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The Kurds: Betrayed Again

The Kurds are like Kleenex. You use them, and then you throw them away.

The Kurds of Syria are now frantically digging trenches around their cities and towns just south of the Turkish border, because Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said on Monday that President Donald Trump gave a “positive response” to his plan for an invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. On Wednesday Trump confirmed it by announcing that he will pull all US troops out of Syria within 30 days.

Erdogan would have invaded long ago if the US army and air force were not protecting the Syrian Kurds, but at that time the United States depended heavily on the Kurds in its campaign to eliminate Islamic State. IS controlled the eastern third of Syria, and from 2015 on it was the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who provided most of the ground troops for that campaign.

There were some 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria too, but it was the Kurds who bore the brunt of the fighting and the casualties. Indeed, a principal role of the US forces was to deter Turkey from attacking the Kurds, because Turkey, at war with its own big Kurdish minority, strongly opposed the Syrian Kurds’ ambition for independence.

But now Islamic State has been destroyed (or at least so Donald Trump believes), and the US has no further need of the Kurds. Time to throw them away.

Deprived of US air support, the Syrian Kurds have little hope of resisting a Turkish invasion. As Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday: “They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want. They can go underground if they want. When the time and place come, they will be buried in their ditches.” So where can the Kurds turn?

Only to Damascus, where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recover “every inch” of Syrian territory from the various rebel militia forces that controlled different parts of the country. All that remains to fulfill that ambition is the recovery of Idlib province in the northwest, still held by Turkish-backed Islamist extremists – and of the Kurdish-controlled north-east of the country.

For the Syrian Kurds, reeling from the American betrayal, the urgent, unavoidable question has become: would you rather be conquered by the Turks or by Assad? There is no third option: the dream of independence is dead.

When Turkey conquered the much smaller Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria last February, almost every Kurd in the territory was driven into exile. Assad’s rule is unattractive, but the Syrian Kurds have carefully avoided fighting his forces (they only fought IS), and they might be able to cut a deal that left them some local autonomy. After all, Assad doesn’t want the Turks taking control of eastern Syria either.

The Kurds aren’t fools, and as the likelihood of an American defection grew in the course of this year they sent several delegations to Damascus to see what Assad would offer.

They came back disappointed, because Assad did not want to do anything that would open the door to a federal state in Syria, and he quite rightly thought that he had the upper hand. But now that the US pull-out from eastern Syria and the Turkish invasion of the same region have both become imminent realities, he may want to think again.

This is a part of Syria rich in oil, water and wheat. Assad needs its resources to rebuild the country, and a Turkish occupation could be a long-lasting affair. It’s therefore possible that he will make a deal with the Syrian Kurds to keep the region in Syrian hands.

The return of the Syrian army would be tricky to manage, since it would have to arrive in each part of the region after the Americans left (to avoid clashes) but before the Turks arrived. Moreover, the Syrian army is seriously short of manpower, and this operation would require a lot of it.

All the more reason to give the YPG a continuing role in the region’s security, the Kurds might argue, and it’s not impossible that Assad might buy that argument provided that the Kurdish militia became (at least in theory) a part of the Syrian army.

So the Russians may be right. When Trump revealed via Twitter that he was going to pull all American forces out of Syria, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded that the US decision could result in “genuine, real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria. And it’s true.

Turkey could be convinced (by the Russians) that letting Assad take control of Kurdish-majority parts of Syria is enough to end the alleged Kurdish ‘threat’ to Turkish security. Then only the single province of Idlib would remain beyond Assad’s reach, and that’s not really a critical issue.

In fact, the fix could be in already. We’ll know shortly. But no matter what, the Kurds lose again. Of course.
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For Kleenex use “tissues” if that is your usage. This article replaces the one that would normally be sent on Sunday.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Only…country”; and “When…either”)

Zimbabwe: Broke Again

“Zimbabwe is open for business” was President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s slogan in the July election that was supposed to show that the long and destructive reign of dictator Robert Mugabe, overthrown late last year, is really now a thing of the past. The country has been getting steadily poorer for decades now, but this election would be the turning point.

“You can rig an election – as they did on 30th July 2018 – but you can’t rig an economy, you can’t rig a supermarket or a gas station,” replied Tendai Biti, a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and it turns out that he was right. Less than three months after the election, Zimbabwe is in a huge economic crisis.

People are getting desperate, because shops are running out of essential items like bread. Even beer is being rationed (two bottles per person), and the cost of everything is soaring as people once again lose confidence in the currency. KFC and other fast-food chains have closed their doors because inflation is moving too fast to calculate.

Zimbabweans are comparing it to the great inflation of 2008, when the Zimbabwean dollar became less valuable than the paper it was printed on – bags full of 100-trillion-dollar notes were not enough to buy bread – and peoples’ pitifully small savings were wiped out.

After that the Zimbabwean currency was entirely abandoned and the country began using American dollars and South African rands instead. Gradually, however, the government began reintroducing a kind of local currency as well, pegged one-for-one to the US dollar, officially called ‘bond notes’ but popularly called Zim dollars or Zollars.

It’s these Zim dollars whose value is now collapsing, while real US dollars have become as scarce as hens’ teeth. Today 361 Zim dollars buys you one US dollar. Tomorrow, who knows?

The government is quite right to say that this is a panic driven by hoarding and speculation – but people are behaving like that because they do not trust the government. Nor should they.

Robert Mugabe was not overthrown last year by a popular revolution. He was overthrown by his own corrupt and overbearing ZANU-PF Party, because he was planning to make his own wife Grace his successor. (Mugabe is 94 years old.)

It was Mugabe’s long-serving deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa who organised his cronies in the army (also controlled by ZANU-PF) to remove Mugabe from the presidency. Mnangagwa’s record of corruption and violence is impressive even by the ruling party’s standards, but he needed to create what looked like a new, cleaner government if the country was ever to escape from its dire poverty.

Zimbabwe was once a prosperous country. It still has ample resources and a relatively well-educated population, and if it could just inspire enough confidence in foreign investors and get control over its huge foreign debts it could start to climb out of the deep hole Mugabe left it in. But for that, it needs an honest, democratically credible government.

This is tricky, because a really free election would almost certainly have removed Mnangagwa and his ZANU-PF cronies from power. They were never going to accept that outcome, because it’s political power that makes them rich (by Zimbabwean standards). So the election had to look clean, but come out the right way.

Compared to all ZANU-PF’s other election victories, it was relatively clean: little intimidation or bribery of voters except in rural areas and little overt violence. But it was imperative that Mnangagwa win the presidency in the first round, when he faced a half-dozen rivals who split the opposition vote. For that, he needed to get over 50 percent of the votes in the first round.

He clearly didn’t get it, because the vote-counting (largely controlled by ZANU-PF appointees) took three days longer than expected. After the numbers had been thoroughly massaged, it was finally announced that Mnangagwa got 50.8 percent of the votes. Congratulations, Mr President!

Nobody believed it, and when opposition protests began in Harare, the police shot six of the protesters dead. That was all it took. The foreign institutions and companies that might have rescheduled Zimbabwe’s debt and invested in the country’s economy decided that it’s still the same old gang in power (as indeed it is), and turned their attention and their money elsewhere.

Three months later the Zimbabwean economy, which had been momentarily buoyed up by the hope of better times, is collapsing. In theory, this should usher in the second phase of democratisation in the country, with massive demonstrations driving ‘the crocodile’ (Mnangagwa) out of power.

In practice, that may not happen. Zimbabweans may be too cowed, or just too exhausted – and ZANU-PF would not go without a fight.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“After…knows”)

Brazil: The Hard Right Wins Again

A man who makes Donald Trump look like a bleeding-heart liberal will almost certainly be Brazil’s next president. Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round of the Brazilian presidential election, with twelve other candidates running. Fernando Haddad, who will face him alone in the run-off in three weeks’ time, got only 29 percent.

Haddad, who leads the socialist Workers’ Party, will pick up most of the voters whose first-choice candidates have fallen by the wayside, but Bolsonaro needs only one in six of those votes to win the second round. Game over, in more ways than one.

Trump and Bolsonaro are populists cut from the same cloth. They both depend heavily on social media and on the support of evangelical Christians. They both oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action for minorities, and drug liberalisation. But Trump’s views shift when it is to his political advantage – he once supported most of those policies – whereas Bolsonaro has always belonged to the hard right.

Trump is an instinctive authoritarian who chafes at the restrictions of the US constitution, but does not attack it directly. Bolsonaro praises the “glorious” period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which he served as an army officer, and claims that its only error was that “it tortured, but did not kill.” (It did, actually. At least 434 leftists were killed after being tortured.)

Trump is a racist, but he talks to his overwhelmingly white ‘base’ in dog-whistle code. Last year Bolsonaro said that the members of black rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves “don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.” No dog whistle there.

Trump pulled the US out of the climate change treaty, and Bolsonaro wants Brazil to do the same. But Bolsonaro also wants to privatise and ‘develop’ the entire Amazon: “Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

Trump, like Bolsonaro, backs loose gun ownership laws. Both men want to bring the death penalty back (it never went away in some US states). Both men consider torture to be, as Bolsonaro puts it, a “legitimate practice.” But Bolsonaro also says that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

Trump is a sexist who was once caught boasting on tape about “grabbing pussy”, but mostly avoids such language in public. Bolsonaro told a woman member of Congress that “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly.” He believes that women should not get the same salaries as men because they get pregnant, and said that he had a daughter in “a moment of weakness” after fathering four sons.

Trump is an undisciplined narcissist who claims to be a tough negotiator, but will generally roll over if you throw him a few concessions and let him declare a ‘victory’. (Consider the new North American free trade agreement, for example.) His famously short attention span disqualifies him as an aspiring dictator even if he were that way inclined.

Bolsonaro, however, is a serious man. He has made a former general, Hamilton Mourão, his running mate, and promises to fill his cabinet with other generals. In a recent video produced by Haddad, he can be seen arguing: “You won’t change anything in this country through voting…You’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000….If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t talk like that now, for obvious reasons, but there is no reason to believe that he has changed his mind. Brazil’s 200 million people may be in for some nasty surprises – and beyond the country’s borders Bolsonaro’s presidency will encourage neo-fascists and would-be military dictators in other Latin American countries.

That’s the real concern, and it extends to other continents too. The wave of non-violent revolutions that spread democracy to every part of the world (including Brazil) in the past few decades seems to have gone into reverse.

In some countries, like Thailand and Egypt, the generals are openly back in power. In others, like Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines, ‘illiberal democracies’ run by strongmen have replaced the genuine article. Even in long established democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy the nationalists and populists dominate the political scene.

There are some counter-currents, of course. Mexico, the other Latin American giant, is getting its first ever left-wing government this year. Hard right challenges to the established democratic order have been fended off in France, Germany and the Netherlands. But the tide is running strongly in the other direction.

How bad will it get, and how long will it stay bad? Quite bad and for quite a while, one suspects. The world is not yet heading back towards big great-power war, but we are entering the last critical decade before climate change overwhelms us with a growing number of governments that are not only potentially violent but militantly ignorant.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Trump…policeman”; and “There are…direction”)

Brazil: The Hard Right Wins Again

A man who makes Donald Trump look like a bleeding-heart liberal will almost certainly be Brazil’s next president. Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round of the Brazilian presidential election, with twelve other candidates running. Fernando Haddad, who will face him alone in the run-off in three weeks’ time, got only 29 percent.

Haddad, who leads the socialist Workers’ Party, will pick up most of the voters whose first-choice candidates have fallen by the wayside, but Bolsonaro needs only one in six of those votes to win the second round. Game over, in more ways than one.

Trump and Bolsonaro are populists cut from the same cloth. They both depend heavily on social media and on the support of evangelical Christians. They both oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action for minorities, and drug liberalisation. But Trump’s views shift when it is to his political advantage – he once supported most of those policies – whereas Bolsonaro has always belonged to the hard right.

Trump is an instinctive authoritarian who chafes at the restrictions of the US constitution, but does not attack it directly. Bolsonaro praises the “glorious” period of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), which he served as an army officer, and claims that its only error was that “it tortured, but did not kill.” (It did, actually. At least 434 leftists were killed after being tortured.)

Trump is a racist, but he talks to his overwhelmingly white ‘base’ in dog-whistle code. Last year Bolsonaro said that the members of black rural settlements founded by the descendants of slaves “don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.” No dog whistle there.

Trump pulled the US out of the climate change treaty, and Bolsonaro wants Brazil to do the same. But Bolsonaro also wants to privatise and ‘develop’ the entire Amazon: “Not one centimetre will be demarcated for indigenous reserves.”

Trump, like Bolsonaro, backs loose gun ownership laws. Both men want to bring the death penalty back (it never went away in some US states). Both men consider torture to be, as Bolsonaro puts it, a “legitimate practice.” But Bolsonaro also says that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

Trump is a sexist who was once caught boasting on tape about “grabbing pussy”, but mostly avoids such language in public. Bolsonaro told a woman member of Congress that “I’m not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly.” He believes that women should not get the same salaries as men because they get pregnant, and said that he had a daughter in “a moment of weakness” after fathering four sons.

Trump is an undisciplined narcissist who claims to be a tough negotiator, but will generally roll over if you throw him a few concessions and let him declare a ‘victory’. (Consider the new North American free trade agreement, for example.) His famously short attention span disqualifies him as an aspiring dictator even if he were that way inclined.

Bolsonaro, however, is a serious man. He has made a former general, Hamilton Mourão, his running mate, and promises to fill his cabinet with other generals. In a recent video produced by Haddad, he can be seen arguing: “You won’t change anything in this country through voting…You’ll only change things by having a civil war and doing the work the military regime didn’t do. Killing 30,000….If a few innocent people die, that’s alright.”

Bolsonaro doesn’t talk like that now, for obvious reasons, but there is no reason to believe that he has changed his mind. Brazil’s 200 million people may be in for some nasty surprises – and beyond the country’s borders Bolsonaro’s presidency will encourage neo-fascists and would-be military dictators in other Latin American countries.

That’s the real concern, and it extends to other continents too. The wave of non-violent revolutions that spread democracy to every part of the world (including Brazil) in the past few decades seems to have gone into reverse.

In some countries, like Thailand and Egypt, the generals are openly back in power. In others, like Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines, ‘illiberal democracies’ run by strongmen have replaced the genuine article. Even in long established democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy the nationalists and populists dominate the political scene.

There are some counter-currents, of course. Mexico, the other Latin American giant, is getting its first ever left-wing government this year. Hard right challenges to the established democratic order have been fended off in France, Germany and the Netherlands. But the tide is running strongly in the other direction.

How bad will it get, and how long will it stay bad? Quite bad and for quite a while, one suspects. The world is not yet heading back towards big great-power war, but we are entering the last critical decade before climate change overwhelms us with a growing number of governments that are not only potentially violent but militantly ignorant.
____________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 14. (“Trump…policeman”; and “There are…direction”)