The Battle For al-Bab

I’ve been meaning to write about the situation in the Syrian town of al-Bab for a few days now, but haven’t found the time. I’m sorry that I’ve been unable to write anything for a while, again. So, without further ado, the battle for al-Bab.

Source: IHS Conflict Monitor via BBC News

Al-Bab is a town in northern Syria currently held by ISIS. Above is a strategic map of the current situation in the area. It is a bit hard to see in the map, but al-Bab is essentially the point at which the Turkish-backed rebels meet Russian-backed regime forces. As I have discussed before, ISIS had previously provided Turkey with a buffer zone between its forces and Syrian regime forces. That buffer zone has now collapsed with just al-Bab itself and a few scattered villages separating the two sides. Indeed, in some areas, regime and rebel forces have already met with clashes being reported. Russian planes also recently killed 3 Turkish soldiers around al-Bab, apparently by mistake.

For now, however, Russia and Turkey appear to be working hard to prevent such events from damaging relations. The errant Russian airstrike was described as a ‘friendly fire’ incident, for example. But as rebel and regime forces continue to push out ISIS, tensions between the two forces will mount. It seems inconceivable that the rebels and regime forces will be content to simply stare at each other across no-man’s land, awaiting instructions from their respective patrons. No, the rebels and regime will instead seek to gain an advantage over one another and will most certainly resort to force to achieve their objectives. This underlines one of the main reasons why outside interventions have achieved so little in finding peace in Syria. They ignore the reasons the war started.

The outside powers that have intervened have done so pursuing their own objectives and national interests and have used the various warring factions as proxies to meet those aims. But those warring factions have aims of their own. The rebels are not fighting to realize Turkey’s agenda in Syria, they are fighting to overthrow the Assad regime. Similarly, the regime is not fighting to enhance Russia or Iran’s role in the region but for survival, on its own terms. This is not a war about influence, or terrorism, or even the Shia-Sunni split; Syria is at war because the people want the end of the regime, and the regime does not. This is a war about the Assad Dynasty, its history of brutality, and those who have gained or suffered throughout. Russia and Turkey cannot keep the regime and rebels from fighting because the regime and rebels are not fighting for Russia and Turkey. What remains to be seen is how far Russia and Turkey will allow their proxies to pull them in. If, and when, regime forces fight with the Turkish-backed rebels, how will embedded Turkish soldiers respond. Will they fight alongside the rebels? Will Russian forces strike Turkish forces to support the regime? I’ve asked these questions before, and the time for answers is fast approaching.


North Korean Defector Predicts Coming End of Regime

Yesterday, a prominent North Korean defector expressed in an interview  his belief that the Kim dynasty is nearing its last days ruling the North. The defector is Thae Yong-ho, once North Korea’s deputy ambassador to Britain and also one of the highest ranked defectors ever from the “Hermit Kingdom”. Mr. Thae believes that a popular uprising could, seemingly soon, topple the ruling North Korean regime. The basis for his belief is the growing dissemination of information in North Korea. The thinking is that as ordinary North Koreans learn the truth about their country, then they will be inspired to rise up. I, for one, am not so sure.

It is important to note now that North Korea is not called the “Hermit Kingdom” for nothing. Almost all reporting and predictions about North Korea are more or less sheer speculation. Nobody has a clear idea of what is really happening in the country, how the people think, how the leadership thinks, etc. At least two things are understood however: the regime is brutal, and that propaganda is pervasive to the point that most North Koreans have virtually zero (accurate) knowledge of the world outside. North Korean textbooks contain events that never happened, even in part. But what many in the outside world do not realize is the extent of the brutality and desperation of life within North Korea. The brutality and poverty of the country is unprecedented in human history (at least for a country not being actively or recently invaded). North Korea has its closest mirrors in dystopian science fiction. Indeed, off the top of my head, a startlingly close comparison to North Korea is found in the Hunger Games series.

This story, from another North Korean defector, paints a grim picture of life in the country. I will summarize the story here but I urge you to read it yourselves. In his childhood, Sungju Lee lived in relative prosperity and comfort in the capital Pyongyang. In ’94, with a new Kim in power, the family was forced to leave to an outlying province. Classes were interrupted so the students could observe public executions. People resorted to foraging to feed themselves. Sungju parents abandoned him and he started a street gang to survive. Eventually, his did reunite with his father and fled the country. But Sungju Lee’s story is not alone, many defectors have spoken about the appalling levels of poverty and the arbitrary and frequent violence by regime officials.

North Korea operates its own caste system, known as the Songbun. Every person in the country is rated according to their family’s history of loyalty to the regime. “Songbun was used to decide all aspects of a person’s existence in North Korean society” (Human Rights Watch). Your level in the Songbun system determines where you will live, your job, what food you will get, etc. Access to Pyongyang is denied to those without a suitable Songbun level, except as temporary laborers. In terms of violence, a 2014 report by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations states that “Almost every citizen of the DPRK has become a witness to an execution, because they are often performed publicly in central places”. The full report is almost 400 pages long, detailing truly horrific examples of arbitrary violence.

I do not believe that most North Koreans need more reasons to desire regime change. They do not need to be aware of the splendor of New York or Seoul to understand their torment. Everyday is filled with terror and despair, regardless of knowledge of the outside world. Without the means to liberate themselves, that knowledge merely engenders a further sense of hopelessness and powerlessness. Most people are too preoccupied with mere survival to begin to contemplate something greater. Unfortunately, I believe that the North Korean regime will only be brought down by force: foreign invasion, coup, civil war, etc. Until the regime’s monopoly of force is broken, fear will continue to keep the populace submissive.

US withdraws from TPP trade deal, Ceding ground to China

Yesterday President Donald Trump, through an executive order, withdrew the United States from the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, the largest such deal in history. In doing so, he has seriously harmed America’s relationship with our Asian allies and weakened our ability to counter an increasingly aggressive China.

The TPP brought together a wide range of nations around the Pacific Rim such as Mexico, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and others. Collectively, these countries represented around 40 of global GDP. A number of studies predicted that the trade deal would have seen a net economic benefit to all countries involved. The deal went further in eliminating tariffs than most other trade deals, but also “included unprecedented trade rules governing labor and the environment, goods, services, global investment and digital commerce” (New York Times). But the TPP was not simply about boosting trade overall, it was designed to boost trade between these particular nations. In simpler words, it was a trade deal designed to keep China out. The hope was to redirect trade and reduce the member countries’ reliance on China as a source of both imports and exports.

Beyond the immediate economic effects, the TPP further carried a number of implications for the future of politics in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the end of the Cold War, economic sanctions have become the main tool of powerful nations to impose their will on others. But economic sanctions derive their strength from the target’s dependence on trade with the sanctioner. By reducing their reliance on trade with China, member states such as Vietnam and Malaysia hoped to have greater freedom to challenge China politically and militarily. With the end of the TPP, a major potential check on China’s growing influence has been removed. This leaves the member states all the more vulnerable to Chinese influence and power.

Withdrawal from the TPP further represents a degradation of American soft power. The United States has long been the undisputed champion of liberalism in the world. Since the end of World War II, American statesmen have dominated the shaping of global trade rules and practices, placing an emphasis not only on free trade but fair trade. China has for years been pushing its own alternative to the TPP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP, however, proposes very little in the way of protections for labor and the environment, unlike the TPP. Withdrawal from the TPP gives China an opening to begin establishing their own precedents for global economic standards. Given China’s many and great human rights abuses, this is indeed a tragedy.

The end of the US’s involvement with the TPP trade deal continues President Trump’s trend of surrendering America’s commanding moral high ground. His skepticism of climate change agreements, nationalist rhetoric, dark view of globalization, and unpredictability tarnishes our image as a responsible actor in the world. President Trump’s views on trade and climate change are allowing nations such as China to present themselves as the leaders of the liberal global order. When China is the champion of freedom in the world, freedom dies.

One Year of Standard Daily News: A Reflection

Be prepared for a long, and deeply personal, read.

Today marks the one year anniversary of my first post on this blog, Hello World!. Since then, I have written a total of 53 posts, an average of one a week (though the average per week has been steadily increasing). Today’s post will be a reflection on what I’ve learned from this experience, how I have grown, and where I plan to go from here.

One thing is clear, at least to me; I have become a considerably better writer over the course of the past year. If you look at my early posts (roughly July 2016 and earlier), and compare them to the more recent ones, they are quite poorly written. They are generally short, and seem incomplete. The early posts generally don’t flow well and are also quite timid. I don’t actually say much conclusively one way or the other. The focus is much more on summarization than actual analysis. Paradoxically, my early posts also feature some of my most unfounded claims and predictions (in particular, the posts about the US Presidential Election in which almost all the predictions proved wrong). They are also somewhat emotionless and cold. It is an odd mix of a fear of expressing myself personally with a desire to make bold claims and predictions. There is not much of “me” in them.

Here is where enters one of the main takeaways this experience has given me: confidence. Confidence in myself and my writing. When I first started this blog, it was out of desperation. I had not found a job, my college degree collected dust, and I figured that a blog was simply a low-cost way to be able to say I was doing something. My heart was not really in it, and I did not really believe that I had the talent to pull it off. I did not put much of myself in the early posts, my own emotions and passions, because I didn’t really believe that people would want to read it or that it would be any good. Since then, experience and the constant encouragement of friends and family (not to mention the musical magic of Kate Bush) has done wonders for me and my writing.

My whole life, I have had trouble expressing myself. I have always been timid and shy, and afraid of speaking to people. In my youth, I was in Special Education and diagnosed with mental retardation. (It was later to be amended to Austism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD, and with medication I was placed in the ‘gifted’ classes and was a picture of academic success). I did not have a friend in the world until I was around 13, and as such I only really learned how to interact with people starting then. But all through this, I have always been a deeply passionate and creative person but unable and unwilling to express it. Through High School and College I developed into a talented writer, but only academically. I never wrote anything remotely personal. And then, after college, I began a blog out of desperation.

Writing, about myself and for myself, has proven to be exhilarating and liberating. As I have gained confidence in myself my writing has become more personal and expressive. While my writing is still about politics, for me politics is personal. I have always had a great love for heroics and romance, determination and bravery. In my childhood, I was inspired by the tales of Arthurian legend and images of knights fighting off dragons. Later came the Lord of the Rings, with its deeply poetic depictions of valor and courage. In more recent history I have been inspired by the Arab Spring and the romance of the barricades. A great activist desire welled within me, and writing has allowed me to fulfill it. A year ago, I never imagined that I would ever write something as personal as Donald Trump, My President. I never dreamt that I would be as free and expressive as in My Fellow Americans, Vote! or The Second Presidential Debate. I most certainly would not have written this post. Even my more conventional, journalistic posts have greatly improved and are much better written, benefiting from increased confidence in my writing.

But aside from personal growth, what does this all mean? What can you, the reader, take from this article and my experience? Ultimately, don’t be afraid to share what inspires you with the world. For me it is Kate Bush and politics, and I share them freely. One of the greatest fears we have in this world is the fear of ourselves: we fear what we can or cannot do, we fear how others see us, we fear how we see ourselves. Letting go of that fear is hard, and never truly complete, but also rich and rewarding. Also, don’t be afraid of failure. For all of my lofty, self-congratulatory remarks in this article the fact remains: after a year, almost no one actually reads my blog and my writing still has great room for improvement. Some of my most recent posts are still guilty of many of the flaws I described in my most early writing. In one sense, I have accomplished very little with my blog (though readership has grown considerably in the last two months, it is still painfully small). But the experience is still one that has given me a great deal of happiness and a renewed sense of worth.

Going forward, I hope to continue to improve as a writer and to write much more often. One issue that still limits my blog is that writing about politics, particularly international politics, is greatly dependent on investigative reporting. I simply do not have the resources to be a reporter, that requires money for travel and credentials for press access. As such I am limited to commentary on what I can find in the news, which is further limited by what I am knowledgeable enough to comment on. It is difficult to be an activist when you lack the resources to be active. To this end I implore my readers to interact with me. If you see something interesting, share it with me! If you have questions about a topic and want me to cover it, let me know! Let me know what issues drive you and I will do my best to cover them. Let me know what developments in the world trouble you and I will do what I can to investigate. You can email me through the Contact Us page, or connect with me through Facebook or Twitter.

Keep in touch.

Gregory Palmer

Gambia Crisis: Incumbent President Clings to Power, Intervention Looms

The small nation of Gambia in Africa is currently ruled by Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994. His rule was characterized by his erratic behavior, he has previously claimed to be able to cure Aids and female infertility, and harsh treatment of opposition. Jammeh lost the Presidential election last December to Adama Barrow, who has pledged democratic reforms. Jammeh initially accepted the results but has since reversed course and seems intent to remain in power at all costs. Mr. Barrow fled the country to neighboring Senegal, where he was officially inaugurated as the new President at Gambia’s embassy in Senegal. For now, Gambia remains in a state of limbo though one way or another the crisis seems likely to end soon.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has moved troops into position, led by the Senegalese military, to oust Jammeh by force if his refusal to hand over power continues. Should ECOWAS actually invade Gambia, Jammeh has very little hope of clinging to power. The Gambian military is overwhelming outclassed and out-sized by the forces arrayed against it, and this is under the assumption that the entire military actually stands and fights. However, seizing control by force would greatly mar Mr. Barrow’s victory and undoubtedly leave the country deeply divided.

UPDATE: During the course of this writing, Senegalese troops have entered the country, state of resistance unclear.

Opponents of Mr. Barrow will in the future likely use the ECOWAS intervention to paint him as a ‘foreign puppet’ and an illegitimate ruler.  As such, the likelihood of civil disorder post-resolution of the crisis in the country remains high. If the Gambian security services are seriously degraded in conflict with ECOWAS forces, that will leave them unable to maintain law and order in the country no matter who emerges as the victor. The potential for a major spike in crime is great.

Donald Trump’s “Russian Dossier”: What is it and why it matters

The story began a week ago, when CNN reported that President Obama and President-Elect Trump had been briefed about allegations of serious connections, both collusion and blackmail, between the Russian government and the Trump election campaign team. Almost immediately afterwords, Buzzfeed News published the dossier in full. Since then, the news media has been engaging in a full-throated debate about the dossier itself and the ethics in its release.

I have read the full report released by Buzzfeed, and the allegations made are quite serious, to say the least. Much has been made on social media of the “honey trap” side of the story, with Moscow allegedly trying to blackmail Donald Trump using videos of him with prostitutes. But that is really a minor focus of the report and the much less troubling side of it. The bulk of the dossier focuses on the Russian government’s attempts to influence the US Presidential election through a sophisticated hacking campaign, a campaign which the American intelligence community has concluded unanimously did in fact occur. Donald Trump himself has since admitted Russian interference in the election. But the dossier in question, released last Tuesday, goes much further with its allegations.

Trump’s “Russian dossier” was reportedly prepared by a former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, initially at the bequest of anti-Trump Republicans and later by anti-Trump Democrats. Most of the dossier’s focus is on the Russian government’s attempts to hurt the election campaign of Democratic-party candidate Hillary Clinton that eventually morphed into a full-fledged attempt to ensure Donald Trump’s victory. The dossier alleges that senior members of Donald Trump’s campaign staff had direct contact with Kremlin officials to share intelligence and discuss strategy. Let this sink in for a moment. If true, this would make Donald Trump and his campaign staff guilty not only of complicity in the hacking of the DNC but also of collusion with a foreign power to tamper with and influence American elections. In my view, if these allegations prove true, this is sufficient reason to bar Donald Trump from holding the office of President and also to try him for treason. If they are true however.

The whole affair is a bit fantastical. It is reminiscent of an episode of The Americans: full of bugged hotel rooms, honey-trap set-ups, secret meetings in Eastern Europe, cyber hacking, money transfers, etc. Its all a little much to believe really. CNN lays out quite nicely the reasons for both why and why not to question the dossier. To sum up: the author, Christopher Steele, is a man highly regarded and respected in the global intelligence community with deep connections in Eastern Europe and Russia in particular and the US intelligence community has taken the dossier seriously enough to brief the President and President-Elect. But, on the other hand, while almost all of the sources quoted are anonymous their alleged access is truly phenomenal. The dossier quotes people apparently party to conversations between the absolute highest echelons of the Russian government, between Putin himself and his staff. It is also important to note that the dossier was not compiled by the intelligence community, American or otherwise, but rather by a well-connected individual. An individual, even a talented and experienced one, is much more vulnerable to deception and misinformation than a governmental agency such as the CIA or FBI.

But this dossier has not appeared in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s strenuously pro-Russian policy and rhetoric. It is not suspicious that Trump desires better relations with Russia. What is suspicious is the degree to which he is willing to overlook Russian transgressions and offenses in his single-minded quest to restore relations. Indeed, it is Trump’s near obsessive desire to rehabilitate Russia as a nation that gives weight to the allegations made. But it is also precisely this that gives me further reason to doubt this dossier. Given Trump’s ardent, and well-documented, pro-Russian stance wouldn’t such a story make for the greatest of conspiracy theories? “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin unite to destroy American Democracy: We Warned You!” It seems almost too perfect a story. However, given the gravity of the claims, and known Russian interference with the election, it should remain beyond the ability of the American people to dismiss this issue out of hand without a thorough investigation by the intelligence community and our public servants. Hopefully this episode will leave the incoming administration more wary in its dealings with the Kremlin, and more clear-eyed about the implications of bringing Russia in from the cold.

Next Week

Well I missed my quota this week. A coworker was unexpectedly ill this past week and I had to cover for them. I am still working on artwork for the site, and am getting in touch with some graphic designers for the project. For next week, I am working on some articles about Donald Trump’s alleged Russian connections, the danger of fake news in general, and other things of that nature. I am also working on getting some guest writers for the blog, to keep things more active. Next Friday also marks the one year anniversary of the blog, and I will be also writing a bit about that. Anyway, thanks for reading!

Gregory Palmer

Iran in Flux: Death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Ayatollah and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had within Iran. He was the Islamic Republic’s most prominent founding father after Ayatollah Khomeini himself. In fact, Rafsanjani is being buried in Khomeini’s mausoleum, demonstrating the respect and influence he commanded in the country, and his funeral today was attended by an estimated 2.5 million people. Iranian politics has long been divided into two opposing factions: hardliners and reformists. What made Rafsanjani unique was that he was neither, he is best described as a pragmatist.

In his early years as a leader of the Revolution of 1979 and through the end of his two terms as President, he was known for his harsh treatment of dissidents and support for Iranian proxies abroad. As time went on, his views gradually moderated. He first became a supporter of economic liberalization during his terms as President, and then in 1997 helped Iran’s first true reformist President, Mohammed Khatami, win the election. Rafsanjani joined the opposition in criticizing the actions of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even went so far as to publicly support the nationwide pro-democracy protests in 2009. It was also with Rafsanjani’s support that current President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, was elected. With Iranians heading to the polls again in May of this year for their Presidential elections, the death of such an influential backer is most unfortunate.

Rafsanjani’s status as a founding father was central to his role as the nation’s prime political mediator and bridge-builder. It allowed him to speak about the need for reform and still command respect from the hardliner movement. It allowed him to command respect from the reformist movement despite his hardliner past. He was at once “an agent of continuity” to the hardliners and a “champion of the reformists” (BBC). The death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani means uncertainty for Iran. In a deeply divided and polarized country, the last thing needed was the loss of its greatest compromiser. Even with his moderating influence, Iran has already seen demonstrations with crowds numbering in the millions. But now, without his moderating influence, the gulf and hostility between the hardliners and the reformists will grow sharply and the likelihood of renewed mass protests greatly increases. The hardliners are now in firm control of the levers of power in the country, but with a populace growing ever more impatient for change the Iranian regime cannot withstand many more body blows until the current political climate boils over. With the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aging and in poor health it seems likely that such a crisis will happen sooner rather then later.

The Next Few Days

There isn’t going to be a real post today. Instead I’m working on coming up with ideas for a logo and other artwork for the site, because the site is in desperate need of identity. Right now, I have zero ideas which is a problem. I am much better with words then I am with pictures, but a visual, something people can associate the site with, is too important to ignore for any longer. So thats what I will be working on today and probably through the weekend. Next week, regardless of my logo progress, there will be a return to real posts. If anyone has some ideas for a logo that they want to share, feel free to email me at


Gregory Palmer

Donald Trump’s Divided Government

Formally, in the United States, the term divided government is only used when one or both houses of Congress are controlled by a party other than that of the Presidency. Since the 1970s, divided government has been the norm rather than the exception in the US. President-Elect Donald Trump will, technically speaking, be presiding over a united government with both houses of Congress controlled by his party, the Republican’s. In truth, however, the emerging government of Donald Trump is quite fractured across many fault lines.

Party identity continues to be the main fissure in American politics, though now the partisan divide swells to truly unprecedented levels. Today, President Obama and Vice-President Elect Mike Pence met with members of Congress to discuss policy in the coming years. President Obama, however, only met Democrats while Mike Pence only met Republicans. Both meetings were focused more on the opposing party than on real policy details. President Obama called on Democrats to refer to any new Republican healthcare plan as “Trumpcare,” while the Pence rally focused on the repeal of “Obamacare” and other aspects of the Obama legacy. Both meetings were described as “fiery” and having a pep rally atmosphere. These were not meetings aimed to solve the nation’s issues and to bridge our divides, but were rather meant to increase militancy between the two parties. The Republican and Democratic parties are now, more than ever before, circling each other, like gladiators in the ring, each more focused on doing damage to the other than on why they are fighting in the first place. But, the new Trump government is not divided in the traditional, partisan sense. After all, the same party controls both the Legislative and Executive branches of government.

What really divides the new Trump administration, is the Trump Presidency’s war on government itself and the bureaucracy that constitutes it. Bureaucracy, that dreaded word, is a fundamentally under-appreciated system. Bureaucratic rules and regulations, and all the laws that depend on them, are society’s main defense against the temptation of the powerful to abuse said power. From preventing the excessive use of force by security services, to consumer protection laws, to environmental protection laws, to education standards, to anti-discrimination policies, and so on, what were once bureaucratic regulations can quickly become societal norms. We expect the police to behave justly, we expect companies and industry to be truthful and to not take advantage of their workers and consumers, we expect all people to be treated fairly regardless of race or creed, and we expect these things because of the bureaucratic protections that have shaped our expectations of a free society.

Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks and recent actions show his disdain and disregard for the services of government. His cabinet is filled with people from the world of business, with little to no political experience, and many whom have openly advocated against the agency’s they may now find themselves leading. I will not go through every pick but a few do deserve a mention. For Secretary of State, arguably the most powerful government position after that of the President himself, Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson. Tillerson is the head of oil-giant Exxon Mobil and is a man with absolutely no experience as a diplomat and drowning in potential conflicts of interest. His Treasury Secretary is venture capitalist and Wall Street veteran Steven Mnuchin. For Secretary of Labor Trump has chosen anti-regulation fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, head of CKE Restaurants which operates the Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s restaurant chains. Rick Perry, the nominee for Energy Secretary, has previously called for the abolishment of the Department of Energy. The Environmental Protection Agency will now be headed by a man, Scott Pruitt, who has devoted much of his life opposing the work done by the EPA. I could go on, but I believe the point is made. If bureaucracy is meant to protect people from the rich and powerful, it seems that Donald Trump has replaced watchdogs with wolves.

In another stunning development, and what CNN describes as “his latest attack on a key body he will rely on as commander in chief”, Donald Trump has refused to accept the unanimous conclusion of the US intelligence community that Russian Intelligence services and hackers actively sought to interfere with the Presidential election. Further delving into the bizarre, Trump has defended Vladimir Putin after President Obama ordered the expulsion of Russian diplomats and closing of Russian properties believed to be involved in the hacking scandal, actions supported by nearly every member of Congress.

Donald Trump’s government is divided, not by party but by its commitment to the norms and institutions that have guided this country for many many years. Donald Trump has given the powers of regulation to the regulated and appointed as our protectors those from whom we need protection. He has thrust men from the world of business into the realm of politics. They may be skilled at signing business deals, but how will they handle issues whose currency is not money but lives, conflicts governed not by supply and demand but by emotion? A government is not a business, and should not be run as one.