The World Today for April 28, 2016

April 28, 2016


Syrian Ceasefire All But Collapses

The pictures are heartbreaking.

During the past week, around 200 civilians have been killed in and around Aleppo, as a so-called ceasefire in Syria descended into a pitched battle for leverage in peace talks that now seem to be doomed.

Optimism only added to the toll. Believing that residential areas would be safe due to the truce, many displaced Syrians had returned to their homes. But even during the ceasefire, no target is off limits – whether it’s a residential block held by pro-government forces, a housing development in a rebel area, or even a headquarters for the rescue workers known as the White Helmets.

At least 16 people were killed Wednesday evening in a government air strike on a hospital in Aleppo – where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are effectively fighting to make peace talks irrelevant – and five rescue workers were killed when the white helmets came under a “sustained attack from the air.” Earlier, 19 people were killed in rebel bombings of government-controlled areas.

Talking with a reporter for Al Jazeera, witnesses expressed their outrage. “We are all targeted. What use is the UN and the Security Council? It’s a joke,” said one White Helmet staffer.

As bad as the so-called ceasefire has become, however, many fear the conflict is about to get worse.

With peace negotiations deadlocked over the issue of whether or not Assad will retain power, both sides are preparing for a pitched battle for control of Aleppo, local observers warn.

Taking advantage of a six-month air campaign by Russian jets, Assad’s forces had already encircled rebel strongholds in the city just prior to the beginning of the peace talks – making a strong push to capture the rest of the city virtually inevitable, truce or no truce.

Now, there’s an added risk that Saudi Arabia and Turkey may resume weapons shipments to the rebels, and that the jihadist rebel group Nusra – the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate – may join forces with the Islamic State (IS) to try to retake strategically important towns south of the city, an analyst at IHS Country Risk told AP.

The next phase of the war is likely to be costly, adding mass casualties and another flood of refugees to an estimated 4.6 million who have fled the country and another 6.6 million displaced from their homes. One ominous note: When the siege on Madaya resulted in starvation deaths earlier this year, the gruesome photos came with a warning from aid workers that some 400,000 Syrians might face a similar “starve or surrender” dilemma in Aleppo.

What can the UN do? On Wednesday, Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura effectively begged Moscow and Washington to “revitalize” a truce he characterized as “barely alive.” But that may be overly optimistic.

Russia, which has justified Assad’s bombing campaign and blamed rebel groups not honoring the ceasefire for the continued violence, appears to be driving the process.

US President Barack Obama has effectively scaled back support for the rebels to focus on groups fighting IS and ruled out sending in ground troops – tipping his hand. Russia, in contrast, on Wednesday asked the UN Security Council to blacklist two rebel outfits – one of which is a key participant in the peace talks – as terrorist organizations.

Meanwhile, the various schemes for Assad’s future (detailed by the Wall Street Journal here) have become so desperate that one diplomat familiar with the negotiations called them “a process without content.”


Looting Grips Venezuela

For Venezuela, plunging oil prices have had a disastrous impact.

Earlier this week, desperate citizens took to looting grocery stores, after the once oil-rich country’s beleaguered president instituted four-hour daily electricity cuts to deal with massive power shortages. (Along with the oil woes, a drought has rendered the country’s showpiece hydropower project useless).

Shocking? Not when you consider that nearly 90 percent of respondents to a recent survey said they couldn’t afford food.

Already, President Nicolas Máduro – who’s facing a petition drive for his recall — has begun rationing staple commodities and instituted a two-day work week to save energy. (Yes, the week and the weekend have now swapped positions for state employees). And it looks like that’s just the beginning.

The economy is projected to shrink a whopping 8 percent this year, while inflation will likely top 500 percent.  Experts reckon oil prices must climb to more than $100 a barrel from yesterday’s 2016 high of $45.33 for the country to get on track.

Description: Won’t Allow War in Korea

Even as North Korea conducted yet another test of what experts believe was an intermediate range ballistic missile on Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping was telling reporters in Beijing that China will not “permit war or chaos on the peninsula.”

Speaking at a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, Xi said that such a situation “would not benefit anyone.”

However, this morning’s missile – which crashed seconds after launch — makes it clearer than ever that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is only marginally more willing to take suggestions from Beijing than he is to mend his ways in response to US-led economic sanctions. And the Chinese president didn’t specify exactly what actions China was prepared to take to rein him in – if indeed that is the message he intended to convey.

Apart from conducting a fourth nuclear test in January and several subsequent missile tests in defiance of international criticism, Kim Jong Un is expected to conduct a fifth nuclear test before a historic Workers’ Party Congress slated to begin May 6.

One reason for the belligerence could well be a drop in food production.

Another Refugee Crisis in Australia

Across the world from Europe, another refugee crisis is unfolding in Australia.

After the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled this week that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal and the prison-like compound would have to be shut down, Sydney’s tough border protection policy will face a new challenge next week.

The question: Does Papua New Guinea have the power to send the 900 detainees now held illegally on Manus Island to Australia?

A kind of Guantanamo meets Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail, Manus Island was set up to deter boat people from flocking to Australia – purportedly aimed at people smugglers, but effectively punishing refugees who made it to stop others from trying.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ruled out allowing any of the detainees to immigrate, with the somewhat Orwellian statement that “a strong Australia is a secure Australia,” while PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has said only “legitimate refugees” would be invited to integrate into his country.


Musk for Mars

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars.

After beating out bids from Lockheed Martin and Boeing to win the first competitive contract in a decade for the launch of a US military satellite on Wednesday, Musk’s private rocket firm SpaceX unveiled plans to send modified versions of its Dragon capsules to the red planet as early as 2018. (Check out what that might look like in an artist’s rendering here).

The idea is to lay some of the initial groundwork for the eventual human colonization of Mars, details of which Musk is expected to lay out at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September. But he’s already teased the idea of sending the first humans to the distant planet – about 40 million miles away when in a relatively close orbit, compared with around 240,000 miles to the moon.

That could happen as soon as the early 2020s, Musk believes.

Yesterday’s newsletter misspelled the name of the leader of North Korea. The correct spelling is Kim Jong Un.


Thu, 04/28/2016 – 06:06

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