Benjamin Netanyahu facing corruption claims; North Korea in Winter Olympics charm offensive; Harry Harris the new ambassador to Australia. By Hamish McDonald.

Continuing wars within wars in Syria

US Vice-President Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
US Vice-President Mike Pence and Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Daesh may be ousted from its urban strongholds and its followers scrambling for the exits through Turkey, but Syria now has three side wars going on, alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime’s fight with Sunni rebels that grew out of the Arab Spring political upheavals of 2011.

Early last Saturday morning, Iranian forces inside Syria flew a drone, cloned from a downed United States unmanned surveillance aircraft, into Israeli airspace. It was chased by an Israeli attack helicopter and quickly shot down. Within an hour, Israel dispatched eight F-16 strike fighters to attack the Iranian launch site deep inside Syria at Palmyra. On the way back, one of the F-16s got hit by a Syrian missile or anti-aircraft fire, crashing after its two crew ejected just inside Israeli lines.

Two days earlier, US aircraft and artillery struck at a column of Assad’s forces that had crossed the Euphrates River into the north-eastern Syria zone declared off limits to the regime by the American coalition supporting Kurdish and Sunni Arab militias against Daesh. About 100 of Assad’s soldiers were reported killed.

In January, as we’ve seen, the Turkish army started an assault on the Afrin enclave in north-western Syria held by Kurdish YPG fighters, in what was oddly titled Operation Olive Branch. Though suffering casualties, the Turks are threatening to move east towards the Manbij area, which would potentially bring them into conflict with US forces.

The downing of the F-16 is seen as a blow to the image of impunity for the Israeli air force, which had previously made dozens of strikes inside Syria against Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, part of the Shiite help for Assad along with the Iranians. Assad himself is meanwhile making indiscriminate attacks on rebel enclaves in north-western Idlib and a suburb of the capital Damascus named eastern Ghouta.

Though Syria is not turning into the “quagmire” for Russia that Vladimir Putin was warned about, the messy and continuing conflict shows his hope of orchestrating a peace that preserves his military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean is far from assured. This is partly because he seems unable to control his Syrian and Iranian allies. But at least he’s helped widen a dangerous rift between the two NATO partners with the biggest armies, Turkey and the US.


Shekels and hide

Soon after showing Iran that a red line was a red line, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu got a yellow card from his own police force. On Tuesday it announced it was recommending to the attorney-general that Netanyahu be charged for corruption over two scandals. One case could blow back to the shores of Sydney Harbour, and the banks of the Yarra and Swan rivers.

The Israeli police said their investigations had gathered enough evidence for charges to be laid for “bribery, fraud and breach of trust”. The first case involves allegations that Netanyahu and his family got valuable gifts from international billionaires, including cigars, Champagne, jewellery, and hospitality. James Packer had given the Netanyahu family gifts valued at 250,000 shekels ($A90,000). Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan had given 750,000 shekels worth.

Packer has an investment in a cybersecurity company in Israel, and has been seeking resident status, but has denied the gifts were anything more than generosity to friends. Milchan is said to have received Netanyahu’s help with a US visa matter and Israeli tax breaks.

The second case concerns secret talks Netanyahu held with the publisher of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, in which Netanyahu allegedly asked for positive election coverage in exchange for hampering the rival free newspaper Israel Hayom, published by his long-term supporter, Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Nothing much seems likely to happen immediately. The attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, is expected to take several months to decide how to act on the police brief. Netanyahu reaffirms his innocence and insists he’s staying as prime minister until elections due late next year.

Israeli police are not suggesting Packer will be charged with anything, but connection with Netanyahu’s scandal is not a good look. Hit by China’s crackdown on his high-roller customers, Packer has sold out of Macau and Las Vegas to concentrate on his existing Melbourne and Perth casinos, and his controversial casino-hotel-apartment project in Sydney’s Barangaroo precinct.


Charm à la Kim

Hemmed in by tighter sanctions applied by China and worried about Donald Trump’s threats of a pre-emptive strike on his nuclear facilities, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un made a deft move out of the playbook written by his late father, Kim Jong-il, turning on a charm offensive at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

For the opening last weekend he sent the most senior figures to visit Seoul since the North Korean People’s Army briefly captured Seoul in 1950 at the start of the Korean War. They were led by the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, but more daringly, in a flourish of dynastic royalty, his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong.

In addition there were athletes for joint teams with the south in some events, a squad of young female supporters chosen for their good looks, and a cultural group. While many are aware of the cynicism behind it, South Koreans are susceptible to all of this. The royal Ms Kim got a meeting with President Moon Jae-in and passed on an invitation from her big brother for him to visit Pyongyang. She looked serene, sitting just behind US Vice President Mike Pence, who looked as awkwardly stiff as if he’d found himself dining alone with a woman who is not his wife, a practice he avoids.

It all buys time for Pyongyang to work on its nuclear forces. If he goes to Pyongyang, Moon would be treading the “Sunshine Diplomacy” path of his late predecessor Kim Dae-jung, who had to secretly fork out $US500 million to get his Nobel peace prize-winning meeting with Kim Jong-il, and then was portrayed by the north as supplicant to the truly Korean regime.


Harry’s style

As widely expected, Trump has nominated the commander of the US Pacific fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, as new ambassador to Australia, filling a post vacant for some 15 months. One old Australian acquaintance unlikely to be invited to the embassy’s July 4 party is David Hicks.

Harris was commander of the US base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the internment camp for al-Qaeda prisoners between March 2006 and June 2007. This covered the last year of Hicks’s internment at Guantánamo, which began after being arrested in Afghanistan trying to escape in late 2001 where he’d been involved with Islamist militants. After pleading guilty to aiding terrorism in a military kangaroo court, Hicks was repatriated to Australia in May 2007 and held in an Adelaide prison until the end of that year.

His time at “Gitmo” was a period when “enhanced interrogation” techniques were in full swing. Harris was a tough commander. When three detainees hanged themselves, he said it was not the result of maltreatment. “I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us,” he said at the time. Some years back your world editor made a freedom of information request for the reports on consular visits to Hicks by the Australian embassy in Washington. The resulting documents were so black with redactions as to be meaningless.

Harris will no doubt be a polished ambassador and learn not to embarrass his host government by publicly urging gestures against China’s moves in the South China Sea. Beijing hasn’t helped itself with racial taunts that his Japanese ancestry (through his mother) is to blame. His background at Gitmo will be a plus for some elements in Canberra.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "Continuing wars within wars in Syria".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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