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 "

Monday, August 27, 2012

Syria's Arab Spring swept aside as conflict degenerates into religious persecution and sectarian cleansing

The conflict in Syria is slowly being revealed in all its brutal complexity, certainly more than the hopeful narrative with which it was first framed. What much of the Western media first described optimistically as Syria's own "Arab Spring" - a rising up of a hopeful, youthful, moderately secular, democratic outpouring of Arab aspirations - has been overtaken, unfortunately by more splintered agendas and hardened factions.

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After the initial Arab Spring narrative that lasted through the first half of 2011, came a Free Syria Army template- a clean patriotic rebellion against an oppressive regime: an armed version of the Arab Spring youth - akin perhaps to the first versions of the Libyan rebels. Turkey early on called for its ally President al-Assad to concede some power through negotiations with the FSA movement regarding its legitimate demands. The UN's peace initiative, led by former UN Secretary Koki Annan also began under this narrative - maintaining the fiction that there two equal rational sides willing to negotiate. A familiar post cold war tension, however, forced its way into the conflict, with Russia and China supporting Syria, while much of the West via NATO supporting the aspirations of the rebels (similar to the story in Libya).

Earlier in the conflict, the UN appointed Kofi Annan to act as liaison between President Assad (shown here) and the opposition.

Any meaningful action by the UN was stymied by Russia. Here US President Obama confers with Russian President Putin.

Later in 2011, reporting acknowledged further complexity of the conflict by noting Assad's shadowy use of the Shabiha. This mafia-type armed militia supporting Assad began to do the dirtier work of executions and oppression that the regime did not want to be associated with. At the same time, mutterings about "foreign elements" being found or involved came more frequently from both Western intelligence and the Assad regime itself. Those fighters - hard core fighters from Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Yemen - were being drawn into conflict for ideological reasons. Elements of Al-qaeda were more consistently being mentioned. What wasn't clear was whether the FSA (Free Syria Army), itself a haphazard grouping of fighters opposed to Assad (never with a centralized command structure or even a political "head"), was allied with these foreign elements, or simply finding itself fighting longside others finding opportunities with an embattled government.

Additional layers of the conflict were added over time with discussions about tribal loyalties - the Assad leadership part of a small Alewite tribe - along with the sectarian Muslim divide between Shiites and Sunnis. The term "civil war" was increasingly used.

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In the Syrian town of Duoma, lives lost await burial.

In the spring of 2012, with the conflict now being more characterized as a civil war, geopolitical references were increasingly cited. Iran's "arc" of influence was somberly noted with the Iranian's President Ahmadinejad strongly supporting Assad, as was Lebanon's Hezbollah repeating Iran's position. Not surprisingly, both Iran and Hezbollah attempted to finger Israel as the fundamental enemy, though in truth, Sunni Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia were viewing the conflict as a counter against increasing Iranian influence. In this sense, the civil war between internal Syrian factions, was also a proxy war, fought locally, but in the background between Sunni and Shiite groupings, as well as Western vs post Cold-War belligerents.

Iran early on voiced support for President Assad, left, shown here hosting a visit by Iran's President Ahmadinejad

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Refugee camps have been erected, and refugees have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan

By early summer this year, with Assad in trouble as evidenced by an assassination of several in his inner circle, both the US and Israel referenced their concern over Syria's apparent mammoth arsenal of chemical weapons. The concern was whether those armaments would be seized and distributed to "unknown" (Al-qaeda or other Islamic extremists) in an anarchy that was looking more and more likely. In early August, the UN initiative came to an end, finding itself lacking any relevance to the actual matters on the ground

Syrian jet fighters now regularly involved, in this case bombing rebel strongholds in Aleppo

And so now nearly 21 months into the conflict, we are seeing the final diverse elements of the country being drawn in to the messy civil war, or proxy war, or both. The BBC reports the more complex situation as one where all sorts of Syrian minority groups are being drawn in: various tribal and religious groupings - the Kurds, the previously mentioned Alewites, Christians, Salafists, and the Druze.

As the BBC describes, "The Druze, who make up 4% to 5% of the population, follow a monotheistic religion drawn on Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, and like Syria's Christians initially tried to avoid taking sides in the uprising." The article goes on to describe the latest tactic of the Assad regime, "Shabiha, a term used to describe pro-government thugs, started to get armed in the town [one town in Syria where Druze are in the majority], "The security people recruited all the convicted criminals in prison, released them under an amnesty and armed them under the pretext of protecting the area from armed Salafist gangs ..." The result has been indiscriminate attacks on any perceived group not supporting Assad.

A particularly horrific image of a small street pooled with blood

But in fact most of that recent BBC article tracked the increasingly desperate plight of Christians across Syria (about 10% of the population, surrounded by the larger Muslim majority of Shias and Sunnis). A Global Post story notes, "In interviews with more than a dozen Qseir residents, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently discovered a vicious cycle of murder and kidnap between Sunni and Christian families, triggered by claims that Christians were acting as regime spies. Almost all Qseir’s Christians have now fled, with many taking shelter in makeshift tents in the northern Bekaa valley."

Lebanon's border with Syria is increasingly militarized and violent

Religious entities - the Catholic Church for one - are much sharper in their concerns about the Christian communities as August 2012 unfolds. CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK in late August also focused on the town of Oseir .... The leader of the armed opposition (ostensibly the Free Syrian Army) gave an order in early August that Christians had to leave the town. "

People are split as to the reason for the order. While some say that the armed opposition leader is trying to protect them from further bloodshed, others claim that it is just one more example of focussed discrimination and repression against Christians.

A third opinion says that many Christians have openly expressed their loyalty to the state and for this reason the opposition is against them.

The Christian communities of Syria, ancient ones, are quickly being lost. It is a loss for Syria, as well as the whole array of beliefs and traditions contained in Christianity worldwide.

While many have fled, mostly to Damascus, the fate of the around 1,000 who elected to remain in their homes in defiance of the order is still unknown. Fides (the Catholic news agency) says that it has received reports saying that Islamic Salafist extremist groups are strong in the ranks of the opposition and they consider Christians to be infidels, so they confiscate their possessions and carry out executions of Christians."

Reports centering on Christian community persecution occuring under the cover of the larger conflict abound. As the Catholic story goes on, “Many Iraqi Christians fled to Syria after they became targets and their churches were burned. Now the same thing is happening in Syria, ... They are living in fear of what could happen to them and whether or not they are safe. Whole suburbs where Christians lived in Homs have been destroyed,” said Father Rahal Dergham, the chaplain to the Syrian and Iraqi Catholic communities in Sydney archdiocese, Australia.

“Priests have also been killed and others have been seriously wounded. In Homs, the church of Mar Elian is in ruins and Our Lady of Peace is occupied by rebels, and the Armenian Apostolic Church and its adjoining school has been seized and occupied as a base for the Syrian Liberation Army.” Father Dergham was born, raised and ordained a priest in Syria. Two of his brothers and some of his relatives still live in his hometown, midway between Homs and Hama. “In Homs and other cities, no Catholic or Christian who leaves their house is safe. In villages it is also difficult, with Christians, no matter where they live, given no protection against the violence by the government or anyone else,” he says."

So, the point of this sorry post is that within any conflict, middle ground is lost, people must choose sides or flee, and those who stay most often become more radicalized or hardened in their perspective and behavior. A tragedy for this country that is still grinding towards an uncertain conclusion.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Putin vs a Rock Band vs the Russian Orthodox Church

Pussy Riot - the name of a Russian rock band that has shaken both the Russian political establishment and the Russian Orthodox church during the summer.

The story found its way to the world's media particularly in the past two weeks, with a trial charging three members of the Moscow-based Russian feminist punk-rock band with "hooliganism." Founded just one year ago in August 2011, this band of seven young women stages politically provocative performances about Russian political life in unusual locations - on Red Square, on top of a trolleybus, on a scaffold in the Moscow Metro, or in the most recent and notorious instance, in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior

The performance, according to reports, occurred in February this year. It was a reciting of what is titled, Punk Prayer, in consecrated space within this famous church, along with dance choreography. The group's targeting of President Putin in church space was motivated by their opposition to the Russian President Vladimir Putin and questions regarding the political connections of the Russian Orthodox Church. At the time, the group's actions were stopped by church security officials.

A few weeks later, in early March after a video of the performance appeared online (, three of the group members were arrested, leading to their trial five months later.

A sympathetic translation of the Punk Prayer lyrics read and shouted back in February can be read in full here ... but two lines are sufficient to show how the performance and words offended both the church and the Russian president.

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!"

Much of the Western media began to pick up on the story as the trial got underway, as the three women charged appeared in demure clothing and behavior, yet surrounded by serious Russian guards. The political theatre of the trail cage and state charges put the power of the Putin machinery on display.

The three punk band members charged are Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, left; Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22 center; and Maria Alekhina, 24 right.

It comes across as poor PR when heavy duty Russian guards stand intimidatingly over three slim, young women on trial; two of whom have small toddlers ...

The upshot to date is that the three have received sentences up to two years in jail for their disturbing the church and protesting the President. During and after the trial, significant protests have taken place in Moscow, elsewhere in Russia and in other European countries. President Putin has been put on the defensive, and the Russian Orthodox Church has been called into question for its ties to the political leadership.

Celebrities around the world, both respected and not so much, have jumped on the bandwagon. Gary Kasparov, Russian chess-playing icon has been arrested in Russia, and lo, even world-citizen, NY-based Madonna has cried out regarding the injustice of it all.

Kasparov, heading here to jail, may be soon on trial himself on charges of biting a police officer while protesting on behalf the the band

Madonna, wearing a jacket style often worn by Pussy Riot, is outraged over fellow pop stars in trouble.

From the Washington Post, we can read with some eyeball-rolling commentary regarding Madonna's outrage, but also a glimpse into the larger implications. "When the human rights activist Natalia Estimerova was murdered three years ago in Chechnya, she [Madonna] was silent. Nor did her Web site register the death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006. The fate of three fellow pop stars, however, is clearly different — and it is precisely that difference that poses an unusual challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Although it is often assumed otherwise, Putin’s regime has long permitted political dissent — so long as it appeals only to a small elite. Although most television stations are controlled in one way or another by the Kremlin, a few low-circulation newspapers have long been allowed to keep up some criticism. Although anyone with real potential to oppose Putin was put under financial or judicial pressure — or, in some cases, arrested or murdered — other critics have been allowed to keep talking, as long as too many people aren’t listening. The Internet is controlled in Russia, as it is in China, Iran and other authoritarian states, but with a relatively light hand: Confident that not many Russians read human rights Web sites anyway, the regime never bothered to block all of them.

At least until now, this formula has worked. Indeed, the genius of Putinism has always been its ability to keep the apolitical masses ignorant of or apathetic about the regime’s opponents, while at the same time eschewing mass arrests. Putin understood this very well: The modern elite Russian doesn’t want to live in a pariah state, and he doesn’t want to be cut off from the outside world. He might not care if his foreign friends think Russia unpleasant, but he isn’t keen to be compared to North Korea either. Putin’s solution was to keep the pressure on serious opponents while studiously ignoring those he deemed un-serious. Political speech is controlled, but entertainment media are free. "

All this has worked up till now. And while the Washington Post and most Western media has focused on the embarrassment of Putin, a few commentators have noted that the Russian Orthodox Church has been caught up in this as well. Two articles that focus on the church will be posted in "Comments."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Egypt tackles Islamic militants in Sinai peninsula amid the removal of top armed forces generals

Egypt's government, headed by President Mohamed Morsi, moved on two aspects of the nation's security and governance the past week.

Egypt's population lives primarily along the Nile River, but the country controls the strategic and lucrative shipping lanes of the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and ostensibly has jurisdiction over the vast Sinai Peninsula

On Sunday, August 12, President Morsi fired (dismissed, sacked, replaced ...)the powerful head of the armed forces, Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, and Chief of staff Sami Annan. President Mursi, according to a BBC article, also said a constitutional declaration aimed at curbing presidential powers had been cancelled. He characterized his actions as transitioning to a newer generation of military leaders, itself just part of the natural continuance of the revolution.

Field Marshal Mohamad Hussein Tantawi (left), new Egyptian President Morsi (center), and Chief of staff Sami Annan (right).

Replacing Tantawi, however, according to the UK Guardian newspaper, is the head of military intelligence, Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi – one of the generals who defended the use of "virginity tests" against female protesters in March 2011.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is the new head of the Egyptian military and 44th defense minister in the history of the modern Egyptian army since its formation more than 200 years ago. In his mid-50s, he is one of the youngest members of the military council that was previously headed by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

Mursi, elected in June to Egypt's presidency, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the Muslim Brotherhood's preferred candidate, Khairat El-Shater was disqualified from the 2012 presidential election, Morsi, the backup candidate, emerged and eventually won a narrow runoff.

One BBC reporter noted that Egypt's generals had exercised power behind the throne for decades and then exercised it directly in the months since the fall of former Egyptian President (and strong man) Hosni Mubarak, but suggested that "Mr Mursi's opponents may have underestimated him. Egypt's army was unprepared for a recent attack on a security base in the Sinai desert by Islamic militants in which 16 soldiers died. Mr Mursi appears to be seizing on that failure - which shocked ordinary Egyptians - to move against two key members of the high command."

So, we will continue to see how the tense relationship between Egypt's military and the new Islamist government shakes out.

The larger story, perhaps, was an attack in the Sinai Peninsula last week in the small town of Sheikh Zuwaid (see map) in which Islamic militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards and soldiers. As noted above, this clash with some variant of Islamic extremists rattled Egypt's armed forces, and added to the burden of the Egyptian government in in its responsibility to govern the vast desert area that borders both Israel and the Hamas-run Gaza strip.

The Sinai Peninsula is Egypt's but as an aftermath of the war with Israel in 1973, there have been strict limits agreed to between the two countries on what weaponry and military assets the Egyptian armed forces can deploy in this region.

From the Jerusalem Post newspaper, "the perpetrators of [last] Sunday's attack were part of a global jihad terrorist infrastructure operating inside the Sinai that was made up mostly of local Beduin. During the attack, some 35 armed men stormed an Egyptian military base, killing 16 policemen and soldiers.

On Monday, Egypt branded the attackers “infidels” and vowed to launch a crackdown throughout the Sinai. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday that Egypt has enough forces to deal with terrorism in Sinai, responding to suggestions that Israel will consider any Egyptian request to deploy additional military forces in the Sinai. "There are enough forces in Sinai, it's now just a matter of making a decision," he said. Until now, Israel has permitted the Egyptians to deploy about seven battalions in the Sinai, although under the peace treaty the peninsula is meant to remain demilitarized. "The campaign aims at closing all the openings between Egypt and the Gaza Strip that are used in smuggling operations," said the security source.

Egyptian forces began moving in force into the Sinai after consultation with the Israeli government.

According to other reports, the majority of Sinai bedouin clans have endorsed Egypt's move to more robustly police the peninsula. Since the "Arab Spring" revolution in Egypt more than 1 year ago, the military had reduced its actions in and attention to the peninsula, concentrating on Cairo and other population centers. As a result, tribal leaders said there had been a clear upswing in lawlessness and influence by Islamic extremists into the relative vacuum.

While Egypt's move to counter growing extremism in the peninsula is understandable - especially when the rather notorious Islamic Muslim Brotherhood itself is now running the country, a more perplexing move by Egypt also occurred on the border with the Gaza strip.

Smuggling tunnels, apparently looked at with a blind or generous eye by Egypt for decades, were being sealed by the Egyptian army. It underscores a tense relationship that exists with Hamas that rules the narrow strip of land

Tunnels along the border with Gaza are suddenly being sealed off - whether it is a short term show or calculation by the Egyptian government to present a moderate and balanced image, or a message to Hamas that Egypt's generosity cannot be taken for granted is still to be determined.

While Tunisia and Libya have both shown admirable progress in the past 18 months in their respective countries in terms of moderate politics and relatively peaceful transitions, Egypt's many tensions within itself, and with its neighbors are still in play.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Nigerian University grows in an uncertain location

A nice article from the Christian Science Monitor this week highlights an unlikely modern university in Nigeria. It is an American style university, owing its existence to a former Nigerian Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, who in turn credits the Peace Corps for inspiring him to found the school.

Near the eastern border of Nigeria, the city of Yola is found along the Benue river, and is the site of the 7-year old University.

The American University of Nigeria (AUN), founded in 2005, hosts 1400 students, mainly young Nigerians, but increasingly Rwandans, Ugandans, and Cameroonians according to the article, all eager to pursue a liberal arts education. Like most American universities, undergraduate students study a diverse range of courses for two years, then focus on one field for their remaining two years.

A recent graduating class in front of one of AUN's buildings.

By Nigerian standards, the university is a hub for technology and infrastructure. AUN’s president, American Margee Ensign, says the campus is home to the largest building in northern Nigeria, and is the country’s only university with electricity around the clock. Students get laptops and have wireless, another unusual feature at a Nigerian university. “We’re an entirely eBook community, all on iPads,” Ensign says, “and we’re introducing that same technology to a very poor community. I would like to show the world that this technology can be used anywhere and can really allow people to leapfrog the challenges of poverty and illiteracy.”

Here, students work in a science lab

Former Nigerian Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, does not have an unblemished record in his country, but this effort - to establish the AUN - is one to be remembered.

About American-style Universities

The AUN is the youngest American-style university abroad. There are five other older ones around the globe.

The American University of Beirut was founded when Andrew Johnson was US president in 1866.

The American University of Beirut, another situated in a volatile, conflicted region of the world.

The American University in Cairo was founded in 1919 by American Mission in Egypt, and sponsored by the United Presbyterian Church of North America.

The American University of Rome (AUR) has its origins emerging soon after WWII. A David Colin, an American journalist in Italy prior to and during the War, settled in Rome, and with an Italian counterpart, saw the school formally established in 1969.

The American University of the Caribbeans, was established in 1978 on the island of St. Maarten by an American educator.

The American University in Bulgaria AUB) was founded in 1991, shortly after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, a joint endeavor of the U.S. government and the government of the Republic of Bulgaria.

All offer an American-style liberal arts education, "easy to come by in the US, but not so in other parts of the world." There is no formal link Teatree is aware of, between these universities other than shared experience and common purpose arising from distinct and varied founding visions.

About the location in Nigeria

"Nigeria has 170 million people, the most populous country in Africa and 7th largest in the world. But Yola has fewer than 100,000 people, and is close to the home of the Boko Haram terrorist group. The campus is also home to a graduate program and a K-12 school – and, as the article points out, a small army ...

The 350-person security force, one-third of whom are women, are there to protect the 1,400 students and 90 or so faculty from Boko Haram, the Islamist group labeled as a terrorist group by the US government. Boko Haram’s rise is the result of complex ethnic, social, and political causes. In 2012, the group’s attacks have grown bolder, and the Nigerian government has had little success in thwarting the movement. The US State Department recently issued a travel ban that prevents its diplomats in Nigeria from visiting the north where the university is located.

Boko Haram’s existence, AUN President Ensign says, means her No. 1 goal is to keep students and faculty safe. Those students seem to have good prospects once they graduate – with an economic growth rate of about 7 percent, fueled by oil exports, Nigeria was the fifth fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan African in 2011.

Campus security takes on real meaning in an area with latent conflict.


The last interesting fact about the AUN in the town of Yola, is that the university's emphasis on state of the art communications - the use of the internet and electronic documentation, data sharing, and "elearning" is that Google statistics show that 55 percent of their traffic in the whole country originates from this one small educational outpost.

In view of so many challenges around the world, this effort can be applauded.