Fairfax Sinos on; Chewing the Fat; Trying to reset the spinster cycle By Hamish McDonald.

Strange bedfellows in battle for Fallujah

A member of Iraq’s pro-government forces flashes the victory sign as smoke billows near the city of Fallujah last month.
A member of Iraq’s pro-government forces flashes the victory sign as smoke billows near the city of Fallujah last month.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend, as we’ve noted before in the context of Iraq and Syria, and this week we had the strange combination of the Royal Australian Air Force and Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani involved in the attempt to take the Iraqi city of Fallujah from Daesh.

With the rebooted Iraqi national army and United States special forces pushing into the city, the RAAF’s F/A-18s are some of the US supporting coalition’s air power pounding the estimated 1000 Daesh defenders. Suleimani has posted images of himself “co-ordinating activity” on the fringes of Fallujah where Shiite militias are running a cordon to prevent Daesh fighters escaping.

About 50,000 civilians were thought to be trapped inside Fallujah. The city took a pounding 12 years ago when the US military retook it from a previous bunch of Sunni extremists, in what was the biggest US urban assault since retaking cities captured by the Vietnamese communists in their 1968 Tet Offensive. One wonders what will be left this time. Daesh has spent the past two years digging underground hideouts and laying booby traps. Treatment of the civilians, mostly Sunnis, by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and its militia support will be crucial to avoiding a third return of extremists.

Fighting also stepped up across a swath of Iraq and Syria to the north. In Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga along with US advisers started a push into villages around Mosul last Sunday. In Syria, groups fighting as the Syrian Democratic Forces are advancing towards the city of al-Raqqa, the effective capital of the Daesh “caliphate”. They also have American special forces involved, some of whom have attached the emblem of the YPG, a Kurdish militia from Turkey, to their battledress. The Turks are annoyed.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, continued efforts to get peace talks going in Geneva as a partial ceasefire keeps fraying. However, the chief negotiator for the rebel forces, Mohammed Alloush, quit the role last Sunday in protest at the Assad regime’s intransigence in the talks and obstacles
to delivery of humanitarian aid.

Strangely, the tardiness of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s department bringing the 12,000 Syrian refugees Canberra agreed last September to take this financial year hasn’t been mentioned in the election campaign. Only a couple of hundred have so far arrived, allegedly because of stringent security checks and concern to see they will be properly housed. Canada, meanwhile, took in 25,000 Syrians from November to February.

1 . Fairfax Sinos on

The new cosiness of Fairfax Media with the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda department is nothing to worry about, just another printing job, according to Fairfax publishing chief Allen Williams. For the Chinese, it’s a big advance in projecting Beijing’s “soft power” with the result that “many myths will be dispelled”.

The visit on May 26-27 to sign the deal by Chinese propaganda chief and party Politburo member Liu Qibao drew little media attention here. But it was big news in China’s state-run media. Fairfax will print an eight-page supplement of Chinese-supplied content titled China Watch once a month and insert it in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Australian Financial Review.

The first issue, on May 27, showed us the kind of stuff being given such a platform here, with a full-page article upholding China’s claims to the disputed islands in the South China Sea under the headline “Manila has no leg to stand on”. The front page says it does “not involve the news or editorial departments” of the host newspapers, but there is nothing to suggest the content comes from China’s official media, subject to party censorship and direction.

Propaganda chief Liu, along with Gary Quinlan, acting head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, looked on as six agreements were signed. On the Chinese side, they involve the Xinhua News Agency, the China Daily, China Radio International, the People’s Daily website, and the Qingdao Publishing Group. On the Australian side, as well as Fairfax there were Bob Carr’s Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Sky News Australia, Chinese-language broadcaster Global CAMG, and Weldon International.

“These latest efforts will promote and deepen exchanges between media outlets in both countries and shore up the importance of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Australia in light of new realities,” China Daily reported the next day. It quoted Williams as saying the supplement would “enrich the content” of Fairfax newspapers and that Australian readers would be interested in reading in-depth coverage on China and Sino-Australian ties. Curiously, in his own newspapers, Williams was rather less effusive. It was just “a commercial printing arrangement”, he said.

To Sinologists John Fitzgerald at Swinburne University of Technology and Wanning Sun at UTS it was another sign of Australia’s revenue-strapped traditional media weakening the walls between advertising and editorial content, coming the week Fairfax laid off 100 of its top journalists, with cashed-up China taking advantage.

“Taking to heart Joseph Nye’s argument that soft power is ‘about whose story wins (not whose army wins)’, the Party has tasked the external branch of the Propaganda Bureau with the mission to ‘tell the world China’s story’,” they wrote. The silence of the Australian media about the deals was “a fitting start to the new era of media co-operation with China’s Propaganda Bureau”.

2 . Chewing the Fat

Closer to the action in the South China Sea, the annual talkfest of military analysts in Singapore known as the Shangri-La Dialogue is under way, and US Defence Secretary Ash Carter will be leading the US delegation. Expect some heated words with the Chinese.

But Singapore is the focus of an embarrassing scandal for the US Navy’s Pacific command. About 200 naval officers and civilian staff including about 30 admirals are under investigation for suspected corruption in procurement contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, with 13 of them charged so far. The contracts were channelled through a Singapore businessman named Leonard Glenn Francis, known as “Fat Leonard”, allegedly in return for favours including lavish entertainment, prostitutes, travel and other bribes.

3 . Trying to reset the spinster cycle

While other arms of Egypt’s military-backed government are busy locking up Islamists and journalists, its National Security Council has reported to parliament a pressing new threat to the nation.

About eight million adult women have crossed the line, seen as about 30 years of age in cities and much younger in the upper Nile region, from being merely unmarried to being a “spinster”.

“Gloom reigns behind closed doors in many Egyptian homes whose families have been struck by grief and sadness because of society’s view of the spinster,” writes Rami Galal on the website Al-Monitor. “She is often caught between the pity of her friends and malicious gossip of her enemies. And the older the woman gets, the more anxious her family grows and the more frantic their search for the sought-after husband.”

National Security Council member Colonel Ashraf Gamal explained that spinsterism was a national security issue, eroding the institution of the family and giving rise to crimes of rape and sexual harassment by frustrated young men not able to find a wife. The problem, it seems, is the difficulty for prospective husbands, in the absence of jobs, in meeting the ever rising level of dowries paid to the bride’s family. Gamal’s answer to the “spinster crisis” is a return to “old Egyptian values and morals”. Other commentators suggest better economic policies and a campaign against the dowry system.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2016 as "Strange bedfellows in battle for Fallujah".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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