30 June 2012

Minitel Is No More

Does anyone remember the Minitel?

It was, as the BBC put it recently, the French Wide Web or more accurately, the Francenet that came before the Internet.

The BBC piece was very good in conveying how the project was both an extraordinary technical achievement - something France excelled at until quite recently-  and a disastrous commercial endeavor.

They introduced an outstanding product which relied on the most advanced digital infrastructure of that era (this is from memory, but almost 80 percent of French phone lines were digital in 1979 and their closest rival, I think the US,  had less than 20 percent).

And their finishing touch was to put it in a regulatory straight-jacket to prevent any innovation and entrepreneurial push.

But in its heyday, "Minitel connections were stable at 100 million a month plus 150 million online directory inquiries." More interestingly, "in 1986 French university students coordinated a national strike using Minitel, demonstrating an early use of digital communication devices for participatory technopolitical ends."

And today was the last day of Minitel.

I highly recommend the BBC piece if history of technology interests you. It is definitely not geeky and quite funny.

Besides all that, I found this line from Jacques Chirac ironic:
 "Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?"
You know why the line is ironic?

Today, if you have an account in a French bank your daily statement is two to three days behind schedule. ATM machines are known here as "Distributeur de Billets" which means the only transaction they allow is to withdraw money. You can't ask for your balance and the balance it shows at the end of a withdrawal is a couple of days old. No transfers between accounts, no deposits, no bill payments, nothing.

A New Dawn in Egypt

Muhammed Mursi will shortly be sworn in as Egypt's new President. He will be the first civilian President in Egypt's history (for factual sticklers, there was Sufi Abu Taleb, who was the Acting President for eight days after Sadat's assassination but that does not count).

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the so called Scaf, will hand over the power to the President in a few hours.

The day before the results of Egyptian presidential elections were announced I thought about posting a piece to predict that the Brotherhood candidate was going to win and the Egyptian army was going to abide by the results. But, even though I felt reasonably confident about that prediction I decided not to post it. In that part of the world, you can come up with the most plausible scenario only to see it destroyed at the last minute by some unforeseen event.

That is one of the reasons I have been cautious about stating my working hypotheses. They make a lot of sense to me but I am cognizant of the fact that all it would take for them to go up in smoke is a strategically placed bomb by some marginal player.

So the Mursi's victory was reassuring in that respect.

Let me explain why I found it reassuring for the purposes of this humble soapbox.

28 June 2012

Syrian Update

Tuesday came and gone and all Turkey did was to warn Syria that any future incidents will be considered a casus belli.

NATO reiterated that the downing of a plane was unacceptable.

But the overall impression that a crisis was averted and behind closed doors the US and NATO allies convinced Turkey to back down.

There was even an anonymous US official who told the New York Times that the Turkish plane was probably guilty of spying, implying that Syria might have had a point. Though they hastened to add that:
“On a political level, NATO is taking the Turks at their word,” said a senior United States official who has reviewed classified reports of the episode.
One senior NATO diplomat said that even if the Turks were spying on Syria’s military readiness, it should not alter the international reaction. “When this happens between neighboring countries, you give a warning and then send up interceptors,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “You don’t just shoot down the plane.” 
But I believe that all of this is a misdirection. I never thought that Turkey was itching to invade Syria. For all the reasons I enumerated, I am pretty sure they abhor the notion.

The idea behind this crisis is to create a framework which could be used to legitimize a potential military action by Turkey without requiring an international authorization. And the reason for that setup is to pressure Russia that under certain circumstances Turkey (and going by his public persona, its temperamental and fiery Prime Minister) could attack Syria and cause the overthrow of the current regime.

To bolster that framework, today the Turkish government announced new rules of engagement with Syria:
Turkey's decision to reinforce its border with Syria comes two days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a change in terms of its military engagement.
He told parliament that Syria was a "clear and present threat" and any "military element" that approached the Turkish border from Syria would be treated as a threat and a military target.
Does that mean that they are getting ready to invade Syria? No. It means that they are telling everyone that they could retaliate with massive force if, say, a border guard were to shoot in the general direction of refugee camps.

The subtext is that, since escalation is rarely contained by logic and reason, the current situation could turn into something no one wants.

Not unexpectedly, Russia just announced that it is supporting the new Annan plan which calls for a unity government in Syria.

Since it is extremely unlikely that Bashar al-Assad will accept that plan and go quietly, I expect Russia to slowly steer away from the current regime in the coming days.

24 June 2012

Syrian Missile Crisis

After yesterday's report that had President Gul acknowledging that the downed Turkish plane might have strayed into Syrian airspace, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs announced this morning that the downed plane was shot outside Syrian airspace.  

Normally, that would become a major incident in Turkey, stirring up patriotic feelings and leading to calls for punitive retaliation. Instead, despite this new information that makes the Syrian position more or less untenable, there were very few nationalistic calls to arms.

While the duality of reaction among Turkish media outlets that I mentioned yesterday is still there, today even the opposition side seems to have become more muted in its reporting. Pro-government sources continue to be cautious and they emphasize the cool and collected response of the government. One had, as the leading story, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's praise for Turkey's measured reaction. Another reported that despite the crisis a decision has been made to continue to deliver electricity to Syria.

The opposition media sites are less blustery this morning. They still work the national pride and appropriate response angle but after the PM announced that he is meeting today with all the opposition leaders to inform them of the government's road map they appear to be somewhat mollified.

They all report that Turkey's response will be announced on Tuesday. The so called road map will likely include a formal complaint to the Security Council, a request for an apology from Syria and a demand for compensation. The government let it known that it is keeping the US and Arab states informed about its intentions.

All of this seems to suggest a measured response and a desire to defuse the situation.

23 June 2012

Syria - Turkey: Accident or Casus Belli?

If you consulted your media sources this morning you probably already know that Syria admitted to downing a Turkish fighter plane.

This comes several days after the New York Times reported that CIA agents were in Turkey channeling arms to selected Syrian rebel groups and the arms were supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.
Yesterday, hours before the plane was shot down by Syria, Turkey issued a heavily parsed and weakly worded denial:
“There is no such transfer to neighboring countries, including Syria,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Selçuk Ünal told reporters at a press conference in Ankara. Ünal was responding to a report published in The New York Times claiming that weapons paid for by Turkey, Syria and Qatar are funneled into Syria via Turkey.
Given this background, one could conclude that the downing of the plane could lead to further escalation and could be used by Turkey as a casus belli clearing the way to a limited incursion into Syria. Moreover, such incidents are traditionally used to whip up nationalistic sentiments with politicians grandstanding and making fiery speeches about the heavy price to be paid by Turkey's enemies.

11 June 2012

Interesting Development on the Kurdish Question

In my effort to bolster my image of international man of mystery I have been traveling quite a bit this year.

As luck would have it, I found myself in Turkey just around the time an important news story was breaking. It was lucky because Western media outlets did not cover it at all and if I wasn't there I would not have known about it.

After months of belligerent rhetoric and aggressive military action against the PKK, the Turkish government suddenly stopped, made a U-turn and announced a major initiative to solve the Kurdish problem. Actually, the initiative came from the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP).
The social democrat party introduced its 10-point package that foresees the establishment of two commissions, inside and outside Parliament, to shape the way to solve the Kurdish issue and end violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 people since the early 1980s.
It was a surprise for most observers as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been giving the impression that it was ready to render CHP completely ineffectual by forming an alliance with the ultra-nationalistic National Action Party (MHP) in drafting the country's new constitution.

While the initiative came from the CHP, under normal circumstances PM Erdogan simply ignores such efforts as he has a very comfortable majority in Parliament. In fact, the two only met once since 2010 when Kilicdaroglu became the leader of the CHP and this was the second time.

In that sense, it was surprising that he would agree to such a meeting and conclude that meeting with the announcement that he was determined to go ahead with this initiative even if other parties such as the MHP would refuse to join this historic undertaking.

The other interesting question is that the why CHP came up with such an initiative since it opposed the original Kurdish initiative launched by Erdogan in 2009.

The answer to both questions is obvious to my tiny readership as we were expecting a Kurdish initiative for months. Kilicdaroglu provided much needed cover to Erdogan by starting the process.

If my initial hypothesis was correct, the PKK might have overplayed its hand in Syria and might find itself sidelined in the process that might lead to the creation of a Kurdish homeland.

My guess is that the government and the CHP will take steps to reduce the importance of the PKK: They have just announced an oil pipeline between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq and Turkey. Apparently, Turkey asked the KRG to take measures to remove the PKK from its territory.
“To me it’s clear. Ankara is in a trade off with the KRG. In exchange for cutting the life lines of the PKK in northern Iraq, Turkey will buy the energy sources of the KRG - at the expense of antagonizing Baghdad,” the energy expert told me.
Incidentally, antagonizing Baghdad seems like a feature not a bug. Which is also significant in terms of regional power plays, especially with Maliki's major ally to the East.

In any case, the Kurdish initiative in Turkey and the oil pipeline between Turkey and KRG happened about the same time.

Given the importance I attach to the creation of a Kurdish state and the importance of Kurds in settling the Syrian conflict, I believe they are the harbinger of important changes in the region.