The World Today for December 28, 2016


Walking Among Land Mines

An 81-year-old Maronite Christian admiringly called The General was elected president of Lebanon earlier this year.

Michel Aoun’s ascension to the presidency of the tiny troubled country on the Mediterranean ends a hefty spell of political infighting that kept Lebanese politics in limbo for more than two years.

After a dizzying bout of political deal making, Aoun managed to capture a majority in parliament – lawmakers pick Lebanon’s president – effectively reviving the power-sharing trifecta between Christians, Sunnis and Shias that has underpinned Lebanese government since the 1940s.

It’s a rare example of interdenominational cooperation in a region known for its religious volatility.

“Lebanon, which is walking among land mines, still hasn’t been touched by the flames surrounding it in the region,” Aoun proclaimed after his swearing-in ceremony. “We will prevent any spark from reaching it.”

Yet it’s undeniable that past and present regional currents have contributed to Lebanon’s precarious factional harmony – something The General knows all too well.

Aoun has been a stalwart figure of Christian-Lebanese nationalism for more than 30 years. He rose to prominence during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, in which Christian militias and the Lebanese national army fought against Syrian-backed Islamic militant groups like Hezbollah.

Aoun’s leadership in decisive battles led to his appointment as interim prime minister in 1988.

But a failed uprising to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence backfired with Aoun at the helm. Thousands died in factional spats, and Aoun was forced to flee to France in 1990 after Syrian soldiers and rogue Lebanese troops waged a last-ditch coup.

While in exile, Aoun vehemently criticized Hezbollah’s armed militancy and Syria’s 30 years of meddling.

But since Syria’s withdrawal in 2005 and the civil war that began six years later, Aoun has strategically navigated looming political snares and is now enjoying more stability.

He’s reconciled with Syria and formed an alliance with Hezbollah that, while controversial, gained him points for crossing religious divides and mending regional ties. He also received the backing of his onetime enemy, the recently re-elected Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

“We’ve got a president today who will take care of all the Lebanese, all of Lebanon, not just one faction,” said a 21-year-old supporter in The New York Times.

But Hariri’s alliance with Aoun has left Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, perhaps the nation’s most powerful Shiite politician, out of the government’s direct circle of influence. That’s made Hezbollah a broker between Aoun and Berri.

The General appears to have things under control.

But, of course, as the Syrian refugee crisis sends thousands of migrants through Lebanon, governance problems like trash disposal remain thorny. Other crises loom large in the Middle East, too, so he should be keen to tread lightly.



Last Chance

Even lame ducks can quack.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is set to outline the outgoing administration’s vision of a final Israeli-Palestinian accord on Wednesday. The speech is partly intended as a rebuttal to President-elect Donald Trump’s recent criticism of the US abstention from a vote on a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the New York Times reported.

Like all such rebuttals, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.

Kerry will refute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the US “orchestrated” the resolution. He’ll assert that there’s a “complete international consensus” against further settlements in areas that might ultimately be the subject of negotiations.

It’s reportedly a speech that Kerry has been itching to deliver for some time. In theory, it could become the basis of another Security Council resolution that would further limit Netanyahu’s room to negotiate. However, it’s unlikely such a resolution could be pushed through before Trump takes office, and he’d be sure to veto it.

Romanian Rejection

Romania’s president is flirting with a political crisis.

President Klaus Iohannis rejected the prime ministerial candidate nominated by the left-of-center Social Democrats (PSD) on Tuesday, raising the specter of a confrontation that could result in his suspension and even impeachment, the BBC reported.

The unprecedented move “infuriated” the PSD, which won the December 11 general election by a wide margin, Reuters noted.

The PSD’s choice, Sevil Shhaideh, would have been Romania’s first female and Muslim prime minister. Iohannis gave no reason for rejecting her, but the BBC suggested his decision might have to do with Shhaideh’s close friendship with PSD leader Liviu Dragnea – who withdrew his own candidacy for prime minister due to his conviction for fraud in a previous election. Romanian political commentators also speculated that Iohannis might have deemed Shhaideh’s Syrian-born husband to present a security risk.

Dragnea said the PSD would decide whether to launch impeachment proceedings or propose a new candidate over the next few days.

Turkey’s Trials

The crackdown in Turkey has now moved to the courts.

On Tuesday, Turkey began the first major trial of alleged collaborators in July’s failed coup plot against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Policy reported. The first big tranche of suspects to go to court comprises 29 police officers – out of nearly 41,000 police, military and government officials, and civil servants who are accused of being linked to the coup.

The legal proceedings may provide a veneer of legitimacy for Erdogan’s ongoing crackdown on purported coup supporters, which critics say he is using to target his political opponents and solidify his power. Meanwhile, the crackdown shows no sign of letting up, the Guardian reported.

The paper cited the interior ministry as saying 1,096 people suspected of links with the exiled cleric blamed for the coup had been detained in the past week. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch noted that a trial of writers and journalists charged with terrorism and separatism begins on Thursday. HRW said “2016 will be remembered as the year Turkey’s president attempted to silence all critical and independent media in the country.”


Heating Up

Campi Flegrei, a volcanic cauldron, or caldera, off the coast of Naples in the Mediterranean, had its last major eruption in 1538. The weeklong explosion expelled enough material to create the cinder cone mountain Monte Nuovo.

Since then, the underwater Campi Flegrei, or “burning fields,” has seen its share of hydrothermal activity, like geysers spouting water and steam or earthquakes rippling through the Neapolitan region, minus ostentatious explosions.

But that might soon change. Campi Flegrei is heating up, said scientists.

In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers wrote that the 7.5-mile-wide caldera is reaching a critical point that could potentially lead to an eruption.

While forecasting a volcanic eruption is notoriously difficult, lead study author Giovanni Chiodini, a volcanologist at the National Institute of Geophysics in Rome, said the Campi Flegrei merits close attention.

An eruption would be catastrophic to the hundreds of thousands of people living around it, Chiodini told the Washington Post.

It wouldn’t be the first time the volcano caused trouble for its neighbors either. Earlier studies suggest the prehistoric outburst that created this caldera some 39,000 years ago triggered the “volcanic winter” that caused the Neanderthals’ downfall.

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