Comedo, ergo sum.

If you tune back to 30 years ago, you’d realize how huge the invasion of food into our lives has become today. And I don’t mean the substance itself, which we used to put the emphasis on in the past. I’m talking about images of food: recipes, celebs being photographed while cooking or eating food, culinary globe-trotters sharing their gastronomic experiences from around the world, bloggers displaying their fave meals before (and often instead of) consuming them. These days, it seldom happens that a bunch of folks would sit at a table somewhere, and not bring the conversation to food (book talk used to be the fad in the days of yore; but no more).

First, our newly emerged middle class figured that you don’t just spend your time mooing while munching: “Yummmm, tasty! Gimme some more!”, and that’s it. Socializing while eating is a chance to utter complex and sophisticated conclusions about the consistency and texture of the sauce as well, or demonstrate your ability to discern saffron from cinnamon, and maybe even tell a story about that one time when you ate some awesome rice while you were in Goa (you did have heart-burn for days afterwards, but don’t you mention that). Of course, as in every cultured conversation, you should insert little bits of pretentiousness and idiosyncracies – detailed insight about ingredients people should never combine with fish, others you’d never dare taste even if you had a gun pressed to your head (supposedly), and still others that you’ve unsuccessfully tried to convince your little daughter to learn eating. Oh, and let’s not forget the subject of all those religious culinary taboos that have somehow sneaked back into our lives along with the latest “lifestyle shift”.

But the kitchen talk goes most smoothly when we’re talking about healthy food, whatever that’s supposed to mean. You’re either for or against saturated fats, gluten, fibers, iron and other heavy metals. And if you happen to have a vegetarian in your company, or God forbid, an all-out vegan, there’s no way in the world the conversation could stray away from the food thematic. All the books about looking after oneself and improving oneself that Foucault wrote, rely heavily on reviewing the various vectors of individualization and self-expression, now sexuality being pushed aside by food habits as the prime subject. Losing weight, detox diets, cleansing the thoughts and spirit – it’s all there. A friend of mine who lives abroad, comes every summer for vacations back here, and each time she fiollows a brand new diet, which she is always so eager to promote through personal example. Last time she had gone crazy about that US-inspired “paleo-diet”. Eating only stuff humans used to be able to afford before they became a sedentary species and started growing wheat and potatoes, milking cows, and keeping bees. Thus, the whole company around the table would teleport themselves into the imaginary Paleolite, and spend hours discussing what sorts of roots and berries people used to eat back then, how long they used to run in chase of antelopes, and how good and healthy they felt because of all that. Oh, by the way, does whiskey count as fermented paleo-fruit? Hmmm. Must check that with my Facebook paleo group to be sure.

What’s remarkable is that today, a more global meta-conversation around the Web is getting shaped up, transcending mere food conversation. See, I’m no longer just eating food and sharing my perceptions with those around me: I feel compelled to rub my awesome experience into the face of people whom I’ve barely met, but who I’m sure would be more than happy to vicariously “taste” my meal, even though they can’t really take a bite or smell it in real. It doesn’t matter – I HAVE to share it with the world! Otherwise why even bother eating? A new term sprang up in the 80s, “food porn“. As in sumptuously putting delicious food on display, manipulating the images with photographic filters and special lighting, even sprinkling colorful fake food elements made of plastic here and there – and making it all look even more natural and healthy than the original product. Today, everyone with a decent mobile phone can be an amateur “food pornographer” so to speak, and entice their friends and make them jealous by displaying the meal he’s just been served at the restaurant. You may not like seafood at all, but the spectacular sight is so mesmerizing, how can you resist uploading it in Instagram? You brag before your virtual friends, and you believe yourself so much, you even start feeling jealous about yourself! Because gradually, without noticing, you’ve experienced a grand cultural shift: now you’re enjoying the food much less; rather, its very images appear more savory than the food itself.

The same effect, though now with a trace of abstract thinking, can be noticed amidst the flood of meal names that bombard our senses at every corner. Boeuf Stroganoff, Duck Magret on A Bed of Geese Liver… It’s not very different with the salads, same exotics there: a few fresh straws guarantee you a quick trip to Nice, California, Morocco. The salad genre is very well represented in my local cuisine here, it provides huge opportunities for variations. Still, there’s the debate what is truly local national cuisine, and what was borrowed from (and more infuriatingly, by) our neighbors. National pride hasn’t bypassed the food domain either, obviously. There’s also the tendency to put food names in diminutive form, thus making them sound more “homely”, creating a sensation of delicious, grandmother-style old-school cosiness in the mouth and mind. Besides, like I said, there’s the heroics of gastronomic nationalism. It’s a big thing around my place. A shashlik could still be quite oriental, but if it’s got a “haiduk” prefix attached to it, its very mentioning causes something to stir in your chest, and you’re ready to stick a 20 buck bank note to the forehead of the clarinetist who’s blowing his mind off a couple feet away from the table (any self-respecting traditional restaurant should have a loud band of wind instrumentalists, no?)

An inexplicable notion seems to persist that the further back in time we dwell in our imagination, the better our ancestors used to eat. Better, meaning healthier, tastier, more accomplished as a whole. It stands to reason that those glorious folks of yore would feast just as gloriously, right? Oh well, when the belly talks, reason sits silently somewhere in the corner. Because we don’t even need to go back as far as the Paleolite to realize that the cuisine of our predecessors may’ve looked a bit… well, boring. If we remove things like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans and all those spices, that is. And think about it: we often like identifying with the downtrodden common-folk, but when it comes to food, we suddenly prefer the Sultan’s dinner. How come?

I’m not sure if we’ve given up on developing a truly unique national culture of our own at this point and frankly I don’t care, but as far as national cuisine goes, we’ve been working on that one quite actively as of late. The idea is to eat certain things that are trademarked within our touristic-political borders without anyone else having a chance to claim them: our white cheese “sirene“, our rakia… oh, and don’t you dare touch or rename our “sour milk” that you so stupidly call yogurt! We’re prepared to grab the yatagans right away! The problem with national cuisine is, there’s been no one to hold the food canon in check for the last 30 years, since the demise of communism, and the almighty Balkantourist institution along with it (you know, the one that pulled the so called “Shopska salad” out of their ass, and retroactively created a whole pre-history around it). Who knows if it’s made with or without peppers, parsley, ham and olives any more? Take such a typically patriotic meal like Tarator (essentially, yogurt diluted in water and mixed with minced cucumbers). Should it have garlic in it? Should there be walnuts and fennel? I’m confused! We all are! Let’s just add whatever we can find in the fridge then! I recently found an essay entitled “The Basic State of Tarator” in a recipe book, by the way: all you need is 1) yogurt, 2) water, 3) cucumber, 4) garlic, and 5) vinegar. Nothing more. Yes, building and maintaining a national identity used to go through raising monumental buildings, dams, power lines and ports – now it has descended into crafting recipes, and posting them on Youtube.

I don’t know how exactly food has ended up in the center of culture. Perhaps the reason is that eating remains the most egoistical action there is; even having sex requires some form of cooperation. And my belly is only mine! A society where the individual is an end in itself, the first, last and only carrier of the meaning of life, the only thing worth caring about, the substances sinking into our digestive systems have increasingly taken the front row, the way we consume them is seated at the helm, and is steering the ship to… wherever. Everything else comes next, it’s of secondary importance: from exalted aesthetics and gustatory expertise, to a scientifically grounded and reasonably articulated understanding of the benefits that eating brings to the soul and body, to the paranoid fear that the corporations are deliberately poisoning us with… chemistry(?) And thus, what used to be one of the most solitary physiological experiences has turned into the most contagious spectacle.

Lidl: the backlash

Notice something wrong on these pictures? Well yeah, duh! A famous church in Santorini, Greece, was used to advertise a Greek cheese product in one of the Lidl stores (a German chain). Except, the most prominent feature of that landmark (beside the blue roof) was removed:

Lidl airbrushes Christian cross from church pictured on its Greek food range because the supermarket chain ‘does not wish to exclude any religious beliefs’

Well, guess what. You’ve done just that – excluded a religious belief. And I’m saying it as an atheist. Savor the irony.

There was indeed a huge backlash (mostly around the social networks) about this picture. Lidl even had to come up with an official apology for screwing up on this one. People were shocked, shocked I tell you! Selling Greek products while trying to remove an important part of the Greek identity from sight. People have called for boycott. And probably rightly so. Why?

Because it’s one thing to be sensitive to religious and ethnic identities, be inclusive, tolerant, etc. But it’s quite another to bend over backwards and scrap one identity for another, for the sake of pandering to a particular customer segment. This is just business, some would say. You’re free to go buy crappy food elsewhere. Sure thing, Ahmed! (HA!) And that’s exactly what people are doing here. Voting with their feet. And with their wallets. You wanted to appear super-tolerant and super-inclusive, and attract a few Muslim customers? (Hey, Lidl may claim they don’t want to offend anyone so they prefer to remove all religious symbols from their shelves, but how do you explain the fact that their German and Dutch stores have entire sections dedicated to Halal food!?) I guess you were prepared for the backlash from non-Muslim customers, then! Being inclusive through exclusion – how does that work, Ahmed?

Removing the cross from a Greek landmark is NOT an act of religious neutrality. It’s an act of cowardice. It’s removing the very identity of that landmark, the part that makes it Greek. The cross is probably 80% of the “Greekness” in that Greek landmark, like the crescent is 80% of what makes a Saudi, Saudi. And to use Photoshop to delete this, and hope no one notices? Wow. You’ve got to have balls for that much cowardice (amazing, huh?)

That’s cultural castration, sorry to say it. It’s multicultural idiotism. It’s PC schizophrenia. And no, this isn’t just about some food store, or just about a business, one of many. It’s a symptom of a much wider phenomenon. The same one forcing German mayors to look their own constituents in the face and advise them to avoid walking near certain areas of town while wearing short skirts from now on, lest they offend the refugees residing there.

I’m all for cultural inclusiveness. But this is not right. It just isn’t.

A monster’s death throes

The cowardly attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils show one thing. ISIS is almost dead. I know, it may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but think about it. These terror organisations used to throw big and well coordinated attacks performed by big and well organised terror cells that used to reside in target countries for months and years, and meticulously plan their actions. They used sophisticated tools and strategy to hit as many people as possible, they used to choose important locations and they used to deliberately select particular occasions, like public holidays and anniversaries, sports events, political summits…

Now they’ve resorted to lone wolves using the easiest possible means, like taking a vehicle and ramming it into crowds of people. Sure, the Cambrils group had bomb vests, and it was only thanks to their hapless inanity that their van capsized, which allowed the police to shoot them. But the general trend is clear: ISIS is now using the operatives it brought along with the refugee wave to infiltrate Western societies – lone people who’ve been radicalised on the Internet, and possibly trained in ISIS-controlled camps. They don’t have the resources they used to have before. These are the desperate last efforts of a dying network. A snake still lashing out after its head has been chopped off.

This will be ugly. No one is stupid enough to believe it won’t be. But peace will prevail in the end. Make no mistake about it.

The bigger question is, what then. How do we prevent another network like Al Qaeda and ISIS from showing up again. Because, unless we’ve changed our policies both at home and abroad, it’s going to happen. And we’ll be back to square one.

Stealing history

Historical Revisionism is a fascinating topic. And for us folks in the Balkans, the most obvious example that instantly comes to mind is probably the way the new nation of Macedonia has been crafting its new identity where none existed: by stealing history from neighboring nations. We’ve all heard of Skopje 2014, the huge, majestic, ultra-megalomaniac re-doing of the city center of the Macedonian capital. They put a huge golden statue of Alexander the Great on a horse – so huge that when you stand on this huge square and look to the statue, the only thing you’d see is the horse’s golden balls. And that’s just the centerpiece of a much larger complex of buildings that look as if they’re in the capital of the Roman empire at its zenith. All the while, the rest of the country sinking in squalor and being torn to pieces by lingering ethnic tensions.

It’s a mess. But I digress. This is just a symptom, the tip of the iceberg. It’s a sign of something bigger, deeper about the Macedonians that’s troubling. And it’s not just the fact that the Macedonians have struggled to find their identity ever after the artificial creation of their nation back in the early 20th century at the behest of the Soviets who wanted to split a nation (the Bulgarian one) into pieces to rule the region more easily, and favor their buddies the Serbs. Geopolitical games have such consequences, you know – they pull people apart, often even people of the same nation. The Macedonians have gone to tremendous lengths since that time – they’ve turned a certain variety of the Bulgarian language into a new language that they call Macedonian (the joke goes that it’s Bulgarian, written on a Serbian typing machine); they named their territory after a province in Greece which is traditionally associated with an ancient Greek group called Macedon (Greece has blocked their EU integration because of that, which has forced Macedonia to name itself FYROM); and they’ve completely re-written all their history books, and indoctrinated their children for a couple generations now, to believe that today’s Macedonians (predominantly Slavic people with quite a bit of Thracian DNA in them, just like the rest of the peoples living around these regions) are somehow the direct descendants of Philip and Alexander. They’ve even claimed many great historical personalities and current celebrities have some Macedonian ancestry – hell, even a Macedonian discovered America while sailing alongside Columbus! (Except, that sailor never called himself Macedonian). What’s next, we often joke here – claiming the Moon is Macedonian territory as well? (“Oh Moon, you Macedonian land! Are we gonna fight over you too?“)

If that’s not an example of historical revisionism in desperate search of a non-existent identity, I don’t know what is. It’s all a consequence of the many complexes and frustrations that the Macedonian people have had through the centuries. A small country, squeezed between several larger ones, always kicked and moved around, always used as a pawn, and cannon-fodder in someone else’s wars. I understand them. WE ALL understand them. Which is why we’ve given up trying to argue with them. We’ve stopped trying to convince them that they’re not what they claim they are. It’s not worth it. We gain nothing from it. We’ve thrown our hands in the air, and decided on a different approach. Which is why my country was the first to recognize Macedonia’s independence when they split away from Yugoslavia. We accepted the name Macedonia (unlike the Greeks, who’ve had their reasons to vehemently oppose it). We recognized their language, although we all know too well that it’s just a dialect of ours. Even most Macedonians, when you ask them off-camera, would say they feel Bulgarian. But don’t tell that to their leaders and politicians, it’s a different story there.

Who cares. It’s all in the past. They can define themselves as they wish. They can claim all the great glory of the world if they like. The rest of us know the truth. Let them think of themselves as they wish. We should be looking to the future now. Together. Which is why our governments signed an agreement for neighborly cooperation just yesterday. It was carefully crafted in a way not to insult anyone’s sensibilities. Because there are lots of sensitive questions surrounding Macedonia. Yet, some in Macedonia still opposed this large step toward regional peace and harmony. There’ll always be those who’d want to draw political benefits even from the most noble of occasions. Anyway. We’ve done a big step into the right direction, and the process now looks irreversible. Because the Balkans have always been a powder keg, split up and divided and kicked around and used and abused by various “Big Powers”. And if there’s one solution to all that, it’s to take matters in our own hands, forget our differences, and walk together in the same direction. Hopefully, that step will be followed by many more. And hopefully, the Macedonians will stop living in the past, and finally look forward from now on. Because the alternative is quite disastrous. And to all big players in the West I must say: hands off from the Balkans!

Bit warm, aint’cha?

I was in Greece a while ago. Vacation, you know. It’s very close to home, you know… the beaches are fine, they’ve got islands, and cold frappe, and delicious salads and ouzo. Anyway, I digress. One thing that annoys tourists, mostly those coming from “organized” societies in the north, is how the Greeks seem so lazy. We’ve heard all sorts of stories, the Greeks don’t give a damn about a thing, all they care about is drinking their frappe, eating their gyros, and chatting about soccer and politics. Oh, and getting all those euros from the stupid Euros.

Same goes for Italy. I was there recently, too. And in Spain as well. Saw the same thing there (we’ve all heard of their siesta, it’s world-famous). Come noon-time, you won’t find a single shop working. You won’t be even able to fuel your car, because everything is closed, and the locals seem to have vanished somewhere. And this goes on until the sun starts setting.

But really, think about it. It’s 40+ ‘C outside. We have a saying here, when it’s 40’C, the only ones walking on the streets are the stray dogs… and British tourists. Haha, funny, right? But it makes sense. Nothing can survive outside when the asphalt is melting. People are not that stupid, as to put their health at risk for my convenience. And I understand them. Are we sure they’re really lazy, or it’s more like they’ve got a sense of self-preservation?

And the problem has started shifting northwards now, what with climate change and all. We might soon need to introduce the siesta here as well – a thing no one would’ve imagined around these latitudes. And this is potentially one of the many ticking time bombs that climate change is presenting us with. Aside from the more obvious ones, like the various manifestations of more extreme weather (droughts are alternating with huge floods these days, more than ever in recorded history). It’s starting to be felt everywhere. We’ve had heat waves before, of course. We even have a period in mid July that we traditionally call “Heat days” (this year they happened to be rainy and cold, but then 43’C followed).

We’re now able to grow plants like citrus fruits that we weren’t able to, until a few years ago. Sounds nice, eh? But in the meantime, we’re losing our traditional crops now. And we’re only now getting acquainted with pests that we never heard before, with which people in Egypt and Israel are more familiar. Mosquitos, big scary-looking bugs that bite like piranhas, etc. Only, we don’t have the immunity to those because we never needed to develop it. Our health-care system sucks even without those threats, now it’ll have to cope with them too. And don’t forget the huge electricity consumption for air-conditioning.

The list could go on. My point is, we’re like the frog in the boiling pot. Literally. He never notices he’s boiling, because it’s all happening too gradually. Well, maybe not too gradually any more. Not at this point.

But of course, it’s all China’s FAKE NEWS baby. Their plot to make America un-great again. Never mind that China is now the most ardent advocate for “doing something”, and is about to become the biggest investor in renewables. But it’s their fault anyway. Also, THANKS OBAMA! Or something.


Double standards for second-rate citizens

EU’s hypocrisy has come to the fore once more, what with the recent outcry from a number of Central and East European countries against the double standards in many products, and not just food products, that are being sold at one quality in West Europe, while its lesser quality versions are being dumped onto “second-hand”, “New” Europe for the same price or even more:

“Bulgaria and Romania have joined an outcry against multinational food companies, accused of selling lower quality products in Eastern Europe compared to those offered in the Western supermarkets.”

In a nutshell, the same product, produced by the same company, advertised in the same way and supposedly being produced in the same manner with the same ingredients, has turned out to be quite different in, say, Germany, Austria and France on one side, and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania on the other.

A large investigation spanning several countries has included dozens of products from 5 major groups, including foods and home items such as dish-washing and clothe-washing detergents, etc. The same product has been compared in the markets and shops at the two sides of the now supposedly removed Iron Curtain. The most prominent examples being chocolate, non-alcoholic beverages, meat, dairy products, fruit juices and children’s foods.

The comparative research has found out that identical products of the same brand have vast differences in their ingredients, their quality and even the terms of duration. As soon as they get labeled, the same product receives a different label, depending on their destination. The ministers of foods and agriculture of Romania, Bulgaria and a number of other East European countries are now planning to refer the matter to the EU commissioner for consumer rights. These governments have also called urgent meetings of their ministers to address the issue, so it’s not like this isn’t a biggie, and is just some sort of conspiracy theory being floated around the yellow press.

Central European governments have issued official protests, and are now calling for the EU to take action against these double standards:

Just a couple of examples. In Germany, a non-alcoholic beverage that contains sugar has been labeled accordingly, because it contains sugar. In Bulgaria, the very same product is made with fructose-glucose syrup instead. The “natural” juices in Germany contain 100% fruit, at this side of the divide, not so much. The same brand and same model of product has different contents. Some would say, “but it’s cheaper!” Well, guess what? It isn’t. Often, it’s even more expensive.

Children’s foods are another example of these discrepancies. A fruit mash contained 1.5% proteins per 100 g in Germany, and 1% per 100 g here. And this isn’t just about quality and ingredients, it’s about the prices too. The most striking discrepancy in the whole research came exactly from two types of children’s mashes, by the way. One was 90% more expensive than its West European counterpart (supposedly same ingredients and quality), the other by 107% (that one was established to be of lower quality). The same price gap is observed in the dairy products, between 20% and 70% more expensive in East Europe (supposedly lower living standard, so prices should be lower, not higher there, right?)

While these foods may not be harmful or poisonous (God forbid!), they’ve often been incorrectly labeled as identical everywhere, and these discrepancies are not just incidental, they’re endemic. So people have become very suspicious, and the question naturally arises, what gives!?

Mind you, even local products show such discrepancies, and these go way beyond the possible statistical error. The research included 6 types of local products, from hams to canned food to some sorts of sausages. There are uniform EU standards about these things, right? Or at least there are supposed to be. Well first, the experts investigated if we’re talking of the same type of meat. They established there were noticeable differences in the physical and chemical properties of the meat. They were examined for soy proteins, water concentration, proteins, fats, etc. Some sausages showed water contents that were by 3.2% and more higher than their German counterparts. We can’t be just talking of artificial pumping of water into the meat to make it heavier – not after the technological time for its maturing had passed.

Fat contents in the Bulgarian products was 1,2% lower on average. Salt, on the other hand, was way higher than in the EU product.

Noticeable differences were also observed in the same chocolate products (mostly in their outer looks), and also some sorts of cheese (including color, texture, etc).

The issue will be put for discussion at the upcoming meeting of the EU council of ministers on July 17/18. Officially, Slovakia will be the one to present the question, although it’ll be speaking on behalf of at least half a dozen countries. This is a major cause for concern, because it’s an issue that’s not just about the rules of the market, it’s also political. East Europe is feeling slighted, overlooked, bypassed, betrayed. It’s not helping the European cause, what with all the Euroskepticism that’s been on the rise, including in countries that have joined the union relatively recently (and where sentiments of regret for that decision have been rising lately).

In some countries like mine, there’s also been a wide-spread sentiment that joining the EU came at a huge cost: while we’re now being granted scraps in the form of EU funds, we’ve had to dismantle much of our agricultural, food and clothing industry in favor of our West European brethren, much of it supposedly privatized, then sold for coins like junk, never to be re-opened again. In its place, various imported goods have flooded our markets, of much lower quality (now proven), for higher prices, and not benefiting our economy or our labor market in any way whatsoever – save for lining the pockets of the big international trade chains who’ve pushed our local smaller producers into a corner, forcing them to sell their produce for a fraction of its real value, just barely allowing them to make ends meet.

This can’t continue much longer. The people are not that stupid. They’ve started to notice that they’re being played. And unless something is changed, sooner or later the critical point will come when they’ll have to say enough is enough. And then the EU would be in big trouble.


For whom do the tomahawks fly

When in the early morning hours of April 7 the US destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross fired 59 Tomahawk missiles against Syrian air base Shayrat, the big question wasn’t if the US had violated international law (which they had). What was of real concern to most analysts was if a military operation by a nuclear superpower could bring the death of military personnel of another nuclear power, thus creating a classical casus belli, or case for war. It seemed, though, that the Russian command in Syria had been warned in advance before the attack, so the chances of direct confrontation and spiraling escalation in the Cuban crisis sort of way was prevented pretty neatly.

Now the more interesting question about this attack is different, and it could have serious consequences for Russia both in geopolitical and military sense. I’m talking of the widely heralded myth about the impenetrable air defense system, the last-generation C-400. Elements of that system are installed around the air bases in Tatrus and Lattakia, hosting the Russian warplanes in Syria. In theory, C-400 is an air defense system with mid- to long-range that could intercept targets within 600 km and destroy them at a 400 km distance. It should be able to destroy planes, drones, ballistic and other missiles. But during the Tomahawk assault in Shayrat, for some reason all C-400 stations remained silent. All 59 missiles, based on 40-year old technology, flew unimpeded across the entire defense line. So far no one has come up with an official explanation of what really happened.

These systems have a special place in the modern Russian doctrine for military dominance. By installing C-400 in a zone, the Russians are capable of isolating huge chunks of air space, where any movement of enemy aircraft could be blocked at any given time. And if they put such a system near the border with another country, they can control all air traffic up to 400 km inside that country’s territory. It was the Russian air defense system that has forced Daesh to review their plans for air support of allied units on the ground.

In NATO language, such zones of blocked access are called Anti Access / Anti Denial or A2/AD. Such “domes” of blocked airspace are currently present not just over Syria but also Kaliningrad (covering parts of Poland and the Baltics), and Crimea (reaching as far as the shores of Romania and Bulgaria). Because of these zones, the NATO strategists were forced to seriously re-think their defense plans in case of aggression on the eastern flank of the alliance. Practically, the presence of such air defense systems seriously undermines the allies’ ability to quickly deploy reinforcements by air in case of sudden crisis, or to support the logistical networks of their defense forces in case of a protracted conflict.

The fundamental problem with C-400 is that so far no one has seen its true capabilities in real battle conditions. So any future customers of the Russian military-industrial complex would surely be looking very closely into what happened during the US air strike against Syria. There are military giants like China and India among those customers, and soon Turkey could also join that list (itself a NATO member). That’s probably the reason for the strange and enigmatic statement by the Russian chiefs of command, which said only 23 out of the 59 Tomahawk missiles had reached their target, without specifying why exactly. If that’s a hint that the remaining 36 missiles had been downed by C-400, the Russians might still be having a problem: this way they’re admitting their system is too porous in case of a swarm-like attack of low-flying missiles.

Still, the likeliest explanation is that the Russian air defense system in Syria was merely kept inactive – partly to conceal its true capabilities, partly to deliberately allow an escalation of tensions with the US. An argument in support of this assumption is the “evolution” of statements coming from various Russian officials. For instance, the chairman of the defense committee at the Russian parliament Victor Ozerov said the C-300 and C-400 systems are in Syria “to guarantee the safety of our armed forces”. In other words, about a fortnight ago Assad’s army might have suddenly found itself outside the list of Russian-protected puppet regimes, at least as far as attacks from the sky are concerned. Whatever the Russian military officials say from here on, there’ll always be a question hanging around the qualities of the “impenetrable” C-400 system: could it really eliminate a 40-year old US Tomahawk missile flying at subsonic speed – or not?

The big chemical lie

The wheel of history turns and turns, but we the people don’t seem to change too much, do we? It’s as if only the stage set occasionally changes a bit around us. We’ve replaced the carts and wagons with cars, instead of shacks we live in shiny buildings of glass and metal, and our brains we’ve trapped inside plastic boxes and connected them digitally. And that’s about it, as far as change goes. Everything else remains: wars, resources, politics, easily controllable masses, trade and consumption.

In the late 3rd century AD, Roman emperor Diocletian established a tetrarchy, and he appointed one Gaius Galerius to rule Egypt and Syria on his behalf. In 303, encouraged by Galerius, Diocletian burned his own imperial palace in Nicomedia, then accused the Christians for it and used the opportunity to demonize the Christian community based around Antioch. Terrible persecution ensued, torching, pogroms, beheadings, massacres of Christians (St. George and St. Panteleimon were among the more famous victims).

This propaganda tactic has been used for centuries. And for some unknown anthropogenic reason, it always works without fault. It worked for Hitler when he burned down the Reichstag and blamed the communists. It’s obviously working today for the US too, their main tool for well crafted blame being the “use of WMDs” and the “killing of innocent small children” (think about the children, you heartless automatons!) This worked flawlessly for both their wars in Iraq. First they brought a 15 year old girl to the international human rights committee, and she told the jury, with tears in her eyes and a touching trembling voice, how she had witnessed the murder of babies in incubators by blood-thirsty Iraqi soldiers. Years later it turned out she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US and the whole story had been forged, but what does it matter. The case for Iraq War 1.0 had already been made, it was a done deal at this point.

Next up, Iraq War 2.0 and the “chemical weapons” that Saddam presumably had in his possession. Those were probably meant to be the same WMDs the US had supplied him with for his prior fight with the Iranians. At the end of the day, no such weapons were found and everything turned to have been mere propaganda. Too bad for the hundreds of thousands of killed Iraqi, their ruined country, and the chaos in the region that persists to this day. What does it matter? The ends justify the means. After all, who would’ve dared to question the testimony of a sobbing little girl about bad evil soldiers slaughtering little babies?

Oh, and how are we supposed to question and criticize the good intentions of the global spreader of democracy and all that is good in the world? Yeah, the only country in history to use nuclear WMDs for the mass murder of entire cities. Now this paragon of peace again seems utterly “concerned” with the presence of chemical weapons in a war-torn region. And sure, they should have a good reason to be worried about chemical weapons: traces of them are still affecting the biospheres in Vietnam, right? So, America must know a thing or two about chemical weapons. Therefore we should trust their judgment when they have to say something on the matter.

As much as we might be tempted to accuse the US administration (not just this one, all previous administrations too) in a lack of imagination and creativity, at the end of the day, the tasteless propaganda they’re so eager to employ over and over again, seems to be working just fine. Every single time. The accusations against Assad have been flowing in for more than 6 years now, maybe several times a month, every month. The first accusation was back in 2013, when chemical weapons were used in Khan Al-Assal, near Aleppo. But in that case something didn’t click right into place with the whole story, and the “moderate rebels” were exposed as the likeliest culprit. Things went as far as former UN prosecutor Carla del Ponte saying herself that it was most likely that the rebels had used the chemicals. She was fired the very next day for this sudden, unsolicited burst of sincerity. We can’t allow some narratives to be challenged now, can we?

Mind you, if you think this is some crazy-ass conspiracy theory, I’ll have to disappoint you. This is actually closer to fact than the stories the media had been spreading, at least initially (when it most mattered). The Syrian government invited international inspectors to investigate the case openly, but for “administrative reasons” they somehow came a few months late, on August 20, 2013. On August 21 (the next day), as the international delegation were already in their Damascus hotel, the next accusation came in: in Eastern Ghouta, a region in the Damascus suburbs, another chemical attack. The delegation instantly packed up and left Syria without even setting foot in Khan Al-Assal. And Obama started declaring left and right that Assad had crossed the imaginary “red line” the US had set for him.

Thus, we get to this month’s new accusation, the one from April 4. The whole thing looks like a belated April Fools prank when you look a bit closer at it. From Khan Sheikhoun, a town under the firm control of Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, a string of footage came of gassed dead children. Just a day earlier, Al Qaeda had kidnapped scores of people from nearby Khattab, their whereabouts still remaining a mystery now. Local news outlets report that these were the same people who were shown in the footage of the chemical attack. The Syrian and Russian military claims a weapons storage was hit, stuffed with ammo from Turkey. As we’ve mentioned here, any motivation of the Syrian military to use chemical weapons at a time they’ve almost won the battle in North Hama, remains a mystery too. It sounds illogical and absurd, stupid even. We should be asking ourselves, who actually wins from the whole story? Assad, who had his foes stuck into a corner and would’ve suffocated their resistance if he had kept the course for another few weeks without any sharp moves – or his desperate opponents who were near done and finished, unless something new and drastic happened (like a chemical attack, and the direct involvement of the world’s greatest military power)? Are there any critically-thinking people still around?

But let’s face it. None of this really matters. It’s quite telling that Israeli prime-minister Netanyahu seems so utterly concerned for the well-being of the Syrian people, and Turkish president Erdogan (this paragon of humility and humanity), and also Boris Johnson, Francois Hollande and a dozen other friendly US minions who’ve piled onto the bandwagon, and crawled into the media and social networks, as if prompted by command, to raise a chorus of condemnations to the evil Syrian government.

No direct and undeniable proof, no UN resolutions this time, no verifiable information. We don’t need them to start bombing someone at this point. So the US did just that. In a display of decisiveness, strong will and sympathy for the dead little children and their sobbing surviving siblings, Trump ordered the bombing of a Syrian air base near Homs. The stated reason was the “chemical attack” that Assad had somehow done in an Al Qaeda controlled town, based on footage sent by the omnipresent White Helmets – the ones who probably deserve more Oscars than Meryl Streep for their artistic renderings of events (not that anti-Syrian propaganda wasn’t present at the Oscars). As some of us may be aware, the so called White Helmets are exclusively active in regions controlled by Ahrar Al Sham and Al Nusra. The reason for this I leave to your imagination to deduce.

Whether the world is standing at the precipice of WW3 or this is all just some re-shuffling of the chess pieces, the more important question is, why is all this needed? Who gains from it? Well, we’ve already talked about this part here already. As funny and simplistic as it may sound to some, it’s mostly about gas. Gas pipes, to be more precise. If you look at the map of Syria, you’d realize America’s main problem and that of their good buddies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, is the advance of the Syrian military towards Palmyra and Deir Ez-Zor. If Assad takes these territories, he’d shut the gates to the Gulf pipes from Qatar to Turkey, and render the splitting up of Syria meaningless. Splitting Syria up has been America’s plan B since they realized nearly 3/4 of the Syrian population actually supports a secular government rather than the US-preferred Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamized metastases.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the newly-found fossil fuel deposits in the Levantine basin if we want the whole picture. Everyone knows the US and their minions want to put a friendly puppet in Damascus, and they’re using radical Islam as a tool for pressuring the current regime there. If they genuinely wanted democracy, they would’ve focused on the most obvious elephant in the room first, Saudi Arabia. After all, any dissident thought, especially in terms of religion, is punished by jail and even death there, and women have close to zero rights. It seems to me Saudi Arabia (and Kuwait, and Qatar, etc) are in urgent need of freedom and democracy, no? Or maybe having mindless, easily controllable consumers is more convenient to both sides of this awkward West/East symbiosis?

And to those ultra-nationalist neocon hawks on both sides of the aisle praising Trump’s sudden “presidential aura” and his unilateral actions in Syria, I’d just as this one question. You folks are very fond of Jesus, right? So why doesn’t anyone try to find a surviving Christian town or neighborhood in the “rebel”-controlled parts of Syria that still has population and is not completely destroyed? Come on, find me one!

Why does your Jesus-loving government support (and in some occasions, indirectly sponsor) genocide against Christians? Why am I not hearing anything on the Trump-praising, airstrike-contemplating, “beautiful”-poetry-reciting media about the systematic exterminations of the Christian population in towns like Maharde by “moderate” monsters like Jaish al Izzah? Who funds those monsters? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the US supplying them with equipment and money? How did they end up in possession of brand new US weapons? In fact, when you’re attacking the Syrian government, who are you really attacking? Syrians, Christians, Alawites and Sunnis. In other words, to use the nationalist rhetoric you’re so accustomed to, “Real Syrians”.

Also, could you point me to a single square inch of rebel-controlled territory where a Wahhabi and Salafi Sharia quasi-caliphate hasn’t been imposed? Would you be so kind to explain to me how come Daesh has attacked the Syrian bases instantaneously after the US and Israeli strikes in Der Ez-Zor, Homs and Palmyra? Whom were those strikes meant to help really? Would you tell me how come Idlib is simultaneously the capital of Al Nusra controlled territory and of the Free Syrian Army territory? And why is Idlib full of signs banning women from walking outdoors without a niqab? Are these the people you want to replace Assad with?

Would someone tell me why we’re constantly seeing US weapons and TOW missiles in the hands of Al Nusra? And why isn’t anyone admitting that Ahrar al Sham is a terrorist organization, its founder is a former Al Qaeda member, and the current Al Nusra chief (or Tahrir al Sham chief if you like), the so called Abu Jaber is a former chief in Ahrar al Sham? Would you tell me why the cousin of the founder of the FSA is actively spreading radical Islam around the Balkans?

See, I can recall of a certain former great power that in a similar fashion liked surrounding itself with servile, docile, unscrupulous propagandists and manipulators. Well, that system came crumbling down and has been thrown to the scrapheap of history, being totalitarian and unsustainable. It’s a failed system. And it would be nice to consider raising your level a bit, and starting to give way to critically thinking, autonomous people who are prone to looking for actual facts rather than ones slavishly licking your… boots. Because those who surround themselves with sticky trash, sooner or later start reeking themselves.

Re: The whole Syria thing

I’m hearing opposing accounts from Syrian expats living here. Granted, most Syrian expats, being dissident refugees from the Assad regime, tend to support the official international position that Assad is evil, he’s killing his own people, and he should be removed from power by God’s blessing and the strong hand of the resolute president Trump who’s now acting like a true Dear Leader.

However, one Syrian analyst argued the chemical attack was a false-flag, staged by the extremist “rebels” (there are indications that Assad had given up all his WMDs years ago, and that the WMDs used in this attack had a different signature from the ones Assad used to have). The idea was to get the US involved in the war and tip the scales away from Assad, who’s been winning since the Russians got involved. That makes a lot of sense, frankly. After all, Assad has no interest to antagonize the whole world by using WMDs now, when he has almost won. In the past, maybe. Things were looking rather grim for him a few years ago, and he could’ve had a rationale for using WMDs back then. But now?

Besides, where’s the proof that he had WMDs in that particular air base? Are we again jumping into a conflict based on an insinuation, like in Iraq? The media are cumming all over president Trump now, praising him for being presidential and even describing the bombing of that air base as “beautiful” and “poetic”. Are we going to play this game again now? And how many times can the same mistake be repeated?

The scramble for the Mediterranean (revisited)

This piece is about the new gas (and possibly also oil) discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean, which could explain a lot about the ongoing geopolitical shifts in that region.

There can be no coincidence. Two important events took place just within hours apart from each other on March 17. First the Cyprus government decided to grant drilling licenses for gas and oil to several multinational energy giants: Exxon Mobil, Qatar Petroleum, Total and ENI. On that very day, Turkey announced they’d be starting a navy exercise with live rounds just a few days later in Cypriot territorial waters, just 30 nautical miles off the SW coast of the Island of Aphrodite. Turkey said their patience was running out. Much in line with a visit a month earlier by their foreign minister Cavusoglu to the Turkish part of the island, where he warned the Greek Cypriots against any unilateral actions on the oil/gas issue.

Whoever was hoping that the gas off the Cyprus shores could serve as a platform for unification and cooperation between the two communities there, was being naive. Oil and gas are much more likely to stir up conflict, and the latest events are yet another evidence of that. The tension started to escalate instantaneously after the Cypriot move on the gas. The Greek/Turkish negotiations were halted, and the leaders of the two communities started hurling accusations at each other for this failure. Turkey used the opportunity to sharpen the tone and start issuing ultimatums and threats (they’ve been rather active in that regard lately).

The deepening conflict between Turkey and the EU, combined with increased interest by US and EU companies for drilling in the region are tightening the energy knot in the Eastern Mediterranean even more. The big discoveries in 2009 have turned the region into a key strategic hub that’s very important for the energy diversification of Europe. There’ve been arguments that this is the main reason behind all the shit-stirring in the Levant and across the Maghreb, aka Arab Spring. This includes Syria too, of course.

The thing is, the Eastern Mediterranean is the new place to be if you’re a big oil company, or a big geopolitical player. Ever since the discovery of the Egyptian oil field in Zohr, things have changed for the region – for the better or worse, depends on your perspective. But the fact that big energy giants from around the world are scrambling to invest in Cyprus, is presenting both promising prospects for development for the island, and giving sleepless nights to many leaders. If the gas treasure also turns out to be accompanied by the vast oil deposits that experts are predicting, the geopolitical situation would totally change.

Turkey is a big factor in that respect. Some major drilling activity inside the Cypriot exclusive zone is expected to commence later this year, and continue through 2018. In June, Total is planning to drill in Block 11, which could become a second Zohr field because it’s located under the same sea ridge. The first French drilling operation is anticipated with great interest, not least importantly because it had been cancelled four times in a row already. Lastly, it was scheduled for April, but now it’s been postponed for July, just days after the latest conference on the Cypriot issue ended in failure in Geneva in January. This meant pushing the deadline for a possible agreement and unification of the divided island to a unspecified future time.

Italian company ENI is also planning to make two drills by the end of the year, and US company Nobel Energy also has one drill scheduled. Exxon Mobil is also in the game, planning drills in 2018. But despite this tight schedule, any technical preparation before a possible agreement on the Cypriot issue would more likely stumble upon problems and obstacles. Without a political settlement, any drilling would make Turkey react with hostility. And this is not just a prediction, it’s what has actually happened before. Turkey has sent navy forces to the region on four occasions up till now, in a clear demonstration of force. The latest occasion was in 2014 when a seismologist research vessel entered the Cypriot exclusive zone, which made the Cyprus president Anastasiades to suspend the negotiations with the leader of the Cypriot Turks, Eroglu.

So, any attempt to proceed with drilling, despite the Cypriot Greek claim that they’ve got sovereign rights to do that, is bound to bring further tensions. Exploiting the carbon riches under the sea floor would only be possible after a wholesome political agreement that would satisfy the interests of both sides. And this is not just the opinion of some experts and the leaders of the two sides most directly involved – the special advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Cypriot question, Espen Eide has also said that first an end has to be brought to all this uncertainty on the reunification issue. The deadline he has given? This summer.

The question here is whether despite his aggressiveness and unpredictability, Erdogan would really risk sending military flotillas against the oil and gas corporations and have a direct standoff with the countries behind them (UK, US, France, Italy). Hey, Cypriot president Anastasiades has even gone as far as to declare the presence of Exxon Mobil a guarantee for the Cypriot interests. And let’s not forget that the former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson under whom the company applied for drilling license in Cyprus, is now Trump’s secretary of state.

All in all, the situation is not easy at all. On one side, there’s rising tension with Turkey. On the other hand, the companies who are pushing for drilling rights represent the major world players. Any conflict in that regard would be extremely risky for any of the sides.

But that’s not all. There’s also the question about the potential routes that would deliver all that fuel, once it’s extracted. There are huge interests there too. We’ve already talked about Iran’s geopolitical plan to establish a friendly corridor from Pakistan across Iraq and Syria giving them access to the Mediterranean. They want this corridor to bypass the Gulf states, mainly their biggest rival Saudi Arabia. If this happens, the Straits of Hormuz would stop being so important, and the Saudis would take a big geopolitical tumble.

As for Cyprus, there are several scenarios for them to export the gas to the European markets. Of course, the final decision mostly depends on the quantities that are discovered there. Right now they’re not sufficient, but in the future the Cypriot fields could be combined with their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts, which would grant access to much bigger markets. Granted, Cyprus still lacks the needed infrastructure for this, like tanker terminals, ports, etc. But that would be built in the future.

The main gas route to possibly connect the countries in the region currently is the EastMed Pipeline, terminating at the Greek shore. The pipeline could connect Israel and Cyprus to Greece and hence Europe, supplying Israeli and Cypriot gas. The project is technically doable and economically viable, but they need to add more gas fields first to bolster its total capacity.

Naturally, the Turks are not happy because this totally bypasses them. The Russians are not happy either, because if Europe diversifies its energy sources, it would remove Putin’s only tool for geopolitical pressure. The Russians are already planning a geopolitical expansion across the southern periphery of the Eastern Mediterranean, as has been recently mentioned here before: they’ve fortified Assad in Syria, they’ve made friends with El Sisi in Egypt, and they’re now pursuing a military presence in East Libya. This is all for a reason: they want to be part of the game too.

Another option is building a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Cyprus itself, which again requires boosting the gas output, i.e. adding more gas fields to the mix. Part of this plan is to use the vacant facilities at the two LNG terminals currently existing in Egypt: Cypriot gas would be transported via pipeline running on the sea floor (total distance: 180 km), and then exported. If Total’s drills are successful this year, another good opportunity for export to Europe and Asia would be to use floating LNG (FLNG).

Turkey and the Cypriot Turks insist that the shortest, safest and most beneficial route to Europe would be a pipeline connection from Cyprus to Turkey (but of course!) Except, until the Cypriot question still lingers, such a project is absolutely impossible. Right now, when the Turkey-EU relations are getting worse, not better, it would be a huge political risk to give all the taps and keys to Erdogan. That would be a geopolitical suicide for Europe, and the gas/oil corporations know this.

So it’s not just about financial and economic expedience. In fact, it all mostly depends on geopolitics. Because of all the political conflicts, the prospect of building pipelines from the Egyptian and Israeli gas fields to Turkey remains questionable. Turkey and Israel used to like this idea until about a year ago, when their relations were still kind of warm(ish). Finding a mutually acceptable solution to the Cypriot issue would be of big help in that respect of course. But right now, that seems very unlikely. So the gas scramble for the Eastern Mediterranean will continue to be hostage to politics for a long time. And maybe even more so, once the fields are operational and the cards are laid on the table.