Turkey moves on Kurds. Trump and the FBI memo. Ber­lus­coni pos­si­ble king­maker. Ger­many close to coali­tion de­ci­sion.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Hamish McDon­ald

In late Jan­uary six Royal Aus­tralian Air Force strike jets ended three years of at­tacks on Daesh po­si­tions in Iraq and Syria and flew back to Aus­tralia. But it’s still not time to de­clare “mis­sion ac­com­plished”. In the Mid­dle East, it never is. As soon as one front shuts down, an­other opens.

Daesh may have lost the ter­ri­tory it de­clared its caliphate in 2014, but could still re­group, es­pe­cially if Iraq’s elec­tions in May end up fur­ther alien­at­ing the coun­try’s Sunni mi­nor­ity. Mean­while, the Kur­dish YPG fighters, who did much of the ground fight­ing that the RAAF helped sup­port, now face at­tack from be­hind.

Turkey’s Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan sent his army two weeks ago to at­tack the YPG forces hold­ing an en­clave around the city of Afrin, in the north-western bor­der re­gion of Syria. He claimed tacit sup­port from Rus­sia, which con­trols the air space there. Though he hasn’t yet taken Afrin, he’s threat­en­ing to move against the Kurds hold­ing the town of Man­bij, to the east, which is part of a much larger en­clave held by the YPG and al­lied mili­tias, to­gether known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces.

Er­doğan’s move came af­ter re­ports that Wash­ing­ton was plan­ning to build up and sus­tain a force of 30,000 mostly Kur­dish fighters in Syria’s north to pre­vent a Daesh re­vival and to im­prove its bar­gain­ing po­si­tion in a Syr­ian peace set­tle­ment. The Turk­ish move was to head off what Er­doğan fears will be the ba­sis of a per­ma­nent Kur­dish en­clave, sup­port­ing Turkey’s do­mes­tic Kur­dish in­sur­gents.

It may yet be a quag­mire of Turkey’s own. The Kurds, mean­while, have be­come a cause for the world’s ro­man­ti­cists of the mil­i­tary per­sua­sion. About 150 for­eign­ers have joined up with the YPG to help hold the north­east Syr­ian re­gion they call Ro­java, cer­tainly in­clud­ing some from the United States and Bri­tain, and per­haps Aus­tralia.

The Kur­dish ques­tion is help­ing pull the US and Turkey fur­ther apart, de­spite com­mon NATO mem­ber­ship. Er­doğan is veer­ing to Rus­sia, his lead­er­ship tak­ing on the same char­ac­ter as Vladimir Putin’s and his mil­i­tary eye­ing a Rus­sian air de­fence sys­tem.

Putin has seized con­trol of the

Syr­ian peace process, which has been go­ing nowhere un­der United Na­tions aus­pices. In the Black Sea re­sort of Sochi early this week, a con­fer­ence at­tended by 1600 del­e­gates re­solved to form a com­mis­sion to draw up a new con­sti­tu­tion for Syria. The largest group op­posed to Bashar al-As­sad stay­ing in power, known as the High Ne­go­ti­a­tions Com­mit­tee, boy­cotted the meet­ing, but it’s be­ing left in the dust.

Trump and the FBI

Don­ald Trump’s State of the Union ad­dress on Tues­day got him marks for stick­ing to script, but be­fore he even left Capi­tol Hill he was deep in a new con­tro­versy about his elec­tion cam­paign’s con­tacts with Rus­sia.

He en­dorsed “100 per cent” a move by the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­man, Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s staunch­est Repub­li­can back­ers, to re­lease a memo slur­ring Fed­eral Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion of­fi­cials look­ing into Trump’s pre-elec­tion con­tacts with Rus­sia. The FBI said it has “grave con­cerns about ma­te­rial omis­sions of fact that fun­da­men­tally im­pact the memo’s ac­cu­racy”.

The Pen­tagon has mean­while or­dered its spe­cial in­spec­tor-gen­eral for Afghanistan re­con­struc­tion to stop pub­lish­ing data on how the Tal­iban are ex­tend­ing con­trol, de­spite Trump’s ex­tra US troops and air strikes and cuts to Pak­istan’s aid. The in­sur­gents are also mount­ing spec­tac­u­lar sui­cide raids into Kabul it­self.

Ber­lus­coni re­vival

It could be “bunga bunga” time again in Italy, as Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni, 81, shapes up to be the king­maker in for­ma­tion of gov­ern­ment af­ter elec­tions four weeks from now.

Ber­lus­coni him­self is barred from pub­lic of­fice un­til 2019 be­cause of a con­vic­tion for tax fraud, and the scan­dal from his par­ty­ing with hired, very young women hangs over his hair-grafted head.

Yet with Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal sen­ti­ment driven far to the left and right by eco­nomic stag­na­tion and waves of boat peo­ple ar­riv­ing from Africa, his pro-busi­ness Forza Italia party is look­ing rel­a­tively moder­ate and cen­trist. With about 15 per cent vot­ing sup­port, it could emerge as the swing fac­tor in the new par­lia­ment.

Merkel deal close

In Ger­many, An­gela Merkel’s cen­treright Chris­tian Demo­cratic group this week cleared the lat­est ob­sta­cle to form­ing a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with the left-cen­tre So­cial Demo­cratic Party, fol­low­ing the in­con­clu­sive re­sult of Septem­ber’s elec­tions.

Mi­gra­tion was the stick­ing point there as well. Martin Schulz, the SDP leader, faced what has been called a “dwarf up­ris­ing” in his party ranks over pro­pos­als for strict lim­its on the num­ber of fam­ily mem­bers that refugees from war-torn coun­tries can bring in – an is­sue that in Septem­ber helped the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land gain the first post1945 pres­ence of a far-right party in the Bun­destag.

The par­ties have now agreed that a mora­to­rium on such fam­ily re­unions will con­tinue at least un­til Au­gust, to sat­isfy con­ser­va­tives, but to pla­cate the so­cial­ists, there­after 1000 fam­ily mem­bers will be ad­mit­ted each month, plus an un­spec­i­fied num­ber of hard­ship cases.

Pyne for Payne?

While wel­com­ing the jets back from the Mid­dle East, De­fence Min­is­ter Marise Payne faces some turf wars at home.

Re­ports sug­gested she her­self was con­sid­ered for the ejec­tor seat in Mal­colm Turn­bull’s re­cent min­is­te­rial reshuf­fle, with ap­point­ment as am­bas­sador to the Euro­pean Union and NATO for com­pen­sa­tion. Ap­par­ently the hard­work­ing and mod­est Payne was not mak­ing enough khaki po­lit­i­cal mileage for the Coali­tion.

By con­trast, her ju­nior as min­is­ter for de­fence in­dus­try, Christo­pher Pyne, was out of the blocks im­me­di­ately as the silly sea­son ended this week an­nounc­ing a $3.8 bil­lion fund to help pro­pel Aus­tralia into the top 10 ranks of arms ex­porters. For this oth­er­wise pro-mar­ket gov­ern­ment, money and ide­ol­ogy are no prob­lem when it comes to the de­fence in­dus­try. But surely, to get any­where against ex­porters such as the French, Bri­tish or Rus­sians, some ex­cep­tions to our anti-cor­rup­tion pro­vi­sions would be re­quired.

There’s also a con­test over one of the jew­els in the de­fence crown, the Aus­tralian Sig­nals Di­rec­torate, fol­low­ing its re­cent trans­for­ma­tion into a statu­tory body. De­fence brass seem wor­ried this will draw the di­rec­torate from its tra­di­tional tasks in­ter­cept­ing and crack­ing mil­i­tary data flows into the ex­pand­ing fields of cy­ber­se­cu­rity, coun­tert­er­ror­ism, fi­nan­cial track­ing and crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. Pe­ter Dut­ton’s new Home Af­fairs min­istry is mov­ing all over these ar­eas like a cane toad in­va­sion.

This week the de­fence forces chief, Air Chief Mar­shal Mark Bin­skin, an­nounced a new sig­nals in­tel­li­gence and cy­ber com­man­der would be in­serted along­side civil­ians into the ASD “to en­sure sup­port to mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions

• re­mains the agency’s high­est pri­or­ity”.

Mem­bers of the Free Syr­ian Army, backed by the Turk­ish army, in the moun­tains of Syria’s Afrin re­gion this week.

HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s world ed­i­tor.

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