Long stories short
- Asked to supply Ukraine with fighter jets, Rishi Sunak said nothing was off the table (more below).
- Boris Johnson declared advance earnings of £2.5 million for speaking events, bringing earnings since leaving office last September to nearly £5 million.
- A study found Australia, New Zealand and Iceland the best places to survive a nuclear apocalypse.
Hours after the town of Marea was shaken awake by Monday’s first earthquake, Syria’s regime forces bombed it. In the four days since, the regime has refused to allow aid into rebel-held parts of the country except by routes that it controls.
So what? Aside from compounding the suffering of earthquake victims, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, is reminding the world and the UN system in particular how powerless it has proved, over nearly 13 years, in a region of ancient civilisations and great natural wealth, to end his reign of terror and contrive something better for Syria’s people.
At the same time he is trying to use a humanitarian disaster to end his regime’s isolation.
On day four since Monday’s twin earthquakes the confirmed death toll in Turkey and Syria is approaching 16,000. In Syria alone more than 2,500 have died. At least 100,000 are newly homeless in Aleppo, the country’s biggest city, two thirds of whom lack even temporary shelter.
Routes in. Aid is arriving in the region from 70 countries but the vast bulk of it is being directed to Adana in southern Turkey because of physical and political bottlenecks round rebel-held northwestern Syria.
- The only route open to the northern enclave from Turkey before Monday, via Bab al-Hawa, was initially closed because of earthquake damage. It has reopened to cars but not to aid as of this morning.
- Opposition sources report a deal to open two other crossing points to Turkey but the regime continues to insist all aid to the enclave must be directed through Damascus.
- The US and other donor nations work with Syrian NGOs but not the regime. It would be ironic, the US State Department spokesman says, “for us to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years now – gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering they have endured.”
Roots of failure. Russia has assisted in that slaughter and repeatedly used its UN Security Council veto to keep the two alternative northern routes into the enclave closed. Even the Bab al-Hawa crossing point stays open for aid only by dint of six-monthly negotiations in New York.
Is that it? Not by any means. Syria’s slide towards anarchy has been a slow-motion disaster with many witnesses. Western leaders queued up to proclaim the end of Assad’s legitimacy after the Arab Spring, but refused to intervene. Barack Obama said Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people would be a red line, but did nothing when it was crossed.
Putin’s intervention on Assad’s side kept him in power in Damascus and reduced much of Aleppo to rubble, but did not end the war. Syria is still riven by at least six armed conflicts, and hobbled by a regime that
- steals half of every dollar delivered to Syria as international aid;
- delivers two or three hours of electricity to the capital per day, at best;
- has impoverished its people to the point that average monthly salaries of $15 are barely a thirtieth of the monthly cost of living; and
- enriched itself by controlling a $57 billion-a-year illegal trade in the locally-produced amphetamine known as captagon.
Syria’s macroeconomic mess has not been helped by a doubling in the price of Iranian oil since the start of the energy crisis, and a new demand from Tehran to be paid in advance. Soaring living costs were a factor behind a 100 per cent increase in the number of refugees leaving Syria for Turkey and elsewhere last year.
“The status quo is wholly unsustainable,” Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute wrote last week. “Something has to give.” Then the earthquakes struck. There is little that can be done to predict such disasters, but the world would be a safer place if Russia were stripped of its seat on the UN Security Council.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Nigeria’s cash crisis
Africa’s largest economy is facing severe cash shortages. Nigeria’s old notes were supposed to cease being legal tender from tomorrow, but the country’s top court has suspended the deadline because people can’t withdraw enough of the new version to meet basic expenses, leading to fights at ATMs and attacks on commercial banks. CNN reports that at one Lagos supermarket withdrawals were being limited to 1,000 naira (less than $2). The central bank’s strategy is to limit the amount of cash in circulation to curb inflation and counterfeiting. The problem: millions of Nigerians do not have bank accounts, particularly in rural areas. Some banking agents – who act as human ATMs – are selling cash with a 20 per cent commission. Nigerians are also facing fuel shortages across the country, adding to voter frustration ahead of elections on February 25.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING
Google’s new chatbot, Bard, gave an incorrect answer to a question about the James Webb Space Telescope, saying it “took the very first pictures of a planet outside of our own solar system”. Not true – the first exoplanet pictures were taken by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in 2004 – and not ideal, but symptomatic of a wider issue of generative AI chatbots that put out answers based on huge amounts of data fed into the system. But then, presumably because of human error, this answer was included in a promotional video published this week. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, lost $100 billion in market value yesterday as investors worried it would lose ground in search dominance to Microsoft, which this week unveiled a version of its Bing search engine with integrated ChatGPT functions powered by AI.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
Boris Johnson has declared advance earnings of £2.5 million for speeches, bringing the total value of his declared earnings and the hospitality and donations he’s accepted since leaving Downing Street last September to more than £5 million. His latest disclosure is a £2,488,387.53 fee from the Harry Walker Agency in New York for speeches as yet undelivered, following a £1 million donation from Christopher Harborne, a crypto investor, and more than £500,000 from Harper Collins as an advance for his memoir. He’s also declared free accommodation worth £13,500 a month from Lord Bamford and his wife, Conservative donors both. Explore our Westminster Accounts tool to see how money flows around Westminster.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Give freedom wings
Volodymyr Zelensky’s flying visit to Stansted, London, Dorset and Paris yesterday was a gift to the UK’s Rishi Sunak in terms of photo opportunities – the WSJ reports that Downing Street jumped at the chance to host the Ukrainian president first when Paris hesitated. But it was more than that. For all Britain’s diminished international profile, the spectacle of both houses of parliament on their feet and roaring their approval of the man in green might just have given some of the smarter people in the Kremlin reason to wonder about shuffling over to the other side of history. Even if it doesn’t, the presentation of a combat helmet’s pilot to the Speaker of the Commons was clever. Sunak said later sending British fighter jets to Ukraine was “of course” part of the conversation, and he confirmed Ukrainian pilot training would start soon. Experts say the RAF’s ageing Typhoons aren’t a good fit for Ukraine’s airstrips, but Zelensky’s staff say their boss only travels to get results, and a British pledge could pave the way for more suitable Saab Gripens from elsewhere.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
Biden’s State of the Union speech was supposed to be an opportunity for Republicans to heckle the president in chorus. Instead, a confrontation on the House floor showed a riven GOP. “You don’t belong here,” Senator Mitt Romney told George Santos, the embattled Representative for New York who made a name for himself as a serial fabulist after he fibbed about working for various banks, his faith, his education and running an animal rescue charity. Critics say Santos is a symptom of how Trumpian tactics have pervaded the party, while institutionalists like Romney have become increasingly rare. Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist, told the New York Times Santos deserved the lecture, “but so does the whole Republican Party right now.” He complained after the speech that Romney’s interjection “wasn’t very Mormon”.
Additional reporting by Jess Winch and Barney Macintyre.
Photographs Getty Images, Simon Walker/10 Downing Street
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In episode 5, Aleks comes face to face with the people behind Tether