Friday, 16 December 2016

2016: Goodbye and good riddance

Syria's second city, Aleppo, has 'fallen' to Syrian government forces, backed on the ground by a motley bunch of fighters from friendly neighbours and from the air by warplanes from a powerful ally.

Meanwhile, Iraq's second city, Mosul, is in the process of being 'liberated' by government forces, backed on the ground by fighters from friendly neighbours and from the air by warplanes from a powerful ally.

Or should that be the other way round? Has Aleppo been 'liberated', and is Mosul about to 'fall'? Funny things, words. So much depends on the eye of the beholder.

The warplanes dropping bombs on Aleppo were mainly Russian. The ones bombing Mosul are mainly American. Perhaps that's what makes the difference. The 'rebels' in Mosul are from the notoriously brutal Islamic State group; the ones in Aleppo were more difficult to label, but included several whose ideology and brutality are virtually indistinguishable from IS.

The lesson to be learnt from Syria, we are told, is that this appalling tragedy is the kind of thing that happens when foreign powers turn their backs on tyranny and refuse to intervene. The lesson to be learnt from Iraq, on the other hand -- and Libya, and Yemen, come to that -- is that chaos, violence and human suffering on an unimaginable scale are what follow when foreign powers intervene.

If only there were clear lessons to be learnt. If only life were simple. Perhaps the truth is that the world's major powers -- for the sake of argument, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, Russia, China, France and Britain -- are still grappling with the new geo-political realities of the post-1989 world.

Two of those powers, neither of them democracies, seem to have decided that they do understand this brave new world in which global Communism is no longer seen as a threat to the future of the Western way of life. Russia and China have watched and learnt as the US first brandished its big stick in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and then withdrew back into its tent, its big stick snapped into pieces.

While Russia has used its military muscle in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, China has been drawing new battle lines in the South China Sea.  On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that according to a US think-tank, China has just installed anti-aircraft weapons and other weaponry on all seven islands that it has built in the South China Sea.

If confirmed, it would seem to be a new, and potentially dangerous, raising of the stakes, just as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is rattling his sabre at Beijing. (Moscow, on the other hand, is being sent nothing but coochie-coochie messages.)

So this is where we are, as 2016 draws to a close. The UK has voted to withdraw from the European Union, ushering in several years of uncertainty and instability both here and there. The US has elected a president who has zero political experience, who is waging open war on the CIA because it says Russia directly intervened in last month's presidential election to help him win office, and who says he doesn't need to read intelligence briefings because he's smart enough to manage without them.

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has spotted the disarray among his traditional foes (let's face it, he would have to have been totally myopic to have missed it), and Xi Jinping of China has realised that no one outside the Asia Pacific region seems to care too much about his steady expansion into waters well outside Chinese sovereignty.

Second rank powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are running amok in the Middle East, carving out zones of influence and arming sundry proxy militias, just as the US did in central America in the 1970s. Far from having learned nothing, they have learned too well.

I have been hunting frantically for a silver lining, and I think I have found one, albeit one that is tissue-thin. The new secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, is a man of real substance with an impressive track record. He takes office on 1 January, and bears a giant responsibility at a time when the bad guys seem to be winning.

Oh, and if you think nothing good at all happened in 2016, don't forget the peace agreement in Colombia, which brought to an end a 50-year-long conflict in which more than 200,000 people were killed. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves recognition at the end of a year during which, at least for us liberal internationalists, there was precious little to celebrate.

By the way, thank you for proving me wrong the other day when I suggested on this blog that no one would be interested in what I wrote about climate change. The post was downloaded and shared by six times as many people as the previous week's. There's hope for us yet ...


Anonymous said...

Somebody said recently that the reason why Homer's "The Iliad" was still read widely across the world is that apart from having no religion that anyone shares it also describes so vividly and heartbreakingly man's insistence on warfare. Parents lose their children, children lose their parents, friends lose their friends. Nobody ever wins, but we go on and on and on, war after war. Sadly Homer, like us, had no answer and I doubt if the new UN secretary-general will either, or the next one, or the next. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we continue to read Homer and realise, like generations before us, how pointless it all is.

Anonymous said...

A brief but accurate summary of 2016. We must have hope to survive. Thank you.