Monday, September 14, 2015

From the Donbas to Damascus: The Kremlin turns to Syria

President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that Russian troops have entered the devastated nation of Syria to bolster the position of the brutal but tenacious dictator Bashar Al-Assad. Assad clings to power in Syria, but after four years of civil war, his position has been weakened considerably.

The Russian troops in Syria are, according to the Kremlin, acting in a training and logistical support role. Putin claimed that direct military action by the Russian Army has not been executed, but that it could be utilized in the near future.

Putin hopes to "...create some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism," an ambition he claims he has consulted President Barack Obama on personally. 

Western powers, primarily the United States and European Union, have been fiercely opposed to Al-Assad's rule. During the Arab Spring, Syrians initially rose up peacefully to protest Assad's authoritarian rule. These protests were brutally suppressed by the Assad government, but they continued to grow in number and eventually morphed from peaceful protest to armed rebellion. The conflict became a civil war, a civil war which has killed more than a quarter of a million people, allowed for the rise of the terrifying and bloodthirsty Islamic State, and involved the use of chemical weapons. Unfortunately, no end is in sight.

The Syrian Civil War has grown progressively more complicated as time has gone by. President Assad's forces control most of the capital of Damascus and the major cities of Hama and Homs, but are still fighting with the Free Syrian Army over Syria's largest city of Aleppo. Farther inland, most of the country is controlled by Islamic State. To the north, Syrian Kurds have carved out their own enclaves on the Turkish border which they hope to unite in an autonomous region they call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. 

If Assad prevails, he will have clung to power in Syria against enormous odds, but the country is in ruins. Most of Syria's cities have been devastated by the war. Don't expect a loosening of repression if he emerges from the war still controlling the country, but his ability to control Syria will be diminished considerably by the destruction of Syria's infrastructure.

A clear resolution to this brutal war remains elusive and far off, not to mention complicated. Even if Assad remains in power, does he have enough ability to prevent anarchy from breaking out? How will the powers in support of the Free Syrian Army respond to Russia's support of Assad-will there be more sanctions? If they do get a boost from Russia, are Assad's forces going to attack the Free Syrian Army or will they concentrate on driving Islamic State out of their country? What will happen to the Syrian Kurds?

If Assad clings to power, it's unlikely he would govern much differently than how he did previous to the outbreak of the civil war-namely, a repressive but secular dictatorship.

How the Free Syrian Army would govern Syria is less certain, and the decision by Western powers to support the FSA remains a risky call when you consider the loose coalition of forces that are allied together against Assad. While some factions want to establish real democracy in the country, an FSA-wide consensus on how to govern Syria after Assad is deposed is elusive, and there is a very real possibility of an Islamist government rising to replace Assad. This has a whole new plethora of risks for the region, especially since the Syria that emerges from this war will be severely weaker than the one that Assad ruled prior to the Arab Spring.

The only other group that seems interested in ruling over all of Syria is Islamic State, but the world has united against the vile terrorist group and will not let that happen. 

Russia's decision to aid the forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad are in direct conflict with the United States-led coalition as the United States is directly sending aid to FSA groups and the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units), but some consensus does still exist: Both the forces loyal to Al-Assad and the forces fighting against him in the FSA are opposed to Islamic State. 

The Kremlin seems to be more interested in a stable Syria than a free, democratic Syria. While it could be argued that an authoritarian but peacful country is better for the region than a democratic but devastated country, it remains frustrating, but not particularly surprising, that Moscow remains apathetic to how its allies treat their dissent.

It's also not surprising to see President Putin try to approach his support for Assad from the angle of fighting terrorism. Russia has seen horrifying tragedy, usually in the form of hostage crises and suicide bombings, on her own soil at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. In 1995, a hospital in Budyonnovsk was invaded by Chechen terrorists, who killed hundreds.  In 2002, over one hundred Russians were brutally slaughtered in a Moscow theatre when fundamentalist terrorists took over the theatre and held them hostage. In 2004, the Moscow Metro was bombed twice and Islamic terrorists took over a school in Beslan in southern Russia. Russian security forces stormed the building and when the dust had settled, hundreds of innocent Russians, many of them schoolchildren, lay dead. Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport saw a suicide bombing in 2011. In 2013, Volgograd, the city where the Motherland's calls still echo some seventy years after the Battle of Stalingrad, was rocked by two suicide bombings-one on a bus and one in a railway station. 

This is probably the reason, at least on paper, as to why the Kremlin has decided to keep its cordial relationship with Assad intact. To ally with the Islamist-in-places Free Syrian Army would have raised a lot of eyebrows in Russia considering the history Russia has with Islamic fundamentalism,
though it is ironic in some ways considering President Assad's extensive war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons, on his enemies.

While the Kremlin's direct and consistent support of Bashar Al-Assad has frustrated western powers, it's at least an understandable course of action. In the United States, Washington's decision to support the Free Syrian Army was a considerably controversial decision because the F.S.A. does have links to Islamist groups and has even allied with smaller terrorist groups such as Al-Nusra at times. The policy set forth by President Obama of "arming moderate rebels" after the administration seemingly waffled forever on what to do in Syria was widely mocked in American press outlets.

Al-Assad is a brutal and bloodthirsty dictator who has inflicted immeasurable harm upon Syria. But he is not an Islamic fundamentalist, and he is a vocal ally of the Kremlin, which brings us to the question of did the Kremlin have no other choice? The Kremlin would never ally itself with the F.S.A., as doing so would effectively destroy the relationship Putin and Assad already had, a decision which would have been seen as entirely uneccessary and a break from Putin's tendency to present himself as a pragmatist.

The only other option the Kremlin might have had in this fight (other than complete non-intervention) would be to ally itself with the Kurdish YPG-but even that would be a questionable decision. For one, of the four nations where Kurdish people live (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran), the smallest population of them by far is in Syria. Syrian Kurds are a small minority group, only living around Syria's northern border with Turkey. Even if they do manage to liberate all of what they consider their homeland within Syria, a large portion of Syria still remains to be liberated from Islamic State's shroud, and the Kurds, while they have proven themselves to be tough as nails in the fight against IS, may not have the firepower or the will to march on ISIS's de facto capital of Ar-Raqqah, a predominantly Arab city. Kurds have also faced terrible discrimination at the hands of the Assad government, and thus their primary goal seems to be autonomy (and perhaps down the road, independence). Directly assisting the Syrian Kurds would provoke unnecessary tensions with an already on-edge Turkey which has recently gone back to fighting with the terrorist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). Turkey's status in NATO would exacerbate already simmering tensions between Ankara and Moscow stemming from the Kremlin's recognition of the Armenian Genocide and the Turkish government's disapproval of the annexation of Crimea, as Ankara expressed solidarity with the Turkic Tatars of Crimea when the peninsula abruptly switched hands.

The decision of the Kremlin to stand with and prop up the Assad government is regrettable and something that is not really much to be proud of. And yet, in this complicated war, it bizarrely might be one of the lesser evils. It's true the Kremlin could have chosen non-intervention, but the time for that passed a long time ago.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Fan's Tribute to Don Orsillo

Baseball, particularly when you're a Red Sox fan, is a fascinating look into human emotion.

I remember feeling like I'd never know sadness again when a plucky group of "Idiots" led by Papi, Pedro, Curt, and Manny told the world that a three game deficit against the hated Yankees was not a death blow, but merely the first act of one of the finest playoff series in baseball. Game 4, we saw Ortiz blast a ball into the bullpen in right field, giving us at least one more day to fight. In Game 5, he did it again, though this time he only needed to bloop a single into right field. In Game 6, a sweet sense of justice as the commanding hand of the umpires at Yankee Stadium told Alex Rodriguez he was out because of a gross interference with Bronson Arroyo's leather. (It only got sweeter when furious Yankee fans starting raining trash down onto the sacred ground of the Cathedral.) And in Game 7, the final act, the pure joy, as David Ortiz, then Johnny Damon, then Damon again, then Bellhorn all sent baseballs sailing into a crowd of 57,000 shellshocked New Yorkers one after the other, and then finally mobbing the field as American League Champions as our pinstripe-clad adversaries could only watch. It only got better at Busch Stadium when that final Edgar Renteria chopper was smacked into Keith Foulke's glove and lightly tossed to Doug Mientkiewicz-the erasing of 86 years of ghosts and tears and angst. It's been 11 years and 2 more World Series Championships later but neither 2007 nor 2013 will put the same joy in my heart until my dying day.

Seven years later, I remember thinking no sports defeat would ever feel worse than when in 2010 my hockey team, the Boston Bruins, did the reverse of what the Red Sox did in 2004-go up 3 games to none only to cough it up to the Philadelphia Flyers. I thought I knew numbness and shock then. I was wrong. Watching the Red Sox from a dingy little pub in Washington D.C., I saw Robert Andino smack a ball into left field towards our supposed-to-be-star LF Carl Crawford...Crawford didn't make the play. He threw out was recorded. Orioles win. Red Sox lose.

And it got worse. The bartender quickly switched to the Rays-Yankees game in Tampa. Evan Longoria gets a ball right down the middle just in time to...


My eyes widened in horror...A deep line, please...

Home Run.
Rays win.
Red Sox are out.
Baltimoreans celebrating like they've just won the World Series.
The Yankees, because of course they did, decided to put it in neutral and watch idly as the Rays came back and won after being down 7-0.

The bartender looked at me for a couple seconds. Hands over my mouth, eyes wide with horror, I looked over for a fraction of a second to see a "That poor bastard..." look on his face.

It's been nearly five years since that day, and there is a new reason to feel saddened and angered because of the Red Sox. And weirdly enough, it has nothing to do with the team floundering in last. Sure, it sucks, but even in last there are bright spots on the horizon with Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Blake Swihart, and our beloved old guard in Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz to give the young guys mentoring. Maybe not next year, sure, but it shouldn't be long down the road.

The sadness in my heart has nothing to do with the on-field performance. It comes from a place where I never thought there would be sadness...that booth standing above the field where the press sits.

Don Orsillo is not coming back next year to call the Red Sox on New England Sports Network. We won't hear "And it is GONE! The Red Sox walk off with a win!" after this season. Nor will we cheer as Don exclaims "Strike three, A-Rod down by way of the K!" again.

I started following the Red Sox around 2002, when I was 10. At that age, I also wanted to be, you guessed it, a sports announcer. Sure, I didn't really know back then what it was like to be in the booth, or to call an exciting play, or to even have a microphone in front of me.

What I did know, though, was that I lived for 7:05. Back then, baseball wasn't just my favorite sport, it was damn close to being the only sport I followed. That cheesy guitar riff introducing the Red Sox every evening at Fenway. The scenes of the city I lived just outside and still considered home. The views of Fenway Park and wishing I was there. And last, but not least, "Hi everybody, I'm Don Orsillo! With me is Jerry Remy, coming to you from Fenway Park where the Red Sox are set to take on the..."

Ah, beautiful. Time to sit on the couch and stretch out. Let's play ball.

I moved to Washington D.C. for college and still live there today. I watch a lot less baseball, unfortunately, but I still caught highlights on when I can, and hearing Orsillo and Remy was a slice of home-and much of that had to do with their distinct accents. Simpler days, as cliche as that might sound.

And that's not something that the next generation will be able to enjoy. This might be the worst part of all-love of the Sox isn't just about the guys on the field. It's those little details-the smells of Fenway Park, the sound system blaring "Dirty Water" after every win at home, and the voices of the guys calling the game. Orsillo and Remy are more than just two broadcasters-they're part of our Red Sox family. They're hilarious, know the game inside and out. They manage to walk that line of being Red Sox fans (Orsillo grew up in Melrose, Remy played second base for the Sox) but still being very fair to the opponent when they play well. Perhaps most notably, they are hilarious when the result on the field isn't all that exciting. From the hilarious and ridiculous "Here Comes the Pizza" incident, to the handsy fan in the bleachers, to press box dentistry, to a debate on Remy's accent (many more laughs in the suggested videos) the chemistry of Don and Jerry is second to none, and something I'll miss dearly-it's just not going to be the same without their antics and that wheezy laugh of his. To Red Sox fans, Don is that beloved uncle who is just as much a part of the team as Ortiz or Pedroia.

To anyone at NESN who may stumble across this: as Red Sox fans, this is a tragedy, a completely unnecessary move, the exact opposite of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!".  Our beloved play-by-play man leaving when he easily has many more years in the tank (Orsillo's 46, while the legendary voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, by comparison, is 87) is a terrible idea and the last thing that will reignite the passion that unites us all as fans. Red Sox fans love Orsillo. Everyone I know speaks glowingly of him, and there are 60,000+ signatures on a petition to keep him in the booth. There is still time to reverse this decision, I highly recommend you consider it.

If anyone deserves a proper send-off when the time comes, it's Don Orsillo. I understand that all good things come to an end and that he can't call Sox games forever. But he has earned the right to leave on his own terms and when he is ready. If we, the fans, get our wish and he stays with us, he deserves his day on the field to meet with the players he's brought to all of our TV sets for so many years and receive accolades from them. More than anything he deserves to face a packed house of 38,000 cheering Red Sox fans and salute the people he's given so much. A loud, long "DON OR-SILL-O" chant would be fantastic too.

In Boston, we remember those who have done us good. When Orlando Cabrera came back to Boston in a gray and red Anaheim Angels jersey, he repeatedly got cheers when he came to bat for his role in the 2004 World Series run. Dave Roberts, a nobody for most other teams, is just as much a legend as David Ortiz. Nomar Garciaparra came back in green and gold A's gear and got a long ovation before setting into his trademark routine of adjusting his batting gloves. Orsillo deserves all that and more.

Monday, August 31, 2015

U.S. - Russia relations after 2016: Isolation, Engagement, or Confrontation?

This article is one of my columns for the American think tank Free Russia Foundation.

Ever since President George Washington advised Americans that it would be best to stay out of other countries' disputes in his Farewell Address, Americans have been often sympathetic and supportive of the idea of isolationism. Until World War I, the United States was only minimally involved with affairs beyond its immediate borders.  Even then, America's involvement came late. President Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 Presidential Election with the slogan "He Kept Us out of War", an obvious allusion to World War I raging across the Atlantic. That reluctant attitude towards involvement in foreign wars continued when President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the American people that he would not send American troops to fight in the Second World War. It was only the attack on Pearl Harbor that prompted American military action in World War II. 

Since then, however, the United States has been heavily involved in many different disputes around the world. From wars in Korea and Vietnam to intelligence-engineered coup d'etats in Iran and all over Central and South America, to wars in the Middle East and bombings in what was once Yugoslavia, the United States has been involved in all corners of the world since World War II ended. Sometimes the causes were noble, other times perhaps not so much. The United States directly and indirectly supported repressive regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, and even apartheid-era South Africa in the fight to contain communism. 

When President Barack Obama was swept into office in 2008, he touted a more restrained approach to foreign policy centered on diplomacy. Obama has seen victories and defeats with this approach, but the war between Ukraine and Russia remains an open and unresolved conflict.

More blunt isolationism, however, seems to still resonate with many Americans, and this is most clearly summed up by three words uttered by the leading Republican candidate.

"It's Europe's problem."

That's what U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has said when asked about the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the invasion of Russian troops into the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. In an interview with CNN in Scotland, Mr. Trump claimed that Europe should take more responsibility for the crisis, explicitly pondering why Germany had not taken a greater role in resolving the conflict. After all, Ukraine and Russia are European countries, are they not?

Trump has also said he's going to get along very well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While his remarks on the relationship between President Obama and President Putin, namely that Obama and Putin "hate each other "and have a "very bad relationship" do carry elements of truth, exactly how he'd mend U.S.-Russian relations is not yet clear.

Considerable consensus is evident among the other Republican Party candidates in regards to the Ukraine crisis. 

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush supports supplying Kyiv with lethal aid and an increased presence of American troops in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. His Floridian counterpart, Senator Marco Rubio, has been vocal in his support for supplying Kyiv with weapons, as well as the possibility of letting Ukraine join NATO, an ambition that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has expressed interest in holding a nationwide referendum for. Rubio called President Putin a "gangster", referencing the assassinations of Aleksandr Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov in recent remarks: "He [Putin] is basically an organized crime figure who controls a government and a large territory. ... This is a person who kills people because they're his political enemies. If you're a political adversary of Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium in your drink or shot in the street." 

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is also very supportive of both arming Ukraine and bringing both Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, as well as rebuilding missile defense systems that were dismantled under the Obama Administration and is in agreement with Governor Bush in regards to an increased troop presence in the Baltic states. 

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin did well to explicitly mention the conflict in Ukraine during the first major GOP debate. “I would send weapons to Ukraine,” Walker said. “I would put forces on the eastern border of Poland and the Baltic nations, and I would re-instate, put back in place the missile defense system in the Czech Republic.” Indeed, an American military convoy recently a made public trip through the Czech Republic. The convoy saw hundreds of Czechs waving the Stars and Stripes and cheering the passing American troops. 

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas also is supportive of sending Ukraine lethal aid, as is Ben Carson. Carson, however, was previously and publicly unaware that the Baltic states were members of NATO, raising some American political pundits' eyebrows

Governor John Kasich of Ohio has been vigorously supportive of supplying lethal aid to the Ukrainians as well. He is on record as saying “For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are not giving the Ukrainians [the ability] to defend themselves against Putin and the Russians.”

Despite the consensus coming across among many Republican candidates, some differences exist among the candidates specifically around Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul. While Senator Paul supports "isolating" Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine, he seems more reluctant to directly engage or supply Ukraine with aid. Mike Huckabee, once the Governor of Arkansas, is also quite wary of military escalation, instead opting to focus on economic isolation. 

On the other side of the aisle, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and President Obama's Secretary of State for many years, seems to employ more hawkish ideals than her boss. Clinton, like many of the Republican candidates, has alluded to providing greater financial and military assistance to Kyiv, but whether Clinton would sign a bill  as president directly arming Ukraine is unclear. Clinton has made strong remarks about Putin, though, comparing him to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. She has also spoken highly of the Ukrainian government and armed forces. "I think the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian civilians who’ve been fighting against the separatists have proven that they’re worthy of some greater support.” After many years of directly working with the president, though, it's questionable that a Clinton Administration would do much different than the Obama Administration. Hillary may also face opposition from those who lean farther left within her own party if she becomes president. 

If Vice President Joe Biden runs and wins the White House, the United States will have someone at the helm who is a seasoned and experienced character who has visited and met with leaders in the Baltic states and both Ukraine's President and Prime Minister. Biden, however, probably will not waver far from Obama's current policies, which, while they have thrown the Russian economy into considerable instability, have not visibly convinced the Kremlin to change course. Biden has also displayed more caution in regards to the War in the Donbas than Secretary Clinton or even President Obama. Farther to the left, Independent-turned-Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders has expressed interest in economic isolation, but has been, like Senator Paul, very wary of military action.

There are over twenty candidates running for President in the United States. However, there are probably only about three courses to choose from when you boil it down regarding Ukraine and Russia. Americans can choose the status quo with Clinton (or Biden if he runs), stronger action against Putin with most of the Republicans, restrained action with Senator Paul or Senator Sanders, or uncharted isolation with Donald Trump.