The World Today for April 22, 2019

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Circling Buzzards

Fighting recently broke out between Russian troops and Iranian-backed militias in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Eleven people died as the fighting escalated from a skirmish near a vegetable market into an exchange of fire from heavy weaponry that included ground-to-air missiles.

The two groups were allies when they were combating the Islamic State and rebels who sought to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But now, after defeating nearly all those forces, they’re competing for influence as Assad reasserts control over the country, reported Middle East Monitor.

The competition is about more than territory. It’s about who will profit from and hold sway during Syria’s reconstruction – work that the UN estimated could be worth at least $250 billion, CNBC reported.

Syrian officials are eager to become part of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure project that will connect China with Africa and European markets. The Syrians are courting Iran, whose oil has been crucial to keeping the lights on in the war-torn country. Ongoing Russian military and humanitarian aid and business investment is also vital to the country.

But none of those options are ideal.

China has little or no influence with the Syrian army, the dominant branch of the country’s powerful military, Al Monitor wrote. Iran, Russia and Syria are laboring under international sanctions, stemming from President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, American antipathy toward Iran, and Assad’s crackdown on anti-government legislators at the outset of the civil war in 2011.

US sanctions forced Iran to cancel a credit line to Syria last year, for example, resulting in oil shortages that are undermining Assad’s authority. Eight out of 10 Syrians are living in poverty. Syrian journalist Danny Makki told the Associated Press that even Assad’s loyalists are growing restive. “It is a pressure cooker,” he said.

The civil war is not completely over, either.

Turkey and Iran are still fighting Kurdish militants in northern Syria, National Public Radio wrote. Rebels and others who have surrendered to the government face arrest and detention under Assad’s regime, hardly the actions of a leader seeking to bring people together, the Atlantic Council explained in a blog post.

Meanwhile, one country that might help stabilize the situation – the United States – is drastically reducing its forces in the country, at President Donald Trump’s direction. Some observers, like those at the National Interest, think the US is making a mistake. Others, like Middle East analyst Brett McGurk, believe America needs to scale down its ambitions in the region following Trump’s decision.

History will determine whether the US gained or lost by not joining the vultures.



A Return to Sorrow

A series of bombings mostly in and around the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo killed at least 290 people and wounded hundreds of others in devastating Easter Sunday attacks on churches, luxury hotels and other sites.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects were arrested, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, though no group has yet claimed responsibility, Agence France-Presse reported that Sri Lankan police chief Pujuth Jayasundara had issued a nationwide alert 10 days earlier after receiving a report from a foreign intelligence agency that an Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath was planning “to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo.”

Most of the people killed were Sri Lankans, but the dead included at least 27 foreign nationals, including several Americans, AP said.

Most thought the country had left this scale of bloodshed behind following the end of its brutal 26-year civil war with Tamil rebels – made up of Hindus, Christians and Muslims – in 2009. Moreover, though tensions do exist between the country’s hardline Buddhist monks and Muslims, the island nation has no history of violent Islamist militancy.


Life Imitating Art

Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won Sunday’s run-off presidential vote by a landslide, exit polls suggest.

Polls show the 41-year-old newcomer defeating incumbent President Petro Poroshenko with more than 70 percent of the vote, the BBC reported. Poroshenko has already conceded the race.

“I will never let you down,” Zelensky told supporters Sunday as his victory looked certain. “While I am not formally president yet, as a citizen of Ukraine I can tell all post-Soviet countries: ‘Look at us! Everything is possible!”

Zelensky’s victory, assuming the official count confirms it, would mark a dramatic rejection of politics as usual and Ukraine’s existing power structures. A complete outsider, Zelensky entered politics after playing an ordinary man whose strident anti-corruption stance propels him to the country’s highest office in a popular television satire.

The polls indicate that Poroshenko gained only 9 percent more votes in the run-off vote, despite the exodus of 37 candidates who contested the initial round. Zelensky added another 45 percent to his tally.


Of Little Faith

Sudan’s interim military leader on Sunday assured the nation that the transitional military council plans to hand over the reins of power to a civilian government, but leaders of the protest movement that sparked the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir said they had little faith in those promises.

“The military council is still not serious about handing power over to civilians,” said the spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), according to Al Jazeera, announcing that the protests would continue and the opposition leaders had suspended talks with the military council.

The statement followed a televised address by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in which the interim leader said the council is committed to transferring power to a civilian authority and simply waiting for the opposition to submit their proposal. “We are not greedy at all to want to stay in power more than the time we agreed upon with the opposition parties,” he said.


Of Staples and Porcupines

Porcupine quills are sharper than hypodermic needles and are hard to remove, thanks to microscopic barbs in them.

That makes them a good deterrent against predators, but scientists see potential benefits for people, too: They hope to imitate the quills in a new type of staple for post-surgical procedures, Tech Times reported.

Researcher Jeff Karp and his team are trying to replicate the quills’ barbs in a safer, less-invasive alternative to the staples currently used for closing and healing surgical incisions.

Stapling is faster than stitching surgical wounds but staples can cause damage when bent inside tissue, and the punctures they require can lead to infections.

Karp’s team experimented with both barbed and barbless quills, discovering that the former easily entered the flesh without causing a lot of damage and didn’t need to bend, thanks to their gripping power.

The team hopes to create a new biodegradable prototype for staples that will seal surgical wounds with less collateral damage and then dissolve over time – eliminating a trip to the doctor to remove them.

“This could be an enabler for smaller incisions to be made in a large number of surgeries,” Karp told NPR.

He added that there are logistical problems to solve before proceeding to human testing.

Until then, here are 30,000 reasons why people shouldn’t mess with porcupines.

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