August 22, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

The Saddest Microcosm

For the past five months, the Yemeni capital of Sana’a has been mostly quiet. Quiet for Sana’a, that is.

Fighter jets laden with bombs weren’t flying over the dwellings resembling gingerbread houses. Shots ringing out weren’t the norm at night for a while.

Alas, it wasn’t to last.

This month, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Middle Eastern states began pounding the city again, bringing an end to a five-month United Nations-sponsored ceasefire.

Now Yemen is once again a bloody battlefield. And again, it’s largely overlooked in the war-torn Middle East – it’s not the bloodiest or most dangerous conflict in the region. But the country should receive more attention. That’s because it’s actually a microcosm of what’s wrong in the region.

Last year, Shiite Muslim rebels called Houthis, with the support of forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted the internationally recognized leader of Yemen, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Now Hadi is in exile in Saudi Arabia.

A former vice president under Saleh, Hadi had been nominally in charge of Yemen since 2011, when Saleh stepped down during protests amid the Arab Spring.

Saleh was no angel. And since civil war erupted in Yemen in 2004, he allegedly has routinely arrested and disappeared Houthis seeking to either secede or enjoy more independence from Yemen’s central government, according to Human Rights Watch.

The crackdown opened the door to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State to establish cells in Yemen with the goal of expanding their respective spheres of influence and recruiting jihadists among the disaffected.

Still, now Saleh and the Houthis are allies. Backing them is Iran, Saudi Arabia’s nemesis in the region. Like the Houthis, Saleh is a Shiite, and Iran is a Shiite Muslim majority country. Hadi is Sunni and Saudi Arabia is the guardian of Sunni Muslims.

The picture is clear.

A history of repression and violence, disappointment with the 2011 revolution, international meddling, terrorism, sectarianism and the Saudi-Iranian standoff – itself an echo of the rivalry between the United States and Iran – created the conditions for disaster in Yemen. The Saudi-led bombing campaign made that disaster a reality, one with US support behind it: Recently, the American government approved another $1.5 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, including 130 Abrams battle tanks, as part of Washington’s support of Riyadh’s opposition to Tehran’s expanding influence, the Pentagon announced.

Meanwhile, bearing the brunt of the horror are hundreds of thousands of “severely malnourished” children who make up half of the Yemeni population facing starvation: About 2.8 million people remain at risk in a country on the brink of famine, aid agencies say. And more than 6,500 have already died in the conflict.

The world has started to notice. And the US last week announced it has cut the number of its advisers to the Saudis regarding its military action in Yemen from about 45 to five, while admitting concern about the conflict, and how it is being waged.

Still, for the most part, Yemen’s tale has become familiar, taken for granted. A similar story is occurring in much of Iraq and Syria. The chances of the suffering ending are slim. People on the ground are aggrieved, angry, willing to fight and die until victory. Meanwhile, for potentates from Riyadh to Tehran to Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s business as usual.

NEED TO KNOW

Apples and Oranges

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to withdraw from the United Nations Sunday, calling it “stupid,” in the latest outburst against critics of his anti-drug campaign that has killed hundreds.

In a press conference late Saturday, Duterte pointed to the image of an injured child pulled from the rubble of a destroyed building in Syria, noting the inability of the US and the UN to stop such atrocities. He also lashed out at the US for a spate of recent police killings of black men. Instead, Duterte wondered how it could be that he comes under fire for the killings of criminals, the Associated Press reported.

The US State Department and the UN have urged Duterte to stop extrajudicial killings in the fight against illegal drugs. The UN says Philippine officials could be held liable for the killings.

Duterte’s crackdown has left more than 500 suspected dealers dead and more than 4,400 arrested since he took office June 30.

A Welcome Distraction

The stadiums gleamed, crime was mostly kept at bay, Zika was forgotten – and the sky did not fall.

On Sunday, Brazilians breathed a sigh of relief – and pride – that they pulled it off: Amid political and economic turmoil, construction delays and other chaos in the country spawning fears that Rio would be unprepared to host the world’s largest sporting event, the Games closed in triumph.

“We know the city isn’t an easy place to live in but Rio flung its arms wide open, and we need to congratulate ourselves for our receptiveness and joy in making such a beautiful party,” Naide Gouvea Lira, 45, a logistics analyst, told the New York Times.

Still, while some locals grumbled it was not worth the expense, others were grateful for the distraction, a much-needed one from the past year that saw multiple officials get caught up in the country’s biggest corruption scandal and a sitting president removed from office to face impeachment proceedings.

Small, Halting Steps

The leaders of 18 Zimbabwean opposition parties are planning to meet in Harare Monday with the aim of forming a coalition to challenge long-time strongman Robert Mugabe in the 2018 elections.

It’s the clearest sign that Mugabe’s rule of 36 years might be coming to an end, say analysts.

The 92-year old leader has faced protests for months. With the economy tanking, the country running out of cash and facing the worst drought in decades, many locals – including former supporters – say it’s time to look to the future.

Enter Evan Mawarire, a pastor with extraordinary social media skills, who has been mobilizing thousands of workers to strike. Protests, meanwhile, have spread to Zimbabwe’s rural areas – traditionally Mugabe strongholds. Veterans and some in the judiciary have abandoned the leader openly.

“What you have is highly incendiary conditions in Zimbabwe – ripe for a power grab,” Charles Laurie, head of Africa at political-risk firm Verisk Maplecroft, told the Wall Street Journal.

Still, some believe Mugabe has staying power.

“He’s been in power for 36 years,” Temba Mliswa, a former provincial chairman of the ruling ZANU-PF party told the paper. “He’s learned the art of managing people.”

DISCOVERIES

Swimming with Shakespeare

Long ranked among nature’s most fearsome predators, sharks have roamed the oceans for over an impressive 400 million years.

Now it looks like individual sharks boast lifespans that are equally as fantastic: deepwater sharks off the coast of Greenland appear to be nearly 400 years old, making them the longest-living of all known vertebrates, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

That gives deepwater sharks a lifespan more than double that of long-living vertebrates like the giant tortoise – and it means that some of them were swimming during Shakespeare’s time.

As with humans, lifestyle is a factor in sharks’ longevity: Cold-blooded animals that take to cold environments enjoy slow metabolic rates correlated with longevity, says Smithsonian Magazine.

“The general rule is that deep and cold equals old,” Chris Lowe, a shark biologist at the California State University at Long Beach not involved in the research, told Smithsonian, adding that these sharks must have a metabolic rate “just above a rock.”

Previous attempts to determine sharks’ age, by using carbon dating for example, were thwarted by the sharks’ lack of calcium-rich bones. But scientists in this study creatively studied inert crystalline proteins in sharks’ eyes – which contain the same isotopes used to date teeth and bones – to determine the year they were age zero.

At 16.5 feet, the biggest of the 28 female sharks examined was believed to have been 392 years old. But as Greenland sharks are known to grow to over 20 feet, many are likely even old than that, says Smithsonian.