Pence visit reassures that the US remains committed to the Asia-Pacific


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Mike Pence and Malcolm Turnbull meet at Admiralty House in Sydney.
AAP/Jason Reed

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Viewed through the lens of a traditional relationship between close allies, all might have seemed well as US Vice-President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sprinkled emollient words on a media contingent gathered on the lawns of Sydney’s Admiralty House. The Conversation

Ferries traversed Sydney Harbour in the background, yachts tacked back and forth, and the sun shone. But that pastoral scene hardly shielded a troubled world beyond, and one that is weighing on the US alliance.

In the age of Donald Trump and “Trumpism” – defined by its unpredictability – Pence’s mission was to reassure an alliance partner the US remained committed to an Asia-Pacific presence, and America’s relationship with Australia in particular. Pence put it this way:

I trust that my visit here today on my very first trip the Asia-Pacific as vice-president of the United States and the president’s plans to travel to this region this fall are a strong sign of our enduring commitment to the historic alliance between the people of the United States of America and the people of Australia.

Importantly, from Turnbull’s perspective, Pence put his imprimatur on a refugee deal that would see asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island resettled in the US subject to severe vetting.

The plain vanilla former Indiana governor and long-term congressman – polar opposite of the flamboyant Trump – did a reasonable job in his efforts to calm concerns that might be held about a new administration’s commitment to the region.

His message was similar to those delivered on previous stops in Japan and South Korea. America would stay the course, and it would stand with its allies against threats to regional security. If anything, it would act more assertively in seeking to preserve Asia-Pacific peace and stability.

Pence made no reference to the previous administration’s “pivot” to Asia, or its commitment to broaden engagement in the region via diplomatic means. If there is a defining characteristic of the new White House in its early months, it is that the threatened projection of American power is back more overtly as a diplomatic tool.

Had former vice-president Joe Biden been standing on the Admiralty House lawns, his words of reassurance to an Asia-Pacific ally would not have been much different. But the context has shifted significantly – and so, too, has the rhetoric.

North Korea’s belligerence, its provocations, its prosecution of a potentially deadly game of bluff, its quirkiness, its threats to launch ballistic missiles against the west coast of the US and as far afield as Australia, all are hardly new. But what has changed are the players: or to put it more bluntly, one player in counterpoint to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Trump’s arrival in the White House has added a new layer of unpredictability to a set of circumstances North Korea’s neighbours have lived with for many years – that country’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.

The world might regard Kim as a cartoonish figure. But the reality is that he presides over a country whose firepower could leave swathes of the Korean peninsula in ruins.

More than half-a-century after the end of the Korean war, the Korean peninsula remains on a hair trigger. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is in split-second range of the north’s artillery and missile batteries.

If a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens provided the first significant foreign policy challenge for a new administration, North Korea’s bombast represents a test of a different order.

No responsible public official can afford to ignore such threats, whatever judgements might be made about that country’s endless displays of brinkmanship.

Speaking of brinkmanship, America’s allies would be foolish not to recalibrate their own expectations of American behaviour under a Trump administration. In this regard Australia is – or should be – no exception.

While Turnbull might have emphasised his fealty to the alliance, the reality is that the Asia-Pacific – or as Australian officials emphasise these days, the Indo-Pacific (to include India and the Indian Ocean that laps at our shores) – has to accept that regional security increasingly will depend on Chinese engagement, whether we like it or not.

Both Turnbull and Pence made it clear they were looking to Beijing to help lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring North Korea to heel. China has proved reluctant to assert its influence over its neighbour, but indications now are the Chinese accept that it is in their interests to calm the situation.

China has taken several significant steps to put Pyongyang on notice, including turning back coal shipments.

If Chinese and US pressure proves able to calm current tensions – and even bring about a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – this may come to be regarded as an historic moment in regional security. It may also be a possible forerunner to the development of more formalised regional security arrangements.

American media reported that Pence’s visit to Australia and other regional countries was prompted partly by concerns in Washington that relations needed to be smoothed to combat reservations about the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.

Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, his criticisms of China so-called “currency manipulation”, his threats to launch a trade war with China, his description of efforts to combat global warming as a “Chinese hoax”, and other intemperate statements have rattled traditional allies.

If the American embassy in Canberra had been paying attention to local media it would have reported back to Washington that there is a groundswell of opinion in Australia that would like to see the country reposition itself between its traditional ally and its most important economic partner.

Influential voices, including those of former foreign minister Gareth Evans, have been calling for less “reflexive” support for US policies. Opinion polls indicate the majority of Australians have a poor regard for Trump.

Whatever Pence and Turnbull may have said on that sun-filled day on the shores of Sydney Harbour, the world is changing fast and with it the context within which Australia interacts with its security guarantor. And perhaps just as importantly, with its principal economic partner.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and North Korea: military action will be a disaster, so a more patient, thoughtful solution is required



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North Koreans react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a military parade.
Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable. The Conversation

Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.

William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.

But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.

Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.

The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.

The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.

There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.

This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.

First, don’t make things worse

Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.

The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.

Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.

Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.

Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.

As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, 119,915 Iraqi deaths were verifiably attributed to the conflict in that country from 2003 to 2011. Another study published in PLOS Medicine journal put the death toll at half-a-million Iraqi civilians.

Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.

Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?

North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.

We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.

For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.

The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.

If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.

However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.

Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes

Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.

Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.

It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.

Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.

In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.

To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.

It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.

Where to from here?

One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.

It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.

Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.

Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.

Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.

This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Syria is a mess, but the solution is complicated too



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Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson head to a meeting in Moscow.
Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

A week has passed since US President Donald Trump rained 59 Cruise missiles down on Al Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. But we are not much closer to answering the question: what next? The Conversation

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow late this week hardly answered that question, with the two sides agreeing to disagree – but not necessarily agreeably – on Syria’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.

“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters after meetings with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin.

This might be regarded as an understatement.

Tillerson also re-stated what had been the position of the Obama administration: a resolution of the Syrian crisis could not involve President Bashar al-Assad.

Where all this leaves Australian policy on Syria is unclear beyond a hardening of Canberra’s position on Assad continuing to hold power.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the Syrian leader to go, and indeed face war crimes charges.

Turnbull’s liberal interventionist line posed some problems for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has been on the record for several years insisting that Assad should be part of any transition arrangement.

Now Bishop says Australia’s position on Assad is “hardening”, thus indicating a shift.

If nothing else, she is displaying characteristic nimbleness in bringing herself into line not only with her leader’s position, but that of an evolving American attitude. During Trump’s first 100 days, his administration has been more antagonistic towards the Damascus regime.

At last the penny seems to have dropped with the Canberra foreign policy establishment – conspicuously light on for Middle East expertise – that Assad cannot be part of any solution that hopes to bring order to his civil war-ravaged country.

In any case, the Syrian pieces may well have moved far beyond being put back together again and we will be looking at best at a sort of Dayton Accords Bosnian solution in which the country becomes cantonised.

But all that is far off, as warring factions continue to tear each other and the country apart. Assad has demonstrated there are almost no limits beyond which he will go to defend his regime.

From Canberra’s perspective, these are testing moments in a broader chess game as Australian policymakers seek to make sense of a Trump foreign policy not only towards Syria and the wider Middle East, but in a confrontational US stance towards North Korea.

It is much too soon to begin talking about a Trump Doctrine, but whatever was said on the campaign trail by an “America First” candidate intent on avoiding foreign entanglements that position now seems to be fungible.

Based on Trump’s actions in Syria and his threats against Pyongyang, backed up by the deployment of an American battle group, what is emerging is an apparent willingness to use force, or at least employ the threat of force overtly to advance US foreign policy interests.

How then should an Australian government respond to what is shaping as a significant departure from business as usual under a restrained Barack Obama administration, whose preferred approach was to use drone strikes and other such methods to assert American foreign policy interests more subtly?

Australian policymakers would be advised to proceed with extreme caution. Turnbull and his advisers should be especially wary of any moves that would involve Australia more deeply in Middle East conflict.

Australian military forces are in the region to help the Iraqi government stabilise Iraq, not become enmeshed in a vicious civil war in Syria beyond limited air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and eastern Syria.

Turnbull and his national security team need to be mindful of the risks involved in any sort of deeper engagement, including especially the commitment of ground troops.

Syria is a mess, and a treacherous one.

What remain unclear is whether the Trump missile attack was a one-off strike aimed at sending a message to Assad not to resort to chemical weapons again, or whether it will be followed by other such actions.

At this stage, it seems to be of a piece with missile strikes that Bill Clinton launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan when those countries crossed a line, in Washington’s view. But you can’t be sure.

What is the case is that Trump’s warning shot has got Moscow’s attention.

As things stood, Vladimir Putin more or less had his way in Syria in a loose alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the toxic Assad regime.

Now, Moscow has been put on notice. There are limits to Western tolerance of Assad’s war against his own people, in which more than 400,000 have died and half the country’s population of 22 million displaced.

This brutal campaign has involved the widespread use of barrel bombs and other such cluster devices that inflict carnage on those in the vicinity. These devices have been used mercilessly, and have drawn the condemnation of governments and human rights organisations under various Geneva conventions.

Putin may be willing to put pressure on Assad to forego the use of chemical weapons again, but it is hardly likely he would abandon him, or his regime.

Russia has too much invested in Syria, including an agreement on Mediterranean berthing rights for its navy, use of airstrips and other such facilities, and perhaps most important the message Russian involvement delivers to the rest of the Middle East.

Russia is back four decades after it was bundled out of Egypt by President Anwar Sadat, and is not about to withdraw.

What vastly complicates Western policy in Syria is how to sanction Assad on one hand and deal with Islamic State on the other, without the country unravelling completely, thus enabling a jihadist takeover.

Western policymakers tell us the aim is to “defeat’’ IS, but what does this mean?

IS might be pushed out of Mosul in northern Iraq and its stronghold in Raqqa, but it will not be “defeated’’ in any formal sense. There will be no armistice agreement in which both sides negotiate a truce.

Whether we like it or not IS, or whatever its mutations, will remain a threat to regional peace and stability, and further afield a continuing terrorist menace across the globe.

What we have on our hands is a generational struggle. This is all the more reason to hasten slowly in Syria outside an internationally-backed settlement involving the US and Russia that would end the bloodshed.

This would represent the best case outcome, but how to fashion such an arrangement given Moscow’s resolute support for Assad is the question.

A bloodstained Assad or his immediate henchmen should not be part of these transitional arrangements. Their place is before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

_This column has been corrected. The paragraph beginning “Australian military forces are in the region …” went on to read “air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and western Syria”. It has since been corrected to central and eastern Syria.“ _

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: the war in Syria and the possibility of removing Assad



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The future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reign lies with Vladimir Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure.
Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

The devastating gas attack in Syria, attributed to the Assad regime, and the swift US missile response is a game-changer for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This is a complex war, but it helps to look at the key players in three interlocking layers. The Conversation

First layer

In the first layer are the local players within Syria. Since the 2011 Arab spring uprisings, all local players wanted to get rid of the 17-year-old regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad. He desperately tried to cling to power and proved surprisingly resilient under immense political and military pressure.

Assad’s strength comes from Russian, Chinese and Iranian support – as well as support from the large portion of secular Arab Syrians and religious minorities (Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Druze).

Initially, there were three main insurgent groups opposing Assad. The first was the moderate Islamic coalition made up of Sunni Syrian elite who established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of officers who had defected from the Assad forces. The FSA’s initial promise soon gave way to pessimism, as it could not deliver a decisive blow against Assad.

Second, Kurds in northern Syria organised themselves as the YPG (a militia group whose name translates to “People’s Protection Units”) and established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They received widespread acclaim and support, particularly from the US and other Western nations, for their strong defence against Islamic State (IS) forces.

Third are the Salafist jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which changed their name to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, and claimed independence from al-Qaeda. It was these jihadist groups that led the chief military opposition to the Assad regime for the last six years, including in Aleppo until its fall in 2016.

IS emerged as a key political and military force in Syria in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups, it did not fight Assad. Rather, it opportunistically claimed large swathes of uncontrolled land and declared an independent caliphate state, becoming the chief source of radicalism threatening Western societies.

Second layer

The second layer in the Syrian conflict is occupied by regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Iran has been a longstanding ally of the Assad regime because of its sectarian, political and economic interests. Assad and his entourage are Alawites, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.

Syria is an important corridor for Iran to press its influence over Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and provide access to the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional ambitions require the continuation of the Assad regime.

Worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafist insurgent groups. Fearing the spread of IS ideology and popularity in its realm, the Saudi government has supported US-led air strikes on IS since 2014.

Turkey has been the most active regional player in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported all Sunni insurgent groups with weapons, training and logistics since the beginning of the conflict, with the exception of the Kurdish YPG.

Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish region in Syria (combined with Kurdish northern Iraq) would encourage its Kurdish population to also seek separation.

Erdogan pushed the Turkish army into Syria in August 2016. Although he desperately wanted to become involved in the impending US-backed offensive on the IS capital of Raqqa, he was left out of the US plans.

Third layer

The third layer of the Syrian conflict is occupied by Russia and the US. They are major geopolitical players whose conflicting interests over Syria are the source of the current impasse, and the reason why removing Assad has become exceedingly difficult.

Unhappy with the increasing US and Western influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to expand his economic and military interests in the Syrian conflict, and staged a challenge to the geopolitical world order.

In the course of the Syrian civil war, Putin has become the custodian of the Shi’ite alliance between Iran, Syria and Shi’ite political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Deep down, Russia fears a destabilised Syria falling under IS control would mobilise radical Muslim groups within its borders.

Under the Obama administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Barack Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to YPG and FSA, hoping they could muster enough opposition to dismantle Assad.

Obama admitted his strategy failed as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016.

This is why it was bizarre that Assad would launch a gas attack at this crucial juncture. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Assad vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons, while Russia claimed the Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical munition depot.

The reason is now irrelevant, as the swift US missile attack has sealed the issue. US President Donald Trump served notice not only to Assad and Russia, but all the players in the conflict.

Even though Russia and Iran responded with no-crossing-red-line tough talk, the missile attack opens a large ground for a US-led offensive on the key IS stronghold of Raqqa. The US intends to use this space to eliminate IS and dismantle the Assad regime.

However, this is not likely anytime soon. Western powers suffer from a dissidence – they would like Assad to go, but cannot see a viable alternative. With his secular outlook and promise of protecting religious minorities, Assad still wields much support.

Trump’s impulsive nature is the US’s greatest weakness in world diplomacy, but counter-intuitively, is its greatest strength in a conflict like Syria.

The impulsive courage of Trump, coupled with the military prudence of the Pentagon, gives the US the best advantage in the region and disturbs the Assad, Iran and Russian alliance. They can no longer act with impunity, knowing Trump would have no qualms about hitting Syrian regime targets, which were untouched by the Obama administration.

Trump has tasted the rush of being commander-in-chief. He is likely to follow with other bold military steps, and insist on the demise of the Assad regime.

Assad’s future lies with Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure. As the FBI investigation into the Trump election campaign’s Russian links deepens, Trump is likely to use Assad card to deflect attention and prove his disassociation with Russia.

Betting all his money on Assad, Putin will use the Syrian leader as a bargaining chip to press Trump to accept a place for Assad in the post-IS Syria, at least in the Western part of the wrecked country. This could save Assad’s skin, but at the expense of Syria remaining a divided country.

The YPG will emerge as the main winner securing an autonomous polity in northern Syria in exchange for its help in the US-led Raqqa military offensive, driving another wedge toward the eventual division of Syria. It will follow the trajectory of the northern Iraq Kurdish region, with the prospect of future independence.

Sunni insurgent groups are likely to be the biggest losers. They may have to contend with the remaining remote regions while Syria harbours the propensity to be another Iraq and a breeding ground for IS-inspired radicalism threatening societies the world over.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anti-Trump backlash at US by-elections


Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

Today, a by-election was held in Kansas’ fourth Congressional District (CD) for election to the US House. This CD is very conservative, and voted for Donald Trump by 60-33 against Hillary Clinton at the 2016 election. At this by-election, the Republican prevailed by 53-46, a net improvement of 20 points for the Democrats from Trump’s margin in 2016. The Conversation

The Kansas result is not the only poor outcome for Republicans. A by-election was held in California’s 34th CD last Tuesday. This is a Democratic fortress, which Clinton won by 84-11. This by-election used a “jungle primary”, where candidates from the same party, and those from other parties, run on the one ballot paper. Unless one candidate wins a vote majority, the top two, regardless of party, proceed to a runoff.

As California’s 34th CD is a Democratic bastion, about 20 Democrats and only one Republican ran, and the top six vote winners were Democrats. The sole Republican won a risible 3.2% of the votes, well down from Trump’s 11%. The top two candidates, both Democrats, will proceed to a 6 June runoff.

While party control did not change in either by-election, the swing from Trump to the Democratic candidates is encouraging for the Democrats, and indicates that the November 2018 midterm elections could be good for the Democrats.

Next Tuesday (results Wednesday morning Melbourne time), a “jungle primary” by-election will be held in Georgia’s Republican-held sixth CD. The lead Democrat, Jon Ossoff, has a chance to win a vote majority, and thus avoid a runoff against a single Republican. This CD voted for Trump by a 48.3-46.8 margin.

Trump’s ratings in FiveThirtyEight’s poll tracker are currently 52.5% disapprove, 41.5% approve for a net of -11. After dropping briefly below 40% following the health care debacle, his ratings have recovered a point or two after the Syrian missile strike.

Daily Kos elections has calculated the Presidential results for all 435 CDs. Presidential results by CD are not generally published by election boards, and need to be calculated from each county’s precinct information.

Republicans change rules to get Gorsuch confirmed to US Supreme Court

On Friday, staunch conservative judge Neil Gorsuch won a confirmation vote in the US Senate, 54-45, and will now be a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch replaces Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, restoring a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch is aged 49, so he could be on the Court for the next 30 years, delivering conservative verdicts.

Barack Obama had nominated Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, but the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had refused to even grant Garland a hearing, arguing that Obama’s successor should select the next Supreme Court nominee. When Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, this strategy was vindicated.

Under Senate rules, Democrats could have filibustered Gorsuch’s confirmation. For a filibuster to be defeated, 3/5 of the Senate (60 Senators) are required to vote for cloture. With Republicans only holding a 52-48 Senate majority, a Democratic filibuster of Gorsuch would have succeeded.

However, the filibuster rule has never been part of the US Constitution, and a Senate majority can change the Senate’s rules. On Thursday, Republicans used the “nuclear” option, removing the ability of a minority to filibuster Supreme Court confirmations in a 52-48 party-line vote.

Democrats themselves had used the nuclear option to remove the ability of a minority to filibuster lower court and Cabinet confirmations in 2013. The filibuster now only exists for legislation, and that filibuster is likely to be abolished in the near future.

French Presidential election: hard left Melenchon surges

The French Presidential election will be held in two rounds. The first round is on 23 April, and the top two vote winners proceed to the second round on 7 May.

Current polls have the centrist Emmanuel Macron and far right Marine Le Pen tied at 23%, followed by conservative Francois Fillon on 19% and the hard left Jean-Luc Melenchon on 18%. A few weeks ago, Melenchon had just 10% support. His gains have come mainly at the expense of Socialist Benoit Hamon, who has fallen into single digits.

Many on the French left have been frustrated with the current Socialist government’s pro-business agenda, which Macron would continue. In contrast, Melenchon’s policies include a 100% tax on the part of any income over 360,000 Euros a year (about $AU 500,000).

If Macron makes the runoff against any of the other three contenders, he should win easily. While still unlikely, it is possible that Macron could be knocked out of the runoff. If this happens, there would be two candidates that most voters would probably object to, and the runoff would not be predictable.

NSW by-elections: Liberals suffer large swings, but hold their seats

On Saturday, by-elections occurred in the Liberal-held seats of Manly and North Shore, and the Labor-held seat of Gosford. Manly and North Shore became vacant following the retirements of former Premier Mike Baird and Health Minister Jillian Skinner, while Gosford’s vacancy was caused by a cancer diagnosis for its former member, Kathy Smith.

Labor easily held Gosford by 62.5-37.5 vs the Liberals, a 12.3 point swing to Labor from the 2015 election. The Liberals suffered a 24 point primary vote swing against them in Manly and a 15 point swing in North Shore, which Labor did not contest, but held both seats against Independent challengers. Vote shares in both these seats were 43-44% for the Liberals, 22-24% for the main Independent challenger and 16-18% for the Greens.

A Liberal vs Independent two candidate count in North Shore and Manly is not yet available, but Antony Green expects comfortable Liberal wins, especially given NSW’s optional preferential voting. Update Thursday afternoon: The Liberals won North Shore by 54.7-45.3 and Manly by 60.5-39.5

A NSW Newspoll, taken from February to March from a sample of 1580, had the Coalition leading by 51-49, unchanged from November to December 2016. Primary votes were Coalition 40% (down 1), Labor 34% (down 2), Greens 10% (down 1) and One Nation 8%. Premier Gladys Berejiklian had initial ratings of 44% satisfied and 21% dissatisfied, while Opposition Leader Luke Foley’s net approval was up 2 points to -4.

The 2015 NSW election result was 54.4-45.6 to the Coalition, so Newspoll implies a 3 point swing against the Coalition. The by-election results suggest a larger swing, but by-elections are not good guides to general elections. Governments usually do badly at by-elections because people are inclined to vote against the government, knowing that such a vote will not change the government.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

With Syria missile strikes, Trump turns from non-intervention to waging war



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Military strikes against a Syrian airforce base mark Donald Trump’s first big foreign policy test as president.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Ben Rich, Curtin University

The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time. The Conversation

The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.

The operation

On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.

The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.

Unlike the actions of his predecessor, Barack Obama, prior to the 2012 Libya intervention, Trump sought no international legal sanction for the strike.

The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.

The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.

The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.

The strikes were launched from the USS Porter.
Reuters

Trump’s humanitarian intervention?

What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump emphasised the need to embrace a transactional approach to foreign relations that placed little value on human rights.

The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.

Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.

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However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.

Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.

This view is itself dubious and inconsistent with a conflict where the US has largely turned a blind eye to half-a-million dead Syrian civilians over the past six years. The US has increasingly contributed to this toll in recent weeks.

A worrying precedent

A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. As with many of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.

Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.

Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.

This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.

The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.

The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?

Ben Rich, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.