The World Today for December 30, 2016

NEED TO KNOW

Befitting End

The Thursday announcement of a Russian-backed truce in Syria was a fitting end to the year.

The truce follows the recent retreat of blood-soaked rebels from Aleppo, a big win for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces had been trying to conquer the east side of the city for years.

Described as fragile, the truce comes shortly after Russia, Turkey and Iran met to discuss the subject with the notable absence of the United States.

The White House welcomed the news, The New York Times wrote. The newspaper suggested the end of fighting could lead Washington and Moscow to cooperate on fighting the Islamic State.

But the progress of Iranian, Russian and Turkish – not American – leaders in bringing an end to Syria’s bloody civil war came shortly after the public radio show On Point asked its listeners whether 2016 marked the end of American hegemony.

On the show, analyst Ian Bremmer discussed how President-elect Donald Trump’s victory highlighted a trend in the US to shirk the mantle of global leadership, a harbinger of the US losing its preeminence in the world.

Many of the global arrangements dating from the 20th Century, when American hegemony was undisputed, disappeared in 2016.

Brexit, the rise of far-right movements in Europe, terrorism and jihadism, a resurgent China and Russia and, finally, the protectionist rhetoric and strategic reversals of Trump have occurred arguably due to dissatisfaction with a status quo fostered under American hegemony for the past 25 years.

Take the rapprochement between the US and Cuba. The communists arguably came out looking good, argued Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in The Hill. “Most of the world admires Castro and Cuba as having accomplished something heroic by standing up to a bullying empire of immense power,” said Weisbrot.

As investigative exposés like The Panama Papers showed, many had good reason to suspect something was wrong with the way the US-led economy functioned.

Foreign Policy bluntly said November 2016 was a “corruption election,” a referendum on whether or not to keep the system rigged for its current winners.

The people kept opting for disruption – from Brexit, to the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, to Trump to other votes around the world.

“We find ourselves in an age of anger, with authoritarian leaders manipulating the cynicism and discontent of furious majorities,” wrote The Guardian.

Somehow Trump’s tweeting – a la Roosevelt’s fireside chats – addressed and took advantage of the confusion better than anything else. They’ll be remembered as a legacy of 2016.

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WANT TO KNOW

Mosul Rebooted

The battle for Mosul has taken a new turn.

After a series of devastating counterattacks by the Islamic State that has raised questions about their battle plans, the Iraqi forces have begun using heavy artillery in the crowded city in spite of the risk to civilians, the Wall Street Journal reported. At the same time, the Iraqi military has shifted some 4,000 federal police from the capital and the south of Mosul to support the fight in the east, the paper said.

Following an initial surge, the Iraqi forces have for more than two weeks been struggling to hold territory against IS counterattacks. But on Thursday, Iraqi troops backed by US-led air strikes pushed deeper into eastern Mosul in what a senior officer in Iraq’s counterterrorism service called the “second phase” of the operation to reclaim the city, Al Jazeera reported.

It’s now clear that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will not be able to make good on his pledge that Mosul would be recaptured by year’s end. Moreover, the use of heavy artillery will inevitably result in more civilian casualties.

Neither Forgiven Nor Forgotten

The Colombian Congress has granted amnesty to rebels accused of minor crimes in the country’s decades-long civil war. But despite a recent peace deal to close the books on the conflict, erstwhile soldiers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fear they may face reprisals from vigilantes as they attempt to rejoin society.

President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the passage of the law earlier this week as “the first step towards the consolidation of peace,” the BBC reported. However, the experience of the first 30 rebel prisoners who were pardoned as a gesture of good faith suggests that reintegrating those accused of “minor” crimes into society won’t be easy, the Associated Press said.

Since his release from jail, former FARC soldier Wilson Lopez hasn’t been able to find a steady job and has received death threats from a criminal group in Medellin after he returned to the city, the agency reported.

In the upcoming months, some 8,000 guerillas and 4,000 prisoners will be attempting the same transition.

Five Long Years

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – who pundits once predicted would enjoy only a brief reign – has enjoyed five long years at the helm of the Hermit Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, some reports suggest that his grip on power is weakening. The purported execution of hundreds of officials — many of them belonging to the older, military elite – has caused a rift between Kim and the upper echelons of the government, the International Business Times cites some experts as saying. On the other hand, others say the massive purge has solidified Kim’s power.

Though the US has instituted an escalating regime of economic sanctions over the past year, there is no visible opposition to the dictator on the ground in North Korea, apart from the occasional burst of graffiti. And the economy is actually enjoying slow but steady growth, according to the Associated Press.

Nor is Kim allowing international criticism to divert him from his classic dictator’s strategy of nukes, cronyism and repression. His latest move? Developing a drone capable of detonating a dirty bomb and spreading radiation over wide swaths of South Korea, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

DISCOVERIES

Pitch Perfect

For the last 300 years, classical music enthusiasts have longed to discover the secret of Antonio Stradivari, an 18th-Century Italian luthier famous for his craftsmanship of violins with pitch-perfect sound.

Scientists have subjected Stradivari’s carved masterpieces to CT-scans to discern the origins of their excellence.

But according to a new study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stradivari’s secret may have been his affinity for baths.

Stradivari was known for giving his violins a mineral-infused finishing bath. This is a process which scientists believe, when coupled with aging and sound vibrations, changes the chemical properties of the wood itself, yielding the sought-after sound.

“This paper is the first to convince me that some type of mineral infusion into wood might cause superior sound in a musical instrument,” Henri Grissino-Mayer, a tree expert with the University of Tennessee, told The New York Times.

But some are left unconvinced by the scientists’ findings, saying that hyper-examination of Stradivarian instruments might inflate their actual worth.

Still, violinists swear by the master and his techniques.

“When you play a Strad, a great Strad,” violinist Joshua Bell told the Washington Post, “there’s something about it.”

Click here to check out a Strad for yourself.

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