The World Today for April 16, 2018



Friends and Enemies

American, British and French air strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria understandably dominated the headlines this weekend.

But the long-term consequences of surgical attacks near Damascus and Homs might be slight.

The relatively modest strikes probably avoided heightening tensions between the US and Russia, a New York Times analysis said. After issuing their boilerplate condemnations of America, Iranian leaders similarly said the attacks wouldn’t change conditions on the ground, wrote MarketWatch.

As the smoke cleared, an ironic fact emerged: The US might be more likely to come into conflict with Turkey before anyone else in Syria, analysts say.

Turkey is a NATO ally. There should be few serious disagreements between the US and Turkey.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a lock on power that harks back more to the Ottoman sultans of old than to the founder of Turkey’s secular democracy, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Especially since he was elected president in 2014 and then last year engineered vast new powers for his office, Erdogan has become the poster boy for an authoritarianism that appears to be sweeping the globe, a la Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and others.

As Deutsche Welle explained, Erdogan is also interested in expanding his country’s influence throughout the Middle East.

To that end, this weekend Erdogan graciously stepped forward to mediate disputes between the US and Russia in Syria, Voice of America reported. And on Sunday, he reportedly told his party’s supporters in Istanbul that he welcomed the air strikes against Assad, Reuters said.

But last month he was threatening to send the Turkish army after Syrian Kurdish YPG militia fighters who are cooperating closely with American forces in Syria.

That move would risk “confrontation between the NATO allies who have been at loggerheads over the US policy in Syria and other issues,” Reuters said.

Turkey and its proxy militias have been fighting the Syrian Kurdish YPG in north Syria, but they have retreated back to Manbij, a northern Syrian city where the US has established bases.

Turkish leaders view the Kurdish fighters in Syria as partners with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, an outlawed group that has fought an insurgency to create an independent Kurdistan that would secede from Turkey.

But the Kurds are America’s most stalwart allies in Syria. The US has provided arms, material and training to them. With the help of the US, the Kurds defeated the Islamic State in the area.

Alas, Turks view American cooperation with the Kurds as a slap in the face.

Sky News recently reported that American and Kurdish forces have erected a battle line that is around 1,000 feet from Turkish-backed forces.

It’s no surprise that many residents in Manbij have been nervous since President Donald Trump said American forces should leave Syria. That would leave them exposed.

But the catastrophe that could occur if they stay would have ramifications beyond their city.



Willing and Abe

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Palm Beach for what could be a confrontational meeting with the US president on Tuesday. But Abe has plenty to deal with already.

A new survey by private broadcaster Nippon TV released on Sunday showed his approval ratings have slipped to 26.7 percent – the lowest since he took office in December 2012 – due to accusations of cronyism and cover-ups, Japan Today reported.

The daily Sankei newspaper said Monday he’s decided to sack Administrative Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda in damage control related to a fresh scandal, this one involving allegations of sexual harassment against the top finance ministry official.

And Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Sunday met with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, marking the first Japan visit by a Chinese foreign minister for bilateral talks since 2009, reported the Associated Press.

After US President Donald Trump’s refusal to exempt Japan from his new tariffs on steel and aluminum, Asia’s two largest economies have good reason to work together, the paper noted. But the recurrent scandals mean Abe is increasingly being viewed as a lame duck.


Inventing Violence

Some 300,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Sunday to protest the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders on charges of “rebellion” – a crime that carries a prison sentence of 30 years.

Nobody is disputing that the separatists defied the Spanish government in holding a referendum on secession. The protesters say the charge is not justified because there was no attempt at a violent overthrow of the government. But prosecutors maintain that some earlier pro-independence protests met the standard, Agence France-Presse reported.

“They need to demonstrate that there was violence to execute the sentences that they want, so they invent it,” the agency quoted protester Roser Urgelles, a 59-year-old teacher, as saying. “But we will continue to protest peacefully.”

The demonstration comes 10 days after a German court dismissed an extradition request for Catalonia’s ousted separatist president Carles Puigdemont on grounds of rebellion and released him on bail. But the leaders of Catalonia’s two largest pro-independence groups have been in jail since October on the same charge.


Sand and Oil

Once lauded for his apology to Canada’s indigenous peoples for the country’s long history of “humiliation, neglect and abuse,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday vowed to push through a pipeline project that has drawn legal challenges and opposition from environmental groups and Native American tribes.

Trudeau has instructed his finance minister to begin talks with Kinder Morgan to “remove the uncertainty” hanging over the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project and said new legislation is coming to “reassert and reinforce” the Canadian government’s powers to push the project through over the objections of the province of British Columbia, the Associated Press reported.

Proposed by the Canadian division of Texas-based Kinder Morgan, the pipeline expansion is expected to nearly triple the flow of oil from Canada’s oil sands to the Pacific Coast. The prospect of a massive increase in the number of oil tankers plying the shared waters between Canada and Washington state has sparked coastal opposition, however.


A Viking We Will Go

Google Maps and GPS make modern navigation easy. But the seafaring Vikings had to rely on the sun to safely traverse the ocean.

That was simple enough on sunny days, but on cloudy ones, researchers posit that the Vikings tracked the sun using a device called a sunstone, the Washington Post reported.

Though there’s little archaeological evidence to confirm their use, sunstones made of calcite crystal can track the sun by revealing the direction of polarized light passing through the clouds.

According to a recent report on sunstones in the journal Royal Society Open Science, calcite crystals, when moved in front of the eyes, brighten when aligned with polarized sunlight, indicating the direction of the sun behind the clouds.

To test whether the trick would actually work, researchers ran 36,000 computer simulations mimicking the conditions of a Viking ship sailing from Norway to Greenland. Assuming that a sailor used the sunstone once every three hours, there was an 80 to 100 percent chance that the ship would safely reach Greenland.

The model, however, didn’t take into account the whims of Mother Nature, such as strong winds or storms. Moreover, using the sunstone only every four hours or more could throw a ship severely off course.

Even so, the Vikings managed to roam far and wide, even making it to North America years before the southern Europeans did.

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