The World Today for May 24, 2021

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad presided over a civil war that, since 2011, has resulted in 500,000 of his citizens dead or missing – some from chemical attacks that he ordered – along with millions displaced internally and millions more forced to seek asylum in Europe and elsewhere as refugees, as Slate recently reported.

Despite a track record that even a charitable observer might deem a total failure, Assad is running for reelection on May 26.

Everybody expects him to win, giving the 55-year-old his fourth, seven-year term in office. In 2014, when fighting in the Syrian Civil War was intense, he won with 90 percent of the vote. Few outside analysts believe that the vote or the upcoming election will be free and fair, Deutsche Welle wrote.

Fifty-one applicants sought to appear on the ballot. Authorities approved three candidates, including Assad. His two rivals belong to the “tolerated opposition” in the capital of Damascus, added Al Jazeera. Also, only voters within Syrian-government-controlled territories or visiting Syrian consulates and embassies abroad can cast ballots, meaning voters in Turkish, Kurdish and rebel-held areas in the north and elsewhere won’t be able to participate in choosing a new leader.

The United Nations is not involved in the elections. Current UN resolutions mandate supervised free and fair elections that include all voters, reported the Arab News.

Meanwhile, Syrians living in foreign countries either permanently or as refugees are leery about visiting a diplomatic mission, Public Radio International explained. Some fear officials might detain them over publicly expressed anti-Assad sentiments. Others don’t want to participate in a sham election that Assad will use to legitimatize his power.

Assad is making some gestures to win over the public. As Reuters reported, the Syrian president recently released more than 400 intellectuals and dissidents who criticized the regime on social media. Syria’s cities and infrastructure are crumbling. Yet Assad has found the time and resources to erect enormous photos of himself, the Guardian wrote, to reaffirm his control.

Clearly, Assad is a survivor. When the rebellion gained steam, Russian forces and the Iranian military helped secure his position. As the West grew tired of the crisis, he solidified his gains in the country’s largest cities. While the economy is a wreck, a BBC analysis concluded that Assad’s inner circle still supports his rule.

Saudi leaders and others in the region are already courting Assad as an ally as they navigate the region’s fast-changing political and strategic conditions, Middle East Eye said.

Assad appears to be putting the past behind him. Unfortunately, many of his fellow compatriots are not in the position to do the same.



In the Doghouse

The European Parliament voted to freeze discussions on a major investment deal with China, a move aimed at pressuring Beijing over its human rights record in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang province, South China Morning Post reported.

The move comes two months after China imposed sanctions on European Union officials and academics in retaliation for EU action against four Chinese officials and one organization in connection with alleged human rights abuses against the minority Uighur community in Xinjiang.

A majority of European Union lawmakers from all sides of the political aisle approved to halt progress on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) deal, adding that they will not move forward while China’s sanctions remain in place.

The vote is considered part of a broader objection to China’s harsh treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim Turkic minorities in Xinjiang – where many have been imprisoned in reeducation camps – as well as its crackdown on semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

The motion also aims to ban goods that the bloc suspects were made using forced labor in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, the EU urged its member states to suspend extradition treaties with China.

The CAI took more than seven years and almost three dozen rounds of negotiations to complete. It was proposed by the European Commission as a way to level the playing field for EU firms in China but even the business community professed to being “underwhelmed” by its breadth.


An Uneasy Truce

Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire over the weekend, ending 11 days of bloodshed that left hundreds dead and upended the lives of thousands, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The Egyptian-brokered truce followed intense US and international pressure on the parties to end the worst bout of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since 2014.

Under the agreement, Egypt will send a security delegation to Gaza and Israel to monitor and stabilize the ceasefire.

The conflict erupted two weeks ago after Israeli police raided the Al Aqsa Mosque compound – also known as Temple Mount – in Jerusalem, where Palestinians had been protesting the potential eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem in favor of Jewish settlers, Axios reported.

Hamas then fired thousands of rockets into Israel. The Israeli government responded by launching airstrikes into Gaza.

An estimated 248 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, in Gaza. In Israel, 12 people – including two children – died in the rocket barrage. Thousands more were wounded, the majority Palestinian, Reuters said.

The damage to Gaza will take years to rebuild.

Both Hamas and Israel claimed victory but analysts say the ceasefire hasn’t resolved the grievances at the heart of the conflict.

Clashes between Israeli authorities and Palestinian protesters were recorded just hours after the ceasefire in Jerusalem.

Later, Palestinians protested in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, demonstrating again against the possible evictions.


Late Warning

Tens of thousands of people fled the city of Goma in eastern Congo and headed toward the Rwandan border Saturday following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, the New York Times reported.

Authorities said the volcano, which erupted over the weekend, spewed hot lava and created clouds of noxious fumes. They added that at least 15 people died during the eruption, and more than 170 children are feared to be missing, according to the BBC.

Rwandan authorities reported that more than 3,500 people had crossed the border as of Sunday.

The eruption sparked fears of a repeat of another tragedy that plagued the city of two million inhabitants nearly 20 years ago: In 2002, lava from Mount Nyiragongo devastated Goma, killing hundreds of people and leaving more than 100,000 homeless.

However, by Sunday, Goma residents began returning to their homes after the lava flow came to a standstill in Buhene on the northern edge of the city.

The 11,385-foot mountain has long menaced the surrounding area but the recent eruption has raised questions about why the population did not receive a warning.

An early warning system remains in place at Nyiragongo but the Goma Volcano Observatory that runs the system has been facing problems since the World Bank cut funding for the institution.


It’s a Boy!

After living underground for nearly two decades, a new brood of periodical cicadas spawned out of forests and people’s backyards across multiple US states, littering roads and walkways and emitting a huge roar, USA Today reported.

The new Brood X cicadas, which spent the last 17 years underground feeding on plant root sap, have made their appearance in states such as Delaware, Kentucky and Maryland, as the soil temperature increased over the past week.

Scientists said the insects will hang around for the next two to four weeks “courting, mating, flying, driving people crazy, being eaten by everything.”

While it sounds like the premise of a horror movie, cicadas are very benign: They don’t bite or sting but they are as loud as a lawnmower.

They don’t, though, pose any particular threat to people’s gardens. Researchers, however, caution that homeowners might want to protect their small trees since adult cicadas love to drink their sap.

Cicadas are also edible, for animals and humans: The latter makes fascinating snacks out of them, too, such as cicada popcorn. They have been described as tasting “plump and nutty,” and pair well with lager beer, according to the New York Post.

Nevertheless, entomologists warned people to avoid consuming cicadas infected with the Massospora fungus. This fungus turns the already oversexed bugs into sex-crazed zombies, making them mate even more frequently.

It also has the side effect of forcing male cicadas to “sing” with their wings to attract both male and female partners, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

The fungus is quite gruesome, first consuming the cicada from the inside then popping out of the bug’s exoskeleton to make their genitals fall off, only to be replaced by a big white ball of spores.

This hedonistic cycle eventually comes to an end after the mating season is over and the eggs have hatched.

At that point, it’s up to the offspring to carry on the legacy of their parents – which means they’ll be back in 2038.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 33,117,767 (+0.04%)
  2. India: 26,752,447 (+0.84%)
  3. Brazil: 16,083,258 (+0.22%)
  4. France: 5,980,325 (+0.01%)
  5. Turkey: 5,186,487 (+0.15%)
  6. Russia: 4,944,129 (+0.00%)
  7. UK: 4,478,390 (+0.05%)
  8. Italy: 4,192,183 (+0.10%)
  9. Germany: 3,657,667 (+0.00%)**
  10. Spain: 3,636,453 (+0.00%)**

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

**Numbers have been adjusted by affected country

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