Upon Reflection (16 October-20 October)

Time to consider weekly global headlines in an ever-changing world

Selected News Headlines

for the
Working Week
16 October-20 October 2017

The Battles After ISIS

16 October 2017, Washington D.C., United States – The Atlantic – Just as the scourge of the Islamic State is being put to rest in the two countries it had the most success – Iraq and Syria – more sober observers are now casting their eyes on what comes next.

Unlike a Hollywood ending in the Middle East where, once the ‘bad guys’ are taken care of, peace reigns supreme, another, more troubling ending is brewing.

In the power vacuum that exists following the defeat of ISIS in northern Iraq for instance, old players have re-emerged to try to swing the local balance of power to their favour and they are not shy about using force to accomplish their goals.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, long used as America’s anti-ISIS proxy, is now looking for its reward. Having expended its blood and treasure in a major role in defeating Islamic State in Iraq, it is seeking to consolidate its political hold over the territory it now controls. The problem is, all neighbouring states surrounding the KRG, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, fear the KRG may be forming the basis of an independent Kurdistan which could plunge the entire region into war.

The latest flashpoint in this saga is the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

KRG forces, known as the Peshmerga, captured Kirkuk as part of their anti-ISIS push in 2014, following the Iraqi government’s inability to fight for the city’s liberation. Kirkuk is a significant city and region of Iraq; its rich oil fields are of economic importance to both the Iraqi and KRG economies.

The KRG’s recent referendum on independence from Iraq has further poisoned the well (see: UR – 25-29/09/17) between the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad and the KRG leadership in Irbil.

On Monday 16 October, Iraqi government forces, backed by neighbouring Iran, moved into Kirkuk, recapturing surrounding oil fields and infrastructure in the process. The Kurdish flag was removed from government buildings in the city.

This was a significant blow to Irbil and Kurdish aspirations.

Up until the KRG referendum, authorities in Irbil, especially KRG President Masoud Barzani, could count on its single most important ally, the United States, to back it in a fight.

The Trump administration, however, eager to play by a new set of rules and with a more fluid relationship towards its local Middle Eastern proxies, is not keen on supporting official Kurdish independence – anywhere – knowing full well the strategic implications of doing so.

Playing to re-establish the status quo, however, will prove difficult for Washington because the ‘Pandora’s box’ of Kurdish aspirations was allowed to ferment under successive US administrations prior to Trump. And, countries that were for a long time considered ‘controllable’ by the US State Department, are no longer looking at Washington from a position of inferiority, helplessness or dependence. Iran and Turkey have established their own network of alternative diplomatic and security arrangements, both courting Russian President Vladimir Putin who seems happy to accept involvement in the ‘Kurdish question’.

With America’s involvement absent, Irbil’s only friend in the region is Israel, a friend that can only attract more aggression against Kurdish aspirations by those wishing to stamp it out.

What is China’s 19th Communist Party congress and why does it matter?

17 October 2017, Beijing, People’s Republic of China – The Economist – China is important. It is the world’s second largest economy, it has the world’s largest population and it has been stirring under its ‘Great Power’ mantle for a while now. On October 18, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hosted its 19th congress. These events allow the CCP leadership to review the country’s constitution, bring in new cadres to the Central Committee and test the power of the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party.

Current Secretary General Xi Jinping is planning to put his stamp of undisputed authority on to the CCP.

It seems that Xi’s plans will not be thwarted.

Many of his most strident opponents had been arrested well prior to the 19th Congress during the anti-corruption campaign that has swept the country. Many CCP time servers are also due to retire. In all, some three quarters of the Central Committee is due for replacement.

There are those who believe that Xi will replace vacant positions with his own loyalists. He will certainly try to swing the balance of power in his favour. All politicians, from all political persuasions, do this as a matter of course.

But China is no longer the totalitarian state of old.

While still communist and a political autocracy, over time the CCP and those who serve in it have striven to legitimise the leadership’s popular credentials among the Chinese people, or at least those who fall into the Han cultural category. Cultural minorities within China are repressed, exploited and otherwise kept out of the rise and consolidation of the Han cultural core.

The CCP rules over China, but it does not rule for all Chinese.

Arbitrary arrests, detentions and executions still have a place in modern China, but in a party of the size of the CCP, holding China together is an enormous exercise, and now in the modern age where China is the ‘workshop of the world’ and multiple lines of commercial and social interdependency link China to the world, things have only grown in complexity. Nonetheless, there has been a steady ‘gentrification’ of the Chinese leadership. They have become outward looking and sophisticated, belying the fact that around a billion people are still largely impoverished and are a long way from accomplishing Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’.

The outcome of the congress will likely see Xi’s power base remain intact.

To the outside world, CCP inner workings remain a mystery. What is known is that China has played a poor hand very well. It is seen by the international community as a monolithic giant, indispensable to how the global economy operates. But this is not entirely true. Most of China’s wealth came in the form of foreign investment exploiting the country’s cheap labour. China is still largely dependent on Russia for most of its weapons and aerospace technologies. A true great power would not allow itself to be so tied to another state in this way.

And, in the party there are younger, ambitious people. Loyalty to the party does not mean egos disappear or become less relevant to gain and hold onto political office.

From the local to the strategic level, the CCP is exercising a form of highly restricted democracy within the tight rules of the party. In a way, the CCP is nearing the limits of its evolution. An autocracy, whatever its type can only hold sway for a period of time before it gives way either internally or through external pressure. While we may still be years away from this eventuating, giving an autocratic regime a ‘human face’ is usually a sign that the desire for more internal change is weighing heavily on a party that has ruled China in various, more aggressive forms since 1949.

Raqqa, Syria ‘liberated from Islamic State’ in sign of jihadist’ collapsing fortunes

18 October 2017, Raqqa, Syrian Arab Republic – AP/Reuters – In a sign that the collapse of Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’, spanning Iraq and Syria is neigh, the militia-men of the US-backed Arab/Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured the Syrian city of Raqqa.

This is more than a symbolic victory. Raqqa was the declared ‘capital’ of the Islamic State’s caliphate.

Fighting against a rag-tag group of poorly armed and trained extremists, Western and Russian-backed forces, together with their better equipped, trained and motivated proxies on the ground, enabled Washington and Moscow to coordinate a two-front war on ISIS – bleeding it of manpower and territory.

While it is yet to be seen where ISIS, or its successor, is likely to relocate to what is known is that some of the organisation’s senior leadership had seen the writing on the wall and have already moved to poorly governed spaces in Africa and Asia, expanding and consolidating established terrorist cells, or forming new ones.

Those ISIS fighters unlucky enough to remain in the Middle East area of operations will likely die there, fighting to the last – few opting for a life in the prisons of their enemies.

What is also important in this victory over ISIS in Syria is, that the road to the IS capital was seen as a race between the SDF and the beleaguered forces of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Effectively the US, through backing the SDF and allowing them to steal the march on Syrian government forces and their Russian and Iranian backers, robbed Damascus and to a great extent Moscow, of the propaganda points a victory over Islamic State in Raqqa would have given them.

But unwittingly perhaps, the US and the SDF are now faced with a dilemma.

Damascus is eager to reacquire as much of pre-civil war Syrian territory as possible before suing for peace. Therefore, it is likely that Raqqa, unless a major international peacekeeping force intervenes to prevent this from happening, will be the next target of Assad’s military.

This may well be the test of the Trump administration’s resolve to stand firm against Russian pressure to alter the balance of power in favour of Damascus in the Syrian civil war. It will also test Trump’s willingness to stand by local allies for the duration.

Any hint by Washington that the SDF has passed its usefulness, will send shockwaves throughout the Middle East where many are already questioning American resolve and ‘loyalty’. Should the SDF be abandoned to their fate at the hands of Assad and the Russians – few in the Middle East will want to stand by the United States as it will be seen as a capricious and unreliable ally.

No doubt the next few weeks will determine whether this will indeed be borne out, or whether President Trump will honour the SDF’s victory by allowing it to survive and fight on against the Syrian government.


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