Lowy Institute


BBC report from September 2014.

Much has been written in the last few days about what to do with returning jihadis, a conversation sparked by the three jihadis who it is claimed want to return home to Australia. The lawyer of Adam Brookman, one of the alleged jihadists, has predictably stated that he was simply a medic and that his return could be a golden opportunity for Australian authorities to use him in a 'countering violent extremism' (CVE) role.

The Guardian has written an unquestioning account of Brookman's time in Syria. There are many holes left unexplored in his story. We're told he met an unnamed Australian 'humanitarian worker' in Turkey who somehow had the expertise to infiltrate him into Syria; that he had his passport stolen; that he only drove ambulances in Aleppo and treated injured people; that his wounds were caused by a Syrian regime bombing of the medical clinic where he was working, and that he was transported unconscious to an ISIS-controlled area. The only cliché missing is that he worked in an orphanage with sick children. Readers would be well advised to treat such accounts sceptically, as should the journalists who question such people.

The ability to appropriately punish those jihadis who return is of course dependent on the ability of prosecutors to gather enough admissible evidence to secure a conviction, as well as the view of the courts as to what sentence is appropriate for the actions of these people. The first court case involving a returned jihadi will be heavily scrutinised for this reason.

Regardless, the PM is right in arguing for tough penalties for people who have gone to Syria and Iraq believing they should fight to establish or maintain an intolerant religious state that looks to expand its control through violence.

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A fundamental precept of the international system is that the state retains a monopoly on the use of force, and anyone who seeks to circumvent that principle through joining or supporting violent non-state actors should expect the state to punish them for doing so. People who seek to return may be disillusioned, misguided or naïve but we are not talking about returning tax evaders or vulnerable people who were duped into being drug mules. We are talking about people who support the violent imposition of religious rule and who believe that God not only condones violence but in some instances is pleased by it. The concept is abhorrent and people must be held responsible for their actions.

This article in The Australian advocates a 'triage' system to separate hard-core fighters from the merely disillusioned. But such a triage system already exists insofar as the court is able to exercise discretion in the punishment it imposes on people convicted of supporting the jihadist cause. Those more peripheral are given appropriately lighter punishments, but they are punished nevertheless. 

That does not mean such people shouldn't be part of any CVE program – indeed the opposite is true. There will always be a suspicion that someone who negotiates a return to Australia and is willing to take part in CVE program has only done so to avoid punishment or have it reduced. Someone who is serving a prison term but who still wants to dissuade people from becoming jihadis is more likely to be motivated by a genuine desire to stop others from repeating their mistakes, while the targets of their message will be able to see that there is a cost to going down the extremist path.

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The view from Jakarta

In a quiet ceremony in East Jakarta last Wednesday, a monument was unveiled in memory of the violence that tore through Indonesia in May 1998. The May '98 Memorial (Prasasti Mei '98) is the first major public monument to commemorate the time, beyond a few small memorials established by students and human rights groups.

The statue takes the form of an outstretched hand draped in cloth, with a needle and thread mending a tear in the fabric. It towers above a mass grave in the Pondok Ranggon cemetery where hundreds are buried with only the inscription: 'Victims of the May '98 tragedy'. Sculptor Awan Simatupang says the red thread on the statue symbolises the ongoing healing process for survivors and family members of victims of the violence 17 years ago that led to the fall of Suharto's New Order and ushered in an era of democratic reform. 

For such a defining moment in Indonesia's recent history, the violence of May 1998 that broke out in several major cities across the country receives surprisingly little public attention today.

The anniversary of the Jakarta riots last week passed quietly for most mass media, and only about 100 guests attended the unveiling of the statue on Wednesday at the mass grave where more than 200 unidentified victims are buried. The total number of deaths in Jakarta during the riots is said to be more than 1200, many of whom were trapped inside burning buildings. At least 85 women were raped, mostly ethnic Chinese who were assaulted by groups of men. These are the figures reported by a Joint Fact-Finding Team appointed by President Habibie, who replaced Suharto in 1998, and confirmed by a UN investigation in 1999.

Yet victims and their families are far from seeing justice for the perpetrators. President Jokowi made a campaign pledge last year to reopen investigations into the riots and push for legal resolution of the human rights violations that occurred. A bill on forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is due to be deliberated by the Government this year, though relatives of victims have demanded an ad hoc tribunal.

The unveiling of the May '98 Memorial is a small step towards facing the events of the past, but it is a significant one.

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Although Jakarta's governor did not attend the ceremony as originally planned, he was represented by a banner-sized photograph of himself laying the foundation stone for the statue last year, when he was still deputy governor to Jokowi. Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known by his Chinese nickname Ahok, remembers watching the city burn while his wife was pregnant with their first child in 1998. Though he knew his family was in danger, he made the decision not to flee as many other Chinese Indonesians did at the time. Last week, Ahok sent representatives of the city government to hold a public dialogue with victims and others at the unveiling ceremony, which was organised by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

While public amnesia seems to have become the norm in Jakarta, several survivors of the violence and family members of those who died have kept up the struggle for justice. Every Thursday, a group of them gathers outside the State Palace in Central Jakarta together with other victims of human rights abuses, holding black umbrellas as a sign of their unresolved grief. Among them are parents of student protesters who were shot at Trisakti University, and family members of those who died inside burning buildings which were barricaded closed during the riots. Sometimes they are joined by university students who are too young to remember 1998, but who come to show their solidarity with matching T-shirts and slogans shouted over megaphones. They rally around the motto melawan lupa — 'refuse to forget'.

In discussions with city officials at last week's ceremony, students and artists asked about the possibility of establishing a museum or erecting more statues in Jakarta to memorialise the events of May 1998. Meanwhile, victims and their families asked only for the stigma to be lifted from their loved ones who perished in fires (many of whom are often dismissed as looters), and for the city government to assist with their cemetery fees. Speaking on behalf of Ahok, city representative Marulah Matali assured the families that their fees would be covered and promised them priority treatment in accessing social services.

Ruyati Darwin, the mother of a young teacher who died in one of the worst shopping mall fires in Klender, East Jakarta, and a regular at the weekly vigil, added one more thing to the requests made by the victims and their loved ones: 'I would like to thank the governor, and I hope that everything granted to us as the victims will become a wonderful source of peace for our children and grandchildren, but there is still one more thing: We still have hope that what we have struggled for over the past 17 years — justice — can be achieved.'

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USS Ranger rescues Vietnamese boat people in South China Sea, 1981. (Flickr/manhhal.)

The last time Southeast Asia faced a boat crisis this dire was when communist governments took over in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. That was in 1960s and 70s, but the flow of people lasted for decades, with over three million asylum seekers fleeing those countries up until the mid 90s. Governments in the region floundered in their response.

Writing on the Indochina boat crisis, Barry Wain noted in the Fall 1979 issue of Foreign Policy:

Slow to recognize the human tragedy unfolding in Indochina, the West has yet to formulate an adequate response to it. After an unseemly display of indifference and buck-passing, the international community is at last starting to treat the symptoms: saving refugee lives and finding permanent homes for them. 

The parallels with today are uncanny. 

At that time, Vietnam and ASEAN were at loggerheads, Hanoi unyielding to pressure or ostracism. Vietnam was pushing out hundreds of thousands of people it found undesirable. Most initially found refuge in other Southeast Asian countries before being accepted into in Europe, North America and Australia – which had, until even that late moment, been debating its White Australia Policy.  

Today’s crisis is also marked by buck-passing between governments.

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Back in 1979 the stakes were much higher. The 'domino effect' threatened the free world and Southeast Asian countries were largely undeveloped and struggling with their own insurgent groups (who were not so much seeking independence, as we see today, but trying to overrun the state itself). So why, almost half a century later, are we so ill-prepared to deal with these problems?  Barry Wain's assessment in 1979 posited that:

...the answer to the growing refugee crisis in Southeast Asia may lie in the opposite direction-bringing Vietnam in from the cold while trying to moderate its more extremist tendencies.

That assessment has been proved correct and should be employed, to some extent, with Myanmar. Naypyidaw will soon realise the damage it is doing to its relations with two of ASEAN's biggest markets (and their consumers), Indonesia and Malaysia. 

This all-for-one rather than all-but-one approach is what the European Union is bickering over today with migrants on its southern border. In what could be a framework for ASEAN, the EU has put forward an agenda for the resettlement of 20,000 migrants. There are many caveats to this agreement and debate over whether it should be voluntary or mandatory, but it is a tangible way forward for that immediate crisis. As the resettlement of refugees from Indochina demonstrates, regional solutions have worked in the past.

But for all the good they do, the weakness of these solutions lies in their short-sightedness. When they are implemented as an emergency measure they are highly subject to the politics of the day and not the politics of tomorrow. If we are to have grand ideas such as ridding an entire region of the scourge of trafficking, we need to have more far-sighted policy.

This comes down to state ownership over the problem, which is necessary if we are to cut out the abhorrent trafficking and people-smuggling rings we see today. The framework for discussion of these issues was set up in 2002 under the Bali Process, co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia. 

The present problem in Myanmar, and the economic migration from Bangladesh, will not be the last irregular migration we see in the Southeast Asia or Europe or anywhere for that matter (a topic well explored recently by Moises Naim here). We need to set up frameworks and regional responses for the irregular flows of people. If done correctly, this can be a boon and not a burden. That is what history has taught us about boat crises in Southeast Asia. But first, and of greatest and simplest urgency is to rescue the thousands of souls stuck at sea. 

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The Australian Government has just announced that more than $22 million will be spent on battling the radicalisation of young Muslims in Australia. But just how effective are these counter-terrorism programs?

Critics of the Federal Government's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) strategy have highlighted problems that have emerged after nine years of CVE community engagement and intervention. One concern is that CVE policies have the potential to divide Muslim communities because they embrace questionable notions of what it means to be 'moderate' or a 'radical', preferencing and seeking to 'deputise' the former in order to keep the latter in check.


Gallipoli Mosque, Sydney. (Flickr/Asem.)

Community critics of the CVE strategy also emphasise that law enforcement leadership of CVE outreach programs is problematic, firstly because it indicates that the Government has 'securitised' the Muslim community, and secondly because such outreach strategies have the tendency to be experienced as an extra layer of unwanted scrutiny on a community of predominantly law-abiding citizens. These issues have the potential to erode trust between law enforcement and Muslim communities. Because positive relations between communities and law enforcement are so central public safety, the Government has an interest in carefully measuring the impact of its CVE activities on its target communities.

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been at the forefront of proactive community engagement responses to CVE since establishing its Islamic Liaison Team in 2007. The team also assisted in contributing to national policy initiatives as part of the Federal Government's national CVE strategy. The philosophy behind the AFP's initiative reflected CVE trends emerging at that time. The terrorist threat, it was argued, could be reduced by building 'positive, trusting and cohesive relationships with the community, (which) over time will help increase (the community's) resilience to extremist behaviours by creating greater levels of social cohesion.' Within this strategy, 'at-risk' groups could be targeted with engagement programs to 'promote social inclusion.'

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But some members of the community argue that this kind of policy has a tendency to reinforce the notion 'that the entire Muslim community is to blame for its few bad apples.' As a result, the current CVE model of engagement has begun to be viewed with suspicion by the community, with some leaders calling on the community to boycott participation in AFP initiatives such as the Iftar dinner and Eid festivals. But, in the words of one AFP officer, the AFP are 'damned if they do, and damned if they don't' continue such programs. The AFP executive is convinced that community engagement is central to CVE, and parts of the Muslim community also expect that the Government will help them to provide 'social support' to their young people to prevent them from radicalising, despite others in the community criticising such programs.

Beside the potential to alienate the Muslim community, the effectiveness of CVE community engagement measures as a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy has not been properly measured. As Prof Basia Spalek points out, 'there has been little empirical investigation of community-based approaches within a CT context...As a result, there is little empirical understanding of...whether (these types of policies) may clash and serve to undermine each other.'.

The perception from some in the Muslim community that the Government's counter-terrorism approach treats Muslim communities not as partners but as 'suspect' presents significant challenges, especially because of the potential this uninvited scrutiny has to create another level of alienation in young people. The latest policy announcement, which devotes $22 million to the Muslim community's presumed social disadvantage by helping new Muslim migrants find education and employment, also ignores the reality that the causal link between socio-economic troubles and radicalisation is tenuous.

There is much international literature detailing the importance of reducing risks of alienation and radicalisation through redressing policies seen as racially or religiously targeting one community. Studies have come from the US, UK as well as Australia. Yet the focus on the Muslim community by CVE strategies helps perpetuate 'essentialist stereotypes of terrorists as religious Muslims,' and leave the community feeling over-scrutinised.

The prime directive of CVE policy is 'first, to do no harm'. To date, there is little evidence that Australian CVE policy has been informed by this directive. Nor is there an indication our policy-makers have assessed the effectiveness of the CVE programs that have been in operation for the past nine years. The Australian Government needs to take on lessons from US and the UK which show that, in order to reduce the terrorist threat, we need counter-terrorism policies that don't alienate those most vulnerable to radicalisation.

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With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.

The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad's Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.


Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 2013. (Flickr/UNHCR.)

Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.

Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.

If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.

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The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian 'persons of concern' (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere.

Europe, which is already receiving more Syrians by boat than from any other country of origin, will be the preferred destination for many. For others, the Persian Gulf states might provide an option. But neither the Gulf, European nor other Western countries are likely to be willing to countenance opening their doors to Syrian refugees on a large scale.

The challenge for the international community will be to find a comprehensive strategy that helps existing refugee populations in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as the likely Alawite influx. It will need to be focused on enabling host countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan, to cope with the financial and social burdens of absorbing such a presence.

Because it is clearly a scenario posing a threat to international peace and security, and would be seen as such by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, planning for an international response should be led by the UN. It would need to draw upon the experience and skills of UN agencies, supported by international and national non-government organisations with specialist capabilities in such areas as child protection.

The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimise the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimising Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behaviour and those of the Assad regime.

UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now.

The international response should also devise ways to provide some degree of security to those seeking to leave or who have fled. Lebanon may be reluctant to open its borders even in an emergency. An intense dialogue with both the Lebanese Government and other actors may be needed if an even larger tragedy — and the risk of further derogation of Lebanese sovereignty — is to be avoided.

A longer term aim would be to facilitate the earliest possible return of the refugees to their homes. That may prove impossible in the vast majority of cases. However, for those Syrians who do return (perhaps in the event of some sort of stand-off between the regime and its opponents), there is little likelihood they could be reabsorbed without significant financial assistance to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.

The preliminary work that needs to be undertaken to give decision makers well-defined and credible choices on such issues is immense, and there is a great deal of relevant experience from the Balkans and elsewhere that ought to be tapped to assist in that process.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently completed a successful trip to the US. As Brad Glosserman and Scott Snyder of CSIS argue, the trip came off about as well as anyone might have expected. Abe is the first Japanese prime minister to address Congress and seems to have built a good rapport with President Obama.

The expected, almost ritualised South Korean and Chinese criticisms of Abe's policy pronouncements seem to have left the Obama Administration unmoved. Earlier in the year, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said publicly that Korea's fixation on historical issues was 'frustrating' and produced 'paralysis, not progress.' The Korean response was predictably sharp, but as Karl Friedhoff and Alastair Gale both recently argued, the Koreans are slowly losing this global perceptual struggle with Japan.

What the Japanese call 'Korea fatigue' – exhaustion with South Korea's relentless hammering of war-time issues, particularly its demand for another apology from Japan – is hitting the US, which deeply wants future-oriented cooperation between South Korea and Japan . 

As Sherman and countless Western analysts have noted, the real issue for the US in Asia is, of course, China. While the US is not openly balancing China, the days of US belief in China's 'peaceful rise' seem to be fading. Increasingly, the relationship is becoming competitive, particularly as Beijing's South China Sea expansion continues.

In this climate, a strong US-Japan relationship is critical. Japan is the only Asian state that can really go head-to-head with China (barring India, perhaps). Japan is a unique bulwark against the expansion of Chinese power. It has the world's third-largest GDP and is the lynchpin of America's security structure in Asia. The 'pivot,' America's defence of South Korea, any intervention to assist Taiwan and all other US Asian engagements are premised on the Japanese 'way-station.' Abe emphasised Japan's centrality before Congress, and both the joint Obama-Abe statement from their trip and the new US-Japan Defense Guidelines repeat this. As Friedhoff sharply noted:

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Mr. Abe saved the biggest dig at South Korea for near the end of his speech. In one of his only explicit references to South Korea, he mentioned it as an additional partner to the 'central pillar' of the U.S.-Japan alliance. In doing so, he made it clear that he views South Korea not as an equal—which is how Seoul views the trilateral alliance—but as a junior.

Unsurprisingly, all this causes great heartburn in Korea. As a middle power, it deeply irks Korean elites when the US, Japan and China engage one another over Korea's head. The hyperbole of Korea's response to Sherman illustrates this hankering for status in a region where Seoul is dwarfed by its neighbours. Korea's ruling Saenuri party retorted: 'If the U.S. continues its stance of ignoring victims, its status as the world's policeman won't last long.' No less than American hegemony might be the cost of US uninterest in Korean historical issues! Obviously this is not so; rather the comment illustrates Seoul's fear that the US is simply burned out with this issue.

An important, post-Abe trip editorial in Korea's major center-left paper, The Hankyoreh, admitted this and suggested the previously unthinkable: that South Korea should give up defining its relationship with Japan through the lens of the war. Even the Park Administration seems to realise this. It was always a somewhat implausible hope that Japan would issue a monolithic, thorough-going apology that everyone in Japan would permanently cleave to. Open societies just do not operate like that. To my mind, Korea's concerns with Japan's historical representation, particularly at the Yasukuni Shrine museum and Abe's (somewhat creepy) coalition, are quite justified. But badgering Japan is not the way to encourage contrition. The needed internal reckoning is ultimately something Japan must do for itself and on its own. Outside pressure will only breed a nationalist backlash, as it does in Japan over the war or in China over human rights. 

But South Korea has built its national identity so much around Japan as a competitor, if not enemy, that it is difficult to move on. Victor Cha acutely observed that South Korea teaches a 'negative nationalism' of 'anti-Japanism,' and that most countries would have accepted Japan's two big apologies in the 1990s (the Murayama and Kono Statements) and moved on.

But 'anti-Japanism' is now a form of political correctness in South Korea; public officials dare not bend (particularly on the right, where many are the children and grandchildren of collaborators). Maximalism on Japan, such as the needlessly provocative campaign to re-name the 'Sea of Japan' the 'East Sea', is so common and strident that Japanese elites are all but certain to regard concessions as humiliations before a state and people who loathe them. In the language of international relations theory, anti-Japanism is a part of South Korea's 'ontological security.' The contention is so formative that it is hard to let go.

For this reason, the Hankyoreh editorial flagged above is rare. But even there, one can see the 'enemy image' at work: Abe's trip to the US, which is fairly traditional diplomatic activity that had little to do with Korea, is described as an 'icy blast from Japan.' The US-Japan summit, by two democracies whose assistance in managing the North Korea threat is crucial, is described as a 'shock,' that sent Korea 'reeling.' That South Korean diplomats could somehow not stop the Abe-Obama bonhomie means they are 'inept,' 'silent,' 'cowardly,' and so on. There have even been calls for the foreign minister to resign over the successful Abe summit with Obama.

This zero-sum, if-Japan-is-up-we-must-be-down mentality is deeply ingrained.

I have argued elsewhere why this is so. In short, I believe Korea's national division explains this intense, almost dogmatic 'anti-Japanism.' North and South Korea are in a direct, permanent, enervating legitimacy contest. North Korea has long since been a racist, nationalist, almost fascistic (rather than Marxist) state. Defending the Korean race (the minjok) against foreign predators is its raison d'etre, and in doing so, it routinely damns South Korea as the 'Yankee colony,' selling out the national patrimony and race purity to foreigners. South Korea cannot contest such reactionary nationalist credentials; it is too internationalised and Americanised, complete with a foreign military presence. Nor does South Korea's corrupted, elitist, chaebol-dominated democracy generate enough internal legitimacy to counter Northern minjok fetishism.

So Japan fills in nicely. It is the nationalist whipping boy, generating ontological security for a South Korean state unable to 'out-minjok' its competitor.

Photo courtesy of the White House.

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  • Southeast Asia's ongoing boat crisis has rightly dominated headlines this week. ASEAN is struggling to negotiate the crisis, which is testing the bloc's timid diplomacy and presenting a dilemma for the policy of non-interference.
  • The UN's Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken to leaders in the region appealing for a speedy resolution. It now appears KL-led meetings will occur this week, and a Philippine official said his country is 'open' to sheltering 3000 people. Meanwhile, Naypyidaw acknowledged 'concern' over the crisis.
  • Yala township in Thailand's deep south has been rocked by 36 bomb attacks in the past week. Twenty-two people were injured, though the attacks are thought to be targeted for maximum chaos, not death.
  • Min Zin wrote a lucid piece on the problems facing Myanmar, its political deadlock and what that will mean for the elections. In an excellent companion piece, here's a summary of Myanmar's draft nationwide ceasefire agreement. (Thanks Win.)
  • ISEAS visiting fellow Le Hong Hiep looked at Vietnam's 2016 leadership transition: 'The game seems now to be in Prime Minister Dung's favour, but the final score is far from settled.'
  • The Economist looks at changing times in Laos and Vietnam.
  • Some good news out of Myanmar this week with the Union Election Commission, the once heavily ethnic Burmar-dominated commission overseeing this year's elections, appointing members representing eight ethnic groups.
  • Embattled Malaysian PM posted his counter-offensive to an ongoing e-debate that has seen increasing pressure on him to resign from former PM Mahathir (ST's recap). I explored part of this quarrel in Malaysia's troubled relationship with Islam here.
  • Tensions remain this week around the South China Sea. The US and the Philippines are 'exaggerating' the threat posed by China, says Beijing. Vietnam said it is keeping a close watch on China's oil rig (the one that caused a huge diplomatic fallout in May last year).  Singapore and Vietnam agreed to deepen air-defence cooperation. And Hanoi shrugged off a Chinese fishing ban in the South China Sea.
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It is not yet possible to say whether, when and how the Syrian regime may fall. But recent military setbacks, and an objective analysis of the challenges the regime faces in the longer term, strongly suggest that its future is increasingly precarious.

The momentum of the military conflict has shifted in favour of the rebel movements, foremost of which are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey. Much of the reversal of rebel fortunes appears to have been derived from a deal between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brokered by Qatar, under which a joint operations room facility has been established among the rebel forces. Having captured Idlib and the even more strategically important town of Jisr al-Shughour, they are now within striking distance of Hama to the south and Latakia to the west. They have cut the Aleppo-Latakia highway. 

In contrast, efforts by the regime this year to win back Deraa, near the southern border with Jordan, and to secure control of Aleppo, have failed. With Hezbollah support, the regime is now engaged in a battle for control of the Qalamoun mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon west of Damascus. It is trying to recover Jisr al-Shughour, and a major offensive to remove rebel forces from the Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus is widely anticipated. 

But lacking a flexible strategic reserve, the redeployment of regime forces to pursue those tasks has weakened its position elsewhere. Islamic State forces have seized the opportunity to push forward in Deir ez-Zour, and recently toward Palmyra and Homs.

The outcome of the battles for Jisr al-Shughur and the Qalamoun region will provide a clear indication of the regime's military situation in areas of high strategic value. Elsewhere, however, with a few exceptions, the military effectiveness of the regime has been reduced to such a degree that an assertion of territorial control is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

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Even within what might be regarded as the regime's strategic core, and despite its monopoly on air power, it is at risk. It may lose control over the Hama air base, as well as land routes to Aleppo from the south.

These risks may yet be mitigated by a variety of factors. Conflict has been reported between Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra amid the pressure of the Qalamoun offensive. The external backers of the various rebel forces do not share a single vision of the ultimate objectives of the struggle to remove Assad. The Saudis may yet become bogged down in their campaign in Yemen. Iran and Russia have strategic interests invested in the Assad regime (though not in Assad personally) that they will not readily relinquish. 

Weighing against those factors, however, are the challenges and painful choices faced by the Syrian regime. It is increasingly difficulty for the regime to raise and sustain additional regular military forces. The regime appears increasingly dependent on inputs from Hezbollah to boost its military capability (among the reasons for losing Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour may have been the absence of such support). It is anxiously awaiting promised financial support from Iran. There have also been indications of friction within the upper echelons of the regime.

At the strategic level, the regime is being forced to choose between a politically-driven desire to maintain a military presence, however vulnerable, across most of the country, or withdrawing its forces to concentrate on the defence of the regime's centre of gravity: Damascus and its surrounds, and access routes through Homs to the Mediterranean seaboard and adjacent mountains which comprise the historic Alawite heartland. 

Whatever the military case may be for consolidating defensively around Damascus and a predominantly Alawite enclave, it is a strategy which entails enormous risk. It would signal to the regime's support base (and to the rebels and their backers) that there is blood in the water. In contrast to the experience since 2011, the Syrian battle space would no longer be shaped by the regime. The regime would be on the defensive, and would have to find ways to sustain its supporters' will to fight rather than flee. The psychological impact of terrorist actions that until now have been fairly readily absorbed by the population in Damascus would probably be enhanced.

For the first time on a large scale in this conflict, Syrians would witness atrocities against the Alawite inhabitants of mixed villages in the north and west that were no longer protected. In predominantly Alawite and Christian mountain villages, and coastal towns largely untouched by the war to date such as Tartous, the inflow of Alawite and other minorities fleeing the conflict and jihadist advances would likely damage morale.

As a recent program on al-Jazeera Arabic highlighted, there is a strong possibility that historical as well as more recent grievances against the Alawites will be given concrete expression in the most horrendous ways as the regime weakens. A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime.

Whether or not a bloodbath ensues, the widespread anticipation of such a situation is virtually certain. Fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and possibly used by some actors as a means of putting additional pressure on the regime or minorities thinking of remaining, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948 or the flight of Iraqi Kurds in 1991.

For the first time in the conflict, one side may feel it could lose. For most Alawites, this is an existential conflict for a long-persecuted, mostly illiterate minority. Alawites fought their way to the top of the political system after the chaos of the post-independence period and reversed their historical exploitation at the hands of the northern Syrian Sunni and Christian elite. Alawites led in crushing the resistance of the Sunnis who had lost that contest – culminating in the massacre in Hama in 1982. But their success was always at the risk of dire retribution should their political grip weaken. That prospect now looms large.

For the other supporters of the regime, including many secular Sunnis, the middle class in Damascus and minorities understandably fearful of the jihadists, the fall of the regime would mean the likely obliteration of their wealth and privilege. It would see the loss of a lifestyle and sophisticated cultural heritage of which Syrians, more than most Arabs, are deeply proud.

So the prospect of Alawite defeat does not mean the Syrian regime is open to a negotiated settlement. There is no way the regime can entertain the notion of a power-sharing deal with its opponents. There are cleavages within the community, but the regime is likely to be more disposed to fight on than to accept the consequences of a deal, even in the unlikely event a credible deal were to be offered.

It is too soon to predict the demise of the Assad Government. It may hold on long enough to see its opponents lose their present momentum. But it is becoming a brittle regime, more likely to implode suddenly than to sustain itself should a rush to the exits begin.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Christiaan Triebert.

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  • Last week's budget saw the Government slash the aid budget by 20%. Assistance to Indonesia and Africa was the most affected. Australia now slips to 13th in the OECD rankings of aid donors in the developed world, and 16th in the ratio of ODA to GNI. Read  Alex Oliver's overview of the cuts.
  • Dev Policy breaks down the losers and 'non losers' from the budget.
  • he Pacific and PNG escaped the worst of the aid cuts. Read this Analysis from the Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward Jones and Philippa Brant.
  • Hamish McDonald, in The Saturday Paper, on why countries that help the Abbott goal of 'stopping the boats' were spared aid cuts. 
  • How will a 40% aid cut (A$220 million) affect Indonesia?  Not much, but it will hit Australian aid companies and consultants, says Don Murat on The Conversation.
  • Anthony Bergin from ASPI argues  for better alignment of Australian aid budget to tackling violent extremism. 
  • Startling graph below from Dev Policy: Official development assistance (ODA) as a percentage of GNI has steadily decreased since 1971, when ODA/GNI ratios began to be recorded. Read Jennifer Fang's post at WhyDev on how aid cuts have historically had bipartisan support. 

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Joseph Cassano has been referred to as 'patient zero' of the global financial crisis. He ran AIG's Financial Products Division for many years. Under his watch, AIG sold credit default swaps (CDSs; a bit like insurance) on securities tied to the US housing market. These CDSs were part of the reason AIG needed to be bailed out in September 2008. If there is a quote that perhaps embodies the hubris before the crisis, it was Cassano's quip, in August 2007, that:

It is hard for us, without being flippant, to even see a scenario within any kind of realm of reason that would see us losing one dollar in any of those transactions.

It was with some incredulity that observers witnessed Cassano's appearance at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) in 2010, where he claimed:

I think there would have been few, if any, realized losses on the CDS contracts had they not been unwound in the bailout.

In his testimony, Cassono painted a picture of a liquidity squeeze. As the prices of the securities upon which the CDSs were based fell, AIG had to hand over collateral to their counterparties. They were asked to hand over a lot – more than they had, which necessitated the bailout. But, Cassano's testimony indicates that he thought there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the CDSs they sold. I guess he interpreted those price movements as temporary, and that everything would return to normal at some point.

I always thought that claim was odd, but I had not seen proof that he was wrong. I certainly lack the accounting expertise to find out myself. That is why a recent paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Robert McDonald and Anna Paulson is really helpful (I've confessed my love for the journal before). These researchers (and others) have done the hard work so you and I don't have to. And the findings are grim. So far, those securities that the CDSs were written against have lost at least $10 billion.

But the article also points out some things that are perhaps not as well known about AIG. First, another large source of AIG's losses were from it's securities lending program, not controlled by Cassano. Basically, AIG held some securities, lent them out for cash, and then invested that cash in other securities. In the case of AIG, they invested a 'substantial portion' of the cash in 'securities dependent on the performance of subprime residential mortgages.' Whoops.

Second, the article points out that AIG stopped increasing its CDS exposure to real estate in 2005. Cassano made much of this virtuous decision in his testimony to the FCIC. However, as the article points out, because of the nature of the securities insured, AIG still had exposure to the disastrous mortgages that were made in 2006 and 2007. While AIG's decision in 2005 could have been worse, other decisions could have been a lot better!

Photo by Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

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Digital Disruption

How should ICT companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter conduct themselves when operating in states that crack down on media freedom? Should they comply with sometimes repressive and arbitrary laws to maintain market share, or should they stand up for a free internet?

According to the 2014 Freedom on the Net Report published by Freedom House, there has been a global decline in internet freedom over the last few years – a trend worsened by an increase in tougher laws against free speech online.

Cyberspace is often the realm where political opposition groups reside and it is also where governments have least control. In recent years, government requests for content removal have been on the rise. More and more governments are demanding from these companies the identities and activities of political opposition figures during critical moments like elections, where incumbents are wary of online dissent. As a result, there has been a growing number of cases of persecution of online political dissidents in places like Bangladesh, Thailand, and Turkey

We do not know the extent to which ICT companies comply with government requests for information – particularly in developing states where freedom of press remains elusive.

Google has taken the lead in becoming more accountable to its users about the nature and frequency of government requests for content removal. The Google Transparency Report, which began in 2009, provides an annual review that tracks which governments are requesting what content be removed. A growing number of other ICT players such as Wordpress, reddit, Facebook and Twitter are beginning to release more information about their own compliance with these government requests. Such self-reporting, while commendable, is not verifiable. Meanwhile, Ranking Digital Rights released a pilot study this year that argued none of the companies under study were particularly exemplary in their respect for user rights and privacy.

We, the net users, must demand more transparency from ICT corporations. We cannot safeguard our rights to freedom of expression online if we do not know how much they have already been forsaken.

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There are a few tables left for The Interpreter's Ultimate World Politics Trivia Challenge at the National Press Club in Canberra on 28 May. You can book individually or for a group of up to 10 on the Lowy Institute website. It's only $15, which includes not only plenty of nibbles but also the services of our quiz-master for the night, the ABC's Chris Uhlmann. Drinks will be available for purchase.

Want to mentally limber up for the event? Then try our online quiz, which even challenged some noted policy experts and newshounds (see below). The questions we are writing for the 28 May trivia night will be be a mix of history, pop culture, current events, and even some sport. We'll throw in a few audio-visual questions and some that will require insider knowledge of Canberra.

Look forward to seeing you there.

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During the Cold War, the might of the Soviet Union's space program made the world tremble.

Sputnik. Yuri Gagarin. The Salyut and Mir space stations. All were a match for the world's greatest technological and industrial powers. The legacy of this robust program has lived on for years in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but problems have been steadily accumulating. Now, Russia's industrial base, economy and security are threatened by the increasingly troubled state of its space industry.

In recent weeks, we have witnessed the failure of a Progress cargo spacecraft launched to the International Space Station, the failure of a large Proton rocket carrying a Mexican communications satellite and the failure of another Progress cargo spacecraft to fire its engines on command.

Russia's main space launch site is still the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. All cosmonauts and astronauts who fly to the International Space Station lift off from Baikonur, and they also land in Kazakhstan.

Leasing Baikonur is expensive as well as strategically perilous. Relations between Kazakhstan and their former Soviet partners are sometimes difficult. The deterioration of Kazakhstan's economy opens the possibility that they could raise the rent for Baikonur in the future.

So Russia is building a new launch site in south-east Russia as a replacement. The project must have Kazakh officials quietly laughing. The Vostochny Cosmodrome is well behind schedule, and some construction workers have apparently not received pay for months. Nobody knows when this project will finally be completed, but it seems certain that Russia will not be able to withdraw from Baikonur for years.

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Russian rockets have been failing more frequently than they did in the past. One case was traced to sabotage. This reduces the appeal of these rockets in the highly competitive international commercial launch market.

Russia's fleet of military satellites is deteriorating, just as the global security situation is becoming more dynamic. Two post-Soviet attempts to send probes to Mars have also failed. Russia has not launched anything beyond earth orbit since the fall of the USSR.

Russia remains a critical partner in the International Space Station, and will remain so until 2024. After that, the future of the Station and Russia's own space plans are uncertain. What does seem clear is that the glory of the sixties has long faded, and it will probably take at least a decade for Russia to restore its space program to full health.

Photo by Flickr user NASA HQ PHOTO.

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Despite gloomy talk about slowing economic growth, Asia has continued to grow strongly, and the IMF has forecast this will continue this year and next.

Asia is still by far the most dynamic region in the world, accounting for 40% of world GDP but nearly two-thirds of global growth. Look, too, at the red bars (graph below) showing China's contribution to global growth. Take off the unsustainable growth burst which followed the massive stimulus in 2009, and China's contribution to global growth remains much the same over the 2008-2018 decade (including the projection period).

The growth rate might be slowing a tad, but China's increased bulk of global GDP means that its contribution to global economic growth is undiminished.

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Of course there are risks to this outlook. To forecast that India's growth will continue at 7.5% (the fastest in the region and based on debatable GDP figures) is a bold call. As well, the Fund itself frets about financial vulnerabilities in China, especially in relation to a housing sector coming off the boil. Japan might need a bit of luck to make the 1-1.2% growth foreseen by the IMF.

All that said, where would you rather be doing business – in Australia next to the most dynamic region in the world or in Europe, waiting for the next chapter in the unfolding Greek tragedy?

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On Tuesday, the Abbott Government handed down its second budget since coming to office in late 2013 . Experts at the Lowy Institute broke it down in terms of foreign affairs, overseas development aid and the Government's assessment of the global economy. Alex Oliver on what the budget means for DFAT:

The 2015-16 budget for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio evokes A Tale of Two Cities.

For aid, it's a case of the 'worst of times': the Government has cut $1 billion from overseas development assistance this financial year (as announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook), $1.35 billion in the next, and $1.38 billion in 2017-18. This delivers a total saving of $3.7 billion since the last budget and a hefty $10 billion over the forward estimates since this Government took the reins in late 2013…

…Now on to the other tale. It might be an overstatement to call this year's budget the 'best of times' for Australia's overseas representation, but it's up there.

In what appears to be a sweetener for the Foreign Minister in an otherwise unpalatable serving, Australia's diplomatic network (yes, something we at the Lowy Institute may have raised once or twice) gets nearly $100 million to add five new posts to its diplomatic footprint, bringing the total to a nice round 100.

How did Australian aid hold up under the new budget? Jenny Hayward-Jones and Philippa Brant took a look:

The Australian Government's worthy commitment to maintaining a large aid program in the Pacific in the face of severe pressure on the aid budget will no doubt be welcomed by Pacific Island countries. Australia, as the major power in a region which lacks the capacity to overcome obstacles to development alone, must take a leading role in helping to overcome these obstacles. The fact that the region has survived the most savage cut ever to the aid program sends a strong signal that Australia will not back away from its commitment to development in the Pacific.

Lastly on the budget, it seems the government's estimates may be a little optimistic, said Tristram Sainsbury:

The overall impression is of a middle-of-the-road assessment of the international economic environment over the short term for countries with important direct links to the Australian economy. It makes for an interesting contrast with the much more guarded language in other recent global economic forecasts, which have worried about the level of global growth, the weaker outlook facing emerging economies (including G20 members Brazil and Russia); and have questioned how optimistic the world really can be about medium-term global growth prospects.

Nick Bryant wrote on the re-election of the Conservative Party in the UK:

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So the next five years in Britain look set to become a tale of two unions: the centuries old union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and Britain's relationship with Europe. And although polling day produced an unexpectedly clear result, rarely has an election brought with it so much national uncertainty.

Will the AIIB provide projects and infrastructure the way the Asia-Pacific region wants it? Former Deputy Director General of AusAID Richard Moore weighed in:

There is a line of argument running in Manila that with an ADB-estimated $8 trillion worth of infrastructure required in Asia between 2010 and 2020, there is room for everyone. I am not so sure.

The national market for infrastructure borrowing is a very small proportion of the whole. Countries have hard constraints in terms of how much debt they can take on, and there are also very real capacity constraints in government and the private sector. When China recently announced a US $46 billion package for Pakistan you could hear the business being sucked out of the ADB pipeline.

Is the G20 getting serious about climate change? Hannah Wurf on the G20 and the Financial Stability Board's inquiry into the financial implications of achieving credible climate change targets:

If we are to take real action on climate change, we need a contingency plan to mitigate negative side-effects. Last year Hugh Jorgensen warned that if the G20 failed to add value to climate change negotiations it would be a missed opportunity. Pressure continues to build for an agreement at COP21 in Paris after disappointments at Lima last year. The G20 leaders' summit in Antalya this year is two weeks before the COP21 meeting. 

The G20 cannot put off climate change action any more. The FSB inquiry signifies real consideration of what a low-carbon future involves, a process that has been delayed for too long.

Robert Kelly wrote on North Korea's apparently successful test of an sub-launched ballistic missile this week:

North Korea is on its way to an 'assured second strike' capability — SLBMs can survive even a massive first strike by an opponent and allow the attacked state to respond with nuclear force. SLBMs also offer greater range. North Korea has worked on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) but has struggled with multi-stage rockets that could actually traverse the atmosphere at great distance. A North Korean submarine on station off the continental US would not need long-range missiles to bring most US cities within range.

I argued that any advancements by North Korea on a sea-based nuclear deterrent will mean increased investment in anti-submarine warfare from South Korea and other countries in the region:

However, I disagree with Kelly's argument that North Korean SLBMs 'cannot be targeted for preemption: that is the whole point of SLBMs.' I would argue that the mere existence of SLBMs, while certainly complicating defence planning for the US and South Korea, will not eliminate the preemptive strike option in the minds of policy-makers in Washington or Seoul.

The guaranteed nature of the second-strike depends on the quality of the submarine as much as on the SLBM…

….Pyongyang's test is likely to spur increased development of ASW forces in South Korea, something that has already begun happening since the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010.  Seoul may now have more cause to increase its cooperation in this area with the US, as well as Japan, the two most significant ASW powers in the region, if not globally.

Kelly also wrote a well-received piece on the internal dynamics of Kim Jong-un's regime and possible reasons why he did not make a previously planned trip to Moscow this week:

The other likely reason Kim skipped the trip is fear of a coup. His father rarely went beyond China. To do so was too risky. For this Kim, the risks are probably even higher. Kim Jong Un's crackdowns and executions since taking power almost certainly indicate that his grip on power is still shaky. He took over less than four years ago, and he was all but unknown, even within North Korea, at the time. A foreign trip is rare, enticing opportunity for elite dissenters in a regime like North Korea to act, and so I predicted earlier this year that he would not go.

Are public-private partnerships the way to close the infrastructure gap, and can the G20 help? Stephen Grenville:

Rather than funding shortages, the greater obstacle to faster expansion of infrastructure investment is the dearth of projects whose commercial viability has been firmly established by detailed assessment. Projects fail because of misforecasting of demand and construction costs, through legal difficulties with land acquisition or the myriad risks which surround large technically complex construction. Better project assessment is the key to deciding which projects are viable and to reducing the intrinsic risks. 

Elliot Brennan on the human trafficking crisis in Thailand:

What needs to happen now is the immediate and regionally coordinated rescue of the boat loads of people in desperate conditions. Secondly, in order to break up the transnational criminal networks that lead these trafficking rings, a serious and deep-rooted excision of corruption across the region is required. Better monitoring of migration across the region is also urgently needed; currently, small NGOs (not national governments or regional organisations) are collecting the data. That makes understanding the extent of the problem far more difficult.

Jokowi's surprised us with news that foreign journalists will no longer need permits to report from Papua and West Papua. Catriona Croft-Cusworth said he is hoping for some good news:

The hope from Jokowi's government seems to be that with increased investment in Papua's development, the impetus for Papuan independence and the conflict sparked by the independence movement will disappear. However, judging by the reaction in Papua so far, there's no guarantee that this will be the story foreign journalists uncover there.

John Gooding continued our Digital Disruption series and wrote a case-study of the US ambassador to Libya's use of Twitter:

But it's one thing for an official to tweet emojis and pictures of Koalas primarily to a stable and prosperous Australian audience. It's entirely another thing for a diplomat to tweet personal, emotional responses to unconfirmed reports of killings amid the chaos of a civil war, especially if locals believe the war is the result of a military intervention led by the nation the diplomat in question represents.

Julian Snelder considered a future where cyber and space warfare roll back the internet and globalisation:

Last week's report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities betrays the Pentagon's alarm as Beijing systematically builds anti-space systems. What looks to the Chinese like precautionary capabilities appear threatening in Washington. The security dilemma in space, Costello reminds us, ultimately threatens the ongoing viability of the entire internet ecosystem. If one superpower tears out the eyes of the other and retreats to its highly-degraded terrestrial-only intranet, one has to wonder if its drawbridge could ever be safely lowered again. It would effectively be the end of globalisation.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

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