19 January 2014
Syrian Peace Talks
By Gwynne Dyer
It would be interesting to know just what tidbits of information the US National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has turned up on United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. He certainly caved in very fast: on Sunday he invited Iran to join the long-delayed peace talks aimed at ending the three-year-old civil war in Syria; on Sunday evening the United States loudly objected, and on Monday he obediently uninvited Iran.
So the peace talks get underway in Switzerland this week after all, and the omens for peace are not that bad. Unless, of course, you were also hoping for the overthrow of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and the emergence of a democratic Syria, in which case the omens are positively awful.
The breakthrough may not happen at Geneva this week, but the Russians and the Americans are now on the same side (although the US cannot yet bring itself to say publicly that it is backing Assad). Moreover, some of the rebels are getting ready to change sides. It won’t be fast and it won’t be pretty, but there’s a decent chance that peace, in the shape of an Assad victory, will come to Syria within a year or two.
What has made this possible is the jihadis, the fanatical extremists of the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, who have frightened both the United States and a great many ordinary Syrians into seeing Assad’s regime as the lesser evil.
Two years ago, it still seemed possible that Assad could lose. The rebels had the support of the United States, Turkey and powerful Sunni Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and they still talked about a democratic, inclusive Syria. Assad’s only friends were Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
But then the jihadis showed up, alienating local people with their extreme version of sharia law and scaring the pants off the United States with their allegiance to al-Qaeda. It took the United States quite a while to admit to itself that it does not actually want Assad to fall if that means putting the jihadis in power, but it has finally grasped the concept.
The catalyst was the poison gas attacks in Damascus last August, which forced the US to threaten air strikes against the Assad regime (because it had already declared that the use of poison gas would cross a “red line”). However, President Obama was clearly reluctant to carry out his threat – and then the Russians came up with the idea that Assad could hand over all his chemical weapons instead.
Obama grabbed that lifeline and cancelled the air strikes. After that there was no longer any prospect of Western military intervention in the Syrian war, which meant that Assad was certain to survive, because the domestic rebels were never going to win it on their own.
More recently, a “war-within-the-war” has broken out among the rebels, with the secular groups fighting the jihadis and the jihadi groups fighting among themselves. So far in January more people have been killed in this internecine rebel war (over a thousand) than in the war against the regime. And the US and Russia are working on a deal that would swing most of the non-jihadi rebels over to the regime’s side.
General Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army (the main non-jihadi force on the battlefield), said last month that he and his allies were dropping the demand that Assad must leave power before the Geneva meeting convened. Instead, they would be content for Assad to go at the end of the negotiation process, at which time the FSA’s forces would join with those of the regime in an offensive against the Islamists.
He was actually signalling that the Free Syrian Army is getting ready to change sides. There will have to be amnesties and financial rewards for those who change sides, of course, but these things are easily arranged. And Assad will not leave power “at the end of the negotiation process.”
The jihadis are not at Geneva this week, of course; just the Russians and the Americans, and the Assad regime and the Syrian National coalition (the Free Syrian Army’s political front), and a few odds and sods to make up the numbers. It is an ideal environment for the regime and the secular rebels to discuss quietly how they might make a deal, with their Russian and American big brothers in attendance to smooth the path.
The fighting in Syria will continue for many months, even if a joint front of the regime and the FSA is formed to drive out the foreign extremists and eliminate the native-born ones. In practice the end game will probably be even more ragged than that, with all sorts of local rebel groups trying to cut their own deals or holding out until the bitter end. But the final outcome has become clear, and it is no longer years away.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“The catalyst…on their own”)
Gwynne Dyer in an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries
2 January 2014
EU Citizenship: The Gold Standard
By Gwynne Dyer
New Year’s Eve is always loud in our part of London, but it quieted down after all the drunks eventually staggered off home – and to our astonishment, it stayed quiet all the next day. We waited and waited for the predicted hordes of Romanian and Bulgarian “benefit tourists” to throng our streets, stealing and begging and applying for Jobseekers’ Allowance (as the dole is now known). But they never showed up.
It’s enough to make you doubt the trustworthiness of the popular press. For months right-wing British politicians and their allies in the tabloid papers have been warning that on January 1st, when citizens of the Balkan countries that joined the European Union seven years ago finally got the right of free movement throughout the EU, Britain would be inundated by poor Romanians and Bulgarians.
The Conservative Party, which dominates Britain’s coalition government, rose to the occasion. Henceforward, the government announced, immigrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment, and they will have to wait three months before applying for unemployment benefit.
Prime Minister David Cameron even suggested last month that the principle of free movement of EU citizens among the member countries should be changed to curb “mass populations movements” when new members join. It’s too late to impose that rule on Bulgarians and Romanians, who are already EU citizens, he said, but while they are free to come to Britain and look for a job, “There is not freedom to come and claim.”
This is the “benefit tourism” notion: that poor eastern Europeans will move to the United Kingdom not to get a job, but to live off the state, claiming unemployment pay, social housing, and other benefits that should be reserved for honest British workers. Even Cameron has had to admit that there is no “quantitative evidence” that this phenomenon actually exists. Nevertheless, he talks about it constantly as if it did.
But the whole thing is a charade, and Cameron’s “new” restrictions on immigrants don’t actually change anything. In practice, new immigrants to Britain already had to wait three months before gaining access to unemployment benefits, and it is not legally possible for Britain to charge EU citizens for medical care. The Conservative Party in Britain has just been churning out fake solutions to phantom problems.
It is doing so entirely to ward off the challenge from its emerging far-right rival, the anti-EU, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party, which has been poaching alarming numbers of right-wing Conservative voters. With an election due next year, Cameron is running scared, and has got into a “nastier-than-thou” bidding war with UKIP.
The anti-immigrant voters Cameron is pandering to will not change their minds when the predicted tidal wave of Balkan immigrants does not happen, nor will he change his story. He will simply claim that it was his emergency measures that stopped it. But this tempest in a teapot highlights the sheer power of the principle of free movement within the European Union. It is what makes EU citizenship the gold standard in terms of passports.
Like the United States and the Canadian province of Quebec, several EU countries offer fast-track residence permits to foreigners who will invest a large sum in the local economy: from $400,000 in Greece to $15 million in the United Kingdom. But they still actually have to live in the country in question for up to five years before getting their citizenship and passport, and the average jet-setter wants more for his money.
A US passport is no longer so desirable, because US tax and reporting requirements apply to American citizens no matter where they live in the world, and many countries impose tit-for-tat visa requirements in response to US border controls. Moreover, it’s getting easier to obtain an EU passport.
Last November Malta, the smallest EU member, announced a programme that skips the residence requirement and simply sells Maltese passports to “high-value” individuals who are willing to pay the government 650,000 euros ($885,000). It’s a quite reasonable price for a passport that confers the right to live and work almost anywhere in Europe and also offers a visa waiver for travel to the United States.
There was an outcry by offended Maltese patriots, but they were mollified when Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s government raised the price to 1.15 million euros ($1.6 million) a few days ago. So now we know the real value of an EU passport.
Who buys these passports? Mostly rich Chinese: 248 out of 318 residence permits issued by Lisbon in the past three months to people who invested 500,000 euros ($680,000) in Portuguese property went to Chinese nationals. And there is no shortage of potential customers: a Bank of China survey revealed that almost half of the Chinese citizens with assets worth more than 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) are considering moving abroad.
Any EU passport – Portuguese, Latvian, Irish, whatever – gives its holder the right to live anywhere, work anywhere, set up a business anywhere in a community of 28 countries with a total population of more than 500 million people. It is the principle of free movement that makes it so valuable, and no amount of protest by “Little Englanders” on the right of British politics is going to change that.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 13. (“It is…UKIP”; “A US…passport”; and “Who…abroad”)
10 December 2013
Australia and East Timor
By Gwynne Dyer
And now for something completely different: a spy story that isn’t about Edward Snowden’s disclosures and the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of everything and everybody. This one could come straight out of a 1950s spy thriller: a microphone buried in a wall, a listening post manned by people with headphones, and transcripts of secret conversations delivered to negotiators.
Now it’s true that Australia is a member of the Gang of Five, more formally known as the “Five Eyes” (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand), which share most of the information that they acquire through hi-tech mass surveillance. That’s the kind of spying that Snowden’s leaks are about, and whatever Australia picks up through this process it presumably shares with its co-conspirators.
It was in this context that Australia listened to the phone conversations of Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and eight potential successors. When Indonesia recalled its ambassador from Canberra and protested, Prime Minister Tony Abbott swatted the protest away with the line they are all using now: “All governments gather information and all governments know that every other government gathers information.”
The Indonesian reply was a classic. “I have news for you,” said Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. “We don’t do it. We certainly should not be doing it among friends.” He was, he said, deeply unhappy about the “dismissive answer being provided” by the Australian government. So Australia has managed to alienate its biggest neighbour, probably for no advantage to itself, just as the United States has alienated Brazil with the same tactics.
But the kind of spying under discussion here was too shameful to share even with the other Four Eyes of the “Anglosphere”. It was an Australian-only operation mounted in 2004 to gather information about the negotiating position of a very poor neighbouring country, East Timor, so that Australia could rip its neighbour off in a treaty that divided a rich gas field on the seabed between them.
The treaty in question, “Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea”, always seemed a bit peculiar. The CMATS treaty gave Australia a half share in the massive Greater Sunrise field, which is said to be worth $40 billion. But that field lies just 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of East Timor, and 400 kilometres (20 miles) from Australia.
The normal rule on international seabed rights would put the boundary equidistant between the two countries, but that would have given East Timor sovereignty over the entire gas field. Instead, CMATS postponed a final settlement of the seabed boundary for fifty years, and in the meantime gave Australia 50 percent of the revenue from the Greater Sunrise field.
The existing gas field off East Timor’s coast has only about ten years’ life left, and the the East Timor government depends on gas revenues for 95 percent of its incomet, so it was very vulnerable in those negotiations. The Australian negotiators could exploit that vulnerability because they had daily updates on how desperate their Timorese opposite numbers were: the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had bugged the prime minister’s and the cabinet offices.
Four ASIS operatives did the job, pretending to be part of a team of Australian aid workers that was renovating East Timor’s government offices. The man who gave the order was Australia’s foreign minister at the time, Alex Downer – who now runs a public relations firm that represents Woodside Petroleum, a major Australian company that was the main beneficiary of the treaty. Funny how things work out.
The operation would never have come to light if the former director of technical operations at ASIS, who led the bugging operation, had not had an attack of conscience on learning of Downer’s link to Woodside. He told East Timor about it, and the Timorese government then brought an action before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague demanding that the CMATS treaty be cancelled.
The Australian government’s response was to arrest the whistle-blower and cancel his passport last week so that he could not travel to The Hague to testify, and to raid the Sydney offices of Bernard Collaery, the lawyer who is representing East Timor before the Court.
The documents seized include an affidavit summarising the whistle-blower’s testimony at the Court and correspondence between Collaery and his client, Timorese president Xanana Gusmao. It’s more of the same sort of behaviour: the Australian government has decided to brazen it out.
Can Australia get away with this? Not legally. As Collaery says, “It was a carefully premeditated, involved, very lengthy operation with premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and premeditated breaches of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This is a criminal conspiracy, a break-in on sovereign territory and a breach of Australian law.” And he has three more whistle-blowers lined up to testify too.
But the case may still be settled out of court, because East Timor is still desperate. Woodside has not yet started developing the Greater Sunrise field, and it will never do so if there isn’t a deal. Offer East Timor another 10 percent and a promise to go ahead, and it will probably drop the case. The poor cannot afford justice.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 13. (“It was…tactics”; and “Can…too”)
6 October 2013
The US Government Is Not Broke
By Gwynne Dyer
A salient feature of American “exceptionalism” is the belief that the United States can never be ordinary. If it is not the best, then it must be the worst. If it is not destined to dominate the world forever, then it is doomed to decline and decay.
This kind of thinking explains why much of the commentary in the United States about the recent “shut-down” of the US government, and also about the impending default on the national debt (due on 17 October), has started at hysterical and quickly geared up to apocalyptic. We Americans have lost the mandate of Heaven, and it will soon be raining frogs and blood.
So everybody take your tranquiliser of choice (mine’s a double scotch), and let’s consider what is actually going on here. The United States is the world’s oldest democratic country, with an 18th-century constitution that is bound to be an awkward fit for 21st-century politics. But that hasn’t stopped the United States from becoming the world’s biggest economy and its greatest power. Has something now gone fundamentally wrong?
The problem lies in Congress, specifically in the House of Representatives, where the Republican majority is refusing to pass the budget, and threatening not to raise the official debt ceiling either, unless President Barack Obama postpones the implementation of his bill extending medical care to all Americans.
The Affordable Care Act was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Obama almost four years ago. Last year it passed scrutiny by the Supreme Court, and was subsequently welcomed by a majority of the voters in the presidential election, so Obama is understandably refusing to yield to blackmail. But the House Republicans seem mysteriously unworried by the fact that the public blames them for the impending train wreck. Why?
Because 80 percent of the Republicans in the House of Representatives don’t have to worry about what the general public thinks. They represent Congressional districts that have been so shamelessly gerrymandered by state legislatures that it is almost impossible for anybody who is a Republican to lose an election there. National public opinion is no threat to them, whereas the views of their extremist Tea Party colleagues are a potentially lethal danger.
You can’t gerrymander the Senate; every senator’s “district” is the entire state he or she represents. State legislatures controlled by the Democrats also gerrymander congressional districts to create safe seats for their own party, but there is no organised extremist group in the Democratic Party that will try to destroy elected members of their own party who do not toe the ideological line. Whereas in the Republican Party, there is.
Republicans seeking reelection to the House of Representatives may not have to worry about their Democratic opponents, but they certainly have to fear the Tea Party. If it decides to mount a challenge to an incumbent in the Republican primary elections, the far-right challenger will be lavishly funded by the Tea Party’s wealthy supporters, and that may mark the end of the incumbent’s political career.
So the Republicans in the House of Representatives, even those generally open to compromise, are keeping their heads down for fear of angering the Tea Party. That means it is possible (though not probable) that the October 17th deadline will be missed, and the US government will be forced to default on its debt. How bad would that be?
Very bad, according to a US Treasury spokesperson. “Credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, US interest rates could skyrocket, the negative spillovers could reverberate around the world.” And it might rain frogs and blood.
Or maybe not. There would certainly be turmoil in the markets: many people would lose money, and some would gain. But it would not be a repeat of the crash of 2009, when it was suddenly understood that huge amounts of the mortgage debt held by banks could never be repaid. The US government can still pay its debts; it just has to get Congress’s permission first. And the markets, while prone to panic, are not completely stupid.
Nor is the US Constitution fundamentally broken. It always requires a fair degree of compromise between the various branches of the government in order to work smoothly, and at most times in history that cooperation has been forthcoming. The current paralysis is due mainly to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts that makes members of the House of Representatives less afraid of public opinion than of the views of their own party’s hard-liners.
It wouldn’t hurt to put some controls on election spending as well, so that rich ideologues had less influence over the political process. But that is merely desirable; ending the gerrymandering is absolutely essential. It will take time, but this is a problem that can be fixed. And in the meantime, the US government is not really going broke.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“You can’t…there is”)