Sri Lankan polls; heads roll over 1MDB scandal; Russia to host clash of tank titans. By Hamish McDonald.

Multisided conflict behind enemy lines in Middle East

Kurdish fighters clash with Daesh on the outskirts of Hasakeh, Syria.
Kurdish fighters clash with Daesh on the outskirts of Hasakeh, Syria.
Credit: AFP

Mine enemy’s enemy is my friend. It’s not much of a guide anymore to the conflicts of the Middle East after Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan waded in to the Syria fighting with air strikes at both the Daesh in Syria and a Turkish-Kurd militia in northern Iraq.

Daesh is fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but that doesn’t make Assad a friend of Erdoğan, who has been hoping for his fall and allowing cross-border support for moderate groups fighting Assad’s army. 

The United States is hostile to Assad and directly in air combat with Daesh in Iraq. But in that fight, it’s aligned with the People’s Protection Units or YPG, a militia attached to Turkey’s banned Kurdish opposition that operates from camps in northern Iraq. Across the border in Syria, the YPG has been highly effective against Daesh. By settling scores with his Kurdish opposition (the Kurdish vote was important in Erdoğan’s recent election setback), the Turkish leader has damaged the American-led coalition against Daesh.

Erdoğan has now given the green light for US aircraft and drones to launch attacks against Daesh from Turkish bases, avoiding a long transit up from aircraft carriers in the Gulf, with the aim of establishing a “safety zone” in northern Syria, from which non-extremist groups can take the fight to Assad. Calling it a safety zone rather than a no-fly zone is a way of avoiding a veto by Assad’s Russian friends in the UN Security Council. The question now is: Where are the moderate fighters? The US has so far managed to train only 60 Syrians who fit the bill, making the Kurdish contribution all the more important.

So we now have a multisided conflict involving: Daesh, the US- and Iran-backed Iraqi government, Iran and its local militias in Iraq, Kurdish separatists in three countries, Assad who is backed by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which is regarded as a terrorist outfit by the US, the US-backed Free Syrian Army, the Sunni Arab states hostile to Iran and fighting its allies in Yemen as well as fighting Daesh in Iraq, and now Turkey, a NATO member that is fighting or hostile to Iran, the Syrian regime and the Kurds. 

With RAAF jets striking the Daesh in Iraq, and perhaps soon in Syria, we are aligned with the US, the Iraqis, the Iran-backed militias in Iraq, and the Kurds. It’s all making the job of the Abbott government’s anti-terrorism supremo, Justice Minister Michael Keenan, a rather hard one, trying to persuade people that any civilian going to join any side deserves the same treatment on return as someone joining Daesh.

We also wait to see how Daesh looms in Abbott’s new defence white paper, expected to land about three weeks from now. In one astonishing speech, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called Daesh a bigger threat than was the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and recently reasserted it was an “existential” threat to Australia. Abbott himself of course warns that Daesh is coming to all of us, demanding “submit or die”. It makes you wonder the point of all this expensive insurance against China − in the shape of F-35 fighters, Sōryū-class submarines, and Aegis destroyers − when the threat is so clear.

1 . Sri Lankan polls

Upcoming parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka deserve close watching. The egregious former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is trying to use them as a way back into power a little more than half a year after his party secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, turned against him and successfully appealed to an electorate disgusted with his government’s corruption, nepotism and persecution of critics.

Rajapaksa still has support within Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and won its nomination for a seat in the August 17 general elections. If he wins, he will then build support in the parliament and bust the coalition supporting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a conservative allied with Sirisena. 

Sirisena won the January presidential election with a promise to surrender the executive powers of the presidency back to the prime minister responsible to the parliament. He could now be wounded with his own sword. However, Rajapaksa has to count on Sri Lankans having short memories of his abuses of power, and his reliance on Chinese aid projects to pump money into the economy. This week they got a reminder when the police and the central bank confirmed they were investigating allegations a Chinese port developer gave Rajapaksa’s campaign $US1.1 million in gratitude for a $US1.4 billion contract.

2 . Heads roll over 1MDB scandal

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, is hitting out more wildly as a scandal over funds allegedly siphoned his way from a state investment corporation deepens.

This week he sacked his deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, and four other ministers and replaced the attorney-general over the scandal around 1Malaysia Development Berhad, known as 1MDB, which has debts of more than $US11 billion. The Wall Street Journal recently reported nearly $US700 million went from 1MDB into personal accounts of Najib, around the time of elections in which his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition returned to power.

A few days earlier Muhyiddin made a public call for Najib to explain what has been happening at the corporation, where the prime minister sits as chairman of its advisory board. He said the coalition, led by Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), could lose power if not. The attorney-general Abdul Gani Patail, who had been leading so far inconclusive investigations into 1MDB, was replaced because of “ill health”. His successor is a former judge with strong UMNO ties.

So far Najib has not acted to sue the WSJ for defamation, but he has acted against local media reporting the case. Last month, authorities applied a three-month suspension, effective on July 27, of publishing permits to The Edge Media Group, whose business daily has closely followed the 1MDB scandal, on the grounds its reporting threatened “public order”. Earlier, they blocked local internet access to the British-based Sarawak Report.

3 . Russia to host clash of tank titans

It’s not exactly the smell of napalm in the morning, but close to it. Teams from 17 countries convene on Saturday at a military firing range outside Moscow for the annual World Championship Tank Biathlon. 

The Russians are providing each team with three of the latest-model T-72 battle tanks plus one spare, painted in different colours, to compete in getting past tank traps, fording water obstacles, driving through flaming barriers, and shooting their cannons. 

The 15-day fest of armoured power also involves 12 other contests including “Masters of Air Defence”, “Masters of Artillery Fire” and “Airborne Platoon”. The Russian hosts will be the only ones to compete in all 13 events. The Indian team has had its tanks blessed by a Hindu holy man. China’s team insists on bringing its own derivative of the T-72, known as the ZTZ-96A, even though it’s regarded as under-powered compared with the Russian original.

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 1, 2015 as "Multisided conflict behind enemy lines".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on September 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.