World

Covid-19 and the US presidential election. Samoan chief found guilty of human trafficking in NZ. Ceasefire in Idlib, Syria. Chance to form government in Israel. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Idlib ceasefire benefits al-Assad

Women stand on a Syrian roadside near burning tyres during a protest this week against the agreement on joint Russian and Turkish patrols.
Credit: Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders started their debate last weekend with a friendly elbow tap and then remained a healthy two metres apart. It was the first debate in almost 50 years without a live audience and included a discussion of preferred handwashing techniques. Sanders, 78, is using “a lot of soap and hand sanitisers”; Biden, 77, is opting for hot water and soap. Biden also pointed out that he does not have any of the underlying conditions that increase the risks from Covid-19.

As the week continued, the outbreak worsened in the United States and the country began to shut down. It became clear that Covid-19 will seriously disrupt the Democratic primaries and is likely to reshape the presidential elections in November.

On Tuesday, the primaries continued, though Ohio postponed its vote. Biden, a moderate, extended his strong lead in the delegate count after beating Sanders, a progressive, in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. But several states, including Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Maryland, this week delayed upcoming votes. The Democratic National Committee has urged states to consider early voting or postal ballots, saying the decision to delay elections has “bred more chaos”. All states are supposed to finalise results by June 20.

Biden, since securing his strong lead, has begun to appeal to progressives, adopting a plan – first proposed by Sanders – to offer free college tuition for lower-income students. He also promised to pick a female running mate. Former candidates Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar have been named as contenders; both have been described by Biden as potential presidents. Another possibility is Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia in 2018 and was the first black woman to represent a major party in a race for governor. Biden, who served as vice-president under Barack Obama, has not signalled his preference. He says he wants a running mate who is “simpatico with me philosophically”. 

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

New Zealand: A Samoan chief who lives in New Zealand has been found guilty of human trafficking and enslavement after a jury rejected his defence that his conduct was attributable to Samoan cultural concepts of honour and service.

Joseph Auga Matamata, who is based in Hastings on the North Island, promised schooling and jobs to Samoans and paid for their travel to New Zealand before making them work without pay for up to 16 hours a day in his fields or his home. Some of his captives were allegedly beaten.

Matamata, 65, was this week found guilty of 23 charges involving human trafficking and dealing in slaves. It was the first time in New Zealand that a person has been charged with both crimes.

Several victims said Matamata’s status as a matai, or chief, meant they felt compelled to obey him. The youngest of the 13 victims, who came from three villages, was 12 years old. One victim told the court he would pick apples or asparagus from 6am to 10pm without a break. He said he worked six days a week and received no wages but would sometimes be given $NZ20.

Matamata’s lawyer claimed Samoan concepts of “duty, honour, service and family” meant that Matamata was obliged to provide for his extended family and that this could involve pooling wages. The lawyer said Matamata was a “father over extended family which extends beyond bloodlines” and had to weigh individual welfare against the common good.

Matamata will be sentenced in May. He faces up to 20 years in jail.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Syria: In Idlib, the last significant rebel-held province in Syria, a ceasefire between Russia and Turkey has ended recent fighting that caused almost one million people to flee in less than three months. But there is little hope that the deal will prevent the Russian-backed Assad regime from trying to recapture the province.

Despite the truce, few local residents have returned home. Many remain in overcrowded, makeshift camps along the Turkish border. Aid groups have warned that a Covid-19 outbreak in the area would be catastrophic.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s ruler, made strong gains from the recent fighting, seizing nearly half of the province. The ceasefire, agreed to by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, effectively allowed al-Assad to keep his gains.

Erdoğan’s main priorities were to end attacks on Turkish troops in the province and stem the flow of refugees. During talks with Putin, he abandoned his insistence that the Syrian military withdraw to lines set out in a 2018 deal.

Now, Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces are strengthening their positions. Erdoğan has made it clear he will oppose any further push by al-Assad, who insists he will seize the rest of the province.

This week, Syria entered its 10th year of war. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have died, and 12 million have been displaced.

SPOTLIGHT: ISRAEL DECIDING

In the past year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Benny Gantz have fought three elections, with inconclusive results.

This week, for the first time, it was Gantz, a 60-year-old former military chief, who was given the first opportunity to form a government. In Israel, the president, whose role is otherwise largely ceremonial, assigns the task of forming new governments to the party leader deemed most likely to be able to assemble a majority coalition.

In the election on March 2, Gantz’s centre-left bloc won 55 seats, compared with 58 for Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc. Crucially, however, Gantz secured the potential backing of Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular, ultranationalist party that won seven seats and effectively held the balance of power.

On Monday, Gantz promised to form a government that would “heal the Israeli society of the coronavirus, as well of the virus of hatred and division”.

But Gantz’s prospects for becoming prime minister are still uncertain. His coalition depends on the support of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties that holds 15 seats. But several parliamentarians who are part of Gantz’s bloc say they will not form a government that depends on the backing of the Arab parties. One Knesset member has already rejected Gantz’s prospective coalition, and three others have privately signalled they will refuse to join.

Alternatively, Gantz and Netanyahu could form a unity government with a rotating leadership. Netanyahu, as leader of the largest party, would be expected to rule first. After earlier elections, Gantz insisted he will not serve under Netanyahu, who is facing criminal charges for alleged corruption. But the Covid-19 outbreak prompted Gantz to shift his stance, saying he may support an emergency unity government to deal with the crisis. This could enable Netanyahu to remain in power for a limited time until the outbreak passes. But Gantz says such a government must include all parties, including the Joint List. This was rejected by Netanyahu, who said he will not serve with “terror supporters”.

Netanyahu’s trial was due to start on Tuesday. Due to the coronavirus, it has been postponed until May.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2020 as "Idlib ceasefire benefits al-Assad".

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

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