The World Today for April 11, 2024

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Stuck in Celestial Hades


Residents of the upscale Mazzeh neighborhood in the Syrian capital of Damascus were stunned when an airstrike recently reduced the Iranian consulate to rubble. Thirteen people, including two generals and five others in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, perished in the attack.

Israeli forces who have been carrying out strikes against Iranian positions in Syria for years were widely believed to have conducted the bombing. These attacks have intensified, however, since Hamas staged its attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, eliciting a devastating response that has caused a humanitarian disaster for Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, wrote CNN.

As international observers ponder whether Iran might attack Israel in response, potentially widening the fighting that is now happening in the Gaza Strip and beyond, the air strike led many Syrians to recall the fighting that they have experienced in their country’s ongoing civil war.

“When I moved to Damascus in 2022, I thought the war was over,” Rasha Saleh, 33, an NGO worker who formerly lived in Aleppo, a northern Syrian city where extreme combat occurred between Syrian rebels and central government forces loyal to dictator President Bashar al-Assad, told Agence France-Presse. “But it seems that’s not the case.”

While the worst fighting ended some years ago, the Syrian civil war recently passed its 14th anniversary, noted Voice of America. As many as 500,000 people died and 13 million were displaced in the war that started in 2011 as civil unrest against Assad’s regime.

A major earthquake, the proliferation of disease, and the failure of the state to educate millions of children have also destabilized the country, according to Crux. Around 16.7 million people in Syria are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, the United Nations added recently.

Today, Syrian forces and their Russian and Iranian allies are still fighting the anti-government rebels in northwest Syria, where they and Turkish-backed forces still control ground. In northeastern Syria, US-supported Kurds control territory they won from the Islamic State.

A car bomb recently exploded in Azaz near Aleppo, for instance, killing at least seven people. A Turkish-backed militia that opposes Assad’s government runs the town. It’s not clear who carried out the attack, the BBC wrote.

Protests, meanwhile, still break out against the government occasionally. In August, demonstrators marched against the high inflation rate and deteriorating economic conditions, and demanded the government step down. In December, people commemorated the revolution and said it wasn’t over.

And in a twist, protesters have been taking to the streets over the past month across Syria’s rebel-held northwest against its jihadi rulers, demonstrations sparked after a rebel fighter died in rebel custody, VOA reported. About half of Idlib province and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia are controlled by former al-Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by Abu Mohamed al-Jolani.

“Our demands are clear: Overthrow Jolani, free the prisoners, put an end to the security grip they have on us,” one protester told VOA. “Down with Jolani” is a common refrain, echoing the chants that were used against Assad, the Economist wrote.

As residents of rebel-held areas chafe under the harsh rule of their upstart leaders, Assad these days is no longer the pariah he once was in the Arab world. The Arab League reinstated Syria in 2023, for example, the Brookings Institution noted.

The world is waiting to see how the civil war will end, concluded World Politics Review. Will Assad, who is 58 years old, ever step down or face being ousted? Will the rebels finally cave for good? Who will finance the country’s reconstruction when the war ends? Will Iran, Russia, Turkey, or the US choose to cede their influence in Syria so that the country can reclaim its sovereignty?

Although analysts believe it might take years to receive answers to those questions, the country is trying to move forward in one respect: Tourism. Over the past two years, travel agencies in Turkey, the Gulf, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and China, have booked trips to the country that continues to struggle to rebuild from the war. Some Western visitors trickle in, too.

According to the Syrian state news agency, two million people visited last year.


Of Hollow Victories


The European Union’s top court on Wednesday handed two Russian oligarchs a rare win in a case over Western sanctions imposed on them by the bloc following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Associated Press reported.

The EU General Court ruled in favor of Mikhail Fridman and Petr Aven, who contested being included in the sanctions regime from February 2022 to March 2023, with the court saying there was little evidence of their involvement in the war. The two men have also appealed the EU’s decision to continue the sanctions after March 2023 in a separate case that is still pending – meaning they remain under EU sanctions for now.

Fridman, one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, co-founded the investment banking group Alfa, which includes Alfa Bank, formerly led by Aven. Both men left the bank’s board when the EU hit it with sanctions in March 2022.

The 27-nation bloc has instituted numerous punitive measures against Russian businesses in the energy, banking and mining sectors after President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

Though Fridman and Aven insisted they did not contribute to Russia’s war effort, they have refrained from openly criticizing Putin’s so-called “special military operation.”

Instead, they joined their appeal with a letter signed by high-profile anti-war Russians, asking the EU court to lift the sanctions. One of the signatories, Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff for the late regime opponent Alexei Navalny, said he regretted doing so because the lifting of sanctions means that powerful figures are allowed to escape punishment without criticizing Putin or the war in Ukraine.

While Volkov criticized the court’s ruling, saying it “makes no sense,” the Kremlin applauded it. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the sanctions “illegal, unfair, and destructive.”

Although it deals a symbolic blow to the EU, the court’s decision does not change the status quo. A court representative said it would take months to assess Fridman and Aven’s second appeal, regarding the current sanctions in place since March 2023, Reuters reported.

Dozens of complaints have been filed with the EU Court of Justice against the sanctions, which target over 1,700 individuals.

Backseat Drivers


Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the country’s last two general elections were “free and fair” on Wednesday, in a public inquiry into accusations of foreign interference in the elections – including Chinese and Indian meddling, the BBC reported.

Quebec judge Marie-Josée Hogue is probing the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, both of which were won by Trudeau’s Liberal Party, and has heard accusations laid by Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

Trudeau said the CSIS had made him “aware” of evidence about the allegations, but it “still needs to be confirmed”. “Irregularities being observed are not enough to overturn a democratic event,” he said.

China and India have denied the allegations, with New Delhi calling them “baseless.” The CSIS said the reports had to be taken with a pinch of salt, as some of the contents relied on single sources and were not duly investigated. There is no evidence the alleged meddling affected the final election results, the BBC said.

Even so, the CSIS accused the Chinese government of “clandestinely and deceptively” leading a “pragmatic” interference campaign focusing on securing the election of pro-Beijing politicians.

Accusations included a possible $184,000 transfer to an unnamed candidate’s staff member and funding a charter bus for Chinese high school students to help appoint then-Liberal Han Dong as a candidate for the 2019 election. The CSIS said the teenagers were threatened with student visa suspensions and consequences for their families back home.

Meanwhile, the spy agency alleged India used proxies among Canada’s 1.4-million strong Indian diaspora to boost candidates aligned with “India’s interests on key issues,” such as its opposition to a Sikh separatist movement in an Indian territory known as Khalistan, Al Jazeera reported.

Focusing on electoral districts home to large diaspora communities, India allegedly relied on “Canada-based proxies” to “obfuscate any explicit link” with its government.

The CSIS accusations came amid tensions between Canada and India over the killing of a Sikh activist in Vancouver last year.

In a separate document, the agency called Pakistan a “limited foreign interference actor” that carried out efforts for voters to favor politicians deemed pro-Pakistan or anti-India. Pakistan has not yet responded to the accusations.

The CSIS and other stakeholders criticized the Canadian government for not doing enough to combat foreign meddling. Last week, Trudeau said he considered the issue “extremely important.”

Back in the Saddle Again


A South African electoral court on Tuesday overturned a decision to ban former President Jacob Zuma from running in this year’s general election, reshuffling the deck ahead of the most competitive vote in the nation’s democratic history, Al Jazeera reported.

Zuma, 81, was barred by an electoral commission last month because of his criminal record: The commission explained that it was illegal for anyone sentenced to more than 12 months in prison to hold public office, according to the constitution. The electoral court did not explain in its decision why it allowed Zuma to run in May’s election.

The former president is campaigning with the newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party against the African National Congress (ANC), which used to be his political home.

Leading South Africa from 2009 to 2018, Zuma stepped down amid graft allegations and was sentenced to 15 months in jail for failing to testify in court over the accusations. He only served three months because of health reasons.

The court’s verdict is likely to change the outcome of the May 29 general election.

Zuma still enjoys great popularity, especially among South Africa’s Zulu majority, and could help propel the MK to prominence. Opinion polls show the party could win over 10 percent of nationwide votes, ranking third or fourth behind the ANC and the liberal democratic alliance, Le Monde reported.

This would mark the first time that the ANC would win less than 50 percent of the vote share. The party, which has led South Africa for all of its post-Apartheid years, would then have to negotiate a coalition agreement with opposition parties.

South Africans do not vote for their president; instead, following the general election, the majority party in parliament selects a candidate for the top job.


Total Recall

A new study centering on a little bird species is helping scientists uncover new details about the brain’s mysterious ability to create and store memories, Popular Science reported.

Research has shown that the brain’s hippocampus is integral for storing episodic memories, such as recalling where a car is parked or food is kept. But it’s unclear how these memories are encoded in the brain.

For their study, a research team looked into the brains of black-capped chickadees, an avian species that they have described as “memory geniuses.”

These puffy-looking birds live in cold climates and do not migrate over the winter, which means they need to store food during the warmer seasons. This also means they have to remember where exactly they put their stashes.

In their experiments, the team recreated the birds’ natural habitat in a lab and monitored their hippocampus activity through an implanted recording system. They would monitor the chickadees’ brain activity while they moved freely in their surroundings, stashing food and later searching for it.

Researchers noticed that the birds’ hippocampal neurons flared up in unique patterns every time they stored food in specific locations. They described these patterns as “barcodes” that activated when the bird recalled cached food, serving as specific labels for individual memories.

The barcode-like patterns are distinct from other hippocampal neurons called place cells, which encode location memories. They remain separate even when items are stored in the same location at different times, or in nearby locations in rapid succession.

While the mechanics of these patterns and how they drive behavior remain unclear, the authors hope that further study could show whether this barcoding method is present in other species, including humans.

“If you think about how people define themselves, who they think they are, their sense of self, then episodic memories of particular events are central to that,” said co-author Selmaan Chettih. “That’s what we’re trying to understand.”

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