The World Today for January 04, 2017


Sideshows and Backfires

When Arab ambassadors recently asked about America’s plans for the Middle East, one of President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy advisors said ending the bloody Syrian civil war would be the White House’s top priority this year.

The first step to reaching that goal would be improving US ties with Russia, said the advisor, Walid Phares, CNN reported.

Coincidentally, around the same time, an ex-Republican Congressman and former Trump campaign surrogate said that soon after the inauguration, the new president might lift sanctions on Russia imposed after President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.

The resulting strategy that’s shaping up – throwing Ukraine under the bus to curry favor with Moscow and gain leverage in Syria – is an example of the tsunami of changes that could sweep the Middle East and the world after Trump’s inauguration.

On the campaign trail, the New York real estate tycoon called for banning Muslim immigration to the US, shredding the Iranian nuclear agreement, imposing tariffs on Saudi Arabian oil imports and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv despite Palestinian claims on the holy city that Israelis insist is their capital.

In response, strongmen like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear to believe they can work with a man of action like Trump. Hardliners in Israel feel emboldened, too, NBC reported.

But now Trump’s campaign rhetoric is running into reality.

The president-elect’s advisors have said he would review the Iran nuclear deal, push for stronger measures and then seek to negotiate changes.

Be skeptical of that measured talk.

Analysts told NPR that Trump could easily abandon the Iran nuclear deal like former President George W. Bush did in the case of a controversial agreement reached by Bill Clinton with North Korea to limit that country’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea later tested nuclear weapons.

The experts said Trump’s diplomatic team would be key to determining whether the incoming president can rearrange the chessboard of the Middle East or tip the whole game over.

Trump has nominated Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson described Tillerson as neither a “cook or a crank,” reflecting how Tillerson is a widely respected businessman who holds mainstream views, like believing in climate change.

But the Wall Street Journal noted that Republican and Democratic senators are leery about confirming Tillerson because he grew too close to Putin when the two were negotiating big oil deals – a case of Trump’s pro-Moscow stance backfiring.

To work his plan in the Middle East, Trump might need to plan his work in Congress. As a result, Tillerson’s confirmation could be the president-elect’s first hands-on lesson in the politics of foreign policy, a sideshow before the big challenges in Baghdad, Damascus and elsewhere.


Emergency, Extended

In the wake of a deadly New Year’s Eve terror attack, Turkey voted to extend the state of emergency imposed after the July coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for another three months.

The gunman who killed at least 39 people in the nightclub shooting remains at large, though police widened nationwide raids on Tuesday and detained at least 16 people, including two foreign nationals, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The failure to capture the suspect despite a clear photograph of his face has raised questions about Turkey’s law enforcement capabilities following the arrests of thousands of police officers, military personnel and civil servants in the crackdown following July’s failed coup, the paper said.

The government has jailed almost 14,000 policemen and soldiers, including almost half of its generals, as well as more than 2,200 judges and prosecutors, according to Justice Ministry statistics.

Notably, while the state of emergency allows security officials to detain terrorism suspects for up to 30 days without charges, it also grants the government broad powers to arrest so-called enemies of that state and fire public employees with little explanation.

The Other MILF

More than 150 inmates escaped from a prison in the Southern Philippines, after gunmen attacked the facility.

At least one guard was killed in the attack early Wednesday, which the authorities say was likely staged by Islamic militants from an offshoot of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in a bid to free rebels being held in the prison, the BBC reported.

With a manhunt for the fugitives still underway, police have already recaptured at least six escaped prisoners.

MILF and Abu Sayyaf have staged terrorist attacks and kidnapped tourists over the course of their decades-long separatist struggle in the southern region of Mindanao. But in recent years MILF has been involved in protracted peace negotiations with the government – though various breakaway groups have vowed to continue fighting and declared their allegiance to the Islamic State.

A MILF spokesman said the group did not know who the attackers were and was contacting its members to get more information, the South China Morning Post reported.

Suspending Talks

Hopes for peace in Syria faded further, as 10 rebel groups announced they are suspending talks about attending planned peace negotiations in Kazakhstan later this month.

The rebels said Syrian government forces continue to violate an ongoing ceasefire agreement in an effort to take rebel-held territory near Damascus, the Associated Press reported. As a result, the nationwide four-day-old cease-fire is looking increasingly shaky, the agency said.

The government claims that the region is not covered under the truce agreement, because the ceasefire deal excludes extremist factions such as the Islamic State group and al-Qaida’s affiliate, known as the Fatah al-Sham Front.

Local activists deny any militant presence in the area, known as the Barada Valley, and say villages there have come under heavy bombardment despite the supposed truce. The opposition’s Civil Defense first responders reported at least nine government airstrikes since Sunday, saying six people have been killed and 73 have been wounded, according to the agency.


Hot Blooded

Human communication can be confrontational. So can bat talk.

In fact, Egyptian fruit bats even engage in rhetorical combat. According to a recent study, bats “vocalize” more information to one another than previously believed, NPR reported.

Israeli researchers conducted an audiovisual observational study of close to 15,000 bat vocalizations.

By dissecting parts of speech, researchers pinpointed individual bats talking. They could even pick up on the context of communication – and gauge the tenor of conversation.

Apparently, bats spend a lot of time arguing.

“What they’re saying is stuff like: Why did you wake me up? Get out of my way,” explains Yossi Yovel, a neuro-ecologist at Tel Aviv University who took part in the research. “In the case of mating, it’s usually the female protesting against a male who is trying to mate with her.”

While the detailed nature of bat communication is no match for that of humans, researchers said conversational nuances in non-human species could be more prevalent – and enlightening – than previously thought.

“Understanding the encapsulated information in animal vocalizations is central to the study of sociality, communication, and language evolution,” the researchers wrote.

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