28 May 2017

Portland Murders and the Reaction of Prominent Muslims

When I read about two innocent men who were killed by a white supremacist because they defended two Muslim women, my heart sank for their families as I could see myself doing this in a similar situation.

For Muslims or Jews or Christians or Hindus or Baha'is.

Because no individual should be subjected to any public pressure for their beliefs.

Let alone be punished for them.

And I don't believe in a deity.

Then I thought that maybe this could be a turning point for Islamic associations.

Here is a perfect example of Islamophobia and extremely decent behavior by non-Muslims, I said to myself.

Connect the dots and do something about it.

If I were a Muslim and if I was interested in changing people's perception of my religion you know what I would do?

I would start the mother of all fundraisers for the families of the victims.

To tell the world that "we" appreciate their heroism and we will reward people who stick up for "us."

I Googled it.

Do you know how many Islamic organizations reacted?

Just one.

And try to find the fundraiser on their site.

Not easy, is it?

In fact I couldn't find it. I am taking the Independent's word for it.

Incidentally, originally they had a $50,000 fundraiser in mind.

For a father of four and a promising young man who had their throat slashed to protect two Muslim women they did not know.

The association revised their fundraiser upwards to 200,000 as roughly 4,000 people contributed and they are now at $160,000.

Or at least that's what the Independent says they are.

My question is this: where is everybody else?

Where are the wealthy Gulf folks who keep complaining about Islamophobia in the West?

Where is Walid bin Talal?

Where is King Salman who wrote a cheque for almost $400 billion last week for the military industrial complex.

Good on you mates!


Since I posted this a couple of fundraisers showed up on GoFundMe site. One was by Nick Zukin who wrote that
I started this because I was looking around for somewhere to donate to the families of these heroic victims and couldn't find anywhere.  I lamented this online and then thought, well, why shouldn't I just do it.  So I did.
The other was started by Carlos Espinoza on behalf of Micah Fletcher, the third victim who was hospitalized to cover his medical expenses.

As far as I can tell these two men are just ordinary Americans who wanted to express some solidarity for their fellow human beings.

Which  makes my point about the disinterest shown by wealthy Muslims and Muslim associations even starker.

23 May 2017

How Will the Trump Presidency End?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe Donald Trump will resign before the end of his first term.

And he will do so not because he is guilty of obstruction of justice (he is) but because his grift deal with the GOP will have become unworkable.

You know the one whereby they allow him to license his name to any shady businessman in the world, conflict of interest be damned, and he, in return, allows the GOP to have a massive tax cuts for the rich and to shrink health care and to destroy social safety net for the poor.

I believe that, when his long list of financial shenanigans, including his dubious money laundering arrangements with Russian oligarchs are revealed, his ability to make money off the presidency will be severely limited.

Since this will also make him the story, as we saw in the last couple of months, it will hamper his legislative agenda. You can't give goodies to your one percenter friends if everyone is talking about your latest "crooked" deals.

Yeah, #crooked Hillary.

Wall Street banks and funds and corporate America will turn against him because they will realize that he is unable to deliver on his promises.

When that happens, I expect the Republicans to put pressure on him to resign. They might even threaten him with impeachment.

With Mike Pence in place they really have no need for Donald Trump.

Bold predictions, I know, but to me this makes more sense than John McCain pulling a "maverick" stunt and vote for Trump's impeachment. It never happened before and I am not holding my breath.

Besides, much of Trump's tainted deals are already in the public realm and I suspect more of them will surface in the coming months.

This is the price you pay when you start a feud with intelligence agencies.

The Presidential Grift

It has only been five months but Trump has benefited enormously from being president.

Here is a list of projects that are considered, you know, conflicts of interest.

That Tower in Toronto
That Caribbean Villa
Those Condos for Sale
Those Reelection-Campaign Funds
That Second Hotel in Washington, D.C.
That Property in Azerbaijan
That Trump Tower Penthouse
That Resort in the Dominican Republic
That Chinese Trademark
That Meeting at Mar-a-Lago
That Defense Department Trump Tower Rental
That Red Cross Ball
That D.C. Labor Dispute
That Estate in Palm Beach
Those Expansion Plans
That Hotel in Vancouver
That Reality-Television Show
That Pipeline
Those HUD Grants
That Golf Course in Aberdeen
That Other Billionaire New York Real-Estate Developer
Those Indonesian Politicians
That Emirati Businessman
That Virginia Vineyard
That Las Vegas Labor Dispute
That Kuwaiti Event
Those Certificates of Divestiture
That Carrier Deal
That Blind-Trust Issue
Those Fannie and Freddie Investments
That Phone Call With Taiwan
That Deutsche Bank Debt
That Secret Service Detail
That Property in Georgia (the Country)
That Phone Call With Erdogan
That Hotel in Washington, D.C.
That Argentinian Office Building
Those Companies in Saudi Arabia
That British Wind Farm
Those Indian Business Partners
That Envoy From the Philippines

Russian financing is featured prominently on the list.

For instance, the first item on the list the Tower in Toronto is financed by a Russian Canadian, Alexander Shnaider who received millions of dollars from Vnesheconombank, a state owned Russian bank whose transactions are signed off by the Kremlin.

And this is not their first Toronto real estate deal. Between 2004 and 2012, Trump, Shnaider and his partner Val Levitan, another Russian Canadian, collaborated on a hotel-condo project in Toronto.

And curiously, like most of the deals on that list, it was not financially successful.

Trump has always claimed that he had no investments in Russia, implying that we cannot impute his admiration for Putin and his reluctance to criticize Russia to a financial motives.

Well, this is both true and false. He has no investments in Russia but Russia has an investment in him.

Golf writer James Dodson met up with Eric Trump in 2014. Eric, as big a braggart as his father, showed him their new golf course and said that they had access to $100 million for such developments.
“So when I got in the cart with Eric,” Dodson says, “as we were setting off, I said, ‘Eric, who’s funding? I know no banks—because of the recession, the Great Recession—have touched a golf course. You know, no one’s funding any kind of golf construction. It’s dead in the water the last four or five years.’ And this is what he said. He said, ‘Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.’ I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah. We’ve got some guys that really, really love golf, and they’re really invested in our programs. We just go there all the time.’ Now that was three years ago, so it was pretty interesting.”
Eric denied it, of course, but, as you can imagine, this explains a lot. Besides, it is not just Dodson making such allegations.
“The Trump-Russia links beneath the surface are even more extensive,” Max Boot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Trump has sought and received funding from Russian investors for his business ventures, especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.”
And we should not forget the Bayrock Group that financed Trump Soho.

Bayrock is owned by Tevfik Arif, "a former Soviet-era commerce official originally from Kazakhstan."
“Tax evasion and money-laundering are the core of Bayrock’s business model,” the lawsuit said of the financiers behind Trump Soho. The financing came from Russian-affiliated business interests that engaged in criminal activities, it said.
And it is not a one-off deal.
But Bayrock wasn’t just involved with Trump Soho. It financed multiple Trump projects around the world, Foer wrote. “(Trump) didn’t just partner with Bayrock; the company embedded with him. Bayrock put together deals for mammoth Trump-named, Trump-managed projects—two in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a resort in Phoenix, the Trump SoHo in New York.”
There is also his extensive commercial ties to Sapir Group, owned by Tamir Sapir, originally from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
The Times also reported that federal court records recently released showed yet another link to Russian financial interests in Trump businesses. A Bayrock official “brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians ‘in favor with’ President Vladimir V. Putin,’” the Times reported. “The Icelandic company, FL Group, was identified in a Bayrock investor presentation as a ‘strategic partner,’ along with Alexander Mashkevich, a billionaire once charged in a corruption case involving fees paid by a Belgian company seeking business in Kazakhstan; that case was settled with no admission of guilt.”
In fact, these peculiar financial arrangements are the reason why he fired Preet Bharara two months after promising to keep him as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York:
Another F.B.I. insider points out that while the media has focused on the investigation of possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign, there are actually multiple inquiries in progress. “There’s also a cyber investigation, about the hacking and whether crimes were committed,” he says. “And then there’s the business side: Was there money laundering going on? Money from these Russian plutocrats that’s been washed through Trump’s real estate and businesses? That’s gotten overlooked, but Preet Bharara and the Southern District were supposedly looking into that.” 
Laundering Russian oligarchs' money is a big deal as it has criminal ramifications. Such investments would show up in those returns. And who has them? Well the IRS.

I am keeping my fingers crossed for some judicious leaks in the coming months.

I also expect more of his shady deals to come under closer scrutiny, like the Trump Tower in Baku that was financed by companies linked to Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Citizens for Responsibility and ethics in Washington (CREW) sued Trump using the emolument clause. ACLU is also looking for a plaintiff with standing to launch its own lawsuit.

Regardless of their outcome, these efforts will force the Trump Organization to reveal many dubious arrangements and will seriously affect The Donald's ability to profit from the presidency.

Foreign entities who might be interested in paying a premium while buying Le Chateau des Palmiers at St Maarten in the hope of getting the president's ear might no longer be willing to do that if it carried the risk of attracting unwanted attention to their businesses.

Already the Kushners are finding out that Jared's new position, rather than being a boon, was making life harder for their company: They were in China seeking $150 million in investment and Nicole Kushner Meyer's mention of her brother set off a media storm which forced them to apologize and cancel their upcoming events in China.

Perhaps more importantly, these disclosures are likely to tarnish the Trump brand.

Right now, it stands for something brash, cocky and nouveau riche and it appeals to similarly predisposed people.

If it becomes synonymous with money laundering and shady dealings with criminal or tainted characters it will not be worth much.

Wall Street and Corporate America

Fox News is still feeding Hillary's mail servers line to its viewers (which is why they still love the Orange Man) and hardly mentions White House scandals.

But if Wall Street banks and funds turn against Trump, as they seem to be doing, News Corporation will no longer be able to maintain radio silence on Trump presidency disasters.
Through the various tremors of his first 100-odd days, Trump has frequently ignored various self-created headaches by pointing to the roaring stock market. It’s all he has to show for his time in office so far. But if he loses the support of Wall Street and the financial markets, one thing is sure: he can pretty much kiss his presidency good-bye.
Until recently Wall Street seemed unmoved by Trump's erratic behavior or the crises engulfing his Administration.

But this is changing. Financial Times noted that the markets placed 26 percent chance on Trump being impeached in 2017. And the odds of him staying until the end of 2018 are now 55 percent.

So 45 percent of contract buyers are predicting that he will be history in two-years time.

This is unprecedented.

Wall Street is fidgety. According to the New York Times,
“For the first time, there is real concern that Trump has overstepped his boundaries, which may create some chaos in the market,” said Curtis Schenker, co-founder of Scoggin Capital Management.
When it was reported that Trump asked Comey to shut down the Russia investigation:
The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index sank 1.8 percent, the most since September, and the VIX, Wall Street’s “fear gauge,” a measure of volatility, jumped 46 percent as investors became pessimistic about Mr. Trump’s agenda. 
VIX has long been very low and this spike is very unusual.

More worryingly for the Trump Administration,
Yet investors, who have shrugged off previous turmoil in the Trump administration, were clearly rattled by the most recent episode. Some on Wall Street speculated about whether the White House’s pro-business pledges to cut taxes, lighten regulation and increase infrastructure would be thwarted by the growing tumult in Washington. Some bank analysts even discussed the probability of impeachment.
What bothers Wall Street and corporate America is the fact that Trump White House will be unable to enact its legislative agenda. They expect a tax code reform, lighter regulations on financial transactions, a new health care bill that will be cheaper.

And it looks more and more that Trump will not be able to deliver.

The Orange Man is toast.

21 May 2017

Will Donald Trump Be Impeached?

Recently, I suggested that intelligence agencies (a.k.a the National Security State) were gunning for Donald Trump and I concluded that he was toast.

Since then you could see on an almost daily basis one crisis after another engulfing this administration.

In fact, this looks like the leakiest administration in US history. Every week there is a new scandal and all of them gain traction thanks to the way these revelations are fed to the corporate media.

The New York Times described it like this:
What unnerves Mr. Trump and his staff the most is the eerily familiar tempo of these disclosures. It is as if some unseen adversary has copied Mr. Trump’s own velocity and ferocity in an attempt to destroy him, several people close to the president said. Sources are shuttling all kinds of information about Mr. Trump to reporters at a pace the White House cannot match.
There is indeed an unseen adversary attempting to destroy him.

The Anatomy of a Trump Crisis

First step is a damaging piece of information shared by anonymous sources.

The White House scrambles to come up with a coherent message. Melissa McCarthy reads some talking points off a paper and Trump associates are dispatched into the wilderness with The Message.

But as soon as they get on Fox News or CNN with that meme, another piece of the puzzle is leaked to contradict their explanation.

Sooner or later, Trump gets on the twitter and offers a whole new line of defense, making his team look incompetent and dishonest and himself highly unhinged.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Take the last fiasco, namely the firing of James Comey and the sharing of codeword-classified intelligence with Russian minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

To get rid of Comey, the White House had asked the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to come up with a memo that indicated problems with Comey's leadership. Rosenstein dutifully prepared the document.

So the official reason for the dismissal was Comey not doing a good job as determined by his supervisor.

Nothing to do with the fact that he had just asked for more resources for the Trump-Russia investigation. Or the investigation itself.

As the White House was pushing that line, Trump bragged that it was his decision and nobody else's. That was because Comey was a showboat, he said. No one liked him.

Then, he showed up on a TV show to acknowledge that he fired him because of that Trump-Russia thing.

He added that he never interfered with the investigation. In a day or two, an earlier Comey memo surfaced indicating that Trump asked him to stop the Flynn Russia inquiry.

The day after the firing, Trump invited Lavrov and Kislyak to the White House with only the Russian media present. As Lavrov put it, "no fake media" referring to American journalists.

A couple of days later someone leaked to Washington Post that in that meeting, Trump disclosed highly classified information to the Russian.

White House issued a denial. National Security Adviser MacMaster declared that he was in the room and nothing like that happened.

As soon as the denials were issued, media outlets found out that Homeland security assistant to the president Thomas Bossert called the CIA and NSA after the meeting to warn them off the breach. In other words, it became clear that classified info was passed on.

To the Russians.

With deniability gone, Trump tweeted "yeah, I did it because I could."

This time anonymous sources mentioned that the disclosed intelligence came from Israel making Trump look especially bad, as both the conservatives and evangelicals for reasons of their own adore the Jewish State.

Trump took to Twitter to claim that the whole Russia affair was a made up story and there was never any contact between Russians and his campaign.

Next thing you know, the headlines informed us that there had been at least 18 undisclosed contacts between Russians and Trump campaign.

With nowhere to go, Trump doubled down and maintained that he never tried to stop the Russia investigation.

The following morning we learned that in the Lavrov, Kislyak meeting.Trump had told them this:
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
At that point, a senior White House staffer and a friend of Donald Trump who worked in his campaign put it like this: "I don't see how Trump isn't completely fucked."

Will He Be Impeached?

Even though I ended my last post on the subject with the verdict that the Orange Man was toast I don't think he will be impeached.

There are many good reasons for that.

Trump is not an ordinary politician.

He ran to prop up his brand and he really didn't expect to win. He won the GOP nomination because the field of candidates he faced were pitiful and CNN and Fox News gave him $2 billion worth of free media time.

And he won the elections due to the massive unpopularity of his opponent, the helping hand of anonymous hackers and above all because he legitimized institutionalized racism by giving up GOP dog whistles in favor of clearly racist statements.

Normally, a man who makes money by selling his name as a brand should not be in the polarization business, as he loses, by definition, half the market.

But Trump saw a clever way to turn this into a major business opportunity.

Here is the plan: Trump will give the GOP everything they want, like rolling back every piece of regulation enacted by Obama, appointing judges who think Scalia was a communist, undertaking yuge wealth transfer from the bottom to the top and taking away the health care plans of tens of millions of people.

In exchange, they will remain quiet about his gigantic conflicts of interest which will be translated into billions of dollars.

He doesn't have to do anything. Since he took office the whole family, including Ivanka and Kushner, have been doing very well and I am not even talking about the doubling of the annual dues for the Southern White House.
The White House has been a remarkable boon for the Trumps. Business, as they’ve noted, is hotter than ever. Ivanka Trump’s brand saw sales through the roof in February, and her new book debuted last week at No. 4 on The New York Times best-seller list. And the Kushners, whose name once evoked an image of an embarrassing political scandal now elevates them to one of the most powerful seats in the world. 
The president himself is not doing too badly either. Here is the most recent crib sheet of his conflicts of interest.

The Republicans were and still are very happy with that deal especially because Trump is and remains a popular president in the eyes of those who voted for him. Those mid-40s approval numbers that everyone cites as indicative of a problem actually correspond to his share of the popular vote in the election and there is hardly any buyer's remorse.

They proudly stand by their man.
Pew Research Center poll last month found minimal Trump voter remorse, only 7 percent. 
A subsequent Washington Post-ABC News poll found even fewer regretful Trump voters, 4 percent. In fact – wait for it – far more voters regretted casting their ballot for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, 15 percent.
You may be surprised to find out that,
In a hypothetical rematch of the November election, Trump easily defeats Clinton in the popular vote, 43 percent to 40 percent.
Moreover, the GOP is a tribal party. Unlike the Dems, they do not throw one of their own under the bus. As one blogger put it, for that to happen Trump would have to push hard for single payer health care policy.

High crimes and misdemeanors won't do.

And don't hold your breath for a Democratic Congress after 2018 doing something about it. First, it is not certain that they will take the House back with all the gerrymandering in place. Second, even if they did, impeachment requires a simple majority in the House and a two thirds majority in the Senate.

So my answer is that impeachment is highly unlikely.

In fact, if it wasn't for his stupid feud with intelligence agencies Trump might have been more or less OK.

But now I believe that he will not be able to finish his first term and he will have to resign at some point.

I will explain my thinking in my next post.

16 May 2017

US Decision to Arm Syrian Kurds and Erdogan's Losing Hand

Today two peas in a pod are meeting in Washington.

You might not be aware of it because not many news outlets will cover it.

The people in question are both paranoid, thin skinned and volatile personalities who rely on their son-in-law to run their respective countries.

I am talking about R. Tayyip Erdogan and Donald J Trump.

It will be a fun meeting especially since both men will be in a foul mood.

Trump must be fuming about the allegations that he disclosed highly classified information to Sergey Lavrov, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Sergey Kislyak, Russia's Ambassador to the US who had the good sense of timing their visit with the firing of Jim Comey, the guy overseeing the Russian connection.

Which was another yuge headache for the President.

Erdogan must be livid since, a week ago, while a high level Turkish delegation was in Washington trying to convince the Trump Administration not to arm Syrian Kurds, the White House announced that it was indeed going to provide a wide range of arms to Syrian Democratic Forces, a military coalition largely dominated by YPG, the military arm of PYD.

It was, not to mince words, a slap in the face.

Add to this the fact that they both need (and used) to be temperament fluffed and unlikely to do it to the other person, you have a promising setup.

When Trump called Erdogan after his dubious referendum victory -the only Western leader to do so- Erdogan must have thought that Trump would not arm Syrian Kurds. After all, even the Obama Administration refrained from doing so even though there was open hostility between the two leaders, especially during Obama's second term.

But there are good reasons why the Trump Administration decided to provide heavy arms, armoured vehicles and construction equipment to Syrian Kurds.

And most of them are Erdogan's own doing.

Unintended Consequences of Destroying Your Own Army

As I noted recently, after two successive purges the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is a shadow of its former self. With a ridiculously low cockpit seat to pilot ratio, its air force is incapable of providing air support to its own troops.

It took TSK six months to take a small town called al-Bab and it lost a record number of soldiers in the process.

By way of comparison, in same time frame, the Syrian Kurdish forces managed to take back quite a bit of territory from ISIS, including al-Shaddadi and Manbij. And recently, Tabqa, which is 50km from Raqqa.

Consequently, the Pentagon has completely written off TSK and by extension Turkish proposals to try to take Raqqa the Syrian capital of ISIS, without Kurdish involvement.
Ankara proposes to contribute Turkish special forces to the Raqqa operation, to persuade the United States to give up its cooperation with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkish special forces are currently performing coordination, reconnaissance and target-acquisition actions at al-Bab and supposedly could contribute 150-200 personnel to the Raqqa operation.

After al-Bab is captured, selected elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could be deployed to Raqqa.

Arab personnel of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be separated from the YPG elements that constitute the core of that force, and a 10,000-strong army could be set up with those redeployed from al-Bab.
However, these plans were met with open derision.
And when Turkey presented its plans for the Raqqa assault to Washington, military officers and Defense Department officials came away unimpressed. “That’s not something that passed the rigor of the Pentagon,” a former Obama administration official told FP.
There is more.

Towards the end of April Erdogan ordered an airstrike on YPG forces.

The US reaction was swift. After declaring that they were extremely concerned they simply moved American troops into the area controlled by YPG signalling to Turkey that bombing YPG carried the risk of harming US military personnel and therefore US-Turkey relations.

Your Enemy Is My Friend and Your Friends Are My Enemy

Erdogan has a bigger problem.

His enemies are the Kurds and the Syrian regime. His friends are the Sunni extremists. His hidden support to ISIS is well known. He provided them with arms (purchased with Saudi and Qatari funds), logistical support and he pursued an open border policy which allowed ISIS to get supplies, new recruits and free hospital services.

He openly allied himself to Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front (which recently became Fatah al Sham Front) and other Sunni groups in Syria.

As I have been saying since 2013, the aim of the Sunni coalition behind him was to establish a Sunni corridor in Iraq and Syria (that I dubbed Pipelineistan) to transport Qatari natural gas to Europe, an energy market of half a trillion euro a year.

That is why ISIS became Islamic State, the first and only terrorist organization in history to establish a state.

Russia, as the current supplier of that market is prepared to do anything to prevent that from happening. A Kurdish state in Northern Syria would make Pipelineistan a pipe dream.

The US doesn't like Assad much but Sunni terrorism is a much bigger priority than ousting him. And battle hardened Kurds are an invaluable asset on the ground for that purpose.

Consequently, for Russia and the US, the equation is the other way around. They are gunning for ISIS and Sunni terrorists and they rely on Kurds. And while Russia actively props up the Assad government, the US (especially the Trump Administration) has no longer any problem with Assad staying in power.

All of which tells you that Erdogan is squeezed between Russia and the US with no ability to play one against the other. Both countries seem to use largely overlapping playbooks. Kurds good, ISIS bad.

You can see this on the ground.

In March, Russia declared that they were going to train YPG forces even though they are ostensibly US allies. And they did this despite an open Turkish plea to dissuade them from helping Syrian Kurds. At the end of March they had a sizeable deployment in Afrin.

The aim seems to be to establish a de facto ceasefire between Turkey and YPG. Kremlin knows that after the downing of a Russian jet and the killing of a pilot Turkey can ill afford the accidental death of a Russian soldier.

Then on 2 May Russia announced that it was building two more military bases in Kurdish-held territory.

More significantly, when TSK began pounding YPG positions in Afrin with Howitzers a Russian convoy was moved there to protect them from Turkish aggression.

The map above is actually an app designed to update the Syrian theatre on an hourly basis. According to the events listed there, the Americans began patrolling the Syrian Turkish border after the late April bombing. They were occasionally accompanied by YPG soldiers.

Since May it is the Russian troops doing the same. In fact, Turkish media reported that on 10 and 11 May Russian flags appeared in Afrin region.

This is partly because Erdogan and his surrogates were dropping hints about an accidental bombing of US troops embedded in Kurdish forces.
If Kurdish militias “go too far, our forces would not care if American armor is there, whether armored carriers are there,” Cevik said during an interview on Turkish radio station CRI TURK Wednesday. “All of a sudden, by accident, a few rockets can hit them,” he said, referring to US forces.
Russian answer was to declare the territory as theirs by hoisting their flag. It is a "go ahead, make my day" move.

But the real reason might be the heavy Turkish military build up in Sanliurfa a border town in southeastern Turkey.
Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks and military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency reported that the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 30 miles from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.
Basically both the US and Russia realized that Erdogan was desperate enough to make a move in Syria to create his own safe zone in the Kurdish controlled areas.

And they both said over our dead bodies.

Symbolically at least, Russia is now Turkey's northern and southern neighbor.

Safe Zones, What Safe Zones?

Ever since the Syrian civil war began, Erdogan has been calling for safe zones. Donald Trump declared his intention of creating very great and very beautiful safe zones in Syria. But somehow, Erdogan was not giddy.

That's because he was hoping that Turkey would control those areas and could use them to harass Syrian Kurds and prevent them from establishing an autonomous region.

It turned out that the American safe zones were a lot like the Russian safe zones. They were there to provide Kurds with autonomy.

In fact the Russians went a step further and got Turkey to join the Astana process. The three guarantor states Russia, Iran and Turkey meet in Astana, Kazakhstan and they let Syrian groups discuss a solution. You can already see how the deck is stacked against Erdogan. Sunni Turkey is working with Iran. Imagine how this would look in the region. Nato member Turkey is working with Russia. Why worry?

From a Turkish perspective it makes no sense to be part of a process where two countries out of three are siding with your declared enemies and they do not like you at all as they have nothing to gain from you.

Tellingly, the US was invited to join and they said, thanks we will observe from a distance.

On 3 and 4 May they met again in Astana in Kazakhstan and decided to create four de-escalation zones where no military activities would be allowed. It is a meaningless resolution as it is binding only for Turkey. Russia is already there and if its troops did something who is going to stop them?

Similarly, if the local thugs broke the ceasefire who is going to punish them?

But if Erdogan moved Turkish troops into these areas there would be hell to pay.

As I mentioned at the outset, the day after the Orange Man fired his "showboat" FBI Director Jim Comey, Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were at the White House to explain these safe zones to the Orange Man.

Meeting With #The Real Donald J Trump

Given The Donald's thin skin, his inability to receive briefing and his unexpected brain farts no one knows what will happen in today's meeting with Erdogan.

Since he signed off on arming the Syrian Kurds Turkish pundits expect a low key affair.

Having painted himself into a corner, Erdogan has a lot to lose but so does businessman Donald Trump. His name on two buildings in Istanbul brings him roughly $6 million a year. He might be tempted to come up with an unscripted offer.

This is not just idle speculation. The YPG deal was pushed by the new National Security Adviser General McMaster.

Apparently, the knives are out for H.R. McMaster to use an actual title from Foreign Policy. Bannon is trying to push him out or neutralizing him.

So I interpret Lavrov's visit last week as Putin's way of bringing The Donald up to speed. In the end Putin is da Man.

My guess is that Trump will say something about the need to keep Kurds in check, his desire to work with a Nato ally or similar platitudes that pro-Erdogan media can repeat for many news cycles.

But the reality on the ground will not change.

Because for the first time in their history, Kurds bought two insurance policies and they got lucky that Trump became POTUS.

08 May 2017

Trump Effect in French Elections and Macron's Governance Problem

To everyone's relief, Macron resoundingly defeated Le Pen. 66 percent to her 34 percent is quite convincing.

I think it would be fair to point to the Trump effect in all this.

On the morning of November 9, Americans who went to bed early thinking Clinton had won, groaned with disbelief that a racist, misogynist buffoon with a serious narcissistic personality disorder was the new President.

Especially those who voted for him because of their disgust of Clinton were shocked.

The first time we saw the Trump effect in play was in the Netherlands. While Mark Rutte was greatly helped by Turkish President Erdogan, Trump was the looming figure that prevented people from voting for Geert Wilders.

One remarkable thing about French presidential elections was the low participation and the record number of blank ballots.

Normally, for presidential elections, participation hovers around the 80 to 85 percent mark.

This time it was 74 percent, the lowest since 1969. And it would have been lower had it not been the Trump effect.

I know some people who cancelled planned trips to vote (and, for the most part, reluctantly) for Macron just to avoid a nasty surprise.

What is even more remarkable is the fact that 11.5 percent of the voters went to the polls to cast a blank vote, an all time record in French elections. That's more than 4 million voters who were angry enough to leave their homes to cast a vote for nobody.

Ballot blanc has a long history of protest, going back to the French Revolution. The turnout figures include these votes as well. It you deduct them from the final tally, the results do not look that spectacular anymore.

He has a clear mandate but it is not as solid as it looks.

In that sense, he has his work cut out for him.

Can He Govern?

As I mentioned before, Macron does not have a political party.

His En Marche (EM), a name obviously chosen to reflect his initials, is a political grouping. And it was formed a year ago when he left Hollande's cabinet to pursue his presidential ambitions.

The next legislative elections are just a month away: 11 and 18 June.

Emmanuel Macron has to find 577 candidates and field them in that time frame. To make it more difficult for him he vowed that half of the candidates will be fresh faces, people with little or no political experience largely selected from 14,000 CVs sent by mail.

No, I am not kidding, I am quoting the BBC.

No one believes that he can get an absolute majority (280 MPs). Early polls show his movement to win 24 percent in the first round with Front National and the Republicans 22 percent each just behind En Marche.

Since EM has to form a party structure, a campaign apparatus and select and coordinate 577 candidate I doubt that it would ever get close to that figure. I think the polls reflect the afterglow of his victory. Besides there are no polls for the runoff or any distribution of seats.

And the French system heavily favors the big established parties.

Obviously, a lot could happen between now and June 11 but the fact that he has no structure in place and no list of candidates are not a good sign.

One thing he might do would be to select someone like Christine Lagarde, the current head of IMF, as his Prime Minister. That would add to his current momentum as she is popular and considered a highly intelligent and competent woman. And she is an outsider as she never held an elected office.

But most people believe that he will go with Francois Bayrou, the centrist politician and perennial presidential candidate. In 2017, instead of running for President, he endorsed Macron, giving him an early boost.

Bayrou has also a constituency. In the 2007 presidential elections he was third behind Hollande and Sarkozy with 18.5 percent of the vote.

And critically, he has a party structure in place.

It would make a lot of sense for EM to form an electoral alliance with Bayrou's Mouvement Démocratique or MoDem with a view to create a coalition after the legislative elections.

And who knows, together they might become the largest group in Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the Parlement Français, eclipsing the Republicans.

I think it is unlikely but if that happens, Macron will have pulled another rabbit out of his hat.

07 May 2017

Airline Incidents and the Militarization of Air Travel

You probably remember that about a month ago, United Airlines violently ejected a 69 year old physician, knocking two front teeth and breaking his nose in the process. He was a paying customer with a valid boarding pass.

At first, their CEO issued a statement praising the crew for adhering to corporate policies and described the passenger as disruptive and belligerent.

But when a video emerged with the bloodied face of an elderly men being carried by four security personnel United realized that they had a problem.

Their next move was to start a negative PR campaign about the victim. Several online sites dredged up his past.

When that backfired on social media, the CEO Oscar Munoz, who makes $20 million a year ($6.7 salary and $14 bonus) apologized only after it became known that his actions made United lose a cool billion dollars of its market value in one day.

The process shows how common these occurrences are and how the airlines expect us to behave. And how arrogant they have become.

If it wasn't the video of Dr. Dao being dragged out of the plane the media would still have been mum about how the traveling experience changed and little freedom we now have.

At the airport, they can grab your genitals, they can confiscate your baby milk, they can ask mastectomy patients to undergo invasive pat downs, they can search your laptop or smartphone without warrants and they can confiscate them with no recourse.

And if you dare to object or protest, heaven help you. Airports became military camps where strict discipline and hierarchy is the norm. They order, you obey, regardless of how unreasonable the request is.

It is not a bad apples situation as they claim but a very common and constantly growing problem because it stems from a self-sustaining dynamic.

Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment? They placed some students in charge of others and within days, the guards began to attribute criminal motives to the inmates and they felt OK subjecting them to violence and psychological torture. For their part, the bulk of the prisoners did not object and complied with increasingly harsher behavior of the guards.

This is what is happening in air travel.

One of the best illustration of the new rules was provided by a video that emerged on 21 April. An American Airlines male flight attendant violently yanked a baby stroller from a woman travelling with two toddlers and hit her with it in the process, narrowly missing one of the babies.

He took the stroller off the plane with no explanation.

When the clip starts we see the woman sobbing uncontrollably as she is not sure what happened. The pilot is looking at her indifferently, there is a female flight attendant who is saying something to the mother and her body language is that of a school principal.

Other passengers are cowed and they behave like primates avoiding eye contact with the alpha male. A guy emerges from the bathroom looking annoyed about the disruption but not looking in the direction of the incident.
A male passenger can then be seeing standing up from his seat and asking, “What’s the guy’s name that did that with the stroller? I want to know the guy’s name that did that with the stroller.”

He then asked if the man was an American Airlines employee before he sat down again.

Some time later, the attendant could be seen coming back on the plane and being confronted by the passenger who stood up.

“Hey bud, hey bud – you do that to me and I’ll knock you flat,” he said, pointing at the attendant. 
“You stay out of this,” the attendant responded, pointing back at the passenger.

The passenger then stepped out of his seat once again and approached the attendant, confronting him directly.

“Hit me – come on – hit me,” the attendant could be heard saying on the video.

“You don’t know what the story is,” the attendant said later.

“I don’t care what the story is, you almost hurt a baby,” the passenger responded.
The passenger adds that the whole incident is being taped.

This is clever on his part, because without that video, the passenger would have been escorted off the plane and arrested by the airport authorities.

If you think this is a one off, another recent incident showed how militaristic airport personnel and airline attendants have become.

On 23 April, Delta Airline ejected a family off a red-eye flight from Maui to Los Angeles to make room for a standby passenger from an overbooked flight and threatened them with jail time if they didn't comply.
During the exchange, an employee tells father Brian Schear that, according to Federal Aviation Authority regulations, his 2-year-old “cannot sit in the car seat . . . He has to sit in your arms the whole time.” Not only does this statement contradict all FAA policy, but Delta’s own website encourages customers to buy separate seats for young children and to use child-safety restraint systems, car seats included. (...)
Later in the video, a crew member tells Schear that his family has indeed been ejected from the plane for failure to comply. “That will be a federal offense and you and your wife will be in jail and your kids will be in foster care.”
The video clip of the incident went viral and then promptly removed from Youtube but you can see it here.

There is more.
Despite Mr Schear later relenting and agreeing to hold the child, the crew member tells him the family was being removed from the plane because "it's come too far".
When he responds that there is nowhere for his family, including two infants, to go and no more flights, the crew member can be heard saying: "You guys are on your own."
Think about it for a second.

You were asked to pay for a seat for your baby, you did it. Once seated, you were asked to hold that baby for an entire night on your lap so that the seat you paid for could be given to another passenger.

You object, they threaten you with jail and taking away your kids.

You relent and agree to hold that baby for long hours and they tell you that it is too late and they drop you off in the middle of an empty airport with no flight in sight.

You have no rights when you travel anymore.

And the airline will only say sorry or compensate you if there is a video of the incident.

Case in point. Around the same time, EasyJet forced a couple off a flight in the UK. Even though the next flight was four days later and they were entitled to compensation, EasyJet shrugged it off.

No video, no admission of guilt because this happens all the time.

This couple was lucky because of the timing of the incident and the media picked up their story forcing EasyJet to apologize.

I doubt that any compensation was offered.

This shows how bad things are:
The Department of Homeland Security is investigating allegations that U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency officers at Newark Airport have been subjected to sexually abusive hazing by veteran officers, including the duct-taping of victims to a "rape table."

"I’m afraid for my life, my safety," CBP officer Diana Cifuentes told the NBC 4 New York I-Team in an exclusive interview about the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of fellow officers. "This is terrorizing. How is it that officers believe they’re free to do whatever they want to do?"
Good question. Indeed, how is that they believe they are free to do whatever they want to do?

04 May 2017

French Elections: Will Le Pen Macron debate Affect the Results?

I normally avoid watching electoral debates. They are highly scripted matches designed to let politicians to insert a well rehearsed zinger to be used by the corporate as the next morning's soundbite.

I decided to make an exception for this one and I watched most of last night's debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

It was an interesting set up as the two candidates sat at a round table across from one another. Lectern and lecturing was put aside for a more confrontational setting. The two journalists were mostly ignored by the candidates.

Marine Le Pen looked and sounded like a schoolyard bully. It was clear that she was there to belittle and provoke Macron. This strategy largely backfired because he remained calm and managed to frame her as a serial liar who is covering up her lack of distinct policies by exploiting people's fears.

Whereas Macron explained in simple and clear terms his policies if elected, Le Pen hurled some insults, sniggered sarcastically and tried to brand him as the puppet of global banking interests.

Sounds familiar?

Nasty woman beholden to Wall Street. (There and here it is dog whistle for Jews.)

Oh, she also insisted that she was the only one who could make France great again.

Although Mr Trump has not formally met the French presidential candidate, she is close to some of the same advisers who helped craft the president's populist message during his campaign last year and was spotted in Trump Tower during the presidential transition in January.
In fact, the "so what about your offshore account?" question at the end of the debate came from an alt-right American site. And Breitbart had been an early supporter.

In any event, France is not US and people didn't overlook the fact that despite a pile of notes she consulted constantly, she made several mistakes about the economy, the euro and policy decisions allegedly made by Macron. 19 in total, according to Le Monde.

He, on the other hand, did not seem to have any notes, corrected her facts from memory and made her look incompetent and out of her depth. In short, he looked presidential, she didn't.

This morning's polls declared Macron the clear winner.

Not bad for a front runner who had everything to lose and not much to gain from this debate.

But is it enough for him to win this Sunday?

As I explained recently, if people go to the polls he will win and last night's success would be icing on the cake. If they don't, she has a decent shot.

There are indications that Melenchon supporters will simply not vote for Macron and therefore they will sit this one out. Since he received roughly 7 million votes, we are talking about game changing numbers.
About 450,000 of his supporters were asked to say whether they would abstain, spoil their ballots or support Emmanuel Macron in the second round runoff this Sunday. Voting for the other candidate, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen, was not an option.
Do you know what they said?
The results, released on Tuesday afternoon, showed that of more than 243,000 Mélenchon supporters who responded, 87,818 (36.1%) intended to spoil their vote, 84,682 (34.8%) planned to support Macron and 70,628 (29%) would not turn out for the second round. The figures suggest a total of 65% will not vote for Macron.
These results are in line with anecdotal evidence I have been hearing.

I have zero digital footprint but my French friends who are on social media tell me that Melenchon voters actively bait Macron voters to ridicule them and to push their message that the two candidates are exactly the same.

So Melenchon is Ralph Nader to Macron's Al Gore.

Good move. We all know how well that turned out.