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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1631 posts for Gwynne Dyer

Syria: The Autumn Offensive

“Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, so you wouldn’t think that the United States would object to the Syrian government reconquering it. Especially since US forces in Syria have no way of reaching Idlib, in the country’s northwestern corner, and neither do America’s Kurdish allies.

But you might be wrong about the US stance, because the Syrian regime’s troops attacking Idlib would have Russian bombers helping them. Turkey might also object, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan was surreptitiously helping the al-Qaeda rebels in Syria earlier in the war and has already posted Turkish troops at ‘observation posts’ inside Idlib province to protect the status quo.

We’re going to find out which way Turkey and the US jump quite soon, because Idlib is next on the list. Over the past two years Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has recaptured first the rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, then the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the capital, and most recently the areas down south near Israel and Jordan where the rebellion began. Idlib is next.

It has to be Idlib, because that’s where all the jihadi fighters who surrendered after those other defeats were sent. The influx of Islamist fighters and their families has virtually doubled the province’s population to two million in the past two years. Assad will want to finish the job while the Russian air force is still in Syria, so the offensive will probably start next month.

It will require intense bombing, as the Syrian army is short of ground troops, and there are bound to be anguished international protests about civilian casualties in the crowded province. That would provide an excuse for either Washington or Ankara to intervene and stop the attack if they want, but do they?

Erdogan would have to pull the Turkish troops out of Idlib if he wants to avoid a clash with the Syrian army, which would be rather embarrassing, and he hates to be embarrassed. He is already having to eat a good deal of humble pie in the financial crisis that is crippling the Turkish economy at home, and this would be a second helping.

On the other hand, Erdogan has already had to change his line once and accept that Assad will survive as Syria’s dictator. That makes it kind of hard for him to argue now that Syria cannot be allowed to take Idlib back, especially since the real power in Idlib is Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, the many-times-renamed Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

Logically, Erdogan should not be getting involved in a foreign war when he is already in a shouting match with Donald Trump and the Turkish economy is in a nose-dive. But he is erratic, emotional and over-confident, so he might just dig his heels in.

As for Trump’s own decision on Idlib, national interest decrees that he should just sit back and let it happen. What’s not to love about an event that destroys al-Qaeda’s only territorial base in the Middle East at no cost in American money or lives?

But if Trump doesn’t intervene, America’s hard right will complain that he is allowing a further expansion of Russian power in the Middle East, while his Israeli allies will protest again at the use of ‘Iranian troops’ (really mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian mercenaries paid by Iran) in the battle. And Trump, too, is erratic, emotional and over-confident.

If the Idlib operation goes off without a major hitch involving Turkish or American military intervention, it will be the last major battle of the Syrian civil war. There would remain the task of persuading Turkish and American troops to leave the country, but that should not involve fighting.

At that point, it will be all about the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants to be sure that they do not get enough independence to set an example for its own Kurdish minority just across the border. It is especially concerned that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could become a base for attacks across the border by the PKK, the banned ‘terrorist’ organisation that seeks independence for Turkey’s Kurds.

The United States, on the other hand, has made the Syrian Kurds its main instrument for fighting ‘Islamic State’ in the eastern third of Syria. ISIS has been beaten by this alliance and the US army now effectively controls eastern Syria. It’s reluctant to just hand over the huge, sparsely populated region to Assad, and it doesn’t want to abandon its Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of the Turks either.

There is a deal that could work. The Turkish and US armies both pull out of Syria, and the Syrian army replaces them to ensure that is no comeback by ISIS and no base there for Kurdish separatists seeking to break away from Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are rewarded with limited self-government including control over education, language and local spending. And the Russians go home too, since Assad no longer needs their help.

That would be the sensible thing to do, but this is the Middle East. So nobody knows what will really happen.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“At that…either”)

China and the Uighurs

Two weeks ago Professor Gay McDougall, co-chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, alleged that up to a million people belonging to the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang have been detained in concentration camps to be ‘re-educated’ about religion.

Hu Lianhe, who shapes the Communist Party Central Committee’s policies on minorities, sternly denied it: “The argument that one million Uighurs are detained in re-education centres is completely untrue.”

He rather spoiled the effect of his denial, however, by telling the meeting that while China was not running a “de-Islamisation” programme in Xinkiang, “those deceived by religious extremists…shall be assisted by resettlement and re-education.”

Resettled where? In detention camps, perhaps? And if not a million, then how many? Half a million? Two million? The state-run Global Times then defended the detention camps that do not exist by claiming that Xinjiang had narrowly escaped a descent into mass violence and chaos.

“It is because of the Party’s leadership, a powerful China, and the courage of local officials that Xinjiang has been pulled back from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya’.” That is not a denial of the policy; it’s a justification of it.

You can’t have it both ways: China is detaining and ‘reprogramming’ Muslims in Xinjiang (we don’t say ‘brainwashing’ any more) on a very large scale. It is doing so because it fears that the sporadic terrorist attacks that have hit cities in Xingjiang and even China proper may escalate as Islamic State, defeated in Syria and Iraq, seeks to build support in other regions of the Muslim world.

Religion is not the root cause of Uighur unhappiness with Chinese rule; it is the deliberate effort to submerge their identity by settling millions of Han Chinese (the ethnic group who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population) in the province that was once known as ‘Chinese Turkestan’.

Xinjiang wasn’t even Chinese until the 1870s, when the Qing dynasty finally nailed down Chinese control over a crossroads region (part of the old Silk Road) that had been ruled by more than a dozen different mini-empires in the previous millennium.

It fell out of Chinese control again in the civil war of the 1930s and 40s, becoming a independent ‘East Turkestan’ republic backed by the Soviet Union. When the victorious Chinese Communist army took back control in 1950, 73 percent of the population were Uyghurs, with smaller Muslim ethnic groups like Kazakhs and Kirghiz accounting for perhaps another 6 or 7 percent.

Only one-fifth of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese in 1950; today almost half is. Han immigration was spontaneous in the early days, but in recent decades the Communist regime has encouraged and even subsidised it, in a deliberate attempt to create a loyal majority in the province. Muslim Xinjiang, like its neighbour to the south, Buddhist Tibet, is suspect because its religion gives it an alternative, ‘foreign’ loyalty.

As in Tibet, this attempt to make the population more ‘Chinese’ only stimulated resentment and resistance among the former majority population, and the first anti-Chinese violence in Xinjiang began in the late 1990s. Almost 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, were killed in ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital, in 2009, and since then there have been numerous knife, bomb and vehicle attacks in Xinjiang and in China proper.

The official Chinese response has been repression. A vast surveillance apparatus, from facial recognition software to mass DNA collection, blankets the province. Xinjiang’s 20 million people are only 2 percent of China’s population, but the province accounts for 20 percent of the country’s arrests. And now, mass detention and ‘re-education’ camps.

The genius responsible for these policies is Chen Quanguo, who previously used some of the same methods to suppress ethnic nationalism in Tibet. The detention camps appeared and human rights abuses intensified after he was made Communist Party Secretary in Xinjiang in 2016, and he is now a member of the politburo in Beijing as a reward for his efforts.

It’s all so predictable and futile. Ignore the real causes of the anger. (The Uyghurs are much poorer than the Han newcomers and fear that they will lose their identity.) Treat the symptoms instead. (Blame the terrorism on religious fanatics who have been influenced by evil foreigners.) Take a leaf out of George W. Bush’s book and go attack the evil foreigners.

Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria, recently told the pro-government Syrian daily Al-Watan that China is “following the situation in Syria, in particular after the (Assad regime’s) victory in southern Syria. Its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

And then they could invade Afghanistan. Everybody else has.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Xinjiang…percent”)

Corbyn, Palestinians and Brexit

It sounds like a tempest in a teapot, but it could bring down Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party – and that could end up meaning that Britain doesn’t leave the European Union after all.

It started last Saturday with a photograph in the Daily Mail (a newspaper that regards Corbyn as the Devil’s second cousin) of the Labour leader laying a wreath in a cemetery in Tunisia four years ago. He had laid it, said the Mail, at a memorial to the Palestinian terrorists who planned the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

It was a calculated attempt to paint Corbyn as anti-Semitic, and the mud stuck. The Mail also published a 2013 video in which Corbyn said that Palestinians were experiencing “conditions in the West Bank, under occupation, of the very sort that will be recognisable by many people in Europe who suffered occupation during the Second World War.” That’s perilously close to comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who never misses a chance to portray Europe as a cauldron of anti-Semitism, immediately tweeted: “The laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorists who perpetrated the Munich massacre…deserves unequivocal condemnation from everybody– left, right, and everything in between.”

Corbyn replied at once on his own Twitter feed: “What deserves unequivocal condemnation is the killing of over 160 Palestinian protesters in Gaza by Israeli forces since March, including dozens of children.” Fair comment, perhaps, but that is not what a prudent British politician would choose to say when the Israeli prime minister has just accused him of anti-Semitism. Twitter makes everybody stupid.

Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic, but he certainly could be described as anti-Zionist. It’s not an uncommon position among British politicians who joined the Labour Party in the 1960s and 70s: admiration for Israel and close ties with the sister Labour Party that then dominated Israeli politics, mixed with a keen awareness that the triumph of Israel had been built on a Palestinian tragedy.

Corbyn is also on the hard left of his party, which means that he has never met an anti-imperial, anti-colonial, or anti-capitalist cause that he did not like. That’s how he found himself attending the ‘International Conference on Monitoring the Palestinian Political and Legal Situation in the Light of Israeli Aggression’ in Tunisia four years ago. And once there, he naturally went along when they all laid a wreath in the cemetery.

The conference was officially linked to the devastating Israeli air strike on Tunis in 1985, which killed 80 senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, members of their families, and Tunisian civilians. Corbyn doesn’t speak either French or Arabic, the two dominant languages in Tunisia, and he presumably thought that’s what the wreath-laying was about. So he took part in it.

In fact, the wreath was laid in memory of a different bunch of Palestinians, members of the Black September group, who had helped to plan the Munich outrage and were later assassinated by Israeli intelligence agents. Did Corbyn just get confused, or did the Tunisians deliberately mislead him? Who knows? Who cares?

What Corbyn should have done when the Daily Mail broke that story was to admit all, plead ignorance, and make a grovelling apology. It would have been humiliating, but he would certainly have survived to fight again.

He didn’t do that. He is a very stubborn man, and he combined a lame semi-admission of his mistake – “I was present at that wreath-laying. I don’t think I was actually involved in it” – with further criticisms of current Israeli policy. And thereby he turned a little personal problem into a crisis for the Labour Party.

Labour has been tearing itself apart recently over differences about where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism. It is certainly not institutionally anti-Semitic – Corbyn’s predecessor as party leader, Ed Miliband, was Jewish – but it has already alienated a lot of its Jewish supporters. Corbyn’s blunder may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Corbyn has never had the support of most Labour members of parliament. It is becoming plausible (though no more than that) to think that he might lose the leadership – especially as it is becoming clear that he’s the main reason Labour doesn’t enjoy a big lead in the opinion polls over the chaotic Conservative government led by Theresa May.

Which brings us to Brexit. The current stalemate in British politics, which has paralysed negotiations for a sensible post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, risks ending next March in a disaster in which the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.

The stalemate is mostly due to the fact that both major parties in the UK are profoundly divided between pro- and anti-Brexit factions, but both parties have pro-Brexit leaders. Recent opinion polls show a small but growing majority of voters would vote ‘Remain’ in a second referendum, but neither party will back such a referendum under the current leadership.

If Labour had a different leader, all that could change – and Corbyn is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. (“It was…Germany”; and “Labour…back”)

Duterte and the ICC

Here’s the good news. Last February the International Criminal Court at The Hague opened an inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity committed by President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines as part of his ‘war on drugs’.

Now for the bad news. True to form, Duterte replied that the Treaty of Rome which created the ICC was “all bullshit” and that the court was only backed by “white idiots”. He then announced that the Philippines was withdrawing from the ICC “effective immediately”.

Actually, he may not be able to do that unilaterally, because the Rome Treaty was ratified by the Senate of the Philippines and probably has to be abrogated by the same body. (Legal opinions vary.) But Duterte does control the Senate and could do it eventually, if he cared about legality.

He’d still have legal problems, because the Philippines was subject to the treaty when he ordered many of his murders. Even if the Senate did cancel the treaty, the country would stay subject to it for another year. But nobody is going to arrest Duterte now, and he doesn’t seem worried about the future either.

Duterte later warned that any UN investigator arriving in the country would be arrested. Having settled the matter to his own entire satisfaction, he then went back to killing people. Death threats and death squads are his favourite political instruments, and his weird political charisma would evaporate if he wasn’t killing people.

He is not too picky about who does the work for him, either. Ten months ago he pulled the national police from his ‘war on drugs’ because they were “corrupt to the core”. (True.) But the number of killings dropped because the specialised anti-narcotics force, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, lacked the manpower to keep the killing rate up.

By May, therefore, Duterte was letting the national police take part in the drug raids again. His sole concession to reality was to gather a hundred police who were facing complaints of rape, kidnapping and robbery and tell them last week, on national television, that they too would face summary execution if they didn’t straighten up. “If you’ll stay like this, son of a bitch, I will really kill you,” he said.

So Duterte is undeterred by ICC’s interest in his case and the slaughter continues unabated. Official statistics say that 4,000 small-time drug dealers (and cases of mistaken identity) have been killed; the 77-page report submitted to the ICC by Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio says more than 8,000. Yet public approval of his actions is not far down from the landslide support he got in the 2016 election.

Everybody knows that in these circumstances, there is zero probability of Duterte having to answer for his actions before a court. Even later, when circumstances may have changed, the chances of bringing him to justice are slim. So what is the point of bringing an ICC case against him?

One reason is that this is the first major ICC investigation that targets a non-African regime. There were good reasons why all previous ones involved African regimes: the continent is home to one-third of the world’s countries, most of its dictatorships, and most of its wars. Nevertheless, even competent, law-abiding African governments were starting to feel victimised, and it helps to have an Asian country on the list.

But more importantly, this is part of a much broader initiative to bring the rule of law to a domain where legal justice was previously unavailable. Where can individual citizens turn to get protection of their own rights (including the right to life) against the government of a sovereign state that does not obey its own laws? Like that of Rodrigo Duterte.

Obviously, this enterprise is not doing very well at the moment. The governments of the great powers refuse to let any higher court have jurisdiction over their treatment of their own citizens, and even lesser powers cannot be forced to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, which has neither an army nor a police force. Duterte will probably never have to answer for his crimes.

No surprise here. Most crimes go unpunished everywhere, and there will never be universal justice. Nevertheless, the effort to create an international legal order is worthwhile, and not foredoomed.

The ICC was not created to overthrow people like Rodrigo Duterte, who was, after all, elected by the Filipino voting public. Its real function is provide a legal pathway for punishing the members of a criminal regime AFTER it has collapsed – and if possible to make that eventual legal reckoning so certain that it is even deters those criminals who are still in power.

So it is doing what it should, and it’s far too early to say that its actions are futile.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He is…he said”)