March 02, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

The Weighted Scale

In the ever-destabilizing Middle East, Iran has enjoyed a particularly good run of successful military and diplomatic power plays in recent years.

Foremost among them was Tehran’s decision in 2011 to back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his quest to reestablish his regime and unify his fractured state.

For all the talk of Moscow’s renewed influence in the Middle East, Iran’s Shiite mullahs are now potentially the closest allies to Syria’s Shiite ruler.

Tehran, for example, took a hardline stance this week against coalition partner Russia’s flexibility in negotiations for a ceasefire with US-backed opposition forces that was contingent on Assad leaving power, Bloomberg reported.

“Iran never wants any solution in Syria,” said Salem al-Muslet, spokesman for the High Negotiation Committee, a rebel umbrella group. “The way they act on the ground shows that they want this war to continue.”

Iranian-backed forces were crucial in the regime’s siege on Aleppo against the Free Syrian Army in December. Tehran has formed Shiite militias armed with new, sophisticated weaponry that have proven to be formidable forces on the battlefield, Voice of America reported.

Tehran’s persistence in the quagmire hasn’t gone unnoticed by regional rival Turkey, either.

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan pledged to improve relations after meeting in Ankara, Reuters wrote. But only a week before, Ankara was condemning Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict as an attempt to promote Persian nationalism in the failing state.

“Iran wants to make Syria and Iraq Shia,” Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu proclaimed at the Munich Security Conference.

Turkey has grown increasingly suspicious of Iran’s influence in the region, leading it to join arms in a “Sunni coalition” with Iranian rival Saudi Arabia, Haaretz reported.

Iran, in turn, has sought to shore up its relationship with neighboring Egypt and Iraq through renewed oil dealings, all the while maintaining its diplomatic relations with Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon remains the lynchpin of Iran’s regional influence and the most secure of all its regional proxies, the Wall Street Journal reported.

While Iran continues to flood money via proxies into regional conflicts, fortify its arsenal and engage in missile tests, expectations are high for US President Donald Trump to renege on his predecessor’s Iran nuclear deal, one Trump has described as the “worst deal in history” on the campaign trail.

But Iran’s firm regional grasp may prove too tight to be undone by sanctions alone, the Economist reported. Fighting the gravity of a weighted scale is no easy task.

WANT TO KNOW

Accidentally On Purpose

Syrian Arab fighters engaged in training exercises with the United States were accidentally bombed by Russian jets Wednesday, the very same day that a United Nations report accused Moscow’s Syrian government allies of deliberately attacking a UN aid convoy in September.

“We had some Russian aircraft and regime aircraft bomb some villages that I believe they thought were held by ISIS,” the New York Times quoted the commander of the American-led task force that is fighting jihadists in Iraq and Syria as saying. “Actually on the ground were some of our Syrian Arab coalition forces.”

In a separate article, the paper quoted a UN report as saying that the September attack on the aid convoy, which killed 14, was “meticulously planned” and “ruthlessly carried out,” making it “one of the most egregious” of many war crimes allegedly committed by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the siege of Aleppo.

According to the report, the Syrian Air Force first did a fly over with helicopters and dropped barrel bombs on the convoy. They then fired rockets from jets and shelled any survivors with machine guns. Syrian officials and their Russian allies have blamed the attack on the militants.

Adding Judicial to Extrajudicial

The Philippines is edging closer to reinstating the death penalty, even as President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal antidrug campaign faces allegations of thousands of extrajudicial executions.

The Philippine House of Representatives approved a proposal on Wednesday to reinstate the death penalty – allowing for drug-related offenses to be punishable by death – more than a decade after capital punishment was abolished in the Southeast Asian nation, the New York Times reported.

The bill is expected to breeze through the Senate, which is controlled by allies of Duterte. Though it must also face scrutiny from the Justice Department on whether it contravenes the country’s commitment to international conventions, the justice secretary, a fraternity brother of Duterte’s, is not expected to oppose the act, either.

The bill proposes making some forms of rape and murder, as well as drug offenses including the import, sale, manufacture, delivery and distribution of narcotics, punishable by death. Drug possession would carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Posh Pushback

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered “a humiliating defeat” in the House of Lords, where legislators overwhelmingly voted in favor of adding a clause to her Brexit proposal that would ensure citizens of the European Union already living in Britain retain the same full rights to live and work in the United Kingdom after it formally withdraws from the EU.

The peers defied the prime minister’s request not to amend the Brexit bill by a vote of 358 to 256, Britain’s Independent newspaper reported, saying that the wide margin will likely “infuriate” the British leader.

May’s government will now take the bill back to the House of Commons and endeavor to get the amendment removed, according to the BBC. But the move could delay the invoking of Article 50 by at least two weeks.

At issue is the future of around 3 million EU citizens currently living in the UK, and one legislator likened the situation to the Asians who were expelled from Uganda by former dictator Idi Amin.

DISCOVERIES

Cat Crazy

Scientists have long believed that cats can make their owners go a little crazy.

In recent years, mankind’s second-best friend has been accused of increasing the risk of schizophrenia in young children, thanks to supposed links between cat-born parasites and mental health disorders.

Some researchers have hypothesized the parasite toxoplasmosis – which is spread via kitty litter and does cause infections in people – increased the risk of psychosis in people if they were exposed to it as children.

But parents and their feline friends can breathe a sigh of relief thanks to new findings that debunk this connection between cat ownership and mental illness.

A new study recently published in the journal Psychological Medicine found no evidence that cat ownership during childhood was associated with early indicators of mental illness – like hallucinations or delusions – in teenagers later on.

The authors of the study, which tracked roughly 5,000 families in England for decades, hoped the results would assuage parents’ fears that Fluffy would have to go.

“Our findings should reassure people that owning a cat in pregnancy or childhood is not related to later risk of psychotic symptoms,” co-author James Kirkbride told the Washington Post.