India’s bold GST; Japan’s succession; Thai Prince Duntroon links; Kim goes for gold By Hamish McDonald.

Al-Qaeda affiliates renounce jihadism

Fighters of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham at the site of a Russian helicopter shot down by rebels in Syria’s north this month.
Fighters of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham at the site of a Russian helicopter shot down by rebels in Syria’s north this month.
Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

Al-Qaeda’s friends in Syria are trying to turn themselves into the indispensable good, or at least not-so-bad, guys in the hope of taking themselves off the American coalition and Russian target list for bombing. It may work.

Formerly known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, and along with Daesh left outside the desultory peace talks the United Nations is trying to pursue, the al-Qaeda affiliate last month rebadged itself as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and said it was renouncing international jihadism and cutting ties with Osama bin Laden’s followers elsewhere.

It then plunged itself with renewed vigour into assisting rebel forces to break the siege of Aleppo by the Assad regime’s army. By the start of this month, Assad’s army and sundry Iranian and Lebanese irregulars had virtually cut off the supply routes from Turkey into the eastern half of the city held by the rebels. Russian and Syrian aircraft were bombing intensely, hitting several hospitals. Across the entire city, including the government-held western half, its two million inhabitants lost electricity and water supplies and food prices had soared, according to the UN.

Last weekend the rebels used tanks, artillery and − courtesy of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham − suicide attacks to break the siege by capturing an artillery school held by the government forces. The surprise push was so successful that Assad’s hold on western Aleppo was threatened. More intense bombing has been the response so it’s not over yet.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is a mixed blessing for the other rebels. It may be a much more effective fighting force, but its proximity draws Russian air attacks − not that Russian commanders seem to check much who is on the ground. So far the Americans have declined to take the group off their terrorist list, too, and it has not yet been invited to UN peace talks, which are scheduled to resume in Geneva at the end of the month.

1 . India’s bold GST

While our politicians have debated raising our goods and services tax by a few per cent, then baulked at doing anything, their Indian counterparts have taken the plunge into a GST in a big way.

The Lok Sabha, the central parliament’s lower house, has just passed a constitutional amendment with a unanimous vote, a rare spectacle given the country’s fractured politics, to allow imposition of a national GST. As the bill has already been through the upper house for amendment, this is its final passage at national level.

As it’s a constitutional change, it still needs the endorsement of at least 15 of the 29 state legislatures, but that is expected to happen as the states get all the revenue raised. Some states are urging an even higher rate than the 17 to 18 per cent Delhi’s economic officials are recommending. One respected think tank is urging a rate between 23 and 25 per cent. If only, our own premiers must be sighing.

This is the first really big reform that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has achieved, more than two years into his term, and it will transform the Indian economy in a way analogous to the European single market. Presently, the states impose their own sales taxes, requiring products to be labelled differently. Companies need to maintain multiple supply chains, meaning state borders are like international frontiers with trucks queued up for inspection. As well as integrating India’s internal market, Modi is hoping the GST will draw the thriving black economy into the tax net.

2 . Japan’s succession 

Perhaps sooner than anyone expected, Japan’s Emperor Akihito has signalled his wish to abdicate, in a rare televised broadcast to the nation on Monday. It hands Prime Minister Shinzō Abe a problem as risk-filled as a plate of sashimi made from fugu, the blowfish whose organs are fatally toxic if mixed with the flesh.

Japanese emperors used to abdicate all the time, retiring from their palaces in Kyoto to one of the city’s temples. The Meiji revolution in the 19th century put a stop to that. The three previous emperors since then stuck it out to the end, even though one, Akihito’s grandfather, became certifiably insane.

Now Akihito, 82, wants to retire. “I am worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now,” he said. “There are times when I feel various constraints such as in my physical fitness.”

It will require an amendment to the current imperial household law for him to abdicate, and to pass the throne to his son, Prince Naruhito, 56. Abe can hardly avoid taking a hint like this and has said, “We have to firmly look at what we can do”. But it’s not something he will welcome. The amendment will take up time and political oxygen from his preferred priority – amending the American-written postwar constitution to water down its article nine, which limits Japan’s war powers.

In addition, there will be a push to amend the imperial succession law while the Diet is at it, to allow Naruhito’s daughter to succeed him instead of the line passing to Naruhito’s younger brother and his son. Abe has made a big thing of bringing women into the workforce, but hasn’t extended his thinking to the supreme state role, even though the first mythical imperial ancestor was the Sun goddess.

3 . Thai Duntroon links

As we see elsewhere in the paper, the royal succession is a vexed question in another Asian kingdom, Thailand, where everyone is trying to work out what kind of king Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn will be when the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies.

The foreigners best placed to fathom Vajiralongkorn’s thinking may be a bunch of retired Australian army officers − his mates from the Duntroon military academy where the prince was one of three foreign students alongside 44 Australian cadets in the class of 1975.

The most prominent of this group are the retired generals David Hurley, now governor of New South Wales, and Duncan Lewis, the ASIO director-general. The prince attended the 10-, 20- and 30-year class reunions, but not last year’s 40-year gathering. He remains in warm contact with several former classmates, though Hurley and Lewis are not among this group, and hosts them royally when they’re in Thailand.

Military diplomacy works in myriad ways. Long ago an oboe-playing Australian army attaché in Bangkok used to get called into the palace for late-night jam sessions with King Bhumibol, a jazz saxophonist. It must have helped make Thailand become our ninth-biggest trade partner.

4 . Kim goes for gold

The closest thing in Asia to an absolute monarchy is North Korea, where Kim Jong-un is the third successive member of his family to rule the hermit nation with an iron fist.

In the family tradition of giving “on the spot, personal guidance” in all aspects of the nation’s life, Kim has exhorted his athletes at the Rio Olympics to compete with “heated zeal”. An army general had earlier been put in charge of the national sports institute, and several former East German coaches were hired. “Sports officials and coaches must implement the tactics of anti-Japanese guerilla-style attacks in each sport event in order to take the initiative in every game and triumph,” Kim declared on the eve of the Games.

What those tactics mean on the sports field is unclear. Neither guerilla tactics nor the East German regimen was working immediately. Earlier in the week, North Korea’s medal tally was lagging well behind South Korea’s.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2016 as "Al-Qaeda affiliates renounce jihadism".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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