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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Al-Bab: A Snapshot of the Complex Syrian Civil War

Five years after Syrians started to rise up against the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Civil War rages on across this land of ancient history from Palmyra to Aleppo to Damascus. 

Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson raised many eyebrows when he was caught completely off guard when asked about the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, seemingly unaware of Aleppo’s importance and perhaps even existence. 

Aleppo, however, is not just Syria’s largest city. It is a province in northwest Syria, home to many cities. To the northeast lies a smaller city by the name of Al-Bab.  

Al-Bab is not a particularly large city. Its population in 2004 was estimated around 63,000, and it is likely less than that today as it is currently under the occupation of Islamic State. 
What makes Al-Bab significant, though, is its enormous strategic importance to multiple different factions in the Syrian Civil War. 

As mentioned before, Al-Bab is under the control of the Islamic State. To the immediate north, Free Syrian Army forces backed by the Republic of Turkey sit only a few kilometers away, waiting to advance on the city as a main objective of the “Euphrates Shield” operation. While Ankara has carved out a sizable chunk of land in Syria for their forces, their forces have been very inconsistent in their abilities and have few friends in the region. 

To the south lies the Syrian Arab Army, the forces to which President Al-Assad is Commander-in-Chief.  

The Syrian Arab Army is arguably one of the stronger players in this war, but five years of combat across Syria against various different adversaries has left the fighting force exhausted and even with Russian assistance, the SAA is still bogged down in their siege of Aleppo and has made little advances otherwise. To the far east, the besieged city of Deir-Ez-Zor lies surrounded by Islamic State and in real danger of being sieged and taken over. 

To both the east and west lies another player still, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF, as they are often abbreviated to, is a broad coalition of Kurds, Arabs, some Turkmens, Christians, and Armenians which have rallied in the country’s north. The SDF proclaimed a large victory in the nearby city of Manbij a few months ago, but has been limited and careful in their recent campaigns with the Turkish-allied FSA’s marching towards the same objective. If the Syrian Democratic Forces manage to siege and capture the city of Al-Bab, they will have stuck a hell of a monkey wrench into Turkish ambitions in the region and put their biggest objective-carving out a united region of Syria for the Kurdish minority not under Assad’s control. While Kurdish units in the SDF (known as the People’s Protection Units and by the Kurdish initials YPG) have withdrawn from the region on orders from Turkey and the United States, they remain a factor in the Syrian Democratic Forces approaching from the west and may be able to connect their regions into one entity, possibly setting the stage for a federal region similar to that in northern Iraq. 
Yellow: SDF. 
Red: SAA. 
Green: FSA. 
Gray: IS. 

The various groups in this civil war are, unsurprisingly, generally unfriendly towards each other. 

The Turkish-backed FSA forces are hostile to the SDF and Assad’s SAA, and vice versa. 

The SDF, while not outright hostile to the SAA, has a relationship of tense neutrality with Assad’s forces and even if limited cooperation takes place between the two parties as has happened in the past, that does not mean they will continue to cooperate. Some have speculated that the SAA and SDF may end up fighting against each other if Islamic State and the FSA are defeated as Assad has repeatedly refused to entertain plans for a new federal Syria similar to the Iraqi setup after 2003. 

While the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces fly the same green, white, and black flag of the FSA in other areas, they are largely Islamist and answer to Turkish forces rather than towards a broader desire to liberate Syria from Assad’s grip. These forces have not come in contact with Assad’s forces and will likely avoid doing so as direct conflict would drag Turkey farther into the conflict than it wants to be. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems more interested in preventing the Kurds and their allies from establishing a united entity in Syria as such an entity would likely allow the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to operate and undermine Turkey. 

The Kurdish forces in Syria are often doted on by Western media because they are secular, somewhat democratic and have feminist leanings as women frequently fight alongside men in combat. However, the YPG, as they are known, is closely related to the PKK in Turkey and despite the fact that the PKK does not instill the same fear as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists seem to, it is still called a terrorist group for a reason and Ankara is understandably worried about this. 

Islamic State is retreating on all its different fronts and probably will not retain control of Al-Bab  once they are engaged in the city limits. Who takes it from them is still unclear, but the strong adversarial relationships between the various different groups surrounding the city is definite cause for worry. 

Iraq, meanwhile, has managed to start its advance into Mosul, Islamic State’s last and by far the largest stronghold in the city. If Mosul is retaken by the Iraqi Security Forces, the Islamic State will be severely weakened and the country may evict the terrorists from their borders by the Spring of 2017. Syria, unfortunately, looks like it will endure war for considerably longer unless some sort of comprehensive peace deal can be worked out, but that seems quite unlikely. 

Trudeau, Trump, and Fashionable Authoritarianism in the Free World

Fidel Castro, infamous revolutionary and symbol of Cuban Communism, died at the age of 90 just two days ago. 

In Miami, Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Little Havana in celebration. The five blue and white stripes of the Cuban flag fluttered everywhere next to the 13 red and white American ones as people hugged, cheered, and banged pots and pans together in a joyous cacophony. 

Ninety miles south in the other Havana, Cubans wept and expressed sorrow for their fallen comrade. Nine days of mourning were declared by the Cuban government. Although an aging Fidel had conceded power to his (only slightly) younger brother Raul in 2006, he remained a powerful symbol of the Cuban Revolution against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and even as he neared his last day, continued to be a vocal spokesman for the communist cause. 

Fulgencio Batista

Communist Cuba is, in some ways, ahead of its counterparts around Latin America. The Cuban people are well-educated and generally live long, healthy lives due to the system in place. Cuban doctors are world-renowned for their administration of healthcare. 

However, these advances that occurred under communism came at serious prices. Cubans living on the island have extremely limited access to information. Freedom of speech and of the press is non-existent. For fifty-plus years, Cubans have been trying to move to other countries, particularly the United States. Miami is jokingly nicknamed “North Havana” because of the huge and vibrant Cuban community there. While Cubans don’t starve in the streets of Havana, most are forced to live spartan lifestyles, making tiny wages that if not for the communist system, would plunge them into squalor and poverty. Opportunities for advancement on the island are sparse. Repression has remained brutal and unforgiving. 

World leaders reacted from all sides of the spectrum. U.S. President Barack Obama and President-Elect Donald Trump both expressed a hope for Cuba to move forward, and Trump was blunt (though not wrong) in describing Castro as a bloodthirsty leader. 

A confusing reaction, however, came from north of the United States. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, according to public broadcaster CBC, expressed “deep sorrow” upon hearing about Castro’s death and called Castro a “legendary revolutionary and orator”who his father, the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “was very proud to call a friend”. 

Trudeau’s comments came as a shock and a sharp contrast to other Canadian politicians.  They were quickly criticized by opposition Members of Parliament in Canada’s Conservative Party, and Tom Mulcair, the head of the New Democratic Party, had a much more subdued reaction to the news. 

Ironically, Mulcair’s NDP is typically farther to the left on economic issues than Trudeau’s Liberals, which only made Trudeau’s remarks more confusing. 

Canada, like the United States, has long been an example of democratic success, and for Canada’s head of government to praise the exact opposite of that tradition is unnerving. 

Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to comment on the mounting criticism of his remarks, and it isn’t really known whether this was a poorly thought out remark or an honest opinion. If he does truly hold serious admiration for Fidel Castro, however, he is continuing a worrying trend evident on both the left and the right in the free world, the admiration of strongman, authoritarian leaders and their legacies. It especially comes across as ironic considering Trudeau’s very outspoken support of social justice movements such as feminism and public appearances at LGBT Pride events in Canada as LGBT individuals in Cuba were brutally persecuted by the Communists. 

President-Elect Donald Trump drew sharp and deserved criticism for similar remarks. He has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, the late Saddam Hussein, and the late Muammar Gaddafi. According to Trump, Putin’s leadership dwarfs Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein was good at stamping out Islamic fundamentalism, and Muammar Gaddafi should not have been deposed by the NATO coalition that aided Libyan rebels in the Libyan revolution of 2011. 

Now, President-elect Trump is not completely off base in his remarks on Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi if they are taken by themselves. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya has been stuck in a brutal and confusing civil war between Islamists, various factions of transitional leaders, desert tribes, and lingering loyalists. However, in the grander scheme of things, there are serious problems with his views on these heads of state. While it’s true that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism rarely manifested themselves in Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq, different and equally grave sins were committed. Iraq’s Kurdish minority, who make up nearly a third of the country and most of the northern provinces, were butchered and gassed in the Al-Anfal Genocide and the Halabja chemical disaster. Hussein also started a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 which accomplished nothing and killed hundreds of thousands, a war where the United States assisted Iraq. Hussein also oppressed the Shi’a Muslim community in Iraq. 

And for all Putin’s “strong leadership”, the Russian economy has slumped into a serious recession due to sanctions, low oil prices, and military adventures engineered by the Kremlin in Ukraine and Syria. The Donbas remains a not-quite-frozen stalemate where Ukrainians and Russians, brother Slavs, die nearly every day. Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army is exhausted even with Russian support. Much of this “strong leadership” comes from a token opposition in the Duma made up of grey-haired Communists, absurd ultranationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the democratic opposition’s utter failure to resonate with the Russian people at large. 

It’s true that comparing Putin to Fidel and Raul Castro is probably unwise. Putin does not employ even close to the same levels of censorship and repression that the Castros do, but it remains that both Prime Minister Trudeau’s lionization of Castro and Trump’s praise of Putin and others is deserving of heavy criticism. 

Various Latin American left-wing organizations are also speaking wistfully about Fidel. There’s a little more concrete reason for this considering the United States’ hypocritical and undemocratic actions in Latin American countries such as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and so forth. At the same time, there’s a startling blind eye turned towards the basket case socialist Venezuela has become. Venezuela’s Chavistas were vocal allies of the Castros in Cuba, and when oil was selling for over US$100 per barrel, their policies looked sound if not entirely democratic. As soon as oil became cheap, however, the Venezuelan economy tanked and the country descended into near-anarchy, a phenomenon many Latin American leftists have remained silent on. 

For our own sakes, the countries of the Americas must look towards their inspirational figures with a more honest and objective eye. It is possible to criticize American foreign policy in Latin America and also be aware of the repression that continues in Cuba, and it is possible to criticize things such as the EU’s handling of the Refugee Crisis without defecting to the Kremlin as a role model. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Perspective in the Aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

So ends another election season. Until the media starts the next one in two weeks, at least. 

This election truly had it all, and not in a good way. National security scandals, crotchety old socialists, and a guy with a silly haircut defended the size of his manhood on national television in a debate. 

And that's just scraping the surface. Now, less than a week after Hillary Clinton conceded to President-Elect Donald J. Trump, people are asking questions about the results. Let's take a look at some of them. 

Why did the Democrats lose when everyone expected Clinton to oust Trump, possibly in a blowout? 

Hillary Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, were predicted to carry most of the swing states in Tuesday's election. According to polling and the vast majority of predictions, only Ohio looked likely to be won by Trump. 

While Clinton managed to barely scrape a victory in New Hampshire and hung on to Virginia, she lost the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. 

The deciding upsets, however, came in states which had been considered relatively safe victories for her. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, neither of which had voted for the Republican nominee since the 1980s, both went to Trump.  Below, a comparison between the 2012 and 2016 elections:


While Secretary Clinton managed to maintain the urban vote in these three states, she was unable to win majorities in rural, predominantly white and working class counties that President Obama managed to win from Governor Mitt Romney. These communities which had previously been voting for Democrats, swung over to Trump's brand of populism and his often-repeated desire to bring American manufacturing jobs, a former hallmark in many of these communities, back from other countries. Clinton, meanwhile, stuck to a strategy of ensuring high turnout in diverse, urban communities. She did that reasonably well, but learned the hard way that urban votes alone do not win you every state, especially states that are as large as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. 

These results also imply Clinton may have underestimated Trump and his appeal because polling agencies time and time again said she would win. The fact of the matter is, the polls were largely inaccurate, possibly because some who voted for Donald Trump would not say they were voting for him. 

In addition, Trump's momentum always came back in the polls. After his first meltdown, where he insulted the family of a Muslim-American soldier who had been killed in action, his poll numbers plummeted. 

But they came back. FiveThirtyEight predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency after the incident. A month later it was nearly 50 percent. 

Then a video emerged of Trump, in choice words, bragging about how he could take advantage of women sexually because of his wealth. Republicans walked away from former endorsements en masse. Rumors swirled that the GOP might drop him and shove Mike Pence into his place. That never happened, but Trump looked as if he was finished once more. FiveThirtyEight again predicted Trump had about a 10-12 percent chance of winning the presidency afterwards.

But he chipped away once more at the polls. He did not manage the comeback he made the first time due to the proximity of Election Day, but he was on the rebound. And it translated when Americans went to the polls. 

Democrats gripe that they have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, dating back to the 1992 election that propelled Bill Clinton to the Oval Office. Whatever one's stance is on the Electoral College and whether it should remain part of American democracy, them's the rules. In terms of popular vote, however, many of these elections were very close-especially 2000, 2004, and 2016. The constant in these elections is not a curious voting anomaly, but the overall favorability of the Democratic candidate in that election. 

Al Gore was Vice President under the still-popular outgoing President Bill Clinton and he looked to carry that momentum into another Democratic victory in 2000. Unfortunately, Gore lacked the charisma and charm of his former running mate, while then Governor George W. Bush effectively played up his Texas roots with his folksy demeanor. Gore also chose to not campaign with President Clinton as he believed it would keep the President's sex scandal in the public eye. He failed to win his home state of Tennessee and also chose Joe Lieberman over Jeanne Shaheen for his running mate, a move that may have propelled him to a win in the small but electorally important New Hampshire, and therefore, the election overall. 

In 2004, John Kerry was chosen by the Democrats to oust President Bush. Kerry, while qualified, was not considered an exceptionally likable candidate. His looks were often lampooned as some compared him to Lurch from the Addams Family, and his tendency to flip-flop on many issues enabled the Bush campaign to run an iconic ad depicting Kerry windsurfing back and forth with the caption "Whichever way the wind blows". 

Clinton had the qualifications to be president, there's no doubt about that. But her nagging email scandal and various other skeletons made her unpopular and a haze of untrustworthiness hung over her. While Trump was also considered as such, Clinton was unable to present herself as a positive alternative, merely less bad. 

Identity politics may have also played a part in Clinton's loss. As mentioned before, Clinton lost white, working class voters in rural areas of the Rust Belt. These were areas where anti-establishment sentiment and distrust towards the government was especially high. Rather than rally possible voters, however, Clinton may have contributed to the overwhelming feeling of being forgotten in these areas by staying in more diverse cities that were likely going to vote for her anyways. Racist and xenophobic sentiment stoked by her opponent also contributed to this problem. Non-white people overwhelmingly vote for Democrats in America, where the majority of white Americans, particularly poor and working class white Americans, found an appeal in Trump that Clinton could not recapture even with former Democrats. 

 A stronger example of identity politics is evident in Turkey. Turkey has four large political parties: the right-wing and Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP*), the secular left-wing Republican People's Party (CHP), the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Since the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has fallen into identity politics. Many Turkish voters do not vote on policy, but on which party is perceived to represent them. Conservative Muslim Turks often vote for AKP because of their faith, not because of conservative economic policy. The same can be said of secular-minded Turks and the CHP. Although secularism is a cornerstone of the Turkish Republic, the people outside the cities are still predominantly conservative and Muslim, and the CHP is unable to win elections on the grounds that their voting base is just too small. 

Could Bernie Sanders have won?

After Trump's victory, former supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign came out of the woodwork and speculated that he would have been able to win the election. 

It's possible Bernie would have been able to win in a head-to-head against Trump, considering he was perceived as much more trustworthy and genuine than Clinton and he did manage to win the Michigan and Wisconsin primary contests, but Sanders was not the perfect candidate many of his diehards swear he was. 

Bernie Sanders, being an independent Senator from a small and overwhelmingly rural state never received the same media scrutiny that Clinton had been dealing with. But some of his faults came out during the primaries. He may have been able to win the votes of working class and poor, rural white Americans but he lost black and Hispanic Americans by considerable margins to Clinton and may have been attacked for his supremely ironic and poorly thought out remark that "White people don't know what it's like to be poor or live in ghettos". His far-left economic platform would have alienated many in the centre of the political spectrum. He seemed largely uninterested in foreign policy. 

And while the Cold War is over, its influence remains. Sanders, a socialist, would have likely been attacked for his record of supporting or otherwise speaking positively of left-wing policies in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, his claims that bread lines were a "good thing" and his extended stay in the U.S.S.R. There's a reason that his fanatical supporters were mockingly nicknamed "Sandernistas", a nod to the Sandinistas. 

Well, who could have won? 

That's actually not too hard to answer. Many believe that the outgoing Vice President, Joe Biden, would have won convincingly had he faced Trump. Biden, unlike Clinton, does not have a haze of untrustworthiness around him, deserved or not. He can match Clinton toe to toe on policy. He has Obama's charisma and charm. And he likely could have shored up rural voters. 

How will Trump govern? 

The short answer is that we don't know. 

A slightly longer answer is that it depends on whether Vice President-elect Mike Pence got the same deal as Governor Kasich is said to have been proposed. 

John Kasich, Governor of Ohio, patron saint of the NeverTrump movement, and likely winner of the Presidential Campaign Eating Contest, was offered the Vice Presidential position on Trump's campaign. If we're to believe Kasich's staff, the Governor was offered the position with the promise that he would be in charge of foreign and domestic policy, while Trump would be in charge of "making America great again". 

Kasich turned the offer down and consistently refused to endorse Trump. 

Trump, meanwhile, found his man in Mike Pence, former Governor of Indiana. 

Stark ideological differences exist between Trump and Pence. On social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, Trump doesn't seem to care. Pence, however, is right as right can be. 

Mike Pence seems to be the man in charge of making Trump palatable to reluctant conservative stalwarts in the Republican Party. A political cartoon in the Indianapolis Star tellingly depicted Trump rabbling away at a microphone while Pence stood behind him dressed as a firefighter, hose at the ready. 

Cartoon by Gary Varvel.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, that may be a choice they regret. Mike Pence is not a popular fellow at home in the Hoosier State. In 2012, Pence rode outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels' coattails into office. Daniels, who is still very popular in Indiana, focused almost exclusively on expanding business opportunities in Indiana and largely ignored social issues. Pence, on the other hand, signed SB 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, into law in Indiana. 

It was a disaster. Democrats decried the anti-LGBT nature of the law. Republicans criticized its almost immediate effect of halting businesses from coming to Indiana. The Indianapolis Star, Indiana's largest newspaper, published a headline in protest that screamed FIX THIS NOW. 

Pence tried to ban same-sex marriage via constitutional amendment before his signing SB101, passed extremely restrictive abortion laws, his defunding of Planned Parenthood contributed to an HIV epidemic in the southern part of the state, and claimed he had the authority to ban Syrian refugees from being settled in Indiana, something no state governor can do. 

For these reasons and others including taking Governor Daniels' balance sheet to an extreme in tax cuts so far right the GOP-controlled state legislature had to stop it, shutting down popular preschool funding and an energy efficiency program with Daniels' approval, Pence was likely to lose re-election in Indiana, which, ironically, is a generally conservative state. 

Economically, Trump and Pence differ. Trump wants "fair trade", Pence advocates "free trade". A compromise may be possible, but how it becomes policy is still yet to be determined. 

On foreign policy Trump wants to be friends with Putin while Pence seemed to repeat the typical Republican line before Trump's rise in the Vice Presidential debate. In Syria, Trump is likely to hand the reigns over to Putin and Assad. Negotiating with Mexico regarding the possible wall could get extremely messy. Policy regarding China and Iran remains much of a mystery, especially considering the international nature of the nuclear deal. 

It's difficult to see much of a silver lining in this mess.