The World Today for December 18, 2017



The Quagmire

It’s hard to tell whether they’re coming or going in Syria.

The US has declared victory against the Islamic State in the civil war-torn country.

Russia has done the same. “In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian Army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin in a surprise visit to the Russian airbase in Latakia on the Syrian coast last week.

But despite declaring victory, Russian and American leaders expect to keep troops in Syria. Russian mercenaries are also active there, the Associated Press said. Ostensibly, everyone wants to prevent a resurgence of the jihadists.

“We’ve won in Syria, we’ve won in Iraq, but they spread to other areas and we’re getting them as fast as they spread,” Trump told Bloomberg.

But that’s only one motivation.

As the New Yorker explained, Russia’s decision in 2015 to provide air support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a “pivotal turning point” that likely kept the regime in power. The US, meanwhile, was helping Syrian rebels. In other words, it was a proxy war a la the indirect US-Soviet conflicts during the Cold War.

As during those proxy wars – think Vietnam – tensions appear to be ramping up slowly between both sides.

Russia and Syria have condemned the US decision to keep troops in Syria, saying they are there illegally because Assad never invited them, Newsweek wrote.

Iran, meanwhile, doesn’t appear prepared to quit. The French foreign minister recently condemned Tehran’s “axis” of influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean, according to Reuters.

Turkey is also keeping forces in northern Syria in its push to defeat Kurdish forces, including those allied with the US, the pro-Turkish government newspaper Daily Sabah wrote.

The US has acknowledged that Assad will remain in office at least until the 2021 Syrian presidential election. Washington had little choice. Talks between Assad and Syrian rebels in Geneva have failed to find a political solution to the civil war.

That led the National Interest to worry that Syria could become the “black hole” of the Middle East.

“It’s hard to believe that the war will end through a political arrangement,” the magazine wrote. “And if it does end through such an arrangement, it’s not going to be one that Assad’s opponents will like.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. War in Yemen. An independent Kurdistan facing off with Baghdad.

The Middle East already has plenty of black holes, thank you.



The Old One-Two

Protesters booed and shouted “shame” at a gathering of far-right leaders in Prague on Saturday, highlighting the deep rift between left and right in the European Union in the wake of gains by far-right politicians across the bloc.

Various members of the European Parliament, including Marine Le Pen of France and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, met Saturday as part of the nationalist Europe of Nations and Freedom coalition for a two-day conference intended to unify their stance demanding more restrictive immigration policies, the New York Times reported.

“In 30 or 50 years, the Czech Republic will be surrounded by countries with population where 20 percent of people will be Muslims,” said Wilders in an incendiary speech. Currently, Muslims comprise less than 0.02 percent of the country’s total population, and it has taken in just 12 asylum seekers as part of the European Union quota

The conference was hosted by the Czech Republic’s anti-Islam and anti-immigrant Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which won nearly 11 percent of the vote in Czech parliamentary elections in October.


Another Election, Another Billionaire

Conservative billionaire Sebastian Pinera swept to victory in the second round of Chile’s presidential election with 54.6 percent of the vote on Sunday.

The former president had promised to reboot the economy, following four years of doldrums under the current center-left ruling coalition – which fractured before the polls, Bloomberg reported. Current socialist President Michelle Bachelet had backed Pinera’s left-wing opponent Alejandro Guillier.

Previously president from 2010 to 2014, Pinera has pledged to ease pressure on industry, after Bachelet increased corporate taxes and worked to empower labor unions. However, he also promised to expand Bachelet’s flagship project of free higher education.

His pro-business agenda helped push the benchmark IPSA stock index to a record high before the first round of voting – which he also won handily. Despite a margin of victory that could be the largest in recent history for a right wing government in Chile, Pinera will preside over a very fragmented legislature, noted Kenneth Bunker, director of the electoral program at the Universidad Central.


New Direction

The political party that launched black majority rule in South Africa under Nelson Mandela is choosing a new leader to succeed President Jacob Zuma on Monday.

It’s a pivotal election for the African National Congress (ANC), which has been dogged by scandal and graft accusations under Zuma, Reuters reported. Due to the historical dominance of the ANC, the winner is expected to become the country’s next president after elections in 2019.

The vote was delayed, but nearly 5,000 delegates began voting around midnight after the field of candidates was narrowed to pit Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, 65, against his Zuma’s ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 68.

Playing to the party’s past strengths, Dlamini-Zuma – whom Zuma is backing – pledged to tackle the racial inequality that persists despite the end of white minority rule. Ramaphosa vowed to fight graft and jumpstart the economy – a message that appealed to foreign investors.

Zuma narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in August, and has been accused of tarnishing the party’s legacy and doling out state contracts to his friends in the powerful Gupta family.


Freedom and Choco Pies

While escaping to the more democratic South, Oh Chung-sung, a soldier from North Korea, was shot 40 times by his nation’s border guards. Luckily, he survived and was airlifted to a South Korean hospital.

After waking up from his injuries, the 24-year-old had a simple request that followed his desire to remain in the south: a Choco Pie, a South Korean snack of small chocolate-covered cakes filled with marshmallow cream.

Upon learning about his request, Orion, the company that produces the snack, offered the former soldier a lifetime supply of Choco Pies, Quartz reported.

For Oh, and many North Koreans, the Choco Pie represents a symbol of prosperity and proof of a better life on the other side, despite the North’s propaganda of being the “true Korea.”

Whereas South Koreans got their first bite of Choco Pies in 1974, it wasn’t until three decades later when people in the North got a taste – although the pies were only sold in the black market.

To combat contraband, the North government created their own knock-off but it couldn’t match the taste of the original product – or its symbolism.

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