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Mission Accomplished? The Trump Administration’s Syria Conundrum 

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On 13 April, a joint U.S.-U.K.-French naval and air strike was launched against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons programme in retaliation for the deployment of chlorine and sarin nerve agents against innocent civilians in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on 7 April. The Trump administration subsequently framed the missile strike as, in part, a repudiation of the Obama administration’s response to a similar attack launched by the Syria regime in June 2013. In contrast to President Obama’s last minute decision to refrain from military action, the Trump administration positioned its action as resolute and decisive. Before the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared, “When our president draws a red line, our president enforces a red line.” The quote was quickly packaged into a tweet on Ms Haley’s account, retweeted by President Trump and widely disseminated from the White House podium. 

The subtext of the quote is likely that the Trump administration overcame the same obstacle that the Obama administration did not — namely, the risk of mission-creep upon entering into Syria’s quagmire. Rather than refrain from military action, the Trump administration presented itself as confronting its own red line with consistency and decisiveness. This sense of confrontation was particularly noticeable considering President Trump’s comments two weeks beforehand. On 29 March, reportedly without informing his State Department, Pentagon or national security officials, the president told a crowd in Ohio that the United States would be withdrawing from Syria, “like, very soon.” He continued, “We’ve got to get back to our country where we belong; where we want to be”, before adding, “Let other people take care of it now.” Rather than seek regime change, the Trump administration therefore undertook a pin-prick strike against minor targets related to the regime’s chemical weapons programme, all the while enforcing its red line. “Mission Accomplished”, the president would tweet the following day. 

Yet it is not entirely clear that the Trump administration has overcome the hurdle of mission-creep faced by the Obama administration in 2013. This is because a growing stake in the Syrian conflict’s trajectory not only arises from military intervention itself and its perceived consequences upon a worsening and highly uncertain conflict (as was President Obama’s concern), but from the language justifying that intervention. Here, President Trump’s condemnation of the primary stakeholders in any likely future resolution to the conflict — the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments — is particularly noticeable. President Assad is a “Gas Killing Animal”, a “Monster” and a “Butcher.” The Russian and Iranian governments, including President Putin, are “responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.” Speaking to reporters before a White House cabinet meeting, the president reiterated on 9 April that “Everybody’s going to pay a price.” Consequently, Mr Trump’s two-week old declaration that the U.S. will “Let other people take care of it now” — meaning Assad, Russia and Iran — now falls notably short of the White House’s own criteria for who should have a stake in Syria’s future. For a White House that is highly image-conscious and sensitive to accusations of weakness, these words of condemnation may incentivise a future diplomatic shift in Trump administration policy over Syria.   

Rather than overcoming President Obama’s 2013 predicament through strength of will, it is therefore possible to interpret Trump administration policy in Syria through the lens of Mr Obama’s 2013 conundrum between non-military action and potential mission-creep. The Trump administration faces the possibility of being pushed and pulled between withdrawal and greater involvement in Syria as a result of Mr Trump’s decisive remarks on both sides of this conundrum. This is not to pass comment on the legitimacy of the missile strikes on 13 April, but only to show that U.S. credibility can become attached to even pin-prick assaults. A successful, clinical strike may prove to have broader consequences further down the line for Trump administration policy in Syria. 

Finland and Sweden’s Total Defence

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Finland and Sweden have been improving and developing the defensive capabilities for the last few years. It is clear that they are worried about a Russian attack against their countries. The fear has risen in recent years after Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. While both have increased their military budget they are also focusing on creating alliances with other countries; this has been made more complicated because Finland and Sweden both pride themselves on their neutrality and are not a part of NATO. They are only two countries not in NATO in the Baltic area leaving the defence of their country against Russia in their own hands.

As one of the bordering countries with Russia, Finland is worried about invasion. There fears are not unfounded Russia and Finland have fought four wars this century. In the winter war of 1938-40 and continuation war 1941-44 led to the loss of territory for Finland. The capital Helsinki is very close to the border and with much of the natural defences gone from the territory loss Finland has long been aware of its vulnerabilities and as such has never really slowed down their combat capability like Sweden did. They have planned something called deep defence. This is an agreement with Sweden allowing Finland to use and, presumably, fight from Swedish military bases. This is a big step as they had a similar deal of cooperation before the Second World War and Sweden hesitated allowing the Russians to attack Finland with impunity; additionally if this action is taken it ensures a Russian attack on Sweden. Finland may be looking for other allies it can call on if they come under attack. As a result Finland has talked about joining NATO but there is considerable push back as people fear that it will cause Russia to invade. While this is being debated it is highly likely that the country will take more steps towards ingratiating themselves with other countries so they can call on them in the time of need.

While Sweden doesn’t share a border with Russia they are only separated by the Baltic Sea. In 2014 Sweden accused Russia of hiding a submarine in the waters of Stockholm. In the aftermath Sweden permanently stationed troops on the island of Gotland located in the Baltic Sea. In 2017 they set up the defence commission. The commission is set to release a report in 2019 about how to create a “Total Defence” that made use of all of Sweden to repel invaders. The Commission released an early report when they said that they would need reinforcements from other countries to help them. This has led to Sweden allowing NATO forces to train in the country has participated in more NATO exercises. They have also made moves towards the US with 1,000 US troops joining Swedish troops on their largest exercise in 25 years and focused on the defence of Gotland. The defence plan has led Sweden into increasing the military budget. The initial report said that 4 billion would need to be spent on defence. Sweden also reintroduced the draft for men and women in 2017. Like Finland, Sweden is looking to create partnerships to help them in the defence of their country. This will be hard to do as they pride themselves on there neutrality, which is what caused them to refuse membership to the NATO in the first place.

While military is an important part of the “Total Defence” the commission focuses on all areas of life as well. But it has also focused on other areas, during the cold war Sweden nuclear bunkers for civilian use and they have been looking at getting them usable again allowing civilians to survive and fight back. Recently Sweden released pamphlets that they issued during the cold war which described what to do in the case of a crisis and threat of war. The pamphlet has information what to do in an air-raid shelter and what belongings Swedes should pack in case of timely departures (ID, clothing and gas masks). Citizens will also be informed on what the government’s response to a national crisis will be. Finally, the pamphlet will also give advice on how to handle false information and propaganda. A newer factor is Cyber warfare something that has been well utilised by the Russians affiliated groups in recent years. With Sweden being a technologically advanced country a lot of day to day life is dependent on electricity to function. A hit against their power supply like the one Estonia suffered could be debilitating especially if done during the cold winter months. For this the commission has looked to Finland which has the one of the best cyber security in the world. This total defence is Sweden’s best answer to the possibility of Russian invasion and it seems willing to put in the money to do so.

The commission hopes Sweden will hold out for three months and a week. They assessed that the Swedish army would need a week to mobilise, it would then take three months for partners to join the war. This means that Sweden knows its survival is dependent on another country coming in and helping them. This mean that the Swedes will ask for help against Russia and many countries will have to decide whether to fight Russia or not.

Yemen Enters its Forth Year of War

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Yemen enters its fourth year of war

Last week, Yemen entered its fourth year of continuous civil war. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reported that situation in Yemen has become the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Approximately three quarters (equivalent to over 22 million) of Yemen’s population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Of this 22 million, 11.3 million are children. Cholera and diphtheria outbreaks are spreading dramatically. Unicef’s Geert Cappelaere has stated that one child every 10 minutes is dying from preventable diseases in Yemen.

At the same time, the army is battling the Houthi rebels with the support of the US-backed Saudi-led coalition. Since March 2015, neighbouring Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Gulf states against Houthi rebels in Northern Yemen, after the rebels drove out the US-backed and pro-Saudi government. The Houthi rebels however have launched several missile attacks against Riyadh as a retaliation against the Saudi airstrikes. Saudi Arabia intercepted seven missiles during March and vowed to respond to the Houthi aggression. The attacks are becoming more and more frequent with the West accusing Iran of supplying the Houthis with weapons, whereas Iran denies these allegations. The situation is worsening since airstrikes and attacks against the Houthis have resulted in civilian deaths; last week in one day, an airstrike killed 14 civilians including 7 children. Yemen Data Project, an independent monitoring group, has been collecting data on the location and targets of the aerial war. The organization says the Saudi-led coalition carried out a total of 16,749 air raids were recorded from March 26, 2015 to March 25, 2018, or an average of 15 bombing runs per day. Nearly a third of those airstrikes, or 31%, targeted non-military sites, the data said.

While the UN has struggled to issue a reliable death toll in the conflict, in September it stated that over 60 percent of recorded civilian deaths were at the hands of coalition forces. Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the Saudi-led coalition in September of committing war crimes in Yemen, The coalition has been criticised about its increased aggression in the area. On March 26th , marking the beginning of the civil war, tens of thousands of Yemenis protested the western backed Saudi-led coalition and international aggression that has already claimed lives of thousands of civilians, calling for the end of war.

Both Saudi Arabia and the rebels have been also criticised for having used food as a weapon of war. More importantly the blockade Riyadh imposed in November exacerbated the situation, with Yemenis unable to receive aid. It has now been three months since Saudi Arabia urged by the international community on Yemenis humanitarian crisis, lifted its blockade on certain ports, in January in order to allow for help to reach to the Yemeni population. Delays have had a chilling effect on commercial suppliers as ships pay hefty demurrage fees as they wait for unloading, experts say. Bureaucratic impediments still slow the aid flow, both at Hodeidah and Aden ports. “We are now early April, we still have the backlog of thousands of pallets that have been waiting to be transported,” Dr. Nevio Zagaria, the World Health Organization’s envoy in Yemen said, referring to medical and other supplies.

The United Nations secured around $2 billion for humanitarian aid to Yemen this year at a pledging conference in Geneva on Tuesday, amid warnings that lack of adequate access to 22 million people in need remains a dangerous reality. All states reported having access issues while it was also stressed that funding won’t assistance does not reach people in need.

The country is now entering its fourth year of civil war. Most analysts are certain that Iran is supplying the rebels with weapons. Many suggest that a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran could continue taking place in Yemen with both states fighting over regional influence. A further escalation in the proxy war would push prices higher, that’s more or less certain. But can Iran and Saudi Arabia afford this further escalation? UN’s Guetteres said this month, that peace in Yemen is possible, but the solution has always been political. He also underlines the importance of access to ports and airports and pledged towards a 3 billion appeal. Meanwhile the slower aid is reaching to the region, the crisis deteriorates.

Ukrainian Politician Savchenko Accused of Planning Large-scale Attack on Ukrainian Parliament

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On 15 March it was reported that General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s top prosecutor, accused Nadiya Savchenko, an ex-military helicopter navigator, who became a national hero after being held in a Russian jail, of planning an attack on parliament. Lutsenko said Savchenko, who became a member of parliament on her return from Russia, had planned an attack on parliament – which never happened – using grenades, mortars and automatic weapons.

The accusations mark a fall from grace for Savchenko, whose resolute defiance while on trial in Russia, including hunger strikes and showing a judge the middle finger live on TV, earned her the nickname of Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc”. She returned in May 2016 to great fanfare after a prisoner exchange with Russia but developed a reputation for being fiery and unpredictable. She was given a standing ovation when she first addressed parliament in 2016; she proceeded to berate her fellow lawmakers for being “lazy schoolchildren”. Since her return, she has held talks with the separatists without the government’s consent and published secret lists of people who were captured or are missing in the conflict.

After Lutsenko had accused Savchenko, the Ukrainian parliament proceeded to expel her from the national security committee and stripped her of immunity to begin criminal proceedings against her. On 22 March Savchenko, was arrested on suspicion of planning an assault on parliament and supporting a coup after MPs viewed evidence against her. It has been reported that audio and video excerpts depict conversations between Savchenko, Volodymyr Ruban, and military officers discussing surreal plans to topple the government with assassinations of high-ranking officials and civilian casualties and implying possible Russian invasion and mass repressions. Ruban is the Head of Ukraine’s Officer Corps Prisoner of War Exchange Center and was arrested by Ukrainian Authorities on 8 March on charges of “illegal arms possession” and “planning a terrorist attack.”

Prosecutors have claimed that Savchenko, since at least November 2017 has acted in collusion with Alexander Zaharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, enticed several Ukrainian military officers to help stage the coup and that she asked Ruban to smuggle weapons into Ukraine. It was reported that before the release of evidence by the prosecutors that Savchenko had confessed her involvement in the conspiracy but claimed the plot was a charade aimed to scare and ridicule the regime and was never meant to take place. Savchenko has also claimed undercover agents had encouraged her to plan a coup in order to discredit her, and that she had pretended to go along with the scheme to raise public awareness about it.  On 23 March Savchenko began a hunger strike to protest her detention on charges of planning a coup against the government.

Venezuela Launches New Cryptocurrency

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro announced the launch of a new oil-backed cryptocurrency, known as the ‘Petro’, on 20 February 2018. The cryptocurrency is said to be an attempt to stabilize Venezuela’s struggling economy by increasing cash flow, with official sales of the cryptocurrency beginning on 23 March. Since Maduro’s announcement, the Petro has been released for pre-sale and has raised close to £527million ($735 million) in its first week alone. As of 10 March, Maduro claims the Petro has now generated $5 billion dollars during its pre-sale period, with reports of over 83,000 people from 123 countries having purchased the cryptocurrency. The figures provided by the Venezuelan government have been widely criticised across the globe, with claims they are nothing more than a farce due to no firm evidence to support the claims being provided. With mistrusted in the Maduro government at an all-time high, it is no wonder questions regarding the credibility of these claims are appearing. Off the back of the success of the Petro, the Venezuelan government have stated they are planning to prepare a second digital currency that would be known as ‘petro oro’. This second cryptocurrency they say will be backed by gold and other precious metals but little more has been said regarding the matter.

President Maduro announced in a televised speech 22 March that official sales of the Petro are to begin on 23 March, and that ” all citizens and companies will be able to purchase ‘petros’ on a specialized website with yuans, rubles, Turkish liras, and euros, as well as with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, etherium and NEM,”. There were originally doubts as to whether common Venezuelans would be able to access the Petro, but given one Petro is priced based-on the cost of a barrel of oil which runs at $60 (6.4 million Bolivars as of December 2017), it is doubtful they could afford to do so despite being granted access.

The Petro has been widely perceived as being an attempt to get around the sanctions placed on Venezuela by the United States and the European Union, and if this is the case they have sadly failed. The Trump administration on 19 March announced a block on the cryptocurrency after issuing an executive order to ban the purchase of the Petro in the US. Within Tump’s letter to congress regarding the ban, he says “the Executive Order prohibits, as of its effective date, all transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018.”

The Trump Administration is not the only issue that Maduro is facing. On 7 March, Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly) declared it believes the Petro cryptocurrency is unconstitutional. Furthermore, the cryptocurrency has been opposed by opposition legislators with them saying the sales of the Petro are essentially issuing oil-backed debt, something that legally speaking cannot be done without approval from legislators. They argue that should Maduro fall out of power in the countries upcoming elections, or for any other reason, his successor would have full power to refuse to honor any sales of the cryptocurrency. It appears, however, that this has done nothing more than fall on deaf ears.