The World Today for November 09, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

LEBANON

A Fragile Mirror

The bizarre snap resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri over the weekend has shattered the illusion that regional rivalries were at a stalemate, and left many nervously wondering what’s next.

“The Middle East is nearing an explosion,” wrote the Atlantic Wednesday.

That’s because Lebanon, the magazine explains, is a mirror of the region. And that mirror is now in danger of shattering.

On Saturday, without giving any indication of his intentions, Hariri unexpectedly flew to Saudi Arabia and resigned his post in a televised speech in which he accused Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, of holding Lebanon for ransom and destabilizing the Arab region, the Associated Press reported.

Hariri claimed he was taking refuge in Riyadh due to evidence of an assassination plot against him, Reuters reported.

But grumbling rumors rooted in the current political situation in Lebanon suggest that Hariri resigned at the behest of the Saudi monarchy, which is frustrated with Hariri’s position in his unity government with Hezbollah, wrote the New York Times.

Beirut’s Hezbollah-leaning Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar even went so far as to call Hariri a “hostage,” a sentiment echoed by Hezbollah elites after Hariri’s surprise resignation.

“The resignation was a Saudi order, forced upon him and was not his wish or his desire,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. “We know how Prime Minister Hariri talks and his political phrases, this was unlike him.”

Hariri led a government coalition in Lebanon with Hezbollah. That was always an uneasy alliance because Hariri is a Sunni Muslim closely allied with Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah is a Shiite political and military force known as Iran’s proxy abroad.

While the strange marriage between the two factions in Lebanon was always shaky, short-lived political bargains have given rise to nominal political and social stability, the Washington Post reported.

But the writing was on the wall before the resignation, evidenced by a deal done with Islamic State, reported the Washington Times.

Still, Hariri’s resignation now puts Lebanon front and center in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Financial Times reported.

The two nations are already fighting proxy wars in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and a ballistic missile launched from Yemen at Riyadh on the same day as Hariri’s resignation was blamed on Iran and described as an “act of war” by Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is now also blaming Lebanon’s Hezbollah for escalating the conflict, a move they liken to “declaring war,” Al Jazeera reported.

With similar rhetoric being exchanged between Saudi Arabia and Iran over this latest political crisis in Lebanon, Beirut is quickly becoming the newest fault line of the conflict – a development that could tear apart a nation already struggling to absorb more than a million refugees from the Syrian conflict and jumpstart its flagging economy.

“One is pro-Iran and the other is pro-Saudi, which means if things get worse it could lead to a confrontation between the two parties,” political analyst Khaldoun El Charif told Al Jazeera.

And while no one is really mentioning it, including El Charif, most remember what happened the last time deep divisions overtook Lebanon: A civil war that lasted more than 15 years and killed tens of thousands of people.

“That is why we need to find a solution,” he said.

WANT TO KNOW

CHINA

Money Talks

Despite President Donald Trump’s tough rhetoric on trade, his commerce secretary presided over a signing ceremony in Beijing for commercial deals worth some $9 billion – and more are expected before Trump’s visit to China is finished.

Some in the US business community say the deals could come at the expense of resolving long-standing complaints over market access restrictions in China, Reuters reported.

The contracts were inked just before a meeting on North Korea between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping Thursday, in which Trump will undoubtedly push for Beijing to take more stringent actions to rein in North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

So far, China has said it is enforcing UN sanctions and has resisted doing more than that.

Beijing appears to be impressed so far. Trump called China’s trade surplus with the US “embarrassing” and “horrible” last week. But the influential Global Times lauded him for a “pragmatic” approach that “hasn’t used the issue of human rights to make trouble.”

VENEZUELA

Groupthink

The European Union will impose an arms embargo on Venezuela and is exploring further sanctions, signaling that the EU is coming in line with US policy toward controversial President Nicolas Maduro.

A diplomat said the decision was effectively approved Wednesday, though formal approval will come Monday, Reuters reported.

One part of the impetus could be Britain’s looming exit from the bloc: Spain has long pushed to sanction Maduro’s close allies, while Britain is a significant arms supplier to Venezuela. But diplomats told Reuters that regional elections that appeared to favor Maduro’s ruling Socialists last month spurred the bloc into action.

Wednesday’s meeting prepared the legal basis for sanctions without specifying any names. Travel bans and asset freezes would only be imposed on Venezuelan officials “should the evolution of the situation require it,” Reuters quoted an EU diplomat as saying. Meanwhile, the arms embargo will be accompanied by a ban on exports of items like surveillance equipment that could be used for internal repression.

SYRIA

On the Horizon

Syrian army and allied forces claim to have taken Albu Kamal, the last stronghold of Islamic State in the country – though independent observers say fierce fighting continues in the area.

State television reported that Albu Kamal had been “liberated,” but UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the town was still under siege, the BBC reported.

Though Islamic State still controls some areas of desert and villages, Syrian forces captured the provincial capital, Deir al-Zour, on Friday. And later the same day, Iraqi forces took al-Qaim, just across the border.

Shiite militias aided the regular army troops in taking Albu Kamal, perhaps presaging a different kind of trouble on the horizon: Conflict over how the US, Russia and other regional players have supported opposing sides in the civil war that has paralleled the uniting fight against IS.

Reuters quoted a Syrian army commander as saying Iran-backed Hezbollah was “the foundation in the battle,” adding that hundreds of fighters from the Shiite group took part.

DISCOVERIES

Millennial 0, Grandma 1

If grandma can still whoop you in a game of Scrabble after all these years, there’s a chance she might be a so-called “super-ager,” a very rare group of octogenarians with the mental capacity of those roughly half their age.

Researchers set out recently to determine how super-agers differ from others in their age group, Business Insider reported.

According to the study published recently in the journal PLOS One, super-agers have slightly larger outer cortexes, the area that holds our brain’s gray matter and dictates most brain function. They also have less age-related brain degradation compared to their contemporaries.

But big brains aren’t everything. Super-agers were also found to keep more vivacious social calendars, which could stop the process of mental decay, the researchers noted.

All’s not lost for the non-super-agers among us, however. Scientists say living a healthier lifestyle, quitting bad habits and keeping the mind active through mentally challenging work and worthwhile relationships all help to keep the mind sharp.

In other words, keep on playing Scrabble with Grandma. She might cream you now, but it’ll pay off later on when you hit 80.

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