November 15, 2016
BEIRUT â€" On Sept. 17, U.S., British, Danish and Australian warplanes attacked a Syrian military base in Deir ez-Zor that had been holding out against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) for months. The U.S.-led coalitionâ€™s airstrikes killed at least 62 Syrian troops before a frantic Russian officer called U.S. officials to tell them they were hitting the Syrian military and not ISIS. The coalition called off the airstrikes; minutes later, ISIS fighters launched an assault and seized the base.
The U.S. military immediately went into damage control mode, apologizing to the Syrian government, through Russian intermediaries, and U.S. military sources even tried to plant a story that the troops were conscripted prisoners instead of regular soldiers. (Since the Syrian army is almost all conscripts, fighting closely with paramilitaries and irregulars, that distinction doesnâ€™t mean much.)
But it was too late: On Sept. 22, in an interview with the Associated Press, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad suggested the U.S. had coordinated its airstrike with ISIS fighters waiting nearby. â€œThe ISIS troops attacked right away after the American strike,â€ Assad told the interviewer with his usual self-assured calm. â€œHow could they know that the Americans are going to attack that position in order to gather their militants to attack right away and to capture it one hour after the strike?â€
It was classic war-on-terror rhetoric â€" former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld used the same logic in 2003 to insinuate that the Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite channel was in league with Iraqi insurgents. Assadâ€™s implication was clear: The United States and ISIS were secretly working together to overthrow the Syrian government. This idea is widely believed across the Middle East, by people of all political persuasions. â€œThe U.S. wants ISIS to take Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor,â€ Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech on Oct. 11 in Beirut. â€œWhy is the U.S. being generous to the Nusra Front and ISIS? Simply because the times of geopolitical servitude are still upon us.â€
For the U.S. government, the defining question of the Syrian conflict, for more than five years, has been whether or not to intervene, and how. This is the question that moderators ask U.S. presidential candidates to answer at debates; it is the dilemma that has launched 1,001 op-eds and think tank papers; it is the debate that all Americans who follow the news from Syria are having with each other.
Yet all this deliberation over a theoretical American intervention against Assad is obscuring two central facts. First, the United States already has intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict. The U.S. campaign pales in comparison to the scale of military intervention by Russia and Iran. But in the name of the war on terror, the U.S. military and its allies have been bombing Assadâ€™s enemies in ISIS â€" and any civilians or Syrian troops who happen to get in the way â€" for two years now.
As of Oct. 25, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS had carried out 5,616 airstrikes in Syria, the vast majority of them by U.S. warplanes. In the two years since it intervened in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition has killed 6,295 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based Syrian watchdog group that monitors casualties from all sides in the Syrian conflict. The Observatory calculates that at least 642 of those killed â€" about one in 10 â€" were civilians. â€œWe strongly condemn targeting civilians anywhere, under any pretext and at any time by the international coalition and these parties,â€ wrote the Syrian Observatory. â€œThe Observatory also renews its call to spare the civilians from any military action on Syrian soil.â€
So far, the U.S. military has acknowledged a handful of incidents that killed at least nine civilians inside Syria, including one strike in 2015 that killed two children. But it has yet to release the results of an investigation into airstrikes it conducted around Manbij, in the Aleppo Governorate, this summer that observers believe killed more than 100 civilians. In a new analysis released Oct. 26, Amnesty International studied just 11 attacks, including the ones around Manbij, and found credible evidence that 300 civilians had been killed. The total number of civilian deaths from all coalition attacks, Amnesty warned, â€œcould be as high as 600 or more than 1,000.â€
From the early days of the Syrian uprising, President Barack Obamaâ€™s administration has called for Assad to step down. The administrationâ€™s position is that the only way to reach a political settlement in Syria is to remove Assad and his family from power. Yet despite this bluster, Washington did little to counter Assadâ€™s initial crackdown against the peaceful uprising. The U.S. government has provided funding, weapons and logistical support to a number of groups inside Syria, both armed and unarmed. But on the ground, the U.S. and Syrian militaries are not fighting each other. Instead, they are both engaged in simultaneous military campaigns against the same enemy.
The U.S. intervention in Syria falls under Operation Inherent Resolve, a military campaign by the Combined Joint Task Force, a coalition of 14 countries set up by the Obama administration in late 2014. In July 2016, the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS began to coordinate with the Syrian-Russian campaign against ISIS, through the U.S. militaryâ€™s limited cooperation with Russia.
â€œRussians and Americans have agreed to freeze the current situation so that the two military powers can carry on their endless war against terror,â€ wrote a group of 157 Syrian writers, artists, journalists and thinkers in a joint statement, released in late September, denouncing both Russian and U.S. intervention in Syria. â€œAt least since 2013, these two powers have been working to co-opt the Syrian liberation struggle under the rubric of the â€˜war against terror.â€™ This is a war that has failed to score a single success since its outset, and has led instead to the destruction of a number of countries.â€
U.S. soldiers delivering relief supplies to Syrian opposition forces â€" Photo: U.S. DoD
By allowing Assad to effectively outsource the battle against ISIS, the U.S.-led bombing campaign has freed up Syrian and Russian firepower for fighting other groups inside Syria â€" including the very groups that the U.S.supports. If the U.S. military intervention has helped any of the players in the Syrian conflict, it has probably been more to Assadâ€™s benefit than to any of the opposition groups the U.S. government officially supports.
This kind of tacit mutual cooperation between the American and Syrian governments is not new. In 1989, a peace deal brokered by Saudi Arabia installed the Syrian regime, with Americaâ€™s blessing, as the guarantor of peace in Lebanon. When General Michel Aoun â€" then the army commander and now unveiled as Lebanonâ€™s new president â€" refused to accept Syrian hegemony, and declared himself the true president of Lebanon, the U.S. and Syria responded in concert: Syria bombed Aoun out of the presidential palace, and U.S. officials kicked Aounâ€™s ambassador out of the Lebanese Embassy in Washington, calling the Syrian-dominated Lebanese government â€œan essential ingredient to United States foreign policy in the Middle East.â€
In 1991, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, Hafez al-Assad, Syriaâ€™s president at the time, signed on to the George H.W. Bush administrationâ€™s â€œcoalition of the willing,â€ which was intended to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. In exchange for his support, Assad gained full dominion over Lebanon. The cooperation continued under President Bill Clintonâ€™s administration, when Washington shepherded negotiations for a peace agreement between the Assad government and Israel. They came close to signing a deal before negotiations collapsed.
When Bashar al-Assad took power in mid-2000 following his fatherâ€™s death, the George W. Bush administration, which took power in 2001, maintained intelligence contacts with the Syrian government. After the September 11 attacks in the U.S., that relationship blossomed into full-fledged security cooperation over the â€œwar on terror.â€
In theory, this cooperation was intended to combat al-Qaida and other militant groups. In practice, it resulted in shameful episodes like the â€œextraordinary renditionâ€ of Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian software engineer whom the American government kidnapped, on the basis of faulty intelligence linking him to al-Qaida, and delivered to Syria to be tortured. (Arar was exonerated, became a human rights activist, and now runs a tech start-up that connects millenials with charities like Amnesty International.)
The â€œwar on terrorâ€ has been a golden opportunity for autocrats all over the world, including Assad. A key part of the Syrian governmentâ€™s rationale for its relentless bombing is that it is fighting â€œterroristsâ€ â€" a term it routinely uses, as does the U.S. military, to describe most of the civilians killed in the course of its bombing campaigns.
One month after the airstrike that killed the Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor, the U.S.-led coalition carried out six strikes using warplanes and drones, against â€œISIL terroristsâ€ in Syria. Among the targets they â€œengaged withâ€ were six oil tanker trucks; an oil pump jack; four ISIS supply routes; an ISIS tactical unit. Near Raqqa, one strike destroyed two oil pump jacks.
Among the â€œISIL terroristsâ€ killed in the airstrikes was a child named Borsan Nasr Al Borsan, along with his entire family, and several members of a neighboring family, according to the independent Syria watchdog group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which monitors killings by ISIS as well as by the coalition. â€œMay God release our people of Raqqa and Syria,â€ wrote one commentator in Arabic on the Facebook page where visitors left messages of condolence and outrage.
This, too, was clearly a mistake. Yet so far, no presidents, from Syria or anywhere else, have commented on the child or his fate. No U.S. presidential candidates have been asked to answer, in any presidential debates or press interviews, questions about why this happened, or what they might be planning to do to stop it from happening again.
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Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
Yip Wing Sum
October 16, 2021
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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