The political year that was

| January 12, 2015

Last year saw a range of worrying political and military activities worldwide. Binoy Kampmark predicts that this year is bound to follow the rhythm of violence and tumult that came in 2014.

2014 was, in some ways, more horrid in its range of political and military activities than that of 2013. The Syrian conflict continued to be a corpse producing machine, with over 200,000 noted to date. Other conflicts sprung up. The dispute in Ukraine exploded, with anti-government protesters making strides in February in what became the Euromaidan Revolution.

The issue here was pictured as a matter of extreme alternatives: either the government in Kiev sign the association agreement with the European Union, one that could effectively limit Russian associated interests; or stay the course with Moscow, thereby shutting the door to Europe and potentially closer ties with Brussels. Premier Viktor Yanukovych baulked and refused to sign the agreement.

While the pro-Ukrainian case was made in Kiev, the pro-Russian case was being fanned in the south-east provinces of the country. In a matter of months, a coup had been staged in Kiev, one viewed with enthusiasm in the capitals of Poland, Germany, France and the United States, with Yanukovych fleeing to the pro-Russian provinces. Moscow argued that the new government in Kiev had a fascist element to it.

Pro-Russian activists, in retaliation, busied themselves in the Donetsk. Government buildings were taken. Efforts are made to create unsanctioned anti-Kiev “republics”. But most significantly, Russia moved in to secure its interests in the Black Sea, with the Republic of Crimea running a referendum, and, on the basis of the overwhelming result, making it secede to Russia. In March, Crimea was formally annexed, to much fanfare from the Putin regime.

In retaliation, the European Union, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions, arguing that the Crimean annexation was illegal in international law. Such a move has had a drastic effect, not merely on Russia’s economic performance, but that of those with extensive business interests in Russia. Germany, most notably, has suffered.

The Ukrainian conflict had another international implication. Malaysian Airliners flight MH 17 was shot down over the contested territory of Donbass of Ukraine on July 17, ostensibly by a Buk surface-to-air missile system operated by Russian separatists. All 283 passengers and 15 crew members were killed. The Dutch Safety Board is currently involved in investigation the matter, with findings scheduled to be released in August.

The government of Australia’s Tony Abbott suggested that it knew in advance of any inquiry that Moscow had a hand in it, having ostensibly supplied the rebels with the Buk equipment. Moscow suggested that a plane may have been involved in shooting down the flight. The Ukrainian government denied being involved, though the issue of international aviation requires air control to be mindful of allowing air craft to travel through conflict zones. Efforts were made to secure the crash site, one that proved problematic given the prevailing conflict between Ukrainian forces and separatists.

As for Malaysian Airlines, the shooting down of Flight MH17 added to the woes of MH370, a flight which disappeared with all crew and passengers on March 8 over the Indian Ocean. The continued inability of an international effort to secure the remains of the flight prompted claims of cover-ups and conspiracy. In what added to a horror year in air travel, the South-east Asian aviation routes received another blow with the loss of an Indonesia AirAsia passenger jet, seeing the loss of 162 people on December 28.

The calendar seemed to be overly populated with incidents related to the exploits of fundamentalist Islamic movements. Boko Haram continued to make headlines in Nigeria, targeting schools and engaging in a highly publicised abduction of school children at Chibok in April. Australia also bore witness to a much smaller terrorist related event, the hostage situation in the Lindt chocolate café on December 15. The lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, was killed along with two hostages in the subsequent attack, placing Sydney on the global security map.

International history seemed to repeat itself in the year with the spectacular gains made by forces inspired by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known variously as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or simply as Islamic State. A formidable Sunni-inspired outfit operating with vast resources, it made gains in Syria and northern Iraq, initiating a range of effectively gruesome killings of groups, brutal Sharia inspired punishments, while also initiating a radical program of fundamentalist cleansing, destroying monuments and artefacts of rival sects.

The response to such gains was framed as a humanitarian one, but increasingly, it looked like the old forces of the coalition of the willing were retracing their faulty steps. The United States, Britain and Australia found themselves sending troops to the area again, even as the regime in Iraq risked folding. Furthermore, funding and arms have been provided to other groups, such as the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, which may well redraw the Middle Eastern map.

The consequence of the surge of the Islamic State prompted debate in various countries on how to deal with the phenomenon of returning radicalised soldiers. Legislation of an increasingly draconian nature was introduced in Australia and the United Kingdom, criminalising returned fighters from Syria and Iraq. Increased surveillance measures, including data retention moves, and restrictions on whistleblowing in intelligence, were all added measures.

It seemed that the previous year’s disclosures of former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to The Guardian about warrantless surveillance were not merely being ignored, but actively combated on the basis of a threat from Islamic terrorism.

Those fearing the strike of a pandemic saw the dangerous potential of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. But it only took recorded cases of those working with the virus and subsequently travelling to Western countries to trigger the alarm bells. How could it be contained? Could various African states be quarantined?

Not all the events on the political calendar were negative. With the release of two detainees from Cuban custody on the part of the Castro regime, including US contractor Alan Gross, complimented by a release on the part of the Obama government of various members of the Cuban Five, the Cold War between Washington and Havana thawed. Washington law makers saw dollar signs and a post-communist Cuba, while anti-Castro activists feared the abandonment of a policy over five decades old.

Debates about climate change continued to form centre stage, with the Australian government looking increasingly distant with its repeal of the carbon tax in July. While the Abbott government attempted to control the agenda items of the G20 summit in Brisbane between November 16 and 17, limiting discussion to financial and business issues, member states rejected such exclusivity. Climate change was raised as one of the inescapable issues.

2015 is bound to follow the rhythm of violence and tumult that came in 2014. Whether the various violent movements will be contained globally remains unclear; part of an enormous, troubling space that will simply have to be watched.