North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A summer pause

Anticipating a full platter of news in the next week, here are a brief set of paragraphs on stories we've tracked.

France's Christine Lagarde is voted in as the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund.

Christine Lagard, former French Finance Minister

Her first order of business is to guide Greece through its painful challenge of massive debt and a populace who wants its accustomed benefits. Violent protests have again broken out over new government plans to cut spending.

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Police stand guard around an area the site of frequent protests.

Yemen continues to fester
Hundreds of government Yemeni troops defect to the opposition reformer side, while Al-Qaeda extremists strengthen grip on urban strongholds.

Yemeni soldier stands at guard at a school where even now, examinations are taking place.

The Libyan civil war drags on
Rebels continue to slowly advance on various strongholds of Gadaffi. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) airstrikes also continue, along with a further escalation: airdrops of weapons to the rebels despite a UN embargo on small arms to either side. Recently, the US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, criticized European NATO countries for their inability to remove a "third rate" dictator ruling over a desert country of a few million, and having to ask the US for ammunition after only a few weeks. (Though the war policy of pressuring - but not removing - Gaddaffi was established primarily by US President Obama).

Rebels receive weapons from France via airdrops, though some raise concerns where the weapons end up, and that the UN specifically imposed an arms embargo on participants in the conflict.

Syria continues to manhandle its citizens.
The deadly suppression of reformers grinds on in Syria, disturbing Turkey its northern neighbor and previous ally.
The troubled lands of the Northern Arabian Peninsula

Apparently only one person of status in the whole Western world - US Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich - believes Bashir Assad's assertion that he is serious about reforming. Thus he joins the likes of Iran's Ahmadinejad and Lebanon's Najib Makiti.

Kucinich (right) on a "fact finding" mission to Syria, believes Assad (left) is sincere about reforms

Egypt continues to face street protests
Not sure exactly why these protests are occurring once again, but teargas and rocks continue to be thrown in the famous Tahrir square. From the BBC, "Egyptian officials have ordered a probe into overnight clashes between police and protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square that left hundreds of people injured. Riot police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of demonstrators, who pelted officers with stones and fire bombs. The riots are the most serious violence in Egypt in weeks. Activists are calling for the speedy implementation of reforms demanded during the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February. They also want senior officials to face justice for the deaths of 850 protesters during the uprising, including Mr Mubarak himself, who is due to stand trial on 3 August."

A still frame from video taken last night in Cairo.

The behind-the-scenes maneuvering for fall elections has yet to emerge in public - whether forces for true democracy or splinter groups of extremism make big strides is the question. Mubarak's trial in August will likely not be a calming event.

Chile's volcano surges on as winter sets in
Reports are that this volcano could continue to erupt for months - Chile sits on the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire"

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Further disruption of air travel between Chile, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia.


A flotilla of aid and solidarity ships to Gaza should be leaving this week or next, putting the Israeli defense forces on high alert to stop the breaking of a blockade.

July 9 is Independence Day for Southern Sudan, amid regular clashes between North and South militias and armed forces.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Iranian-Syrian-Lebanon arc

As Syrian violence enters its third month and headlines repeatedly track the government assault on its citizens, it is worthwhile to step back and see the larger connections in the region. Originally one of just many Arab governments confronted with protests for political reform in January this year, a more somber outcome for Syria than simple reform is starting to emerge.

Syrian refugee camps hastily erected in Turkey, now holding 9,000 people who have fled their own nation

The Tunisian and Egyptian protests followed by the toppling of its leaders were quickly dubbed "the Arab spring" by many in the West, hoping for similar democratic revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. (The term may actually refer to the “Prague Spring” of 1968 when Czechoslovakia enjoyed an 8-month liberalization of government during the Cold War..).

While laudable for a new vision, and reforms are certainly needed in the autocratic regimes throughout the Arab world, let's remember that the Czech leader Alexander Dubcek's thaw in governance was crushed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks in '68.

The original 1968 Prague Spring comes to a sudden end

And now in Syria, its own tanks are sweeping through northern villages with special vengeance. New unrest is reported in towns to the east, and observers believe this is the most serious threat to the Assad family's power in 40 years. Even today, Friday the day of prayer, reports are coming in that once again, protesters are in the streets...

But the resources Syria (ie. Assad and his family) has at its disposal are far from merely its own. Reports are surfacing that the Hezbollah forces in Lebanon are assisting Assad's own minority Alewite tribe, and in turn both are being bolstered by Iranian resources. It is this "arc" of power that is emerging - taking advantage of protests meant for reform - to ferret out nests of resistance and building a stronger alliance than ever before.

At the two ends, Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah and Iran's Shiite regime have long had as one unifying goal, to cleanse the region of the "occupying force" Israel. Bashir Assad, nominally a Sunni, has come under such pressure that he has taken hold of allies wherever they could be found, and of course Syria too has long been a bitter enemy of Israel.

Note in this arc of Iran-Syria-Lebanon, that Iraq is a missing piece of the puzzle. The US and many elements in Iraq are well aware of the Iranian threat to the nation's new democracy

Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and his Mehdi army openly advocates for an anti-western Iranian-led alliance

Standing uneasily against this arc?

Turkey has done an abrupt about face regarding Syria. Eight months ago, its Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was calling Bashir Assad "a good friend of mine," and Turkey was building closer ties with its neighbor. However, in a recent statement regarding Syria and refugees fleeing to Turkey, Erdoğan called Syria's actions inhumane, saying the “savagery cannot be digested." He personally attacked Assad's younger brother, Maher Assad, who is leading a crack Syrian division in the brutal clampdown on the northwest town of Jisr al-Shughour.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denouncing Syria's "savagery."

Turkey has long had a goal of membership in the European Union and is already a NATO member. Rebuffed for decades by a few EU members, it was casting for a more independent role, including distancing itself from Israel, and looking more to a position as a leading Middle East power. Now it is confronted with a tougher set of decisions. The first of these may be soon. Based on Turkey's previous support for a "freedom flotilla" attempting to deliver supplies to Gaza while confronting Israel, another such flotilla of ships to bring supplies to Gaza planned for this summer may be fraught with larger implications. In light of the trouble on Syria's border, Turkey may now have second thoughts, and just today, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Turkish Islamic charity organization which had provided a ship during the last attempt, pulled out of the planned event. Was there "a word" quietly given by the Turkish government?

Another complication in the area is the longstanding Kurdish ethnic population, with sizable numbers in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In Turkey's recent elections, soundly won by Erdoğan's party, the second largest winner was the strong showing by Kurdish delegates. A total of 36 candidates backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party won seats, a gain of 16 from the previous election. Among them was Leyla Zana, a former lawmaker who spent 10 years in prison on charges of links to Kurdish rebels that she always denied. In 1991, Zana also caused an uproar for speaking Kurdish while taking the oath of office, in defiance of rules against use of the language in official settings.

Leyla Zana was once jailed by Turkey's government, and is treated as a legend in the Southeast of the country. She will now be back in Turkey's parliament, pushing for further moderate and secular positions, as well as acceptance of her ethnic Kurds

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Kurds make up 20% of Turkey's population, 15-23% of Iraq, and 6-9% of both Iran and Syria

Lebanon's ominous turn

Lebanon's part in this emerging alliance was exposed when Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced a new cabinet after a five-month delay from the date of the country's most recent elections. This week he inflamed passions by announcing a new government heavily dominated by the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and its allies. One newspaper account had analysts describing the new Cabinet as a relic from the past, when Syria thoroughly dominated politics in Lebanon, and said it bode ill for Lebanese democracy at a time of uprisings across the Arab world.

U.S. officials quickly warned Mr. Mikati that Lebanon may lose $100 million a year in military aid if its new government moves too far into the orbit of Syria and its primary strategic partner, Iran. Hezbollah's Al Manar television quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad as congratulating Lebanese President Michel Suleiman (whose post is largely ceremonial under Lebanon's political system). Opposition lawmaker Nadim Gemayel dismissed the government as "Hezbollah's and Syria's Cabinet," according to Lebanon's official National News Agency.

So, a stage is being set. Where "Arab Spring" toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the new governments are yet to frame themselves. Libya is in a civil war with NATO having joined against Gadaffi; Yemen faces a power vacuum with its President Saleh in Saudi Arabia for treatment. His absence leaves government forces, tribal groups and Al-Qaeda all jostling for advantage. In Syria, a new alliance is being forged that distinctly does not look like a step forward.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Chile's volcano and Peru's new leader

Leaving behind the seemingly endless heartbreak and violence of the Arab world for a moment, two newsworthy items from South America are worth sharing.

Chile, that long thin country in South America squeezed between the sea and a high mountain range, has had a spectacular volcanic eruption this past few days. Far from the American-European flight routes, it has not received much coverage, but the ash and dust have canceled plenty of flights, as well as blanketing neighboring countries such as Argentina.

Chile was in the news most recently when 33 miners were rescued from a collapsed mine ...

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The eruption stimulates lightning in this spectacular apocalyptic picture

A more pastoral scene, modest houses with the eruption in the background

Beyond the spectacular photographs and forceful reminders of nature's power, living with a volcano is hard on both humans and animals

Peru - the country just to the north of Chile, held its presidential election in the past few days, electing a former soldier who has promised to share more of the wealth of the nation's mines with the poor.

Peru is a little smaller than Alaska, and has a population of over 20 million. With no direct access to the sea, a portion of the country is high altitude and mountainous with the famous Machu Pichu ruins, but also a larger low elevation jungle contributing to the headwaters of the Amazon river. Peru has a higher percentage of land area protected in national parks and preserves than any other country in South America

The newspaper, Financial Times, pointed out just following the election the true impact of the new President. "The final results for Peru’s presidential election have yet to be declared, but it seems that Ollanta Humala has won. Many Peruvian businessmen and foreign investors in the country have already reacted to this result with disappointment – and even dread. The stock market plunged the morning after the result became clear.

But the fear of a President Humala could well be overdone. If you judge Peru’s new leader by his campaign rhetoric, then he intends to stick with the market-friendly policies that have made Peru one of the fastest-growing economies in Latin America.

It is true that Mr Humala has also promised higher taxes to fund social reforms – such as better pensions, a higher minimum wage and day-care for the children of working mothers. But Peru could certainly afford – and probably needs – such a programme, if it is carried out responsibly.

Peru’s economy grew at 9 per cent last year. Its national debt is low. Mr Humala wants to increase the tax take from 15 per cent to 18 per cent of GDP – not unreasonable in a nation where many people still lack access to basic necessities such as running water..."

After the election was official, from another news account,
"Peru's president-elect Ollanta Humala met with former Brazilian President Lula da Silva and praised him for fostering economic growth while reducing poverty in Latin America's biggest country.

One assumes that before President Elect Humala met with former Brazil president Lula Silva, he met Brazil's current president, Dilma Rousseff, as shown here.

He said he will not copy programs like those of Brazil or Venezuela because Peru must find its own way to help the poor. Humala was once close to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But in his campaign and since, he has painted himself as a center-leftist more in the mold of Silva."

So, let's do hope that Peru will follow the positive example provided by Brazil, the powerhouse on the South American continent that has conducted itself with care and attention to its economy and social conditions over the past several decades. We need more countries in South America, like Chile and Brazil to provide positive examples for their neighbors.

Peru's mines provide a significant amount of its wealth.

One of Peru's national dishes is Ceviche - a form of citrus-marinated sea-food salad. Among its many variations, raw fish is composted with lime or lemon juice, sliced onion, minced Peruvian ají limo and Andean chilli. The marinated mixture is served at room temperatures. Often it’s accompanied by canchita (chunks of corn, sliced sweet potato and seaweed).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Yemen at a crossroads?

Yemen shares the Arabian Peninsula with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and other smaller countries. It sits strategically at one end of the Red Sea, a major shipping lane. Yemen's population is 20 million + while the much larger Saudi Arabia has only 29 million. Oman's population is just 3 million.

The violence in Yemen over the past two weeks has spiked. According to the BBC, more than 350 people have been killed since the uprising started in January, but at least 135 of them have died in the past 10 days. What was at first youthful protesters and eventually larger masses of Yemenis in solidarity against Saleh's continued rule, has now morphed into a more ominous set of tribal factions choosing sides. Tribesman loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation have moved to the front of fighting, and the Yemeni army has been weakened by the defection of its first Division, led by Gen Ali Mohsen, to the opposition.

The head of the Hashid tribe, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, talks with his guard while attending funerals of tribesmen killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sanaa on Friday.

The focal point of Yemeni unrest originated over its longstanding leader of 32 years - President Saleh. Fed up with corruption and poverty, the Arab spring arrived in Yemen, as elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet in the past six months, Yemen has joined Libya with overtones of civil war (while Syria stands apart with straightforward ruthless government violence against general protesters and civilians caught up in "rebellious" cities).

Yemen's President Saleh gives late May interview, explaining why he will not leave his position

In April, Saleh had listened to a plan of succession put forward by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, but rejected the plan to ease him out of power to quell the unrest. Increasingly isolated among Arab neighbors, Saleh again toyed with a new GCC proposal in mid May, including presumably some stronger guarantees of security against subsequently prosecuting him for previous actions, as well as some surety that his amassed wealth would not be taken away. This proposal got to the point where government officials from all sides had signed their good faith to the arrangements, and were waiting only for President Saleh to sign himself. Yet in the end, he did not.

Yemen's tribal groupings are taking on more importance in what was originally a street protest.

The peaceful protest movement has all but become a sideshow, said one BBC reporter. Hundreds are fleeing the city, heading for their towns and villages, as armed tribesmen march towards Sanaa, Yemen's capital. Tents that line the streets around University Square - now dubbed "Change square" by protesters - are half empty. Fewer people are gathering, concerned by the growing violence. The tension is palpable.

While at Friday prayers two days ago, Saleh was injured in what was originally reported as a shelling of the Presidential mosque (the attack within the large Presidential palace grounds is itself an escalation of the conflict). Seven officials were killed and more injured. (Subsequent reports suggest it may have been a bomb planted inside the Presidential mosque. At first, reports were that Saleh received only superficial wounds, but yesterday, he abruptly flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, where today he underwent surgery.

Inside the mosque, evidence of significant damage

His departure was greeted with joy by Yemeni opposition, and the question now is whether President Saleh's return will be allowed. Saleh had no intention of giving up power, but now being out of country and removed from his core of power, the possible future scenarios are multiplied.

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Street joy was apparent after news of Saleh's departure spread ...

Yemen itself is now in great chaos - tribal alliances are stark, the government forces divided with some defections, and the third major force remains radical Islamists, led by the American Sheikh Anwar al Awlaki, ready to take advantage of a possible power vacuum.

Tribal street fighters are evident in several Yemeni cities - a far different situation than the crowds of protesters

While the crowds enjoy the news of Saleh's departure, what does the future now hold?