The World Today for March 12, 2020

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A Tense Calm

The humanitarian crisis in Syria has worsened in recent weeks in the wake of a push by the Syrian regime and Russian forces against Turkish-backed rebel positions in Idlib province in the country’s northwest. An estimated 2.8 million people in the region are in desperate need of aid, says the UN.

Even so, fighting in Idlib has not turned into a broader war between Turkey and Russia – yet.

Still, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday Turkey would not hesitate to take stronger military action if the parties to a ceasefire don’t abide by its terms, Reuters reported.

The situation between the two powers escalated in late February when an airstrike killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers. As the New York Times reported, Turkish officials said Syrian planes launched the strike, but the Russians had been conducting most bombing runs in the region. Shortly after, Turkey downed two Syrian jets, the Associated Press wrote.

Turkey supports Syria’s rebels but also has moved troops into Idlib in order to exert more control over the tide of refugees massing on Turkey’s southern border, including letting them pass through to Europe. Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s nine-year-long civil war, which has claimed 400,000 lives.

An analysis in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted how the Syrian war was shifting from a civil conflict to a proxy battle among major powers. The seriousness of a full-blown Turkish-Russian war can’t be overstated. Turkey is a NATO member. In theory, an attack on it would demand a response from the US and European powers.

Many want the West to support Turkey. Writing in the Financial Times, George Soros called on Europe to stand with Turkey, calling Assad “the most barbarous ruler that the world has seen since Joseph Stalin.” In the Washington Post, columnist Asli Aydintasbas issued a similar call.

Then, late last week, the belligerents reached a cease-fire after six hours of talks in Moscow, reported the BBC. “We are witnessing a very tense calm,” Syrian opposition leader Ibrahim al-Idlibi told Al Jazeera shortly after the cease-fire took hold on March 6.

Tense is the right word. Erdogan has refused to remove Turkish-manned observation posts in Syrian government-controlled territory. Russia has accused Syrian rebels of using those posts, Reuters reported. Al Qaeda-linked militants are also in Idlib. They have rejected a political solution to the crisis. Russia has also claimed that Turkey has done too little to quash one of those militant groups, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey didn’t secure a no-fly zone, meaning planes can reconnoiter for future strikes. The region is still a powder keg.

The Turks and Russians have reached cease-fire deals before. This one is also likely temporary, argued Al Monitor.

That’s better than the alternative.



Trials and Tribulations

The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) on Wednesday sent a case that convicted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi of hundreds of counts of murder for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing back to appeals court on the grounds that it could have been “an unreasonable verdict,” the Guardian reported.

The court said the conviction was based on a verdict, one that no reasonable jury could have returned. It also found that prosecutors withheld evidence that could have been integral to the al-Megrahi’s defense, thereby interfering with his right to a fair trial.

The appeal was brought by Aamer Anwar, the lawyer representing Megrahi’s family, and supported by some families of the victims.

On Wednesday, Anwar called the SCCRC’s ruling, “a damning indictment of the process.”

“Many people said to us: ‘What is the point?’ Well, I suggest that those people who think there is a time limit on justice should speak to the family members who have lost their children and should speak to the family of Megrahi, because they describe him as the 271st victim,” Anwar said.

Megrahi was the only person found guilty for the bombing of a Pan Am flight from London to New York, which exploded above Lockerbie, killing 270 people.

Megrahi was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to 27 years but released in 2009. He died of prostate cancer in 2012.

His lawyers have long maintained that Iran was likely behind the attack, ordering a Syrian-Palestinian group to carry out the bombing in retaliation for the downing of Iranian Airbus flight 655 by the US Vincennes on July 3, 1988, which killed all 290 on board.


Sore Winners

Thailand’s Election Commission said Wednesday it will file criminal charges against the opposition leader of the now-defunct Future Forward Party for breaching electoral laws, the latest move against the former anti-junta politician, Reuters reported.

The commission maintains that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit breached electoral laws when he filed to run for parliament knowing that he was not qualified.

He faces a jail term of up to 10 years, thousands of dollars in fines and a 20-year ban from politics.

The complaint comes less than a month after the Constitutional Court dissolved his party and banned Thanathorn and 15 other party officials from politics for 10 years over an illegal loan.

The move further strengthened the parliamentary coalition led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former junta leader who first took power in a 2014 coup.

Prayuth’s pro-army party came in first in last year’s elections, but opposition parties argue that the electoral laws written by the junta give the military control over politics.


Freedom To Strike

Haiti’s new Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe announced earlier this week that the country’s police force can unionize, following weeks of demonstrations over low pay and poor working conditions, the Miami Herald reported.

Jouthe said that the government will also review the termination of five police officers involved in the unionizing effort.

Under current regulations, police officers are not allowed to unionize. Many, however, have been protesting for weeks against poor working conditions and President Jovenel Moise’s inability to improve the situation.

Moise promised several perks to quell the tensions, including access to loans from a pension program and government-built police housing.

The issue of unions has divided the country, with some noting that the 1987 constitution allows for freedom of association. Others, however, argue that it would open the unstable Caribbean nation up to the possibility of police strikes and deeper insecurity.


Of Monoliths and Resilience

Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean is known for the Moai monoliths made by the Rapa Nui inhabitants to honor their ancestors.

The prevailing narrative has been that the Rapa Nui settled the island around the 13th century, used up all its trees and resources, and eventually declined as a society by the time European explorers first visited in 1722.

A new study, however, suggests that the inhabitants were in fact sustainable farmers and were still thriving when Europeans first made contact, Smithsonian magazine reported.

Researchers studied 11 sites on the island and noted that the Rapa Nui started building the monoliths between the early 14th and mid-15th centuries, continuing until at least 1750.

Dutch and Spanish historical accounts also mentioned the Rapa Nui being involved in rituals featuring the monuments through the latter part of the 18th century.

The team explained that the revised timeline says a lot about the resilience of the inhabitants, most of whom suffered at the hands of the foreign forces that came to their island.

Co-author Carl Lipo said that the Rapa Nui have still persevered in modern times and that the new “overlooked” narrative is one that “deserves recognition.”

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