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US intervention in Syria could escalate a bloody war

If the United States intervenes in the Syrian civil war, as it is now considering doing after more than a year of refusing to become involved, it would mark a major shift but might not end the fighting.

The move towards intervention follows claims of President Bashar al-Assad’s government using of chemical weapons in the country’s stalemated civil war. If proven, the use of chemical weapons would constitute a war crime under international law. In response, the US has gathered a flotilla of ships in the area, capable of launching missile strikes against Syria.

The Assad regime has denied the use of chemical weapons. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres says more than 300 civilian dead and thousands more injured show symptoms of nerve gas poisoning.

US President Barack Obama has said establishing that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons would trigger a response. However, Russia will block international intervention in the UN Security Council. The US and its allies are, therefore, looking beyond the UN for a legal rationale for intervention.

The most likely international response will be through a coalition of countries, probably under the auspices of NATO. Such a justification would employ the language of "responsibility to protect". Syrian neighbour Turkey, a NATO member, is also likely to join the fray.

Obama had been deeply reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, as anti-Assad forces could lead a sectarian massacre. He is also concerned that radical Islamist fighters could establish a new base in the political vacuum, possibly assuming control of the state. Following the Iraq debacle, Obama will also be aware of the irony and possible deception of becoming involved in a war based on the presence of "weapons of mass destruction". And, perhaps most critically, Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would not only be deeply angered by such intervention but could also become directly involved in the conflict.

With the battling factions being supported by external actors, Syria’s civil war has been, in part, a war by proxy. That proxy war would be extended, with likely greater Saudi support for radical Islamists and, almost inevitably, dragging in neighbouring Lebanon, which in the last few days has been the site of a sectarian bombing believed to have been triggered by the Syrian war.

These outcomes are being factored in to the increasingly likely US-led response. An intervention will probably begin with missile strikes, followed by air attacks and the open provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces. A missile attack would first neutralise the Assad regime’s anti-aircraft capacity, as well as target chemical weapons sites.

A US-led attack could, initially, tip the balance of the war against the Assad regime’s forces. But should this intervention trigger a reaction from the Assad regime’s external backers, the war in Syria is likely to become not just more bloody but perhaps not any closer to a final resolution.

Egypt's brief fling with democracy draws to a close

Egypt's police were scheduled today to break up large sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, trying to end demonstrations intended to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Should the police proceed, there was expected to be some confrontation. But more importantly, the dispersal may be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s very brief experiment with democracy.

The army is now clearly determining Egypt’s political process, despite the fig leaf of installing a nominally civilian administration. This was to assuage the US and to entice the country to continue its military and financial support.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to not be included in the newest administration confirmed the fracturing of Egyptian political society. This fracturing has now created space for the rise of Islamist terrorism and, in response, the increasing political grip of the army.

In this environment, Egypt is unlikely to return to elections in the foreseeable future. And any such elections would probably be boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood in any case. But the rise of political violence, in response, would rationalise the army’s seizure of effective political power and ensure that it retained a tight rein over the political process.

There was never any likelihood that the sit-in protests, which have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, would have seen Morsi returned to office. But while they have been tolerated, Egypt’s political tensions have been relatively contained.

The dispersal of the sit-ins would show Muslim Brotherhood supporters that not only is democracy in Egypt a sham but so is the legitimacy of public protest. In the face of declining options, the current political climate has led to a split within the Muslim Brotherhood, with more radical Islamist elements moving to embrace terrorism.

Confirming a move in this direction, at least 25 alleged members of the militant Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group were killed or injured in a helicopter attack in the northern Sinai on Saturday. The Egyptian army said the group had stockpiled weapons and been involved in recent attacks against army personnel.

The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, which was responsible for last year's attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, has also said it was collecting weapons and recruiting militants for training in preparation for war in Egypt.

Winning Egypt’s presidential elections with a 3.4% margin in 2012, Morsi was the preferred candidate of a small majority of Egyptians. But facing an unholy coalition of liberals, supporters of the ousted dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak and the army, rather than pursue moderation, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party pushed an overtly Islamist political agenda.

Having little experience with democratic principles, including an inflexible religious-political agenda, Egypt’s fragile post-Mubarak politics was pushed to -- and then over -- the brink.

As a result, those Islamists who supported the experiment with representative democracy now see nowhere else to turn, while Islamists who never had faith in electoral politics have simply had their cynicism confirmed. With the army also having no commitment to democratic processes and Egypt’s liberals having sold out, we can expect the country’s dead democracy to be buried under increasing violence.

Carr v Bishop: business or diplomacy the foreign policy choice

If Australian foreign policy has generally been marked by bipartisanship and, frankly, an element of disinterest by voters, the Lowy Institute debate between Foreign Minister Bob Carr and opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Julie Bishop last night (Monday 5 August) changed all that. There was a clear divide between the two that could, potentially, resonate with voters on September 7.

Bishop carved out a new Coalition policy position that foreign affairs would henceforth be about trying to secure Australia's economic interests. All else fell away by comparison. "Foreign policy will be trade policy," Bishop said, "and trade policy will be foreign policy."

US embassy alert shows war against al-Qaeda unfinished

The closure of 21 United States embassies across the Middle East and Africa -- the widest such closure in US history -- demonstrates the "War on Terror" is far from over. As the threat that inspired the closures indicates, the "war" is unlikely to be concluded in the foreseeable future.

The war in Iraq has, from a US perspective, all but concluded and Afghanistan is starting to wind down. But both remain sites of conflict and will remain so as internal and regionally inspired factions compete for politico-religious control. Syria, too, has increasingly become the site for intra-religious conflict, rather than simply a civil war against a despised dictator.

The unspecified threat against an embassy was intercepted in Yemen, the key base for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While effectively independent of other al-Qaeda-named organisations, AQAP is regarded as perhaps the most dangerous of its offshoots.

Cambodian election: Hun Sen losing his tight grip on power

The only surprise in Cambodia’s elections over the weekend was that the victory for Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party was reduced to a comfortable rather than an overwhelming majority. For a "democracy" in which the ruling party and the state machine are, in effect, as one and there are widespread allegations of electoral fraud, the CPP’s reduced majority was a slap in the face to Hun Sen (pictured, after voting) and his strong-man style of government.

The CPP lost 29 seats to end up with a majority of just eight, for a total of 68 of the Cambodian Parliament's 123 seats. This means the CPP no longer has the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution.

Anti-Indonesian bias, US a friend, China a future threat: Lowy poll

One could ‘sniff the wind’ and come up with similar responses to the Lowy Institute Poll 2013. But the poll does provide some detail, if again showing up a range of expected and occasionally surprising results on how the Australian public view our position in the world. And again, a large proportion of Australia’s foreign policy experts will tut-tut, shake their heads and say that the result explains why foreign policy is too important an issue to be left to the voters.
Perceptions on Indonesia is regularly held up as a case in point. Most Australians remain ‘luke-warm’ towards Indonesia, which scores 53 on the Lowy ‘thermometer’ scale. Most Australians (83%) say that Australia is a good neighbour to Indonesia, but only 54% believe that Indonesia is a good neighbour to Australia. People smuggling stands out as the major issue, with only 30% saying that Indonesia helps Australia combat people smuggling.
Consistent with these broader views, there also remain persistent perceptions of Indonesia as a source of terrorism and as a military threat. This is despite major efforts against terrorism within Indonesia and it never having had the capacity to meaningfully threatening Australia.
Only a third of Australians view Indonesia as a democracy, reflecting a range of competing images that are from time to time presented in Australia. Indonesia has had regular elections since 1999, but occasional reports of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and so on continue to sully the image of rule of law in Indonesia.
Without the Lowy Report asking why so many Australians view Indonesia as non-democratic despite regular elections, there appears to be a non-articulated perception that ‘democracy’ means more than just going to the ballot box every five years. This is consistent with a more ‘substantive’, as opposed to ‘procedural’ understanding of democracy.
The Lowy Report also showed that concern over the boat arrival of asylum seekers remained at around three-quarters, despite an increased arrival rate. Older people appear more concerned about boat arrivals than younger people, although the issue does resonate across generations.
Not unreasonably, China was overwhelmingly identified (76%) as key to Australia’s economy, but the US trumped it (82%) as important to Australia’s security. On this, 61% agree that China will eventually become the world’s major superpower. Related to this, most also believe that China will eventually become a military threat to Australia. But for the moment, Australians believe they can have their cake and eat it too.
The Lowy Report also surveyed perceptions on offshore processing (supported); action on climate change (more – 40% - say it is a problem and fewer – 54% - wanting to reverse the carbon tax), the Afghanistan war (61% say it is not worth fighting), WikiLeaks (58% support, down 4%) and terrorism, with 68% saying the government has struck the right balance.
Perhaps most disturbingly, though, what they survey did show was that younger people are increasingly ambivalent about democracy. Only 39% of 19-29 year olds agreed that democracy was preferable to any other form of government, and just over a quarter of all respondents agreed that non-democracy can be preferable in some circumstances.
In this, perhaps in the current domestic political environment, voters have increasingly adopted Winston Churchill’s famous dictum, that democracy is the worst form of government.
He qualified that statement, however, by adding ‘except for all the others’.

no peace with honour in Afghanistan

When a war does not have a defined objective that can be equated with victory, it is easy to fudge its definition of defeat. This is the case in Afghanistan.

The US' "peace with honor" in Vietnam was, by any measure, a defeat. The Vietnamese won their unified state and the US won nothing. In Iraq, also, continued waves of terrorism and a slide back into civil war was not by any measure a success, Saddam Hussein's death notwithstanding.

Now the US is proposing peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai also saying he is looking forward to negotiating with his "brothers". Whether or not there a "peace agreement" is negotiated, Afghanistan’s future is only as certain as the allied withdrawal scheduled for December next year.

Foreign troops will depart, the Afghan National Army will collapse, and Afghanistan will revert at least for a while to a bloodier and more retributive version of what it was before the allied invasion. At least some Taliban will be out for vengeance, and there will be a continued commitment to assist their Islamist brothers, be they al-Qaeda, any one of a dozen of Pakistan’s domestic Islamist terrorist groups or more than 30 Pakistani trans-national terrorist organisations.

For himself, Karzai will not remain long. No matter what assurances he might receive before the allied withdrawal, he is seen as an illegitimate, deeply corrupt and fairly brutal US puppet, which is a broad but not inaccurate summation of his political qualities.

When the Soviet Union left the "bear trap" of Afghanistan in 1989, its puppet, president Mohammad Najibullah, clung to power for three years of civil war before hiding in the UN mission headquarters for a further four years. After winning the civil war, the Taliban took Najibullah from the UN, castrated him and then dragged him behind a truck through the streets, finally hanging his corpse from a lamp post.

Najibullah also tried a process of "reconciliation". But Karzai will be keenly aware of Najibullah’s fate, and his travel agent will be lining up many departure options.

With the date of the allied withdrawal so public, the Taliban has in effect already won. It is just waiting for the clock to tick over.

As with the Soviet Union and Najibullah, the US will support the Karzai regime, at least for a while. But that assumes Afghanistan’s soldiers don’t immediately desert in the face of the obvious. At best, those identified as the Taliban’s enemies will be hoping to be able to make good an escape before the door slams shut.

Of those who do manage to flee, more than a few will end up as "irregular arrivals" in Australia. One wonders if the new minister for immigration will still be using the line that they should not be seeking asylum as there is no more war in their country, which is used for some Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees.

For the architects of the Afganistan war, however, the withdrawal will be cloaked in something akin to "peace with honour". They will know, however, that regardless of what agreements might or, more likely might not, be reached with the Taliban, there will be no peace in Afghanistan until one side -- undoubtedly the Taliban -- has again cemented its rule over the country. There will be no "honour" in any of it.

But by then, the West’s regional security concerns in that part of the world will have locked onto Pakistan. Afghanistan is so last year; Pakistan is the focus of longer-term strategic planning.

Can Aung San Suu Kyi turn Myanmar around?

Myanmar’s transition from authoritarianism has been given a boost by the announcement at the World Economic Forum meeting in Naypyitaw that Aung San Suu Kyi run for the presidency in 2015. Yet despite this unsurprisingly news and the world’s increasing acceptance of this once pariah state, deep structural problems look set to challenge the country’s reform process.

Myanmar must change its constitution to allow Suu Kyi to run by removing a ban on political leaders with family abroad. But this also applies to senior members of the current government, so that change is expected.

Myanmar’s recent seven-point agreement signed with the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) has also been a step in addressing challenges to the country’s reform process. However, the agreement is, to date, just an agreement to limit fighting and to discuss a ceasefire. It is not yet a ceasefire, much less a comprehensive peace agreement. International reports of its success have been greatly exaggerated.

The KIO and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army, have been fighting the central government since just after independence in 1948. Although it is the largest of Myanmar’s groups that have been fighting the central government, they are not alone.

Sporadic fighting also continues in Shan State South, and the Wa and Kokang autonomous regions continue to run narco-territories in the north-east of Shan State. These are now based mostly on amphetamines, which have largely replaced the more vulnerable opium.

The cultural and economic divide between the ethnic majority Bama (Burman) and Myanmar’s numerous minorities, including the 12 "ceasefire groups", remains as wide as ever. The people of central Myanmar continue to face serious poverty, but the outlying ethnic minorities experience even more debilitating conditions.

Lack of education is arguably the biggest problem facing the ethnic minorities, with Burman language teachers either refusing to work in non-Burman areas or leaving soon after they arrive. Without education, much less in a language they understand, minorities remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and alienation. This, in turn, pushes them into illegal trade and drives armed resistance to the government.

With continuing armed threats to the state, the army -- the Tatmadaw -- continues to be the state’s institutional centrepiece. This is what led to the military’s seizure of power five decades ago, and it continues to insinuate itself into Myanmar’s "reformist" future. Suu Kyi is seen as leading the reform movement, but her views on Myanmar’s ethnic problems and the unity of the state places her closer to the military than to most ethnic groups.

As with many developing countries, the Myanmar army is deeply involved in its own business interests, both to fund itself and to enrich its officers. As Myanmar opens to the outside world, military businesses are partnering with outside companies to take advantage of the new economic openness. The "reform" process makes good business sense to the country’s military and business elites, and this alone will ensure greater economic openness. It also reduces military accountability to a civilian government.

And not all are happy with the pace or direction of reform. While reflecting historical anti-Muslim sentiment, last week’s anti-Muslim rioting in Lashio and recent rioting in towns between north of Yangon up to Mandalay and, of course, in Rakhine State, is believed to have been organised by forces wishing to limit the reform process.

Such forces include Tatmadaw recalcitrants, but also associated business interests and the more chauvinistic of the Buddhist community, notably under the banner of the ultra-nationalist ‘969’ movement. In this contest for Myanmar’s future, the country is very unlikely to return to its dark past. But the reform process may not go as far as many are suggesting, or would like.

The path of Myanmar’s change is increasingly being acknowledged as less than direct, with a number of detours, an occasional dead end and some unhelpful excursions along the way.

After the 2015 elections, Myanmar is likely to have a more representative and less overtly military dominated government. But, until or unless it can resolve its ethnic issues, its reform process may remain crippled by the defects that are characterising its birth, President Aung San Suu Kyi or otherwise.

Why is China interested in helping war-torn Mali?

In a move that has raised as many questions about its wider intent, China has announced it will send between 500 and 600 troops to Mali under a post-French UN peacekeeping mission. While the move is being welcomed in Mali as an international contribution to helping control Islamist fighters holed up in the exposed mountains in the north of the country, some external observers are viewing the contribution with a more jaundiced eye.

Mali is due to hold elections in late July, following a coup against its elected government last year.

Despite opposing the use of peacekeepers as international interference when it joined the UN in 1971, since the early 1990s China has deployed troops to 13 internationally sanctioned theatres, including to East Timor and a non-combat mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It currently has more than 2000 troops deployed in UN peacekeeping operations.

China does not have any direct economic or diplomatic interests in Mali. But it has been increasingly making its presence felt in Africa as it continues to search for more resources to help fuel its growing economy. China currently has investments across Africa estimated at more than US$100 billion.

China’s main involvement in Africa is in Sudan, Algeria, Zambia and South Africa, with lesser investments in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria and eight other countries. China’s trade with Africa began to take off around 2003, jumping ahead around 2007, corresponding to the establishment of the private equity China-Africa Development Fund. According to the China Development Bank:

"CADFund works differently from economic aid to Africa in that it is not allocated by nation but independently operated and based on market economy principles, the Fund invests in projects and requires investment benefits."

Last Saturday, the chairman of China’s Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, Zhang Dejiang, said China was willing to work with African countries to "advance the China-Africa new-type strategic partnership to a higher level". Chinese President Xi Jinping's visited Africa in March to promote the "strategic partnership".

China’s troops in Mali are not expected to be on the front line fighting the Islamist insurgents who, until France’s intervention in January this year, had seized the north of the country and threatened to overthrow Mali’s government. However, the move is being seen as a further illustration of China’s increasingly proactive, indeed assertive, international policy.

As with its "assistance" elsewhere, after the troops’ deployment, China is expected to ask for a reciprocal favour. Mali is the world’s third largest producer of gold, and one of the poorest countries, with a per capita income of $1.25 a day.

Hope for peace in Syria fades as Russia backs away

There was a moment of hope, a week ago, that there could yet be a negotiated resolution to the Syrian civil war. That hope now appears ended, with key Syrian government ally Russia backing away from what could have been international agreement on the need end the war.

Instead, the Syrian war is increasingly spilling across borders, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia openly siding with the Syrian government by joining in the attack on the town of Qusair, Syria shelling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan in particular buckling under the weight of more than 400,000 refugees.

The Syrian government’s attack on Qusair, near the border with northern Lebanon, is reported to be the heaviest artillery assault of the war. Anti-Assad regime forces still hold the town but are struggling, and its loss will put further pressure on the nearby hold-out city of Homs, also the scene of heavy fighting between Syria’s opposing forces.

Should Qusair fall, it will open a route for the Syrian regime between Damascus in the south and the sea ports at Al Hamidiyah and the Russian-based Tartus. The heavy fighting follows President Bashar al-Assad taking a hard line on the possibility of ending the civil war in an interview last weekend.

The fighting also follows the reporting drying up of weapons supplies to the anti-Assad forces. The reduced flow of weapons is a result of increasing concerns that they could fall into the hands of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Brigade and aligned factions, as well as as result of reports of atrocities on the part of both pro and anti-Assad forces.

Assad has said he will not negotiate with "terrorists", meaning forces arrayed against his regime, and says he plans to stand for "re-election" in 2014. Assad’s statement came a day after the US criticised Russia for supplying rockets to Syrian government forces.

Russia’s supply of the rockets was in apparent contradiction of the agreement between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry early in May, to push for a Syria peace conference in June. One reading of Russia’s position is that it will support peace talks in June, but only if it can strengthen the hand of the Assad regime ahead of such negotiations.

At this stage, however, Assad is not indicating that he will participate. Anti-Assad forces, meanwhile, see his resignation as a key condition for the talks to succeed. France has also said it will boycott the talks if Assad ally Iran is invited to participate in the talks process, which Russia is insisting upon.

With the anti-Assad forces now clearly divided between the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda affiliates and Western support wavering, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers are feeling increasingly confident of turning the tide in the war. It may be, however, that this is but another twist in an increasingly complicated, bitter and prolonged war.

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