Upon Reflection (1 May-5 May)

Time to consider weekly global headlines in an ever-changing world

Selected News Headlines

for the
Working Week
1 May-5 May 2017

Pentagon puts civilian deaths in strikes on Isis way lower than outside groups

1 May 2017, Washington D.C., United States – The Guardian – The US military announced that some 352 civilians had been killed in air strikes initiated and led by the Pentagon in operations over Syria and Iraq since 2014.

While this has to be a conservative figure since acquiring accurate battleground assessments in active urban war zones is not an exact science from space or the air, other groups closer to the action, especially not-for-profit organisations working through local hospitals have cited much higher casualty figures.

Of course the US, especially the Trump administration, would not want to disclose a figure that might be unpalatable to the American public. Air strikes were promised to be a quick and ‘clean’ way of military intervention.

However, people on the ground working in hospitals in active war zones are less enamoured by military technology. They are the ones cleaning up the mess left by ordnance. They are also the ones who tend to view any type of foreign military intervention as an evil in itself and therefore have no real interest in sanitising the aftermath of a US military air strike.

The truth is almost always lost in the political debate surrounding the conflict itself.

While it is true that modern military technology is in many instances far more accurate than in wars past, its destructive potential is also higher. One can destroy a lot more with a lot less.

So when groups such as Monitoring Group Airways (MGA) estimates that the number of casualties is far higher than what the Americans are prepared to admit to, everyone should rein-in their biases. MGA said in their counter to the Pentagon’s admission that US air strikes over Syria and Iraq since 2014 lie in the vicinity of 3,164. The real figure should be somewhere between what the Pentagon felt safe to release and what MGA activists claim. As a rule of thumb, casualty figures in war lie between official and unofficial figures – accuracy always lost in deliberate obscurity.

Saudi Arabia ‘wants no more German weapons’: report

1 May 2017, Berlin, Germany – Der Spiegel – A Saudi official publicly proclaimed his government being ‘at ease’ with Germany’s decision to stop providing Riyadh with weapons owing to Berlin’s concerns that German-made weapons were being used by the Saudis in their war with neighbouring Yemen.

While it is a sovereign decision by the Merkel government to adopt this position, cancelling weapons exports to Saudi Arabia may signal to other recipients of German-made military equipment that they too may suffer a similar sanction should Berlin disagree with the way ‘their’ weapons are employed. It is a strange notion since the international arms market knows no such moral absolute.

That’s not how the arms market works. That’s the principal of capitalism. Once money is exchanged for an item, it belongs to the buyer.

In an ironic twist to this story, the German Bundeswehr will still be permitted to teach Saudi soldiers and paramilitaries the ‘art of killing’. One would have thought that training another nation’s soldiers and paramilitaries to be better fighters, especially when they are engaged in a war they don’t particularly disagree with, is just about as devastating as selling them weapons. But the Saudi government, valuing as it does its commerce with Germany, has chosen to ‘play the game’.

North Korea says bomber flights signal pre-emptive nuclear strike

2 May 2017, Washington D.C., United States – ABC News – In what may be the last ratcheting up of tensions until the North Korean leadership does something else to rattle the international community, Pyongyang accused the Trump administration of “pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war”.

In a show of force, the USAF flew its nuclear-capable B-1B Lancer bombers on a number of runs close to North Korean airspace, while at the same time, in what appears a conciliatory measure, President Trump indicated his conditional willingness to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

What could be interpreted from all of this posturing, rhetoric and seemingly contradictory conciliation talk, is the fact that the main crisis is about to wind down. It is after all military exercise season in South Korea, a time when Pyongyang issues a number of threats only to back down in the end.

There is still a chance that North Korea may fire off some ballistic missiles or test another nuclear weapon, but unless China and the US come to a workable cooperative agreement to defang North Korea and remove the Kim dynasty, it is more than likely that we’ll see what seemed a major international crisis simmer down to ‘business as usual’.

Putin’s Disappointing Phone Call with Trump

2 May 2017, Washington D.C., United States – The Atlantic – With all the talk of better relations between Washington and Moscow following the election of Donald J. Trump to the White House, it came as an anticlimax that the phone call between Russian President Putin and President Trump was so – anticlimactic.

Promises of a sustainable détente evaporated as the two leaders came to grips with the new reality that they are in fact captured by a singular fact.

Russia, under current conditions, cannot be friends with the United States.

The Kremlin is marching to its own beat in Syria, Libya and is looking for more chinks in America’s armour elsewhere in the world. Russian hawks are aware of the fact that while the US is non-committal to places where Moscow is interested in extending its influence, Russia’s international presence can grow.

For its part, US hawks are unable to see any real advantage in reaching out to Putin as a credible international partner since many are still of the vintage who remember the Cold War and maintain the idea of Russia and Putin in particular as ‘the old enemy’.

Trump may wish to change this paradigm for his own reasons, but ‘draining the swamp’ is proving difficult while establishment hardliners used to the cut and thrust of politics are able to resist Trump’s ‘siren call’ of populism and his desire to reach out to the Russians.

So what of the Trump-Putin phone call?

Both leaders agree that Syria is a mess. They agree that they have a problem with terrorism. They also agree that it might be a good idea to meet in Hamburg, (Germany) for the upcoming G20 meeting on July 7-8. Hardly a ringing endorsement of anything in particular and certainly no framework for strategic cooperation.

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