The World Today for May 16, 2023

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SYRIA

The Arab League recently welcomed Syria back into the fold after suspending the country’s membership 12 years ago, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched his crackdown on rebels wanting to bring an end to his tyrannical rule. Around half a million people have died and 23 million more have been displaced in the subsequent Syrian civil war.

While rebels still control territory in the northern and eastern regions of the Middle Eastern country, Assad has reestablished his grip on power, leading many Arab officials to conclude that freezing him out of the regional organization serves little purpose, reported Al Jazeera. Instead, the country’s readmission might offer benefits.

For example, Assad might have promised to crack down on Captagon, a drug that has become popular in the region, as part of readmittance. A day after the Arab League made its announcement on May 7, for example, Jordan launched air strikes against a drug-making facility in southern Syria. The facility allegedly had links to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group that is allied with Assad, Reuters wrote.

These changes represent a new political order in the Middle East, argued the Brookings Institution. The normalization of relations between Syria and its neighbors comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia have reached a détente in their long-running rivalry, Israel and Lebanon have reached accords on maritime questions, and other changes in hitherto “intractable regional conflicts” have taken place.

The West is now in a dilemma. The US and Europe are still enforcing sanctions against Syria. If other Arab countries can let bygones be bygones, should leaders in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin follow? “Should governments continue to isolate pariah states long after it is clear that sanctions will not induce political change?” asked the Economist.

American lawmakers, for instance, have filed a bill that would prohibit the US from recognizing Assad’s government, Reuters noted. The legislation might also make it harder for other countries to engage with Syria if they also want to retain positive ties with the US.

Meanwhile, refugees who fled Syria as well as human rights advocates were aghast at the rapprochement, reported CNN. Some, including victims of torture, worried about being forced back to Syria. That’s not overdramatic: Assad continues to rely on Iranian and Russian paramilitaries, human rights abuses, and other authoritarian tactics to retain power. The news network cited a United Nations poll that found that less than two percent of Syrians living in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq would go home in the next year. Syrian rebels said the Arab League has abandoned them.

These developments unfortunately represent both change as well as business as usual.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

No Knockout Here

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a runoff later this month after results of Sunday’s elections showed that he and his party defied expectations of winning the first round, the Washington Post reported Monday.

Preliminary results showed Erdogan won 49.4 percent of the vote, while his main challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu secured nearly 45 percent – neither of them passing the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

Meanwhile, election officials said the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its allies retained control of parliament.

The runoff election will be held on May 28.

Sunday’s vote was seen as a referendum on Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic style of governance, with political observers calling it his toughest electoral challenge during his decades-long tenure in power.

Many voters have expressed concern over the poor state of the economy, marked by soaring inflation, and the government’s handling of the catastrophic earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people in southern Turkey.

While Erdogan remains very popular, he has become an increasingly divisive figure during his tenure: Critics have accused him of eroding Turkey’s democracy through repressive tactics against civil society and the media while moving to consolidate power.

Turkey’s relations with its Western allies have also been strained under Erdogan, who has looked to strengthen ties with Russia.

Kilicdaroglu has vowed to bolster Turkey’s democracy, improve relations with foreign allies and tackle the country’s economic woes.

Still, analysts noted that the preliminary results in favor of the president and his party indicate that Kilicdaroglu will face an uphill battle in ousting Erdogan in the runoff. The incumbent enjoys considerable election advantages – including his control of state institutions and Turkey’s news media.

Even if Kilicdaroglu wins, he would face tough challenges in pushing his policies through the legislature, they added.

Checkmate

THAILAND

Two Thai opposition parties secured the largest share of the vote in Sunday’s parliamentary polls, delivering a stinging rebuke to Thailand’s military leaders who have ruled the country since their 2014 coup, the New York Times reported.

Election results showed that the progressive Move Forward Party won 151 seats in the 500-member lower house of parliament. Another opposition party, Pheu Thai, led by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, secured 141 seats.

Meanwhile, the United Thai Nation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha only gained 36 seats.

Soon after the results announcement, the two opposition parties said they would form a coalition. Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward, added that the new political alliance, which is made up of five parties, would control 309 of the 500 seats in the legislature.

The election results showed that Thai voters want a change from the military junta, with many having become disillusioned with the never-ending cycle of coups and protests that have gripped Thailand for years.

But analysts said it was unclear if the military junta would easily relinquish power. They cautioned that Thailand’s military-appointed upper house of parliament could block Pita’s appointment as prime minister.

Questions also remain about whether the upper house would tolerate changes to the status quo, such as Move Forward’s proposal to amend a law criminalizing criticism of Thailand’s monarchy – a taboo socially and legally in the Southeast Asian country.

Even so, observers noted that if the military-controlled upper house blocked Pita’s appointment it would face potential mass demonstrations and plunge the country into more political turmoil.

Locked Out

MALAWI

The High Court of Malawi ordered the government this month to allow children with dreadlocks to enroll in public schools, a verdict that is seen as a victory for the country’s Rastafarian community, the Voice of America reported.

The case centers on two Rastafarian minors who were barred from enrolling in public schools because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, as required by the Ministry of Education.

The regulation required all learners to cut their hair before admission into government schools, according to the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.

Lawyers representing the minors said the move was unlawful and infringed on their right to an education. But Attorney General Chakaka Nyirenda countered the government had no policy against dreadlocks and that public schools were banning the students on their own.

In its ruling, the court said the policy was unconstitutional and rejected a request by the attorney general to stop the proceedings. It also ordered the government to inform all public schools by the end of June that no student should be denied entry into classrooms because of sporting dreadlocks.

The Ministry of Education said it would fully comply with the ruling, a move welcomed by Malawi’s Rastafarians.

The policy had previously forced many parents to send their children to private schools – or cut their hair.

Dreadlocks are important for Rastafarians because they symbolize the mane of the Lion of Judah mentioned in the Biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

DISCOVERIES

Blinding Hunger

Scientists discovered that jumping spiders of one particular species lose their eyesight if they don’t eat enough, Live Science reported.

The bold jumping spider, scientifically known as Phidippus audax, has high-resolution color vision which they see with their main, forward-facing eyes.

A research team was studying the eyes of wild-caught arachnids when they noticed small black spots on their photoreceptors – cells that convert light into signals that are sent from the eyes to the brain.

They explained that these spots showed that the photoreceptor cells were dying and that the tiny creatures’ eyesight was degenerating, according to a new study.

To determine whether poor nutrition was the culprit, researchers split P. audax into two groups: One group ate a normal diet of crickets and bee pollen, while the other only received half portions.

The results showed that the starving jumping spiders started going blind and their photoreceptors began disappearing. The team suggested that this degeneration happens because photoreceptors need a lot of energy in the form of nutrients to properly work, otherwise “the system fails.”

The study could help future research with a better understanding of the role nutrition plays in eyesight, especially for humans.

While spiders and humans are broadly not alike, the authors noted that the photoreceptor mechanism in both species is very similar.

“In both cases, it has something to do with energy metabolism and those photoreceptor cells, which are extremely energetically costly,” said co-author Elke Buschbeck. “It’s not easy for an organism to keep up with their energy needs (when nutritionally deprived).”

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