The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have the chance to finally break the Sykes-Picot lines once and for call over the coming years. These lines are loosely the borders of the Middle East that have been in place since the carve-up of the former Ottoman Empire following World War One.
It was a great, long line in the sand that basically gave modern-day Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait to the British, with the French receiving Syria, Lebanon, Southern Turkey and Northern Iraq.
Since ISIS first captured Mosul in June 2014 and subsequently went on to unite parts of Northern Iraq and Syria in their so called Caliphate, the future of the current borders of Iraq and Syria have been in doubt.
At times, the media have played up the power and sustainability of the Islamic State, stories of an emerging evil superpower are a great click generator. However to most observers it was obvious that their state would eventually collapse under the weight of sustained bombing and campaigns from their enemies (basically every other player in the in wider Syrian/Iraqi struggle).
Isis did manage to briefly break the Sykes-Picot lines but a terrorist state which commits atrocities on a daily basis was never going to become a permanent state.
The Kurds however, have the chance to finally gain their long dreamed for homeland. The referendum taking place in Kurdish Iraq today can potentially be the first step in creating a new homeland. The question the people of the Autonomus Kurdish region of Iraq will be asked is
"Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?".
It should result in a “Yes” vote. It will then be very interesting to see what tactics the Kurdish government undertake moving forward. They have said they will seek talks with the central Iraqi government who (much like their Spanish counterparts concerning the Catalan referendum) are strongly opposed to the vote.
Furthermore, will they then seek to expand any future Kurdish state to the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey and Iran. These countries have been on opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War, particularly Iran/Syria Govts v Turkey) however all would be opposed to a great Kurdistan.
The Syrian Government may have no choice but to acquiesce to the demands of their Kurdish population who have already set up an autonomous region in the North of the country. They believe they have earned their right to statehood in blood through fighting ISIS for a number of years. They have had the support of the Americans in this battle. The Kurdish Syrians also held elections last weekend in the first step to creating an official, internationally - recognized autonomous region.
Only time will tell whether either group of Kurds can succeed in founding a new fully autonomous state. If either succeeds, will they then have the stomach to take on their new neighbours in trying to create a greater Kurdistan carved out of multiple, current country borders?
This is not a question that will be resolved in the next year or two. The Kurds felt aggrieved at being denied a nation following the Treaty of Versailles and the founding of the League of Nations. They are well accustomed to playing the long game. Violent independence pursuits have been met by horrific bombings and massacres by the Turkish and Iraqi governments of days gone by. Their best approach now is slow and steady, continue to build international recognition and create a democratic mandate across all of their historical lands. The Kurds have been victims of greater games between superpowers before, however it now appears they have abandoned the fatalism that is somehow endemic to the region and have decided to be the masters of their own destiny…
*thanks to Alan Madden for reminding me how crucial the Kurdish referendum vote is...
Trump piles Pressure on N Korea and Iran at Inaugural UN Address but fails to deliver a coherent Message
Trump’s first speech to the UN was like a typical campaign speech we saw at his rallies across the US in the run-up to his election. It was full of rhetoric about the greatness of America, while sending threats to “rogue states” around the world.
After some self praise for the buoyant state of the American economy, Trump honed in on North Korea. If possible, the language was even more aggressive than we have previously heard.
“forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
One interesting addition to the North Korea part of the speech was his expressed gratitude for China and Russia for backing the sanctions.
“the United Nations Security Council recently held two unanimous 15-0 votes adopting hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea, and I want to thank China and Russia for joining the vote to impose sanctions”
I think Trump has finally woken up to the fact that any agreement or deal with Kim Jong Un will need to have at least some input from the Chinese, if not their outright approval. This is a point I have made since the spat erupted, back in July.
It is also interesting to note that this was the only direct reference to Russia in the speech. There was a veiled threat to Russia when he spoke of the
“threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
However in general it seemed evident to me that the US-Russian relationship isn’t a topic Trump wants to broach right now.
Trump transitioned from North to Iran without any differentiation between the regimes. It was a bit of a throwback to George W Bush and his “axis of evil”. His criticism of the Iranian regime was quite predictable and nothing that hasn’t really been said before
“It has turned a wealthy country, with a rich history and culture, into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.”
His quotes on the Iranian deal would be quite worrying to all those who have invested time and effort into it;
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”
Fortunately, Trump has already had opportunities to cancel the "deal" as the agreement must be renewed every quarter, most recently on July 18th. The bombastic language was probably at least partly influenced by his meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the day before. I still think Iran may benefit from Trump’s inability to focus and tackle an issue on a consistent basis, as I laid out here previously.
The last part that was noteworthy was Trump’s discourse on refugees and where they should be located. He explicitly thanked Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey though he made it clear he believes refugees should stay in their ‘home region’ until they can return to their country
“For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region.”
Ultimately, we learnt little from Trump’s speech. The jingoistic sentiment would have appealed to his base back in the US while his “enemies” would certainly have gotten the message that he at least talks a tough game.
For the rest of us, we learnt more from what He didn’t say. No reference to the Paris agreement , the Palestinian question or his plans for the trade imbalance with China. Trump failed to lay out his grand vision for his administration’s foreign policy. It was little more than nationalist, sabre rattling that leaves me with little confidence that Trump’s views on America’s role in world affairs has evolved since his first campaign speeches back in the AUtumn of 2015.
To many observers of British politics, Boris Johnson launched his bid for leadership of the British Conservative party yesterday. It came in the format of an article in the Telegraph that laid out his vision for Britain’s Brexit.
Many of the positions were at odds with what Theresa May is expected to say in her speech to the European Union in Florence next Friday. The consensus is he has become frustrated with the backtracking by May on a number of issues since her bullish Lancaster Speech on January 17th.
Boris did try and run for leadership already, in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation, post Brexit referendum. He looked to be in pole position until he was brutally betrayed by Michael Gove. Gove basically supported his bid all along. Then, with 2 hours to go until Johnson’s campaign launch, he called Johnson’s campaign manager to let him know he was running himself.
It completely devastated Boris, who immediately called off his bid. Gove didn’t figure in the final running (not many voters of any political ilk want a self serving, Judas-type character as their leader).
I am not so sure if this is a full on bid for power, yet. It is probably a reminder to the more hard line Brexit MPs that he is still with them and could be their man. David Davis still remains the forerunner in betting odds to be the next Tory leader(4/1) and is also viewed as a proponent of a “hard” Brexit.
If Boris is to succeed, a lot of his success will be based on his “charisma”. He is certainly more interesting to listen to than May, Davis or Hammond, though he has offended many over the years with some very questionable phrases and actions (Politico have compiled a list of 11 of his most memorable here).
May’s stock has suffered terribly since the last British General election in June. The early part of the campaign focused on the mantra of her “strong and stable leadership”. This ran concurrently with the ongoing Brexit discussions which were unpredictable with positions changed on an almost daily basis. This was not lost on her opponents or the wider general public.
My ultimate view on this is that Boris no longer has the necessary clout across the spectrum of the Tory MPs to win a leadership contest. He can probably get the 15% of MPs required to force a contest but I think another candidate would then emerge at that stage.
Theresa May is living on borrowed time, that is evident to everyone. Boris is probably not the man to replace her, but he may yet be remembered for starting the open rebellion against Theresa May’s leadership.
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
A lot of eyes in Ireland and Britain will be focused on Catalonia in the upcoming weeks. The vote taking place on October 1st will be an acid test for the integrity of Spain and the aspirations of independence for a number of regions across the European Union.
The referendum was first called for in June 2017 and was formally approved by the Catalan Parliament on the 6th of September. Almost immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court claimed the referendum was non-binding, stating the Spanish Constitution does not allow Spanish Regions to hold Independence votes.
This should then be a straightforward matter. If the vote is null and void, it doesn’t make sense for it to take place. In 2014, in Catalonia’s last bid for Independence, the Catalan government basically accepted a similar ruling by the Court and then used the ensuing vote for publicity and consensus building.
The Catalans seem a lot more bullish this time around. There is a determination to hold a legitimate referendum, which they will not accept as illegal, and then act on the results after. The interesting aspect for North Ireland will be the aftermath of a successful vote.
It is not entirely clear what will happen in this case. It seems almost impossible for Catalonia to gain independence without the explicit approval of Spain. They would certainly not be able to join the European Union, as every European Union member has a veto, through the Council of the EU.
If the vote allows the Catalans to gain additional leverage in future negotiations or indirectly lead to future approval for a future referendum by the Spanish Government, it may be soon as a very useful tool by Nationalists in Northern Ireland in future years.
This type of positioning and posturing is excellent PR for a cause and nothing gets the masses engaged like an Independence vote, as we saw in Scotland in the run up to their Independence bid.
There is almost certainly not a majority in Northern Ireland who would vote for unification with the Republic in a legal referendum which meets the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement today. There are probably though a few local councils where a Yes vote would be successful today, especially when the result of voting Yes is more symbolic than anything else. Even a Northern Ireland wide vote would be a lot closer in this scenario. There is nothing like telling people they can’t vote on something, that will make them want to.
I think the key point is that a successful Independence bid for Catalonia is very unlikely to come about from the upcoming referendum. However, if an illegal referendum is viewed in the future as the first step in Catalonia’s successful bid for independence, will this then be a precedent for Nationalists in Northern Ireland and further afield?
If there is clear evidence in the future that a majority want Northern Ireland to unify with the Republican of Ireland, will the leaders of the Nationalist parties really wait for the tacit approval of the British Government or will we be hearing a lot more about the “Catalan way”.
The war in Syria has been drawing to a slow, violent end for almost two years now. Since Russia started to increase its military support for the Assad regime in September 2015, there has almost been an inevitability that the government forces would hold out and eventually reclaim most of the country. This was accentuated by the deafening silence from most Western nations as rebel held Eastern Aleppo was levelled by the Russian air force. To the ‘moderate’ rebels groups, that had previously been backed by the US, it was a clear signal that they would have to win this war on their own.
That was never going to happen. Syrian forces have continued to retake large swathes of the country. There have been setbacks along the way, the Islamic State retook Palmyra in December 2016 nine months after it had been re-taken by the Syrian army. These setbacks did not fundamentally impact the direction of the war however, fading resistance in the face of a massive Russian/Iranian backed onslaught. The breaking of Islamic State’s siege of Deir Ez-Zor last week is the latest victory in the Syrian War endgame.
Syria was one battleground of a wider struggle for supremacy in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. While this was not the immediate cause of the war, it evolved into this as more parties became involved. What became clearer as the war ensued was that Iran, and its allies Hezbollah and the Iraqi government, were willing to commit more military support than the rebel’s backers in Turkey and the Gulf.
If we assume that this trend won’t be reversed, where does Syria and the Assad regime go from here? Large parts of the country are in ruins. According to Human Rights Watch, by February 2016 470,000 people had been killed, 6.1 million displaced internally and 4.8 million Syrian refugees abroad. This is devastation on an almost unprecedented scale in modern times.
Atrocities have been committed by all sides. This is not a defence of Bashir al-Assad and the Syrian government. According to the United Nations, the government have committed multiple war crimes. The question I want to raise is what options are open to the government now. Can Syria come back into the fold and reclaim legitimacy in the West or is destined to be a devastated, war-torn pariah state for the next decade?
Syria doesn't have the benefit of major oil reserves. It will struggle to attract the financial support necessary to rebuild most of the infrastructure that has been destroyed. The fact that there hasn’t been a regime change, immediately makes this a different case to the other devastated nation we’e seen in the last two decades like Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Libya.
The Western world is still some time away from re-recognizing the legitimacy of the Assad government. Syria’s key allies are not in a position to offer the financial support required, particularly as they are involved in their own domestic and international struggles. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria and their use of the Mediterranean port of Tartous was a major incentive for their increased military involvement mentioned above. However the sanctions imposed on Russia have taken their toll.
There is the potential for China to lead the rebuilding of the country. Throughout the war China has been quite muted in its criticism of the Syrian regime. It has almost vetoed as many UN resolutions against Syria as Russia has. In recent times China has made many new allies across the developing world, particularly in Africa, by funding huge infrastructure projects without making political demands from the reciprocants.
The Syrian government could also try and endear itself to the more right wing political parties in Europe by offering to take back Syrian refugees in exchange for funding. While the feasibility of this may be negligible it could be a smart PR move. In fact, there has been a noticeable decline in criticism in Europe of the regime as the number of Islamic State inspired attacks have increased across the continent. Each atrocity has helped the regime drive the narrative that ‘we are fighting the same terrorists together’.
Ultimately it has been a terrible seven years for the Syrian people. There can be no excuse for the atrocities committed by the Syrian government. If we assume that their victory in the Syrian War is now a fait accompli , the future direction of Syria could be an interesting measure of how far the US has retreated in its supremacy of the Middle East as it tries to continue its Pacific pivot. If this is the case the question is who will fill this vacuum? Will Syria be able to leverage this strategic battle or continue to be an unfortunate pawn in this modern version of the Great Game?
***first featured on Slugger O Toole @ sluggerotoole.com/2017/09/08/where-do-syria-and-assad-go-from-here/
Emmanuel Macron has captured the imaginations of many outside of France over the last few months. His second round Presidential run-off with Marine le Pen in May was seen by many as an existential crisis for the European Union. There was a collective sigh of relief across Europe when it was announced that he had won quite comfortably (the final vote was 66% v 34%). During the campaign, his policies and manifesto were given a bit of a free pass as many people simply wanted Le Pen as far away from the presidency as possible. He then won a comfortable majority in the Parliament a month later to consolidate his power.
His campaign slogan “En Marche!” (Onwards!) sounded very upbeat and dynamic but gave little indication of his views on the current state of France and his aims to change it. That’s why in the weeks after his election in mid-May I wrote a piece here where I was quite critical of Macron. The criticism was more to do with the lack of substance in his campaign, I compared it to Leo Varadkar’s in Ireland.
He did publish a manifesto, which I was able to find an English version of, which to me seemed quite similar to many of the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party in 2012. Sarkozy, who lost out to Francois Hollande that year, did run again for the Republican party nomination for 2017 but was defeated in the first round.
The goals mentioned in the manifesto included cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corporate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. He also intended to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all which includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
After just over 100 days, Macron has now announced his plan for transforming French labour laws, which are captured in the Code du Travail, a broad piece of legislation which encompasses nearly all aspects of French working life. This comes on the back of suffering the largest drop in popularity for a French President in a single month in July (from 64% to 54%) since Jacques Chirac in 1995. It does seem as if the French public have gotten a little bit sick of hearing “Onwards!” without seeing any actual progress.
Macron issued five decrees on Thursday which will dramatically overhaul elements of the Code du Travail. They have reported across media outlets and I won’t go into detail on them here.
This is going to be his first major test. Former presidents have crashed against the great cliffs of French labour and have been broken. Even Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor and a member of the Socialist party, experienced major civil unrest last summer when he tried to initiate reforms. Macron has the benefit of a fresh start and a clear, if shrinking, mandate. He has shrewdly issued these as presidential decrees , which should expedite the process. So far most of the Unions’ reactions have been measured. Only the CGT has called for a day of action. In hindsight, Macron’s plan of a ‘100 meetings’ looks to have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the more combative Union elements.
I think the ramifications of whether Macron can succeed will reverberate across the European Union. If he is able to successfully implement an overhaul of the domestic labour system without sending tens of thousands to the streets , he will emerge with a renewed vigour and confidence.
If he can further consolidate his position at home, he will be able to focus more on internationally. If the polls are accurate (for once) and Angela Merkel also has a comfortable victory in the German Federal elections, Europe will see an emboldened and aggressive Franco-German axis leading the conversations and policy direction of the European Union. Macron has been involved in both Brexit negotiations and talks for a more integrated European financial system (for the Irish out there this means one corporate tax rate). While Brexit negotiations have been well covered by the press, the talks over the latter have been progressing discreetly behind the scenes. While the world watches the escalation of the North Korean crisis (I still believe an agreement will ultimately be brokered by China), real impact in European’s daily lives could be a lot more impacted by whether the French finally accept some changes to the long lasting Code du Travail.