The World Today for January 15, 2019

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Dreaming of Nightmares

The United States will withdraw its 2,200 troops from Syria soon.

Or maybe not, as USA Today’s editorial board noted. Or maybe their equipment first and troops later, the New York Times added.

While the timeline might be in question, American involvement in the Middle Eastern country’s civil war is clearly diminishing.

But the fighting is not over.

In areas around Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel-held enclave, the jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has been scooping up territory.

“They came in and started shooting everywhere,” Hashem, a father of two in Western Aleppo, told Al Jazeera. “We are very, very afraid. They will kill us all.”

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is preparing for the day when Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad figure out their plan for the country’s future.

“The Syria that the United States military is vacating on President Trump’s orders is a Balkanized version of the country that plunged into a calamitous civil war nearly eight years ago,” the New York Times wrote.

Russian leaders have warned Turkey not to expand its troop presence in its southern neighbor, the Associated Press and Daily Mail reported.

But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined – read this New York Times op-ed he wrote – to crush Syrian-based Kurds despite American officials’ requests for Erdogan to protect them. The Syrian Kurds have been key allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, but Erdogan fears they might someday help Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s Anatolia region, Politico explained.

An analyst at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Zvi Bar’el, believed Turkey was becoming increasingly isolated in the region. Accordingly, Press TV, an Iranian state-controlled news agency, reported that Turkey is seeking to broker a deal with Russia and Iran after the US pulls out.

Tehran is also celebrating the exit of American troops, as it will give Iran “solid control over the entire arc of the Levant from Baghdad to Beirut,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security, according to NBC News.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also will celebrate if and when the US leaves, Bloomberg concluded. With permanent military bases in Syria from which he might project power throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, Putin now is likely the most powerful player in the country, the referee between Turkey and Iran and al-Assad. It’s the vision of a strong, influential Russia that the former KGB agent has sought for years.

Will Syria fall into a “new nightmare,” as the conservative National Interest warned?

That depends on the dreams of presidents in Washington and Moscow.



The Business of Confidence

The government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faces a no-confidence vote on Wednesday over a planned deal to resolve a dispute over the name of neighboring Macedonia. But outsiders will be watching the results for economic signals.

Under the deal Tsipras inked last year to resolve a conflict with a Greek province that shares the same name, Macedonia would be called the Republic of North Macedonia. However, the Greek nationalist Anel party has pulled out of its coalition with Tsipras’ Syriza party over the plan, CNBC reported.

The Greek press speculates that Tsipras has the numbers to win the no-confidence vote. But analysts are divided over whether or not he will nevertheless call for early elections, with some arguing that investors would welcome such a move because it would “be better than a toothless minority government,” said Constantine Fraser, European analyst at research firm TS Lombard.

With debt-burdened Greece now more firmly committed to the euro and running a fiscal surplus excluding its interest payments, investors would mostly look to elections as a barometer of support for unconventional or extreme political groups across Europe, said Paul Donovan, chief economist at UBS Global Wealth Management.


In All But Name

A long-delayed election in the Democratic Republic of Congo has not ended concerns that President Joseph Kabila will continue to cling to power – in everything but the name.

Most independent election observers, including the Roman Catholic Church, have insisted that opposition candidate Martin Fayulu defeated fellow opposition leader Félix Tshisekedi, who was declared the winner, as well as Kabila’s handpicked successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the New York Times reported. Fayulu has appealed to the Constitutional Court to demand a recount. The Southern African Development Community has backed his proposal and called for a unity government “given the strong objections to the provisional results.”

But analysts expect the Constitutional Court to validate Tshisekedi as the winner, the paper noted, and Kabila will command a lot of influence over him. Kabila’s party dominated the simultaneous legislative elections – giving Kabila a majority in parliament and the power to appoint the prime minister and likely setting him up to become Senate president.


Who’s Threatening Whom?

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that the opposition would be “dead” if the European Union makes good on its threat to revoke trade benefits over his earlier crackdown on his opponents.

The EU began procedures to revoke Cambodia’s Everything But Arms (EBA) status in November, following concerns about Sen’s stifling of the opposition ahead of the July election in which Hun Sen’s party won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, Al Jazeera reported.

“If you want the opposition dead, just cut it,” Hun Sen said in a speech on Monday, when he celebrated 34 years as Cambodia’s prime minister. “If you want the opposition alive, don’t do it and come and hold talks together.”

The EBA scheme eliminates import duties on goods (other than weapons) from poor countries to stimulate their economies. EBA status can be withdrawn over human rights violations.

Prior to last year’s election, Cambodia’s supreme court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), jailed party leader Kem Sokha and banned 118 party members in 2017 after Hun Sen’s government accused them of plotting a coup.


Hacking Nature

Scientists have hacked photosynthesis.

Biologist Amanda Cavanagh and a team based at the University of Illinois have uncovered a novel method of re-engineering photosynthesis to produce bigger crops, NPR reported.

The team altered the Rubisco molecule, a protein that is integral to converting carbon dioxide from the air into sugar molecules.

The protein, however, also creates a toxic compound when it picks up oxygen, requiring the plant to spend energy to get rid of it – which means that there’s less energy for making leaves, fruits, seeds and other edible vegetation.

“It’s probably the most abundant protein in the world,” said Cavanagh. “But it has what we like to call one fatal flaw.”

In their experiment, the scientists placed new genes in tobacco plants that made their detoxification of Rubisco more efficient, resulting in larger crops.

“They grew faster, and they grew up to 40 percent bigger,” Cavanagh added.

Scientists plan to use this new method on other crops and help farmers in developing countries grow larger yields.

“It’s really the first major breakthrough showing that one can indeed engineer photosynthesis and achieve a major increase in crop productivity,” said Maureen Hanson, a researcher who wasn’t involved in the study.

Any new crops grown with the technique are still a long way from the table, though. And they will undergo rigorous testing before humans ever consume them, Donald Ort, the study’s senior author, told NBC News.

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