White House decisions. The hope will also be that he might be able to reverse decisions in relation to the resignation of Secretary of State for Defense, James Mattis and also Donald Trump’s decision to end that relationship immediately rather than at the end of February as James Mattis had originally planned to be his date for leaving office.
Israel too will be reassured by Mr. Bolton’s intervention removing the threat of US troop withdrawal from Syria within 30 days. Turkey will no doubt be taking an opposite view in relation to the conditions now imposed for US withdrawal of its 2,000 troops in Syria. Turkey had been planning to send its military into Syria to confront Kurdish militias that it believes threatens its sovereignty and with whom the US has long backed. “We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States, at a minimum so they don’t endanger our troops” John Bolton said in his remarks to members of the press in Jerusalem over the weekend. Response he receives during his visit to Ankara, Turkey tomorrow will to say the least be interesting to observe.
Amongst some of the better known quotes from James Mattis is one that said “I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word”. Until recently those words might even have been said by Donald Trump who, since the Democrats regained control of the House and the budget issue became deadlocked over the Mexico wall, looks increasingly cornered. Donald Trump would do well to take on board two other quote attributed to James Mattis – “the most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears” and “if you cannot create harmony – even vicious harmony – on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines and across civilian/military lines you need to go home because your leadership is obsolete”.
Meanwhile in an attempt to dampen down another raging forest fire US and Chinese delegates will meet again later today in an attempt to resolve the damaging trade dispute which, in an economy [China] that is clearly beginning to suffer from initial trade tariffs imposed on them unilaterally by Donald Trump and another, the US that shows little sign of slowing down even in response to rising interest rates let alone tensions caused on the global economy, few believe that much in the way of progress is likely to be made. That said, it seems unlikely to me that the current status of holding off imposing any further new tariffs is likely to remain in force for some considerable time yet.
As to events closer to home? By that I mean the ongoing saga of the parliamentary vote next week and Mrs. May now having to face 200 or more MP’s in No 10 Downing Street tomorrow who will tell her in no uncertain terms that a no-deal Brexit is unacceptable and by virtue of this belief, if the parliamentary vote fails next week and there are no further concessions from Brussels they would wish to see Article 50 rescinded. I have no wish to leave the EU and a fear very much for the consequences of jobs here in the UK and of our need to import so much, the impact this will have on the economy. However, if I have to I can live with either Mrs. May’s parliamentary vote being backed by sufficient numbers of MP’s or Article 50 being rescinded and pushed back. Perhaps there is someone up there looking after us after all!
The numbered sequence of Defence related commentary pieces will return later this week – the first being a view following my visit to HM Naval Base Clyde in December last year.
CHW (London – 7th January 2019)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785