Ultra-realism on Gaza’s prospects; New ambassador for Indonesia; Macau casino staff up stakes. By Hamish McDonald.

Conflicts reveal Arab Spring tensions

Protesting workers from Macau’s major casinos march past Casino Lisboa this week.
Protesting workers from Macau’s major casinos march past Casino Lisboa this week.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring becomes ever more a tangle of crossed strategic wires.

Now Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been launching air strikes against the Islamist militia fighting for control of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, against a clan-based adversary. Qatar, the emirates’ neighbour in the gulf, backs the Islamists there and elsewhere, but stepped in to ransom an American journalist from a clutch of Islamists in Syria. Turkey, a NATO member, is lined up with Qatar, which hosts the headquarters of the Palestinian group Hamas. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party and the al-Thani family emir of Qatar are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was removed from government in Cairo by the American and Saudi Arabian-supported Egyptian military.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (aka ISIS or ISIL, now known as simply Islamic State) grew out of the rebellion sparked by the Assad regime’s brutal repression of Arab Spring protests in Syria. IS is being bombed by the Americans and British on the Iraqi side of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and by Assad’s air force on the Syrian side. This week Barack Obama okayed surveillance flights over Syria as a prelude to air strikes against IS there, as long as it’s not seen as helping Assad.

In the Kurdish sector of Iraq, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party, regarded as a terrorist movement by the Americans and Europeans, have come across from Turkey to help fight off IS. The US-installed Iraqi government in Baghdad is meanwhile getting support from Iran and Russia as well as the Americans. Vladimir Putin’s cold-blooded gamble on Assad is starting to look astute. Tony Abbott, who once characterised the Syrian conflict as “baddies versus baddies”, is now floating the idea of getting the Australian air force to join in the bombing.

1 . Ultra-realism on Gaza’s prospects

The bloody logic of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza is engaging some of the ultra-realists among American strategic thinkers.

Take this idea from Daniel Byman, a former staffer on the 9/11 Commission and now a professor of security studies at Washington’s Georgetown University. Violence helps Hamas win support over its Fatah rivals among Palestinians, he pointed out this week in Foreign Policy online. “Israel also faces many limits when trying to deter Hamas,” he said. “The Jewish state won’t escalate indefinitely – it has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, and Hamas knows this. In addition, Israel is highly casualty-sensitive: if Hamas kills 10 Israelis and Israel kills 100 Gazans, then Hamas claims victory – and Israelis agree.”

T.  X. Hammes, a former US Marine Corps officer now at the US National Defence University, writes on the website War on the Rocks that periodic assaults on Hamas – likened to “mowing the grass” by some Israeli commentators – are getting too hard to repeat. The dilemma will only get worse, Hammes says, if Hamas switches from rockets to widely available commercial drones.

Hamas could choose to make precision attacks on civilian targets, such as school buses, chemical plants, or passenger planes on the ground, but would not be able to say it lacked the precision weapons to avoid civilian casualties. But if drones were used against military targets such as barracks or parked F-16 fighters, the shift from terrorism would “place even more pressure on Israel over the proportionality of its response,” Hammes says.

Byman argues that if Hamas cannot be fully defeated, and isolating it politically and economically makes it more likely to lash out, Israel’s strategy should be to transform it. “Because Hamas cares about governing Gaza as well as defeating Israel, it should be given a stark choice: if it ends its own violence and launches a full crackdown on other militant groups in Gaza, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza will be eased. Palestinian moderates, working with the international community and Israel’s neighbours, would control crossings to prevent the smuggling of arms.”

The new ceasefire that started on Tuesday night, worked out by Israel and Palestinians in Cairo, heads in this direction, a tradeoff between lifting the economic embargo in return for demilitarisation of Gaza. After the deaths of 64 Israeli soldiers, six civilians and an estimated 2139 Palestinians, and billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage over the past seven weeks, let’s hope this truce lasts.

2 . Candidates line up

Canberra will shortly have to choose a new ambassador to Indonesia, with present envoy Greg Moriarty finishing a turbulent four-year posting at the end of the year.

The new ambassador should be someone equipped to influence the greenhorn president, Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi”, who takes over from Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on October 20.

Presumably credentials will be presented to the new president rather than the old. A clutch of senior career diplomats are in the running, including Peter Woolcott, son of the 1970s occupant of the Jalan Teuku Umar ambassadorial residence, Richard Woolcott, along with at least one military figure.

Jokowi, 53, could do with some tactful policy guidance from Indonesia’s friends, now that the court challenge to his election win by rival Prabowo Subianto has been comprehensively dismissed. He has the right instincts about sharpening delivery of government services, and aims to cut the domestic fuel subsidies, running at more than $25 billion a year, during his first five-year term. But his “transition team” of policy advisers has drawn mixed reviews. The university rector Anies Baswedan is widely respected for his emphasis on greater access to higher education, and the academic defence specialist Andi Widjajanto – son of the late army general Theo Syafei, whose troops captured Timor resistance leader Xanana Gusmão in 1992 – is said to favour a more professional military than the present semi-political garrison force.

However the chair of the team, Rini Soewandi, is a worry. A former chief of the local Toyota partner Astra and a Jakarta Stock Exchange executive, she was trade minister in the 2001-04 government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, where she showed herself to be “very protectionist” and inclined to preferential treatment of some interests, according to one long-time economic analyst. The two other Jakarta politicos on the panel also seem steeped in the existing milieu of Jakarta elite politics. “It’s not good news at all,” the economist said. “The transition team is the first real worrying sign about what a Jokowi administration may mean for economic policy. Hopefully a temporary blip.”

3 . Casino staff roll the dice

Socialism surfaced this week in the unlikely setting of Macau.

On Monday a thousand croupiers and other casino staff assembled outside the Sands Macau gambling palace of right-wing American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, and marched down to the government offices in the former Portuguese enclave, now a Chinese special zone. The route took them past other casinos, including those owned by the Melco Crown partnership of Lawrence Ho and James Packer.

As well as demands for more money and perks, the staff are seeking greater protection from passive smoking. Packer won exclusion from regulations about smoking for his casino in Sydney’s Barangaroo project, arguing high rollers won’t come unless they can puff away. Now it seems the Nanny State is striking at the very heart of global gambling.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 30, 2014 as "Conflicts reveal Arab Spring tensions".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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