US bill for wars estimated at $5 trillion; Putin gains more seats; Anti-immigrant party joins Berlin’s local parliament; Labour activist found guilty after Thai factory exposé By Hamish McDonald.

Syrian truce over as aid convoy bombed

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence extinguish burning trucks carrying aid on the outskirts of Aleppo this week, after a convoy was hit by air strikes.
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence extinguish burning trucks carrying aid on the outskirts of Aleppo this week, after a convoy was hit by air strikes.
Credit: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP / Getty Images
As it was about to move to the next phase of Russian–American co-operation against the extremist opposition, the truce in Syria fell apart early this week. United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov got down to intensive efforts to see what could be retrieved.

An air strike by the US-led coalition against what it thought was a Daesh position outside an airbase at Deir ez-Zor held by Syrian government forces last Saturday night ended up killing more than 60 Syrian soldiers by mistake. Australian aircraft were involved, but Defence Minister Marise Payne wasn’t giving any details. Officials from other countries were more upfront, revealing that American A-10 “Warthogs”, Danish F-16s and British air force Reaper drones were involved.

Australia has two types of aircraft that could be “involved” in such an attack, the F/A-18 strike fighters and the Wedgetail airborne control aircraft, if you assume that aerial refuelling tankers and transport planes are not counted. It would be more embarrassing perhaps if it was a Wedgetail, since it would have been directing things.

US reports say the site had been under various types of remote surveillance for two days previously, which had noticed a lot of what looked like irregular soldiers inside a compound. It seems these might have been new conscripts for the Syrian army who weren’t yet acting like regulars.

The US Central Command was appointing one of its generals to conduct an inquiry, and Payne was content to defer to that. Coming shortly after she announced a change to the law to allow Australian forces to hit Daesh members not in combat roles without risking war-crime charges, the stuff-up is not a good look. The incident adds to a long list of US-led air strikes that have hit “friendly” forces or civilians in the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

On Monday, Bashar al-Assad’s government said the truce was over. Not long after, its helicopters began dropping barrel bombs on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, killing about 30 people, and an air strike hit a United Nations aid convoy that was finally driving in from Turkey. The attack left 18 of the 31 trucks carrying food and medicines burnt out, and at least 12 of its drivers and officials dead, including members of the Syrian Red Crescent.

US officials briefed reporters that two Russian fighter-bombers were in the air over the convoy at the time of the attack. After talking with Lavrov, Kerry called for immediate grounding of military aircraft in “key areas” such as where aid was being delivered. He said Russia was living “in a parallel universe” and letting Assad extend “the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II”. Initial reaction from Russian officials suggested Moscow thinks the US would not take the next step of declaring a no-fly zone.

1 . $5 trillion on wars

If Barack Obama is hanging back from a decision to try to force Assad to negotiations, here’s why. As the 9/11 attacks of 2001 have just been commemorated, an academic has been totting up the cost of the wars they prompted over the 15 years since. For the US, the bill comes close to $US5 trillion, and of course the wars haven’t even finished.

Neta Crawford, in a project for Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, came up with a total of $US4.79 trillion, of which $US1.7 trillion was direct war appropriations, with the rest coming from related spending on military bases, domestic security, diplomatic activity, local aid and nation-rebuilding, and veterans’ health. That’s not counting the interest payments on borrowings to finance this spending, or the budget allocations requested for the year ahead.

Some other costs of war couldn’t be included. “A full accounting of any war’s burdens cannot be placed in columns on a ledger,” Crawford wrote. “From the civilians harmed or displaced by violence, to the soldiers killed and wounded, to the children who play years later on roads and fields sown with improvised explosive devices and cluster bombs, no set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars.”

2 . Putin landslide

If Vladimir Putin was getting criticism abroad, he was home and hosed in elections for Russian’s parliament, the Duma, on Sunday where his ruling United Russia party got about 75 per cent of the seats and most of the liberal opposition got swept away.

This was despite an economy that contracted by 3.7 per cent last year and looks like shrinking by nearly 1 per cent this year, while corruption continues rampant. As if this wasn’t enough to assure an easy run for re-election as president in 2018, Putin is now preparing to restore his intelligence services to their old KGB dominance.

Kommersant, a newspaper favoured by the Kremlin, reported plans to create a new security octopus, the Ministry of State Security or MGB, into which the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) would be merged, along with a service protecting government leaders and officials.

3 . Berlin turns to right

Currents from the Middle East vortex continue to push the politics of Western countries rightwards, with the citizens of Germany’s most liberal city, the capital Berlin, delivering a much larger than expected vote for the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany or AfD.

Gaining 14.2 per cent of the vote, the AfD will join Berlin’s local parliament for the first time, and seems set to get seats in the Bundestag, the national parliament, in elections next year. Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and the centre-left Social Democratic Party got their worst results. Analysts see German politics settling into a left–right spectrum of six large minority parties, rather than the longstanding CDU–SDP contest.

A rash of small-scale terrorist attacks in the US, inspired by Daesh and carried out by young Muslim online recruits, was meanwhile more manna for Donald Trump as he heads towards the first debate with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday our time. Daesh has already declared its hope for a Trump win, joining Putin among his backers.

4 . Jail for exposing Thai exploitation

Three years ago, a Finnish non-government organisation published a report on exploitation of migrant workers in Thailand, citing the example of a company called Natural Fruit and its pineapple-processing factory, where 700 of the 800 workers came from Myanmar and all of those interviewed said they were getting less that the minimum wage, then equivalent to $US6.90 a day.

Finnwatch said the family of one worker killed by electric shock got only 10 per cent of compensation required by Thai law. The company confiscated the passports of the foreign staff, and required them to pay deposits if they wanted them back for trips home.

Instead of getting an inquiry into the alleged abuses, Finnwatch found its local researcher, British labour rights activist Andy Hall, before a court on charges of defamation and computer crimes. This week it sentenced Hall to three years’ jail, suspended for two years on good behaviour − presumably meaning no more embarrassing reports.

Natural Fruit still has two civil claims against Hall seeking damages of about $US11.5 million. Its vice-president, Kachin Komneeyawanich, this week told reporters he was happy with the verdict, saying that the report had caused “colossal” damage to the company’s profits and reputation. “We are fighting for our honour,” he said.

Others said the court decision was a green light for companies to exploit foreign workers. Thailand has come under severe criticism for conditions of near-slavery for workers in fishing fleets, prawn farms and food processing, as well as domestic service and prostitution.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2016 as "Syrian truce over as aid convoy bombed".

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