DEADLY conflicts, chemical attacks, suppression of mass protests, political upheavals across the globe and unprecedented natural disasters – Foreign Editor Rob Corbidge looks back at 2013
SYRIA’S terrible ongoing civil war was still the biggest story of 2013. Awful as it is now in length, death toll, barbarity and intractability, the conflict still has the capacity to widen into an out-and-out regional battle between the world’s two major Islamic sects, Sunni and Shia.
It was the sarin gas attack outside Damascus in August that truly grabbed the world’s attention. Many of us will have seen the images of dead children, adults writhing in pain, doctors taken beyond their wits’ end by the scale of what they were dealing with – and wondered if this was the moment the global community would get fully involved.
Despite much being made of the UN-overseen destruction of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile that will take place in the early part of 2014, the facts on the ground have not altered. Sarin yields a terrible death, yet the $250 (£152) Cold War- surplus AK-47 takes more lives; the Iranian-manufactured mortar round destroys more property and people; the Chinese sniper rifle denies a whole street to residents of a city. Sarin is from the top drawer of devilry no doubt, but everyday death in Syria is a more kinetic matter.
Syria has also given us a new phenomenon – a whole war filmed and distributed online. What was once a trickle of videos is now a river, with both sides, and all the various rebel groups, producing high-quality footage of their exploits, and the outrages of the enemy.
Set this against the fact that apart from a few reporters allowed into Damascus by the government, some embedded filming by Russians with the government army, and the odd insanely brave journalist who makes into a rebel area and avoids being kidnapped or worse, reporting out of the world’s worst conflict is virtually non-existent.
The question for 2014, sadly, is not the prospect of peace – Syria’s sectarian fissure is also filling with blood in Iraq once again and shows no sign of slowing – it is simply at what point the warring sides realise a stalemate is reached.
And if those hundreds, if not thousands, of European Muslims who have gone to fight, return, will then France, Britain, Belgium and Germany face a new generation of home-grown zealots, who are no strangers to violence?
TURKEY AND BRAZIL
IT WAS also the year of gas elsewhere in the world. Tear gas, not its deadlier relatives.
But tear gas used in such industrial quantities against protesters in both Turkey and Brazil that some of the photographs we saw seemed to be of another, more sulphurous planet.
Those two countries, and their rioters, share some similarities. Arguably at comparable stages of economic and social development, and both having been pulled into those stages by powerful individual leaders – Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil – many of their people now have greater expectations in life.
That the Turkish riots were caused by a redevelopment plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, and Brazil’s by a rise in public transport fares, can only lead to the conclusion that these issues were a vehicle for wider frustration.
And that may turn out to be a healthy thing, a shouting, chanting, swirling articulation of hope.
LESS hopeful currently is Egypt. As we stand now, those in the West who retain a colonial-era regard of the world may find their prejudices confirmed by what is occurring in Cairo.
If by this time next year we do not see a strongman military – or military-lite – government it will be a remarkable triumph. That may come down to the vanity of one man, General Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, the bloody vanquisher of the reactionary, but elected, Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi.
The fervency with which some sectors of Egyptian society wish him to become president is truly frightening. So far, he is being coy, but such seeming reluctance is only amplifying their calls for him to take power. And so the wheel turns from former air force officer and president Hosni Mubarak, the biggest victim of the Arab Spring.
Another fervency which is hard to understand from the distance of Scotland is that which some Italian voters retain for Silvio Berlusconi. This year has seen what appears to the political end of the charismatic former cruise ship singer turned media magnate. He was finally convicted of tax fraud in August and subsequently barred from holding elected political office for six years. His prostitution travails remain unresolved in the courts – and yet even if found guilty, those who love him will still love him and yearn for his return.
PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin has this past year solidified still further as the personification of Russia. But it is not a new Russia, it is the old Russia, with the religious elements of Tsarist times added for good measure. The love those who support Mr Putin have is a fear-love. They may fear his omnipotence, but they know those outside Russia fear it more, and it is this which they love.
Quick to take offence, acutely conscious of maintaining its position in the world after the post-1989 humiliations, today’s Moscow can act with surprising alacrity when the West is still putting its diplomatic socks on – witness its recent victory against the EU over whose sphere Ukraine belongs in. And the main reason for this – Putin.
To the question, who is the most powerful person in the world, the answer is: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He needs to consult with few, if anyone, before acting, or directing his flawlessly obedient government to do so. No leader in the world embodies such power.
2014 is Putin’s year. The Sochi Winter Olympics – costing more than both the Beijing and the London summer games – are meant to showcase the country’s economic and cultural muscle. In reality, they will be a disco above a political abattoir. No country in which the courts annually find 95 per cent of defendants guilty can be considered anything other than renegade.
IN THE Democratic Republic of the Congo, an unusually assertive UN gave us a good news story, with a strongly mandated UN force supporting government troops in putting an end to the M23 rebel movement in the country’s east that had brought so much violence and misery. In a conflict that was essentially an aftershock from its own terrible Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict, Rwanda was finally embarrassed by diplomatic efforts into ending its support for the primarily Tutsi fighters.
As the UN has begun deploying drones to monitor the vast areas of the DRC impossible to otherwise patrol adequately, the much-maligned Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – to apply the proper name – seems set to show its worth as a tireless watchman, and save lives.
Less good from Africa was the violence in the Central African Republic at the end of 2013, once again involving the French military – already forced into action in 2012 to prevent a bloodbath in Mali. Once again it was an ethnic-sectarian conflict with Muslim rebels attacking from the north. As with the Cold War, Africa is suffering directly from the ideological conflict between political Islam and the West.
That France moved so rapidly again in a former colony is much to the credit of Paris; that they did so with little or even no support from their European partners – Britain did help with military airlift capacity – leads less to a reflection on matters African, and more to matters EU.
Germany does not have a foreign policy beyond furthering its business interests and some matters to its east, once again leaving Paris with London as its only active friend.
AFGHAN president Hamid Karzai spent most of 2013 confusing everyone as to who he did regard as a friend. As the year ends, he seems set on a course of inspiring his countrymen’s nationalism by casting the United States as their enemy. Washington wants an agreement to retain forces in Afghanistan, but Karzai is making this as difficult as he can. You may see such a desire as US imperialism rather than any security strategy by Washington, but I would draw attention to the Iraqi minister who recently lamented Baghdad’s unwillingness to draw up such a deal which saw US forces – and the considerable capacity they bring – exit his country. Nato and US forces will largely withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 and Karzai will relinquish the presidency, constitutionally barred from a third term.
Britain has already begun a process of soul-searching over our involvement in the conflict, and the many lives – British and Afghan – it has cost. There is one hope: a generation of Afghan children has now received a basic education that would have been denied to them under the Taleban, and the future is theirs.
NATURAL disasters often develop a political narrative, usually to do with how the afflicted country’s government responds. Typhoon Haiyan – known locally as Typhoon Yolanda – which devastated the island nations of Philippines in November, packing the highest typhoon winds yet recorded and killing at least 6,109, had a wider regional meaning. As China asserts its authority over the South China Sea and wider Pacific area, it has been flexing its naval muscles.
Yet Typhoon Haiyan gave the US an opportunity to show quickly it could marshal a large fleet of warships, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and destroyers, to a specific area.
While survivors of the storm greatly appreciated the huge US effort, such a display of power will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing, and neighbouring capitals. China itself eventually sent a hospital ship to assist, but it arrived many days after even the Israeli military had despatched its search team.