Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Black Swan Tuesday

The international order will continue to degrade as the major Western power (USA) continues to disengage thorough official disinterest and faculty room theorizing, and the medium Western powers reach the end phases of disarmament and self-doubt. The growing draw of this vacuum will encourage more and more of the unstable bits in the world will start to wobble and shake.

What is now everyone's top shelf concern, the Islamic State, was just a few years ago something laughed off as a low probability and probably slightly paranoid "Black Swan."

So too, in their time, were the Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring and even the slow-rolling invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

These things are not new to our age, or limited to the usual places. Heck, one could even call the early 80s Falkland Island War a Black Swanish occurrence.

If one agrees with the opening premise to this post, then you have to agree that we should expect to see more small and large Black Swan events - but perhaps Black Swan is the wrong term to use. None of they above examples were really out of the blue. They were always seen, at least by a small cadre of people, as a possible conflict - just one that had a low probability of boiling over.  Humans are wrong and unpredictable ... and the expected results follow.

I have a half a dozen or so possible conflicts I ponder on slow days. I keep them to myself. I like to look for those things that are relatively obscure, but not so far out as to be unbelievable. What I find most interesting are those areas where we have "frozen conflicts," or known areas of disagreement that are quiet now, but are just looking for the right moment to burst in to flame. Doubly interesting are those smallish conflict that through their location or connections could easily cascade in to something much greater.

At least for this Tuesday I would like to drag out one of my shadowy cygnets to share with you in broad terms - with a point to a few branches and sequels for fun.

Let's set the table, you've got it all here; religion, ethnicity, poverty, oil, and land.

First nation is a nation of a little under 3-million to 3.2-million souls that is 95% Christian, 98% ethnically homogeneous, a fertility rate of 1.64 and a land area of 11,484 sq mi or 15,898 sq mi.

The other nation one of about 9.5-million to 9.2-million souls that is 95% Muslim, 92% ethnically homogeneous, a fertility rate of 2.0 and a land area of 29,012 sq mi or 33,436 sq mi.

They have already fought one war a quarter a century ago where the smaller nation in essence won without a peace treaty, killing 5-6 of the larger nation's soldiers for each of their's lost.

Notice in the descriptions above there is some ambiguity about the size and population of the nations? That is from the territory the smaller nation, Armenia, took from the larger one, Azerbaijan, after they started fighting each other in the final days of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

While frozen for a generation, there are forces at work that are starting to shake things loose and make it my top "Black Swan" candidate for 2015.

Over at the NYT - we have in open source a primer to a spark;
Overshadowed by the fighting in Ukraine, another armed conflict in the former Soviet Union — between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh — has escalated with deadly ferocity in recent months, killing dozens of soldiers on each side and pushing the countries perilously close to open war.

The month of January was heavily stained by blood, with repeated gun battles and volleys of artillery and rocket fire. Two Armenian soldiers were killed and several wounded in a fierce gunfight on Jan. 23 along the conflict’s northern front. That set off a weekend of violence including grenade and mortar attacks that killed at least three Azerbaijani soldiers.

The most recent clashes prompted an unusually pointed rebuke by international mediators who met on Monday in Krakow, Poland, with the Azerbaijani foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov.

“The rise in violence that began last year must stop,” the mediators, from France, Russia and the United States, said in a joint statement, adding, “We called on Azerbaijan to observe its commitments to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. We also called on Armenia to take all measures to reduce tensions.”
This is not the year for either nation to start to back off.

First of all there is, as usually in this part of the world, oil. Azerbaijan has grown used to its oil boon, yet while we enjoy our gas below $2/gallon, the Azeri see their window closing to leverage the money they have earned over the last decade - money they have in a large part spent building up a military in order to have another go at the Armenians.

The Armenians?
Tensions are expected to grow even further this year as Armenia prepares to commemorate in April the 100th anniversary of the genocide against Armenians in Turkey.
No Armenian politician is going to want to look like a pushover anytime soon.

If this war goes hot, there are all sorts of players who may find themselves in the crunch. Here are the major ones;

1. Russia: there is nothing the Russians would more naturally fall in to than supporting their little brothers the Armenians. It fits in too well with Putin's Orthodox revival he is trying to put himself at the front of.

2. Iran: after Persians, what is the largest ethnic group in Iran? That's right, Azeri. There are about 15 million Azeri in Iran. Just to add flavor, of the 9+ million Azeri in Azerbaijan itself, 85% of them are Shia. Iran sees itself as the protector of Shia Islam, something easily seen today in Syria.

3. Georgia: thought a Christian nation, Russia has gobbled up two ethnic enclaves and the Armenians claim another small bit. One can argue where they would back a Russian play in a move to protect its larger interests in a deal.

4. Turkey: to say the least, they have a bad history with the Armenians and the Russians. The Azeri are also a Turkic people.

Depending on which branch and sequel you want to play out, nations as diverse as China and Greece have a play as well.

When you look at where this could go, well, it is an interesting world in which we live.

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