In this Week that Was there was a Tale of Two Cities, a new chapter in an ongoing saga, a never ending story, and a first page…. Now read on!
The Syrian city of Raqqa was finally liberated from ISIL by the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces. Major military operations have ended. In 2013 when the jihadists took control they celebrated in the main square – now the SDF mocked that moment by re-enacting it with their own celebrations of victory. This was ISILs capital, from where it had declared its ‘caliphate’, but as the hunt for sleeper cells goes on questions arise: Who will control the city – how will it be rebuilt?
The SDF was not experienced in urban warfare and often, to clear apartment blocks of ISIL fighters, its strategy was to pin them down and call in US Airstrikes. It worked, but in order to save the city – they destroyed it. The Americans and others are now working on getting water and electricity supplies reconnected, but the long-term reconstruction will take years, and billions of dollars.
In the short term a civil governing council, chosen by local people will take over control of the city, backed by an interim security force. But the Syrian Democratic Forces are predominantly Kurdish, and the city is predominantly Arab. The Kurds know they can’t stay there forever, but they might want to use it as a bargaining chip as they seek an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. An added problem is that Syrian government forces may also eventually seek to control the area.
The second city is Kirkuk, across the border in Iraq. In 2014, the Iraqi army withdrew from multi ethnic Kirkuk as ISIL forces approached. The Kurdish Peshmerga then moved down from the north to prevent it from falling into ISIL’s hands. They intended to keep it. Baghdad intended one day to get it back.
Since last month’s Kurdish vote on independence Baghdad had been preparing to retake Kirkuk and the oil fields surrounding it. This week they moved. After a tense stand-off, the Iraqi military, and pro Baghdad Shia Popular Mobilisation forces pressed towards the city. The Kurdish forces, after a few brief clashes, withdrew. The Kurds are split between two main factions and this was a fight neither could win. It doesn’t mean they give up on Kurdish independence, it does mean that if they achieve it, Kirkuk will not be part of their territory. There’s a long way to go in this story and on Friday more clashes broke out north of the city.
Perhaps this should all serve as a warning to Spain as it writes the next chapter in the Catalan crisis.
Unless there is compromise the region faces upheaval in the coming months. It declared independence, suspended it, and this week ignored a Madrid deadline to clarify its position. Madrid is now clarifying how direct rule works. The battle lines are being drawn, and potentially, millions are ready to take to the streets.
And so to the never ending story that is – Communist Party rule over China. It’s partially because of pesky independence movements such as those by the Kurds and Catalans that the Party insists there can only be one power and that its power must be total. This week saw the 19th Party Congress in Beijing.
President Xi Jinping kicked off the twice-a-decade event on Wednesday with a speech that more that lasted more than three hours. Cuba’s Castro used to bang on for up to 8 hours, Venezuela’s Chavez did the same, so perhaps this was a brisk summary. It looked back at Chinese history as it sought to explain how China will realise its ambition to become a truly global power by 2050. Basically, he said China’s version of socialism works – therefore China does not need learn other systems… eg democracy. Mind you, he quietly dropped a pledge made by predecessor, Hu Jintao, that China’s GDP would be doubled by 2020.
The speech was delivered to 2,200 delegates in the Great Hall of the People. It confirmed who the new Politburo members are – and it confirmed that they were pretty much all people guaranteed to support Xi Jinping. This Congress made it clear that Xi is the most powerful leader China has seen since Mao.
Finally, the first page: That was the coming to power of New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern who this week became Prime Minister. At 37 the Labour Party leader is considered a breath of fresh air. Politically, she’s probably in the left of centre ‘third way’ bracket – in fact she was actually a policy advisor in the UK’s Cabinet Office during the Tony Blair era. This is often a fact quoted about her, but she says she never actually met him.
Ms Ardern was raised a Mormon, but left the Church due its position on homosexuality. Of less importance, perhaps is that she is a cat lover, and named her cat Paddles as it was born with extra toes. She appears to have a hinterland, and in this age of identikit politicians – that can be an electoral asset.