Sunni support vital in Iraq; Hong Kong elections; Singaporean discontent By Hamish McDonald.

Islamic State may deliver Kurdistan

Peshmerga soldiers fly the Kurdish flag at Mosul Dam, after recapturing it from Islamic State forces.
Credit: REUTERS / Youssef Boudial

No wonder Tony Abbott and Defence Minister David Johnston were so keen to avoid parliamentary debate this week on the creeping military reinvolvement in the Middle East. When the ultimate commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, admits that “we don’t have a strategy yet”, we know it’s all short-term thinking in Canberra until guidance comes.

To be sure, the so-called Islamic State is revolting enough. But Obama is saying the present “messy” world situation is “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War”. You wouldn’t know that in Canberra, where Abbott has gone into overdrive with the rhetoric, going beyond labelling the IS a “death cult” and “pure evil” to declare it worse than Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union because the latter two didn’t advertise their atrocities.

So the Australian Defence Force, which military analysts say is pretty exhausted after near 15 years of continuous operations, is gearing up again: first food and water drops from the air to beleaguered Yazidis, then a landing in Erbil to deliver ammunition to the Kurds, next the dispatch of F/A-18s to join United States and British air strikes, and
a hint of deploying the SAS on the ground.

All tested khaki politics. But as a former US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said in Sydney this week, the situation in Iraq’s Kurdish region now looks stabilised, with the IS pushed back from some towns and the key Mosul Dam recaptured. All this intervention might achieve is to find Abbott sharing honours as the liberator of the Kurds. An Iraqi official was allowed to inspect the arms shipment this week, but the Iraqi ambassador in Canberra seems to be struggling to find out what’s going on.

Hill points out that while the Kurdish leadership is keen on an independent Kurdistan, it’s long been aware this can’t happen without the blessing of Turkey – because its own Kurdish minority might want to join – and of the US, so far reluctant to approve the break-up of the Iraq it recently rebuilt. “But things are changing,” Hill says. The Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now moving from the prime ministership to the presidency, has called for an independent Kurdistan, a break with previous policy. The Americans are still reluctant, but the longer the IS crisis goes on and the longer Iraq’s Sunnis refuse to acknowledge that the Shia are a majority in the country, the more likely is Washington to accept the ground reality.

1 . Global Sunni support critical

Former ambassador Hill also points to the wider sectarian conflict going on, partly fuelled by elements in Saudi Arabia pumping money to Salafi extremists among Sunni communities worldwide in the hope they will stay out of the kingdom.

And the US and its allies were too quick to call for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria once the Arab Spring uprising took hold. “It was less of a pro-democracy movement and more of a sectarian knife fight,” Hill said.

This is a predicament unlikely to be solved with air strikes and special forces, or even a large-scale military intervention. As it is, Obama’s critics are pressuring him to extend bombing into Syria, without explaining how this could avoid entrenching Assad or harming the remaining moderate rebels.

The Sunni majority of the worldwide Ummah (Muslim community) has to be engaged, to cut off support and recruitment for groups such as the IS, and to work out understandings with the Shia. Building perhaps on the diplomacy that saw Assad hand over his chemical weapons, a wider peacemaking effort would involve enemies and rivals talking to each other. This may be starting to happen anyway, with Iran’s deputy foreign minister going to Riyadh last week for the first bilateral talks since the moderate Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president last year. Earlier, both Riyadh and Tehran endorsed the replacement of stood-down Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi, who is seen as more inclusive.

For the wide range of countries such as Australia that have seen hundreds of their young Sunnis go to Syria as volunteers, we should hear more about those who fight with opposition groups in straight military fashion or work with civilian relief organisations. Their part in a political compromise for Syria will be pretty vital.

2 . Beijing crimps HK democracy

The battle for full democracy in Hong Kong has come to the crunch. Last Sunday, Beijing came out with its ruling that candidates for the first direct election of the special territory’s chief executive, to be held in 2017, would still have to be cleared by a 1200-member nominating committee stacked with pro-Beijing figures.

Protests have been mounted by the Occupy Central movement (Central is the name of the big business area) but the police are now taking a firmer line and making more arrests for obstructing normal activity, and Beijing has marshalled counter-demonstrations by “patriotic” elements, many of whom seem to come from outside Hong Kong.

Another disturbing development was a raid last week by the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption on the home of Jimmy Lai, a frequent critic of Beijing and publisher of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. This came after pro-Beijing legislators queried reports Lai had given large donations to pro-democracy legislators and protest groups. Any illegality appears to have been on the side of the recipients, for not declaring the gifts as required under Legislative Council rules, so the ICAC may not have Lai in its sights. But if an undeclared donation is turned into a bribery case, it would be a very disturbing development indeed. The big banks and accountancy firms that have distanced themselves from the democracy movement, and withdrawn advertising from Lai’s newspapers, might find their environment not so reassuring and business friendly.

3 . Singapore leaders’ fading popularity 

Singapore is another island where grassroots politics are taking a more democratic turn, though there is no big brother like Beijing to block it.

An unprecedented upsurge in support for opposition parties − once derided by the People’s Action Party government, which has ruled since 1959, and hounded by massive defamation suits − has seen the PAP vote fall sharply since Lee Hsien Loong, son of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, became prime minister in 2004. The PAP has been looking at ways to regain popularity. Under the first-past-the-post voting system, another big shift in 2016 could put the PAP majority at risk. Last month, Lee tackled one cause of the unease, announcing that the government would top up the payouts from the national Provident Fund for low-income retirees. The fund and its mandatory savings have been a centrepiece of social welfare and capital formation in Singapore. But a growing number of Singaporeans, it seems, doubt that the mandarins running sovereign investment funds such as Temasek Holdings will generate enough from their savings to cover their old age.

The angst of the Singaporean is meanwhile captured in a list going round the internet called “60 signs you’ve been in Singapore too long”, including: “You think that $100,000 is a reasonable price for a Toyota Corolla and $1 million is a reasonable price for a bungalow, but $5 for a plate of fried noodles is a barbarous outrage; you believe that not being able to get decent roti prata outside Singapore is enough to keep the best and the brightest people from leaving; you see nothing wrong with forming committees of select elite people to deliberate and study ways to stimulate creativity and spontaneity.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Islamic State may deliver Kurdistan".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.