Monday, 24 December 2012

Russia and Syria: Putin prepares pull out

[UPDATED] Vladimir Putin has sent more Russian warships to the eastern Mediterranean than ever before in support of Russia's strategic interests in Syria. It's a huge show by Russian standards: 16 warships converging on the waters off Syria as of the first week in January, including five landing ships, three fleet oilers, one cruiser and several frigates and destroyers.

Previous shows of force have aimed at helping Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, cling to power, by deterring Nato from intervening in the country's civil war, which has so far killed over 60,000 people. But this time the Syrian situation is much changed: collapse could be imminent for Syria's embattled Assad; and a strategic defeat and evacuation looms large for Russia. It seems Moscow might have backed a bad horse.

Russia has sent by far its largest display of naval force yet to the waters off Syria. Within days of units sailing in December, reports have grown more detailed: from deploying for a possible evacuation and replacing other vessels on station since November; to reports of military plans set for an imminent total evacuation by land, sea and airMost sources suggest that 20-30,000 Russian civilians might need evacuating from Syria. 

Syria bound: Ropucha-class, Russian landing ship 
The Russian navy has many rusting ships nominally operational, but most would be classed as in reserve by Western standards: lacking full crews with sufficient training or sea time. In reality Russia can probably call on fewer warships at short notice than either France or Britain, while few ships are anything like up to modern Nato standards. The majority of them are in the waters off Syria, or will arrive there soon.

Russia has a small naval base at Tartus. Defeat for Assad would imperil this presence. The base itself is small, lacking investment, reportedly only partly operable, and suitable only for servicing small craft. Visiting ships tend to help sustain the base, as much as the other way around.

Russia may soon have to evacuate this Tartus base. The installation has symbolic value as Russia's last military base outside of the old Soviet Union. Putin is a bullying strongman who likes to project Russia's decayed power, posturing strength to disguise weaker realities. Retreat from Tartus would be a blow to Russian prestige, small in material scale but symbolically akin to events such as Soviet withdrawals at the end of the Cold War. Historically, losing its foothold in the Mediterranean bottles up Russia's Black Sea fleet, shutting it off at the Bosphorus.

Neustrashimyy-class, Russian frigate
Two Ropucha-class landing ships, Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin, are reported to be headed to the area from the Baltic (departed Baltiysk mid-December), escorted by the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudri, fleet tanker Lena, and the large tug/rescue vessel SB-921. Taking the tankers implies they will not be relying on Tartus as a supply base and that the operation is a lengthy one.
Russian guided missile cruiser Moskva (ex-Slava)

[UPDATE: A third Ropucha-class landing ship, the Azov, and the large landing ship  Nikolay Filchenkov were reported to left have departed Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk on Christmas Eve, passing through the Dardanelles on 27/12/2012, headed towards Syria. They were reportedly carrying marines aboard and set to meet up with another Black Sea Fleet task group, comprising the powerful Slava-class guided missile cruiser Moskva, large Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivy, oiler Ivan Bubnov and fleet tug SB-406, exercising off Greece in the eastern Med. This task group had earlier been detailed for an anti-piracy mission east of Suez, but has reportedly been re-tasked rather vaguely for "exercises in the Med".  Then yet another Ropucha-class ship, the Novocherkassk, was reported (30/12/12) to have also left Novorossiisk, also headed for the eastern Med. Her sister ship Saratov also sailed recently, and is in the Med or the Black Sea.]

Another force of three ships left Russia's Arctic Northern Fleet base at Severomorsk in the Barents Sea on 19/12/2012 for the long journey south: the Udaloy-class destroyer Severomorsk, accompanied by fleet tanker Dubna and a tug/rescue vessel Altai. They  departed for an anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, but must pass through the eastern Med before Suez and could easily be re-tasked, like the Moskva's group, for a Syrian operation.

This naval armada on its own would struggle to evacuate more than a fraction of the perhaps 30,000 civilians without making several trips. Alternatively, it could conduct a smaller scale evacuation of staff and materials from the Tartus base itself.

It seems a large evacuation has been planned. According to Russian broadsheet newspaper Izvestia, Russian diplomats believe Damascus airport is no longer safe for an evacuation, and using Aleppo is impossible. The paper cites the Russian Embassy in Syria as reporting that only two relatively safe evacuation routes remain: one via the Damascus-Beirut highway; and the other from Tartus and Latakia (home of a Russian intelligence listening post) by sea. Deploying Russian troops and sailors to either location for a large-scale evacuation could be incendiary.

The Russian government is reportedly planning to use four small-to-medium passenger ferries for an evacuation: the Apollonia (250 passengers capacity); the Ant-1 (90 capacity); the Ant-2 (68 capacity); and the Nikolai Konarev (75 capacity). The ferries are spread between the Red, Mediterranean and Black seas. It seems bold but not enough, and potentially calamitous. Even combined with the warships, they would struggle to evacuate more than a few thousand in one go, potentially requiring several return trips. Cyprus is cited as the initial destination, with emergency flights getting citizens back to Russia.


Thousands of Assad loyalists have also been reportedly flocking to Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, fleeing from the advancing rebels of the ragtag Free Syrian Army (FSA). If Damascus does soon fall to the rebels and Assad and his retinue are cornered with their backs to the sea, they will doubtless seek succour from Assad's only major overseas ally: Moscow. Whether such reports are just slick rebel propaganda, or, if true, whether there's room in the boats, who knows?

Shows of force

Russia has sent successive naval task forces to the Mediterranean to try to maintain some influence throughout Syria's civil war. Russia's capabilities are small-fry in a real shooting war, compared to West's naval assets in the area. The region's seas teem with Nato firepower. Ships from the navies of the US, UK and France are engaged in the West's own rival power projection against Iran and Syria (and Russia).

Nato has not overtly intervened in Syria's conflict as it did in Libya in 2011. Western aid for the rebels has remained covert and by proxy through Saudi Arabia: providing the rebels with intelligence, funding, weapons and training.

While Putin has peddled official neutrality, he has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at ramping up the sanctions pressure on Assad's regime. Russia has also been Assad's primary arms supplier and sought to keep the weapons flowingRussia's limited naval forces have aimed to deter Nato directly intervening against its Syrian ally. However, if the Saudi/Western-armed rebels can win anyway, Russia's efforts will have been in vain.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
In December 2011, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from Russia's Northern Fleet, set off to show the flag off Syria, embarking on a controversial cruise. The 55,000-ton carrier, with the escorting Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, skirted the coast of Scotland, reportedly "fly-tipping" rubbish into the Firth of Forth, before passing into the Med and anchoring off Tartus on January 8. The ship's visit was touted as "honourable" support for the Assad regime by Syrian defence minister, general Dawood Rajiha (since assassinated by the rebels in their July 18 Damascus bombing of Assad's National Security HQ).


In July the rebels had threatened Damascus, reaching the capital's outskirts, but were thrown back by a Syrian government counter-offensive. This fraught period for Assad seemingly rattled decision-makers in the Kremlin. 


Evacuation of the Tartus base was first discussed publicly in the summer. “If an emergency happens, we will remove the base’s personnel,” Vice-Adm. Viktor Chirkov told the Echo Moscow radio station on July 28, when asked what Russia's military would do if Tartus came under attack.

Warships from Russia's Northern fleet visited the eastern Med in July. Three Ropucha-class amphibious assault ships (Aleksandr OtrakovskiyGeorgiy Pobedonosets and Kondopoga) steamed south that month, bound for waters off Syria in August.

Once the threat to Damascus had diminished, they headed for Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Russian sources had been contradictory or non-commital about whether any of the vessels would call at Tartus on the trip, why, or for how long. In any case, the 112.5m-long amphibious landing warships would scarcely fit into its one or two operational 100-m long piers. Several news sources reported unnamed sources as saying the three landing ships each had 120 marines aboard

Amphibious landing vessels and their marines are useful for an evacuation, but each Ropucha-class ship only has capacity for a few hundred evacuated civilians crammed in like sardines: not enough for a full evacuation. However, it seems that two of these landing vessels might again play a role in the present round of naval deployments, this time for evacuation in earnest.

Moscow has been sent more mixed messages on Syria of late, as its faith in Assad's ability to hold out has begun to wane. Russia's Foreign Ministry was pressured into confirming on December 14 that Russia's policy on Syria would "never change", following a defeatist statement about its Assad alliance, made the previous day.

"Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” said Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said on December 13. "We must look squarely at the facts, and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing control over more and more territory,” said Bogdanov.

After Assad?

Assad has increasingly good reason to suspect that Moscow now believes his regime is a lost cause. In November, some Russia-friendly moderate representatives of the Syrian opposition travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. "The National Coordination Committee" cannot represent more than a tame fragment of the broader opposition and FSA rebels, but Moscow is clearly keen to fudge a continued presence in Syria after Assad.

"We think that Russia has a right to stay there even when Syria becomes a real democracy," said the committee's head, Hassan Abdel-Azim, in a conciliatory interview with Russian state-owned news site The Voice of Russia. "The talks made us feel that we are trusted, as we had always opposed foreign interference in Syrian affairs and backed maintaining close ties with our former partners."

With palpable schadenfreude, The US commended Russia for "waking up to the reality" of the Syrian situation. An end to Syria's bloodshed is of course desirable, while Assad's fall could cause retreat and humiliation for Russia.

Despite crowing at Russia's embarrassment, the Americans may also regret what comes after Assad's downfall. The democratic governments that have surfaced after Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia and Egypt point to a democratising Middle East, but the killing of  US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others in Benghazi in September warned of the risk of extremism and terrorist forces unleashed if a power vacuum remains once the autocrats are removed.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

As seen in The Chap

Flashman of Waterloo, as photographed on page 66 of the latest issue of The Chap magazine (Issue 66; December/January 2013). Job done, that is all.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Exporting Israel's Iron Dome

The disparity of casualties sustained between Palestinians and Israelis in the latest Gaza conflict is paid much heed by commentators. Condemnation of Israel's supposed use of disproportionate force is a recurring chorus from anti-Israeli Arab and Western  voices.

What pro-Palestinian protesters won't highlight are the huge stashes of rockets that Hamas and other militants point and fire at Israel. Hezbollah is estimated to hold 60,000 rockets for the purpose in Lebanon. And the main reason many more Israelis haven't been killed by Hamas and other militants' indiscriminate firing of rockets in the latest Gaza conflict seems to be the stunning success of Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system.


War, what is it good for? Well, by a Clausewitzian definition of 'continuing political aims by other means', whether Israel has achieved a worthwhile victory in Gaza in November is up for debateBut war can also be a route to commercial, economic gain (albeit a bloody one)A big question now is whether Israel can turn Iron Dome's "game changing" 85% success rate at intercepting incoming short-range rockets and missiles during Operation Pillar of Defense into a commercial export success.

Israel got into its Gaza clash through its sometimes clumsy policy of "precision assassination" of high-profile Palestinian paramilitary leaders. While its opponents fire unguided, imprecise weapons indiscriminately, to deliberately kill or maim Israeli civilians, Israel makes some bloody errors while attempting its precision strikes, prompting questions about whether such incidents do represent genuine mistakes, or rather an Israeli willingness, at a war policy level, to knowingly tolerate high "collateral damage", in order to hit targets.

The apparent disparity of forces between Israel and its opponents (prompting claims of Israeli disproportionate use of force) is most obvious when Israel has committed to urban ground combat: the sledgehammer of IDF tanks, jets and gunships cracking the nut of Hamas' AK47s and RPGs. By contrast, Iron Dome has protected Israel effectively (only 4 Israeli civilians killed before the ceasefire) without it having to resort to the clumsy land offensives of previous rounds of conflict.

There are some other nations facing missile threats over their urban centres which might be interested in Iron Dome. Nuclear-armed North Korea still points thousands of menacing missiles at Seoul. 

A new ballistic missile test by North Korea looks imminent, while the regime is known for sporadic outbursts of violence across the highly militarised "DMZ" border. South Korea has to carefully consider its measured responses to North Korean provocations, such as the sinking of the South Korean corvette ROKS Chenoan in March 2010, and the brief artillery exchange started by the North across the DMZ in November 2010.

Unlike Israel's incursions into Gaza or Lebanon, any South Korean forces crossing the DMZ would spark an all-out conflict on the Korean peninsula and presumably a nuclear war. The options open to the South are limited, which the North has used to lever aid packages in the past. The comparison between Korea and Israel's Gaza conflict has some value, because if Iron Dome has proven to be a game changer in Gaza,  perhaps it could offer similar benefits for South Korea.

The alleged reach of North Korean missiles
The North has over 1,000 missiles pointed towards Seoul, and many more rockets and artillery pieces. A large proportion of these are antiquated by western standards, but many can carry nuclear, biological or chemical warheads, and by their sheer numbers are a dangerous threat-in-being to the South's capital. Missile defence goes some way to neutralising the threat of a saturating swarm attack. North Korea has at least 200 longer range missiles, some of which could reach Japan or Alaska. No matter, say defence vendors, Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (which developed Iron Dome) also has systems for intercepting medium and long range missiles: the nattily-named "David's Sling" and the longer range "Arrow".

The same might go for Taiwan, which faces off the threat of thousands of Chinese missiles aimed across just over 120 miles of water. Obviously China is vastly superior to Hamas or North Korea technologically and in all other factors, but just like the stockpiles of rockets built up against Israel and Seoul, China's military strategy against its neighbours has always been about deploying weight of numbers before technological edge.

It is hardly a secret that the US has provided the bulk of funding for Iron Dome, and for sustaining Israel's defence budget as a whole. Like Israel, South Korea and Taiwan are US allies and recipients of huge amounts of US defence aid. Unlike Israel, both are in China's backyard: the focus of US strategic focus since Barack Obama's famous strategic pivot towards Asia. 

It looks like the US could spy a money spinner from Iron Dome, after years of missile defence being a byword for gross military expenditure for questionable value: first through vast spending on 'Star Wars'; then via lengthy investment on Nato's controversial European-based missile shield.  There was already some talk of Iron Dome becoming a joint US-Israel collaboration before Pillar of Defense combat-proved its utility, with some production potentially moving to the US, to companies such as Boeing and Raytheon. War, what is it good for?  It's the economy, stupid.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

F**k fees: student protest

"Well, someone's got to clean up all this shit", ventured the bored copper, stood idly, watching some of London's students protest.  Despite the rain, many had made it out to lament the injustices of high UK student debt and heightened university tuition fees. 

Despite their snappy "F**k Fees" slogan, it seems the organisers didn't get their desired headcount today, judging by the large piles of unused placards, preprepared by organisers. 

The protest I witnessed was outside the student union of my former place of study, King's College London. Conveniently close to lectures, or the KCLSU bar, depending on your point of view. I subsequently looked it up to find it's part of the National Union of Students' (NUS) tuition fees "Demo 2012".

I watch most protests in Western countries through an almost impermeable veil of cynicism. The fees slogan from today is crude and abrasive. Obviously it occurred to me to empathise and speak with the bored police officer at the time, rather than the legion of student activists on the scene. The image that grabbed me was the cynical snap of spare placards above, rather than the drab banners scene below.

I'm sure I'd be more outraged if I was paying their student fees. Fate was kind to me in that respect. My school year was the last to sneak through the door, in September 2003, before fees were tripled to £3,000 "top up fees" the following year. I never took a "Gap Yar", as many friends did. I landed a graduate reporter's job in 2007, before the financial crisis and resulting economic downturn set in, slashing graduates' chances of finding work after university. Students these days have a tougher lot.

"If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart.  If you're not a conservative by the time you're 30, you have no brain." – quote falsely attributed to Winston Churchill, but the sentiment rings true.

Well, I voted Liberal Democrat when I was 20. Now I'm past 25, nearer 30, and it's 5 years and counting since I completed my studies. My attitudes are conservative and Conservative. The size of the C doesn't really matter. Perhaps London's grey autumn shades and the drab economic outlook have darkened my cynicism. I stumbled on today's protest on my way back from a meeting at a hotel on nearby Aldwych: a morning coffee with a Bermudian lawyer.

The students who voted in droves for Nick Clegg in the 2010 election were woefully naive, falling for a fanciful populist line. The Lib Dem pledge of the time to scrap tuition fees was made on the strict understanding that the party would never really get into government, lest they be saddled with actually implementing it. The Lib Dems since lost a good deal of their support after confronting some elected realities in the Coalition, which instead capped fees at an unpalatable £9,000.

"Red Ed" Miliband's Labour still suffers from the same policy vacuum that sabotaged Gordon Brown at the last election: the Left's appeal dies with the credibility of its policies; and it can't  innovate without bottomless pots of money. That was the lesson, given hindsight, of New Labour.

Students are understandably angry, hemmed in by debt, fees, politics and realities. I genuinely feel sorry for them. In better times they would have better fortunes. I think £9,000 is an unfair ask  genuinely I do  but it's hard to imagine them getting much discounted. Street protest seems about their only option.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Contrasting extremes: America's election


America is an interesting country; they do things differently there. And increasingly it seems a place of extremes. The imminent election is increasing the perception of polarisation in US politics. Barack Obama's detractors tar him as an un-American socialist, and Mitt Romney's opponents label him as an aloof, rich, hard-right zealot.

I’m in California this week, writing a daily newspaper for an insurance conference taking place at some luxury hotels in Dana Point, Orange County. My hotel is in nearby, famously plush Laguna Beach.

Conference delegates are guiltily enjoying the west coast sunshine and evening parties, and fretting about loved ones back on the east coast being ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Contrast seems to be the theme of the moment. California is staunchly Democrat: "Laguna votes Obama" fills the window of the Demorats' local campaign HQ.

Executives at the nearby conference appear uniformly Republican: they bemoan Obama as "anti-business"; they will GOP victory on November 6; and they say a new occupant in the White House is a precursor for commercial prosperity's return. 

I witnessed another great contrast yesterday, while taking a pre-work beachside morning jog to clear a hangover generated by some late night partying in Laguna for Halloween.

My run took me along a particularly affluent stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, past boutique shops, muscle cars and luxury beach front properties.

After ten minutes I reached a sort of promenade, adorned with a lifeguard tower, bikini girls playing beach volleyball, and ubiquitous Old Glory fluttering against an azure sky.

Two men in suits approached. My immediate suspicion was that they were delegates from the event I was sent here to cover. One was fiddling with a BlackBerry, while the second spoke in the kind of boorishly loud tone with which Europeans enjoy stereotyping Americans.

Sharing the scene with these besuited men were several others, less smartly dressed, sat eating their breakfast on a nearby bench, contemplating the Pacific sea view. They were collecting free food handed out to the homeless and unemployed.

I heard the second suited man say: “Of course a lot of them aren’t really unemployed anyway. They might be working for cash, and not declaring earnings to the government.”

A few feet away a man on the bench sat up and shouted at the other man’s back.

“Tell that to 23 million Americans,” he yelled.

I had witnessed a very public, very political exchange, with these two men representing the two polar extremes of American society as the country prepares to vote.

The details of US unemployment statistics are up for debate, but the message was clear. 

Obama and Romney undoubtedly have very different visions for America. Their detractors like to talk up the contrast between them and suggest they represent extremes. The election result looks too close to call. 

America is certainly a place of extremes: conspicuous consumption and struggling poverty. It’s also a fascinating place, and I genuinely love it here.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Battle of Bastion: a good day for Terry

US Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier at Bastion, 2 weeks earlier
It is impossible to disguise the Taliban's spectacular success scored last Friday (14/9/12) against Nato ISAF's Camp Bastion. The suicide raid in Afghanistan's Helmand province – dubbed the Battle of Bastion by media – has overturned previous assumptions that Bastion was impregnable.

The Taliban's debit of 19 fighters killed and one captured in the attack was easily worth the impressive material results and the even greater intangible consequences of the assault.

Nato ISAF casualties during the insurgents' raid included: two US Marine Corps servicemen killed in action in the early stages; followed by several British RAF Regiment force protection troops lightly wounded in the subsequent mopping up phase.

Damage scored to equipment on the base was particularly heavy: six US Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers destroyed and two more damaged; AH-1 Cobra gunships and other helicopters damaged; aircraft maintenance structures damaged; and fuel storage facilities set ablaze. Totalling up the cost of all of that  physical damage means a bill easily in excess of $250m.

The biggest loss sustained is intangible and irreplaceable: the perception of Bastion as a secure base. Even the name implies safety. It will be a shock for Nato that the Taliban could even get anywhere near the base’s fortified boundaries. 

The relatively lightly armed attackers were dressed in US Army uniforms and equipped with explosive suicide vests, PKM machine guns, and their ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs).

The attack itself began by insurgents approaching the outer fence at 22:15 local time, apparently unopposed, and blasting a 5-foot hole through using explosives, likely delivered by a suicide bomber at the head of the 20-strong squad.

Once through, the nineteen-strong Taliban attack force split into three teams and streamed forward towards the airstrip, at which point the US Marines casualties and damage to planes and equipment rapidly ensued. However, it looks like the attackers' ranks were further thinned at this point if they were using suicide vests to target the parked aircraft around the runway. 

The remaining raiders were eventually mopped up over the course of two to three hours by responding teams from 2/10 Battalion US Marine Corps attacking from the north, and UK 51 Squadron RAF Regiment force protection troops with four Jackal vehicles, advancing up the runway from the south.

Aircraft scrambled included one MQ-9 Reaper drone, as well as one British Army Apache gunship, which reportedly fired bursts from its 30mm chain-gun in the battle.

One Taliban fighter was reportedly taken prisoner after this belated show of force, while the others that hadn't already blown themselves up were cornered and killed. British ground troops reportedly fired 10,000 rounds in the fire fight.

How the attackers were able to approach the outer fence – even at night – without being seen and destroyed is still unanswered. Who was on watch; where were the patrols?

The inference is that the sophisticated day/night vision cameras and sensors ringing the camp must either have suffered from a blind spot, or else belief in Bastion’s invulnerability had led to complacency, allowing watch-keeping and sentries to become lax. Perhaps all of these.

Intelligence about such weaknesses in Bastion’s otherwise formidable defences was probably relayed from Afghan informers within the camp – ANA traitors or moles among local contractors.

The Telegraph cites initial reports that the Taliban had been monitoring the south-east side of Camp Bastion for at least two weeks and had been posing as farmers working in a nearby maize plantation.

We are well used to bad news from Afghanistan, but Friday’s attack adds to Nato’s sense of insecurity, particularly when viewed together with the rising trend of so-called “Green-on-Blue” attacks on ISAF troops by their supposedly friendly Afghan National Army (ANA) or police colleagues.

In this respect, the attack on Bastion is particularly damaging. The camp had been considered impregnable, and the Taliban has shown this to be untrue.

In 2006 the British Army chose the site specifically for its isolation, under pressure from Taliban offensives in Helmand’s lawless towns. Back then it was a base of tents and a 100-metre dirt airstrip.

In the six years since, it has developed to cover 20 square miles, and housing 28,000 troops in several subdivided camps: Bastion 1; Bastion 2; the US Marines’ Camp Leatherneck; and Camp Shorabak for the ANA. The airstrip has expanded to two runways handling around 600 fixed and rotary wing aircraft flights each day.

The camp’s supposed invulnerability was a crucial factor in the decision to allow Prince Harry – the British monarchy’s “spare heir” – to deploy for his second tour in Afghanistan, having trained as an Apache pilot. Harry was in the camp when the attack took place.

A Taliban spokesman has even claimed the attack was aimed at killing Harry. This seems fanciful, but saying it alone fuels press speculation over Harry’s safety or whether the prince should stay or go, with obvious propaganda value for the Taliban.

The same Taliban spokesman also said the attack was part-motivated by the much-hyped (and very silly) anti-Muslim video produced in a Californian garage, which has sparked street violence across the Middle East.

Again this is fanciful. The Taliban are not moronic or spontaneous street protestors, but careful planners, especially in this case. Just saying this stuff throws further fuel on to debates already raging online and on the Arab street.

Fuelling fear and speculation through such empty words is a natural extension of the main aim of the Taliban strike – to stoke a growing sense of insecurity at the heart of Nato ISAF – in its relationships with the ANA, and within the heart of bases like Bastion.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

20 terrible finance clichés

Let's leverage our synergies
To celebrate five years of financial services journalism, I've compiled a list of twenty words or phrases that the industry loves just a bit too much.

Some of these platitudes are frustrating from a journalistic point of view. The same worn clichés tarnish the English language daily, wheeled out by highly intelligent people who certainly studied some English before collecting  MBAs and joining the corporate BS wagon.

Other culprits on this list reflect the industry when at its pompous, vainglorious worst. While busy doing God’s work – or taking the global economy to the brink – many a City boy has turned this lexicon into an insulating comfort blanket against some cold, hard truths.

So here goes...

GFC
A euphemistic acronym if ever there was one. GFC is for Global Financial Crisis. I first remember hearing it in 2009. The crisis was still very much in evidence; the can had barely been kicked down the street; the threat was returning in sovereign debt form. Someone in the industry must have got impatient. So why not sanitise it as the GFC? Vomit.

Stochastic
The word derives from the Greek “to guess”. Yes, really. Used by risk modelling types to sound awfully sophisticated, it could be replaced by “random”, which doesn’t sound half so clever.

Leveraged
Wouldn't plain old “lever” do?  Repeated ad nauseam, I still think it sounds awful as a verb. And it gets used again and again, inexcusably, outside of its technical investment definition / context. It’s often a euphemism too: “leveraged up to the hilt” sounds a bit more professional than the Victorian “queer street” or just plain old indebtedness.

Streamlining
Someone’s about to lose their job.

Synergies
Ugh.

Cycle back / Touch base
Two nauseating favourites over-used by many PRs, marketers, sales-types and BS merchants everywhere; it’s also increasingly being parroted by lazy hacks.

Pull the trigger
One over-used by Alpha sales boys. They could just “do” whatever it is, but no.

Actioning
Used in the same context but by those seeking to sound officious.

Uptick
Why not say increase” once in a while? I’m not sure why this one is such common currency.

Going forward
This empty-headed phrase adds absolutely nothing of value to any sentence.

Change manager
This person lives in a constant state of flux. It’s basically a gold star for somebody who likes to steam in and take over somebody else’s job during a merger, or some other awfully sophisticated corporate reformation.

Value-add
Something is either good value or it isn’t. There are costs and benefits, beneficiaries and benefactors, winners and losers. Some things can even add value to other things. There is no reason for this phrase to exist.

High yield
Maybe junk bond just sounded too yuppie. I'd prefer “risky business.

Subprime
Didn’t see that one coming, huh? Another euphemism for something rubbish.

Opaque
We may be God’s children in the dark, but this is frequently used as yet another euphemism for something shady.

Skin in the game
Horribly overused, this one; basically people should only gamble with their own money.

De-risking
Another example of sanitising a crappy situation, this one has seen lots of use since the credit crisis from firms seeking to reduce their bets, cutting risky exposures to focus on more plain “vanilla” investments in hard times.

Sukuk
A tough one, this. If it looks like a bond and feels like a bond, it’s probably a bond. In happier days, Islamic investors could recline and enjoy conscience-free returns. It took a crisis for tougher questions to emerge. There were quite a few abandoned sports cars, keys still in their ignitions, left at Dubai’s airport in 2009. I’m guessing their flighty owners were dabbling in debt.


Sticky
One for the social media marketing luvvies, rather than strictly finance. I think it just means that a website is popular.

Responsible lending
As far as I can tell, this is what lenders should have been doing all along, made to sound like an innovative new idea.

I must have missed many more!