Saturday, the 16th of September
Over the coming month the world may well see the birth of two brand new countries. This week we dive deep into two separatist movements, one militant and the other civil. 

First, on the 25th the Kurds of northern Iraq will vote to escape Baghdad's yoke. And then, a week later the Catalonians of northern Spain will cast their votes to secede from Spain. Both parent nations stand to lose a sizeable chunk of territory and are understandably doing everything they can to thwart the vote.
The long march to freedom.
The world's largest 'homeless' ethnic group is on the verge of a historic independence vote. The oft-persecuted Kurds plan to secede from Iraq in days and there is little that Iraqi officials can do but look on in horror. Having finally averted a fracture of the state by ISIS, the breakup of modern-day Iraq is imminent nonetheless.

Iraq's parliament has said it will not accept the results, but few in the Kurdish capital of Erbil are concerned, partly because they control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The international community's pleas to the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani have also fallen on deaf ears. Turkey in fact has described the secession as a 'historic mistake'.

Fears of further destabilisation in the region are certainly warranted, but there are also two indisputable facts to consider. First, the lived history of the Kurds under Saddam Hussein has poisoned any desire to willingly remaining under Baghdad's rule. Second, there are now 275,000 battle-hardened Peshmerga fighters spread across 36 brigades defending the Kurdish homeland. 

The historic region of Kurdistan sprawls across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It's estimated that over 28 million Kurds live between the Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges. Ethnically different from the Arabs, Turks and Persians, the Kurds maintain a distinct cultural identity and practice many religions. 

Theirs' is a familiar tale: an ethnic group promised and denied nationhood by European colonial masters. By the First World War the Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline and France and Britain had stepped in. In 1916 they signed the Skyes-Picot Agreement to redraw the map of the entire region, carving up territory between themselves and Russia.

But by the mid-point of the 20th century the European empires were waning. That led to increased influence for their favoured ethnic proxies in the region, and to the Kurds ending up stateless and disenfranchised. The rest, as they say, is history.

In a tight field, Iraq has arguably been the most brutal host to its resident Kurdish minority. Baghdad has pursued 'Arabisation policies' (the forceful depopulation of Kurdish areas) since the 1940s. And Saddam Hussein waged a brutal war against the Kurds in the 1980s, culminating in the worst chemical attack of the post-War era. On March 16, 1988 the Iraqi air force dropped Sarin, VX and mustard gas on Halabja, and killed 3,000 people.

The Kurds meanwhile had attempted several unsuccessful rebellions against Baghdad. So the 2003 invasion of Iraq by coalition forces offered them a rare opportunity, and the Peshmerga militias of two rival Kurdish factions took part in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. With the approval of the United States, the Kurds formed the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and helped shape Iraqi politics in the post-war years. 

Then the ISIS onslaught in 2014 threatened to break Iraq. Like the national army, Kurdish Peshmerga battalions suffered grievous losses early on. And at one point ISIS threatened Erbil. That proved to be a watershed moment for Kurdish emergence. The Peshmerga have fought an especially bitter war against ISIS, but with significant US-backing they have been able to expand Kurdish territory across the Nineveh plains, into Kirkuk.

Now they are days away from statehood.

Which brings us to Catalonia's fast-approaching independence referendum. Last weekend one million Catalonians marched in their capital, Barcelona. Their regional parliament had just voted into law a referendum bill. This week the issue grew into a full-blown constitutional crisis. 700 Catalonian mayors have been summoned to Madrid and may be charged with misuse of public funds for supporting the referendum. Separatist leaders may face prison sentences. 

Spain's highest court has ruled the vote illegal and has ordered all voting material and ballot boxes be confiscated by the police. But the Guardia Civil and Mossos d'Esquadra are on the horns of a dilemma: should they abide by Madrid's prosecutors or support their own people's independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has thrown everything at stopping the vote, short of sending non-Catalonian police into the streets.

The reasons for independence (what Madrid has colourfully termed, 'a constitutional and democratic atrocity') are varied: Catalan is a distinct language and its speakers have celebrated their own culture for hundreds of years. During the Spanish Civil War Catalonia (like the neighbouring Basque region) was a hotbed of republican dissent. The long and bloody siege of Barcelona firmly entrenched divisons between Madrid and the North. 

Under Franco's ultranationalist rule Catalonian language and culture was suppressed to an extraordinary degree. It was only after the generalísimo's death in 1975 that an autonomous Barcelona emerged as a possibility. Since then it has been a slow path forward for the secessionists, but Spain's recent economic health has exacerbated discontent. As one of the most wealthy and economically productive regions in the country, Catalonians are exasperated that they receive less from Madrid than they pay in taxes.

There is more to come.

Bloomberg's view on the dire Bitcoin drop.
Cryptocurrency crackdown - The Wild West days for cryptocurrencies may be coming to an end as regulatory sheriffs squeeze the sector. The four-fold growth of Bitcoin this year now appears to be undergoing a reversal. Earlier in September China's central bank banned Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), a fundraising method in which companies launch and sell new cryptocurrencies. Now China is also shutting down bitcoin exchanges. The plunge has been immediate, with Bitcoin dropping from nearly $6000 USD in value to well below $4000.

Other countries too are expressing similar concerns. India's central bank has announced that it won't be comfortable with cryptocurrencies until it chooses or forms its own fiat digital currency. Meanwhile there are questions within Russia's central bank over how it should approach the issue. Despite connections to Vitalik Buterin the creator of Ethereum (a popular cryptocurrency), some Russian authorities seem to agree with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon's view that cryptocurrencies are nothing more than pyramid schemes

The ringed gas giant.
Cassini's swansong - One of humanity's greatest technological experiments came to a fiery end last night. The Cassini space probe dropped into Saturn's atmosphere in an act of premeditated self-destruction. Travelling at speeds above 60,000 kilometres per hour, Cassini fired its thrusters to ensure its antennae continued to face home on its final run. As it entered the atmosphere, pressure would have increased exponentially until eventually Cassini disintegrated and melted. Earth lost contact with Cassini at 11:55 AM GMT on Friday the 15th of September.

Almost 20 years ago, on October 15th 1997, Cassini had departed Earth on a one-way trip to Saturn. After a six-year journey (and a quick test of its infrared scanners while passing Jupiter) the probe arrived in orbit around the mysterious gas giant in July 2004. Later that year the intrepid craft dropped a European Space Agency-designed lander onto Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The lander provided some extraordinary findings, including the fact that Titan contains both the basic and complex ingredients necessary to sustain biological life.

Cassini also discovered more moons over the following 13 years, and patiently sent back image after image to Earth, 1.2 billion kilometres away. It will be missed.
Trump visited Florida this week after Irma wrecked the state.
  1. Trump sought a DACA compromise with Dems
  2. The House passed a $1.2 trillion spending bill
  3. Bill Gates attacked Trump's foreign aid cuts
  4. Trump's tax plan gives breaks to the wealthy
  5. Mueller's probe has zeroed in on social media
  6. Trump lawyers tried to eject Kushner from the WH
  7. Even more Flynn-Russia revelations emerged
  8. The Pentagon is still buying arms for Syrian rebels
  9. MS-13 was in Washington's crosshairs again
  10. And Ivanka batted away her liberal detractors
We hadn't heard of a six-toed cat until this week.
Hurricane survivors - Irma tore across Key West this week, knocking down buildings and uprooting trees aplenty. But the descendants of Ernest Hemingway's six-toed cats found a way through the storm. From Hemingway's historic mansion the bizarre (and beautiful) polydactyl cats emerged unscathed. All nine lives still intact.

New tricks - In the historic Italian town of Pisa, the Lucca Philharmonic performed a crowd favourite (Verdi, of course) to a rapturous audience. Yet the composer did little by way of thanking the audience, or providing constructive criticism to players after the concert. It was a robot named YuMi, built by the Swiss company ABB, performing as as part of the first International Festival of Robotics.
Members of the tribe, seen in 2008
Massacre in the Amazon - Brazilian authorities are scrambling to investigate reports that an uncontacted indigenous tribe was attacked by illegal gold miners this week. It's believed that 8-10 members of a tribe were killed and dumped in a river by prospectors as government campaigns push them into new reservations.

You get what you pay for - In a firm rebuke to those investigating Rodrigo Duterte's vicious drug war, Philippine lawmakers have allotted a 2018 budget of $20 to the country's human rights watchdog. The assassination campaign against drug dealers, drug users and political rivals has taken a turn for the worse. It's expected that Duterte will declare nation-wide martial law next week. 
Your weekend long read... This is an incisive and well-researched piece from Bloomberg Businessweek. Meet the smugglers along the Chinese-North Korean border who keep a thriving black market alive.

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