US buzzes Korea; Cosying up to Brits; Clinton’s ill tidings; Russia’s Trump card By Hamish McDonald.

Australia to work with Russia in Syria

Julie Bishop and British Foreign Secretary  Boris Johnson at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, ahead of trade and defence talks.
Julie Bishop and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, ahead of trade and defence talks.
Next week, all going well with the ceasefire in Syria, the Royal Australian Air Force could be sitting down with Russian air commanders to discuss targeting of mutually agreed enemies in the battered country.

This bizarre situation, awkward for the Coalition politicos back in Canberra who continue to seek those responsible for the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, would come in the next stage of the agreement reached last Saturday between the United States and Russia.

The ceasefire took hold at sunset on Monday in Syria, after a final bombing frenzy by the Russian and Assad regime air forces that killed about 90 people and produced more horrendous suffering for survivors. It was to be renewed every 48 hours, and if still holding this Monday, the Russians and Americans will sit down to discuss targets for co-ordinated air attacks. US officials have said representatives from some 11 other countries will take part, too. These will almost certainly include Australia, which has one of the biggest contributions to the US-led air campaign.

The targets will be elements of Daesh and the al-Nusra Front (now trying to mask itself under different names). Other opposition groups are being urged to use the initial week of the ceasefire to separate themselves from these two jihadist outfits or become collateral damage.

Much can go wrong, and hopes are not high. Bashar al-Assad said he will keep fighting all “terrorists”, meaning any variety of opposition. Turkey includes the Kurdish YPG, valued by the US as an effective force against Daesh, on its list of terrorists and will continue pushing it eastwards.

Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations special envoy, is trying to reconvene peace talks but the shape of any transitional regime to emerge from a ceasefire and expulsion of the extremists is disputed. Assad is not going anyway, and his Iranian and Hezbollah backers want his Alevi–Shiite regime in power. The Americans and Saudis want him out. The Russians want to be sure a secular replacement could be sustained, having seen what happened in Afghanistan and Libya at different times, though they like what the Egyptian army has done. The Syrian army is greatly weakened, and what general would put his hand up for a military council to replace Assad?

1 . US buzzes Korea

It’s called reassurance. On Tuesday, the US Air Force sent two of its large B-1 bombers on a low-altitude pass over South Korea, in response to the latest North Korean nuclear test conducted a few days earlier while Barack Obama was making his farewell tour of Asia.

The bombers were escorted by Japanese fighters, which peeled off just outside South Korean airspace to be replaced by American and Korean jets, showing a new degree of co-operation between the Japanese and Koreans since Shinzō Abe and Park Geun-hye patched up frayed diplomatic relations in December.

The Obama administration is talking about tighter sanctions on North Korea, but effectively they would now have to include any Chinese enterprise engaged in trade and financial flows with the North. The big question about South Korea is whether it can withstand trade pressure from China aimed at getting it to withdraw approval for local basing of the US missile defence system known as THAAD, which Beijing worries could knock out its nuclear missiles as well as those of Pyongyang. Park got a stiff warning from Chinese supremo Xi Jinping about it on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hangzhou this month.

2 . Cosying up to Brits

It’s been sickening how the Turnbull government has rushed to start talks on a post-Brexit free trade agreement with London, without a critical word about the damage done to broader Western interests by those in the new Tory government, and as if the Australian public will be enthused about another trade deal.

To use a term dear to Bazza McKenzie, it was even more chunderous to see, a week back, Julie Bishop in London gushing with her British counterpart Boris Johnson about rekindling ties and having our young people continue the old rite-of-passage working visits. Boris certainly knows how to duchess these colonials. Defence Minister Marise Payne was equally taking us far from Australian areas of interest, to seek closer defence ties with the Brits and NATO.

Australia is increasingly a model for the nastier type of European, however. Its points-based immigration system and blocking of refugee arrivals were cited approvingly by then UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage ahead of the Brexit referendum. Now Australia and Hungary are calling for an “Australian-style solution” to Europe’s refugee crisis.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government is holding a referendum on October 2 on the European Union’s plan to apportion the relocation of recent arrivals from Syria around EU members. Only 1294 asylum seekers would be going to Hungary, but Orbán’s government has sent an 18-page booklet to Hungarian households urging citizens to reject the plan because it “endangers our culture and traditions”. It has a picture of a crowd of refugees, under a headline in John Howard-esque words: “We have the right to choose whom we want ... to live with.”

3 . Clinton’s ill tidings

Largely by staying quiet for the past couple of weeks, Donald Trump has narrowed the gap in opinion polls with Hillary Clinton, suggesting he and his latest campaign advisers have learnt something.

The silence seems to have counteracted more bad publicity about his personal financial deals, including about how he used his Trump Foundation charity to virtually bribe the Florida official directing inquiries into the fraudulent Trump University and to pay for his own consumption, notably to buy a $US20,000 portrait of himself as a young sportsman.

Clinton just seems to make things worse for herself. It wasn’t so smart to dismiss half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” who were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it”. She is, after all, seeking their votes. Then her bout of pneumonia, diagnosed but kept secret two days before she buckled at Sunday’s 9/11 commemoration in New York, brought new criticism about a “furtive” pattern of behaviour. As former Obama campaign manager David Axelrod tweeted: “Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What’s the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?” Wisely, Trump just said it was “sad” and wished her recovery.

4 . Russia’s Trump card

An American scholar embedded in a Russian foreign ministry think tank, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, has given us a look into why Vladimir Putin is so obviously trying to nobble Clinton’s campaign with hacking.

Clinton Ehrlich wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this month that Clinton has personally hurt − yes, hurt! − Putin by virtually calling him a neo-Nazi. On top of that, her closeness to George Soros has caused fears they will instigate a “colours”-style revolt against Putin. And there’s her threat to Russian strategic interests by supporting a no-fly zone in Syria (when the last one in Libya led to regime change).

“Given the ongoing Russian operations, a ‘no-fly zone’ is a polite euphemism for shooting down Russia’s planes unless it agrees to ground them,” Ehrlich wrote. “Clinton is aware of this fact … In other words, if she backs Putin into a corner, she is confident he will flinch before the United States starts a shooting war with Russia.”

“Moscow prefers Trump not because it sees him as easily manipulated, but because his ‘America First’ agenda coincides with its view of international relations,” Ehrlich adds. “Russia seeks a return to classical international law, in which states negotiate with one another based on mutually understood self-interests untainted by ideology.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2016 as "Australia to work with Russia in Syria".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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