Kurds could fight for Iraqi homeland; US hawks eye Iran forces in Syria; PNG elections begin By Hamish McDonald.

Duterte wants Daesh out by Ramadan’s end

Shuttered shopfronts sprayed with pro-Daesh graffiti in Marawi, on the Philippine island of Mindanao this month.
Shuttered shopfronts sprayed with pro-Daesh graffiti in Marawi, on the Philippine island of Mindanao this month.

As forces press into the Daesh bases of Mosul and al-Raqqa, a line of the Roman historian Tacitus comes to mind: They make a wasteland and they call it peace. Yet even before the Islamist cult loses the devastated territory of its proclaimed caliphate, it is spreading violence far and wide, while the likely victors are skirting close to conflict among themselves.

In the southern Philippine city of Marawi, Daesh fighters from across Asia and the Middle East have teamed up with local warlords and their armies who combine Islamic faith with traditional practices of piracy and hostage-taking for ransom. They have been holding the city centre for nearly five weeks against government troops employing heavy weapons and air strikes. President Rodrigo Duterte has told his army to clear them out by this weekend, when the Muslim fasting month is due to end and more fanatics might turn their thoughts to battle.

Neighbouring countries are trying to fence off the surrounding region, with Indonesia and Malaysia announcing joint sea patrols with Philippine units. Indonesia’s military says it will build up its forces in northern Sulawesi and Morotai. The United States has kept a small number of its special forces in Mindanao since the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks. For a while, Australia is believed to have run a covert operation with its SAS troops as well. They might be returning soon.

In Britain, Daesh got the reaction it wanted from the mass slaughter by its remote recruits in Manchester and London: a spike in hate crimes against Muslims, and early on Monday, the van attack on a crowd leaving prayers at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London. What it didn’t count on was the restrained, dignified and articulate rejection of terrorism and hate-crime response by the mosque’s imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, and other worshippers. They secured the attacker and handed him to police.

The mosque was previously notorious as a hotbed of extremist jihadism under its former imam, Abu Hamza al-Masri, from 1997 until 2004 when Hamza was arrested, jailed in Britain, then extradited to the US where he is serving a life sentence for terrorism-related offences. After a two-year shutdown, the mosque reopened under new trustees in 2005. It’s now described as a model for relations between Muslims and the wider community.

Kurds consider fight for homeland

Back in Iraq and Syria, the fighting gets closer and costlier to trapped civilians. In the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, the proclaimed capital of the Daesh caliphate, tens of thousands of inhabitants, prisoners and Yazidi slaves are held by the Daesh defenders, after some 160,000 people have fled.

On the ground, Kurdish and Arab irregulars in the Syrian Democratic Forces were pressing into the city on two sides. From the air, US and coalition aircraft have been bombing perceived Daesh targets. But a United Nations commission has reported “staggering loss of civilian life” and video emerged of what appeared to be use of white phosphorus bombs, an incendiary banned from use against human targets.

In the confused lines of battle, a US F/A-18 shot down a more elderly Syrian government Sukhoi Su-22 that was allegedly strafing the Syrian Democratic Forces on the edge of al-Raqqa on Sunday, despite earlier warnings. In response, Russia announced it would start tracking all US coalition aircraft west of the Euphrates River, on which al-Raqqa sits, and not answer a “deconfliction” hotline set up with American air controllers. At its bases on the Syrian coast, Russia operates its latest S-400 air defence system, which covers much of the region and puts all but the latest stealth aircraft at risk. Australia announced it was suspending operations over Syria until further notice. The Americans continue to bomb around al-Raqqa from the east, and report that phone contact is resumed with the Russians.

With the Iraqi government close to regaining Mosul on their side of the struggle, it faces a new challenge from its Kurdistan Regional Government, which has announced it will hold a referendum on independence on September 25. The prospect of the oil-rich region departing Iraq has got the US and the European Union aghast, not to mention the Iraqi and Turkish governments. That could be the start of a new war, using the battle-tested Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey to carve out a homeland in what they would see as a fluid moment in history.

US eyes Iran forces

Back in Washington, advisers to President Donald Trump are debating whether to open a war with Iran in Syria, once Daesh is pushed out. A joint report by Foreign Policy and Just Security said it’s an argument between civilian hawks on Trump’s National Security Council and a more moderate military.

The hawks want the US to start attacking the Iranian militias and Revolutionary Guard units supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government, instead of just reacting defensively when the Iranian units and drones get close. “Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once,” the report said.

Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is also working against his boss by trying to get Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies to back off their sudden embargo of Qatar, home of a vast US military base, which Trump initially supported. Tillerson’s officials said they were “mystified” by the Saudi move and queried its motives. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has gone further, elevating his hawkish son Mohammed bin Salman, 31, to heir apparent in a sudden move on Wednesday. The new crown prince, also defence minister and state oil chief, has directed the Saudi-led coalition in its bloody and inconclusive war against the Houthis, a Shiite group in Yemen. In a recent New York Times interview he spoke of taking “the battle” to Iran.

As a candidate, Trump said the US should avoid “pointless” Middle Eastern wars. His Saudi embrace could be taking him into another one, with Russia backing the other side.

PNG to the polls

Papua New Guinea starts its national elections on Saturday, and with electoral officials and police being rotated around the country to conduct staged voting, the exercise winds up two weeks from now. After counts and recounts, and maybe legal challenges, there will be a result later in July.

Michael Somare is bowing out of parliament, after 49 years’ service that began before independence in 1975. Current Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has achieved a first in surviving in office the full five years of a parliamentary term, and is running a slick campaign to get re-elected, campaigning on his record of providing free school education and medical clinics, even though neither has been fully delivered.

Holding elections every five years since 1975 and maintaining an independent judiciary as a referee is a wonderful and unique record in the developing world. Yet the political class has not delivered. “PNG politicians are failing their people,” says economist Paul Flanagan, a former consultant for both the Australian and PNG treasuries. Using numbers from both the PNG National Statistical Office and the International Monetary Fund, he’s found that from 1980 to 2017, economic wellbeing in PNG per citizen declined by an extraordinary 40.4 per cent.

The resource sector – oil and gas, gold, copper, nickel – has boomed, but the benefits have been not been spread around. “Focusing on mining and petroleum resources has tended to create a dualistic economy with development benefits captured only by a few,” Flanagan reports. “It has led to the Bougainville civil war. The new figures … reinforce this lesson with a harshness that is surprising.

“Given the poor linkages between the resource sector and broader measures of economic wellbeing, a new development paradigm is needed for PNG. Focusing development efforts around people, such as support for smallholder agriculture or encouraging the informal sector, will lead to more widespread and inclusive benefits. The O’Neill government, with its reliance on the resource sector, doing deals with rich mates, and its record of economic mismanagement, will not get PNG’s development back on track. PNG deserves better leaders from its forthcoming election.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 24, 2017 as "Duterte wants Daesh out by Ramadan’s end".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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