Foreign Correspondent

Foreign Correspondent: Reaction to coronavirus is overblown

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

A new and deadly virus from China is coming to get you. Cancel your travel plans, quarantine your grandparents, and don’t let a Chinese person sneeze on you! Social media is all atwitter. Some Uber and Lyft drivers are even refusing to pick up passengers with Chinese-sounding names.

The mainstream media has produced reams of articles, many criticizing China for its mishandling of the crisis.

Electron microscope image of the COVD-19 virus (photo by NIAID).

Let’s calm down for a moment. The new virus, known as COVID-19, produces flu-like symptoms but rarely results in death; it is serious but hardly cause for panic. As of mid-week, the virus has infected more than 60,000 people and killed some 1,370 of them, almost all in China.

Only about two percent of the coronavirus-infected people have died, and they are mostly older with underlying health conditions. By comparison, the death rate was near 100 percent during the early years of the 1980s AIDS pandemic and the 2014 Ebola crisis.

So far, the coronavirus has not caused any deaths in the US and isn’t a serious threat here, according to Dr. James McLean, a board-certified emergency room doctor and old friend.

“People should be more concerned about regular influenza, which is far more deadly,” Dr. McLean tells me.

Existing influenza strains have already infected 180,000 Americans—and killed 10,000—during the 2019-20 flu season.

Wendel Brunner, the former director of public health in Contra Costa County, California, says the panic over COVID-19 follows a familiar pattern.

“Whenever these virus outbreaks occur, the op-ed columns fill up with experts predicting various forms of disaster,” Brunner tells me. “You don’t get published for saying the authorities, especially in China, are doing a good job.”

Brunner says some experts criticize Chinese authorities no matter what they do. “First the Chinese acted too passively, then they acted too aggressively. We are down on China now because it is economically successful.”

So let’s insert a little rationality into the debate. What is the virus and what can be done to contain it?

What is this coronavirus?

While scientists are still unsure, it seems likely that this new coronavirus originated in live animals and jumped to humans through a market in Wuhan, China. Similarly, doctors aren’t certain exactly how the disease is transmitted, but they suspect it’s spread airborne or through contact with mucus.

You may get it from being around people “coughing, sneezing, shaking hands, or even opening a door handle recently touched by an infected person,” says Dr. McLean.

In December, Wuhan doctors began reporting respiratory illness with severe, flu-like symptoms from an unknown virus. As is too often the case in such medical emergencies, local officials downplayed the problem.

Li Wenliang, a doctor in a hospital respiratory department, posted a warning about the new virus in a private chat group. Someone leaked the message, and it was widely circulated online. Dr. Li hadn’t intended to be a whistleblower. Although what he wrote was true, local police detained him for rumor mongering and forced him to recant. In February, he died after being exposed to one of his coronavirus patients.

China’s Supreme Court later vindicated Dr. Li, noting that his warnings should have been taken seriously. Dr. Li has since become a national hero in China.

China is hardly unique in attacking doctors who report embarrassing information. When Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha exposed the high levels of lead in Flint’s water supply, Michigan officials initially accused her of spreading panic.

That doesn’t let China off the hook. China’s socialist system is supposed to allow for constructive criticism of government and Communist Party policies. But frequently, bureaucrats opt to suppress bad medical news, environmental problems, or atrocious factory conditions. China has developed a strong and independent economy, but ordinary Chinese citizens face crackdowns for expressing dissent.

“Local officials in any country never want to acknowledge unpleasant developments,” says Dr. Brunner. “That hesitation in China may well have delayed an earlier response that could have been important.”

Fighting virus on luxury linter

A luxury cruise ship docked in Yokohama, Japan, reveals the difficulties in handling the virus. After some people on board contracted coronavirus, almost 3,700 passengers and crew were quarantined. That action prevented the spread of the virus to Yokohama but also increased the number of infected people on board. Afterward, the number of infected people had more than doubled to 175.

Japan’s health ministry has been unable to test some 3,000 people on board for the virus due to a shortage of test kits. Although confined in luxurious conditions with first-world medical care, some passengers complained they are more likely to get sick by staying on board.

“I do not believe they are containing this epidemic by keeping us quarantined,” Gay Courter told The New York Times. “Something is wrong with the plan.”

Dr. Erica Pan, interim health officer and director of the Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention in the Alameda County Public Health Department, says officials have the difficult task of balancing individual rights against public health.

If people infected with coronavirus can spread the disease to others before they show symptoms, she says, “Containment may not work within that enclosed population.”

In other words, quarantines may temporarily make the quarantined people sicker.

China’s response

China faces the same dilemma as Japan, except it’s protecting 1.4 billion people. It’s no surprise that some Chinese criticize their government, which has proportionately fewer medical resources than Japan.

China has taken extreme measures to contain the epidemic. The central government enforced a quarantine on Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. Many people are staying home, going out only for food and emergencies. Travel to and from Wuhan is prohibited. The government built two hospitals in just two weeks in Wuhan, but there still aren’t enough beds and medical supplies.

Some major airlines have canceled flights in and out of China. Factories are closing due to lack of workers and supplies. Major cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen have all but shut down.

The central government plans to gradually restore normal activity after a two-week quarantine period. It will test every individual in Wuhan, isolate those infected, and allow others to return to normal life.

But even if the vast majority of infected people are identified, a few could slip by, and the virus could spread again. Such a massive quarantine requires government transparency so doctors can accurately track the disease. Dr. McLean suspects Chinese officials have been less than transparent.

“I think the epidemic is a lot worse,” he says. “The numbers are a lot higher.”

Scientists say the coronavirus epidemic could evolve in two ways. It could spread outside China and become a global pandemic. Or, like the 2003 SARS epidemic, Dr. Pan says, “we could stop the disease transmission.” In that earlier epidemic, officials were able to isolate affected people, contain the disease spread, and “public health measures worked.” The virus “burned out.”

For all its shortcomings, Dr. Brunner says the massive quarantine in China “was clearly a bold, decisive act that certainly helps protect not only China but the whole world.”

And the world is waiting to see if that bold act bears results.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: Who’s at fault for Cuba’s economic problems?

Innovative chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

HAVANA—Chef Alexis Alvarez was in panic mode. He was preparing a gourmet meal for visitors from the United States when the electricity went out. He mostly cooks with natural gas and charcoal, but those won’t power his blender full of organic kale.

So Alexis found a very Cuban solution. He slipped the blender into an old sack, walked over to the nearby hospital that had electricity, plugged in the blender, ran it for 10 seconds, and then left. Presto: a healthy and tasty iced drink.

Innovative Cuban chef Alexis Alvarez. Photo by Sandra Vasquez

Despite the electricity crisis and periodic water shut offs in his town of San Jose, 20 miles southeast of Havana, Alexis managed to produce a delicious meal of seafood soup, eggplant lasagna, fried fish, and roast pork.

Alexis is one of a growing number of food entrepreneurs reinventing Cuban cuisine and expanding the private sector, precisely the kind of person US policy is supposed to benefit.

But he blames the electricity shortages on the 58-year-old US embargo. Last year, for example, the Trump Administration sanctioned Cypriot and Panamanian tankers bringing oil to Cuba’s power plants, which, in turn, cause electricity blackouts.

The US embargo on Cuba, unilaterally imposed in 1962, isn’t supported by any country in the world. For the past 28 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly to oppose the embargo.

Alexis also faults Cuban authorities for the periodic shortages of consumer goods, ranging from canned tomatoes to toilet paper. Trucks with enough fuel can’t seem to consistently pick up the goods and deliver them to the right stores.

“It’s bad administration,” he tells me.

But for Alexis and every other Cuban I interviewed, the ultimate villain is Donald Trump.

Cuban economic problems

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Cuba was cut off from its main trading partners and Soviet economic subsidies. From 1989-93, the Cuban GDP plunged by 35 percent. By comparison, at the nadir of the US Great Recession in 2007-09, the economy shrank by 4.2 percent.

Over the past 30 years, Cuba instituted a series of policies that try to balance socialism with market reforms. The Cuban government continues to control major industries, maintains free health care and education, and promotes high-quality, subsidized cultural events.

But it also eliminated no-show government jobs and encouraged employment at small businesses such as restaurants and bed and breakfast lodging. Today, the government provides 68 percent of jobs and the private sector 32 percent.

The Cuban economy experienced a relative boom after President Barack Obama regularized diplomatic relations in 2015. US travelers flooded into Cuba, giving a boost to hotels, restaurants, and the entire tourism industry. As recently as  2018, I saw fifty tour buses lined up in Havana to receive US cruise ship passengers.

Relaxation of the embargo also led to US-Cuba cooperation in developing pharmaceutical drugs. For example, New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital conducted successful human trials for a Cuban lung cancer vaccine.

Trump reverses progress

But by 2019, Trump reversed many of Obama’s administrative changes. He banned US residents from staying in Cuban government hotels, eating in state restaurants, or utilizing government tourism agencies.

Nevertheless,257,000 people from the United States visited Cuba in the first four months of 2019, excluding cruise ship passengers. Travel remains legal to Cuba if visitors stay at privately owned B&Bs, eat at privately owned restaurants, and follow certain other US regulations.

But Trump continues to squeeze the Cuban economy by threatening European banks and corporations doing business with Cuba. For example, Trump has allowed Cuban Americans whose property was nationalized after they fled Cuba in the early 1960s to sue European companies now doing business in those buildings.

Break ties with Venezuela?

The Trump Administration also wants to stop Cuba’s support for the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro. Cuba provides doctors as well as military advisors to Venezuela, and Venezuela ships oil to Cuban refineries. Trump’s policies are aimed at breaking Cuba’s solidarity with Venezuela, says a US reporter based in Havana.

Such pressure “has never worked before,” the reporter tells me, “and it’s not likely to work now. The embargo hits ordinary Cubans—not the government.”

Canadians and Europeans continue to visit Cuba. But the drop in US tourism since the middle of last year means less hard currency to buy foreign goods. Sanctions against third country tankers reduced oil shipments, increased prices at the pump and led to shortages of transport to get food into the cities.

Last July, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced plans to raise state worker salaries, eliminate the dual currency system and encourage provincial self sufficiency in food production. The plans are a work in progress, and their effectiveness remains to be seen.

But one thing is for sure. The US embargo hurts ordinary Cubans while failing to change Cuban government policy.

Foreign Correspondent columnist Reese Erlich has reported from Cuba since 1968. He is author of Dateline Havana: The Real Story of US Policy and the Future of Cuba.Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign correspondent: Trump backs down, but Iran conflict continues

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump's policies. Reese Erlich photo

Trump blinked.

After threatening to bomb military and cultural sites in Iran, President Donald Trump has apparently backed down on further escalation in his quasi-war with Iran. He tried to spin his decision as a US victory, claiming his administration had supposedly made America safer by assassinating Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani.

Iranians overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s policies. Reese Erlich photo

Iran, in response to this killing, fired 22 ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq, destroying a helicopter and some buildings but causing no casualties. Iranian authorities had alerted the Iraqi military in advance, which contributed to the lack of deaths.

The bottom line, says Ibrahim Al-Marashi, an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos, is that Iran was able to strike US military facilities without consequences.

“Trump is just redefining victory despite Iran striking a military base,” Al-Marashi tells me.

While Trump’s decision to de-escalate will save lives in the short run, his actions have alienated tens of millions of people in Iraq and Iran. By a vote of 170-0, the Iraqi parliament called for withdrawal of all foreign troops from its country. Iraq’s acting prime minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, received a letter from the US military commanders indicating some troops would leave, but the US later disavowed the letter.

The Trump Administration refuses to withdraw its troops, and Trump even threatened sanctions against Iraq if the troops are kicked out. It remains to be seen if Iraqi leaders will continue their push for troop withdrawal.

Millions of Iranians gathered for funeral tributes to Suleimani. Iranians who were protesting corruption and repression just a few months ago were out in the streets fearing a US attack and rallying around the government.

Cyrus, a businessman who attended last year’s protests and this week’s funeral event in Tehran, says the mourners stretched for miles. “It was the largest crowd I ever saw,” he tells me, asking that only his first name be used. “Everyone was angry and wanted revenge.”

Tit for tat

In response to the Trump Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord in 2018, Iran has been stepping up retaliatory measures. In recent months, Iraqi militias allied with Iran launched attacks on US troops stationed in Iraq. Then, on December 29, the Pentagon bombed two militia bases, killing 25 people and wounding dozens. In response, Iraqis stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad. On January 2, US drones assassinated Suleimani and several militia leaders.

Despite a public statementthat it does not seek further escalation, the Trump administration may yet see more retaliation, according to a high-level Iranian government source. So far, he tells me, Iran has focused on military targets, but he notes that Suleimani has “millions of followers all across the region from Yemen to Lebanon who will be seeking revenge from the United States. Iran cannot control them.”

“Trump’s assets all around the world will be considered as legitimate,” says the source, who didn’t want his name used for security reasons.

If pro-Iranian groups started blowing up Trump office towers or launching cyber attacks on his hotels, Al-Marashi says, it would put the administration in an awkward position.

“Would the American public tolerate US soldiers defending Trump hotels?” he asks. “It would put Trump in a bind.”

War under false pretenses

Trump claims the United States had to kill Suleimani because he was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks” on US forces. So far, his administration has provided no public proof of this assertion, and Al-Marashi says Suleimani and his allies posed no more of a threat on January 2 than on any previous day.

“This seemed like an impulsive decision to retaliate for the storming of the US embassy,” he says. “If there was a clear and present danger, not only the American public but the international community would have been told.”

“The United States has a long history of lying about starting wars,” notes Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born human rights activist and writer based in Washington, D.C. “The United States exaggerates threats and then claims national security for the purpose of circumventing Congress.”

In my opinion, Trump’s words “imminent and sinister attacks” will go down in history with “weapons of mass destruction” in the annals of major presidential lies.

Ironically, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi, at least part of Suleimani’s Baghdad visit was diplomatic. He was delivering a message from Iranian leaders in an effort to lower tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Suleimani

The Trump Administration has labeled Suleimani a terrorist and the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Both Republican and Democratic presidents claim Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans soldiers in Iraq, a blatant falsehood, as explained by professor Stephen Zunes in The Progressive.

But many Iraqis hate Suleimani, because of the brutal tactics used by Iran-allied militias. Starting last October, tens of thousands of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest unemployment, corruption, and Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs. Iranian-allied militias deployed snipers, who killed dozens of demonstrators.

In another incident, says activist Jarrar, the Iranian trained militia Kataeb Hezbollah attacked demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square. “The Iraqi army and police stepped aside, and they shot demonstrators,” Jarrar tells me. “Demonstrators later found boxes of bullets made in Iran.”

But many Iranians see Suleimani as a hero who led the fight against ISIS terrorism and who protected holy Shia Muslim shrines in Iraq and Syria. An October poll showed Suleimani was the most popular political leader in Iran, with an 82 percent approval rating.

Suleimani has entered Iran’s pantheon of martyrs. “A martyr is much more dangerous for the Americans than a live person,” says businessman Cyrus. “Mothers will teach their sons to become another Suleimani. Millions will fight the arrogance of the US system.”

Cyrus supported last November’s protests against unemployment and corruption. “The yellow vests in France demonstrated for one year,” he says. “Why not here?”

Cyrus later opposed the demonstrations when they turned violent. “But,” he adds, “everybody supported the demands of protestors. If you didn’t, you didn’t know the situation in Iran.”

As of this writing, the tit-for-tat military attacks have subsided. But the underlying conflict is far from resolved. Trump seems intent on forcing regime change in Iran. Iranians aren’t going for it.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

What’s really going on with the US and Iran?

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

On Jan. 2 a US drone fired a missile on a car caravan leaving the Baghdad airport, killing Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani and leaders of Iraqi militia groups. The Trump administration claims the attack eliminated terrorists planning attacks on US forces. But many Iraqis and Iranians consider it an act of war. Who is Suleimani and what impact will his assassination have on the region? 48 Hills talked with Reese Erlich, author of our Foreign Correspondent column, who has reported from Iran and Iraq for 20 years.

48 Hills: Who was Qassem Suleimani and why is his assassination significant?

Erlich: Suleimani was a top leader in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and headed up the Quds Force, Iran’s elite troops fighting in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. He played an important political role, for example, recently negotiating with Iraqi political parties to select a new prime minister. The US claims he was responsible for killing US soldiers during the 2003 Iraq War.

US troops in Kurdistan. Photo by Reese Erlich.

Suleimani was extremely popular at home, enjoying a 83 percent approval rating within Iran. It’s as if Iran had assassinated Eisenhower during World War II. The Iranians will almost surely retaliate.

48 Hills: What form will that retaliation take?

RE: I don’t have a crystal ball, but we can see what Iran and its allies have done recently. We may see more large demonstrations against the US Embassy in Baghdad, attacks on US-allied shipping in the Persian Gulf and/or assaults on US forces in the region. Ironically, before the most recent US attacks, tens of thousands of Iraqis were demonstrating against Iran’s presence in Iraq. In November, protestors even burned the Iranian consulate in Najaf, Iraq. Recent Trump administration actions, however, have swung Iraqi popular opinion against the US, and the anti-Iran demonstrations have stopped.

48 Hills: Is the recent attack an example of “Wag the Dog,” in which Trump seeks a war in order to divert attention from his impeachment and the 2020 elections?

RE: In the days ahead, we’ll learn more about the internal discussions in the White House leading to the attacks. Trump undoubtedly hopes to rally the country round the flag in his new offensive against “terrorism.” But the current actions are also the logical outcome of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran launched in 2017. Since Iran hasn’t buckled under unilateral US sanctions, military action is the next logical step for him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter about Trump’s intentions. His actions are illegal under international law and a disaster for the people of the US and the Middle East.

48 Hills: Who are the “Iranian backed militias,” which Washington blames for attacking US troops?

RE: From 2003-2011, the Pentagon spent billions of dollars training the Iraqi Army. But when the Islamic State attacked Iraq in 2014, the US-trained army collapsed. With ISIS approaching Baghdad, the call went out to form self-defense groups. Iran, with ISIS also approaching its borders in northeastern Iraq, armed and trained some of these militias. The various armed groups later formed the Popular Mobilization Units and formally affiliated with the Iraqi Army. Today the Iraqi government pays their salaries and provides them with ranks equivalent to the Army.

The US trained and armed its own factions within the Army, most notably the Iraqi Counter Terrorism forces. In Syria, the US armed the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces and has trained and armed the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. It’s rather hypocritical to blame Iran for training armed groups while the US does exactly the same.

In response to US economic warfare against Iran, its allies in Iraq launched mortars and rockets at several bases billeting US soldiers. Then on Dec. 29, the Pentagon bombed the base camp of one militia, Kataib Hezbollah, claiming the group was controlled by Iran. Kataib Hezbollah is also a unit of the Iraqi Army.

Just prior to the Dec. 29 bombing, which killed 19 and wounded 35, the Trump administration consulted with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel–but not Iraq. Understandably, Iraqis across the political spectrum criticized the bombing and assassination of Suleimani as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. The US seems intent on fighting Iran on Iraqi soil.

48 Hills: Does Iran pose a danger to US national interests?

RE: Iran’s government is a right-wing, religious-based regime that represses its own people. It seeks regional influence, mainly in countries with large Shia populations such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain, but also Syria. Washington cares little about human rights violations in Iran or anywhere else. It wants to reestablish a pro-US regime in Iran that will allow US oil companies to once again dominate the economy. The people of the US have no national interest in protecting oil company profits. Recent events have shown that people in the region don’t want to be dominated by any foreign power, whether the US or Iran.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. He is author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: An open letter to a Trump-supporting friend

Trump hasn't kept his promises to end foreign wars -- in fact, just the opposite.

I first met Robby Robertson during the 1969 General Electric strike. He was a young, militant worker fighting for a decent contract and social justice. He considered himself a “radical humanitarian.”

We later worked together on the assembly lines at National Can Corporation in San Leandro, near Oakland, fighting management and conservative union leaders. He turned me on to outlaw country musicians like Willie Nelson. We partied and struggled together against the bosses, against racism, and for immigrant rights.

Trump hasn’t kept his promises to end foreign wars — in fact, just the opposite.

That’s why I was surprised to learn recently that Robby Robertson supports Donald Trump.

In 2016, Robby had soured on Hillary Clinton because of what he considered her corruption and anti-working class policies.

“Trump is my man because I believe he loves this country and wants what he believes is best for it,” Robby tells me. “I have not witnessed that from the left side of the aisle.”

Robby reflects the views of many older white workers who are critical of the system and blame Democrats and liberals for its breakdown. I strongly disagree with his views but respect him.

And so I am writing this open letter to you, Robby, in hopes we can at least have a dialogue, if not a change of heart.

Foreign policy

Like most Trump supporters, you respect the President because you believe he’s carried out his campaign promises. He did what he said he would do, you say. Well, let’s take a closer look.

You say that Trump “operates like a businessman. His foreign policy hasn’t been that harmful. Everyone makes bad decisions. I believe if Hillary had won, the country would have been far worse off.”

First of all, we agree that Hillary Clinton, an unrepentant war hawk, would have made a bad president. As a US Senator, she voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She supported new wars in Libya and Yemen, and vastly expanded the number of US troops fighting overseas.

This week, The Washington Post printed US government documents showing that Obama consistently lied about the Afghan war; so did George W. Bush and now Trump. Those three Presidents are responsible for the deaths of more than 2,400 US soldiers and more than 38,000 Afghan civilians. The war has also cost the United States $2 trillion and counting.

While claiming to oppose “endless wars,” Trump has expanded every one of them. This chart tells the story.

Trump Troop Deployment 

Country            US troops Jan. 2017          US troops today

Afghanistan        10,000                                 14,000

Iraq                   5,000                                    6,000

Syria                  500                                         900

Saudi Arabia        0                                         3,500

Source: New York Times

Today, the Pentagon has 200,000 troops stationed overseas on nearly 800 military bases. That doesn’t look like bringing the boys home. In fact, the deployment costs taxpayers between $160 billion and $200 billion per year—money that should be going for health care, education, and infrastructure.

Still, Trump would have my support if all these troops were actually protecting the country. But our president has been unusually candid in admitting why soldiers are actually deployed.

For instance, Trump was going to pull the troops out of Syria but then sent them back into occupy Syria’s oil fields, offering US oil companies the right to pump the oil.

Now Trump is considering sending 14,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which would double the US presence there. The President openly admits he favors the Saudi King because he bought tens of billions of dollars worth of US weapons and because he supplies the West with oil. US troops are being put in harm’s way to protect the profits of companies like GE, where we once walked the picket lines.

Trump claims his America First policy has restored US prestige in the world. In fact, it’s the opposite. I’ve reported from ten countries during the Trump era, and even the United States’ closest allies don’t trust Trump. He is seen as reckless and unpredictable, and as a bully for breaking international agreements and imposing tariffs.

Trump threatened to bring “fire and fury” down on North Korea, only to back down when challenged. When he accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the Mediterranean and bombing Saudi oil facilities, he took no military action. When Turkey invaded northern Syria and attacked the Kurdish militia allied with the Pentagon, he allowed Turkey to proceed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually glad Trump hasn’t attacked Iran, or Mexico for that matter. In fact, I’d like to see well-planned, rapid withdrawal of US troops as part of a major revamp of US foreign policy. But Trump is not withdrawing troops, and his empty threats erode US credibility.

Trump hasn’t ended the endless wars because he’s not willing to take the hard steps needed to end them.

Good economy?

Okay, you say, but at least Trump has delivered on the economy.

“People hate Trump because he stepped outside the box,” you tell me. “He doesn’t play politics; he’s a businessman.”

The economy has grown about 2.5 percent per year under Trump and unemployment has hit a five-decade low of 3.5 percent. People, including students and homemakers, are coming back into the workforce because there are more jobs.

And yes, Robby, if a President Hillary Clinton had the same economic numbers, the Democrats would be trumpeting her great successes. But I would point out that for Clinton, as for Trump, this economic expansion is a house of cards that hasn’t helped workers anywhere near as much as claimed. The good-paying manufacturing jobs have not returned in significant numbers.

Trump holds rallies and media events at factories, where he has supposedly stopped management from moving overseas and saved hundreds of jobs. But months later those factories are still closing, moving overseas, or laying off workers.

The same thing happens when Trump claims that his tariffs have boosted American jobs. His policies temporarily benefit some industries while badly hurting others. When Trump imposed tariffs on foreign steel manufacturers, the protected US companies raised their prices, which hurt manufacturers who buy steel. Some of those companies then laid off workers to save money while passing on some of the price increases to customers.

Jobs in primary metal manufacturing have gone down by 7,900 since January, including job losses in the supposedly protected aluminum industry.

For the first time since the 1920s, the United States has started trade wars with dozens of countries, including Canada, Britain, and France. Those countries retaliate with their own tariffs and businesses get worried. Worried executives don’t invest, and that will help bring on recession.

“Trump’s tariffs have caused business investment to fall for two consecutive calendar quarters, which usually indicates that a recession will start soon,” David Kotz tells me. He’s an old friend of yours and mine, Robby, and an economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I can’t predict when, but a big recession is coming, and Trump’s policies are helping bring it on. 

Still friends?

Robby, I don’t know if any of my arguments make sense to you, let alone have changed your mind. While we disagree, I respect your views.

You’re a talented artist and I still treasure the drawing you gave me of Willie Nelson. I look forward to having coffee  with you soon.

By the way, Robby, you might want to take a look at Willie Nelson’s outspoken opposition to Trump, particularly how he criticized the imprisonment of Central American children at the US-Mexico border.

“What’s going on at our southern border is outrageous,” Willie said. “Christians everywhere should be up in arms.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

Foreign Correspondent: What’s next for Bolivia after military coup?

Reese Erlich interviews indigenous woman in Bolivia 2005, about protests against the US-backed regime. Indigenous people make up 55% of Bolivia's population. Photo by Amanda Groty

In 2005, I sat in a lounge off the Senate chamber in La Paz, Bolivia, waiting for an interview. I was wearing my best coat and tie. With my thinning hair and grey mustache, I could pass for a Bolivian of European descent. In fact, numerous people smiled and said “buenos días,” as if I was a familiar face.

Reese Erlich interviews indigenous woman in Bolivia 2005, about protests against the US-backed regime. Indigenous people make up 55% of Bolivia’s population.
Photo by Amanda Groty

The senators were mostly white men, reflecting the makeup of Bolivia’s political elite at that time. But that changed just a few months later with the election of Evo Morales and his party, Movement Toward Socialism (MAS).

Morales’s government nationalized natural gas and electric companies, defying both the US and the Bolivian oligarchy. So it’s not surprising that those forces now denounce Morales as a dictator and cheer his overthrow.

Bolivia held elections on October 20 this year. Opposition leaders, claiming vote fraud, organized mass, anti-government demonstrations. Sectors of the military and police sided with the opposition. Morales, his vice president and other top government leaders resigned under military pressure. Some went into exile in Mexico.

While the Trump Administration and mainstream media characterized the events as a popular uprising, Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, correctly called it a coup.

“It was the military who intervened in that process and asked him to leave,” Sanders said during the Democratic Party debate in Atlanta on November 20. “When the military intervenes, in my view, that’s called a coup.”

Some recent history

In 2005, I reported from Bolivia on the popular movements opposed to then President Carlos Mesa. The rich elite who ran Bolivia in those days followed US-inspired neoliberal economic policies by privatizing government-owned companies, even those providing drinking water and sewage lines.

The privatized water utility was owned by a French multinational corporation. It raised the sewage hook-up charge to $450, roughly eight times the typical monthly income in El Alto, a working-class city located above La Paz.

The people of El Alto sought Mesa’s resignation through mass protests. “We used force because this is an issue facing us and our children,” street vendor Alejandra Arteaga told me when I was writing for the Dallas Morning News. “When there was a strike or a blockade, we went up to participate.”

In June 2005, a new round of mass demonstrations forced Mesa to resign, and by December, Bolivians elected Morales president. He served three terms.

Poverty alleviation and indigenous rights

At a time when most Latin American economies were slowing, Bolivia under Morales and MAS reduced poverty by 42 percent and extreme poverty by 60 percent, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). In 2008, unemployment was cut in half, from 7.7 to 4.4 percent.

MAS made these advances because Bolivia defied conventional US economic prescriptions, according to Guillaume Long, a senior policy analyst at CEPR. “MAS opposed the neoliberal agenda and nationalized resources such as gas,” he told me in a phone interview.

The country’s indigenous groups, including Aymara and Quechua, saw significant gains under the MAS government, according to Bret Gustafson, an anthropology professor and Bolivia expert at the Washington University in St. Louis.

“The government passed anti-racism legislation,” he said in a phone interview. “Indigenous people were included in the highest level of the government and military. Indigenous languages and culture were celebrated under Evo.”

But those gains are in serious danger if the right wing stays in power.

Controversy: Morales runs again

Under Bolivia’s constitution, a newly elected president may serve two terms. In 2016, by a narrow margin, Bolivians voted down a referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits. But in 2017, Bolivia’s Constitutional Court ruled that term limits were in violation of the OAS treaty on human rights, clearing the way for Morales to run again.

The conservative opposition angrily denounced the ruling, saying the court was packed with Morales supporters. But Gustafson says even some liberal and leftist Bolivians have a “deep memory of past dictatorial governments.” Moreover, Morales had not groomed a successor who could maintain party unity. “Morales was the glue that held everything together,” Gustafson says.

In the October 20 election, a dozen candidates vied for the presidency, including former President Carlos Mesa and Evo Morales. Under Bolivian law, a candidate can win by gaining just 40 percent of the vote if it is 10 percent more than the second-place opponent. After the final count, Morales won with 47 percent compared to Mesa’s 36.5 percent. MAS also won a majority in both legislatures.

The Organization of American States and the Trump Administration immediately alleged  vote fraud. They claimed the vote count was halted when it seemed Morales would be forced into a runoff and then suspiciously re-opened with a Morales victory.

As explained in an exhaustive election analysis by CEPR, the official vote count never stopped. The unofficial “quick count” did stop, as planned beforehand, after tabulating 83 percent of the votes. The official count, which is the only binding result, continued uninterrupted until officials announced the results.

The last votes to be tabulated, which the OAS claims were suspiciously favorable to Morales, were in fact consistent with votes from areas traditionally supportive of MAS.

From both the quick count and final count, “You could easily determine that Morales won,” says CEPR’s Long, who was also an OAS observer in the 2017 Bolivian elections.

In short, there was no voter fraud that propelled Morales into power. But the misinformation, along with genuine anger from those opposed to Morales running at all, led to large demonstrations.

The US role

Bolivia is a major source of natural gas and minerals such as lithium, making it of great importance to multinational corporations. The US in the past supported military coups in Bolivia when civilian governments didn’t follow pro-Washington policies.

The US has a long history of training Bolivian police and military leaders. One of the leaders of the recent coup attended a course at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas) at Fort Benning, Georgia.

For many years, USAID has funded projects to promote businesses in conservative, eastern Bolivia, pitting them against the movements of workers and peasant farmers.

Washington has the means and the will to instigate a coup in Bolivia. In the months and years ahead, more information will emerge revealing the extent of direct US involvement. But there’s no doubt the coup serves US interests and has full US support.

What lies ahead?

After the military forced Morales and other leaders to leave Bolivia, Senator Jeanine Añez, a little known ultra-right winger, declared herself president based on her position as second vice president of the Senate. Her initial cabinet had only one indigenous member and reporters quickly discovered racist tweets in her Twitter account.

Widespread looting broke out. MAS supporters mobilized against the coup, blockading highways leading to many cities.  On November 20, six indigenous men were shot and killed in El Alto, in an act that protesters attributed to the military. To date more than thirty people have died and dozens have been injured.

In late November, demonstrations were halted in some MAS strongholds but continued in others as protestors demanded release of demonstrators arrested in previous protests. On November 24, MAS legislative leaders and Añezagreed to legislation calling for new presidential and legislative elections in April 2020, while prohibiting Morales from running.

From his exile in Mexico, Morales reluctantly agreed with the compromise. “In the name of peace, sacrifices have to be made and I am sacrificing my candidacy even though I have every right to it,” he told The Guardian.

“It was a practical recognition of the balance of power,” Gustafson says. “Evo still has widespread support. But any effort to bring him back would galvanize rightwingers, some military officers, and some moderates.”

Bolivia remains deeply divided. The right wing is split among several factions. While Morales can’t run, MAS will field another candidate for president in April, along with veteran legislators from both houses.

“Morales has a lot of personal appeal, but MAS also has popular support,” says analyst Long. “MAS remains a force to be reckoned with.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in 48 Hills. Follow him on  Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit hiswebpage.

Foreign Correspondent: A New Arab Spring in Lebanon and Iraq

Protests in Baghdad in October.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Lebanese have been demonstrating in the streets against corruption and for democratic rights. The protestors come from all economic classes and religious and ethnic groups.

Like the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2010, these protests are spontaneous and without traditional leaders. And they are sending corrupt political parties and foreign powers scrambling to manipulate the protests for their own nefarious ends.

Protests in Baghdad in October.

The current protests raise many of the same issues as the Arab Spring, says David Dunford, a former US ambassador to several Middle East countries and author of From Sadat to Saddam: The Decline of American Diplomacy in the Middle East.

“People in both countries are sick and tired of sectarian jockeying and foreign influence,” he tells me in a phone interview.

In my opinion, the uprisings expose the false logic of the vacuum theory, which posits that US military withdrawal automatically benefits the villain du jour, whether Russia, Iran, or China. Instead, the protests show that the people of the Middle East don’t want domination by Washington, DC., or any outside power.

Lebanon crisis

On a trip to Lebanon earlier this year, I spoke with businessmen who warned of a coming economic crisis. The Lebanese currency was dropping against the dollar, and the businessmen saw an economic meltdown coming.

It wasn’t hard to see why. Walking along Beirut’s cornice, or seaside road, I passed by dozens of vacant, multi-million-dollar condos owned as vacation homes or investments by Saudi sheiks and Emirati businessmen.

Meanwhile, working class Lebanese can’t get basic services: electricity, garbage collection, and protection from raging forest fires. The poverty rate is around 30 percent, according to the World Bank.

On October 17, spontaneous demonstrations began when the government imposed a new tax on the What’s App program, widely used on cell phones to make free calls. But demonstrators quickly added corruption and lack of democracy to their list of demands. They called for the entire government to resign and an end to Lebanon’s system by which certain government positions are guaranteed to each ethnic and religious group and hence to the corrupt political parties.

People sat down on major thoroughfares and set up roadblocks. Universities shut, and when they reopened, students refused to attend. Banks closed because depositors feared they couldn’t access their money.

For the first time, Lebanese from different economic classes and religions joined together demanding an end to the country’s sectarian political system. They opposed the old, corrupt parties, whether backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

People were particularly angry with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who gave $16 million to his bikini-model mistress. Hariri and his cabinet resigned October 29. All the parties in the ruling coalition, which was led by Hezbollah, scrambled to respond.

Amal and Hezbollah, the two parties with largely Shia Muslim support, initially supported the demonstrations. But so did Samir Geagea, the ultra-right-wing Maronite Christian leader and sworn enemy of Hezbollah.Hezbollah and Amal later withdrew support, having been accused of beating peaceful demonstrators.

Groundhog Day all over again

The Trump Administration, in what has become a Groundhog Day experience, didn’t know how to respond to yet another world crisis, according to a former US diplomat who recently met with White House and State Department officials. Washington views Lebanon through the prism of Iran and Syria, he says. “They have no understanding of what’s going on in Lebanon,” the diplomat tells me, on condition of anonymity.

So far, the Trump Administration does not plan a military intervention but seeks to weaken Hezbollah, which it alleges is an Iranian proxy. But factions within the administration differ on tactics.

The White House’s National Security staff believes Hezbollah controls the Lebanese government and has significant influence in the Lebanese Army. They want to pressure the Army and opposition parties to break with Hezbollah.

So on October 31, in a surprise move, the US stopped all aid to the Lebanese Army, including $105 million which had been already approved in September.

The State Department and Pentagon opposed the aid cut, arguing that the Army constitutes a stabilizing and pro-western force. Cutting US military aid, they argue, just provides more openings for Iran and Russia to exert influence.

All sides believe that the mass protests have weakened Hezbollah. But Hezbollah not only has a well-armed, battle-hardened militia, it can mobilize tens of thousands of civilian supporters in a matter of hours. It consistently wins seats in the Lebanese parliament and has proven adept at forming electoral alliances, even with former enemies.

Iraqis oppose US and Iran

Given Lebanon’s unsuccessful system guaranteeing government positions to ethnic groups, you’d think the US would have tried something different in Iraq. Instead, Washington has created an equally flawed system and imposed it on a poorer, war-ravaged country.

In Iraq, the political parties break down by religious and ethnic groups, resulting in a Shia Muslim prime minister and Kurdish president. Each party places its supporters in government jobs and issues government contracts to corrupt partners. As a result, the government functions as an ATM for the parties and the wealthy elite.

Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis don’t have safe drinking water and government-supplied electricity. Many complain that government services are worse today than under Saddam Hussein.

Protests against corruption and the party system broke out October 1. Demonstrators condemned corruption in the pro-US and pro-Iran parties in Iraq, and within the parties of the Kurdish region.

The government launched a brutal crackdown. To date, more than 300 protesters have been killed, mostly by uniformed security forces and government-affiliated snipers.

Protesters threw gasoline bombs at the Iranian consulate in Karbala and chanted anti-Iran slogans. Persons unknown launched 17  rockets into a US air base.

Iraqis have long opposed US occupation of their country. But over the past few years, they’ve also grown angry at Iran’s influence over certain political parties and Iranian-controlled militias affiliated with the Iraqi Army.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s leading Muslim cleric, has supported the demonstrations and opposed Iranian meddling. Moktada al-Sadr, whose political party won a plurality in the last parliamentary elections, has called for an end to all foreign interference, whether from Washington or Tehran.

The uprisings in Lebanon and Iraq show once again that people in the Middle East want democratic reforms, and an end to corruption and foreign domination. Nowhere is it written that countries must either support the US or Iran. It may be difficult, but people can determine their own future.

Special report: Bay Area academics visit Kurds in Northern Syria

Members of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) near Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. The YPJ is the all-female brigade of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed forces of the Syrian region of Kurdistan. The Kurdish-led forces welcome people from all nations and religions and they not only receive military training, but are taught about feminist ideology and Jineology (science of women). They fought many battles including with the YPG and United States against the Islamic State. © Beth LaBerge

Editor’s Note: This story by our Foreign Correspondent columnist Reese Erlich is accompanied by photographs by Beth LaBerge. In Laberge’s words, “I spent two weeks in June traveling between Qamishli and Kobani with a group of mostly academics, accompanied by two Asayish guards.

We crossed by boat at the Semalka border crossing from Iraqi Kurdistan, drove through oil fields and along the Turkish border. We visited the Martyrs’ Cemetery and areas destroyed by the Islamic State in Kobani, met YPJ members and injured veterans and spent time at Rojava University in Qamishli, where several professors taught seminars. 

Havin Guneser, from the Kurdish freedom movement and Freedom for Ocalan, organized the trip overall. The Bay Area contingent of the trip to Rojava was organized by Andrej Grubacic, a professor at Berkeley and CIIS.

—–

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT The crowd gathered slowly last Saturday in downtown Oakland as twenty-something women with multiple piercings and bearded hipsters waited for the rally to begin. Unlike some peace demonstrations populated mainly with baby boomers, this rally against the Turkish invasion of Syria included many younger activists.  

One signs read “Queers support Rojava and Palestine.” An activist handed out buttons “Punks for Rojava.” Rojava is the name of the Kurdish region in northern Syria recently invaded by Turkey.

Some 300 people eventually joined the rally and march, part of national demonstrations supporting the Kurds and opposing foreign intervention in Syria. 

“Do we want Putin, Erdogan, or Trump?” asked rally moderator Andrej Grubacic. “Or do we want a world without nation states?”

A cheer went up from the crowd receptive to the anarchist critique of all government. Rally organizers called for a cultural and economic boycott of Turkey. 

Students perform a traditional dance at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. Founded in 2016, Rojava University teaches science, art and humanities as well as Jineology (the study of women), agriculture, medicine and engineering. Classes are taught in Kurdish Arabic and English. The University provides free education to many who had formerly not had access.
Students attend a lecture at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 17, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
(From left) Seth Holmes and Targol Mesbah speak with Havin Guneser before a lecture at Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge

Turkish invasion

On Oct. 9, Turkey sent troops and Syrian mercenaries into Rojava with Trump’s implicit approval.

As a result of Turkey’s aggression, so far 250 Kurds have died and 300,000 forced to flee their homes. Erdogan has publically announced plans to move to northern Syria the 2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, thus displacing the indigenous Kurdish population.

“Trump allowed civilian massacres,” rally organizer Grubacic told 48 Hills in an interview. He also chairs the Department of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. “What Trump did exposed Kurdish civilians to ethnic cleansing.”

A family crosses the Tigris River from Northern Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan at the Semalka border crossing on Jun. 9, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Memorials to People’s Protection Units (YPG) members line the road going into the city of Qamishli in Northern Syria on Jun. 9, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Graffiti lines the Northern Syrian side of the border wall between Syria and Turkey, near the city of Qamishli on Jun. 14, 2019. Graffiti reads Kurdistan and biji Rojava (long live Rojava). © Beth LaBerge
Laundry hangs to dry in an area of Kobani, Northern Syria called ‘The Museum’ on Jun. 11, 2019, where rubble is deliberately left as a reminder of the Siege of Kobani. The siege by the Islamic State (IS) lasted from September 2014 to January 2015 and destroyed much of the city. It was in The Museum area that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) eventually defeated the militant group. Local goverment thought it was important to memorialize what happened there so plan to make the destroyed downtown an open air museum. Some families have moved back into what they can salvage of the area.
Xalid, a member of the Internal Security Forces known as Asayish, at the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Kobani, Northern Syria on Jun. 11, 2019. The cemetery houses the remains of civilians and fighters who lost their lives in the battle against the Islamic State (IS). The Kurdish-led forces say they lost at least 11,000 while fighting the Islamic State. © Beth LaBerge

Strange bedfellows

The Syria conflict makes for very strange alliances. Beginning in 2015, the leftist Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) decided to build a strategic alliance with the US, acting as the Pentagon’s ground troops to fight ISIS in Syria. The SDF is supported not only by black bloc anarchists, but by Republican senators and Democratic Party hawks. 

The Pentagon backed the SDF as the only pro-US force capable of defeating ISIS. The Pentagon ignored the SDF efforts to build “democratic confederalism,” in which civilians participated in local governing councils, because they were such effective fighters. 

The US pressured the SDF to break off talks with Syrian President Bashar al Assad about a possible political settlement. The Pentagon also forced the SDF, who was expecting a Turkish invasion, to reveal their defenses to prove they wouldn’t attack Turkey. The US allowed the Turkish military to inspect the sites and later used intelligence gathered there to launch their attack. 

Grubacic argues, however, that the alliance with the US was a good idea. It allowed the SDF to build up Rojava for five years, he said, while fighting the ISIS.

“They didn’t expect the US to stay forever,” he said. “But they didn’t expect Trump to make a deal with Erdogan. They were genuinely surprised and shocked.”

So after the Turkish invasion, the SDF struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow. Assad sent troops back into northern Syria for the first time since 2012. Russia will hold joint patrols with Turkey near the border.

Trump, on the other hand, claims he wants to bring the troops home and stop fighting “endless wars.” He was supported by libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). In reality, Trump pulled US troops back, allowed the Turkish invasion, then reversed course and sent troops to occupy Syria’s oil fields. When this mess began, the US had some 1000 troops in Syria. When the new deployments are complete, there will be 900.

Trump has managed to destroy U.S. credibility, anger allies, and embolden enemies—all without actually bringing US soldiers home.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire in which the SDF will be forced out of a zone 20-miles deep stretching along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, basically achieving the goal of Turkey’s invasion.

Children play on the entrance gate of Jinwar, a village for women and children, in the autonomous region of Northern Syria, on Jun. 14, 2019. Jinwar welcomes women from surrounding villages who have often left violent relationships or are widows of YPG members. Opened in 2018, the village has 30 houses, a communal kitchen, store, bakery Jineology (Women’s Studies) Institute and school for the children. © Beth LaBerge
A traditional Kurdish dancer outside of Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
A traditional Kurdish dancer outside of Rojava University in Qamishli, Northern Syria on Jun. 16, 2019. © Beth LaBerge
Leyla Ahmi, a professor at Rojava University, outside of Amuda, Northern Syria on Jun. 10, 2019. © Beth LaBerge

Rojava experiment

Leftists, and anarchists in particular, were drawn to the SDF because of its promotion of grass-roots democracy and women’s rights.

“All organizations in Rojava have men and women co-chairs,” Targol Mesbah told 48 Hills. She is an assistant professor of Anthropology at CIIS, who visited Rojava in June. “You can feel the liberated power of these women.”

SDF critics argue that visitors to Rojava get a one-sided view. They say the Kurdish leadership prohibits other political parties from organizing in Rojava, sometimes roughly conscripts residents into their armed wing and promotes a cult of personality around imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.

But Mesbah says she saw a different reality. She visited Jinwar, Kurdish for the Village of Free Women, a cooperative of 11 women. They run a school, ecological projects, harvest wheat and operate a bakery. 

But just a few days after her delegation left, “the wheat fields were intentionally burned, most likely by ISIS or the Turkish government,” she said.

 It was always difficult to build local institutions under wartime conditions, and now the Turkish invasion could wipe it out altogether.

Rojava’s future?

The future of Rojava now hinges on SDF’s relations with Damascus and Moscow. During the initial US withdrawal, the SDF and Assad government declared an alliance. 

The SDF agreed to join the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps, a unit that includes foreign fighters and is commanded by Russia. 

Joshua Landis, director of Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma told 48 Hills that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF’s armed wing, will maintain its internal structure within the Fifth Corps – for now. 

“But eventually the regime will purge the military as it has done with other militias who joined the army,” he said. “The Syrian regime rejects the north Iraq model with the peshmerga (armed militia) as an independent force.”

And Assad rejects the kind of autonomy practiced by the SDF over the past eight years. But in a recent meeting with Kurdish leaders, he left room for concessions.

“The Syrian government has the right to defend the territorial integrity of Syria and be aware of separatist calls, but the Syrian state has no problem with Syrian diversity and finds in that richness and strength,” he said.

Landis said Damascus is only offering some cultural autonomy, such as teaching Kurdish in schools and celebration of Kurdish holidays. 

“There’s a monstrous political difference between the SDF and Damascus,” said Landis. “The US gave them quasi-independence and that’s gone.”

Grubacic is more optimistic. He argues that the SDF has spent years building local political structures. “If the Syrian government eliminated them, everything would fall apart,” he said. “We can only hope that they can have some level of autonomy.” 

But it won’t come without a fight on the ground in Rojava and in the court of international public opinion. And that’s where Saturday’s rallies fit in, Grubacic said.

“I have faith in grassroots, international pressure.”

—————

Freelance journalist Reese Erlich has reported on Syria since 2002 and is author of Inside Syria: The Inside Story of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Foreign Correspondent: The Brexit mess

Boris Johnson's Brexit strategy is creating a "clusterfuck."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Britain’s tousle-haired answer to Donald Trump, came into office promising to leave the European Union by October 31. He declared that he would rather “die in a ditch” than stay in the EU past that date. But by mid-October he had to ask the EU for an extension and, while not dead, Johnson may be lying in a ditch of his own making.

Britain and the EU have extended the deadline for their divorce, known as Brexit, this time to January 31. Parliament, meanwhile, voted for national elections to be held on December 12. Johnson hopes to win a majority, ram Brexit through parliament, and then implement his party’s anti-worker, conservative policies.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy is creating a “clusterfuck.”

Britain’s Labor Party, led by unabashed leftist Jeremy Corbyn, strongly criticizes Johnson’s Brexit plan as hurting working and middle-income people. Corbyn promises to negotiate better terms with the EU and then put the agreement up for a popular referendum. While polls show Labor trailing the Conservatives in the upcoming elections, Corbyn could pull out a surprise victory given widespread hatred of the conservatives.

But it will be tough sledding. Brexit has deeply split British society and presents a serious conundrum for left and progressive forces. Leftists who have long opposed EU membership because of its neoliberal policies seem to be in the same camp as ultra-right wingers who advocate leaving the EU based on xenophobia and racism.

Liberals and social democrats, who favor staying in the EU because it provides some worker and environmental protections, find themselves in bed with Britain’s largest capitalist corporations.

Robin Hahnel, an economist and professor emeritus at American University who now lives in Portland, Oregon, puts it in perspective: “Brexit is a clusterfuck for everybody.”

EU and neoliberalism

The European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, began in 1957. The EU was formally established in 1993, and it became an economic and political bloc competing with the United States. The EU eliminated tariffs among member states and created common rules for everything from naming cheese to environmental protection. In 1999, Europe issued a common currency, the Euro, which further consolidated EU power.

While paying lip service to helping Europeans improve their quality of life, in reality, the bloc’s biggest powers—Germany, France and Britain—imposed neoliberal policies on its weaker members in the interest of greater corporate profits.

Left and progressive forces have opposed EU for good reason. Like Nafta and similar trade agreements dictated by Washington, the EU has benefited certain corporations to the detriment of workers. Bankers in Berlin and bureaucrats in Brussels made decisions that couldn’t be changed by elected governments.

For many years, as a leftist backbencher, Labor Member of Parliament Corbyn opposed British membership in the EU.

“He knew EU membership prevented democratic control of the British economy,” Hahnel tells me. “The EU was the brainchild of neoliberal corporations.”

During the 2008 world recession, conservative German bankers wouldn’t allow member countries to create significant, budgetary deficits. While the Obama Administration primed the US pump with federal spending—and not nearly enough of it—the EU was constrained by fiscally conservative policy.

“The EU institutionalized austerity and draconian budget cuts in countries such as Greece,” Costas Panayotakis, a sociology professor at the New York City University College of Technology, tells me. “That created popular discontent, and contributed to far right and anti-immigrant sentiment. Boris Johnson is part of that wave.”

While the EU has been a disaster for working people, it’s policies aren’t easy to reverse. The EU has created a vast web of trade agreements, regulations and economic interdependencies.

Leftist debate

There’s fierce debate within the European left about how to proceed. The communist parties of Britain and Ireland, for example, see the EU as a capitalist institution that can’t be reformed. They want Britain and Ireland to leave the EU as a first step towards unraveling it altogether.

Social Democrats, including a significant number of Labor Party members, advocate joining with other European leftists to reform the EU by adopting environmentally and worker-friendly policies.

But that’s not the debate that dominates British political discourse.

Brexit has exposed long simmering divisions within the Conservative Party, split between those big capitalists who make money with European trade and those who think they can make more going it alone. Johnson, for example, claims once the UK has left the EU, he will negotiate more favorable trade deals with the EU and the United States.

Getting a favorable trade deal from Donald Trump? Good luck Boris!

Meanwhile, Britain’s ultra-right wing has adopted leftist rhetoric to denounce the EU for increasing unemployment and spending billions of pounds that could have been used to fund the country’s National Health Service. (Yes, the right wing in Britain supports a single payer health system.)

The right wing then demagogically blamed immigrants as the source of the problem, although attitudes have changed since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

As if the debate wasn’t complicated enough, voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland strongly support staying in the EU. People in both areas want closer ties with Europe as part of their resentment of rule by London.

Scotland has a strong nationalist movement, and if the British government pulls out of the EU, it would strengthen calls for independence. Similarly leftist Irish republicans in Northern Ireland favor staying in the EU. If the UK pulls out, that could lead to a reinstatement of a hard border between the north and the Republic of Ireland, something that was abolished years ago.

Boris’ plan

In mid-October, Boris Johnson negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU. It contained unpopular provisions, such as 39 million pounds ($50 billion) to make up for British revenues that would have been paid to the EU. Additional divorce payments would be due after the end of next year if a final agreement isn’t reached. It also avoided creating a hard border with Ireland, but angered right-wingers in Northern Ireland who called the plan a “betrayal.”

But Boris’ plan, like the one proposed by his predecessor Theresa May, mostly leaves key issues unresolved. Once outside the EU, Britain, and Europe would have to negotiate a new trade agreement, which could take years. Would the UK abide by existing trade rules in the meantime, racking up billions of pounds of new divorce payments along the way?

The Labor Party is split between trade union and traditional leftist opponents of the EU on one side, and centrist members who favor EU membership on the other. So Corbyn has forged a compromise.

Corbyn hopes that with a Labor victory, he could negotiate a better agreement with the EU and then submit the plan for a national referendum. Corbyn says he will remain neutral and allow voters to decide whether to accept the new withdrawal plan or stay in the EU.

But, that’s seriously risky, says sociologist Panayotakis. People are exhausted by all the Brexit delays, he observes, and Johnson may continue to be seen as the champion of people on the right and left who oppose EU membership.

“It may seem wise for Corbyn to move to the center,” Panayotakis says, “but it may be more risky than people realize.”

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.

 

Foreign Correspondent: Trump dumps Kurds as the empire crumbles

The Syrian civil war has killed and displaced millions of people. Here, photos of Armenian Christian children killed by a rebel mortar in Damascus. Photo: Reese Erlich

In less than two weeks, President Donald Trump has managed to create a massive and avoidable crisis in Syria.

By greenlighting the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, Trump’s policy forced more than 160,000 Syrians to flee their homes. And guess who emerged as the political and military winners? Russia, Iran, and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian civil war has killed and displaced millions of people. Here, photos of Armenian Christian children killed by a rebel mortar in Damascus.
Photo: Reese Erlich

High-ranking Republicans, including usual Trump defenders Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, slammed the decision. A bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives, including two-thirds of Republicans, also condemned the move. Chaos on the battlefield and recriminations at home: This is what a declining empire looks like.

The move is also being criticized by John Craig, special assistant to the president under George W. Bush, who told me in an interview that there was a clear alternative to Trump’s reckless moves. Instead of abandoning the Kurds, he could have clearly warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to invade.

“I would have advised the president don’t give an inch,” Craig said in a phone interview. “Tell Erdoğan ‘don’t move across the border.’ ”

Instead, Trump bumbled his way into an international crisis.

The fateful phone call

It began October 6, with a phone call between Trump and Erdoğan. Turkey’s president convinced Trump to pull back US troops based in northern Syria so Turkey could launch an invasion. Once again, The Donald, trusting his “gut,” made a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Three days later, Erdoğan sent troops across the border to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mostly Kurdish group that had allied with Washington to fight the Islamic State. Outgunned by the Turkish army and abandoned by Trump, the SDF made a quickie deal with the Syrian and Russian governments to jointly block the Turkish offensive.

Syrian army troops quickly deployed to several important cities near the border with Turkey. Russian military police began patrolling the strategically located town of Manbij. Turkey’s proxy militia will fight for control of Manbij, Erdoğan says, but it’s unclear if it will risk a clash with Syria or Russia.

On October 17, Vice President Mike Pence and Erdogan announced a five-day “ceasefire,” during which Kurdish forces would withdraw from an area designated by Turkey. But the Kurds were not part of the negotiations, and as of press time, it seems unlikely they will pull back their fighters.

What could have been done?

It doesn’t take an advanced degree or years in the State Department to see an alternative to Trump’s dump on the Kurds. Trump could have set a date for a US withdrawal with clear warnings to Turkey. The US would have had overwhelming support in the United Nations, which has the power to impose harsh diplomatic and economic sanctions on Turkey. A genuine multi-national effort would have deterred aggression or made Turkey pay a very high cost.

Instead, Trump allowed the invasion, then reversed course by imposing sanctions after the fact. He raised tariffs on Turkish steel imports, halted negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal, and cut several Turkish government ministers off from global banking. None of these measures came close to the US sanctions imposed on Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran—nor were they likely to have any serious impact on the war.

And then, after announcing the ceasefire, Trump dropped the sanctions altogether.

Unfortunately, some leading Democrats are using the crisis to attack Trump from the right. Democratic hawks Chuck Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island want Trump to return US troops to Syria.

That would be a colossal blunder. In principle, Washington should not launch yet another unilateral invasion. In practical terms, there’s still a war going on in northern Syria, and the US has no allies left.

“It would expose US troops to fire from all sides,” Craig says. “Syrian Kurds, Russians, and Turks are angry. What would the US troops do?”

Could craziness lead to peace?

The newly minted alliance of SDF, Russia, and the Syrian government opens up the possibility of reunifying Syria and helping expel foreign troops. But implementation won’t be easy because of serious political differences.

For the past several years, under US military protection, the SDF has implemented its version of autonomy in northern Syria. It created local councils with women making up half the leadership. Christians, Arabs, and other ethnic/religious groups were guaranteed representation.

The SDF is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, which, contrary to mainstream media reports, gave up Marxism more than 20 years ago and adopted a hodgepodge version of anarchism that stresses feminism and environmentalism. However, the PKK continues to exclude participation by other political parties to its left or right. And it promotes a cult of personality around PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The US and Turkey falsely label the PKK a terrorist organization. The PKK engages in armed struggle, but doesn’t massacre civilians like IS or Al Qaeda.

President Assad, on the other hand, favors a highly centralized state. While he allows presidential and parliamentary elections, real power resides with the president, military, and ruling Baath Party. Syria’s leaders fear that granting autonomy to Kurds will be the first step in the creation of an independent Kurdistan in northern Syria.

Political settlement?

Previous efforts by the SDF and Assad to reach a political settlement have failed. In August 2018, the SDF and government held talks and even formed a committee to continue negotiations. But the talks broke down, largely over disagreements on autonomy.

In the last two weeks, faced with the prospects of a permanent Turkish occupation of northern Syria, both sides agreed to cooperate. The SDF/government agreement hasn’t been made public. But there have been leaks.

Danny Makki, a pro-government analyst and blogger, writes that the SDF-affiliated soldiers have agreed to join the Syrian Army’s 5th Corps, a contingent of foreign volunteers trained by Russia. Both sides have agreed to remove Turkish forces from northern Syria. And, most controversially, Makki writes, both sides agreed to “full Kurdish rights in the new Syrian constitution with autonomy, which will be agreed upon by Kurdish leadership & Syrian state.”

But another source in Damascus, who requests anonymity because the government hasn’t announced its position, doubts the Syrian authorities agreed to any kind of autonomy. “The SDF wants self administration, and it’s not acceptable,” the source tells me by phone. “Syria can’t accept a state within the state.”

I suspect that all sides agreed to cooperate without even starting to resolve political differences. Every side gets something in the short run.

After a seven-year absence, Assad will send his army back into much of northern Syria. The SDF hopes this will deter further Turkish attacks, while the SDF continues its civilian administration. And the Russians will appear as peace makers among the various armed groups.

They say politics makes strange bedfellows. So does war.

Reese Erlich’s nationally distributed column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks in The Progressive. He is author of Inside Syria: The Inside story of Their Civil Warand What the World Can Do. Follow him onTwitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him onFacebook; and visit hiswebpage.