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Archive for September, 2017

The First Bit of Kurdistan

The neighbours are very cross about Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish part of Iraq, which is currently known as the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR). They can’t go on calling it that if and when it gets formal independence, and the leading candidate for the new name is “South Kurdistan”. Which is precisely what annoys the neighbours.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who governs the Arab majority (80 percent) of Iraq’s population, says he will impose an air blockade on the KAR if it doesn’t hand over control of its airports to Baghdad by Friday. Iran has already stopped direct flights to the Kurdish region, and Lebanon’s Middle East airlines will observe the ban from Friday.

The Iraqi prime minister also said that Baghdad will fight to prevent Kurdish secession, if necessary, and he has sent Iraqi troops to take part in joint exercises with the Turkish army on the KAR’s northern border. As for the Turkish government, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is enraged and warns that this “adventure” (the independence referendum) “can only have a dark end.”

Turkey is the great power of the region (80 million people and a big, modern economy), so Erdogan’s threats to shut off the pipeline that delivers Kurdish oil to the world and to stop exporting food to Iraqi Kurdistan have to be taken seriously. The KAR is landlocked, and Turkey is its main trading partner (about $10 billion of cross-border traffic a year).

Erdogan tried very hard to persuade Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, to call off the independence referendum. He accuses Barzani of “treachery” for going ahead with it anyway, and warns that “If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”

Most of us were under the impression that that war has already been underway for around five years, mainly in Syria, with Erdogan eagerly feeding the flames. But his interventions in Syria were just dabbling in other people’s problems; an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, he thinks, would be an existential threat to Turkey itself.

He may be right, because one-fifth of Turkey’s population is also Kurdish, and most of them live in the part of Turkey directly across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan. He is terrified that Turkey’s Kurds will catch the independence bug too, and he’s willing to take strong measures against Iraq’s Kurds to stop it.

That’s why the talk of “South Kurdistan” is so incendiary. Seen through this Kurdish nationalist prism, it is the first bit of a big, united Kurdistan: south-eastern Turkey is “North Kurdistan”, southwestern Iran is “East Kurdistan” and north-eastern Syria is “West Kurdistan.” The 30 million Kurds are one of the biggest stateless ethnic groups in the world, but giving them all a national state would require dismantling Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

That’s why it has never happened, although the Kurds were first promised a state of their own when the Western powers were planning the carve-up of the Ottoman empire after the First World War. The Kurds have been seeking it ever since, but everybody else always lines up against them.

Iran has just said that it too will close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and Erdogan is confident that Turkey can bring it to its knees: “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all their revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said this week.

The United States is preparing to abandon its Kurdish allies in both Iraq and Syria, although they have done much of the fighting against ISIS, because it doesn’t want borders to start to move in a region that is already turbulent enough. The Kurds haven’t got a friend in the world, and it is an old international tradition to use them and then betray them.

So why did Barzani hold the independence referendum now? Preliminary results suggest that it was hugely successful at home – a 91 percent “yes” vote on a 72 percent turn-out – but there’s going to be a big, ugly backlash from the neighbours. There could even be a war, and the likelihood that anybody will actually recognise South Kurdistan’s independence is minimal.

Barzani’s motives are partly personal: he must step down before the elections scheduled for November, and he wants to stamp his own name on the independence project. But many Kurds would argue that there will never be a “good” time to go for independence, and that they must just push on and hope for the best. After a hundred years of oppression and division, you can see their point.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The United…them”)

Germany: The Rise of the Right

Angela Merkel’s slogan in her campaign for a fourth term as Chancellor was terminally bland and smug – “For a Germany in which we live well and love living” – but it did the job, sort of. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is back as the largest party, so Merkel gets to form the next coalition government. But the neo-fascists are now in the Bundestag (parliament) too, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany.

It’s not Merkel’s fault, exactly, but the numbers tell the tale. The CDU had its worst result ever, down from 40 percent of the vote at the last election to only 33 percent this time. And it looks like the 7 percent of the vote that the CDU lost went straight to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the neo-fascist party, whose support was up from just under 5 percent last time to 12.6 percent this time.

That makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag. All the other parties have sworn to have nothing to do with it, so Merkel’s party will have to seek its coalition partners elsewhere. It will take at least a month to make the coalition deal, which will probably link the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, but that is not the big story. The rise of the hard right is.

‘Rise’ is a relative term, of course: only one German in eight actually voted for the AfD. But that is still shocking in a country that thought it had permanently excised all that old Nazi stuff from its politics. And if you look more closely, the AfD’s support was strongest in the same parts of the country that voted strongly for the Nazis in the 1933 election that brought Hitler to power.

The AfD was founded by an economics professor who just wanted Germany to leave the euro currency, but in the past four years it has been taken over anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists, and they do sound a little bit like You-Know-Who at times.

Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leader, has described Merkel’s government as “pigs” who merely serve as “marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” And the party’s other co-leader, Alexander Gauland, said in an election speech last week: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

That sort of comment might be interesting to debate in a university seminar on German history, but 72 years after Hitler’s death it is still too soon to say out loud in a Europe that was ravaged by German armies in the Second World War. Gauland, Weidel and their AfD colleagues are playing with fire and they are well aware of it.

The truly alarming thing, however, is not the occasional echo of the Nazis in AfD rhetoric. It is the fact that Germany is conforming to a general trend towards the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist right in Western politics.

Each country does it in its own historical style. The pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom last year was actually led by isolationist “Little Englanders”. Their implausible promise of a glorious free-trading future for the UK outside the European Union was just a necessary nod in the direction of economic rationality – but the Brexiteers won because enough people wanted to believe them.

Similarly, Donald Trump fits comfortably into the American tradition: he is channelling American demagogues of the 1930 like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. The economic situation of American workers and the lower middle class today is close enough to that of the 1930s that they responded to his mixture of nationalism, dog-whistle racism and anti-big-business thetoric by voting him into the presidency.

In France, Marine Le Pen appealed to nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the resentment of the long-term unemployed to win almost 34 percent of the vote in last May’s presidential election. She lost, but the more important fact is that one-third of French voters backed the neo-fascist candidate. And now, in German, the AfD.

The common thread that runs through all these events, beyond the racism, nationalism and xenophobia, is economic distress. The economies may be doing well, but a large proportion of the people are not. The gap between the rich and the rest was tolerated when everybody’s income was rising, but that has not been true for thirty years now, and patience among the “losers” has run out.

This is still early days, but the direction of the drift in Western politics is clear, and it is deeply undesirable. The only thing that will stop it is decisive action to narrow the income gap again, but that is very hard to do in the face of the currently dominant economic doctrine.

Houston, we have a problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The AfD…times”; and “That sort…of it”)

The Man Who Saved the World

Stanislav Petrov was never famous in Russia, just another forgotten pensioner, so the news of his death at 77 in Moscow on 19 May only recently reached other countries. He wasn’t all that famous abroad either, but people in the know think he may have saved the world from nuclear war.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big back-lit red screen with the word ‘Launch’ on it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service in a 2013 interview. “I had all the data (suggesting that there was a US missile attack underway)….All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commander – but I couldn’t
move.”

He couldn’t move because his screen was giving him reports from a Soviet spy satellite that five American Minuteman missiles had been launched at the Soviet Union. In the tense international atmosphere of September 1983, Soviet military doctrine was ‘launch on warning’: send a full retaliatory strike against the United States even before American nuclear weapons start to explode over Soviet missile silos and cities.

It was only three weeks since a Soviet fighter had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight and killed all 269 people aboard, including a US Congressman. Six months previously US President Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and called for a roll-back strategy that would “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet leadership was genuinely frightened, and had a view of Reagan not unlike that of the US government about Kim Jong-un today. They feared a surprise attack designed to destroy all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles and bombers on the ground, and so had moved to ‘launch on warning’ mode. If Colonel Petrov reported what his screen was telling him, the machinery of Armageddon could start moving very quickly.

Stanislav Petrov didn’t report it. It was a new system, and it could be making a mistake. Besides, Petrov knew that you only get one chance at a surprise attack, so logic says you should launch all your missiles at once – more than a thousand of them, in the case of the United States. Launching just five would be beyond stupid. So he waited.

And waited, for 23 eternal minutes, to see if the Soviet Union’s ground radars also picked up the incoming missiles as they descended towards their targets. They didn’t. “I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

He was an ordinary man who did one extraordinary thing in his life, but think of the courage it took to ignore his orders, trust his judgement, and risk exposing his country to a surprise American nuclear attack. Think of what went through his mind in those 23 minutes. He was a hero.

No good deed goes unpunished, so Petrov was officially reprimanded for failing to describe the incident in his logbook. He was initially praised by his commanding officer for doing the right thing, but then it was realised that if he was rewarded, the senior people responsible for the system that produced the error would be punished. So he was sidelined, retired early, and subsequently had a nervous breakdown.

And the system error? The satellite had spotted a rare alignment of sunlight, reflected from the cloud-tops over the US Minuteman fields, that resembled missile launch tracks to its simple-minded image-reading device. There were several similar incidents during the Cold War – a US over-the-horizon radar once reported Moonrise as a mass missile launch – but this was the only one that happened when the relevant side was in launch-on-warning mode.

Given how full of bugs the missile-detection programmes of those days were, it’s remarkable that the United States and the Soviet Union got through 40 years of the Cold War unharmed. Full credit to the professionals on both sides who understood how grave the consequences would be if they got it wrong, and always relied on their own intelligence and experience when confronted with terrifying data from their machines.

Full credit too to the leaders who stayed calm and never actually threatened each other. Occasionally they declared the other side doomed by history – Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “we will bury you” comment in 1956, Reagan’s “write the final pages of (Soviet) history” speech of 1983 – but they were always talking about the other side’s economic and political defeat, not its nuclear annihilation.

Things are bit different now. Kim Jong-un’s lunatic threat to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes and darkness” with his handful of nuclear weapons, like Donald Trump’s all-too credible threat to “totally destroy North Korea” (that’s 25 million men, women and children barbecued, irradiated or simply vaporised, if he means what he says), go far beyond the language that was used during the Cold War.

It would be reassuring to know that the professional military on both sides, at least, are as responsible and grown-up now as they were then. Alas, we don’t even know that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“No good…mode”)

Russian Victory in Syria

Two years ago this month, the Russian air force was sent in to save the tottering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from collapse. The air was thick with Western predictions that Moscow had made a dreadful mistake.

“These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a joint statement three days after the first Russian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Russians were backing Assad, they were bombing the wrong groups of fighters, they were bombing civilians, and they would end up trapped in an endless war.

Why didn’t the Russians listen to such expert advice, especially from the United States, which has more experience in losing wars in the Muslim world than anybody else? Nobody likes to be patronised, but the Russians didn’t get into a slanging match about it. They just kept quiet and carried on doing what they were doing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating ISIS in Syria,” said General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Russian army in Syria, and that is the simple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir-es-Zor remain under ISIS control, and both cities will fall before the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where Western, mostly US troops and their Kurdish and Arab allies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will probably end up partitioned between the Syrian government and the Americans in the short run. But in the long run Assad gets it all back.

All that remains to do is reconquer the big enclave around Idlib in north-western Syria that is ruled by the al-Qaeda affiliate that used to be known as the Jabhat al-Nusra. (It has taken to changing its name every month or so in an attempt to disguise its origins.) But the Russian have promised to help Assad reconquer that territory too.

“The operation to destroy the fighters of the Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups on Syrian territory will continue until their complete and guaranteed destruction,” promised General Lapin last week. Taking down al-Nusra will be a major enterprise, but it is quite doable because the Islamist outfit’s former supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have abandoned it.

Indeed, the Russian and Iranian effort to save Assad has been so successful that what once seemed impossible is becoming a reality: the whole country will be reunited under Assad’s rule.

Much of the population that falls back under his control will hate it, and it is far from clear what will happen to the six million Syrians who fled abroad during the war. Most were anti-Assad, and many will never go home. Losing a civil war is a bitter experience, but one way or another everyone will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you contemplate the Syrian tragedy, that there are degrees of iniquity. Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is a model of democratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nastier, and there have certainly been times when its foreign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not exclude the possibility that the Russians might pressure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fighting stops. Sending Bashar al-Assad into a safe and comfortable retirement at that point wouldn’t really change anything in Syria, but it would put Russia’s intervention in the war in a somewhat better light.

And what did Moscow get in return for its intervention? First and foremost, it prevented the emergence of an Islamist-ruled terrorist state quite close to Russia’s own southern borders. (The Russian population is around one-tenth Muslim.) But it also demonstrated that it can be a very useful ally for other regimes that run into trouble. Unlike you-know-who.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Why…doing”; and “It’s…back”)