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Sensemaker: Assad the survivor

Sensemaker: Assad the survivor

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Five aides including Boris Johnson’s closest remaining policy advisor resigned their posts in Downing Street (more below).
  • The US accused Russia of preparing a fake film of Ukrainian atrocities as a pretext for invasion.
  • Egypt beat the host nation Cameroon in the second semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations to meet Senegal in Sunday’s final.

Assad the survivor

Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat next to each other in the White House situation room on Wednesday night to watch in real-time as US special forces cornered the Isis leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi in a house in northwest Syria, where he blew himself up. 

The attack was meant as a reminder that even if the US has given up nation-building in Afghanistan, it still has, in Biden’s words, “the reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide”.

But it was a reminder of much else too:

  • Biden badly needed a show of American overseas can-do after the Afghanistan fiasco (even if this one is unlikely to register with pollsters, since few US voters will have heard of al-Quraishi and foreign successes rarely move the domestic needle anyway).
  • Isis has been making a comeback in Syria, three years after Trump claimed to have wiped it out. He decapitated it with the 2019 killing of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, but militants regrouped under al-Quraishi and last month staged a dramatic prison break in the north-east that left 500 people dead. 
  • Assad doesn’t control all of Syria. Rebels and jihadists still hold Idlib and Atmeh in the northwest, where al-Qureishi died with most of his family. Turkish-backed forces control most of the northern borderlands, and Syrian Kurds with the remnants of the Syrian Democratic Forces control the northwest.
  • But Assad isn’t going anywhere either. With the help of Russian force and western willingness to look the other way, he’s ridden an 11-year civil war. He remains so entrenched in power in Damascus that most of his neighbours have begun restoring diplomatic and trade links, and the US has quietly endorsed a plan to bring Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon using grids and pipelines that cross Syrian territory. The World Bank – based in DC – would provide funds. 

Of interest: Afghanistan used to be a vital source of US intelligence on jihadists across the Middle East. No longer. Expect more not less entanglement of US special forces in Syria as a result.

For the record: more than 350,000 people and possibly as many as 600,000 have died in Syria’s war. Ninety per cent of Syrians live in poverty, and 60 per cent without enough food. Atrocities carried out by regime forces have been carefully documented by activists but there is no way to bring suspects to justice at the International Criminal Court because Syria is not a signatory and Russia would veto any bid via the UN to force prosecutions on Syria as a third party.

That leaves the doctrine of universal justice, used recently in Germany to convict Anwar Raslan, a former Syrian colonel, of crimes against humanity. His story is the subject of next week’s Slow Newscast. Look out for it on Monday. 

Also next week in an occasional series on survivor regimes: Venezuela.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Ecstasy and Sensation
Carnival said it will remove two of its American cruise ships, Ecstasy and Sensation, from its fleet. It will also cancel some of the routes they were on. Carnival is not the only cruise line operator that’s been forced to make changes because of Covid. In early January, Royal Caribbean said rising Omicron infections forced it to cancel its operations until March. Will cruises really return to normal? More than most sectors, the industry is vulnerable to Covid. Crew members call in sick, destinations close their ports for fear of importing the virus, and the ships themselves can become viral hotbeds. Carnival and Royal Caribbean require all guests to present proof of Covid vaccination, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned travellers to avoid cruises even if they’re fully vaccinated. One thing that’s clear (and of particular relevance for Venetians): there’ll likely be far fewer cruise ships in the future.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Meltdown on Downing Street
Of the five staff who’ve left Team Johnson in the past 24 hours, three seem to have been pushed, one really matters and one could be a sign of things to come. The one who really matters, policy supremo and 14-year loyalist Munira Mirza, made clear in her instantly-published resignation letter it was a moral matter precipitated by Johnson’s failure to apologise properly for smearing Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, in the Commons last week. Johnson blamed Starmer unfairly for the Crown Prosecution Service’s failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile on his (Starmer’s) watch. Disgust at Johnson’s use of a child sex abuse tragedy to try to get himself out of a tight spot has been bipartisan. Mirza may also have been angered at being elbowed out of the PM’s innermost inner circle. Either way, her letter is devastating. A more junior member of the policy unit, Elena Narozanski, quit this morning. The other three were on borrowed time having been implicated in Partygate. Die-hard loyalists have been trying to paint their departure as cleaning house; in fact it was at best an effort to try to distract attention from the Mirza bombshell. Thatcher was undone by ministers, May by MPs. Could Johnson’s time be ended by those even closer to him? Rishi “I wouldn’t have said that” Sunak is certainly happy to let unelected civil servants make the political weather while he waits to pounce.

New things technology, science, engineering

AI B minus
Software that can generate and paraphrase text could be the next frontier in academic cheating. In a thread on Twitter, a lecturer at the University of Essex described how stilted phrasing alerted him and his assistant lecturer that there was something fishy going on with a student’s essay. A computer program used by the university to detect plagiarism didn’t flag anything amiss, but the academics followed their hunch: after some old-fashioned detective work (and some Googling) they worked out that the essay had probably been fed into an online paraphrasing tool. Artificial intelligence tools are getting better at writing and we’re fast approaching a time when AIs will be able to produce competent essays in their entirety. For now, though, humans can spot the difference.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Greek “torture”
An Iranian woman named as Parvin A has filed a complaint with the UN claiming she was beaten, tied and returned to Turkey six times by Greek border guards rather than being allowed to claim asylum, as is her right under international law. Her story is told in detail by Der Spiegel, which admits there’s no conclusive proof of the beatings and push-backs but says it’s spent weeks reconstructing her movements and argues they took place in a “lawless space” deliberately constructed by Greek authorities to deter migrants. Parvin made it to the EU in the end and now lives in a shared flat in Dresden. Yesterday the bodies of 12 less fortunate refugees were found frozen to death on the Turkish side of the border. 

covid by numbers

5.5 – share of people who have been fully vaccinated in low-income countries, in per cent.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Belt and road gauchos
Argentina has agreed an $8 billion deal with Beijing under which China will build a 1.2 GW nuclear power station in northern Buenos Aires province. It will be Argentina’s fourth nuclear station but its first big joint venture with the engineering and money-lending colossus that is China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Recipients of BRI funding and infrastructure typically end up deeply indebted to Beijing and Argentina has long experience not just of acquiring crushing foreign debts but also of defaulting on them. It will be interesting to see who exactly ends up paying for its new nuclear power. In the meantime, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez is in Beijing congratulating Xi Jinping on hosting the Winter Olympics… and seeking a $1.3 billion cushion for his reserves.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to giles.whittell@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Paul Caruana Galizia and Ella Hill.

Photographs Getty Images, Adam Schultz/White House via CNP/Shutterstock

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