World

Daesh's last Syrian enclave set to fall. Oil spill off Solomon Islands. Russia plans to disconnect local internet from the web. May's Brexit chaos continues. By Jonathan Pearlman.

May needs third chance for Brexit

The British prime minister, Theresa May, speaks to lawmakers in the house of commons, London, on Wednesday.
Credit: Mark Duffy / UK Parliament via AP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Syria: In the small town of Baghuz in far eastern Syria, the final enclave of Daesh’s so-called caliphate is set to fall.

The town, which had a pre-conflict population of more than 10,000 and was best known for its ancient funerary towers, is now a squalid war-torn mess. For weeks, United States-backed Kurdish forces have besieged the town and launched a series of assaults, stopping to allow thousands of Daesh fighters, supporters and civilians to emerge from the holdout.

This week, the fighting resumed – and the caliphate, declared in 2014, will soon no longer exist. But this will not mark the end of Syria’s troubles, or the challenges this broken state presents to the international community.

Daesh attracted supporters from around the world, and countries such as Australia will need to decide whether to let those supporters return. An Australian woman, believed to be Zehra Duman, who went to Syria in 2014 and married a fellow fighter from Melbourne who was later killed, said this week that her two young children are malnourished and she wants to return home. She will likely be allowed to, if she holds no other citizenship, but will then face prosecution. “I understand the anger that they have towards a lot of us [in Australia], but the kids don’t need to suffer,” she told ABC News.

Elsewhere in the country, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been trying to take control of the last area held by rebel forces, which are linked to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Daesh’s leaders are believed to have survived and are expected to mount an insurgency.

And then there is the war’s enduring legacy: about 12 million people who have been forced to flee their homes, including about six million who left Syria.

This has created a humanitarian disaster that continues to worsen. Representatives from 85 countries met this week in Brussels to discuss funding and aid. But previous funding promises have not been fulfilled, nor has a commitment to ensure every Syrian child would be able to attend school. It is believed more than two million children in Syria currently have no access to education.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

Solomon Islands: Rennell, the most southern territory in the Solomon Islands, is the world’s largest above-water coral atoll, a tiny island covered by dense forest and surrounded – until recently – by a thin, unbroken perimeter of crystal-clear water. But this perimeter now includes a black smudge: a growing trail of oil that has spilt from the MV Solomon Trader, a carrier that was grounded on a coral reef during a cyclone in early February.

So far, an estimated 90 tonnes of heavy fuel oil has spilt from the vessel, leaving a trail more than five kilometres long. The spill has killed marine life, contaminated fresh water supplies, and is slowly edging towards the southern third of the island, a United Nations World Heritage-listed site that includes native species and the largest freshwater lake in the South Pacific.

Following the failure of the ship’s owner or insurer to respond to the spill, Australia assisted in a salvage and clean-up operation, which will try to remove as much of the spilt oil as possible and pump out the remaining 550 tonnes from the ship’s ruptured tank. The clean-up could cost up to $50 million; the damage to wildlife and the effect on the livelihoods of local villagers will be harder to quantify.

But the disaster has raised serious questions for local authorities. First, why was the ship operating so close to shore? And, why was it there at all? The ship, which had been chartered by an Indonesian mining company, Bintan Mining Solomon Islands, was loading bauxite from a mine on the island for export to China. Analysts immediately suggested the mining operation was probably illegal.

The nation is in caretaker mode ahead of an election but most MPs have largely remained silent. Finally, the caretaker prime minister, Rick Hou, spoke out earlier this week, announcing an investigation into the mine lease and describing bauxite mining on Rennell as “immoral and unacceptable”. As the Solomon Trader keeps leaking, Bintan Mining’s other chartered vessels have reportedly remained in the nearby waters and continued to load up with bauxite.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Russia: Following his return as Russian president in 2012, Vladimir Putin began an assault on media freedom and ensured that almost all television networks and most radio and print outlets were controlled by the state or sympathetic business figures. This pushed the bulk of criticism and independent debate onto the internet, particularly social media. Russian authorities responded by conducting widespread arrests of social media users.

The government then began to take a growing interest in efforts to control the internet, including requiring social media networks to store all personal data of Russian users inside Russia. LinkedIn was banned for refusing to comply and authorities have been trying unsuccessfully to block the encrypted messaging service Telegram for refusing to allow security services to access its users’ messages.

Now, the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party has gone further and plans to disconnect its internet, Runet, from the worldwide web.

The government says the laws will boost security and mean internet traffic does not have to pass through the US. This satisfies a concern of Putin, who in 2014 called the internet a CIA invention (the actual inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, rejected the claim).

But critics say the new law will create an “internet iron curtain” and likened it to China’s “Great Firewall”. Thousands of people attended a protest in Moscow at the weekend, chanting “hands off our internet”. A protester and internet freedom activist, Sergei Boiko, accused the government of “battling freedom”.

“I can tell you this as somebody who spent a month in jail for a tweet,” he told the AFP news agency.

SPOTLIGHT: BREXIT

And so the Brexit mess continues and the world’s fifth-largest economy limps towards a potential self-inflicted cataclysm.

Two months after British MPs spectacularly rejected a deal to allow Britain to leave the European Union, Theresa May this week presented a new agreement to parliament. But British MPs rejected it, with 391 against the deal and 242 in favour – a slightly better result than the previous margin of 230 votes.

May had tried to win over MPs by making a last-minute visit to Strasbourg, where she claimed to have extracted new concessions from the EU. But the changes did little to appease concerns about the main stumbling block: how to close off Britain’s borders but keep an open border between Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and Ireland, which is part of the EU.

Still, as May warned, a failure to back her deal would leave Britain facing “bleak choices”. These choices are: leaving the EU without a deal, holding a second referendum on Brexit, or pursuing what quickly became known as “meaningful vote three”.

This week MPs decisively voted down a no-deal Brexit, which could suddenly end free trade between Britain and Europe, potentially creating shortages of food and medicine. This prospect of had stoked public fear and uncertainty, prompting businesses to prepare to go offshore.

On Thursday, MPs were offered a free vote on extending Article 50, which would delay Brexit. European Council President Donald Tusk voiced his support for a long extension to the Brexit deadline.

A breakthrough will be difficult though, as long as British MPs continue to ignore warnings about the consequences of inaction. But such wilful blindness – a preference for emotive appeals to nationalism or xenophobia over sober warnings by experts about the EU’s far-reaching and often beneficial impact on British life – has long been the guiding spirit for the Brexit debate.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "May needs third chance for Brexit". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.