US Supreme Court hangs in balance; trouble in PNG and Fiji. By Hamish McDonald.

Vladimir Putin seeks gains amid limits of Syrian ceasefire

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week.

Vladimir Putin was not wasting any time in trying to make gains on the ground in Syria this week while the United Nations was trying to nail down the ceasefire his foreign minister had agreed to call.

Images of destroyed hospitals and schools across northern Syria, hit mostly by Russian air-launched missiles and bombs on Monday, three days after the ceasefire call alongside the United States, filled the world’s TV screens. One video showed a Russian fighter-bomber dropping what appeared to be a cluster bomb in the rebel-held city of Aleppo. About 50 civilians were killed, including children. 

Earlier, Putin’s favourite home warlord, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov, so useful in quelling his own people and bumping off Putin challengers in Moscow, revealed his “special forces” were in Syria helping the client regime of Bashar al-Assad and calling in such Russian air strikes.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura went to Damascus and got Assad to agree to allow humanitarian relief into seven besieged towns and suburbs. The first aid convoy went into a rebel area on the fringe of Damascus on Wednesday. The ceasefire was supposed to take effect on Friday, a week from the agreement to pursue it by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Hopes are not high. The ceasefire does not include Daesh or the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. Putin may take this as cover for continuing to strike at the moderate groups opposing Assad, labelling them as “terrorists”. Turkey shelled positions in Syria held by Kurdish fighters, whom the US is supporting.

Two key US allies proposed insertion of ground forces into northern Syria. A senior Turkish official briefed reporters that it was now impossible to halt the war without a ground operation in northern Syria, and that the Turks would not undertake such an operation on their own. “We are asking coalition partners that there should be a ground operation,” he said. “We are discussing this with allies.”

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, conducted what it said was the largest military exercise it had ever held, with troops from 20 countries including Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Malaysia. It is also talking with the Turks about using their air bases for strikes into Syria. 

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said Assad will have to be removed “by force” if peace talks fail to do the job. “I can tell you that there is some serious discussion going on with regards to looking at a ground component in Syria, because there has to be a possibility of taking and holding ground, that one cannot do from the air,” Jubeir told CNN. “We are saying we will participate within the US-led coalition, should this coalition decide to send ground troops into Syria, that we are prepared to send special forces with those troops.”

The US so far have only about 50 special forces soldiers inside Syria, advising Kurdish militias and the Sunni-based Free Syrian Army and helping call in air strikes, and their focus is against Daesh. For Barack Obama to switch to a wider ground operation against Assad forces would be a major departure. But failure of the ceasefire would increase calls for at least an air exclusion zone over moderate rebel areas in the north. Germany’s Angela Merkel made such a call this week, though she meant one that Russia agreed to observe.

1 . US Supreme Court hangs in balance 

The US primaries circus rolls on to South Carolina on Saturday, with the more mainstream campaigners hoping the results will start to shake off their populist rivals. 

Livening the week’s activity, Jeb Bush brought out his brother George in the hope his more folksy appeal would warm public affection. This gave Donald Trump his excuse to raise the Iraq folly and point out the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred during the George W. Bush presidency. Whether it also emphasised Jeb’s woodenness may be shown on Saturday. 

Hillary Clinton recalled an old radio show featuring a dog that barked when a lie was told and suggested such a lie detector be applied to assertions by Republican candidates. Unwisely, in this cut-and-paste media age, she then imitated a barking dog. 

Republicans were sideswiped by the sudden death of conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, creating a vacancy that left the apex court evenly balanced between liberal and conservative judges on issues such as abortion, gun control, gender equality and campaign financing. The new appointment could swing the court to the liberals, possibly for decades.

The Republicans, who hold a majority in the senate, said they would stall any nomination until after the presidential election. They said it would be improper for a “lame-duck” president to make such a nomination, ignoring some 14 precedents of such final-year appointments to the Supreme Court bench, including by Republican presidents.

Obama said he would proceed with nomination of someone with an “outstanding legal mind”. Among possible contenders is former deputy US solicitor-general Sri Srinivasan, the son of Indian migrants. As the Republican majority passed his nomination to a federal court bench in 2013 unopposed, stalling could be bad politics. The Republican chairman of the senate judicial committee is already backing away from the pledge not to even consider any Obama nomination.

2 . No happy talk in South Pacific

There’s trouble in the South Pacific’s two biggest states. Papua New Guinea’s government is running out of cash. Fiji’s government is running out of opposition members of its parliament.

In PNG, public servants are not being paid on time, teachers didn’t get their entitlement of an annual airfare home for Christmas, and budgets for health and education are being slashed, as the ABC’s Jemima Garrett reported this week. The collapse in petroleum prices just as the ExxonMobil liquefied natural gas project came on stream is the immediate cause, but Prime Minister Peter O’Neill didn’t help by loading up debt as well. PNG’s total public debt is now put at 56 per cent of GDP, according to the Lowy Institute’s Jonathan Pryke, rather than the 35 per cent admitted in the government’s budget. 

At the end of the month, O’Neill has to refinance a $US1 billion loan taken out to finance the acquisition of a 10 per cent stake in Oil Search, the Australian partner in the ExxonMobil project, whose shares are still trading well below the price paid by PNG. O’Neill’s irregular approval of the loan threatened to bring him before a leadership tribunal that potentially could remove him from office, but legal moves have so far staved that off. 

In Fiji, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama’s Fiji First party used its majority to back a ruling by speaker Jiko Luveni suspending the three members of the opposition National Federation Party. NFP leader Biman Prasad had been an active chairman of the parliament’s public accounts committee in scrutinising government spending. 

It came after a critical op-ed by Prasad in a Suva newspaper. Two days later, the government’s election supervisor found the NFP’s accounts had been audited by an Australian firm, not a local one as required. Instead of giving the NFP the 60 days allowed in the electoral law to remedy this, a 30-day suspension of the party was imposed, followed by the speaker’s move against the MPs.

Ro Teimumu Kepa, the opposition leader heading the Social Democratic Liberal Party or SODELPA, then took her 15-member block out in sympathy, leaving only the 32 Fiji First members in parliament. As the SODELPA party draws on the ethnic Fijian supporters of the party Bainimarama deposed from power in his 2006 military coup, her feistiness shows all is not happy in the majority ethnic group. 

The heavy-handed move against the opposition, a secretive arms deal with Russia, and insertion of army officers into the police command suggest Bainimarama sometimes forgets that since the 2014 elections he is a civilian prime minister.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Taking ground and talking ceasefire".

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