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Constantinople falls to Ottoman Ruler Mehmet II, 1453

Constantinople falls to Ottoman Ruler Mehmet II, 1453

For hundreds of years alum was mined in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, which back then went by the name of Anatolia. Anatolia was the breadbasket of Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, and was under the control of the Byzantine Emperors for nearly a millennium.

Alum was an essential commodity for the makers of fabrics and tapestries in Flanders and other cloth-making centers in northwest Europe. They used it to set the colors and make sure they did not run or fade too quickly. (The saying “These colors don’t run” might have been coined back then.)

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Then in 1455 the Ottomans occupied Smyrna and took control of its alum mines. Needless to say, this put quite a strain on the tapestry industries, cloth makers and dyers of Western Europe, who now had to pay through the nose to obtain this irreplaceable substance.

We in the contemporary United States get rather frosted when we consider that we have to buy petroleum from some countries who absolutely hate us, and who undoubtedly use some of that money to finance overseas terrorism in the West. We may question whether we’re financing a war against ourselves.

Western Europe had a similar problem. Having to pay the Ottomans for alum was particularly galling because there was a continuing low-intensity war between Christendom in the West and the Ottoman Empire in the East. The Ottomans continually probed into the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Think of Malta around 1565 or the gates of Vienna in the 1680’s. (Vienna had (and may still have) a residential district called the Turkenschanze, or Turkish Redoubt, which was where part of the old city’s walls faced the Turkish armies. It was Sigmund Freud’s neighborhood, until he left.) So, after the fall of Constantinople, Western Europe was in effect financing the war against itself.

Then, in the 1480s alum deposits were discovered in one of the Papal States in Italy. The Pope moved quickly to establish a monopoly on the alum trade. A papal bull (which doesn’t mean what you think it means) was issued prohibiting the purchase or importation of any Turkish alum under pain of excommunication and eternal damnation. In fact, the written text of the indulgences that were being sold to finance the Vatican’s wars (mostly against other Italian city-states like Florence) and its construction of St. Peter’s was revised to carve out the purchase of Turkish alum and make it a mortal sin that could not be absolved by any indulgence. These were the same indulgences which, a few decades later, really upset an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.

Try to imagine what it must have been like for some cardinal or canon lawyer laboring in the bowels of the Vatican to come up with the theological underpinning for making the purchase of Turkish alum (but not the Pope’s alum) an unforgivable mortal sin.

Nowadays, there are threats to slap 35% or 50% tariffs on some goods manufactured overseas. Could we try a threat of eternal damnation for buying a Ford Escort assembled in Ciudad Juarez? The more things change….

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

In order to subvert Turkey’s supposedly democratic system, it appears that Sultan Erdogan has staged (as in theatrically staged) a coup. After the coup was defeated he rounded up the most guilty culprits: the judiciary and the prosecutors. Like Hitler, Erdogan uses the excuse of an emergency situation to arrogate extraordinary powers to himself and eliminate political opposition.

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Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

A few months ago The Sparkspread wrote about Erdogan’s double game, that is, using ISIS as proxy fighters against the Kurds whose PKK organization inside Turkey is virtually at war with the regime.

The Syrian civil war has been a no-win situation for Turkey since it first broke out in 2011. Turkish Syrian policy has been more or less aligned with the U.S. insofar as Erdogan wants to get rid of Bashar al-Assad. But Erdogan and Obama both failed to reckon with how strongly Iran and Russia would backstop Assad. For the Russians, Syria and Assad are essential: without the Russian naval base in Tartus, on the Syrian coast, Russia cannot make a legitimate claim of being an Atlantic power. For Iran, Syria is the other end of the Shia Crescent from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Assad plays the same game. Since the start of the civil war, Assad has allowed Syrian Kurds to control the Rojava, a territory in Syria that stretches east and west along the border with Turkey.

Take that, Erdogan.

The Syrian Kurds have been fighting ISIS with some degree of success. In the fall of 2014 they fought off an ISIS attempt to take over the Rojava town of Kobani. Kurds in Turkey wanted to join in the fight against ISIS, but Erdogan initially wouldn’t let them go and fight. Erdogan undoubtedly saw his advantage in letting ISIS win in Kobani and maybe roll up the other Kurdish-controlled towns in Rojava. Of course, Erdogan had to play his hand carefully because too much pro-ISIS/anti-Kurdish sentiment would cause friction with the Obama Administration.

For Obama, the Syrian Kurds were fighting the ISIS jihadis, so that was good. After a few months, complete with Kurdish riots in Turkey and pressure from Obama, Erdogan finally allowed the Turkish Kurds to join the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. That, plus American arms, plus American air strikes against ISIS positions finally kicked ISIS completely out of Kobani.

Even for Assad, he needs to fight ISIS, but not so hard that he wins and then finds that the U.S. and Turkey don’t really need him any more. He has to portray himself as part of a solution to a problem (ISIS), but he has to keep that problem going.

Though the U.S. knows that Erdogan’s attitude to ISIS is one of appeasement, Obama can’t play his hand too hard either. Remember those air strikes on the ISIS Kobani positions? The American fighters took off from Incirlik air base in Turkey.

This is one complicated chessboard.

The attack on Ataturk Airport shows the danger of any kind of appeasement of ISIS. Erdogan and his regime, though putatively Islamist, isn’t half as religious as it needs to be in order to meet the so-called Caliphate’s 7th Century standards of piety. In their view, Turkey isn’t part of the House of Islam. Is ISIS going to fight directly with Turkey? How many ISIS “sleeper” cells are there in Turkey, given the porosity of its borders with those parts of Syria and Iraq that comprise the so-called Islamic State? The Ataturk Airport bombing may well be just the beginning of a wave of ISIS-terrorist actions aimed at destabilizing Erdogan.

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Xi_Jinping

Xi Jinping, President of the PRC and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

Thus does le capitalisme dirigiste hit the wall.  CNBC reports that China’s economic growth edged down to 6.9 percent in the final quarter of 2015 as trade and consumer spending weakened, dragging full-year growth to its lowest in 25 years. Since virtually no self-respecting Western economist or business forecaster believes any official Chinese government-issued economic data, it’s a fair bet that China’s real growth rate is much, much lower than that.

Only a few years ago, foreign money flooded into China as one of the so-called emerging market economies, along with Turkey (which The Sparkspread addressed recently), Brazil, and a few other countries. Commodity prices boomed along with the China boom, although the China boom itself was a debt-fueled spree enabled by China’s banks — under state direction, of course. It made the 1980’s LBO boom in the US look like a sedate tea party. For example: China manufactured more cement between 2010 and 2013 than the United States produced during the entire 20th century.

That is mind-boggling. But the party has to run out of booze at some point, or else the guests reach the point where they lie insensible on the floor, unable to imbibe one more drop.

China’s banks funded all of the booze and buffet tables with huge loans, most of which will never be paid back. The “lackluster” 6.9% growth rate reflects in part the exhaustion of the country’s banks. How can they continue to lend the vast sums needed to prop up China’s exorbitant growth rates? The short answer is, they can’t. When China reports a 6.9% growth rate, it’s more likely that the country’s real growth growth rate is stuck at mid-1970’s levels, back when Mao Tse Tung held the reins.

This is coupled with something of a national identity crisis. What does it mean to be China in the world of the 21st century? It is building artificial islands in international waters and claiming that such construction makes them Chinese territorial waters. It has one aircraft carrier and wants a few more. Its economy did grow by leaps and bounds, every year, for the last few decades. But how does China reconcile all that money and muscle-flexing with its traditional victimology? True, China was a victim of past aggression, whether from the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or from Japan between 1931 through the end of WWII. But its recent and remarkable progress imports assumption of a greater responsibility for constructive leadership in the world. Whether the country lives up to that responsibility remains to be seen. It certainly won’t happen without internal stability. The legitimacy of China’s Communist Party rule depends in large measure on a continued impressive growth rate, and that is by no means a sure thing.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

Based on the latest reports available, ten people, mostly German tourists, were killed today in a suicide bombing in Instanbul’s Blue Mosque/ Hagia Sophia district, one of that city’s major historic tourist attractions. The attack is reportedly the work of the Islamic State and was carried out by a Syrian national who crossed into Turkey recently. The big question, though is whether this will end President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s double game, in which Turkey, a NATO country, pretends to be an ally of the West, but actually does more for the Islamic State than Switzerland ever did for Nazi Germany.

As you can see from any map, IS has neither ports nor pipelines. Erdogan permits the Islamic State to truck crude oil into Turkey, sell it there, and buy what it needs. Without Turkey’s complicity (not to mention funding from the Saudis and other Gulf States), Daesh’s capabilities would be no greater than those of Boko Haram.

Last month, Russia, still angry about Turkey shooting down one of its fighter jets that crossed into Turkish airspace, published photos of oil trucks delivering crude from ISIS wells to Turkish refineries and ports. Erdogan’s son is heavily involved in the IS oil trade, and his son-in-law serves as Turkey’s energy minister.

Erdogan, a Sunni, is opposed to Syria’s Bashar al Assad, an Alawite Shia. Support of Daesh/IS in its fight against Assad thus serves certain of Erdogan’s foreign policy and religious goals. Of course, our esteemed ally’s assistance to IS cuts directly against US policy in the region. But Obama can’t publicly criticize Turkey because the US needs it as a staging area for the US forces still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey was also supposed to be the birthing room for the “moderate rebels” who, we were told, would fight Assad and then turn around and fight Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and IS. But the effort to arm a group of these so-called “moderate rebels” (a candidate for the Oxymoron Hall of Fame) is a complete non-starter. All of that fine US military hardware that was intended for the non-existent moderate rebel force has been going directly into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra and (yes, get this) Islamic State. That’s right, the US has been arming IS, courtesy of Erdogan.

Erdogan’s support for Daesh is also a function of his relationship with the rich Gulf sheikdoms, like Qatar, in particular, from whom he gets funding for domestic programs that preserve his popularity with the Turkish electorate. The Gulf States fund IS because they’ll take IS’s cruelty and barbarism over a Shia victory in Syria any day of the week.

But best of all for Erdogan, the Islamic State acts as his proxy army in his war against the Kurds. Erdogan has to worry not only about Kurdish rebels inside Turkey’s borders, but also about the growing Kurdish settlements in the Rojava, the area in the very north of Syria along the Turkey-Syria frontier. Erdogan probably thought that if he remained on good terms with Daesh that they would not strike in Turkey.

His calculation was proved wrong earlier today in Istanbul.

Daesh survives in large part because Erdogan keeps the Turkish border open for it. The American and Western European press create the impression that the wayward adolescents and other crazies who want to join Daesh have to get to Turkey and then sneak across the border while cleverly avoiding Turkish authorities. That happens only in Obama’s dreams. In reality, Erdogan does everything short of giving them a free bus ticket to Raqqa.

So why did IS attack Istanbul? Has the Erdogan-IS relationship turned sour? Erdogan would like Turkey to be the keystone for the balance of power in the Middle East, between Israel and the Islamic world. Maybe IS sees that as a back door way of re-establishing the Caliphate that used to be in Istanbul back in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps IS is telling Erdogan that there’s only room enough for one Caliph in this Middle East.

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Putin - exasperated

Yes Vlad, oil prices are all the way down there.

About this time last year, the Sparkspread pointed out that Vladimir Putin had overlooked Energy Rule Numero Uno when he re-annexed Crimea to Russia sixty years after Khruschev gave it back to Ukraine. That rule is that energy is all about infrastructure. So, before you invade a country with the ultimate goal of ruling it (and therefore, of necessity, administering it in one fashion or another), you should make sure you understand the target territory’s energy infrastructure.

This is something Putin notably forgot to do. Crimea has four power plants that aggregate to a rather puny 327MW in nameplate capacity, but demand in Crimea ranges from 850MW to 1250MW in winter, depending on the severity of the season.

The math is easy. More than 80% of Crimea’s commodity electricity supply is under the control of Kiev, and Kiev, being the capital of Ukraine, takes a rather dim view of Volodya’s revanchism.

The maps are pretty easy too. The little Isthmus of Perekop, which connects Crimea to Ukraine, is a chokepoint with two main transmission lines that supply the Crimean peninsula.

Crimea-electricity--638x539

Electric transmission lines into Crimea

Wait… Did we say that Kiev controls the electricity supply? Not so fast. Over the past week or so, saboteurs have blown up power lines in southern Ukraine, which have plunged Russian-annexed Crimea into an energy crisis. About 2 million Crimeans are now relying on emergency generators. This proves the point the Sparkspread made last November: Crimea depends almost entirely on Ukraine for energy.

And that’s not Putin’s only headache. Under Russian law, using drafted Russian soldiers outside the borders of Russia requires the soldiers’ consent. (Of course, “Russian law,” along with “moderate rebel” and “limited nuclear war,” enters the language as one of the 21st Century’s new oxymorons.) The fighting in Ukraine produced about 2000 dead and 3200 wounded Russian soldiers. Hmmm… How to explain that? Injured in training? That’s a tough sell. That many dead and disabled soldiers in a war of choice presents a fundamental question of political sustainability of the conflict at home, even if home is a totalitarian state. Vlad might give a call to Dubbaya if he has any doubts.

Oil prices stayed low. U.S. and European sanctions started to affect the Russian economy. Just as von Schrotter described Prussia as an army with a country, Russia can be imagined as an army with oil fields and natural gas reserves. But under sanctions, drilling for new reserves and maintaining the production equipment on existing fields became far more difficult. Putin’s oil oligarchs and their apparatchiks have had their hands full trying to maintain Russian oil production in both quantity and quality.

Vladimir had to weigh the costs and benefits of his Crimean campaign. Better to cut his losses on Crimea, leaving matters to the resident separatists, and focus on a new adventure.

Like Syria, maybe.

This past February, Putin and Peroshenko, Ukraine’s president, inked the Minsk II accord, which at least implemented a cease-fire, more or less. Peroshenko had to recognize his country’s loss of certain territory in Ukraine to pro-Russian separatists, and the deal allowed Putin to pull the Russian army out without too much loss of face. Putin’s proxy war through Russian-leaning separatists continued in full swing, of course, but since the Russian pull-out the separatists’ battles have not yielded any significant territorial gains beyond what was already obtained through Minsk II.

Kiev is not in control of rebuilding the transmission lines in Ukraine. Ethnic Tatars, whose parents and grandparents were forcibly deported by Stalin at the end of WWII, and Ukrainian nationalists have blocked repair teams. So far, authorities in Kiev have not tried to force the issue.

Putin is now accusing Ukraine of “torturing” Crimeans with the power cuts. Russia has responded by cutting coal deliveries to Ukraine. Coal sales are one thing, but he hasn’t shut off natural gas yet. Russia needs the natural gas revenues as much as it ever did, but escalation is always possible. But if Putin presses too hard on Ukraine, he’ll just unite Ukrainians against him politically.

As the winter sets in, this should provide some great political theater.

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Crimea-electricity--638x539

For the moment, at least, the lamps are going out all over Crimea, rather than all over Europe.

The Daily Beast reports that Ukraine temporarily cut off power supplies to Crimea today (Wed., 12/24).  According to Kiev, the Russian-controlled peninsula has not curbed its power consumption during a power crisis. While Crimea is controlled by Russia, it receives its power from Ukraine.

via Ukraine Cuts Off Crimea’s Power – The Daily Beast.

As shown in the map above, and as pointed out in an earlier post, Crimea is an energy island, something that Putin evidently failed to take into account before trying to realize his revanchist fantasy.

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