The World Today for January 23, 2017


Talking or Not

The new peace talks to end the Syrian Civil War that began on Monday in the capital of Kazakhstan highlight big shifts in geopolitics.

Most importantly, the United States isn’t involved. Moscow, Ankara and Tehran are sponsoring the negotiations. The US, on the other hand, is now “marginal” to the war, Atlantic Council analyst Faysal Itani told Bloomberg.

The US State Department said the transition between presidential administrations precluded direct American involvement, the Associated Press reported.

That raises serious questions about what incoming and outgoing American diplomats spoke about during the transition.

But really it’s no surprise that the US will be sitting on the sidelines in Astana. The US wasn’t involved in bringing the current tentative end to the fighting in the civil war.

Russia and Turkey stopped the madness in Aleppo last year in secret talks that raised eyebrows.

Turkey, after all, is a NATO member whose relations with Moscow were supposed to be on the rocks following the downing of a Russian jet over Turkish territory in 2015. It seems that shooting down the Russian warplane didn’t yield war, as some feared. Quite the opposite.

Meanwhile, the talks in Astana are in parallel with United Nations-brokered talks in Geneva, where the US is involved.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, then-Secretary of State John Kerry argued those talks were part of the “formula” that was the only “realistic chance” to end the war.

The difference between the Geneva and Astana meetings suggests otherwise, however.

The negotiations in Astana are the result of President Bashar al-Assad defeating rebels in the now-pulverized city of Aleppo with Russian and Iranian help. The rebels are broken.

“Everything has changed since Aleppo,” a Western diplomat told the BBC. “There’s a new equation.”

What’s more, the Russians, Turks and Iranians are bringing together Syrian leaders and rebel commanders. The UN bureaucrats are dealing with opposition politicians. One group is shooting. The other is talking about not shooting. Big difference.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can now focus on fighting the Kurdish forces in Syria who might support an independent Kurdistan that could include territory that is now Turkish.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, can don the mantle of peacemaker.

More than 400,000 people died since the Syrian Civil War erupted in March 2011. The fighting displaced around 8.6 million, or more than half the Syrian population.

If the bullets stop flying and millions of people can return to their homes, who will ordinary Syrians thank in a generation: the talkers or the doers?



Human Wall

Mexican protesters blocked the country’s Tijuana border crossing on Sunday – but they weren’t demonstrating against US President Donald Trump.

About 50 protesters took control of vehicle lanes on Sunday at the Tijuana-San Diego border – one of the busiest crossing points – to oppose Mexican gasoline price hikes, the Associated Press reported.

After Mexican border staff abandoned their posts, the protesters simply waved cars and trucks from the US through at the checkpoint, the agency said.

Other protests closed southbound traffic for hours at the San Diego-Tijuana San Ysidro port of entry and halted southbound traffic at one of two crossings in Nogales, Arizona. Such protests have disrupted border traffic for weeks.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto announced in December that it was raising gasoline prices by 20 percent in January, the largest such increase in two decades, Bloomberg said. The move comes with inflation already around 3.3 percent, the fastest rate in two years. But eliminating fuel price subsidies will help the government’s finances.

Working the Phone

US President Donald Trump has already started working the phone.

As his administration began moves to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, Trump called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to confirm his already publicized plans to walk back the previous administration’s tough talk on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the New York Times reported.

Trump declined to comment on whether the two leaders discussed the move of the embassy, which would effectively signal that Washington recognizes the Jewish state’s primary right to the disputed holy city – which the Palestinian government also claims as its capital.

A longstanding US policy holds that the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. But presidents in both parties have delayed doing so in the past because the move might prejudge the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, however, Trump has made clear he intends to follow through – perhaps as part of a broader reversal of longstanding US support for a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Take the Money and Run

The good news is that strongman Yahya Jammeh left The Gambia peacefully on Saturday, setting the stage for newly elected President Adama Barrow to assume office.

The bad news is that Jammeh took millions of dollars with him, leaving the state’s coffers “empty,” an aide to Barrow working on the transition told Agence France-Presse.

Jammeh flew out Saturday for Equatorial Guinea, ending a 22-year reign over The Gambia. A day later, a West African military force entered The Gambia to provide security and allow Barrow to return from neighboring Senegal and take power.

But Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that some $11 million had recently been stolen. “The coffers are largely empty,” he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

That may not sound like much. But The Gambia’s entire gross domestic product is only around $940 million, and the government’s total forecast for revenue and grants in 2016 was less than $300 million.


Single Parenting

An Australian shark is redefining single parenthood.

Leonie the leopard shark and her mate were separated in 2012 after the Reef HQ Aquarium in Queensland decided to downsize its breeding program.

Two years later, Leonie began to lay eggs again. Sharks are known to store sperm for up to four years. So Leonie wasn’t behaving abnormally. In 2016, an egg hatched.

But, according to the Guardian, genetic testing of Leonie’s hatchlings indicated they were the result of asexual reproduction. She didn’t use stored sperm, in other words, to give birth.

Leonie’s asexual shift is a one-of-a-kind discovery for biologist Christine Dudgeon, who published a report on the matter recently in Scientific Reports.

“The onset of asexual reproduction with the onset of maturity has been documented before with sharks, and rays, and particularly with reptiles, but what we have shown for the first time is the switch,” she said.

Dudgeon will continue to observe the hatchlings until they reach sexual maturity. In the meantime, Reef HQ is reconsidering its decision to divest from male sharks.

“They have gone on to reproduce anyway,” one senior aquarist said.

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