Foreign Correspondent

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.

Foreign correspondent: Turkey plans attack on Syrian Kurds

A Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. Photo by Mahmoud Hassino

ISTANBUL —The Turkish government plans to use Syrian refugees to displace the local Kurdish population in northern Syria. But so far, the scheme isn’t working so well.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdoğan announced his intention to settle up to 2 million refugees now living in Turkey into northern Syria. “We aim to accelerate the return of Syrian refugees to their homes,” says Erdoğan.

A Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. Photo by Mahmoud Hassino

Turkey hopes to transfer Syrian Arabs to an area inhabited for centuries by Kurds. It plans to create a militarily controlled “safe zone,” which would stretch along 300 miles of the Turkish-Syrian border and eighteen miles deep into northern Syria.

Turkey claims such a massive population transfer will lead to the defeat of the Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units, which it falsely labels as a terrorist group.

According to Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer and member of the Turkish parliament from the opposition Republican People’s Party, the government is embarking on an “Arabization” program similar to what Syria tried to do in the 1950s and 60s, to displace the Kurds.

In an interview he tells me, “We are against the war in Syria, and we are also against the attempts to change the demographic structure of that area. This is not humanitarian and is not something history would accept.”

Voluntary return?

The government has stepped up deportation of refugees arrested for not living in the part of Turkey where they had work permits. And Erdoğanperiodically threatens to launch new attacks on the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Turkish authorities claim that so far, 340,000 refugees have voluntarily returned to live in the Turkish controlled part of northern Syria. But Human Rights Watch has found numerous examples of forced repatriation.

“Turkey claims it helps Syrians voluntarily return to their country, but threatening to lock them up until they agree to return, forcing them to sign forms, and dumping them in a war zone is neither voluntary nor legal,” says Gary Simpson of Human Rights Watch.

The current crisis emerged amidst growing Turkish anger at Syrian refugees. A recent poll shows Turkish support for Syrian refugees has dropped from 70 percent in 2006 to 40 percent today. Earlier this year gangs of Turkish youth randomly attacked Syrian shops in Istanbul.

In addition, a three-year agreement expires soon in which Turkey agreed to block refugees from entering Europe in return for $6.8 billion in refugee aid. Ankara is already allowing thousands of refugees to flee to Greece as a warning to the European Union of what the future could hold should a new agreement not be reached.

“The refugee issue is more explosive now,” Sinan Ülgen, executive director of the Turkish think tank Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, tells me in an interview.

How it all began

During the early years of the Arab Spring uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey opened its borders for refugees. Syrians could obtain 90-day tourist visas at the border. They could then get permits to work in Turkey. This was an enlightened policy compared to other countries that blocked borders or forced refugees into closed camps.

Turkey built refugee camps near populated areas. In 2012, I visited such a camp in which Syrians were allowed to work nearby, and had access to Turkey’s health and education systems. Those with economic resources could rent or buy apartments. The Turkish military encouraged Syrians to join the Free Syrian Army, and continues to train and supply it today.

Turkish authorities assumed refugees would stay briefly and then return to a Syria ruled by Erdoğanallies. But it’s been eight years and counting. Some refugees may never return at all, and more than 385,000 children have been born to Syrian parents living in Turkey.

Those Syrians who do return most certainly want to go back to their original cities rather than attempt to forge new lives in someone’s else’s house in a predominantly Kurdish region.

Turkey and the Kurds

Kurds are an ethnic minority whose traditional homeland was divided up by colonial powers after World War I. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliated YPG are the dominant  Kurdish force in both Turkey and Syria. They engage in armed struggle with the stated goal of establishing autonomous Kurdish areas in their respective countries, not to create a separate state.

Turkey considerers the PKK a bigger threat than ISIS. When the YPG appeared ready to win control of a contiguous territory in northern Syria, Turkey invaded and brutally attacked thetraditionally Kurdish stronghold of Afrin. Turkey established military bases and now controls an area in Syria west of the Euphrates River, which includes a largely Kurdish population.

The Turkish government, according to analyst Ülgen, has developed a plan for long-term rule of the Kurds in Syria. First, Turkey seeks to implement “safe zones,” in which the US and Turkey jointly operate military bases and conduct patrols. With military-enforced “stability” returned to the area, Turkey would begin reconstruction and encourage Syrian refugees to return, even those not originally from the area.

The US and Turkey agreed in August to create safe zones, but so far Ankara is far more enthusiastic than Washington. The safe-zone agreement lacks specifics as to exact location or responsibility. The US and Turkish military have held few joint patrols and set up no joint bases. It’s increasingly apparent that the Pentagon agreed to the safe zone to pacify Turkey but, so far, is reluctant to implement it.

The governments of Syria, Russia and Iran also oppose the Turkish safe zone as a severe violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Possible solutions

Late last year, President Donald Trump precipitously announced the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Syria. The Turkish army prepared to invade northern Syria, and the YPG was ready to fight as urban guerrillas. Such a war could kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of civilians. It could also could lead to the release of ISIS prisoners and their supporters now held in several YPG camps.

The crisis could end if the YPG and Syrian government negotiated a political settlement that allowed for democratic reforms and Kurdish autonomy. Both sides could guarantee the security of the Turkish-Syrian border and demand withdrawal of US and Turkish troops.

But so far, preliminary talks between the two sides haven’t gotten far. A fragile peace prevails in northern Syria, but Turkish leaders await an opportunity to send more troops. So far international and domestic pressure from the opposition Republican People’s Party have blocked large-scale, forcible resettlement of refugees. Let’s hope reason and humanity prevail.

Foreign Correspondent: Trump’s piracy on the high seas

The US is blaming Iran for drone strikes the damaged Saudi oil production.

ISTANBUL— The drone attack on Saudi Arabia oil facilities on September 14 is jolting the entire Middle East, the latest incident in a months-long battle between the Trump Administration and Iran. Yemen’s Houthi movement claimed credit for the devastating attack that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blames Iran for the attack, while Iran has categorically denied it.

Let’s not forget that the Trump Administration started this low-level war by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord. The UN Security Council voted unanimously to ratify the agreement, so the US  stands in violation of UN resolutions and international law.

The US is blaming Iran for drone strikes the damaged Saudi oil production.

At the same time, in almost forgotten incidents, the powers that be in Washington, D.C., are reviving piracy on the high seas. For three months, the Trump Administration has subverted the law, instigated an armed ship seizure, and tried to bribe a ship captain in order to seize an Iranian oil tanker in the Mediterranean.

The United States has become a hi-tech Blackbeard.

On July 4, 30 British marines stormed an Iranian oil tanker anchored off the coast of Gibraltar, a British colony located on the southernmost tip of Spain. United Kingdom and Gibraltar authorities, acting on behalf of the Trump Administration, claimed the ship was violating European Union sanctions by planning to deliver crude oil to Syria.

Those authorities had to bend themselves into pretzels to legally justify the seizure because the action, in fact, involved multiple violations of international law.

In retaliation, Iran seized British and United Arab Emirate oil tankers, and as of this writing, continues to hold them hostage. How did this mess begin?

Making it up as they go along

When the United States engages in piracy, it tries to make it look legal. The ship seizure near Gibraltar was clearly planned in Washington, as revealed by the Spanish daily El Pais. The conservative government in Britain, even before the ascension of Boris Johnson as prime minister, willingly participated in Trump’s tanker takeover.

Based on US intelligence, Gibraltar and British authorities claimed the ship was violating EU sanctions against Syria. A careful reading of those sanctions, however, reveal that they prohibit exporting oil from Syria, not delivering oil to Syria. It also turns out that Gibraltar had no law allowing seizure of ships under the EU sanctions. So, on July 3, Gibraltar changed its regulations in order to legalize the seizure the following day.

Significantly, no EU country voiced support for the U.S./British piracy. Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and now co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted on July 7:

“The legalities of the UK seizure of a tanker heading for Syria with oil from Iran intrigues me. One refers to EU sanctions against Syria, but Iran is not a member of EU. And EU as a principle doesn’t impose its sanctions on others. That’s what the US does.”

Bribery and chicanery

Brian Hook, the State Department’s point man on Iran sanctions, emailed the Iranian ship’s captain offering him several million dollars if he would send the tanker to a port where it could be seized on behalf of Washington.

Like a swaggering buccaneer of old, Hook offered a cash reward followed by a threat. “With this money you can have any life you wish and be well-off in old age, ” Hook wrote in an email seen by the Financial Times. “If you choose not to take this easy path, life will be much harder for you.”

When the captain, an Indian national, didn’t respond to the email, the Trump Administration applied unilateral sanctions on him.

Meanwhile, the United States had secretly launched a cyber attack on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, allegedly disabling key computer systems. Unnamed senior US officials boasted to The New York Times that the cyber attack “degraded” Iran’s ability to disrupt civilian shipping. But it apparently didn’t stop Iran from seizing a British oil tanker, the Stena Impero,in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

An Iranian official admitted the Stena Imperowas seized in response to the taking of the Iranian tanker. On September 16, Iran seized a UAE tanker carrying what it described as smuggled diesel.

The Mediterranean has apparently returned to the buccaneering days of old. If a country seizes one of your ships, you seize two of theirs. Well, shiver me timbers.

On August 16, Gibraltar ignored a last-minute U.S. legal plea and released the Iranian ship. On August 26, the ship was sold to an unrevealed buyer and renamed the Adrian Darya 1. Pegleg Trump and his hardy band of pirates then proceeded to threaten oil brokers and port authorities throughout the region not to allow the oil to be unloaded.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “We’ve made clear anyone who touches [the tanker], anyone who supports it . . . is at risk of receiving sanctions from the United States.”

Remember, there is no legal authority whatsoever for Pompeo’s threats other than the unilateral US sanctions that are themselves a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, which the UN Security Council had passed unanimously, and is thus violating international law.

On September 15, the Iranian foreign ministry announced that the Adrian Darya offloaded its cargo at an unnamed Mediterranean port, while western countries claim that country is Syria. As of this writing, Iran has not released the British or UAE tankers.

In the days of old, pirates fired canons and boarded ships with cutlasses clamped in their teeth. Today the Trump Administration does it with cyber attacks and stopping wire transfers. Iran has the right to ship its oil to willing buyers. Denying that right is piracy pure and simple.

Foreign Correspondent: Will Trump Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

Heroin is Afghanistan's largest export. Here a farmer grows alternative crops but faces economic difficulties. PHOTO: Reese Erlich

Washington, DC is buzzing with talk of troop withdrawals and the impact on peace talks in  Afghanistan. The US may start withdrawing troops within months, the start of what would be a gradual withdrawal of all 14,000 US troops from the country.

President Donald Trump wants to leave the impression that he is finally ending the Afghanistan War. What could go wrong? Well, for starters, IT’S TRUMP!

Heroin is Afghanistan’s largest export. Here a farmer grows alternative crops but faces economic difficulties. PHOTO: Reese Erlich

Trump would love nothing better than to claim that he brought peace to Afghanistan sometime prior to the November 2020 presidential elections. In reality, the administration is far from ending the war, let alone providing justice for the Afghan people.

To be fair, any President would have a hard time ending what has become the longest war in US history. Washington was politically defeated in Afghanistan long ago, and no shift in US tactics will change that—whether it is a troop surge, the renewed training of local soldiers, or a focus on counterterrorism.

The US lost because most Afghans see the USA  as an occupying power. And the Taliban is winning, as seen in the increase of areas under its control and its ability to attack anywhere in the country. On August 2, while the chief US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad was on Afghan TV, the Taliban set off a massive explosion in the heavily fortified Kabul housing compound where foreign mercenaries live.

Basir Bita, a leader of Afghan Peace Volunteers in Kabul, says the level of fear is increasing in the capital. “Even outside your own home, you don’t know what will happen next,” he tells me in a phone interview. “You have no idea if you will come home alive.”

The US has spent more than $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan since it began in 2001. Some 139,000 Afghan civilians and combatants have been killed. More than 6,300 US soldiers and contractors have died.

Latest peace talks

The Afghanistan War was a disaster from its inception. Now Washington is trying to clean up the mess by pretending we won.

US negotiators and Taliban leaders have been meeting in Doha, Qatar, since 2018. The US side insists the Taliban not participate in international terrorism and that it negotiate with the Afghan government.

The Taliban has agreed to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for international terrorism, but demands that all US troops be withdrawn before a ceasefire can take place, and so far has refused to negotiate with the US-installed President Ashraf Ghani.

US officials have leaked a few details of a proposed peace plan, but stress that Trump hasn’t yet signed off. Within 135 days of signing a peace accord, the US would withdraw 5,400 of its 14,000 troops now in Afghanistan. It would depart from five military bases or give them to the Afghan military. If the Taliban meets US conditions, then all US troops would be withdrawn in 16  months.

It’s not at all clear that Trump will agree with the plan, nor implement it if signed. One faction in the White House wants to leave CIA paramilitary troops in the county “to fight terrorism.” The Afghan Army and police have lost battle after battle, with two provincial capitals temporarily overrun just this week. Will any peace plan be meaningful if US and Afghan troops can’t control the country?

Popular opinion

Peace activist Bita calls the talks “complicated.” He favors the complete withdrawal of US troops. But ordinary Afghans are wary of the negotiations that leave them out of the process.

“What will happen to human rights, women’s rights, and the Afghan constitution?” Bita asks. “What will happen to the economy?”

Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, agrees that economic development is a key component to any lasting peace. “Incomes are vital to peace,” she says in a phone interview, shortly before heading back for a short trip to Kabul where she works with grassroots groups.

Right now, Kelly notes, the country’s main export is heroin. “Afghans live in a failed narco state,” she explains. “The vast bulk of US reconstruction aid has gone to counter-narcotics, building Afghan government capacity, and sustaining Afghan police and military. Most Afghans don’t want to join the security forces.”

What should the US do?

In my opinion, Washington should immediately pull out all troops, CIA operatives, and US-contracted mercenaries, and close its bases. NATO-allied troops will quickly follow suit.

Then the US and its allies should commit billions of dollars to rebuild the country by funding neutral, international organizations to provide emergency relief and development aid.

“Reparations should be paid to the Afghan people, not the government,” Kelly adds. Washington should fund only those small and medium sized aid groups who have a proven track record and are not corrupt, she says.

The dire conditions on the ground in Afghanistan are likely to force a US withdrawal from the country. It’s only a matter of when and under what circumstances. I wish I could tell you that the administration in Washington will handle the withdrawal in a way that benefits both countries. But don’t hold your breath.

Foreign Correspondent: What is the role of the US in Hong Kong demonstrations?

Hong Kong's income inequality is now the worst in the world. Wikimedia Commons photo

I first met Jason Lee when he was promoting jazz concerts in his hometown of Hong Kong. More recently, he has been sending me Facebook messages about the Hong Kong protests. You would think that a relatively prosperous, 43-year-old  Hong Konger would support the demonstrations that have rocked that city since June. Well, you may be surprised by his views.

Hong Kong’s income inequality is now the worst in the world. Wikimedia Commons photo

Lee, who spends time in both Hong Kong and mainland China, says protesters’ attacks on police and government buildings “are going too far.” Referring to how they recently closed the Hong Kong airport, he asks, “Would the USA let JFK airport be occupied for one day?”

Protestors carrying British flags and spray-painting anti-communist slogans on legislative offices don’t understand the region’s colonial history when British troops brutally occupied Hong Kong, Lee tells me in a phone interview.

“I’m Chinese from Hong Kong,” says Lee. “I love my country, China.”

The protest movement began in opposition to a proposed extradition law, which demonstrators said would allow political dissidents to be extradited to China. Hong Kong officials said the law wouldn’t be used for political repression but later withdrew it.

Some Hong Kongers, Lee included, think the protesters’ calls for “democracy” are really demands for independence from China, even a return to British colonial rule.

“They want the movement to go on and on by raising new demands,” Lee says. “And then they claim the government isn’t responding.”

Sharp class divisions

One major factor driving the protests is economic inequality. For many years, Hong Kong was a key financial and commercial outpost for the People’s Republic of China. But, as the PRC’s economy expanded, it didn’t need Hong Kong as a middle man and the territory’s economy declined relative to China’s.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong billionaires made huge profits, leading to one of the world’s highest rates of income inequality.

Housing is now in short supply and Hong Kong rents are the highest in the world. Many young adults still live with their parents or crowd into small, subdivided apartments.

“My apartment is 350 square feet,” Sean Starrs, a Hong Kong professor, told the Real News Network. “My students say, well what do you do with all that space?”

And, as always, Washington is happy to take advantage of those complaints for its own odious purposes.

In the old days, the CIA would slip wads of cash to dissidents in order to promote anti-government riots and install pro-US regimes. That method worked for Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973.

Nowadays, the United States uses the National Endowment for Democracy to spread propaganda to accomplish the same goals. The NED is supposed to build democracy but in reality promotes dissidents who favor US-style capitalism, and it funds aspiring autocrats.

I don’t think the CIA initiated the demonstrations, but the events bear a strong resemblance to other US-manipulated “color” revolutions.

Color revolutions vs. genuine uprisings

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, several former Soviet republics faced a series of elections, mass demonstrations and coups. In Georgia the uprising was called a “rose revolution.” In Ukraine, it was orange. During the 2013 Maidan revolt in Ukraine, the US role in manipulating the mass movement and selecting the country’s new president was revealed publically.

On the other hand, popular, mass uprisings in 2011 overthrew dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. So how do you tell the difference between genuine uprisings and the color revolts?

The key questions are who is leading the protests and what would happen if they took power? Would the country go in a progressive direction or join the reactionary camp led by the United States? While no one party or recognized coalition leads the Hong Kong protests, there are identifiable political trends.

Political trends in Hong Kong

The pan-democratic forces call for universal suffrage and direct elections of Hong Kong officials. Critics say those calls for democracy cover up their close alliance with US policy and their rejection of eventual unity with China. The pan-democrats suffered surprising losses in last year’s legislative council elections.

The umbrella protests of 2014 accelerated the rise of another trend, the localists, a xenophobic rightwing movement that calls for “self-determination” (independence) from Beijing.

“They think Hong Kongers are better than Chinese,” says Elvin Ho, a retired business consultant living in Hong Kong. Native Hong Kongers mostly speak Cantonese, he explains in a phone interview. “Localists will pick a fight with random targets during the riot, who speak Mandarin, and bully them.”

Imagine for a moment that the PRC ceased to exist. Would Hong Kong transform itself into a democratic society? I think some combination of localists and pan-democratic forces would come to power and then violently repress those who supported the PRC and the previous Hong Kong government.

Sound farfetched? That’s what has happened when the pro-western forces came back to power in Ukraine and Hungary.

But the PRC does exist, and it’s not about to allow Hong Kong independence. China has massed paramilitary police along the Hong Kong border as a clear threat against the protestors. Many Hong Kongers are getting tired of the constant disruptions and violence on both sides.

So far the Hong Kong government has bided its time, hoping the public will tire of the constant turmoil. We can only hope the current crisis ends without further violence.

China trade war not going well for Trump

China has evolved from producing food and toys to creating sophisticated AI machinery and 5G phone networks. Here a Chinese chocolate factory. Photo by Reese Erlich


China is coming after us! Time to steel ourselves for battle against the human-rights-violating, currency-manipulating, job-grabbing, intellectual-property-stealing, missile-launching evil doers. Or so Washington, D.C. would like us to believe.

China has evolved from producing food and toys to creating sophisticated AI machinery and 5G phone networks. Here a Chinese chocolate factory. Photo by Reese Erlich

Washington’s list of grievances is long, but they all boil down to this: China unfairly competes with the United States economically and poses an increasingly dangerous military threat. We have to stop them before the danger gets worse.

That’s the cover story. In reality, Washington is angry that China has rapidly advanced to become the world’s second-largest economic power. Capitalist ideology tells us that a socialist country led by a Communist Party is inefficient, lacks initiative, and only produces poverty. So when reality conflicts with ideology, well, reality must be wrong.

China can be criticized for many things, including its human rights record, burgeoning class divisions, and corruption. But China has flourished economically despite having to function under world trade rules set up to benefit the United States and its allies.

For the past year, the Trump Administration has, with grudging acceptance by high-level Democrats and Republicans, intensified economic warfare against China. As I predicted a year ago, the war hasn’t gone so well for the United States. In spite of tremendous Trumpian pressure, China hasn’t backed down.

In fact, Trump’s trade war has destabilized the US economy and led to a 5.5 percent drop in gross private domestic investment, according to David Kotz, economics professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an old friend.

“A trade war creates uncertainty so big business owners sit on their hands and don’t invest,” Kotz tells me. “If the economy continues on the current path, I think a recession is likely.”

Trade war begins

Last July, the Trump Administration announced plans to unilaterally impose 25 percent tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports, which may present a breach of World Trade Organization rules. (Reese’s Golden Rule: If China started the trade war with unilateral tariffs on US products, wouldn’t that be against the rules?) But hey, when has illegality ever stopped Trump? The tariffs have raised prices in the United States as corporations passed some of their increased costs along to consumers.

In addition, Washington stopped some US companies from doing business with Chinese companies, declared phone company Huawei to be a national security risk, stopped giving visas to some Chinese graduate students, and pressured US universities to close Chinese government-funded programs teaching Mandarin and promoting Chinese culture.

China retaliated by imposing tariffs on US agriculture and other products, causing huge economic disruption to sectors of the US economy. The tariffs haven’t brought manufacturing jobs back to the United States. Corporations like Apple are looking to shift production to Vietnam and other developing countries.

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration upped the ante by threatening to impose 10 percent tariffs on all remaining Chinese imports, some $300 billion annually. In reaction, world stock markets plunged and China devalued its currency.The devaluation allows China to sell more goods abroad and undercut the impact of US tariffs.


So who’s winning the trade war? The tariffs on China haven’t produced US jobs, but they have helped increase the US trade deficit. China’s economic growth has slowed. Chinese consumer spending is down. Some US corporations have moved out of China. The drop in China’s currency makes it much more expensive to pay back loans made in dollars.

“Both sides are hurting from the trade war,” says economist Kotz. “But so far, China has only agreed to things that don’t affect its core economic programs.”

China is willing to negotiate new trade agreements if they are fair to both sides, says pro-Beijing internet blogger Nathan Rich. However, he says, “if China views the treaties as forced or particularly unfair, it will not sign them.”

Significant business sectors continue to get mad at Trump, including agribusiness and companies in the industrial Midwest. David French, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation, offers this prediction: “The tariffs will cause job losses and higher prices for everybody, but especially [Trump’s] base.”

Military threat exaggerated

Ordinary Americans don’t get too worked up over arcane tariff rules, so Washington hopes to spread fear by portraying China as a major military threat. President Barack Obama tried to “pivot to Asia,” which included beefing up the US military presence near China. Now Trump’s White House continues the propaganda, criticizing China’s presence in the South China Sea and its development of ground based missiles.

Such fear-mongering always omits a few relevant details. China has only one military base outside its own territory. The United States has more than 800. China has 290 nuclear warheads, the United States has 6,185. China has pledged no first use of nuclear weapons; the United States has not. China’s military buildup is concentrated near its own borders; America’s is worldwide.

China is far weaker than the United States militarily, and that’s not likely to change for decades. However, China does pose a threat to those in Washington’s ruling elite who seek to impose their economic and military might on the world.


I met Sheikh Mohammed al-Habibin eastern Saudi Arabia back in 2013 while covering Arab Spring demonstrations there. He was exactly the kind of centrist religious and political leader that Washington claims to support. As a Shia Muslim he advocated allying with Sunnis; he called for reform within the monarchy, not its overthrow; and he advocated nonviolence.

So what did the religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia do? They arrested him in 2016, subjected him to torture, convicted him on trumped up charges and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

Mohammad bin Salman, the supposedly liberal Saudi leader, has carried out arrests, torture and murder of opposition activists. On August 25, Sheik al-Habib is scheduled to face a new judicial proceeding for supporting peaceful protests.

The State Department acknowledged Sheik al-Habib’s case in its International Religious Freedom Report, but has done little to actually get him released. This month the White House threatened the Swedish government if it didn’t release American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was accused of assault in Stockholm. The State Department should do no less for Saudi political prisoners.

Elizabeth Warren on war and peace

In the last few months Senator Elizabeth Warren has gained ground in public opinion polls tracking the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. In some states, she’s ahead of Senator Bernie Sanders and pulling close to former Vice President Joe Biden.

In domestic politics, Warren makes a populist appeal to working people with calls for free college tuition, single-payer health care, and breaking up monopolies. In foreign policy, she takes a similar stand, calling for an end to foreign trade pacts such as Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA.

She wrote in Foreign Affairs, “While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected.”

Warren’s main competitor among left-leaning voters is Senator Bernie Sanders, who has developed a generally progressive, anti-interventionist foreign policy. She also competes against former Vice President Joe Biden, a corporate Democrat, who voted for the 2003 Iraq War and supported all of Obama’s new wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq).

Warren’s foreign policy lies somewhere in between Sanders and Biden. She has a troubling history of uncritical support of Israel, supporting sanctions on Venezuela, and vilifying Russia and China as national security threats. But her views are also evolving.

In 2014, Israel launched a horrific war on Gaza, dropping bombs on densely inhabited cities. TheUnited Nations reported that more than 2,100 Palestinians died, compared to sixty-six Israelis. When challenged by a constituent in 2014 about her support for Israel,Warren responded: “America has a very special relationship with Israel. . . . And we very much need an ally in that part of the world.” She opposed making US aid contingent on prohibiting new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

But in 2018, Warren condemned the Israeli military violence against Palestinians protesting peacefully at the Israel-Gaza border. The Israel lobby has pushed hard for the US Senate to oppose the movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel. To her credit, Warren voted against such a resolution in February 2019. Most recently, she joined with Sanders and others to oppose Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

While Warren is moving in the right direction, I would like to see her make a clear-cut statement opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, commit to moving the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv, and call for an independent, contiguous Palestinian state, which would live peacefully next to a non-aggressive Israel.

Candidates’ views on Venezuela tell us a lot about how they will react as president when the Washington establishment bleats out that “we have to do something!” Economic conditions in Venezuela are terrible and the political situation tenuous. Trump’s solution? Apply crushing sanctions aimed at overthrowing the government of President Nicolas Maduro and replace it with one more to the US liking.

Warren co-sponsored a Senate bill proposing to bar US military intervention in Venezuela. But in February, she called for economic sanctions on Venezuela along with increased foreign aid. In this context, sanctions are part of the plan to unseat Maduro. I would like to see Warren take a firm stand against allUS intervention—economic, political or military.

When it comes to Russia, China, and North Korea, mainstream Democrats have a long history of trying to sound tough on national defense while attacking Republicans from the right. Unfortunately, Warren is no exception.

Last year, as Trump prepared to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Warren issued a bellicose statement: “A nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat to the security of the United States, our allies, and the world. . . . This administration’s success will be judged on whether it can eliminate Kim’s nuclear weapons and verify they are gone.”

While Trump can be erratic and subject to pressure from his rightwing advisors, at least he is willing to discuss denuclearization of the region. And compare Warren’s view with Sanders’s statement about the same summit: The meeting “represents a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future.”

Warren also falls into the Cold War trap of vilifying Russia and China as a danger to Americans. “China is on the rise,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs, “using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage. . . . To mask its decline, Russia is provoking the international community with opportunistic harassment and covert attacks.” She goes on to claim that both countries invest heavily in their militaries and seek “to shape spheres of influence in their own image.”

Nowhere does Warren mention that the United States spends more on its military than the next seven largest countries combined. Russia and China have limited military bases outside their borders while the United States has over 800. Unfortunately, Warren helps propagate the myths of cunning and fearsome enemies, which are used to justify ever rising defense budgets and future wars.

Yet Warren is far more progressive than mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden. She calls for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Warren campaigns for the United State to rejoin the nuclear accord with Iran and to end trade pacts that hurt workers.

“Warren’s foreign policy positions have shifted a fair amount in recent years, particularly during the past few months,” says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, who provides foreign policy advice to the Warren campaign. [Disclosure — Zunes and I have known each other for many years.] “Warren didn’t have a lot of foreign policy background.”

For Zunes, while Bernie Sanders has an overall better foreign policy record, “Warren is the most realistic progressive choice.”

I disagree. Bernie Sanders is running on an anti-interventionist program. I view Sanders as far more likely to resist Pentagon/CIA/State Department pressure once elected because of his strong ideological commitment. And, in terms of electability, he has far greater potential to win African American and other working class voters than the still too upper-middle-class-oriented Warren.

There’s a permanent cadre of bankers, corporate executives, generals, and government bureaucrats lurking in the Washington swamp who profit from war. They will seek to maintain their power no matter who wins the election. Progressives and the American people will have to fight like hell to keep that from happening.

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 his webpage.