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International diplomats have been meeting in the Swiss town of Montreux to hammer out a settlement designed to end Syria's three-year civil war. The conference, however, whatever its short term outcomes, is far removed from the reality on the Syrian battleground, writes Reva Bhalla. 

There are good reasons for deep scepticism. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces continue their fight to recover ground against the increasingly fratricidal rebel forces, there is little incentive for the regime, heavily backed by Iran and Russia, to concede power to its sectarian rivals at the behest of Washington, especially when the United States is already negotiating with Iran. Ali Haidar, an old classmate of al Assad's from ophthalmology school and a long-standing member of Syria's loyal opposition, now serving somewhat fittingly as Syria's National Reconciliation Minister, captured the mood of the days leading up to the conference in saying "Don't expect anything from Geneva II. Neither Geneva II, not Geneva III nor Geneva X will solve the Syrian crisis. The solution has begun and will continue through the military triumph of the state."

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By Peter Zeihan

Europe is on the cusp of change. An EU heads-of-state summit Dec. 16 launched a process aimed to save the common European currency. If successful, this process would be the most significant step toward creating a singular European power since the creation of the European Union itself in 1992 — that is, if it doesn't destroy the euro first.

Envisioned by the EU Treaty on Monetary Union, the common currency, the euro, has suffered from two core problems during its decade-long existence: the lack of a parallel political union and the issue of debt. Many in the financial world believe that what is required for a viable currency is a fiscal union that has taxation power — and that is indeed needed. But that misses the larger point of who would be in charge of the fiscal union. Taxation and appropriation — who pays how much to whom — are essentially political acts. One cannot have a centralized fiscal authority without first having a centralized political/military authority capable of imposing and enforcing its will. Greeks are not going to implement a German-designed tax and appropriations system simply because Berlin thinks it's a good idea. As much as financiers might like to believe, the checkbook is not the ultimate power in the galaxy. The ultimate power comes from the law backed by a gun.

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Editor's note: This is the sixth installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

The name "Ukraine" literally translates as "on the edge." It is a country on the edge of other countries, sometimes part of one, sometimes part of another and more frequently divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was divided between Russia, Poland and the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, it was divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary. And in the 20th century, save for a short period of independence after World War I, it became part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine has been on the edge of empires for centuries.

My father was born in Ukraine in 1912, in a town in the Carpathians now called Uzhgorod. It was part of Austria-Hungary when he was born, and by the time he was 10 the border had moved a few miles east, so his family moved a few miles west. My father claimed to speak seven languages (Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish). As a child, I was deeply impressed by his learning. It was only later that I discovered that his linguistic skills extended only to such phrases as "What do you want for that scrawny chicken?" and "Please don't shoot."

He could indeed make himself understood in such non-trivial matters in all these languages. Consider the reason: Uzhgorod today is on the Slovakian border, about 30 miles from Poland, 15 miles from Hungary and 50 miles from Romania. When my father was growing up, the borders moved constantly, and knowing these languages mattered. You were never sure what you'd be a citizen or subject of next or who would be aiming a rifle at you.

My father lived on the edge until the Germans came in 1941 and swept everything before them, and then until the Soviets returned in 1944 and swept everything before them. He was one of tens of millions who lived or died on the edge, and perhaps nowhere was there as much suffering from living on the edge than in Ukraine. Ukraine was caught between Stalin and Hitler, between planned famines and outright slaughter, to be relieved only by the grinding misery of post-Stalin communism. No European country suffered as much in the 20th century as Ukraine. From 1914 until 1945, Ukraine was as close to hell as one can reach in this life.

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Editor's note: This is the final installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman wrote during his travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shared his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and now concludes with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

I have come home, a word that is ambiguous for me, and more so after this trip to Romania, Moldova, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland. The experience of being back in Texas frames my memories of the journey. The architecture of the cities I visited both impressed and oppressed me. Whether Austro-Hungarian mass or Stalinist modernism, the sheer size of the buildings was overwhelming. These are lands of apartments, not of private homes on their own plots of land. In Texas, even in the cities, you have access to the sky. That gives me a sense of freedom and casualness that Central Europe denies me. For a man born in Budapest, with a mother from Bratislava and a father from Uzhgorod, I can't deny I am Central European. But I prefer my chosen home in Austin simply because nothing is ever casual for me in Central Europe. In Texas, everything is casual, even when it's about serious things. There is an ease in the intensity of Texas.

On my return, some friends arranged a small dinner with some accomplished and distinguished people to talk about my trip. I was struck by the casualness of the conversation. It was a serious discussion, even passionate at times, but it was never guarded. There was no sense that a conversation carried with it risk. I had not met some of the guests before. It didn't matter. In the region I was born in, I feel that I have to measure every word with care. There are so many bad memories that each word has to be measured as if it were gold. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that there are fewer risks in Texas than in Central Europe. One of the benefits of genuine power is speaking your mind, with good humor. Those on the edge of power proceed with more caution. Perhaps more than others, I feel this tension. Real Texans may laugh at this assertion, but at the end of the day, I'm far more Texan than anything else.

Or perhaps I speak too quickly. We were in the Kiev airport on the way to Warsaw. As I was passing through security, I was stopped by the question, "Friedman? Warsaw?" I admitted that and suddenly was under guard. "You have guns in your luggage." For me, that statement constituted a near-death experience. I looked at my wife, wondering what she had done. She said casually, "Those aren't guns. They are swords and daggers and were to be surprises for my husband." Indeed they were. While I stood in mortal terror, she cheerily chatted up the guards, who really couldn't make out what she was saying but were charmed nonetheless by her complete absence of fear. In my case, the fear came in layers, with each decade like another layer in an archaeological dig. For her, memory is a much simpler thing.

The region I visited is all about memories — never forgetting, never forgiving and pretending it doesn't matter any more. Therefore, the region is in a peculiar place. On the one hand, every past grievance continues to live. On the other hand, a marvelous machine, the European Union, is hard at work, making the past irrelevant and the future bright. In a region not noted for its optimism, redemption is here and it comes from Brussels.

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Editor's note: This is the seventh installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman is writing as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he shares his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and will conclude, in the next installment, with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

To understand Poland, you must understand Frederic Chopin. First listen to his Polonaise and then to his Revolutionary Etude. They are about hope, despair and rage. In the Polonaise, you hear the most extraordinary distillation of a nation's existence. In the Revolutionary Etude, written in the wake of an uprising in Warsaw in 1830 crushed by Russian troops, there is both rage and resignation. In his private journal, Chopin challenged God for allowing this national catastrophe to happen, damning the Russians and condemning the French for not coming to Warsaw's aid. Afterward, Chopin never returned to Poland, but Poland never left his mind.

Poland finally became an independent nation in 1918. The prime minister it chose to represent it at Versailles was Ignacy Paderewski, a pianist and one of the finest interpreters of Chopin. The conference restored the territories of Greater Poland, and Paderewski helped create the interwar Poland. Gdansk (the German Danzig) set the stage for Poland's greatest national disaster when Germany and the Soviet Union allied to crush Poland, and Danzig became the German justification for its destruction.

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Editor's note: This is the third installment in a series of special reports that Dr. Friedman will write over the next few weeks as he travels to Turkey, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Poland. In this series, he will share his observations of the geopolitical imperatives in each country and conclude with reflections on his journey as a whole and options for the United States.

By George Friedman

In school, many of us learned the poem Invictus. It concludes with the line, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." This is a line that a Victorian gentleman might bequeath to an American businessman. It is not a line that resonates in Romania. Nothing in their history tells Romanians that they rule their fate or dominate their soul. Everything in their history is a lesson in how fate masters them or how their very soul is a captive of history. As a nation, Romanians have modest hopes and expectations tempered by their past.

This sensibility is not alien to me. My parents survived the Nazi death camps, returned to Hungary to try to rebuild their lives and then found themselves fleeing the communists. When they arrived in America, their wishes were extraordinarily modest, as I look back on it. They wanted to be safe, to get up in the morning, to go to work, to get paid — to live. They were never under the impression that they were the masters of their fate.

The problem that Romania has is that the world cares about it. More precisely, empires collide where Romania is. The last iteration was the Cold War. Today, at the moment, things seem easier, or at least less desperate, than before. Still, as I discussed in Borderlands, the great powers are sorting themselves out again and therefore Romania is becoming more important to others. It is not clear to me that the Romanians fully appreciate the shift in the geopolitical winds. They think they can hide in Europe, and perhaps they can. But I suspect that history is reaching for Romania again.

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