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Sowing war and chaos: US continues meddling in Syria through the Kurds

Doubling down on the fixation with ousting Assad produces another US foreign policy disaster

Alexander Mercouris

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On 6th October 2017 I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran in which I said that the US’s two previous plans in Syria having failed – Plan A being regime change through US backing of violent Jihadi groups, Plan B being the attempt to set up an anti Assad ‘Sunnistan’ in eastern Syria – the US was resorting to Plan C, which was to establish a US backed Kurdish protectorate in northern Syria, so as to undermine the Syrian government from within.

In that article I outlined in detail how that was being done, with the massive supply of arms to the YPG, the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, and through the permanent deployment of US troops in the Kurdish controlled regions of northern Syria.

I also outlined what I thought the likely consequences of this Plan C would be

Consequences of the US’s Kurdish policy

What are the consequences of the US’s Plan C/’Kurdish’ strategy, and what are its prospects?   In summary there are five:

(1) it will prolong the conflicts in Syria and Iraq;

(2) it is delaying the final defeat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria and Iraq;

(3) it will make the Iraqi government align itself still more closely to Iran and Syria;

(4) it will strengthen hostility within Turkey to the US, and may make Turkey more inclined to seek regional alignments with the US’s Middle East rivals and enemies: Russia and Iran;

(5) it risks making the Kurds even more isolated in their region, whilst uniting the region against them.

I also said that though Plan C was rather more grounded in reality than Plan B since a Kurdish statelet in northern Syria had rather more coherence and reality than the eastern ‘Sunnistan’ proposed as Plan B, it was nonetheless in the long term unworkable, and the attempt to implement it would set the scene for the next US Middle East debacle.

Just two weeks later, with the Iraqi army’s successful offensive against the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq, and following the Iraqi army’s recapture from the Kurds of the key Iraqi oil town of Kirkuk, it appeared that this Plan C was already failing and on 19th October 2017 I wrote a further article for The Duran in which I said as much.

In the event, with a persistence worthy of a better cause the US despite the failure in Iraq has persisted with its Plan C.

Firstly the US announced that it intended to keep 2,000 US troops stationed (illegally) in Syria indefinitely, supposedly to prevent a ‘vacuum’ emerging there.

In reality the true number of US troops in Syria is much greater, and it is the presence of these troops which by preventing the restoration of the Syrian government’s authority across the whole of Syria is threatening to create a ‘vacuum’ there.  Most, though not all, these US troops appear to be based in northern Syria, in territory controlled by the YPG.

Then the US announced that it was building up a 30,000 strong ‘border force’ in northern Syria, which it was clear would be built up around the Kurdish militia, the YPG.

The results have been very much as I predicted in my article of 6th October 2017.

Firstly, the US game with the Kurds in Syria has outraged the major regional powers: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey’s President Erdogan has now launched his army and air force against the Syrian Kurds whom the US has been backing in their north Syrian enclave of Afrin.

In order to launch this attack Erdogan needed Moscow’s permission, the Russians having previously  positioned military observers in Afrin.

A Turkish military delegation accordingly visited Moscow and obtained Moscow’s permission, resulting in the withdrawal of the Russian military observers from Afrin and the unimpeded operation of the Turkish air force there.

The Russians for their part attempted to persuade the Kurds to hand over Afrin to the Syrian government as a way of averting the Turkish attack.  The Kurds, counting on US protection, however refused, with the result that they have quickly discovered that the US protection that they had counted on is nowhere to be seen, so that they now find themselves facing the Turkish army on their own.

In a bizarre twist, showing the extent of their confusion and possibly highlighting the internal criticism their leaders are coming under for putting so much trust in the US, the YPG is now blaming the Russians for the debacle.

We know that, without the permission of global forces and mainly Russia, whose troops located in Afrin, Turkey cannot attack civilians using Afrin air space. Therefore we hold Russia as responsible as Turkey and stress that Russia is the crime partner of Turkey in massacring the civilians in the region.

In the meantime, where a few weeks ago it appeared that ISIS in its fastnesses in eastern Syria was close to total collapse after coming under simultaneous attack by the Syrian army and the US backed Kurds, it is now back on the attack and has actually been able to recover some territory at the expense of the Kurds, who are having to transfer fighters to face the threat from the Turkish army in the north.

Meanwhile the Syrian army has been able to capitalise on Turkey’s focus on the Kurds to carry out major advances against the remaining Jihadi enclaves in western Syria near Damascus and in Idlib province, where the key Abu Duhur air base has now been recaptured from the Jihadis, and where large numbers of Jihadi fighters have been surrounded by the Syrian troops.

Latest reports from the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency speak of continuing Syrian military advances deeper into Idlib province, with plans apparently being prepared for an offensive which will bring the Syrian army all the way up to the outskirts of Idlib city.

An article in the Guardian has now confirmed the critical role of the British government in egging the US on with Plan C as well as the extent of US and British dismay with the latest developments

The problem for the west is that, as an endgame possibly approaches in Syria, it cannot afford to lose Turkish diplomatic support since Ankara has been the vital countervailing force to a Russian-imposed peace.

The Turkish preoccupation with the Syrian Kurds on its borders could lead to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reaching a deal with Damascus and Moscow.

The speech – in which the UK Foreign Office had a big hand – was something of a watershed and was under-appreciated in Europe. Previously, Trump’s policy on Syria was simply the destruction of Isis and an aversion to talk of nation-building. But the Tillerson speech has been widely criticised because it was long on aspiration but short on detailing the credible levers the US and the west have to pressure Moscow to abandon Assad.

Western diplomats say they have some stakes in the ground: the threat to withhold EU and US reconstruction funds, the promise to keep 2,000 US troops inside Syria indefinitely and a slightly confused commitment to help the Kurds form a border force inside northern Syria. British ministers also repeatedly warn that a Russian-imposed peace that simply leaves Assad in charge would not only be morally reprehensible but unstable…..

There is so much wrong with the thinking in this article that it is difficult to know where to start.

Firstly, it is grotesque to say that “a Russian-imposed peace that simply leaves Assad in charge would not only be morally reprehensible but unstable” when it is Western policy to use the Kurds to prolong the war in Syria in order to increase pressure on the Russians so as to get them to agree to having President Assad ousted which is the true and obvious cause of the continuing instability there.

Secondly, to suppose that Turkey would stand idly by whilst the US armed the Kurds to fight President Assad’s government when Turkey is already fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its own territory was beyond farfetched.  It should have been obvious that any policy of this kind that relied upon both Turkey and the Kurds in order to succeed was bound to fail.

Thirdly, the idea that the Western powers can ‘pressure’ Russia into ‘abandoning’ President Assad now that President Assad is in secure control of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, all of Syria’s main cities, and in fact every part of what constitutes ‘useful Syria’, when Russia previously refused to abandon him when the territory under his control was reduced to a small coastal strip and he was about to lose control of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo, is beyond delusional.

Now that the Turkish army is pressing deep into Afrin, with the US and the Western powers as the Guardian article says unable to stop it, the Guardian article refers to what is rapidly becoming the default Western position in northern Syria: abandon the Kurds and hand over to Turkey and its Jihadi allies a strip of northern Syria as a ‘security zone’ at the Kurds’ expense

The US can argue it tolerated Kurdish territorial expansions across northern Syria, and specifically west of the Euphrates river, only so long as the Kurdish militias inside the Syrian Democratic Forces were needed to defeat Isis, but now that battle has been won the US priority is to stop the freefall in its relations with Turkey. If that means a temporary Turkish foothold in the patchwork that is Syria, so be it.

One might even call it Plan D.

That this is indeed the emerging policy – though some US officials still seem to be unaware of the fact – has now been confirmed by Rex Tillerson, the US’s hapless Secretary of State, who speaking of Turkey is reported to have said the following

Let us see if we can work with you to create the kind of security zone you might need.

What this ignores is that this policy is every bit unworkable as the Plans A, B and C which preceded it.

Firstly, the duplicity towards the Kurds is nothing short of staggering.  Having armed the Kurds and encouraged them to create their own statelet in northern Syria in order to fight ISIS and destabilise the government in Damascus, the US is now preparing to abandon them to Turkey as soon as the going gets difficult.

Needless to say duplicity of this order is going to shatter trust in the US both amongst the Kurds and even in Turkey, which is not likely to forget any time soon the game the US attempted to play with the Kurds in Syria at its expense.

Secondly, Turkey’s Jihadi allies have repeatedly shown their lack of military effectiveness.  It is all but inconceivable that they can control territory in northern Syria in the face of opposition from both the Kurds and the local Arab people without the protection on the ground of the Turkish army.

However whether the Turkish army would be prepared to remain entrenched forever in northern Syria facing what is likely to become before long a guerrilla war waged against it by both the Kurds and the local Arab population backed by the Syrian government in Damascus is problematic to say the least.

My opinion is that that is all but inconceivable, in which case Plan D is as unworkable as Plans A, B and C.

Thirdly, despite the Kurdish complaints about ‘betrayal’ by Russia, the likely consequence of the latest events is that over time it will oblige the Kurds to rein in their regional aspirations and seek to come to terms with the government in Damascus, just as the Russians have been urging them to do.

By any objective measure the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq have in recent years grossly overplayed their hand.

They used the US induced internal crises in Syria and Iraq to forge all but independent areas within those countries.  They then expanded these zones far beyond their natural limits, bringing under their control large areas with predominantly Arab populations.

Then as the internal crises within Syria and Iraq abated, instead of leveraging the strong position they had achieved to come to terms with the governments of those countries so as to hold on to their gains, the Kurds went for broke, and gambling on US promises of support, they pitched for what amounted to outright independence, in Syria de facto, in Iraq de jure.

As a result they antagonised all the regional powers and Russia, bringing down upon themselves the wrath of Iraq and Turkey, and finding themselves isolated, when they discovered in Iraq in October and in Syria now that the promise of US support had no reality behind it.

The result is that when they were attacked by the Iraqi army in October and by the Turkish army now they found that they had no one to look to but themselves.

Pressure of events if nothing else will now probably force the Kurds in Syria to come to terms, however grudgingly, with the Russians and with the Syrian government in Damascus.

That would obviously mean accepting the overall authority of the government in Damascus in return for whatever form of autonomy the Russians can negotiate for them.

That is the only realistic way that the Kurds in Syria – who ultimately account for no more than 8% of Syria’s population – can secure protection for themselves from Russia, which as recent events have shown is the only secure form of protection that can be relied upon in this region.

As for the US and its Western allies, the time has come – in fact it is long overdue – for them to commit themselves to some serious rethinking.

The strategy of regime change in Syria which was launched in 2011 has decisively failed.

There is no realistic possibility of the US persuading Russia to abandon President Assad and agreeing to regime change in Syria, and no realistic way the US can bring about regime change in Syria without Russia’s agreement.

That means that regime change in Syria is impossible and is not going to happen.

With the Syrian government in Damascus now secure and gaining daily in power and confidence, it is now only a matter of time before it regains full control of all Syrian territory.

All the various plans to keep Syria weak and divided by playing Sunnis against Alawites, Kurds against Arabs, and Turks against Kurds and Syrians, can only delay this outcome, not prevent it, and can only do so only at horrific cost, whilst setting up the US for further humiliation

This is because the only practical effect of these plans is to increase the Syrian government’s dependence on Moscow and Tehran, thereby strengthening Syria’s alliances with Russia and Iran and weakening the regional geopolitical position of the US.

In reality if the US’s objective really were to limit or even extinguish Russian and Iranian influence in Syria – as it claims – then the only way it could do this would be by coming to terms with the Syrian government in Damascus, which is the legitimate government of Syria recognised as such by the overwhelming majority of Syria’s people, so as to persuade it to limit or cut its ties to Russia and Iran  so as to reduce or extinguish the influence of these countries in Syria.

That would involve giving the Syrian government security guarantees that it could trust and economic aid to rebuild Syria, in return for its agreement to limit or close the Russian and Iranian bases which are now starting to appear on Syria’s territory.

Whether such a thing is now possible is another matter.  However the modern history of the Middle East is such an appalling catalogue of duplicity that I for one would not say it was impossible if it were ever seriously attempted.

Already there are rumours that some officials within the Syrian government in Damascus are uneasy about the over close relations (as they see it) which Syria now has with Iran, and the problems which they think these are causing Syria.

However if the US is going to embark upon this genuinely realistic foreign policy then it must end its maniacal fixation with the person of Bashar Al-Assad, and it must tell its allies in Britain, Saudi Arabia and Israel that they must do the same.

Putting aside the disaster this fixation has caused to the people of Syria, who have had to endure seven years of war because of it, its only result has been to strengthen Syria’s alliances with Iran, Russia and more recently Iraq, thereby weakening the geopolitical position in the Middle East of the US.

As ought to be obvious, doubling down on this fixation can only spell more disaster further down the line, and the latest debacle in northern Syria which has resulted in fighting between the US backed Kurds and the US’s NATO ally Turkey ought to underline this fact.

However because this obvious truth is one which continues to be passionately resisted in Washington – not to mention in London, Jerusalem and Riyadh – it looks to be rejected, opening the way for still more disasters to come.

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While US seeks to up the ante on pressure on the DPRK, Russia proposes easing sanctions

These proposals show the dichotomy between the philosophy of US and Russian foreign policy

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The United States last week accused the DPRK of violating refined petroleum caps imposed as a part of UN nuclear sanctions dating back to 2006, and is therefore submitting a proposal to cut all petroleum product sales to North Korea.

The Trump administration is keen on not only preserving pressure on North Korea over its nuclear arms development, but in increasing that pressure even as DPRK Chairman, Kim Jong-Un, is serially meeting with world leaders in a bid to secure North Korea’s security and potential nuclear disarmament, a major move that could deescalate tensions in the region, end the war with the South, and ease global apprehensions about the North’s nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Russia is proposing to the UNSC sanctions relief in some form due to the North’s expressed commitment to nuclear disarmament in the light of recent developments.

Reuters reports:

MOSCOW/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia’s envoy to North Korea said on Wednesday it would be logical to raise the question of easing sanctions on North Korea with the United Nations Security Council, as the United States pushes for a halt to refined petroleum exports to Pyongyang.

“The positive change on the Korean peninsula is now obvious,” said the ambassador, Alexander Matsegora, according to the RIA news agency, adding that Russia was ready to help modernize North Korea’s energy system if sanctions were lifted and if Pyongyang can find funding for the modernization.

The U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, banning exports including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood, and capping imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

China tried late last month to get the Security Council to issue a statement praising the June 12 Singapore meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and expressing its “willingness to adjust the measures on the DPRK in light of the DPRK’s compliance with the resolutions.”

North Korea’s official name is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

But the United States blocked the statement on June 28 given “ongoing and very sensitive talks between the United States and the DPRK at this time,” diplomats said. The same day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi about the importance of sanctions enforcement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to informally brief U.N. Security Council envoys along with South Korea and Japan on Friday.

Diplomats say they expect Pompeo to stress the need to maintain pressure on North Korea during his briefing on Friday.

In a tweet on Wednesday Trump said he elicited a promise from Russian President Vladimir Putin to help negotiate with North Korea but did not say how. He also said: “There is no rush, the sanctions remain!”

The United States accused North Korea last week of breaching a U.N. sanctions cap on refined petroleum by making illicit transfers between ships at sea and demanded an immediate end to all sales of the fuel.

The United States submitted the complaint to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee, which is due to decide by Thursday whether it will tell all U.N. member states to halt all transfers of refined petroleum to Pyongyang.

Such decisions are made by consensus and some diplomats said they expected China or Russia to delay or block the move.

When asked on June 13 about whether sanctions should be loosened, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said: “We should be thinking about steps in that direction because inevitably there is progress on the track that should be reciprocal, that should be a two-way street. The other side should see encouragement to go forward.”

The proposals of both the United States and Russia are likely to be vetoed by each other, resulting no real changes, but what it displays is the foreign policy positions of both nuclear powers towards the relative position of the DPRK and its rhetorical move towards denuclearization. The US demonstrates that its campaign of increased pressure on the North is necessary to accomplishing the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula, while Russia’s philosophy on the matter is to show a mutual willingness to follow through on verbal commitment with a real show of action towards an improved relationship, mirroring on the ground what is happening in politics.

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Europe divided over possible trade compromise with Trump

Even if a European proposal could score a trade cease fire, the war isn’t over

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US President Donald Trump has just lectured NATO on it member’s commitment performance and held a controversial meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin and is next week to receive EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, with trade matters being high up on the agenda.

Juncker is expected to present Trump with a package of proposals to help smooth relations and potentially heal areas of division, particularly those surrounding Europe’s trade relationship with America. Those proposals are precisely what is cropping up as another area of divergence between some members of the EU, specifically France and Germany, just after a major contention on migration has been driving discord within the Union.

This gets down to whether Europe should offer concessions to Trump on trade while Trump is admittedly describing the Union as a ‘foe’ and has initiated a trade spat with the Union by assessing trade tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe, spurring retaliatory tariff measures from the EU Commission.

France, specifically, is opposed to any sort of compromise with Trump on the matter, where Trump is perceived as an opponent to the Union and its unity, whereas Germany is economically motivated to seek an end to the trade dispute under the threat of a new round of tariffs emanating from the Trump administration, and is therefore seeking to find some sort of proposal that Trump will accept and therefore back down on his protectionism against the EU, and Germany in particular.

Politico reports:

Only a week before European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker flies to Washington, France and Germany are divided over how much he should offer to U.S. President Donald Trump to end a deepening trade war, say European diplomats and officials.

But, they add, Germany has the upper hand. Berlin is shaping Juncker’s agenda, suggesting three offers that he could take to Trump on July 25 to resolve the dispute, according to people familiar with the plans.

The French are uneasy about the wisdom of such a conciliatory approach, however, and publicly accuse Trump of seeking to splinter and weaken the 28-member bloc, which he has called his “foe.”

Despite Paris’ reservations about giving away too much to the increasingly hostile U.S. president, the diplomats say that the European Commission’s powerful Secretary-General Martin Selmayr supports the German attempt at rapprochement, which makes it more likely that Juncker will offer some kind of trade fix next week.

“It’s clear that Juncker can’t go to Washington empty-handed,” one diplomat said. He stressed that Juncker’s proposals would be a political signal to Washington and would not be the formal beginning of negotiations, which would have to be approved by EU countries.

European ambassadors will meet on Wednesday to discuss the scope of Juncker’s offer — and indeed whether any offers should be made at all. France’s official position is that Europe must not strike any deal with a gun to its head, or with any country that has opted out of the Paris climate accord, as Trump’s America has done.

While Berlin is terrified by the prospect of 20 percent tariffs on cars and is desperate for a ceasefire deal, France has more fundamental suspicions that the time for compromise is over and that Trump simply wants to destroy EU unity. Paris is concerned that Trump’s next target is its sacred farm sector and is putting more emphasis on the importance of preserving a united political front against Washington.

Two diplomats said Berlin has a broad menu of offers that should be made to Trump: a bilateral deal to cut industrial tariffs, a plurilateral agreement to eliminate car duties worldwide, and a bigger transatlantic trade agreement including regulatory cooperation that potentially also comes with talks on increasing U.S. beef exports into Europe.

Making such generous offers is contentious when Trump crystallized his trade position toward Brussels on CBS news on Sunday: “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe.”

This undiplomatic bombshell came not long after he reportedly advised French President Emmanuel Macron to quit the EU to get a better trade deal than he was willing to offer the EU28.

In announcing Juncker’s visit on Tuesday, the White House said that he and Trump “will focus on improving transatlantic trade and forging a stronger economic partnership.”

Talking to the enemy

Diplomats note that a French-led camp in Brussels reckons Trump’s goals are strategic, and that he’s not after the sort of deal Germany is offering.

A French government official said that Washington quite simply wants to shift the EU off the stage: “Trump’s objective is that there are two big blocs: The United States and China. A multipower world with Europe as a strong player does not fit in.”

France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire this month also issued a stark warning that Trump is seeking to drive a wedge between France and Germany — courting Paris, while simultaneously attacking Berlin’s trade surplus with the U.S. “In this globalized world, European countries must form a bloc, because what our partners or adversaries want is to divide us,” Le Maire said at an economic conference in Aix-en-Provence. “What the United States want, that’s to divide France and Germany.”

Despite these remarks from Le Maire, Anthony Gardner, former ambassador to the EU under the Barack Obama administration, said that he suspects the full magnitude of the threat has not sunk in. “Europe wake up; the U.S. wants to break up the EU,” he tweeted on Sunday. “Remember Belgium’s motto: L’union fait la force. [Unity creates strength]. Especially on trade. No side deals.”

One EU diplomat insisted that Brussels is not blind to these dangers in the run-up to Juncker’s visit.

Trump thinks that Europe is “too big to be controllable by DC, so it’s bad for America. Simple logic. And therefore the only deal that will bring the president to stop the trade war is the deal that breaks up the European market. I don’t quite think that’s the legacy Juncker is aiming for,” the diplomat said.

Europe is source of a deep frustration for Trump, as it runs a massive goods surplus with the U.S., at $147 billion in 2016. In particular, the U.S. president blames Germany’s mighty car exporters for this imbalance.

Leveling the field is not easy, however. With its market of 510 million consumers, Europe not only has the clout to stand up to the United States, but is increasingly setting global standards — particularly on food. This not only limits U.S. exports in Europe but also means that the European model is used in a broader trading ecosystem that includes Canada, Mexico and Japan.

New world order

Marietje Schaake, a liberal Dutch member of the European Parliament, observed that the U.S. trade strategy meshed with Trump’s political agenda.

“You could say there’s a new transatlantic relation emerging, of nationalists, populists and protectionists,” she said, pointing out that Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin has cast doubt on America’s commitment to supporting European security.

Trump’s opposition to the EU partly builds on an long-standing American discomfort about the EU’s economic policies.

“We already saw problems during the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, where the U.S. didn’t like EU demands such as on geographical indications [food name protections], and certainly didn’t like that we had ambitious requests in areas like public procurement,” said Pascal Kerneis, managing director of the European Services Forum and a member of the now defunct TTIP advisory group.

Kerneis said that Trump’s trade attacks are shifting the tensions to a completely new level: “He’s attacking on all fronts, hoping to break our unity, particularly between Germany and France.”

France particularly fears that Trump’s duties on Spanish olives could only be the first salvo on Europe’s whole system of farm subsidies.

EU lawmaker Schaake said that France is right to worry about a conflagration. “Once we give in in one area, he will attack at the next one,” she said. “If we allow Trump to play Europeans against each other, sector by sector, it will be a losing game.”

Even if Europe goes about capitulating to Trump’s gripes about the Union, whether it gets back to NATO defense spending or the trade deficit, the question remains whether this will satiate Trump’s political appetite and result in an improved trade perspective and politically acceptable position with Washington, and France’s concern that the matter runs deeper and has a foreign policy agenda behind it, and that caving to Trump’s pressure will only end in defeat for the EU would therefore appear reasonable.

But Germany is staring down the barrel of a possible new round of tariffs that would hurt some of their largest industries and is therefore under a lot of pressure to find a solution, or at least some sort of agreement that could deescalate the situation.

However, Germany’s recent record of resolving international issues is such that Germany is really only scoring cease fire agreements, rather than ending the real political conflicts, referring mainly to the immigration issue which recently resulted only in diffusing some inter Union tensions, but without resolving the problem itself.

In this context, Germany could promise the moon and stars to Trump, possibly avert further trade tensions, but yet fail to address the core political and trade conflicts that have already broken out. Essentially, then, such a compromise would only serve to function as damage control, while leaving Germany and the Union at a further disadvantaged political position relative to the States at the political table.

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EU and Japan ink free trade deal representing over 30% of global GDP

The free trade agreement represents a victory for free trade in the face of growing protectionism

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In a bid to preserve free trade and strengthen their trade partnership, the European Union and Japan have finished a free trade zone agreement that has been sitting in the pipeline for years.

The present global economic outlook provided the needed spur to action to get the ball rolling again and now it has finally reached the end zone and scored another point for free and open trade against the growing influence of protectionism, which has been creeping up with alarming rapidity and far reaching consequences in recent months.

Under the deal, Japan will scrap tariffs on some 94% of goods imported from Europe and the EU in turn is canning 99% of tariffs on Japanese goods.

Between the European Union and Japan, the trade deal impacts about 37% of the world’s GDP, making it one of the largest and impactful of such agreements.

The Japan Times reports:

Top European Union leaders and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed an economic partnership agreement Tuesday in Tokyo, a pact that will create a massive free trade zone accounting for 37 percent of the world’s trade by value.

European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hastily arranged their visit to Tokyo after Abe was forced to abruptly cancel plans to attend a July 11 signing ceremony in Brussels in the aftermath of flooding and mudslides in western Japan.

Japanese officials said the signing is particularly important to counter intensifying protectionism worldwide triggered by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Negotiations on the pact between Japan and the EU, which started in 2013, had stagnated for a time but regained momentum after Trump took office in January 2017.

“We are sending a clear message that we stand together against protectionism,” Tusk said at a joint news conference with Abe after they signed the agreement.

“The relationship between the EU and Japan has never been stronger. Geographically we are far apart, but politically and economically we could be hardly any closer,” Tusk said. “I’m proud today we are taking our strategic partnership to a new level.”

Tusk stressed that the EU and Japan are partners sharing the same basic values, such as liberal democracy, human rights and rule-based order.

Abe also emphasized the importance of free and fair trade.

“Right now, concerns are rising over protectionism all around the world. We are sending out a message emphasizing the importance of a trade system based on free and fair rules,” he said.

The pact will create a free trade bloc accounting for roughly 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. Japan and the EU hope to have the agreement, which still needs to be ratified by both parties, come into force by March.

Under the EPA, tariffs on about 99 percent of Japan’s exported goods to the EU will eventually be eliminated, while duties on 94 percent of EU’s exported items to Japan will be abolished, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The EPA will eliminate duties of 10 percent on Japan’s auto exports to the EU seven years after the pact takes effect. The current 15 percent duties on wine imports from the EU will be eliminated immediately, while those on cheese, pork and beef will be sharply cut.

In total, the EPA will push up domestic GDP by 1 percent, or ¥5 trillion a year, and create 290,000 new jobs nationwide, according to the government.

“The world is now facing raging waves of protectionism. So the signing ceremony at this time is particularly meaningful,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said earlier this month on condition of anonymity.

“The impact for Japan is big,” the official said.

Fukunari Kimura, an economics professor at Keio University, said the EU is now trying to accelerate the ratification process.

“This is a repercussion of President Trump’s policies. They will try to ratify it before Brexit in March of next year,” he said in an interview with The Japan Times last week.

But the deal has raised concerns among some domestic farmers, in particular those from Hokkaido, the country’s major dairy producer.

According to an estimate by the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, the EPA will cut national production in the agriculture, fishery and forestry industries by up to ¥114.3 billion a year, with Hokkaido accounting for 34 percent of the predicted losses.

“The sustainable development of the prefecture’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries is our top priority. We need to make efforts to raise our international competitiveness,” Hokkaido Gov. Harumi Takahashi said during a news conference July 10.

Japan and the EU had reached a basic agreement on the EPA in December.

Tokyo also led negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in January 2017.

In March, 11 countries including Japan signed the so-called TPP11, or a revised TPP pact that does not include the U.S.

“The Japan-EU EPA is another important step for Japan to strengthen its trade relationship with key trading partners, and demonstrate that trade liberalization is alive and well, even if the United States is taking a different stance,” wrote Wendy Cutler, a former acting deputy U.S. Trade Representative, in an email sent to The Japan Times last week.

“The EU deal also reduces Japanese dependence on the U.S. market and thus increases its leverage to resist unreasonable trade demands by the United States,” she wrote.

According to the Foreign Ministry, the EU, which accounts for 22 percent of the world’s GDP, was the destination for 11.4 percent of Japanese exports in 2016. In the same year, the figure for the U.S. was 20.2 percent and 17.7 percent for China.

In 2016, Japan’s exports to the EU totaled ¥8 trillion, while reciprocal trade was ¥8.2 trillion.

The deal provides tariff relief for both parties and can improve the quantity of trade between them, expand the economy and create many jobs. It also helps to further diversify their trade portfolios in order to mitigate the prospect of a single global trade partner wielding too much influence, which in turn provides a certain amount of cover from any adverse actions or demands from a single actor. In this way, current trade dependencies can be reduced and free and diversified trade is further bolstered.

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