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 "

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Debacle in Syria - a presidential election amid gas attacks

Now overshadowed by the West-Russia confrontation in Ukraine, there is apparent growing consensus that Syrian President "Bashar al-Assad and his leadership are there to stay" as a new BBC article puts it.

The Syrian opposition, early dominated by a young demographic wishing for an "Arab Spring" in their own land, has morphed through various phases - from a militarized but responsible opposition that was essentially starved out by possible Western aid, to the current splintered, radicalized, rebels, dominated by hateful Islamic extremists of various sorts, each in turn supported by regional powers with their own agendas.

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2009 marches for better Syrian governance were, in hindsight, impossibly naive and optimistic. Photo from

Syria's Assad was bolstered early on by steady, robust Russian military and non military aid, as well as forceful intervention by Iran's Hezbollah, coming from Lebanon. Iran and Hezbollah may have their own agendas, ie creating an arc of influence from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, but in the process, found supporting Assad was part of that calculation.

The regional actors: former Iran President Ahmadinejad, beleaguered Syrian President Assad, and Islamic leader of Hezbollah, Nassrallah. The fourth influential supporter, Russia's President Putin, is busy elsewhere ... Photo from

Assad's use of chemical weapons in the summer of 2013 was a horrific act and political miscalculation that almost, almost, resulted in a significant Western intervention. But diplomacy "won" the day, resulting in an agreement to remove the chemical weapons arsenal from Syria.

From marches asking for reform, to today's ghostly ruins and chemical weapon use against its own people, Syria's Assad and his allies leave this legacy. Photo from

Now, nearly 9 months on, 80-90% of the chemical percursors have been removed, leaving Assad apparently free for the occasional use of basic chlorine gas attacks. Chlorine is an element not under WMD classification, so any negotiations to prevent its use for this horrific specific purpose will be safely stretched out over months, if not years, if at all.

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Syrian children caught up in the latest gas attack by their government. Okay, to use moderate and enlightened diplomacy-speak, Teatree will insert "allegedly" into the picture caption. Photo from

A multi-year effort to bring a negotiated end to the conflict, led by the US, and artfully opposed by Russia (with Iran and Hezbollah in quiet agreement), has effectively petered out due to the new Russian incursion into Ukraine, where once again the US believes its own negotiating prowess (with virtually no track record to support such faith) will win the day.

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U.S. President Obama, symbolically just barely relevant to the occasion as illustrated in this photo, has also been left sputtering over Russia's military move into the Crimean peninsula (followed by a quick referendum that formalized the takeover), "That is not how-- international-- law and international norms are observed in the 21st century." Photo from

So, on we go to a Syrian Presidential election set for June. As the BBC article puts it, "The pressures on Mr Assad are now so light that he is preparing to have himself re-elected for another full seven-year term, rather than opting for a compromise two-year extension, an idea kicked around a few months ago when diplomacy was active."

Taken in March 2014, from Assad's own facebook page. Assad, his wife, and various synchophants ... Photo and description from

Want to bet on who will win?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jews (among other minorities) at risk in the Ukraine?

Among the several outrages of Russian President Putin's stance and actions on Russia's Western borders, is the opening it has allowed for extremists to re-emerge. As one young woman remarked after a stay in Eastern France five years ago, "In the U.S., Hitler may have been relegated to the rubbish bin, but in Europe, he continues to loom large ..."

As Putin out-bluffs and out-maneuvers Western European nations and the US (earlier in Georgia, in Syria, and now in the Ukraine) expanding his de-facto Mother Russia borders, anti-semitic flyers have emerged in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

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Donetsk, with a population of 1 million, is one of several eastern Ukrainian cities that have experienced pro-Russian militants emerge, storm and occupy government buildings. Graphic from the Washington Post

As reported in the Guardian newspaper, masked men were confronting people at Donetsk's only remaining synagogue last Wednesday, distributing the notices. "The flyer asks all Jewish citizens aged 16 and older to register with the "Donetsk Republic commissar for nationality affairs" and pay a $50 fee, "given that the leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine support the Banderite junta in Kiev and are hostile to the Orthodox Donetsk Republic and its citizens. Those who refuse to register will be deprived of citizenship and forcibly expelled from the republic and their property will be confiscated."

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The chief rabbi of Donetsk, Pinchas Vyshetsky, holds one of the flyers. Photo from

The masked men apparently left quickly when confronted, but news of the incident quickly spread worldwide with reactions from anger to grief. Within another few hours, the new pro-Russian militants holding court over the city denied their involvement, saying it was an effort to discredit their position. All of which may be true.

Ukraine has had a long checkered history of anti-semitism, and in broader terms, much of Eastern Europe has similarly. In World War II, Jews were attacked both spontaneously and with planned intention by significant elements within these nations, only to be surpassed by or incorporated willingly into the Nazi's program for a final solution. In Ukraine alone, nearly 900,000 Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation. (At the same time, to emphasize the complexity, Ukraine citizens are 4th in number in Israel's "Righteous among the Nations" recognition.)

Hitler, neo-Nazis, fascism and communism still deeply divide this Slavic nation.

While the West saw most of Ukraine's population supporting a pro-European stance, disgusted with previous president Yanukovych's self-enrichment and personal political agenda, there was nonetheless more than a fringe presence of a variety of ultra-nationalists involved the removal of the pro-Russian leader.

As a recent Washington Post article observed, "for Ukraine and Russia, no era or actor is more omnipresent in today’s crisis than World War II and Stepan Bandera. Born in an obscure village in 1909, Bandera in the early 20th century fought for an independent Ukraine, which at the time was carved up between Poland and the Soviet Union. Honoring what they see as his legacy as a thorn in the side of the Soviets, Ukrainian nationalists have strung up a massive poster of their hero in this city’s Independence Square, using him as a rallying cry against the new menace in Moscow.

But if Bandera is idolized by some in the capital and western Ukraine, he is reviled as a fascist in much of the heavily ethnic-Russian east and south as well as in Russia itself. There, memories are still fresh of Soviet-era campaigns that sought to discredit Bandera, and his quest for a Ukrainian homeland, by playing up his ties to Germany’s Third Reich."

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Stepan Bandera poster in central Kiev during the recent uprising against Yanukovych. In modern Ukraine, Bandera is an individual who represents the tensions of a divided country where to some he is loved, and loathed by others. As the WP article puts it, "How do you unite a nation that clings to different heroes?" Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

What the flyers represent on one level, then, is an attempt to discredit one group or another with links or reminders of Nazi ideology. And as the Chief Rabbi of Donestsk puts it, ""I think it's someone trying to use the Jewish community in Donetsk as an instrument in this conflict. That's why we're upset..."

Indeed, the conflict in Ukraine has quickly turned into a geopolitical chess match - Russia dredging up its anger over the Balkan War, now 20 years old, (mainly pounding away at its mantra - don't interfere with sovereign internal affairs) and other past slights, implying there is still much to be redressed to "protect" Russian remnants throughout Eastern Europe. And lost in all this, Teatree wonders whether there is any interest or capability by either pro-Russian militants or Ukrainian authorities in Donetsk to pursue culprits who passed out anti-semitic flyers, putting the local Jewish population in the forefront as a pawn in the larger maneuverings.

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Another of the many charges thrown at Russia by Europe and the US, is the presence of organized Russian military elements or under its direction, in the guise of pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine. For Russia, always having stood by the concept of "non-interference" in other nations' affairs - this charge seems intertwined with hypocrisy. Photo from

The anti-semitic incident brings to the forefront the issue of fundamental governing responsibilities and the many levels that fall short of the mark

Most modern societies are characterized by a ceding over the responsibility of sanctioned violence, or the enforcement of law and order, to the duly authorized government (city, county, state, province, oblast, and federal levels). In exchange, the government is expected to actively pursue and end unsanctioned violence, as well as incidents of persecution directed at individuals or groups among the population.

(Interestingly, in the US, there is a pronounced, and constitutionally enshrined, right of citizens to be wary of giving government that very tool. Yes, the government should take the lead, vigilante justice is not the preferred approach, but there remains a right to bear arms.)

As one of the better articles Teatree has read on this Ukraine drama, Ukraine crisis: Donetsk anti-Semitic leaflets stir old fears it concludes, "As the stand-off between Russia and Ukraine deepens, so does the dangerous power vacuum that it has created. Like any conflict, it has already begun to unleash long-dormant religious and ethnic tensions. Minority groups here fear that they will be the biggest victims of this conflict between two Orthodox, Slavic nations."

So one could create a hierarchy of good governance in protecting its citizens as follows:

#1 Active, principled pursuance by the government of criminal elements, including proactive steps towards strengthening the rule of law, is the ideal.

#2 A major step down is a studied indifference to rights, especially of minorities, or any sphere of lawbreaking. Many nations have fallen short of this at various eras. One only needs to look at the US' Jim Crow laws allowed for so many decades and clear into the 1960s ...

#3 Active persecution or favoritism shown regarding one minority or class over another. One can take one's pick of all sorts of examples of this. Naziism and Communism probably rank the most odious, with the common thread being statism, or the importance of the state itself, over the individual. Islamic theocracies follow ...

#4 Sheer incompetence and corruption keep governments from fulfilling their responsibilities. It seems Nigeria with all its oil wealth, falls into this category, apparently unable to tackle its Boko Haram insurgency.

#5 Sheer inability of a central government to maintain law and order; anarchy, militias, and warlords reign instead. Afghanistan's recent history immediately after the Soviet Union withdrawal comes to mind that culminated in a new low - governance by the Taliban.

Whether one young Jewish boy of the 15,000 Jews left in Donetsk, or the Tatars of Crimea, it seems under the new Russian expansion, that many face an uncertain and constricted future. Photo from the BBC

Monday, April 14, 2014

Australia's Coober Pedy in the middle of major oil find

In the outback of Australia, there is a region where opal mining reigns supreme. The tailings, from afar, look like like white piles of rock, waiting for further processing. The landscape is bleak. A little town has gathered itself there, called Coober Pedy.

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More than 90 percent of the world's opal is mined from 70 different fields around Coober Pedy, itself in the center of the vast arid Australian interior. Photo from the

If it helps, Coober Pedy is halfway between Alice Springs and Adelaide, Graphic from

What makes this town of less than 1700 unique, more than just a hot speck in a harsh land, are the dwellings some locals have constructed. Shades of hobbit tales, many have built houses, B&Bs, hotels, and bars inside the mining shafts, creating dozens of Star Wars-like homes and businesses.

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Entries to a home relatively cool and definitely secure after the land has yielded its gems. Photo from

Living room (in a bed and breakfast) ...

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Kitchen ... notice the unique "scarring" from the drills that scrape the opening for opals, Photo from

Red and green ... nice combo. Photo from

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The signs say, don't run, don't walk backwards ... there are a lot of holes in the ground. Photo from

And now, something new coming to town

A story from in January, 2014, notes that "SOUTH Australia is sitting on oil potentially worth more than $20 trillion, independent reports claim - enough to turn Australia into a self-sufficient fuel producer.

Brisbane company Linc Energy yesterday released two reports, based on drilling and seismic exploration, estimating the amount of oil in the as yet untapped Arckaringa Basin surrounding Coober Pedy ranging from 3.5 billion to 233 billion barrels of oil. At the higher end, this would be "several times bigger than all of the oil in Australia", Linc managing director Peter Bond said. This has the potential to turn Australia from an oil importer to an oil exporter."

An enthusiastic graphic showing how, using the most optimistic numbers of oil volume, Australia could become similar in importance as Saudi Arabia. Graphic found in the

At the same time this week, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)issued its third major global warming report. From a National Geographic article, "Among the reports' findings:
—Humanity's influence on a warming climate is "clear" and has accelerated since the 1950s largely due to burning oil, coal, and other fossil fuels that release atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases.
—Global warming is already harming agriculture, the environment, and human health in real ways worldwide.
—Greenhouse gas emissions rates have accelerated since 1970, with the steepest increase coming in the past decade. About 80 percent of those emissions are tied to fossil fuel use.
The worst effects of climate change include acidified oceans, higher sea levels, and crop losses."

So, in every country, decisions are ahead. In Coober Pedy, Australia, a future as either an oil importer or exporter looms even as climate change reports continue to sound alarms.

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It was opals, now it could be oil ... Photo from

Monday, April 7, 2014

Afghanistan holds first election transferring presidential power via the ballot box

While it often seems as though Afghanistan is a never ending stream of horrific news events - violence, corruption, spats, mistaken bombing raids, drone strikes - there was a rare burst of action over the weekend that refocused attention on Afghans themselves in a positive light.

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Afghanistan - toiling after nearly 40 years of uninterrupted conflict, internal, religious, and yet also as a pawn of geopolitical maneuvering. Graphic from

In the middle of a civil war - Taliban with 10th century Sharia law as its governing vision vs a heavily propped up central government with 21st century (ok, perhaps 20 century) aspirations - an election was held that for the first time transfers presidential power via the ballot box.

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Despite threats and acts of violence from the Taliban that called the elections a Western sham, Afghanis turned out heavily to vote. Here, a line snakes along at a mosque/polling station in Herat, Afganistan. Photo from the NY Daily News

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In rural, mountainous locations, donkeys are a key element in voting. Here, local election officials are transporting ballots to the voting stations in anticipation of the election day. Photo from

Biggest election day decision has international implications

The current Afghan President, Harmid Karzai, is not running again, but has frustrated his NATO allies by refusing to sign a new security pact ensuring continued military support from Western countries. That decision, says Karzai (not unreasonably) should be left to the new President. And all 8 candidates running for the office have declared they are ready to sign.

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Current Afghan President Harmid Karzai, has become a familiar face to Western powers, an increasingly fierce critic of tactics used by Western military allies, and no doubt after 13 years of governing, ready to step down. Photo from WSJ

The issue is whether the new President will be officially installed - some say this will be months away yet due to the likelihood of runnoff balloting and other procedures - in time to prevent allies from beginning massive withdrawals in the fall. (And to Teatree, this all smacks rather heavily to the internal goals of armed forces and politics, rather than supporting the average Afghan ...)

Oh, and who are the candidates for the office of Afghanistan President?

In a recent BBC article we read, "There are eight candidates for president, but three are considered frontrunners - former foreign ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.

Dr Abdullah has fought a polished campaign, Mr Ghani has strong support among the new urban youth vote and Dr Rassoul is believed to favoured by Hamid Karzai, our correspondent says. However, no candidate is expected to secure more than the 50% of the vote needed to be the outright winner, which means there is likely to be a second round run-off on 28 May."

So for faces and brief biographies courtesy of the AP, here are the top three:

Photo from
ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Having gained 31 percent of the vote as runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections, Abdullah has an advantage in name recognition and political organization. He was a close aide to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance rebel commander famed for his resistance to Soviet occupation and the Taliban. Abdullah has a strong following among ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan's north, but his perceived weak support among Pashtuns — Afghanistan's largest ethnic group at 42 percent — could keep him from gaining a majority of votes, even though he is half-Pashtun.

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Photo from Gulf Times
ZALMAI RASSOUL: A former foreign minister, Rassoul has been national security adviser to the government and is seen as close to Karzai. He could end up being a consensus candidate among many political factions. A Pashtun like Karzai, he has a medical degree and is fluent in five languages, including French, English and Italian. He lived in Italy for many years with Afghanistan's deposed King Zahir Shah, who died in Kabul in 2007.

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Photo from
ASHRAF GHANI AHMADZAI: Ghani is a former finance minister who ran in the 2009 presidential elections but received just 3 percent of the vote. A well-known academic with a reputation as a somewhat temperamental technocrat, Ghani chairs a commission in charge of transitioning responsibility for security from the U.S.-led coalition to Afghan forces. Ghani also worked at the World Bank.

By the way, at least these three candidates, and Teatree assumes most of the other five, are equally comfortable wearing either Western or traditional Afghan attire. No implications are meant with the choice of photos.

So, on we go into the next few months of power transfer and serious crossroads for Afghanistan's future ...

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Always in the background are the fortunes of Afghani women - much is at stake for them personally as to rights and status. Photo from