War In Syria Blows Kurdish Question Wide Open

A Syrian Kurdish man protests against Bashar al-Assad
A Syrian Kurdish man protests against Bashar al-Assad
Francesca Paci

CEYLANPINAR - "Is the tea good? It comes from those houses over there." Ramaazen adds sugar to the already sweet drink, pointing at a line of dwellings on the far side of the barbed wire.

On this side of the border is Ceylanpinar, a mostly Kurdish town of 45,000 people. It is the farthest outpost of the arid, culturally conservative southeastern part of Turkey. On the other side is its twin city Ras al Ayn, Syrian in name but no longer in fact.

Since Assad's forces began to concentrate on Aleppo, the Kurdish minority in Syria has taken control of some of the northern provinces, including that of Ras al Ayn, which its new government calls Serekani. From here, you only have to call out and the people on the other side will reply with a Kurdish greeting, "Bi xatire te!"

"Three months ago, the Turkish army militarized the border. First, they gave us a ton of stuff. In Syria they were mainly getting pillows and pots," says the 40-year-old Ramaazen, sitting in the garden of Ougretmenevi, the teachers' house for the Atatürk Middle School, of which he is the principal.

His colleagues, Edip and Mehemet, are playing tawle, the local take on backgammon. They comment on the Turkish-Syrian ripostes. "To fire back was a mistake. Who knows, it could even have been the rebels who threw the grenades to drag us into the war."

Not that the inhabitants of Ceylanpinar are hostile to the revolt against Damascus. “The Syrians want their rights. They are right," reflects Alì, leaving the Kraln internet cafe.

His friend Safi, a tour operator, says: "Until two years ago, my uncles in Ras al Ayn lived in very bad conditions. They didn't even have their papers." But having watched from their balconies as the Syrian revolt degenerated into civil war, Ramaazen, Edip, Mehemet, and the others prefer to believe in the third-party bet of their cousins on the other side, rather than in Assad or the Syrian rebels, who are supported by the detested Turkish central government.

"The Syrian crisis could bring one of Turkey's worst nightmares to life," notes analyst Mehmet Ali Birand. By this, he means the birth of a large Kurdish state along Turkey's southeast border, where most of the country's 12 million Kurds live. The possibility exists because of the convergence of parallel historical events: There is a power vacuum in the north of Syria. Kurds have political autonomy in Iraq, where Ankara is attempting to restart trade. And Tehran is stoking anti-Turkish sentiment in Iran's northwest.

"We and the people of Ras al Ayn are the same family. We want to stay here, in the place where we live, but also to be free to move from one place to the other without barriers," explains Sertac, a merchant, whilst walking down the main street of the town, lined with all-male cafés and women veiled with purple scarves.

Independence or autonomy

Would this mean independence? "I don't know how to answer that," he says. The vision of a separate nation, which Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK (Party of Kurdish Workers) considers “dated,” no longer entices the Kurds, the world’s most numerous people without their own country.

There are 30 million Kurds who were divided among Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey since World War I, when the Ottoman Empire broke up, and never reunited. The functioning model of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan is a much better bet.

The Turkish initiative, unfortunately for the locals, has more to do with internal politics than with the Arab Spring, of which Erdogan is also an emblem. Behind Ankara's hard-line attitude to its old friend Assad, looms the Kurdish question, used by both over the years as a threat and a bargaining tool.

For ten years, Hafez Assad protected the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK, which today is on the EU's and U.S."s lists of terrorist organizations. In 1998, the prospect of a Turkish invasion finally made him desist. The thawing relationship between the two nations was marked by Damascus with a stepped-up hunt for the already invisible Kurds.

The anti-regime revolt that began in March 2011 threw the chess board into confusion, with Erdogan devoted to the cause of the rebels, and the Syrian president returning to "tactical cooperation" with the PKK, a temporary anti-Turk alliance which Assad denies, but which has been confirmed by a report by the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank. The developments have been observed with anger and discomfiture by Turkish Kurds.

"We want peace. The proof is that here, where we are all Kurds, the grenades are not falling as they are in Hatay," says Abdullah, an office worker, as he chooses notebooks for his eight school-age children in the Simsek stationery store.

Certainly Aisha, her mother Aklimé and her grandmother Gulsem, three generations who live together in a brick and metal house a few steps from the barbed wire, swear they hear shots every evening, and often see desperate people running as fast as they can toward the border full of soldiers.

But in this remote city, where for three years Ankara has been sending courageous teachers who want to win points, the atmosphere is relaxed. There is nothing here like the nightly wails of terrified children in Ackakale.

"The Kurdish movement in Syria is historical. It is their political coming of age," confirms the founder of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, Mustafa Gundogdu.

It is not a coincidence that Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan and guest at the most recent party congress of the Turkish premier, is busy trying to federate the various rival groups of Syrian Kurds. Ankara is not happy. Since the beginning of the year, the guerrilla war against Kurdish rebels in eastern Turkey has killed almost 700 people, both Turkish soldiers and rebels. A hundred have died in the past month alone.

And now the war in Syria, far from subsiding, is threatening to cross the border.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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