Whose Streets? Our Streets

Interestingly, ‘Whose streets? Our streets’ is a direct quote from the 2017 film ‘Bushwick’. In the film, the southern states of the USA fight to secede from the rest of the USA

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Global Politics in 2017

Welcome to 2017. If you thought 2016 was an interesting year just wait for what will unfold this year. We can look forward to fresh developments in the MIddle East, Russia, China, USA and Europe. Global politics is changing and under the surface so are economic developments. I’m sure some things will be quite a surprise. Saying that, I’m going to attempt to present what can happen based on current situations.

Syria: While Assad has broken the back of the opposition, with the determined backing of Russia and Iran, resistance is bound to continue in different areas of the country. It is safe to say that Assad has held onto power, for now. The fact that he was prepared to see the destruction of his country and displacement of millions of the population are of no consequence to him. He has sworn to take control of all Syrian territory, including Daesh and Kurdish held areas. This operation could continue for some time yet and may never come to a total conclusion. Winning the war is one thing, winning the peace and rebuilding the country is quite another. The only way to control ex rebel held areas is through an iron fist of military rule. As part of this, Russia has sent hundreds of military police to Aleppo. Then there is the economic situation, the country is in ruins, large parts of the infrastructure destroyed, roads, bridges, water and electricity supplies are out of action. It is going to cost billions to rebuild. Syria does not have the money to rebuild, Russia can’t afford to help rebuild the country and neither can Iran, their economies are not strong enough. Many wealthy Syrian business people moved to Gulf states such as Dubai, also Canada and the USA, it has been suggested to me that they will move back to Syria when things calm down and re-open their factories. Whether this happens by choice or through the threat of having their factories taken over by the government remains to be seen. Assuming factories can be brought back on line, the surrounding infrastructure they need, such as water and electricity is less than reliable. I can also see a strong possibility that a lot of forced labour will be used, mainly of the remaining Sunni population, to begin the enormous task of cleaning up the country. Assad now has a mandate from the global community to mistreat his people as he sees fit and you can be sure he will not disappoint. For the future, Syria will remain a broken country, violence will continue and oppression will increase. Assad himself could not have held onto Syria without the help of Russia and Iran, as a result he will be obliged to do as he is told when it suits his saviours. The only way therefore for Syria to rebuild is if Arab states take out their cheque books and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power. There will have to be a transition to a Syrian leader more acceptable to the Arab states before they consider handing over any money. Who the new leader will be is not clear yet but it will be someone from inside the existing power structure of Syria and most probably a Sunni, not an Alawhite, not from the first tier of government but most likely from the second tier of power. If relative calm can be brought back to Syria there would be massive investment potential. Before the war, Syria had the most diverse economy of any Arab state and it has natural resources for producing phosphates and cement, as well as agriculture and textiles. To bring its economy back can only happen if the country is rebuilt and that is not going to happen as long as Assad is in power, financial interests will see to that. How any power transition plays out will be watched very carefully by Iran, they do not want to lose their influence in Syria as part of the Shia crescent they have constructed which stretches all the way to the Mediterranean sea. Russia in its new role as power broker in the region will be looking to maintain its influence in Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran as it negotiates a new power structure in Syria. Failing this, Syria will never be rebuilt. Where this will leave the Kurds in their semi-autonomous region of Syria remains to be seen, particularly as the USA has been stepping away from the region for some time now. Its only real remaining interest in the region being Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey: Turkey has had a terrible year with many bombings and shootings. Since the failed coup attempt last summer President Erdogan has clamped down hard. Not just clearing out the military and police but also lawyers, judges and teachers. The so called ‘parallel structure’ full of Gulanist supporters as he asserts. He has gone well beyond those who had anything to do with the coup attempt. As a result, the fractures in Turkey between those who support Erdogan and those who don’t have become a chasm. Erdogan has to now keep the pressure at a high level to stop any dissent. Personally I see the potential for civil war in Turkey and I am going to stick my neck out and say the foundations for civil war are being laid now. Also of note is the fact that it was Russia, Turkey and Iran that laid the framework for a ceasefire in Syria. The USA was nowhere to be seen and not invited. This is a clear demonstration that Turkey is no longer looking west as it had done in the past. At the same time, don’t imagine that all is rosy between Turkey and Russia, their’s is a business relationship only and there are still areas of conflicting interest between them. Erdogan will not tolerate any Kurdish semi-autonomous state inside Syria and it will act unilaterally if Assad and Russia don’t end it. But I want to keep the focus on Turkey’s internal stability, or lack of it. The number of attacks by Kurds and Daesh increase, Erdogan’s policies are alienating a large part of the population who were used to having power and influence in the country. I believe the fuse has been lit in Turkey.

Russia: Flush with a sense of victory, Russia is back on the world stage and projecting its geo-political influence and military strength. With the USA stepping away from involvement in the Middle East, Russia has stepped forward to fill the vacuum. From the outside, Russia looks strong but the projection of power masks internal weakness. Its economy is in bad shape, the middle class is shrinking rapidly and the price of oil and gas is nowhere near high enough to help the Russian economy recover, its economy is now about the size of Italy’s according to World Bank data. Despite military success in Syria, war is very expensive and has been sucking up money from other parts of the economy. There is also the question of what Russia will do next. Emboldened by victory, inaction of the West and a soon to be new President of the USA, will Russia be tempted to strike out elsewhere? Russia can’t afford two wars and now that its operation in Syria is being scaled back, maybe soon will be the time when it increases activity in Ukraine. Just because Ukraine is not in the news much these days does not mean the situation in the east of the country is quiet, there are daily shootings and bombings, but not on a level high enough to get on the news. Will Russia now look to expand operations again in Ukraine and capture more territory? It is a possibility and it can do so in the knowledge that nobody can stop it. The big question is if Russia will try and capture territory from Estonia and Latvia, which have a significant Russian speaking population, the same as in eastern Ukraine. Will Russia gamble on NATO/OTAN backing down in the face of an invasion of those two Baltic countries? With incoming President Donald Trump showing a lack of enthusiasm for Nato, as well as seeming to be more isolationist, could Russia get away with it? Certainly European members of NATO would not be able to stop Russia in its tracks and Turkey would refuse to get involved in any way, despite also being a member of NATO. I think Russia will wait a while to see what Donald Trump actually does as President, and if he shows no interest in the region, Russia will take it as signal and go ahead. Maybe not in direct invasion but will use tactics similar to those used in Ukraine.

Regarding the internal situation in Russia, it should be pointed out the increasing power of the Orthodox church. Working with the Kremlin, its role seems to be that of getting the message to the people, telling them to endure economic hardship as a part of their faith and that Vladimir Putin is something like a living saint, sent to save the country from the rest of the corrupt world. In so doing, the Orthodox church is coordinating a campaign against all who do not uphold ‘traditional values’, including those who do. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were persecuted and sent to gulags during Soviet times for their political neutrality and talking about their faith, are once again under attack, labelled as an ‘extremist’ organization and their website is now banned in Russia, the only other place it is banned is in North Korea. The Orthodox church is the main perpetrator of this attack on basic rights of freedom of worship. It wants to control the message and the message is that Putin is some sort of saviour on a religious level. In the meantime, the Orthodox church is increasing its wealth while the people suffer increasing financial hardship. The country is returning to how it was during the time of the czars, A small rich elite, almost no middle class and the uneducated peasants who are constantly being fed news of how great their country has once again become.

What should be understood about Russia, is that it always tries to put the blame for difficulties on external situations but in the end it always tears itself apart from the inside. The Orthodox church with its growing power and influence over the masses, could, when the time comes, be the factor to cause upheaval in the country, give it time as it consolidates its power and influence in the ruling structure and education system of Russia. Very similar in a way to the ‘parallel structure’ that was developed in Turkey and led to the coup attempt last year.

USA: With a new incoming President it is not easy to say what is going to happen but 2016 was a difficult year for the country. The divisions in its society are increasing, Black Lives Matter is a case in point. Many people are struggling to earn enough, pay for medical insurance, get a decent education. It is against this backdrop that many decided to vote for Donald Trump, if only just to try something new, as the existing political establishment tends to look down its nose at the working poor. Will Trump help them? Time will tell and I wont try to second guess what will happen regarding this. What I do think will be different is foreign policy. Trump is a business man, making money is what drives him and he has a reputation for being quite ruthless. However, his skills wont necessarily translate into effective diplomatic negotiation. An example would be his comments on the ‘One China’ policy, by which Taiwan is recognized as a part of China, even though it has a democratically elected government. Trump suggested this policy should be renegotiated, with China making economic concessions in return for continued acceptance of this policy. For China the ‘One China’ policy is a red line and will never be acceptable for use in any economic negotiations, China will react and react strongly if Trump decides to go down this road. Being known for the size of his fragile ego, he takes offense very easily and has a tendency to seek revenge. When he realizes that he is being played by Russia, the consequences could be dramatic to say the least. Unless there is an economic argument, I don’t see Trump taking much of an interest in Syria or Yemen or any other humanitarian crisis. When it comes to oil, as with all administrations in the USA, Trump will take keen interest. But I keep coming back to is his total lack of experience in dealing with foreign governments, there are only common interests in global politics, never friendship and Trump is the sort of person who hates getting the less profitable side of the deal and he takes these things very personally. So I think it is safe to say, when it comes to foreign policy, things could become rather volatile. On the other hand he might take a back seat, delegating foreign policy and concentrating on the domestic interests of his business friends in the USA. With regard to the USA economy, I think he will borrow to spend on rebuilding the infrastructure (roads, bridges, power grids etc) of the country, which is in a desperate state of disrepair and if something is not done about it soon will have a direct effect on the economy.

Europe: With Brexit, Europe is losing its second largest economy, some of its biggest banks are in a fragile state and in Italy many of its smaller banks are in very bad health, if one of these small Italian banks were to fail it could start a cascade effect and potentially take the country out of the EU. Austerity has not worked as planned, wages are stagnant and populist political parties are on the rise. There will also be a massive business scandal to come out of Europe, which I’m not at liberty to talk about at the moment but the fall-out will be immense. In the Balkans, tensions simmer between Serbia and Bosnia, that war can happen again, in fact it would take very little for the region to erupt in violence. Terrorism in Europe is a continuing threat and will probably increase. The use of trucks to run down innocents is, sad to say, much more effective than someone with a AK47 and easier to get hold of for use as a weapon. I expect to see more attacks like these. I hate to say this, but I would not be surprised to see high speed trains being derailed as a means of terrorism. It is very easy to do and extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent.

There you have it. I think we will have an interesting 2017 for many different reasons.

Panama papers leak – first impressions

What strikes me about the variety of political leaders and those close to them who use or have used offshore company Mossack Fonseca to hide great personal wealth from the eyes of the public and also perhaps their spouses.

Panama Papers. Mossack Fonseca

My first thought is this, who got hold of the information and leaked it. Probably we will never know for sure but it is interesting to note that neither the United States nor Israel are touched in any way by the release of these documents. When so many diverse countries around the world have ties to Mossack Fonseca at such a high level, it is unusual to find that nobody from the political level of either country has been using its services when so many others have. Also both countries often work together on hacking projects, so you can be sure that Mossack Fonseca had been guarding its data as strictly as possible, particularly as its business is built on trust. It would have required state level hacking to steal the information.

The second interesting thing to note is that it appears those in the released papers had at least a few days prior warning of what was to come. The first hint came in an article I read in the Moscow Times of March 28 stating Kremlin Says Journalists Preparing Hatchet Job on Putin adding, The questions involved information about the president’s family, his childhood friends, “businessmen Kovalchuk and Rotenberg, some offshore companies, entrepreneurs that Putin has never met,”  Then another article I didn’t understand at the time, as to why Putin would say this at this particular moment. Now becomes clear, as you can read from April 1, Putin Advises Journalists to Publish Their Income, Journalists Say ‘No, Thanks’, which stated “We recommend that media professionals and other workers whose professional activity is connected with the provision of public interest and attracting increased public attention, to publish information on their income, expenses, assets and property obligations on official websites or to publish the above information in mass media,”

This is just the first day of the release of these papers and the full repercussions are yet to be felt. What is clear is that those who have access to this financial information can access anybody, it doesn’t matter how rich you are. The Edward Snowden document leaks have had a huge impact on how we see privacy. The Panama Papers will be about who can really pull the strings of the super-rich. This is going to become interesting.

The war against Daesh (ISIS)

The resolution at the United Nations last week to declare the world is at war with Daesh is all well and good, but….

How do you destroy an idea which has spread around the world and becomes stronger with every bomb that is directed against that idea? Bombs have a certain effect but killing the idea, that takes real work.

Syria. Interesting developments

Most of the media focus on Syria these days is to do with IS, Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. I don’t think a single group has ever collected so many acronyms! They control large areas in the north and east of the country. In the south however, there is a different situation. The Southern Front, which has many thousands of well equipped and trained fighters, is made up of moderate muslims and secularists and they hold large parts of Syria south of Damascus. Extremist groups such as Al Nusra and Daesh have tried to get a foothold in the south but without success.

The leadership of the Southern Front believe the regime of Bashar al Assad will collapse at some point. There are various reasons for this. The first is the duration of this terrible war which has sapped a lot of energy out of the Syrian military in terms of manpower. Both sides of this conflict are tired after 4 years of fighting but the areas loyal to the Assad regime are becoming uncomfortable at how many of their men are being lost in this war while Assad sits comfortably in his palace in Damascus. The second reason is economic and is closely linked to the price of oil. War is hugely expensive and the Assad regime is dependent on both Iran and Russia. Iran for funding and Russia for weapons. As the price of oil has collapsed over the last few months it becomes increasingly difficult for Iran to fund Bashar al Assad so he can buy weapons from Russia. Russia can not afford to simply give weapons away as it has its own financial problems also due to the price of oil and the effect of sanctions. If oil prices stay low well into 2015 then it will become extremely difficult for the Syrian regime to hold on to power.

The Southern Front sense this and are preparing for Bashar al Assad to lose his grip on power. The biggest challenge when this happens will be to stop Damascus descending into chaos and allowing the extremists an opportunity to try and fill the vacuum. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown the biggest mistake the Allies made – mistake is too kind, FUBAR would be more appropriate – was to remove all traces of the government and institutions without having anything to replace them, that is what led to the chaos we see in Iraq today. Southern Front realize this and have very recently stated how they see a transition being made. They are not looking to take over the country, in fact as you will see from their in-depth statement below they want to see Syria as a very inclusive country with all being represented in the new government. When the regime falls there will probably still be large areas in the north and east of Syria under the control of Daesh but for the rest of the country there will be an opportunity to close a terrible chapter in the history of the beautiful country. Then with time it will be possible to regain territory from the extremists.

Below is the statement which was passed to me by the Chief Co-ordinator of the document and I also provide a link to a PDF of the release.

The Southern Front
Free Syrian Army
Transitional Phase
10.12.2014

STATEMENT NO. 4
THE TRANSITIONAL PHASE

The collapse of the current regime will not be the end of the Syrian people’s revolution. The end of the regime will be only the start of a new and, hopefully, final phase of the people’s struggle for freedom. In order to ensure that the final phase succeeds with the  establishment of a new national model of governance based on respect for human dignity and a rebirth of Syria’s tremendous potential, it is imperative that all nationalist forces commit to a course of action during the period of transition from authoritarianism that will fulfill the popular will.

Therefore,
The Southern Front announces that it will dedicate its efforts during the period of transition following the collapse of the regime to supporting:
First: the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.
Second: the maintenance of Syrian state institutions, including all ministries and military institutions.
Third: the integrity of the economic and service infrastructure of the state, including telecommunications, energy, water, and public and private transportation networks.
Fourth: the establishment of a process of inclusive, national, political reconstruction.

GENERAL FRAMEWORK

1- The Civil Defense Force:
Once the Assad regime collapses, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army intends to transition from a military organization into a civilian defense force to contribute to establishing the appropriate conditions to enable a successful political transition in Syria. Among the primary objectives of a civilian defense force will be: protecting all citizens, maintaining all state institutions, and securing the infrastructure for the economic prosperity of the country. The Joint Command of the Southern Front is currently preparing itself for the moment of transition and is committed to implementing a detailed day-after plan to protect Damascus (the seat of government), prevent looting, protect citizens and state employees, and ensure that governmental institutions remain fully operational.

2- The Transitional Administration:
To guide the period of transition, the Southern Front will support efforts to establish a Transitional Administration. The Southern Front believes that no current state employees, identified for their competence and loyal service to the state, should be excluded from continuing to serve. In addition, the Transitional Administration should be open to senior defected government officials who return to the country to help in its reconstruction. The Southern Front, which by this time will have transformed into the the Civil Defense Forces, will support such an interim governing arrangement granted that it is non-political, and led by technocrats whose terms will end upon the completion of the interim or transitional phase. The first task of the Transitional Administration will be announcing the cessation of
all military operations and demanding foreign fighters to leave the country within a specified period of time. The Transitional Administration will also take steps to ensure that state institutions continue their routine work. It will announce to government officials including the judicial authority that their work will be guaranteed within the framework of the General Law. The civilian police will be requested to continue their work. The armed forces will be requested to remain temporarily in their barracks until security and order restored.
The current constitution will be immediately suspended and replaced by the original constitution of 1950 as an interim constitution until the drafting of a permanent constitution for the country that shall be approved by a popular referendum.

To ensure neutrality with respect to key decisions that need to be made during the critical transitional period, the Transitional Administration should issue an immediate appeal to the United Nations to form a “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” in Damascus as soon as possible with a special envoy of the UN Secretary General. This Office will be necessary to advise the Transitional Administration, coordinate foreign aid, and identify key requirements for the transition. It is also needed to recommend and supply experts and advisers to help rebuild the institutions of the state. To ease the pressure on the Transitional Administration, and to benefit from the best Syrian minds and intellects in guiding the transition, the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” will be requested to appoint a Syrian Advisory Committee composed of qualified professionals to draft a framework and plans for the transitional period, according to a specific timetable. The Office will also request the presence of a UN observer missions and specialist teams.

The key tasks for UN and the Syrian Advisory Committee will be:

First: to establish the High Electoral Commission.
Second: to oversee general elections to choose an “interim” legislative authority within six months, paving the way for the formation of a constituent committee for the drafting of the constitution.
Third: to form a constituent committee to draft the permanent constitution for the country within one year.
Fourth: to hold a public referendum on the constitution after the completion of the work of the constituent committee.
Fifth: to implement national elections for a new parliament and government.

All bodies and formed by the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” or by the Advisory Committee should be independent bodies. They should advice the Transitional Administration, but they should not be subject to it or overlap with it. The mandate of the Transitional Administration should be considered officially over after the holding of  elections for a new parliament and government.
Long Live Free Syria
The Southern Front
10.12.2014

Statement 4-The transitional phase

I will be back in the region in the near future to talk directly to Southern Front and should have more information for you some time in January. I’m very curious about what will happen. I think 2015 will be an interesting year.

This article is also published on DigitalJournal.com

Jerusalem Syndrome

Daniel has hit the nail on the head regarding the current situation in Israel. Take the time to read what he has to say.

Mind-Crawl

I apologize for starting off with this dry medical definition. Bear with me:

Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or otherpsychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians and Muslims of many different backgrounds.

The best known, although not the most prevalent, manifestation of Jerusalem syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem (Wikipedia).

Being a bystander, you get the best of both worlds. You can stand by and watch the show, and you also don’t have to get your hands dirty. Watching the events unfolding in Jerusalem these past few weeks, I’ve observed how radicals set torch to the fragile status-quo in…

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For watch collectors

I have one of my Swiss watches for sale on ebay, proceeds of which will go toward a photography project I am working on. It is the Schwarz Etienne, New York. Only 300 were made and I have number 287. Cost new was £6400 British pounds. It has a column wheel controlled chronograph which you only find in high end watch movements. It is a beautiful watch, very individual. Comes with its original presentation box.

SE, New York, Front

SE, New York, Front

SE, New York, back

SE, New York, back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are its details:

Movement: Chrono RAC J8154 with column wheel
Functions: Big date, Chronograph, 2nd time zone (GMT)
Case: 316L stainless steel, Crystal:Antireflection sapphire
Case back: Sapphire crystal, Crown engraved with SE logo
Case Diameter: 38mm
Case Thickness: 14.55mm
Strap: Genuine Louisiana crocodile black leather, Clasp:Double folding spring buckle
Water-resistance:165 feet/50 metres

I have it up for auction on ebay I made a video showing a closer look at the watch here