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.
From the industry reaction to Australia's overseas aid budget, one might have thought Canberra's cruel bean-counters are intentionally starving Third World orphans. The budget announcement of keeping foreign aid at around 0.35% of gross national income, or almost $5.6 billion, reflects a stepping down from a forecast increase in aid to 0.38%, but still represents an overall 4% increase in available funds.
In an era of broad budgetary restraint, this not unreasonable outcome reflects commitments given by Australia in order to secure its seat on the UN Security Council last October. It also reflects a shift away from the "hard power" of Defence, with the Iraq war drifting into history, Timor-Leste no longer active, Solomons concluding and Afghanistan looking to an end. The security emphasis now is on "soft" and "secret" power, with diplomacy drifting.
In order not to further alienate Labor's Left, the government has capped aid funds allocated to housing asylum seekers at 7% of the aid budget, at $375 million. Australia's commitment to the UN's millennium development goal of 0.5% of gross national income by 2015 has now been "deferred" to 2016-17. This target will now require an extra -- and improbable -- $1 billion a year for the next four years.
Of the more aspirational commitment to the OECD's 2002 Monterey Agreement to allocate 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid by 2015, only Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have met that goal. Australia is outside the top 10 OECD aid providers by GDP. There is, however, some small comfort in still being well ahead of Japan and the United States.
Australia's aid recipients are unlikely to protest about the deferral of intended aid increases. Indonesia -- Australia's largest aid recipient -- does not care too much about Australian aid in any case. For some in Indonesia, Australian aid is viewed through a paranoid lens as a mechanism for some vague ulterior agenda. From Australia's perspective, aid simply helps secure a seat at Indonesia's diplomatic table.
Papua New Guinea is more concerned about Australian aid, mostly because it so poorly manages its domestic budget and needs all the help it can get. Some less critical Australian aid programs to Timor-Leste have been deferred, which otherwise remains high on Australia's aid priority list.
Tightening has hurt Australian diplomacy through funding of Australia's embassies. DFAT's departmental appropriations have survived this budget with a minor spending increase of $43 million to just under $1.5 billion. But this will come as cold comfort to many Australian diplomats, given the reduction in spending over recent years.
Australia's two new African embassies, in Dakar, Senegal, announced in the last budget, will be further funded by closing the embassy in Budapest. Given the critical role of exports, the Australian Trade Commission will have to do more with a little less, its budget down $13 million to $319 million.
Defence has, as was earlier known, taken a hit, losing just over $2 billion to $22 billion, reflecting Australia's shifting security focus. That less visible branch of Australian security, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, received another healthy budget increase, of more than 11.7%, from $211 million to almost $248 million. It is, it seems, a good time to be a spy.
This year's budget represents an absolutely critical one for Australia as it makes especially visible the underlying structural deficit that has faced Australia now for many years.
When assessing some of the assumptions underpinning Wayne Swan’s 2013 federal budget, two things spring to mind: the Henry Tax review and the notorious inaccuracy of forward estimates.
History shows it might be foolhardy to rely on the accuracy of forward estimates. And meanwhile, the repercussions of failing to undertake structural economic reform by amending our taxation system will continue to weigh on our economic fortunes.
So what is the link between the Henry Review and the forward estimates? One was timely but ignored; the other has time against it.
Read full article at The Conversation:
Three factors are emerging from the post-election shake-out that will shape Malaysian politics for the foreseeable future. Although Malaysia's opposition came closer to government, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN -- National Front) coalition has secured government not just for another five years but may be in a position to retain power beyond the 2018 elections.
The vote has sharply delineated Malaysian politics along racial lines, with the BN’s ethnic Chinese partner, the Malaysian Chinese Association, losing two-thirds of its seats. The Chinese vote has, instead, swung dramatically behind the opposition Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The opposition’s Malay Partai Amanat Se-Islam (PAS -- Islamic Message Party) lost two seats, with opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s Partai Keadilan Rakyat (PKR -- People’s Justice Party) losing one seat. The PR has thus become much more Chinese in representation, while the government’s BN has become increasingly Malay.
This then leads to the second factor, with the ethnic coloration of the government and opposition set to create further tensions in difficult and sometimes factious Malay-Chinese relations. The PR has only just been able to exercise discipline around the unity of its three component parties.
The PAS is divided between more accommodationist Malay Muslims and those who can barely tolerate their Chinese partners. The more radical wing of the party is now threatening to either splinter or to shift wholesale across to the government. The government is, meanwhile, holding out a welcoming hand to these disenchanted PAS members, replicating a policy employed by the BN for the past four decades by buying off vulnerable elements of the opposition’s ranks.
This could effectively kill the PAS as an effective component of the opposition, concentrating power in the hands of the opposition’s Chinese majority (Malaysia’s ethnic minority). From this position, it would be next to impossible to win the next elections. It would also cast doubt over Anwar Ibrahim’s leadership of the opposition, given his former balancing role between the PAS and the DAP.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib Razak will be watching his back, with his predecessor having been dumped for an election result that was not as bad as the loss of a 10 further government seats.
The third major factor of the 2013 Malaysian elections was that rorting of the electoral system reached almost breathtaking levels. On the latest count, the government won by 22 seats in a 222-seat Parliament, but with just 47.38% of the vote, while the opposition received 50.87% of the vote. This result has in large part been attributed to the gerrymandering of the Malaysian electoral boundaries, which favour rural Malay voters. However, what has alarmed observers is that although both the government and opposition pushed to get the vote out on Sunday, resulting in a record 80% turnout for the voluntary elections, the number of new voters spiked in a number of marginal seats, in one case to over 60%. There were 25% or more new voters across 90 of the Parliament’s 222 seats.
Added to this were some voters being told their vote had been cast before they had voted, claims of multiple voting, the mass government registration of non-Malaysian guest workers and the old stand-by of simply paying for votes.
The Malaysia government has scraped back into office on the basis of these electoral rorts. With a possible split in the opposition’s ranks, it may now have bought itself an extension to its guaranteed unbroken 61 years in office.
While an income tax increase may be hard to sell to some people in the community in the lead-up to a federal election, it’s the right choice for a sustainable National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
From July 1 next year, the Medicare levy will increase by 0.5% to partly fund the NDIS, taking the Medicare levy to 2% and adding an extra $1 per day to the Medicare levy of an average worker on A$70,000.
But the move is a risk for the Gillard government because it gives the Coalition, if elected in September, the power to delay or veto the scheme.
Increasing income tax the right choice for a sustainable NDIS
US President Barack Obama has moved a step closer towards direct intervention in Syria with his statement that there is now evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria's civil war. Obama has previously said the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger US intervention.
However, Obama has said it is not yet absolutely clear who was responsible for the use of the chemical weapons, and that it is critical to clarify this point so as to ensure international support for US intervention. His caution reflects growing concern not just over Syria's mounting death toll but international opposition to intervention as well as the inexorable drawing in to the conflict of outside forces, in particular Lebanon’s heavily armed Shiite militia Hezbollah.
Both the Bashar al-Assad government and the Syrian opposition claim chemical weapons have been used in the conflict, as recently as last Sunday. This supports earlier Israeli claims chemical weapons were being used in the Syrian conflict. There has been a high level of reluctance to take such claims on face value, however, given the disrepute of similar claims that rationalised the start of the Iraq War. Even if it can be established who has used chemical weapons -- thought to be the nerve gas Sarin -- it is not yet clear what form intervention might take, much less the shape of international reactions to such an intervention.
With the US public weary over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is unlikely that the US would commit ground troops to Syria. A belligerent response from Syrian ally Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, are also factors against a ground intervention.
However, a bombing campaign and related air cover, as in Libya in 2011 and in Yugoslavia in 1999, have been shown to be effective in either changing the course of a ground war or compelling a government into submission. With the Assad regime only slowly losing ground in its now two-year-old civil war, such an intervention would be likely to tip the outcome against his government forces.
One factor complicating of any hastening of the fall of the Assad regime is that Syrian opposition forces are now deeply divided. The Free Syrian Army is supported by the US and its European allies, and the explicitly al-Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Although it wants the Assad regime to go, the US and its allies are deeply opposed to an Al Nusra takeover of Syria. A civil war between Al Nusra and the FSA is also seen as increasingly likely following the fall of the Assad regime.
On-ground intervention by Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, has led Al Nusra leaders to say that, following the fall of the Assad regime, Hezbollah's destruction will be the next priority. Contemplating a possible Al Nusra takeover in Syria and a widening of the war into Lebanon and possibly Iran, the US is focusing on how its increasingly likely intervention could shape Syria’s highly contentious future.
The media attention focused on the Boston Marathon bombers has continued to emphasise their Chechen origins, but there has been little investigation as to why the brothers attacked such a popular, internationally oriented gathering. One clue might lie with the longstanding conflict in the remote region of Chechnya.
Two Chechen-born, US naturalised brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have been identified as suspects in the bombing. Tamerlan, named after the 14th century Turkish-Mongol leader who established an empire stretching from Turkey to Tibet, and Dzhokhar, enjoying the name of the first leader of the post-Soviet break-away Chechen state, are thought to be linked to a 12-strong terrorist sleeper cell.
The FBI had interviewed Tamerlan two years ago regarding his interest in jihadist Islam after the agency was tipped off by the Russian government he could be a security threat. Nothing, however, was found to hold him. In January last year, Tamerlan returned to his native Chechnya and to nearby radicalised Dagestan for several months. He returned as a ready and waiting jihadist.
There is no particular connection between Chechnya, Dagestan and the US, nor has the US a history of involvement in the area. Chechen terrorist attacks outside Chechnya have been directed at Russia, and Russia and the US have long pursued very different and often competing foreign policy agendas. At a different stage of the Chechens' struggle with Russia, the US might even have been seen as an ally.
Along with the rest of central Asia, Chechnya came under Mongol rule from the 13th century but, when the Mongol empire collapsed, it came under Russian domination. In order to counter this new invader, the Chechens sought the protection of the Ottoman Empire and converted to Sunni Islam. By the late 18th century, Russia had expanded into the Caucasus region, formally incorporating Chechnya in the early 1800s. The Chechens rebelled against Russia during the 19th century and whenever Russia, or its successor, the Soviet Union, was weak. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya again pushed for independence, but its role as a key hub in Russia’s oil industry led to Russian repression and two brutal wars in which war crimes became commonplace.
Islam and national identity had long been fused in Chechnya and increasingly melded with jihadist Islam. Over the past 20 years, a radical jihadi ideology took over from the nationalist cause. Chechen jihadists are now found in jihadist war zones as far apart as Afghanistan and Mali in West Africa. Just as London experienced home-grown Islamist terrorism in 2005, it appears that Boston has experienced a similar attack.
But while the world increasingly focuses on the backstory of the Boston bombers, its view is distracted from events elsewhere. On the day three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, 10 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Iraq and 75 the day after, with hundreds more injuries. Six more were killed the day after that. On the same day, around 160 people, including 30 children, were killed in Syria, and again hundreds more were injured. This is not to mention so many other places in the world regularly and consistently racked by violence.
The Boston bombing has caused the West to sit up and take notice. Again. But complacency and a limited perspective sometimes mean it misses the bigger and much more troubling picture.
In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:
"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."
This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.
The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.
But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.
But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.
The 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war serves as a unique opportunity to measure the costs of the intervention, to assess the successes and failures of the goals of the war and to assess Australia’s obligations.
Let’s start with the costs. According to official figures, 4486 US military and 319 other coalition troops died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which cost US taxpayers $806 billion. No reliable public estimate exists on how much the war cost the Australian taxpayer. In Iraq the cost was much higher. Although estimates vary on the exact figures, approximately 162,000 Iraqis have died and an untold number injured. The war has also resulted in around 1.24 million internally displaced people and 1.6 million refugees, and many people have migrated out of Iraq since 2003.
The leak of the so-called "Kissinger Cables" has shown that while the US expected Indonesia would invade what was then Portuguese Timor in 1975, it did not wish to be implicated in the affair. A cable dated August 16, 1975 said that the US' "only secret" regarding Portuguese Timor was its desire not to become involved.
The cable stated that while Indonesia's "incorporation" of Portuguese Timor would be the outcome most "beneficial" for locals and the most likely to ensure regional stability, the "decision … is not for us to make, and we are determined not to become involved in the process". The cable noted that if Indonesia used aggression in the incorporation, it could have negative repercussions for military support for Indonesia.
The cable appears to show little understanding of events in Portuguese Timor at this time, given that the local UDT party, influenced by Indonesian disinformation, had attempted to stage a coup on August 10. By August 16, Fretilin forces had all but defeated the UDT and its pro-Indonesia Apodeti allies.
Perhaps the most importand aspect of the leaked cable is that it confirms the expectation of Indonesia's invasion, more than two weeks before another leaked cable, on September 4, 1975, said that Indonesia's then acting foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, acting on behalf of president Suharto, had proposed that Australia join with Indonesia, Portugal and Malaysia in sending UN-sanctioned peace-keeping troops to oversee Portuguese Timor’s decolonisation. The cable says the Australian embassy in Jakarta had responded negatively to the suggestion, given that then prime minister Gough Whitlam had previously refused to consider such an overture from Portugal.
By September 4, UDT and Apodeti forces had been defeated and already retreated across the border into West Timor, where they were re-organising with the support of -- and as a front for -- the Indonesian military. By September 4, too, Australia almost certainly knew that the Indonesian proposal was intended to obscure its intention to invade Portuguese Timor. It was already known by Australian diplomats that Indonesia's military intelligence had been fomenting a disinformation campaign about the dominant Fretilin party since earlier in the year, and promoting its local front party, Apodeti.
A Jakarta think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, closely linked to the Indonesian military and the generals who later led the invasion, had already drawn up plans for Portuguese Timor's "integration" into Indonesia. The CSIS had close relations with Australia's ambassador to Jakarta, Richard Woollcott, who in August 1975 recommended that Australia should accept the inevitability of the impending Indonesian invasion.
Whitlam had told parliament on 2 September that no definite proposal for including Australian peace-keepers had been put which, at this stage, was correct. The cable, however, reveals a more nuanced and considered response from Whitlam than has previously been portrayed by what appeared to be his acquiescence to, if not promotion of, Indonesia’s takeover of Portuguese Timor. A September 3 cable says that Australia could consider humanitarian assistance to Portuguese Timor, which Indonesia had earlier rejected. But it showed Whitlam would not countenance anything that had a "colonial character", such as sending troops.
Whitlam's concern at this time reflected the method of Indonesia's incorporation of West Papua in 1969, through a much-criticised show of hands by 1025 hand-picked tribal leaders. It also reflected Whitlam's support for the subsequent "Barwick Doctrine" of Australia not involving itself in prolonging unsustainable colonial arrangements.
The leaked cables add detail to understanding the events that led to Indonesia’s invasion of Portuguese Timor, which had unofficially begun in early October 1975 and officially on December 8. Most notably, they show how poor much US information was on relevant events at this time.
Almost four decades later, and more than a decade after Timor-Leste "restored" its independence, the cables are an awkward footnote to the now surprising closeness of relations between Timor-Leste and Indonesia.