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Better not mess with the former Brazilian president; Putin and Xi are his real top allies in the Global Left
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He’s back. With a bang.

Only two days after his release from a federal prison in Curitiba, southern Brazil, following a narrow 6×5 decision by the Supreme Court, former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva delivered a fiery, 45-minute long speech in front of the Metal Workers Union in Sao Bernardo, outside of Sao Paulo, and drawing on his unparalleled political capital, called all Brazilians to stage nothing short of a social revolution.

When my colleagues Mauro Lopes, Paulo Leite and myself interviewed Lula at the federal prison, it was his Day 502 in a cell. By August, it was impossible to predict that release would happen on Day 580, in early November.

His first speech to the nation after the prison saga – which is far from over – could never be solemn; in fact he promised a detailed address for the near future. What he did, in his trademark conversationalist style, was to immediately go on the offensive taking down a long list of every possible enemy in the book: those who have mired Brazil into an “anti-people agenda.” In terms of a fully improvised, passionate political address, this is already anthology material.

Lula detailed the current “terrible conditions” for Brazilian workers. He ripped to pieces the economic program – basically a monster sell-out – of Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, a Chicago boy and Pinochetist who’s applying the same failed hardcore neoliberal prescriptions now being denounced and scorned every day in the streets of Chile.

He detailed how the Brazilian right wing openly bet on neo-fascism, which is the form that neoliberalism recently took in Brazil. He blasted mainstream media, in the form of the so far all-powerful, ultra-reactionary Globo empire. In a stance of semiotic genius, Lula pointed to Globo’s helicopter hovering over the masses gathered for the speech, implying the organization is too cowardly to get close to him on ground level.

And, significantly, he got right into the heart of the Bolsonaro question: the militias. It’s no secret to informed Brazilians that the Bolsonaro clan, with its origins in the Veneto, is behaving as a sort of cheap, crude, eschatological carbon copy of the Sopranos, running a system heavy on militias and supported by the Brazilian military. Lula described the president of one of the top nations in the Global South as no less than a militia leader. That will stick – all around the world.

So much for “Lula peace and love,” which used to be one of his cherished mottos. No more conciliation. Bolsonaro now has to face real, fierce, solid opposition, and cannot run away from public debate any more.

Lula’s prison journey has been an extraordinary liberating experience – turning a previously wounded statesman into a fearless warrior mixing the Tao with Steppenwolf (as sketched in Herman Hesse’s book). He’s free like he’s never been before – and he said so, explicitly. The question is how he will be able to muster the organizational work, the method – and have enough time to change the dire conditions for democratic opposition in Brazil. The whole Global South is watching.

At least now the die is cast – and crystal clear: It’s social democracy against neo-fascism. Socially inclusive programs, civil society involved in setting public policy, the fight for equality versus autocracy, state institutions linked to militias, racism and hate against all minorities. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, to their credit, have offered Lula their unconditional support. In contrast, Steve Bannon is losing sleep, qualifying Lula as “the poster boy of the globalist Left” across the world.

This all goes way beyond Left Populism – as Slavoj Zizek and Chantal Mouffe, among others, have been trying to conceptualize it. Lula, assuming he remains free, is now ready to be the supreme catalyst of an integrated, progressive, “pro-people” New Global Left.

‘Cocaine Evangelistan’

Now for the really nasty bits.

I saw Lula’s speech deep into the night in snow stormed Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, in the heart of the steppes, a land trespassed against by the greatest nomad empires in history. The temptation was to picture Lula as a fearless snow leopard roaming the devastated steppes of urban wastelands.

Yet snow leopards, crucially, are a species threatened with extinction.

After the speech I had serious conversations with two top interlocutors, Bern-based analyst Romulus Maya and anthropologist Piero Leirner, a crack authority on the Brazilian military. The picture they painted was realistically gloomy. Here it is, in a nutshell.

When I visited Brasilia last August, several informed sources confirmed that the majority of the Brazilian Supreme Court is bought and paid for. After all, they de facto legitimized all the absurdities that have been taking place in Brazil since 2014. The absurdities were part of a hyper-complex, slow-motion, rolling hybrid war coup that, under the cloak of a corruption investigation, led to the dismantling of industrial national champions such as Petrobras; the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on spurious charges; and the jailing of Lula, the work of judge, jury and executioner Sergio Moro, now Bolsonaro’s justice minister, who was completely unmasked by The Intercept’s revelations.

The Brazilian military are all over the Supreme Court. Remember, Lula’s liberation happened after a narrow 6 to 5 score. Legally, it was impossible to keep him in prison: the Supreme Court actually bothered to read the Brazilian Constitution.

But there are no structural changes whatsoever on the horizon. The project remains a Brazil sell-out – coupled with a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Brazil remains a lowly US colony. So Lula is out of jail essentially because this system allowed it.

The military abide by Bolsonaro’s abysmal incompetence because he cannot even go to the toilet without permission from General Heleno, the head of the GSI, the Brazilian version of the National Security Council. On Saturday, a scared Bolsonaro asked the top military brass for help after Lula’s release. And crucially, in a tweet, he defined Lula as a “scoundrel” who was “momentarily” free.

It’s this “momentarily” that gives away the game. Lula’s murky juridical situation is far from decided. In a harrowing but perfectly plausible short-term scenario, Lula could in fact be sent back to jail – but this time in isolation, in a maximum security federal prison, or even inside a military barracks; after all, he’s a former chief of the armed forces.

The full focus of Lula’s defense is now to have Moro disqualified. Anyone with a brain who’s been through The Intercept’s revelations can clearly identify Moro’s corruption. If that happens, and that’s a major “if,” Lula’s already existing convictions will be declared null and void. But there are others lawsuits, eight in total. This is total lawfare territory.

The military’s trump card is all about “terrorism” – associated with Lula and the Workers Party. If Lula, according to the harrowing scenario, is sent back to a federal prison, that could be in Brasilia, which not by accident holds the entire leadership of the PCC, or “First Command of the Capital”– the largest Brazilian criminal organization.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brazil, BRICs, Jair Bolsonaro, Lula, Neoliberalism 
US-Australia-Japan alternative to Belt and Road helps explain why the US sent a junior delegation to Thailand and why...
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Chinese President Xi Jinping six years ago launched New Silk Roads, now better known as the Belt and Road Initiative, the largest, most ambitious, pan-Eurasian infrastructure project of the 21st century.

Under the Trump administration, Belt and Road has been utterly demonized 24/7: a toxic cocktail of fear and doubt, with Beijing blamed for everything from plunging poor nations into a “debt trap” to evil designs of world domination.

Now finally comes what might be described as the institutional American response to Belt and Road: the Blue Dot Network.

Blue Dot is described, officially, as promoting global, multi-stakeholder “sustainable infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world.”

It is a joint project of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation, in partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

Now compare it with what just happened this same week at the inauguration of the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

As Xi stressed: “To date, China has signed 197 documents on Belt and Road cooperation with 137 countries and 30 international organizations.”

This is what Blue Dot is up against – especially across the Global South. Well, not really. Global South diplomats, informally contacted, are not exactly impressed. They might see Blue Dot as an aspiring competitor to BRI, but one that’s moved by private finance – mostly, in theory, American.

They scoff at the prospect that Blue Dot will include some sort of ratings mechanism that will be positioned to vet and downgrade Belt and Road projects. Washington will spin it as a “certification” process setting “international standards” – implying Belt and Road is sub-standard. Whether Global South nations will pay attention to these new ratings is an open question.

The Japanese example

Blue Dot should also be understood in direct comparison with what just happened at the summit-fest in Thailand centered on the meetings of East Asia, the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The advent of Blue Dot explains why the US sent only a junior delegation to Thailand, and also, to a great extent, why India missed the RCEP train as it left the pan-Asian station.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still between a rock – Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy – and a hard place – Eurasia integration. They are mutually incompatible.

Blue Dot is a de facto business extension of Indo-Pacific, which congregates the US, Japan, Australia – and India: the Quad members. It’s a mirror image of the – defunct – Obama administration Trans-Pacific Partnership in relation to the – also defunct – “pivot to Asia.”

It’s unclear whether New Delhi will join Blue Dot. It has rejected Belt and Road, but not, finally and irrevocably, RCEP. ASEAN has tried to put on a brave face and insist differences will be smoothed out and all 16 RCEP members will sign a deal in Vietnam in 2020.

Yet the bottom line remains: Washington will continue to manipulate India by all means deemed necessary to torpedo – at least in the South Asian theater – the potential of Belt and Road as well as larger Eurasia integration.

And still, after all these years of non-stop demonization, the best thing Washington could come up with was to steal Belt and Road’s idea and dress it up in private bank financing.

Now compare it, for instance, with the work of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia. They privilege the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, an original Indonesian idea, instead of the American version. The institute’s president, Hidetoshi Nishimura, describes it as “a guideline for dialogue partners” and stresses that “Japan’s own vision of the Indo-Pacific fits very well with that of ASEAN.”

As much as Nishimura notes how “it is well known that Japan has been the key donor and a real partner in the economic development of Southeast Asia throughout the past five decades,” he also extols RCEP as “the symbol of free trade.” Both China and Japan are firmly behind RCEP. And Beijing is also firmly stressing the direct connection between RCEP and Belt and Road projects.

In the end, Blue Dot may be no more than a PR exercise, too little, too late. It won’t stop Belt and Road expansion. It won’t prevent China-Japan investment partnerships. It won’t stop awareness all across the Global South about the weaponization of the US dollar for geopolitical purposes.

And it won’t bury prevailing skepticism about the development project skills of a hyperpower engaged on a mission to steal other nation’s oil reserves as part of an illegal Syrian occupation.

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: China, India, Japan, New Silk Road 
Biggest story at ASEAN was convergence of moves toward Asia integration, leaving Delhi out for now
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A pan-Asia high-speed train has left the station – and India – behind. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would have been the largest free trade deal in the world, was not signed in Bangkok. It will probably be signed next year in Vietnam, assuming New Delhi goes beyond what ASEAN, with diplomatic finesse barely concealing frustration, described as “outstanding issues, which remain unresolved.”

The partnership uniting 16 nations – the ASEAN 10 plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and, in theory, India – would have congregated 3.56 billion people and 29% of world trade.

Predictably, it was billed as the big story among the slew of high-profile meetings linked to the 35th ASEAN summit in Thailand, as RCEP de facto further integrates Asian economies with China just as the Trump administration is engaged in a full spectrum battle against everything from the Belt and Road Initiative to Made in China 2025.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng was blunt:

“It’s the 15 nations that have decided to move forward first.” And he added “there won’t be any problem for the 15 nations to sign RCEP next year,” when Vietnam takes over as the chair of ASEAN.

It’s not hard to figure out where the “problem” lies.

Mahathir ‘disappointed’

Diplomats confirmed that New Delhi came up with a string of last-minute demands in Thailand, forcing many to work deep into the night with no success. Thailand’s Commerce Minister, Jurin Laksanawisit, tried to put on a brave face:

“The negotiation last night was conclusive.”

It was not. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad – whose facial expression in the family photo was priceless, as he shook hands with Aung San Suu Kyi on his left and nobody on his right – had already given away the game.

“We’re very disappointed,” he said, adding: “One country is making demands we cannot accept.”

ASEAN, that elaborate monument to punctilious protocol and face-saving, insists the few outstanding issues “will be resolved by February 2020,” with the text of all 20 RCEP chapters complete “pending the resolution of one” member.

RCEP dwells across a large territory, covering trade in goods and services, investment, intellectual property and dispute resolution. The Indian “problem” is extremely complex. India in fact already has a free trade agreement with ASEAN.

RCEP, in practice, would extend this agreement to the other big boys, including China, Japan and South Korea.

New Delhi insists it is defending farmers, dairy owners, the services industry, sectors of the automobile industry – especially hybrid and electric cars, and very popular three-wheelers – and mostly small businesses all across the nation, which would be devastated by an augmented tsunami of Chinese merchandise.

Agriculture, textile, steel and mining interests in India are totally against RCEP.

Yet New Delhi never mentions quality Japanese or South Korean products. It’s all about China. New Delhi argues that signing what is widely interpreted as a free trade agreement with China would explode its already significant US$57 billion a year trade deficit.

The barely disguised secret is that India’s economy, as the historical record shows, is inherently protectionist. There’s no way a possible removal of agricultural tariffs protecting farmers would not provoke a social cataclysm.

Modi, who is not exactly a bold statesman with a global vision, is between a heavy rock and a very hard place. President Xi Jinping offered him a “100-year plan” for China-India partnership at their last informal, bilateral summit.

India is a fellow BRICS member, it’s part of the Russia-India-China troika that is actually at the center of BRICS and is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Geopolitically as well as geoeconomically, it hardly makes sense for India to be out of RCEP – which means excluded from East Asia and Southeast Asia integration. The only feasible solution might be an elaborate bilateral India-China deal within RCEP.

Questions remain whether both players would be able to work that out before the Vietnam summit in 2020.

Putting it all together

India was only part of the story of the summit fest in Thailand. At the important East Asia Summit, everyone was actively discussing multiple paths towards multilateralism.

The Trump administration is touting what it calls the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy – which is yet another de facto China containment strategy, congregating the US, India, Japan and Australia. Indo-Pacific is very much on Modi’s mind. The problem is “Indo-Pacific,” as the US conceives of it, and RCEP are incompatible.

ASEAN, instead, came up with its own strategy: ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) – which incorporates all the usual transparency, good governance, sustainable development and rules-based tenets plus details on connectivity and maritime disputes.

All the ASEAN 10 are behind AOIP, which is, in fact, an original Indonesian idea. It’s fascinating to know that Bangkok and Jakarta worked together behind closed doors for no fewer than 18 months to reach a full consensus among the ASEAN 10.

The biggest story in Thailand was, in fact, the convergence of myriad moves towards Asia integration. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was lavishly praising the prospects of integrating Belt and Road with something called the Master Plan of ASEAN Activity, which is the connectivity part of AOIP.

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in jumped in extolling the merits of his Southern Policy, which is essentially northeast-southeast Asia integration. And don’t forget Russia.

At the ASEAN business and investment summit, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put it all together; the blossoming of the Greater Eurasian Partnership, uniting the Eurasia Economic Union, ASEAN and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, not to mention, in his words, “other possible structures,” which is code for Belt and Road.

Belt and Road is powerfully advancing its links to RCEP, Eurasia Economic Union and even South America’s Mercosur – when Brazil finally kicks Jair Bolsonaro out of power.

Medvedev noted that this merging of interests was unanimously supported at the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi in 2016. Vietnam and Singapore have already clinched free trade deals with Eurasia Economic Union, and Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia are on their way.

Medvedev also noted that a trade and economic cooperation deal between China and Eurasia Economic Union was signed in late October. Next is India, and a preferential trade agreement between the union and Iran has also been signed.

In Thailand, the Chinese delegation did not directly address the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. But Medvedev did, forcefully:

“We are in favor of maintaining the effective system of state-to-state relations which was formed on the basis of ASEAN and has shown a good track record over the years.

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: China, India, New Silk Road, Russia 
Compare US pillaging with Russia-Iran-Turkey’s active involvement in a political solution to normalize Syria
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Source: Asia Times
Source: Asia Times

What happened in Geneva this Wednesday, in terms of finally bringing peace to Syria, could not be more significant: the first session of the Syrian Constitutional Committee.

The Syrian Constitutional Committee sprang out of a resolution passed in January 2018 in Sochi, Russia, by a body called the Syrian National Dialogue Congress.

The 150-strong committee breaks down as 50 members of the Syrian opposition, 50 representing the government in Damascus and 50 representatives of civil society. Each group named 15 experts for the meetings in Geneva, held behind closed doors.

This development is a direct consequence of the laborious Astana process – articulated by Russia, Iran and Turkey. Essential initial input came from former UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. Now UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen is working as a sort of mediator.

The committee started its deliberations in Geneva in early 2019.

Crucially, there are no senior members of the administration in Damascus nor from the opposition – apart from Ahmed Farouk Arnus, who is a low-ranking diplomat with the Syrian Foreign Ministry.

Among the opposition, predictably, there are no former leaders of weaponized factions. And no “moderate rebels.” The delegates include several former and current parliament members, university rectors and journalists.

After this first round, significantly, the committee’s co-chair, Ahmad Kuzbari, said: “We hope that our next meeting could take place in our native land, in our beloved Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited capital in history.”

Even the opposition, which is part of the committee, hopes that a political deal will be clinched next year. According to co-chair Hadi al-Bahra: “I hope that the 75th anniversary of the United Nations next year will be an opportunity to celebrate another achievement by the universal organization, namely the success of efforts under the auspices of a special envoy for political process, who will bring peace and justice to all Syrians.”

Join the patrol

The committee’s work in Geneva proceeds in parallel to ever-changing facts on the ground. These will certainly force more face-to-face negotiations between Presidents Putin and Erdogan, as Erdogan himself confirmed: “A conversation with Putin can take place any time. Everything depends on the course of events.”

“Events” seem not to be that incandescent, so far, even as Erdogan, predictably, releases the whiff of a threat in the air: “We reserve the right to resume military operation in Syria if terrorists approach at the distance of 30km to Turkey’s borders or continue attacks from any other Syrian area.”

Erdogan also said the de facto safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border could be “expanded,” something that he would have to clear in minute detail with Moscow.

Those threats have already manifested on the ground. On Wednesday, Turkey and allied Islamist factions launched an attack against Tal Tamr, a historic Assyrian Christian enclave 50km deep inside Syrian territory – far beyond the scope of the 10km patrol zone or the 30km “safe” zone.

Poorly-armed Syrian troops pulled out under fierce attack, and with no apparent Russian cover. The Syrian military on the same day issued a public statement calling on the Syrian Democratic Forces to reintegrate under its command. The SDF has said a compromise must be reached first over semi-autonomy for the northeastern region. Thousands of residents in the meantime fled farther south to the more protected city of Hasakeh.

Two facts are absolutely crucial. The Syrian Kurds have completed their pull out ahead of schedule, as confirmed by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. And, this Friday, Russia and Turkey start their joint military patrols to the depth of 7km away from the border, part of the de facto safe zone in northeast Syria.

The devil in the immense details is how Ankara is going to manage the territories that it now actually controls, and to which it plans to relocate as many as 2 million Syrian refugees.

Your oil? Mine

Then there’s the nagging issue that simply won’t go away: the American drive to “secure the oil” (Trump) and “protect” Syrian oilfields (the Pentagon), for all practical purposes from Syria.

In Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – alongside Iran’s Javad Zarif and Turkey’s Mevlut Cavusoglu – could not have been more scathing. Lavrov said Washington’s plan is “arrogant,” and violates international law. The very American presence on Syrian soil is “illegal,” he said.

All across the Global South, especially among countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, this is being interpreted, stripped to the bone, for what it is: the United States government illegally taking possession of natural resources of a third country via a military occupation.

And the Pentagon is warning that anyone attempting to contest it will be shot on sight. It remains to be seen whether the US Deep State would be willing to engage in a hot war with Russia over a few Syrian oilfields.

Under international law, the whole “securing the oil” scam is a euphemism for pillaging, pure and simple. Every single takfiri or jihadi outfit operating across the “Greater Middle East” will converge, perversely, to the same conclusion: US “efforts” across the lands of Islam are all about the oil.

Now compare that with Russia-Iran-Turkey’s active involvement in a political solution and normalization of Syria – not to mention, behind the scenes, China, which quietly donates rice and aims for widespread investment in a pacified Syria positioned as a key Eastern Mediterranean node of the New Silk Roads.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey 
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He died like a dog.” President Trump could not have scripted a better one-liner as he got ready for his Obama bin Laden close-up in front of the whole world.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, fake caliph, ISIS/Daesh leader, the most wanted man on the planet, was “brought to justice” under Trump’s watch. The dead dog caliph is now positioned as the ultimate foreign policy winning trophy ahead of 2020 reelection.

The climatic scenes of the inevitable-as-death-and-taxes movie or Netflix series to come are already written. (Trump: I “watched it like a movie.”) Cowardly uber-terrorist cornered in a dead-end tunnel, eight helicopter gunships hovering above, dogs barking in the darkness, three terrified children taken as hostages, coward detonates a suicide vest, tunnel collapses over himself and the children.

A crack forensic team carrying samples of the fake caliph’s DNA apparently does its job in record time. The remains of the self-exploded target – then sealed in plastic bags – confirm it: it’s Baghdadi. In the dead of night, it’s time for the commando unit to go back to Irbil, a 70-minute flight over northeast Syria and northwest Iraq. Cut to Trump’s presser. Mission accomplished. Roll credits.

This all happened at a compound only 300 meters away from the village of Barisha, in Idlib, rural northwest Syria, only 5km from the Syria-Turkish border. The compound is no more: it was turned to rubble so it would not become a (Syrian) shrine for a renegade Iraqi.

The caliph was already on the run, and arrived at this rural back of beyond only 48 hours before the raid, according to Turkish intelligence. A serious question is what he was doing in northwest Syria, in Idlib – a de facto cauldron-like Donbass in 2014 – which the Syrian army and Russian airpower are just waiting for the right moment to extinguish.

There are virtually no ISIS/Daesh jihadis in Irbil, but lots of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, as in al-Qaeda in Syria, known inside the Beltway as “moderate rebels,” including hardcore Turkmen brigades previously weaponized by Turkish intel. The only rational explanation is that the Caliph might have identified this Idlib backwater near Barisha, away from the war zone, as the ideal under-the-radar passport to cross to Turkey.

Russians knew?

The plot thickens when we examine Trump’s long list of “thank yous” for the successful raid. Russia came first, followed by Syria – presumably Syrian Kurds, not Damascus – Turkey and Iraq. In fact, Syrian Kurds were only credited with “certain support,” in Trump’s words. Their commander Mazloum Abdi, though, preferred to extol the raid as a “historic operation” with essential Syrian Kurd intel input.

In Trump’s press conference, expanding somewhat on the thank yous, Russia again came first (“great” collaboration) and Iraq was “excellent”: the Iraqi National Intelligence Service later commented on the break it had gotten, via a Syrian who had smuggled the wives of two of Baghdadi’s brothers, Ahmad and Jumah, to Idlib via Turkey.

There’s no way US Special Forces could have pulled this off without complex, combined Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian Kurd intel. Additionally, President Erdogan accomplishes one more tactical masterpiece, juggling between performing the role of dutiful, major NATO ally while still allowing al-Qaeda remnants their safe haven in Idlib under the watchful eye of the Turkish military.

Significantly, Trump said, about Moscow: “We told them, ‘We’re coming in’ … and they said, ‘Thank you for telling us.’” But, “they did not know the mission.”

They definitely didn’t. In fact, the Russian Defense Ministry, via spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov, said it had “no reliable information about US servicemen conducting an operation to ‘yet another’ elimination of the former Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Turkish-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone.”

And on Trump’s “we told them,” the Russian Defense Ministry was emphatic: “We know nothing about any assistance to the flight of US aircraft to the Idlib de-escalation zone’s airspace in the course of this operation.”

According to ground sources in Syria, a prevalent rumor in Idlib is that the “dead dog” in Barisha could be Abu Mohammad Salama, the leader of Haras al-Din, a minor sub-group of al-Qaeda in Syria. Haras al-Din has not issued any statement about it.

ISIS/Daesh anyway has already named a successor: Abdullah Qardash, aka Hajji Abdullah al-Afari, also Iraqi and also a former Saddam Hussein military officer. There’s a strong possibility that ISIS/Daesh and myriad subgroups and variations of al-Qaeda in Syria will now re-merge, after their split in 2014.

Who gets the oil?

There’s no plausible explanation whatsoever for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for years, enjoying the freedom of shuttling back and forth between Syria and Iraq, always evading the formidable surveillance capabilities of the US government.

Well, there’s also no plausible explanation for that famous convoy of 53 brand new, white Toyota Hi-Luxes crossing the desert from Syria to Iraq in 2014 crammed with flag-waving ISIS/Daesh jihadis on their way to capture Mosul, also evading the cornucopia of US satellites covering the Middle East 24/7.

And there’s no way to bury the 2012 US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) leaked memo that explicitly named “the West, Gulf monarchies, and Turkey” as seeking a “Salafist principality” in Syria (opposed, significantly, by Russia, China and Iran – the key poles of Eurasia integration).

That was way before ISIS/Daesh’s irresistible ascension. The DIA memo was unmistakable: “If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).

True, the fake caliph has been proclaimed definitely dead at least five times, starting in December 2016. Yet the timing, now, could not be more convenient.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, ISIS, Syria 
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The presidential election in Argentina pitted the people against neoliberalism and the people won. What happens next will have a tremendous impact all over Latin America and serve as a blueprint for assorted Global South struggles.

The presidential election in Argentina was no less than a game-changer and a graphic lesson for the whole Global South. It pitted, in a nutshell, the people versus neoliberalism. The people won – with new President Alberto Fernandez and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) as his VP.

Neoliberalism was represented by Mauricio Macri: a marketing product, former millionaire playboy, president of football legends Boca Juniors, fanatic of New Age superstitions, and CEO obsessed with spending cuts, who was unanimously sold by Western mainstream media as the new paradigm of a post-modern, efficient politician.

Well, the paradigm will soon be evacuated, leaving behind a wasteland: $250 billion in foreign debt; less than $50 billion in reserves; inflation at 55 percent; the U.S. dollar at over 60 pesos (a family needs roughly $500 to spend in a month; 35.4 percent of Argentine homes can’t make it); and, incredible as it may seem in a self-sufficient nation, a food emergency.

Macri, in fact the president of so-called Anti-Politics, No- Politics in Argentina, was a full IMF baby, enjoying total “support” (and gifted with a humongous $58 billion loan). New lines of credit, for the moment, are suspended. Fernandez is going to have a really hard time trying to preserve sovereignty while negotiating with foreign creditors, or “vultures,” as masses of Argentines define them. There will be howls on Wall Street and in the City of London about “fiery populism,” “market panicking,” “pariahs among international investors.” Fernandez refuses to resort to a sovereign default, which would add even more unbearable pain for the general public.

The good news is that Argentina is now the ultimate progressive lab on how to rebuild a devastated nation away from the familiar, predominant framework: a state mired in debt; rapacious, ignorant comprador elites; and “efforts” to balance the budget always at the expense of people’s interests.

What happens next will have a tremendous impact all over Latin America, not to mention serve as a blueprint for assorted Global South struggles. And then there’s the particularly explosive issue of how it will influence neighboring Brazil, which as it stands, is being devastated by a “Captain” Bolsonaro even more toxic than Macri.

Ride that Clio

It took less than four years for neoliberal barbarism, implemented by Macri, to virtually destroy Argentina. For the first time in its history Argentina is experiencing mass hunger.

In these elections, the role of charismatic former President CFK was essential. CFK prevented the fragmentation of Peronism and the whole progressive arc, always insisting, on the campaign trail, on the importance of unity.

But the most appealing phenomenon was the emergence of a political superstar: Axel Kicillof, born in 1971 and CFK’s former economy minister. When I was in Buenos Aires two months ago everyone wanted to talk about Kicillof.

The province of Buenos Aires congregates 40 percent of the Argentine electorate. Fernandez won over Macri by roughly 8 percent nationally. In Buenos Aires province though, the Macrists lost by 16 percent – because of Kicillof.

Kicillof’s campaign strategy was delightfully described as “Clio mata big data” (“Clio kills big data”), which sounds great when delivered with a porteño accent. He went literally all over the place – 180,000 km in two years, visiting all 135 cities in the province – in a humble 2008 Renault Clio, accompanied only by his campaign chief Carlos Bianco (the actual owner of the Clio) and his press officer Jesica Rey. He was duly demonized 24/7 by the whole mainstream media apparatus.

What Kicillof was selling was the absolute antithesis of Cambridge Analytica and Duran Barba – the Ecuadorian guru, junkie of big data, social networks and focus groups, who actually invented Macri the politician in the first place.

Kicillof played the role of educator – translating macroeconomic language into prices in the supermarket, and Central Bank decisions into credit card balance, all to the benefit of elaborating a workable government program. He will be the governor of no less than the economic and financial core of Argentina, much like Sao Paulo in Brazil.

Fernandez, for his part, is aiming even higher: an ambitious, new, national, social pact – congregating unions, social movements, businessmen, the Church, popular associations, aimed at implementing something close to the Zero Hunger program launched by Lula in 2003.

In his historic victory speech, Fernandez cried, “Lula libre!” (“Free Lula”). The crowd went nuts. Fernandez said he would fight with all his powers for Lula’s freedom; he considers the former Brazilian president, fondly, as a Latin American pop hero. Both Lula and Evo Morales are extremely popular in Argentina.

Inevitably, in neighboring, top trading partner and Mercosur member Brazil, the two-bit neofascist posing as president, who’s oblivious to the rules of diplomacy, not to mention good manners, said he won’t send any compliments to Fernandez. The same applies to the destroyed-from-the-inside Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Relations, once a proud institution, globally respected, now “led” by an irredeemable fool.

Former Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, a great friend of Fernandez, fears that “hidden forces will sabotage him.” Amorim suggests a serious dialogue with the Armed Forces, and an emphasis on developing a “healthy nationalism.” Compare it to Brazil, which has regressed to the status of semi-disguised military dictatorship, with the ominous possibility of a tropical Patriot Act being approved in Congress to essentially allow the “nationalist” military to criminalize any dissidence.

Hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Beyond Argentina, South America is fighting neoliberal barbarism in its crucial axis, Chile, while destroying the possibility of an irreversible neoliberal take over in Ecuador. Chile was the model adopted by Macri, and also by Bolsonaro’s Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, a Chicago boy and Pinochetist fan. In a glaring instance of historical regression, the destruction of Brazil is being operated by a model now denounced in Chile as a dismal failure.

No surprises, considering that Brazil is Inequality Central. Irish economist Marc Morgan, a disciple of Thomas Piketty, in a 2018 research paper showed that the Brazilian 1 percent controls no less than 28 percent of national wealth, compared to 20 percent in the U.S. and 11 percent in France.

Axel Kicillof in 2014. (2violetas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Axel Kicillof in 2014. (2violetas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Which bring us, inevitably, to the immediate future of Lula – still hanging, and hostage to a supremely flawed Supreme Court. Even conservative businessmen admit that the only possible cure for Brazil’s political recovery – not to mention rebuilding an economic model centered on wealth distribution – is represented by “Free Lula.”

When that happens we will finally have Brazil-Argentina leading a key Global South vector towards a post-neoliberal, multipolar world.

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Argentina, Brazil, Neoliberalism 
Russia-Turkey deal establishes ‘safe zone’ along Turkish border and there will be joint Russia-Turkey military patrols
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The negotiations in Sochi were long – over six hours – tense and tough. Two leaders in a room with their interpreters and several senior Turkish ministers close by if advice was needed. The stakes were immense: a road map to pacify northeast Syria, finally.

The press conference afterwards was somewhat awkward – riffing on generalities. But there’s no question that in the end Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed the near impossible.

The Russia-Turkey deal establishes a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border – something Erdogan had been gunning for since 2014. There will be joint Russia-Turkey military patrols. The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), part of the rebranded, US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, will need to retreat and even disband, especially in the stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, and they will have to abandon their much-cherished urban areas such as Kobane and Manbij. The Syrian Arab Army will be back in the whole northeast. And Syrian territorial integrity – a Putin imperative – will be preserved.

This is a Syria-Russia-Turkey win-win-win – and, inevitably, the end of a separatist-controlled Syrian Kurdistan. Significantly, Erdogan’s spokesman Fahrettin Altun stressed Syria’s “territorial integrity” and “political unity.” That kind of rhetoric from Ankara was unheard of until quite recently.

Putin immediately called Syrian President Bashar al Assad to detail the key points of the memorandum of understanding. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov once again stressed Putin’s main goal – Syrian territorial integrity – and the very hard work ahead to form a Syrian Constitutional Committee for the legal path towards a still-elusive political settlement.

Russian military police and Syrian border guards are already arriving to monitor the imperative YPG withdrawal – all the way to a depth of 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. The joint military patrols are tentatively scheduled to start next Tuesday.

On the same day this was happening in Sochi, Assad was visiting the frontline in Idlib – a de facto war zone that the Syrian army, allied with Russian air power, will eventually clear of jihadi militias, many supported by Turkey until literally yesterday. That graphically illustrates how Damascus, slowly but surely, is recovering sovereign territory after eight and a half years of war.

Who gets the oil?

For all the cliffhangers in Sochi, there was not a peep about an absolutely key element: who’s in control of Syria’s oilfields, especially after President Trump’s now-notorious tweet stating, “the US has secured the oil.” No one knows which oil. If he meant Syrian oil, that would be against international law. Not to mention Washington has no mandate – from the UN or anyone else – to occupy Syrian territory.

The Arab street is inundated with videos of the not exactly glorious exit by US troops, leaving Syria pelted by rocks and rotten tomatoes all the way to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they were greeted by a stark reminder. “All US forces that withdrew from Syria received approval to enter the Kurdistan region [only] so that they may be transported outside Iraq. There is no permission granted for these forces to stay inside Iraq,” the Iraqi military headquarters in Baghdad said.

The Pentagon said a “residual force” may remain in the Middle Euphrates river valley, side by side with Syrian Democratic Forces militias, near a few oilfields, to make sure the oil does not fall “into the hands of ISIS/Daesh or others.” “Others” actually means the legitimate owner, Damascus. There’s no way the Syrian army will accept that, as it’s now fully engaged in a national drive to recover the country’s sources of food, agriculture and energy. Syria’s northern provinces have a wealth of water, hydropower dams, oil, gas and food.

As it stands, the US retreat is partial at best, also considering that a small garrison remains behind at al-Tanf, on the border with Jordan. Strategically, that does not make sense, because the al-Qaem border between Iran and Iraq is now open and thriving.

Map: Energy Consulting Group
Map: Energy Consulting Group

The map above shows the position of US bases in early October, but that’s changing fast. The Syrian Army is already working to recover oilfields around Raqqa, but the strategic US base of Ash Shaddadi still seems to be in place. Until quite recently US troops were in control of Syria’s largest oilfield, al-Omar, in the northeast.

There have been accusations by Russian sources that mercenaries recruited by private US military companies trained jihadi militias such as the Maghawir al-Thawra (“Army of Free Tribes”) to sabotage Syrian oil and gas infrastructure and/or sell Syrian oil and gas to bribe tribal leaders and finance jihadi operations. The Pentagon denies it.

Gas pipeline

As I have argued for years, Syria to a large extent has been a key ‘Pipelineistan’ war – not only in terms of pipelines inside Syria, and the US preventing Damascus from commercializing its own natural resources, but most of all around the fate of the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline which was agreed in a memorandum of understanding signed in 2012.

This pipeline has, over the years, always been a red line, not only for Washington but also for Doha, Riyadh and Ankara.

The situation should dramatically change when the $200 billion-worth of reconstruction in Syria finally takes off after a comprehensive peace deal is in place. It will be fascinating to watch the European Union – after NATO plotted for an “Assad must go” regime change operation for years – wooing Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus with financial offers for their gas.

NATO explicitly supported the Turkish offensive “Operation Peace Spring.” And we haven’t even seen the ultimate geoeconomic irony yet: NATO member, Turkey, purged of its neo-Ottoman dreams, merrily embracing the Gazprom-supported Iran-Iraq-Syria ‘Pipelineistan’ road map.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Kurds, Russia, Syria, Turkey 
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Neoliberalism is – literally – burning. And from Ecuador to Chile, South America, once again, is showing the way. Against the vicious, one-size-fits-all IMF austerity prescription, which deploys weapons of mass economic destruction to smash national sovereignty and foster social inequality, South America finally seems poised to reclaim the power to forge its own history.

Three presidential elections are in play. Bolivia’s seem to have been settled this past Sunday – even as the usual suspects are yelling “Fraud!” Argentina and Uruguay are on next Sunday.

Blowback against what David Harvey has splendidly conceptualized as accumulation by dispossession is, and will continue to be, a bitch. It will eventually reach Brazil – which as it stands continues to be torn to pieces by Pinochetist ghosts. Brazil, eventually, after immense pain, will rise up again. After all, the excluded and humiliated all across South America are finally discovering they carry a Joker inside themselves.

Chile privatizes everything

The question posed by the Chilean street is stark: “What’s worse, to evade taxes or to invade the subway?” It’s all a matter of doing the class struggle math. Chile’s GDP grew 1,1% last year while the profits of the largest corporations grew ten times more. It’s not hard to find from where the huge gap was extracted. The Chilean street stresses how water, electricity, gas, health, medicine, transportation, education, the salar (salt flats) in Atacama, even the glaciers were privatized.

That’s classic accumulation by dispossession, as the cost of living has become unbearable for the overwhelming majority of 19 million Chileans, whose average monthly income does not exceed $500.

Paul Walder, director of the Politika portal and an analyst for the Latin-American Center of Strategic Analysis (CLAE) notes how less than a week after the end of protests in Ecuador – which forced neoliberal vulture Lenin Moreno to ditch a gas price hike – Chile entered a very similar cycle of protests.

President Sebastian Pinera
President Sebastian Pinera

Walder correctly defines Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera (image on the right) as the turkey in a long-running banquet that involves the whole Chilean political class. No wonder the mad as hell Chilean street now makes no difference between the government, the political parties and the police. Pinera, predictably, criminalized all social movements; sent the army to the streets for unmitigated repression; and installed a curfew.

Pinera is Chile’s 7th wealthiest billionaire, with assets valued at $2.7 billion, spread out in airlines, supermarkets, TV, credit cards and football. He’s a sort of turbo-charged Moreno, a neoliberal Pinochetist. Pinera’s brother, Jose, was actually a minister under Pinochet, and the man who implemented Chile’s privatized welfare system – a key source of social disintegration and despair. And it’s all interlinked: current Brazilian Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, a Chicago boy, lived and worked in Chile at the time, and now wants to repeat the absolutely disastrous experiment in Brazil.

The bottom line is that the economic “model” that Guedes wants to impose in Brazil has totally collapsed in Chile.

Chile’s top resource is copper. Copper mines, historically, were owned by the US, but then were nationalized by President Salvador Allende in 1971; thus war criminal Henry Kissinger’s plan to eliminate Allende, which culminated in the original 9/11, in 1973.

Pinochet’s dictatorship later re-privatized the mines. The largest of them all, Escondida, in the Atacama desert – which accounts for 9% of the world’s copper – belongs to Anglo-Australian giant Bhp Billiton. The biggest copper buyer in world markets is China. At least two-thirds of income generated by Chilean copper goes not to the Chilean people, but to foreign multinationals.

The Argentine debacle

Before Chile, Ecuador was semi-paralyzed: inactive schools, no urban transport, food shortages, rampant speculation, serious disturbances on oil exports. Under fire by the mobilization of 25,000 indigenous peoples in the streets, President Lenin Moreno cowardly left a power void in Quito, transferring the seat of government to Guayaquil. Indigenous peoples took over the governance in many important cities and towns. The National Assembly was AWOL for almost two weeks, without the will to even try to solve the political crisis.

By announcing a state of emergency and a curfew, Moreno laid out a red carpet for the Armed Forces – and Pinera duly repeated the procedure in Chile. The difference is that in Ecuador Moreno bet on Divide and Rule between the indigenous peoples’ movements and the rest of the population. Pinera resorts to outright brute force.

Apart from applying the same old tactics of raising prices to obtain further IMF funds, Ecuador also displayed a classic articulation between a neoliberal government, big business and the proverbial US ambassador, in this case Michael Fitzpatrick, a former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere matters in charge of the Andean region, Brazil and the Southern Cone up to 2018.

The clearest case of total neoliberal failure in South America is Argentina. Less than two months ago in Buenos Aires, I saw the vicious social effects of the peso in free fall, inflation at 54%, a de facto food emergency and the impoverishment of even solid sectors of the middle class. Mauricio Macri’s government literally burned most of the $58 billion IMF loan – there’s still $5 billion to arrive. Macri is set to lose the presidential elections: Argentines will have to foot his humongous bill.

Macri’s economic model could not but be Pinera’s – actually Pinochet’s, where public services are run as a business. A key connection between Macri and Pinera is the ultra-neoliberal Freedom Foundation sponsored by Mario Vargas Llosa, who at least boasts the redeeming quality of having been a decent novelist a long time ago.

Macri, a millionaire, disciple of Ayn Rand and incapable of displaying empathy towards anyone, is essentially a cipher, pre-fabricated by his Ecuadorian guru Jaime Duran Barba as a robotic product of data mining, social networks and focus groups. A hilarious take on his insecurities may be found in La Cabeza de Macri: Como Piensa, Vive y Manda el Primer Presidente de la No Politica, by Franco Lindner.

Among myriad shenanigans, Macri is indirectly linked to fabulous money laundering machine HSBC. The president of HSBC in Argentina was Gabriel Martino. In 2015, four thousand Argentine accounts worth $3.5 billion were discovered at HSBC in Switzerland. This spectacular capital flight was engineered by the bank. Yet Martino was essentially saved by Macri, and became one of his top advisers.

Beware the IMF vulture ventures

All eyes now should be on Bolivia. As of this writing, President Evo Morales won Sunday’s presidential elections in the first round – obtaining, by a slim margin, the necessary 10% spread for a candidate to win if he does not obtain the 50% plus one of the votes. Morales essentially got it right at the end, when votes from rural zones and from abroad were fully counted, and the opposition had already started to hit the streets to apply pressure. Not surprisingly, the OAS – servile to US interests – has proclaimed a “lack of trust in the electoral process”.

 
• Category: Economics, Foreign Policy • Tags: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Neoliberalism 
Following the Damascus-Kurdish alliance, Syria may become the biggest defeat for the Central Intelligence Agency since...
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What is happening in Syria, following yet another Russia-brokered deal, is a massive geopolitical game-changer. I’ve tried to summarize it in a single paragraph this way:

“It’s a quadruple win. The U.S. performs a face saving withdrawal, which Trump can sell as avoiding a conflict with NATO ally Turkey. Turkey has the guarantee – by the Russians – that the Syrian Army will be in control of the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia prevents a war escalation and keeps the Russia-Iran-Turkey peace process alive. And Syria will eventually regain control of the entire northeast.”

Syria may be the biggest defeat for the CIA since Vietnam.

Yet that hardly begins to tell the whole story.

Allow me to briefly sketch in broad historical strokes how we got here.

It began with an intuition I felt last month at the tri-border point of Lebanon, Syria and Occupied Palestine; followed by a subsequent series of conversations in Beirut with first-class Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian, Russian, French and Italian analysts; all resting on my travels in Syria since the 1990s; with a mix of selected bibliography in French available at Antoine’s in Beirut thrown in.

The Vilayets

Let’s start in the 19th century when Syria consisted of six vilayets — Ottoman provinces — without counting Mount Lebanon, which had a special status since 1861 to the benefit of Maronite Christians and Jerusalem, which was a sanjak (administrative division) of Istanbul.

The vilayets did not define the extremely complex Syrian identity: for instance, Armenians were the majority in the vilayet of Maras, Kurds in Diyarbakir – both now part of Turkey in southern Anatolia – and the vilayets of Aleppo and Damascus were both Sunni Arab.

Nineteenth century Ottoman Syria was the epitome of cosmopolitanism. There were no interior borders or walls. Everything was inter-dependent.

Ethnic groups in the Balkans and Asia Minor, early 20th Century, Historical Atlas, 1911.
Ethnic groups in the Balkans and Asia Minor, early 20th Century, Historical Atlas, 1911.

Then the Europeans, profiting from World War I, intervened. France got the Syrian-Lebanese littoral, and later the vilayets of Maras and Mosul (today in Iraq). Palestine was separated from Cham (the “Levant”), to be internationalized. The vilayet of Damascus was cut in half: France got the north, the Brits got the south. Separation between Syria and the mostly Christian Lebanese lands came later.

There was always the complex question of the Syria-Iraq border. Since antiquity, the Euphrates acted as a barrier, for instance between the Cham of the Umayyads and their fierce competitors on the other side of the river, the Mesopotamian Abbasids.

James Barr, in his splendid “A Line in the Sand,” notes, correctly, that the Sykes-Picot agreement imposed on the Middle East the European conception of territory: their “line in the sand” codified a delimited separation between nation-states. The problem is, there were no nation-states in region in the early 20th century.

The birth of Syria as we know it was a work in progress, involving the Europeans, the Hashemite dynasty, nationalist Syrians invested in building a Greater Syria including Lebanon, and the Maronites of Mount Lebanon. An important factor is that few in the region lamented losing dependence on Hashemite Medina, and except the Turks, the loss of the vilayet of Mosul in what became Iraq after World War I.

In 1925, Sunnis became the de facto prominent power in Syria, as the French unified Aleppo and Damascus. During the 1920s France also established the borders of eastern Syria. And the Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923, forced the Turks to give up all Ottoman holdings but didn’t keep them out of the game.

Turkish borders according to the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923.
Turkish borders according to the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923.

The Turks soon started to encroach on the French mandate, and began blocking the dream of Kurdish autonomy. France in the end gave in: the Turkish-Syrian border would parallel the route of the fabled Bagdadbahn — the Berlin-Baghdad railway.

In the 1930s France gave in even more: the sanjak of Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun, in Hatay province, Turkey), was finally annexed by Turkey in 1939 when only 40 percent of the population was Turkish.

The annexation led to the exile of tens of thousands of Armenians. It was a tremendous blow for Syrian nationalists. And it was a disaster for Aleppo, which lost its corridor to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish forces under entered Alexandretta on July 5, 1938.
Turkish forces under entered Alexandretta on July 5, 1938.

To the eastern steppes, Syria was all about Bedouin tribes. To the north, it was all about the Turkish-Kurdish clash. And to the south, the border was a mirage in the desert, only drawn with the advent of Transjordan. Only the western front, with Lebanon, was established, and consolidated after WWII.

This emergent Syria — out of conflicting Turkish, French, British and myriad local interests —obviously could not, and did not, please any community. Still, the heart of the nation configured what was described as “useful Syria.” No less than 60 percent of the nation was — and remains — practically void. Yet, geopolitically, that translates into “strategic depth” — the heart of the matter in the current war.

From Hafez to Bashar

Starting in 1963, the Baath party, secular and nationalist, took over Syria, finally consolidating its power in 1970 with Hafez al-Assad, who instead of just relying on his Alawite minority, built a humongous, hyper-centralized state machinery mixed with a police state. The key actors who refused to play the game were the Muslim Brotherhood, all the way to being massacred during the hardcore 1982 Hama repression.

Secularism and a police state: that’s how the fragile Syrian mosaic was preserved. But already in the 1970s major fractures were emerging: between major cities and a very poor periphery; between the “useful” west and the Bedouin east; between Arabs and Kurds. But the urban elites never repudiated the iron will of Damascus: cronyism, after all, was quite profitable.

Damascus interfered heavily with the Lebanese civil war since 1976 at the invitation of the Arab League as a “peacekeeping force.” In Hafez al-Assad’s logic, stressing the Arab identity of Lebanon was essential to recover Greater Syria. But Syrian control over Lebanon started to unravel in 2005, after the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, very close to Saudi Arabia, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) eventually left.

Bashar al-Assad had taken power in 2000. Unlike his father, he bet on the Alawites to run the state machinery, preventing the possibility of a coup but completely alienating himself from the poor, Syrian on the street.

What the West defined as the Arab Spring, began in Syria in March 2011; it was a revolt against the Alawites as much as a revolt against Damascus. Totally instrumentalized by the foreign interests, the revolt sprang up in extremely poor, dejected Sunni peripheries: Deraa in the south, the deserted east, and the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo.

Protest in Damascus, April 24, 2011. (syriana2011/Flickr)
Protest in Damascus, April 24, 2011. (syriana2011/Flickr)

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, CIA, Russia, Syria 
Forget an independent Kurdistan: They may have to do a deal with Damascus on sharing their area with Sunni Arab refugees
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In the annals of bombastic Trump tweets, this one is simply astonishing: here we have a President of the United States, on the record, unmasking the whole $8-trillion intervention in the Middle East as an endless war based on a “false premise.” No wonder the Pentagon is not amused.

Trump’s tweet bisects the surreal geopolitical spectacle of Turkey attacking a 120-kilometer-long stretch of Syrian territory east of the Euphrates to essentially expel Syrian Kurds. Even after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cleared with Trump the terms of the Orwellian-named “Operation Peace Spring,” Ankara may now face the risk of US economic sanctions.

The predominant Western narrative credits the Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly Kurdish, for fighting and defeating Islamic State, also known as Daesh. The SDF is essentially a collection of mercenaries working for the Pentagon against Damascus. But many Syrian citizens argue that ISIS was in fact defeated by the Syrian Arab Army, Russian aerial and technical expertise plus advisers and special forces from Iran and Hezbollah.

As much as Ankara may regard the YPG Kurds – the “People’s protection units” – and the PKK as mere “terrorists” (in the PKK’s case aligned with Washington), Operation Peace Spring has in principle nothing to do with a massacre of Kurds.

Facts on the ground will reveal whether ethnic cleansing is inbuilt in the Turkish offensive. A century ago few Kurds lived in these parts, which were populated mostly by Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. So this won’t qualify as ethnic cleansing on ancestral lands. But if the town of Afrin is anything to go by the consequences could be severe.

Into this heady mix, enter a possible, uneasy pacifier: Russia. Moscow previously encouraged the Syrian Kurds to talk to Damascus to prevent a Turkish campaign – to no avail. But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov never gives up. He has now said:

“Moscow will ask for the start of talks between Damascus and Ankara.”

Diplomatic ties between Syria and Turkey have been severed for seven years now.

With Peace Spring rolling virtually unopposed, Kurdish Gen. Mazloum Kobani Abdi did raise the stakes, telling the Americans he will have to make a deal with Moscow for a no-fly zone to protect Kurdish towns and villages against the Turkish Armed Forces. Russian diplomats, off the record, say this is not going to happen. For Moscow, Peace Spring is regarded as “Turkey’s right to ensure its security,” in the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. As long as it does not turn into a humanitarian disaster.

No independent Kurdistan

From Washington’s perspective, everything happening in the volatile Iran-Iraq-Syria-Turkey spectrum is subject to two imperatives: 1) geopolitically, breaking what is regionally regarded as the axis of resistance: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah; and 2) geostrategically, breaking the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative from being incorporated in both Iraq and Syria, not to mention Turkey.

When Erdogan remarked that the trilateral Ankara summit last month was “productive,” he was essentially saying that the Kurdish question was settled by an agreement among Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Diplomats confirmed that the Syrian Constitutional Committee will work hard towards implementing a federation – implying that the Kurds will have to go back to the Damascus fold. Tehran may even play a role to smooth things over, as Iranian Kurds have also become very active in the YPG command.

The bottom line: there will be no independent Kurdistan – as detailed in a map previously published by the Anadolu news agency.

From Ankara’s point of view, the objective of Operation Peace Spring follows what Erdogan had already announced to the Turkish Parliament – that is, organizing the repatriation of no fewer than two million Syrian refugees to a collection of villages and towns spread over a 30km-wide security zone supervised by the Turkish army.

Yet there has been no word about what happens to an extra, alleged 1.6 million refugees also in Turkey.

Kurdish threats to release control of 50 jails holding at least 11,000 ISIS/Daesh jihadis are just that. The same applies to the al-Hol detention camp, holding a staggering 80,000 ISIS family members. If let loose, these jihadis would go after the Kurds in a flash.

Veteran war correspondent and risk analyst Elijah Magnier provides an excellent summary of the Kurds’ wishful thinking, compared with the priorities of Damascus, Tehran and Moscow:

The Kurds have asked Damascus, in the presence of Russian and Iranian negotiators, to allow them to retain control over the very rich oil and gas fields they occupy in a bit less than a quarter of Syrian territory. Furthermore, the Kurds have asked that they be given full control of the enclave on the borders with Turkey without any Syrian Army presence or activity. Damascus doesn’t want to act as border control guards and would like to regain control of all Syrian territory. The Syrian government wants to end the accommodations the Kurds are offering to the US and Israel, similar to what happened with the Kurds of Iraq.

The options for the YPG Kurds are stark. They are slowly realizing they were used by the Pentagon as mercenaries. Either they become a part of the Syrian federation, giving up some autonomy and their hyper-nationalist dreams, or they will have to share the region they live in with at least two million Sunni Arab refugees relocated under Turkish Army protection.

The end of the dream is nigh. On Sunday, Moscow brokered a deal according to which the key, Kurdish-dominated border towns of Manbij and Kobane go back under the control of Damascus. So Turkish forces will have to back off, otherwise, they will be directly facing the Syrian Arab Army. The game-changing deal should be interpreted as the first step towards the whole of northeast Syria eventually reverting to state control.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Kurds, Syria, Turkey