The World Today for September 02, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Wars, Civil and Proxy

Russia’s military excursions in Syria have not only tipped the balance of power in the country’s civil war toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they’ve also put Moscow ahead of the United States in the proxy war that is now raging in Syria and the Middle East.

Last year, Assad’s forces were on the ropes. With the help of weapons and other aid shipped to the rebels by the US Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Syrian military was losing territory while the rebels – including the Islamic State and other jihadists – were gaining ground.

But then the Russians stepped in, striking back at the rebels and, recently, doubling down on retaking rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As a result, Russia has “new leverage” in the Middle East after suffering diplomatic and economic isolation following the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s meddling in eastern Ukraine, the New York Times reported.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has mended fences with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet last year, strengthened ties with Iran and taken steps to improve relations with Israel.

Newly empowered Russia has waived off American proposals to open up roads for humanitarian aid into Aleppo and to limit air strikes against the Islamic State and the Jabhat Fath al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front before its leaders recently changed its name and ostensibly broke off the group’s affiliation with al Qaeda.

As a result, the US has largely failed to achieve its goals of ending the violence in Syria and replacing Assad.

“Short of some kind of huge rethink in the US and a whole set of relationships between the US and partners in the region like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Assad’s survival is no longer in question,” Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, told Bloomberg.

A deepening of relations between the US and actors in the Syrian conflict is not going to happen anytime soon, say analysts. Since the coup in Turkey in July, the rift with the US has widened.

Turkey says the US was slow to condemn the coup and Washington is unlikely to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric, who lives in the US and is accused by Turkey of masterminding the coup. This week, Turkey showed no signs of listening to US requests to halt its offensive into Syria and stop striking US-backed Kurdish militias. The US called Turkey’s actions “unacceptable” and said it was withdrawing its support for the incursion.

Those offensives will be a key topic at the G-20 in China next week when President Barack Obama meets with the Turkish leader. He is also expected to speak to Russian representatives even as the talks with the Russians over the past few months have gone nowhere, say analysts, with Aleppo as the main sticking point.

President Barack Obama has come under withering criticism for America’s weak position in the region. It’s not clear he could have done much different, given the American public’s fatigue with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But whoever occupies the White House next will likely come under serious pressure to be more imaginative under even worse circumstances.

WANT TO KNOW

Courts and Christians

Pakistan was shook by a series of attacks Friday after two bombs exploded in a court complex in northwestern Pakistan, killing 12 and wounding dozens.

The bombs were detonated only hours after four Pakistani Taliban militants wearing suicide-bomb vests assaulted a Christian neighborhood in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, killing two, said officials.

While the court bombing has not been claimed by any militant group so far, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban, said it was responsible for the suicide bombings in Khyber.

Jamaat-ur-Ahrar had briefly declared allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, but recently announced it was no longer affiliated with the Middle East-based militant group.

Jamaat-ur-Ahrar has targeted Christian groups in the past, most notably its attack on Easter Sunday at a Lahore park that killed 72 people, including 29 children.

Also, both Jamaat-ur-Ahrar and Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta last month that killed dozens of lawyers.

Chatting With Friends

China is putting the finishing touches on its makeover of the eastern city of Hangzhou as it prepares to welcome the Group of 20 industrialized nations (G-20) for its annual summit Sept. 4-5, the first to be held in China.

China is hoping to use the summit as an opportunity to highlight its strengths as the world’s second-largest economy and bolster its image as a responsible force in diplomacy and the fight against climate change, writes the New York Times.

But the summit comes at a challenging time for the country, say observers: China is equally keen to avoid discussing issues like its territorial claims in the South China Sea, crackdowns on local dissent, and disputes with other regional powers like Japan.

Chinese officials have expressed a desire to focus on the G-20’s economic mission rather than these other controversial issues, but its ability to steer conversation at the summit will be tested as these issues grow in prominence – particularly in light of The Hague’s June ruling against Chinese claims in the South China Sea, a ruling China angrily rejected.

Protesting the Iron Fist

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans protesting against their government descended on the capital of Caracas Thursday in an attempt to force President Nicolas Maduro to hold a recall referendum on his leadership.

More than one million anti-government protesters bearing shirts and hats in the colors of Venezuela’s flag covered more than 10 miles of eastern Caracas, with more rallying in other cities across the country, said opposition leaders.

Government military blockades cut off highways and tunnels that provide access to Caracas, while checkpoints were erected in an attempt to reduce turnout.

Protestors are hoping that a referendum will oust Maduro’s Socialist government and put a stop to the country’s ongoing food shortages, rampant crime and crippling inflation.

But Maduro showed no sign that a recall would take place following yesterday’s mass protest, and the government held its own rally with a few thousand supporters in Caracas.

“I go with the iron fist that was given to me by Hugo Chavez,” said Maduro at his rally. “I’m ready to do anything to defend the fatherland and the sovereignty of our people.”

DISCOVERIES

The Sturgeon Whisperer

Like Scotland’s famous Loch Ness, the Fraser River in British Columbia is said to be inhabited by an elusive, almost mythical creature: a gargantuan sturgeon, nicknamed Pig Nose for his stubby, pink nose.

But unlike the legendary Loch Ness Monster, the 10-foot-long, 650-pound Pig Nose is real and swimming in British Columbia’s longest river. He was tagged with a microchip as part of a conservation program in 2000. Even so, since then, he’s become adept at avoiding humans.

But recently, Pig Nose was spotted again thanks to Nick McCabe, a 19-year-old known among fellow fishing enthusiasts in the region as the “sturgeon whisperer.”

While McCabe was fishing on the Fraser and looking for sturgeons last week, Pig Nose jumped out of the water at him, he said.

McCabe then strapped a line to Pig Nose, after which a two hour tug-of-war between man and beast broke out in the river, writes the Washington Post.

McCabe’s perseverance paid off: Pig Nose tired out, and McCabe was able to take pictures of himself with the elusory fish – the first photographic proof of Pig Nose’s existence – before releasing him back into the Fraser’s depths.

Check out Pig Nose here.

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