Disaster in Idlib

Powerful countries with autocratic rulers with military forces competing in small weak countries takes us back to the classic age of imperialism. But that is what is happening in Syria, where three former empires, Russia, Turkey and Iran are competing for influence and control. The situation has come to the point where soldiers on both sides are being killed, in other words, blood has been shed and warnings issued.  Six Turkish soldiers were killed and 20 Syrian Army soldiers.

The clashes are taking place in Syria’s north-western Idlib province that is the last region still in rebel hands, not “liberated” by the Syrian Army of the Assad regime, supported by his two allies Russia and Iran.  While Russia largely plays the role of air support, Iran uses its ground troops, the IRGC and Hezbollah, to support the military push.  But, Idlib abuts the Turkish border and this is where the Turkish Army has invaded and taken control of a swath of land along the border, to both expel the Kurdish forces that have been in control there for several years and also to establish a settlement area for the millions of Syrian refugees that are already in Turkey.  Pres. Erdogan has warned the Syrian and Russian forces not to enter his occupied area, and Pres. Putin has warned Erdogan not to interfere with the legitimate forces of the Syrian Government.  This spells a potential disaster with direct clashed between Turkish and Russia forces! 

Iran is playing a secondary role in this situation in Idlib.  But, many other countries and organizations are concerned, since there are supposed to be about another 1.5 million refugees displaced in Idlib, being mainly internally displaced refugees from other parts of the Syrian civil war who fled there.  Turkey will not allow the refugees to cross over its border.  But, in the south of Syria Iran is heavily involved in setting up facilities and weapons from which it hopes to attack Israel.  But, Israeli PM Netanyahu made an agreement with Putin that Israel will scrupulously avoid Russian forces, while hitting Iranian forces and facilities to prevent them establishing a foothold from which to attack Israel.  This is apparently acceptable to Putin since it keeps Iran under control while he doesn’t have to do anything.   

Events in 2019

The past year was a very consequential year, much of importance happened. On Dec 31, 2019, here is a list of events:

  • Impeachment:   The House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment against Pres. Trump.  This was clearly a partisan process with a sharp divide between Democrats and Republicans.  Although we don’t yet know the outcome, if partisanship continues, the impeachment of Pres. Trump in the Senate is likely to fail.
  • Brexit: After three years of uncertainty, Boris Johnson became PM, and taking the risk that this issue would dominate, he forced a general election, which he won by a landslide. Historically more former Labour supporters voted Conservative than ever before.  Brexit should finally be accomplished in the new year.
  • Mass shootings: 2019 was statistically the worst year in US history for mass shootings.  There were 44 in which more than 4 people were shot (killed or injured) and a total of 211 were killed, although in 2017 there were more victims in fewer shootings.
  • Anti-Semitism: There were more attacks due to anti-Semitism in 2019.  In Poway CA, two Jews were killed, in Jersey City, NJ, an attack on a kosher grocery store killed three, and in Halle, Germany two people were killed although the perpetrator was unable to enter the synagogue that had been fortified.  Yesterday a man attacked a Hassidic Hanukah celebration in Monsey NY, stabbing 5 Jews.  In general, an increase in anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the US, UK and Europe.
  • US Economy: The US economy has risen to its highest levels in 2019.  The Dow Industrial average has risen to 28,000 for the first time in history and the unemployment index has fallen to 3.5%, the lowest in nine years.
  • Israel Stalemate: In Israel two consecutive elections failed to overcome the stalemate between right and center. Likud and Blue and White leaders were unable to form a Unity Government and so a third election will be held in the new year,
  • Longest serving PM:  In 2019, PM Bibi Netanyahu became the longest serving PM in Israeli history, reaching 20 years, more than David Ben Gurion.
  • Iran in Syria: In 2019, Israel admitted for the first time that it was actively attacking Iranian assets in Syria.  Many sorties were reported including attacks on Iranian weapons depots that killed Iranian military.
  • Riots in Iraq: For the first time ever, large numbers of Iraqi citizens demonstrated against their Government, which was dominated by pro-Iranian Shia politicians, and Shia mobs attacked Iranian facilities in Iraq for the first time.
  • Hong Kong: The population of Hong Kong rose up against the Government’s intention to send criminals to China for trial.  Not only was the Govt. forced to back down, but Hong Kong has been brought to a standstill.  Although the Chinese Govt. has deployed large forces outside Hong Kong they have not yet interfered directly.
  • Hamas Backs Down: After months of rioting along the border with Israel, the so-called “march of return” was cancelled by the terrorist group Hamas that controls Gaza.

This is of course only a partial list, but it shows that a lot of important events happened in 2019.  Now for the unknown 2020, let’s hope it will be a peaceful year!!

Anti-Government Demonstrations

Where do you think there are anti-government demonstrations?  The answer is all over the world:

Hong Kong: The demonstrations in Hong Kong were initiated a few months ago when Chief Minister Carrie Lam announced that she would introduce a Bill to try criminals in mainland China.  This is definitely contrary to the agreement//treaty signed by China and the UK when Hong Kong joined China, and was assured a separate (democratic, capitalist) administration.  Lam is appointed by the Communist Chinese Government in Beijing and this was seen by the majority of Hong Kong citizens as the next step in their taking over Hong Kong.  The demonstrations turned into violent riots and  the rioters took over several government buildings and then shut down the Hong Kong airport and the underground system.  Lam then revoked the intended Bill, but the territory has been brought to a standstill.  The huge crowds are demanding democracy.  Meanwhile the Chinese military are flexing their muscles outside Hong Kong, but it would be a sign of desperation if they actually intervened.

Catalonia: Catalonia considers itself a separate country, with its own language (Catalan) and culture, rather than a province of Castilian-dominated Spain. In 2017 there was an attempt at a civil secession by the Catalonian provincial government, that led to the declaration of a state of emergency by the Spanish central government and the arrest of most of the leading members of the attempt.  Only the Head of the coup attempt, Carles Puigdemont managed to escape and took sanctuary in Belgium.  Now the Spanish authorities have tried 9 of the leaders and found them guilty of sedition and have re-activated the arrest warrant for Puigdemont, who has given himself in to Belgian authorities for extradition to Spain.  This has led to major anti-Spanish demonstrations and rioting in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.    

Lebanon: In Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, unprecedented civil unrest has resulted in huge demonstrations outside the main government buildings.  The origin of these manifestations is largely economic.  Lebanon was without an effective government for 8 months after the last election because the country is so split along ethnic lines (Shia, Sunni, Christian Maronite, Druse, etc.).  The most serious cause of this is the existence of the Shia army of Hizbollah, that remained armed after all the other militias disarmed and disbanded after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), on the excuse that they were there to defend Lebanon against Israel.  Now no political leader can be elected without the approval of Hizbollah’s leader Sheikh Nasrallah, who is a proxy of Iran. The current President Aoun is a Christian who is allied with Hizbollah.  The trigger for the current demonstrations was the imposition of high taxes by the current government because of the economic crisis in Lebanon.  This has nothing to do with the so-called Arab Spring, this has to do with the dire economic situation in Lebanon and the lack of jobs and incomes, that is common throughout the Arab world.  The Government has moved the Lebanese Army into central Beirut to control the situation. PM Sa’ad Hariri has announced a reform package, but it is not clear that this will satisfy the demonstrators.

Chile:  The unrest in Chile is also due to economic problems, and the impoverishment of the population.  Likewise the Government has moved the Army into Santiago and there has been fighting in the streets.  The basic cause is economic corruption.

Egypt: There were unprecedented riots in Egyptian cities, particularly Cairo last week.  The rioters called on President Sisi to resign.  It was not clear if these riots were organized by the political opposition of the Muslim Brotherhood or were largely economic in origin.  As usual the riots were put down vigorously by the Army.

West Papua: The island of New Guinea is divided down the middle into two parts, in the east is the independent sovereign nation of Papua-New Guinea.  In the west is West Papua that is a province of Indonesia. When the Dutch left this colony it was taken over by Indonesia, so the inhabitants changed one colonial master for another.  The Papuans are Melanesian Christians and are ethnically distinct from the Indonesians who are Asiatic Muslims. Over the years the Papuans have been trying to separate themselves from Indonesia and this has recently developed into demonstrations that became violent with many Papuans killed by the Indonesian army.  

Russia: There were demonstrations in Russia in major cities against the heavy-handed control, verging on dictatorship, of Pres. Putin, who has undoubtedly had his political opponents murdered.  These demonstrations were small and were broken up by the police and secret police.

Iraq:  There were violent demonstrations in Baghdad about the economic situation, that were put down with the loss of 150 lives by the Government.

It seems oppression is everywhere and so is the resistance to it.

 

 

The G7 Meeting in Biarritz

The G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, chaired by Pres. Macron of France, was an unexpected success. Dire warnings of schisms, especially between the Europeans and Pres. Trump were issued before the Summit, but they proved unfounded. Trump was on his best behavior, his tweets were hardly mentioned.

There were two notable differences at this Summit compared to others, first there was no attempt by Pres. Macron, the host, to issue a joint communique after the event. He decided that such a statement could not be made to represent the wide-ranging and often contentious issues being considered. Second, it was the first meeting at which British PM Boris Johnson was attending, and although there was no official discussion of Brexit, it was one of the subjects discussed behind closed doors. Trump indicated that he was willing to make a good business deal with Boris. He also announced a business deal with PM Abe of Japan.

Another unusual subject discussed was the terrible extensive fires currently engulfing the Amazon rain-forest. Although Brazilian Pres, Jair Bolsonaro declared them to be an internal matter, the G7 did not agree, and they passed a resolution giving 20 million euros to Brazil to help in putting out the fires. Also, the pressure forced Bolsonaro to take action and he called out the army to help put out the fires. These actions made it clear that the Amazon forests are considered an issue of significant importance for the international environment.

Perhaps most important for the US and the international situation was the tentative agreement by Pres. Trump, at the suggestion of Pres. Macron, to signal his willingness to bring the trade war with China, and the potential conflict with Iran, to an end, by agreeing to meet with Pres. Xi of China and Pres. Rouhani of Iran. The Chinese issued a statement saying that they wanted the trade war to end in a calm atmosphere, and then Trump in his press conference pointed out that they have had numerous phone conversations with Chinese leaders and they hoped to meet soon, and this brought some calm to the international financial markets. Secondly, the FM of Iran Javad Zarif flew into Biarritz to meet with French officials in order to apparently give a message to Trump that Iran is in a dire economic strait and Rouhani is prepared to meet with Trump. Trump responded positively to this suggestion, although he will not rescind the economic sanctions before such a meeting.

So at the end things were looking up. The US is the host for the next G7 Summit and Trump indicated that he intends to invite Russia’s Putin to rejoin the group.


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Papua

Among the many places in the world where major demonstrations are continuing – Hong Kong, Sudan, Brazil – is Papua.  Papua is the western half of the island of New Guinea that is part of Indonesia.   The independent state of Papua-New Guinea comprises the eastern half of the island, that was formerly a protectorate of Australia.

After the Dutch withdrew in 1963 Indonesia declared its independence and the province of Irian Jaya as it was then known was taken over and essentially coerced into joining Indonesia in 1969.  However, the people of Papua are very different from those of the majority of Indonesia, first of all they are mainly Christian while Indonesians are overwhelmingly Muslim, second they are Melanesian while the Indonesians are Asian, and thirdly they speak English and other local languages and not Indonesian as their usual languages.   As a result of these differences Papua was given special autonomous status

There has been a local independence movement for many years, but the Indonesian army has cracked down and there are reports of massacres and ethnic cleansing.  But, it is difficult to obtain information from this relatively remote and difficult to traverse mountainous region.  The central Indonesian government has tried to exert direct control over Papua but it was rejected by the Supreme Court because it contravened the autonomous status of Papua.  At present there are attempts to have local elections, and this has led to demonstrations and police and army crackdowns.  This is another region where the past has prevented peoples having self-determination.

Greenland

Of all the obscure places in the world, Greenland, the largest island in the world, is suddenly in the news.  It came up because Pres. Trump suddenly tweeted that he wanted to buy it for the USA.  Its not so absurd as it sounds and as the Danish PM said it is, after all it has the lowest population density of any country in the world with barely 60,000 people, mostly in the capital of Nuuk, that is closest to Canada.   It has incredible resources of hydroelectric power and mineral resources, much of it hard to extract because of the cold.

It was discovered by the Norwegian Vikings in the 10th century and in the Saga it was called “Green” in order to attract settlers.  Leif Erickson sailed from Greenland to Canada 500 years before Columbus “discovered” America.  Most of the population are Inuit (known to us as eskimos) and Danish settlers.  It became a Danish colony in 1814 and became autonomous (self-governing) in 2008, although it is not considered a sovereign country and is still a province of Denmark. Pres. Truman soon after WWII and amidst the Cold War was the first President to consider buying Greenland, but a large US base was established at Thule in southern Greenland and has been there ever since.

Pres. Trump was due to begin a State visit to Denmark in two weeks, but after the Danish response to his suggestion to buy Greenland, he took offense and has cancelled the visit.  This is unfortunate since Denmark has been a good ally of the US for a long time.  These imaginative ideas that Trump gets and publicizes are not so stupid, since buying Alaska from Russia turned out be a bright idea after all, not to mention the Louisiana purchase from France.  I bet they’d like to have them back.

Kashmir

I have always maintained  that the Kashmir problem is far more serious than the Palestine problem.  Kashmir is much greater in size and population and the claimants to Kashmir, India and Pakistan, both have large armies and nuclear weapons.  The current crisis was triggered when India put Kashmir under martial law and then yesterday  rescinded article 370 of the agreement between India and Kashmir that gave it special autonomous status.  This means that the limited protections Kashmir had have been cancelled and India has now taken direct control of Kashmir.  Actually India occupies about 2/3 of Kashmir, while Pakistan illegally controls about 1/3 which its army occupied in 1948 immediately following independence.   

For those not familiar with the issue, Kashmir has a largely Muslim population, but had a Hindu ruler.  Upon Indian independence in 1948 he chose to join India rather than Pakistan, as was his right, but he asked for assurances from India that Kashmiri’s rights would be protected by a special status.  That is the article 370 that has now been unilaterally rescinded by the Indian Government.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars at various times since 1948, and there have been many clashes and Islamic terrorism in Kashmir.  When the BNP Party was re-elected to rule India under PM Modi with a big majority, such a move could have been expected in Kashmir, although it took most observers by surprise.  His party has intended to make such a move for a long time, but now the time has arrived, while the US and others are distracted by the trade war with China and the problems with Iran. 

There is no doubt that in India Kashmir is seen as a legitimate part of India and they intend to make it that way.  What Pakistan will do now is unknown.  They might annex their portion of Kashmir, they might foment unrest among the Muslim population of Kashmir and they might even attack and start another war over Kashmir.  If they do there is little doubt on which side the USA and \Israel will be.  Currently Israel is selling arms to India and training its military. India is a pro-Western democracy and it will find support in the West as long as it does not itself start hostilities.