The World Today for July 03, 2017



Now, Raqqa

The noose is tightening.

On Sunday, Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces sealed off the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate that the Islamic State has declared in the country.

Around 2,500 “hard-core” jihadists remain in the city, though the Islamic State’s leaders fled to Mayadin, a town east of Raqqa that is also on the Euphrates River, when the coalition launched its assault last month.

“We shoot every boat we find,” American Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who is commanding the coalition of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurds, told the New York Times. “If you want to get out of Raqqa right now, you’ve got to build a poncho raft.”

The US is helping the fighters on the ground with artillery, air strikes, satellite-guided rockets, attack helicopters and armed drones.

Coming on the heels of Iraqi government forces retaking Mosul, the advance in Raqqa could become the second blow in a two-punch strategy to finally knock out the militants, who rose to power in 2014.

“The city (Raqqa) became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas,” wrote the Guardian.

Raqqa has not fallen yet, of course. The militants are dug in. Around 50,000 civilians remaining in the city are likely to become human shields. As in Mosul, the street fighting on the way to the city center is expected to be brutal.

“This is a battle essentially without front lines,” wrote Sky News. “The SDF do not have the numbers to hold ground, consolidate and move forward. Their only chance of a quick victory lies in racing hard, skirmishing all the way to the center of the city.”

Still, the progress led Voice of America to run a headline asking the question, “After Mosul and Raqqa Fall, Where Will Next Battle with IS Be?” The story suggested the Euphrates River Valley in both Syria and Iraq still needed mopping up.

Meanwhile, the US has reached an agreement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies that divvies up the battle zone so that all sides avoid a repeat of the June incident where the US shot down a Syrian plane.

That division comes as the Syrian regime’s forces are stretched thin, opening up the capital of Damascus to rare terror attacks, CNN reported.

Those terror attacks might portend much about the future. Armed by the US, the Syrian rebels and Kurds appear to be taking the fight to the Islamic State while the Syrian regime buckles under its six-year civil war.

Once the Islamic State falls, Assad might just follow.

[siteshare]Now, Raqqa[/siteshare]



A Tenuous Romance

US President Donald Trump phoned his counterparts in Tokyo and Beijing in an effort to shore up plans to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.

In separate phone calls ahead of planned meetings at the G20 summit in Hamburg this week, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed that China must do more to rein in Pyongyang, while the US president once again pressured Chinese President Xi Jinping to take measures to improve the trade balance between the two superpowers, Bloomberg reported.

The calls come amid an apparent turnaround in US-China relations. Trump had scaled back his criticisms of China after enlisting Beijing’s help in further isolating North Korea in April. But in recent weeks he’s taken a tougher stance. Washington approved a massive arms sale to Taiwan and the US Navy again sent warships into the South China Sea on Sunday in another so-called “freedom of navigation” operation.

Trump’s concerns about Kim Jong-un may temporarily bring the two countries together. But the honeymoon won’t last long.

[siteshare]A Tenuous Romance[/siteshare]


Along for the Ride

German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged world leaders to focus on inclusive growth on Sunday ahead of this week’s G20 summit, as some 10,000 anti-globalization activists marched for more action against poverty, climate change and inequality.

The protest was the first of 30 registered demonstrations planned for the week. Marching peacefully in the rain, protesters carried banners reading “fight poverty,” “stop coal” and “planet earth first,” Reuters reported. But police fear the demonstrations could later turn violent.

Merkel said “non-traditional” issues had been pushed onto the summit agenda in her weekly podcast.

“It’s not only going to be about (economic) growth but rather sustainable growth,” Reuters quoted Merkel as saying. “We’ve got to have a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone.”

Given US President Donald Trump’s stance on the Paris agreement on climate change, the discussions on sustainability will likely get heated.

[siteshare]Along for the Ride[/siteshare]


Pulling Out the Stops

Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a 50 percent hike in the minimum wage – his third wage boost this year – in a bid to assuage protesters calling for his ouster and garner support for his plans to amend the constitution.

Beginning this month, workers will earn at least 250,000 bolivars per month including food subsidies, the Associated Press reported. But that works out to less than $35 at the black market exchange rate.

As many as 80 people have died during the past three months of protests, while last week a police officer whom Maduro accused of working with the CIA dropped grenades on the Supreme Court. The incident has been called both a coup attempt and a faked coup plot to justify a further government crackdown.

Meanwhile, the vice president accused Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz of orchestrating such “right-wing violence.” Her trial for dereliction of duties is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

[siteshare] Pulling Out the Sops [/siteshare]


Desert Oases

The Algerian desert is a hot and harsh place. With temperatures topping 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, it’s impossible to spend time outdoors there.

But Tateh Lehbib Braica, a 27-year-old refugee and engineer, has found a novel and eco-friendly way to seek shelter in the desert heat – by building circular houses out of sand-filled plastic bottles.

These houses are ideally suited to the desert climate, wrote the Guardian. The plastic bottles serve as thermal insulation and are rain resistant, while their circular form stops sand dunes from forming and reduces the sun’s impact.

A double roof with a ventilation space and windows design to encourage airflow makes the houses nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than others in the camps. Though only 25 bottle houses have been built so far, the innovation could offer comfort to the estimated 90,000 refugees who call the Algerian desert home.

“I was born in a sun-dried brick house,” Tateh told the Guardian. “When I came back to the camps, I decided to build a place for my grandmother to live that was more comfortable and more worthy of her.”

Tateh’s neighbors were unconvinced at first, but it seems they’re slowly catching on. They now affectionately refer to Tateh as the “crazy bottle guy,” wrote the Guardian.

Check out some pictures of these desert abodes here.

[siteshare]Desert Oases[/siteshare]

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