World

US withdrawal from Syria sees Russia and Assad supporting Kurds against Turkey. Peter O’Neill facing arrest in PNG. Setbacks for nationalists in Eastern European elections. China’s power play with NBA. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russia backs Kurds as Erdoğan attacks

Turkish military vehicles carrying tanks and equipment head to the Syrian border as farmers work in a cotton field.
Credit: Burak Kara / Getty Images

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Syria: Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and to abandon support for the Kurdish forces who helped to defeat Daesh has been criticised as a shameful betrayal by his most ardent political supporters. But some of the most biting criticism has come from the United States military. “It’s a stain on the American conscience,” an army officer told The New York Times in an article published this week.

The move has damaged the trust of America’s allies and raised further concerns about relying on commitments made by Trump, who, apparently on a whim, agreed to the withdrawal during a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “He went off script,” a military official told Fox News.

The immediate beneficiary was Erdoğan, who swiftly launched a brutal offensive against the Kurds. He fears that an autonomous Kurdish presence on his southern border could strengthen Kurdish separatists within Turkey.

But other beneficiaries have now emerged, including some of the US’s strategic rivals.

Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, deployed troops to the country’s north this week after reaching a deal with the Kurdish-led forces to resist the Turkish onslaught. This allowed Assad’s troops to return to areas they had not occupied since 2012.

Russia, which supports Assad, was another beneficiary, effectively taking over the US’s role as local powerbroker. On Tuesday, a Russian journalist posted a video online of Russian units entering a base that had been abandoned by the US. “They [the US] were here yesterday, we are here today,” he said.

The other potential beneficiary is Daesh, whose fighters have reportedly escaped from prisons and camps in previously Kurdish-held areas.

Turkey wants to gain control of territory reaching 32 kilometres into Syria and to relocate up to two million Syrian refugees there.

Trump has described Erdoğan’s conduct as “dangerous and destructive” and on Monday imposed sanctions on Turkey. The European Union also condemned Turkey and suspended arms exports. The war now threatens to unravel the NATO alliance, which joins the US, Europe and Turkey in a 70-year-old project whose stated aim is to “build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict”.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Papua New Guinea: Five months after his resignation as prime minister, Peter O’Neill was this week holed up in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Port Moresby, apparently trying to avoid an arrest warrant for alleged corruption. Police said they could not provide details of the alleged crime due to the “sensitivity of the investigations”.

But O’Neill claimed the warrant related to renovations of a health centre in Madang, saying it was a “witch-hunt” by a political enemy, Bryan Kramer, who has long accused him of corruption.

O’Neill became prime minister in 2011 and initially signalled he would tackle the country’s endemic corruption. He set up an anti-corruption taskforce, which proved effective, but he later disbanded it after it accused him of corruption.

In May, Kramer, now the police minister, helped to bring about O’Neill’s downfall following a scandal involving a $1.2 billion government loan from the Australian branch of Swiss bank UBS.

Responding to the warrant, O’Neill said on Tuesday that he only learnt about it through social media and was willing to make himself available to hear the complaint. He was eventually able to secure an interim order to prevent his arrest. The dispute will be heard in court on Monday.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Eastern Europe: During his current nine-year stint as Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a staunch nationalist and self-declared advocate of illiberal democracy, has undermined media independence, filled the judiciary with loyalists and meddled in election processes. The result has been a consolidation of power and a run of strong electoral successes for him and Fidesz, his ruling party.

Last weekend, however, he suffered his first serious setback after opposition parties won control of 10 of 23 cities in regional elections.

“Budapest will be ... free,” declared Gergely Karácsony, an opposition politician who won the mayoral contest in the capital.

In Poland, a parliamentary election also resulted in a blow, albeit a slight one, to Eastern European illiberalism, after the ruling Law and Justice Party won a second term but lost its majority in the upper house. In the 460-seat lower house, it won a narrow five-member majority. The party has undermined the independence of the media and judiciary and attacked the LGBTQIA+ community, but has also introduced popular increases to welfare spending.

These setbacks for the nationalist rulers of Hungary and Poland were both due in part to the opposition’s success in co-operating and uniting around joint candidates. Such collaboration may be crucial in countries where public debate and electoral processes have become loaded in favour of the ruling party.

In Hungary, the opposition also benefited from the emergence of a video showing the mayor of the city of Győr, Zsolt Borkai, from the ruling party, taking part in a sex party on a yacht. The video undermined Fidesz’s Christian conservative credentials, particularly after Orbán was slow to respond. Borkai was returned as mayor, but later quit Fidesz.

SPOTLIGHT: China and the NBA

Two weeks ago, the manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, Daryl Morey, sent a relatively innocuous tweet supporting the protesters in Hong Kong. He quickly deleted it but it was too late. Chinese fans and officials expressed outrage, sponsorship deals were suspended and television and online broadcasts were dropped. In China, the NBA has an estimated 500 million fans.

Following the backlash, the NBA, which is typically regarded as America’s most progressive sports league, released a statement that acknowledged the offence to Chinese followers but supported Morey’s freedom of expression.

A Chinese-language version of the statement was notably more apologetic, saying the NBA was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate” tweet.

But the controversy, which has pitted revenues against principles, continues.

On Monday, LeBron James, one of the NBA’s most prized players, criticised Morey and suggested the manager “wasn’t educated on the situation” and was only thinking about himself. This year alone, James has earned $US89 million, including lucrative sponsorships that could be affected by the China fallout.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy protesters burned jerseys with James’s name on it. He was also widely criticised in the US by politicians, commentators and fans. Clay Travis, of Fox Sports, said: “Turns out if you pay him enough LeBron won’t just shut up and dribble, he’ll defend communist dictatorships.”

The entire incident has not only jeopardised the NBA’s presence in China but also forced companies around the world to consider the price they place on free speech.

In recent years, Hollywood has changed the content of its movies to gain access to the Chinese market, and companies such as Gap, United Airlines and Marriott have agreed to Chinese demands to change images and wording deemed offensive. US politicians have denounced such conduct. Responding to the NBA incident, Senator Ted Cruz, an avid Houston Rockets fan, said that “human rights shouldn’t be for sale”.

Five days after Morey’s tweet, Apple removed an app that allowed Hong Kong protesters to track the movements of police. Chinese state media had accused the company of assisting “rioters”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Russia backs Kurds as Erdoğan attacks". Subscribe here.

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