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Vietnam’s Geographic Challenge
|September 18, 2014 | 2050 GMT|
|Stratfor examines Vietnam’s struggle to unite its dual cores and preserve geographic buffer space against China.|
Vietnam is located on the easternmost edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, with China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Its more than 2,000 mile-long coastline abuts the Gulf of Tonkin, the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. These seas create both direct access to the wider Pacific Ocean and a critical buffer to Vietnam’s long and narrow land territory.
Modern Vietnam consists of two geographic and population cores – the Red River Delta in the north, home to the capital of Hanoi, and the Mekong River Delta in the southern lowlands, where Ho Chi Minh City sits. These cores are separated by over 1,600 miles and connected by a thin and largely mountainous coastal spine, only around 30 miles wide at its narrowest point.
Despite mountains and jungles, the northern Vietnamese core has a long history of invasion by forces from China. This almost continuous pressure from the north in part forced Vietnam’s early rulers to expand the country’s boundaries, first southward, to the Mekong River Delta, and then westward, into present day Laos and Cambodia.
Historically and today, the natural geographic separation of Vietnam’s northern and southern cores has exacerbated the two regions’ social, cultural and political divide – leaving the country vulnerable to invasion by foreign powers, whether Chinese, French or American.
Vietnam’s primary geographic challenge is to secure buffer space both on land and sea. Today, Vietnam’s need for space and security in the South China Seas pits it against China, also in the throes of maritime expansion, thus adding a new dimension to Vietnam’s longstanding struggle to carve space for itself against its larger northern neighbor.
|September 17, 2014 | 1940 GMT|
U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed his stance against sending combat troops to fight Islamic State militants in Iraq in a Sept. 17 speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa Bay, Fla., The Tampa Bay Times reported. President Obama said that the United States will rely on contributions from allies in the region and now has a coalition of over 40 countries offering support.
The Formation of National Strategy
The Islamic State’s Role
Forming a New Balance in the Region
|September 12, 2014 | 1524 GMT|
During an Aug. 22 speech at the U.S. Federal Reserve’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi laid out the framework for a new plan to raise inflation and promote sustainable growth in Europe. He also implied that the austerity measures imposed during the European crisis have been ineffective. The idea behind austerity, which Germany strongly supported, was that tight restrictions on fiscal policy would reduce debt, and that low debt would in turn facilitate growth. Draghi’s speech seemed to align with an alternative view from southern Europe, which sees economic malaise as a byproduct of a lack of demand and not a preponderance of debt.
The departure may not be as radical as it first appears. For the past two years, the European Central Bank has been forced to take more unorthodox measures to counter dangerously low inflation rates — rates that are actually nearing deflation, which wrecks countries with high levels of debt. The prospect of even looser fiscal policies in the eurozone, such as higher taxes and spending, will worry Germany, which has a longstanding mistrust of eurozone largesse. However, Berlin would be even more hesitant to accept the other major option for stimulating demand: quantitative easing.
Another reason inflation is such a problem involves the relationships among eurozone members. The eurozone inflation rate has been dropping steadily ever since the euro crisis of 2012. Heavily indebted peripheral economies (France, Ireland, Italy and Spain) have a strong incentive to keep their inflation levels as high as possible, since high rates alleviate some of the pain of debt repayments.
Meanwhile, competitiveness relative to Germany has complicated the situation. Before the eurozone was created, countries became more competitive by devaluing their currency. But that was no longer possible once those countries entered a monetary union. Their only recourse was to keep inflation lower than that of the strongest country in the union: Germany, which keeps its unit costs extremely low largely through reforms undertaken at the beginning of the last decade. So as eurozone inflation fell, eurozone economies had a hard time remaining competitive without slipping into deflation. Now, very low inflation levels benefit no one, least of all the fragile economies that are trying to grow while managing their debt.
The new Iraqi government, chaired by Haidar al-Abadi, held its first meeting Sept. 9 after receiving the confidence of the parliament the night before, Shafaq News reported. The new government has also received international recognition from the United Nations and U.S. President Barack Obama. Al-Abadi takes the place of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose popularity dwindled with the rise of the Islamic State.
The U.S. contemplates sending military aircraft and possible ground troops to rescue the Yazidis, as more American military advisers arrive in Iraq to help plan an evacuation of the displaced people.
Photograph by Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty
Published August 9, 2014
For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community,” says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. “Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion,” she adds.
The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages. Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.
As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.
While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation. “This dilemma to convert or die is not new,” says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.
A Misunderstood Religion
The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.
This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.
Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.
“To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshipers,” says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. “So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions,” he adds.
The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.
Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. “Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation,” says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees. “Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity,” he says.
Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq’s Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. “They became a closed community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of Göettingen.
Victims of Hussein’s Regime
Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq’s other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.
After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.
As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.
For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. “The Yazidis are terrorized,” he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.
With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. “It’s difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq,” says Allison. “The struggle is truly existential.”