Trump and Clinton recruit former CIA chiefs; Insiders vie to be Jakarta’s governor; Referendum blues in Hungary and Colombia By Hamish McDonald.

US hangs up on Russia over Aleppo bombing

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos (centre) with his family after voting in the referendum on a peace accord with guerilla rebels FARC, in Bogota, Colombia.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos (centre) with his family after voting in the referendum on a peace accord with guerilla rebels FARC, in Bogota, Colombia.
Credit: MARIO TAMA / Getty Images
The week started with John Kerry carrying out his threat to the Russians: We won’t talk to you anymore. The bombing of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian aircraft continued, with barrel bombs full of shrapnel or chlorine, white phosphorus incendiary bombs, and so-called “bunker buster” bombs hitting the rebel-held parts of the city. Hospitals were a particular focus.

It was a situation reminiscent of one some 80 years ago at the other end of the Mediterranean. Then it was the aircraft of fascist Germany and Italy pounding the cities of Guernica and Barcelona held by the doomed Spanish Republic, while the democratic powers withheld arms and oil under a non-intervention pact – horrified at the carnage, but worried by the political ties of the victims, in that case to the Soviet Union.

With a month until the United States presidential election, and less than four months until Barack Obama hands over to the winner – either the more hawkish Hillary Clinton or the unpredictable Donald Trump – the Russians and their client Bashar al-Assad were counting on a window of impunity to seize back control of this important part of western Syria, where some 70 per cent of Syrians live.

The US military has been active in the Syrian skies, but against Daesh and the Jaish al-Fatah, an alliance of Islamist factions including Fateh al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra. In a multifronted war, this may have helped Assad, while the regime readied its ground army and militias from Iran and Lebanon to enter Aleppo.

Just in case the US and its allies entertained ideas of taking out Assad’s air force, as advocated by 51 of the US State Department’s officials in a dissent from administration policy in June, the Russians were spotted installing their S-300 air defence missile system at their Syrian bases. It’s a bluff. The isolated Russians would have no choice but to stay grounded or pull out in the face of a US ultimatum backed by force. But then, what trouble would Vladimir Putin cause in eastern Europe to recover lost face? And what ownership would the Western powers have with endless conflict, insoluble schisms, in Syria? Maybe there’s an unspoken hope in some capitals that normal repression is resumed as quickly as possible, as it was in Egypt.

1 . Candidates recruit former CIA chiefs

Belligerent talk is all the go among the US presidential candidates, nonetheless, and they’ve been bringing as much retired military and intelligence agency brass onto their advisory panels as possible during the campaign. They in turn are lured by the prospect of administration posts, to bring them out of their obscure security consultancies.

The more discerning ones have not taken to Donald Trump’s ideas, such as intensifying the use of torture and targeting the families of terrorism suspects. But he got one high-profile recruit last month in former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey.

Woolsey was the CIA chief who allowed double agent Aldrich H. Ames to rise higher in the agency while spying for the Russians. When Ames was exposed in 1994, Woolsey resigned after a lot of criticism that he had mishandled the KGB mole’s unmasking. Woolsey’s support may not be the best of looks for Trump, who often expresses his respect for Putin, a former KGB officer.

Not that Clinton’s line-up of military-intelligence types is without blemish. They include General David Petraeus, penalised for leaking classified material to his girlfriend, and former acting CIA director Mike Morell, who helped produce flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

2 . Jakarta insiders

Elections for the governorship of the Indonesian capital are stretching the known boundaries of political promiscuity in that country.

The incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, is running for re-election in February. He has shown himself to be hardworking and pragmatic since moving up from deputy governor in 2014 when his chief, Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi”, got elected as Indonesia’s president.

But as his nickname “Ahok” indicates, he is of Chinese descent. Into the bargain, he is a Christian, in a city with a mostly Muslim population where some imams have been telling worshippers it would be haram (forbidden) to vote for such an infidel. So politicos have been using this vulnerability for advancement and revenge.

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom Jokowi pushed out as presidential candidate of her own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, threatened to run a popular Muslim candidate against Ahok – until Jokowi gave her former police adjutant Budi Gunawan a new perk as head of the National Intelligence Agency, BIN. Her previous attempt to boost Budi, by getting him nominated as national police chief early last year, caused a political crisis over Budi’s mysterious wealth. So now Ahok has PDI-P support.

He’ll be running against Anies Baswedan, whom Jokowi sacked as education minister in a recent cabinet reshuffle. Strangely, given his liberal reputation, Baswedan is backed by the Gerindra party run by the former special forces general Prabowo Subianto, and the Islamist party PKS. A third candidate has dynastic pretensions: Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is cutting short his army career as a mere major.

3 . Referendum blues

Going to the people is a risky business for politicians, as referendums are showing all over the place, the latest in Hungary and Colombia.

In Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos was showered with international praise for the peace deal he’d spent four years working out with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana. It promised to end a civil war that had gone on for 50 years, integrate FARC’s guerillas into constitutional politics, and wean them off kidnapping and drug trafficking. Last Sunday, it was rejected by 50.2 per cent of voters in a national referendum.

Santos hadn’t sold it to millions of people still resentful at their suffering and displacement caused by the Marxist rebellion. In particular, the lack of punishment for abuses by FARC rankled. Those who confessed to war crimes before a truth commission would be subject only to “restricted liberty” but could still run for political office.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán got a magnificent North Korean level of approval for his rejection of a European Union quota of 1300 mostly Syrian refugees and for his “cultural counter-revolution” enforcing a Christian identity. But while he got 98 per cent of the vote, less than 50 per cent of Hungary’s eligible voters took part in the referendum, meaning the result has no constitutional force. Orbán’s status as vanguard of the anti-immigration wave in Europe is greatly diminished.

The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has been in Turkey recently meeting the president he portrayed in a limerick as a goat-shagger, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the Brexit referendum, Johnson had waved around the threat of 76 million Turks joining the EU and being able to freely move to other member states such as Britain. In Ankara, he promised Britain would do everything it could to advance Turkey’s EU membership.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 8, 2016 as "US hangs up on Russia over Aleppo bombing".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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