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February 2012

Feb 1  Syrian rebels remain upbeat despite government advances, according to Britain's newspaper, The Telegraph. The army of dictator Assad, with its tanks, continues its drive against rebels and its searches of homes of deserters in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital, Damascus. The Free Syria Army has made a tactical withdrawal from these suburbs, but the Free Syria Army commander Colonel Riad al-Assad claims that his forces control half of Syria.

Feb 1  Researchers in the US gather electrical signals – brain waves – from patients and reconstruct those signals into the words the patients had in mind.

Feb 1  A court in Cape Town sentences four South African men to 18 years in jail for stabbing and stoning to death a lesbian, Zoliswa Nkonyana, just outside her home, in 2006. A crowd outside cheered and danced. South Africa's constitution protects people despite their sexual orientation. Pumza Fihlani reports for BBC News that "More than 30 lesbians have been killed in the past 10 years because of their sexuality and the so-called practice of 'corrective rape' also appears to be on the increase, according to gay activists."

Feb 2  Health researchers at the University of California call for new government controls to rein in a soaring consumption of sugar and sweeteners. They claim that sugar is as damaging and addictive as alcohol or tobacco. They acknowledge that they face "an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby." (BBC News)

Feb 3   Pew Research Center reported yesterday that "Nearly six-in-ten lower-income Republican and Republican-leaning voters" have said that the government does too little for poor people. Meanwhile there is much ado in the press about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saying he's not concerned about the poor given that they have a safety net that he is willing to repair. Complaints arise from some on the political right and rival candidate Newt Gingrich against spending on a safety net. Complaints arise from left-of-center regarding the working poor. Allow me a personal note. While I was an apartment manager in Oakland, California, three of my tenants were single black women who lived alone. They went to work every workday morning and gave a big chunk of their wages every month for rent. It was a distribution-of-wealth matter favorable to their employers (in the form of rock-bottom wages) and favorable to their landlord, but it left them trapped, unable to live other than most frugally and unable to save enough to get a landlord off their back.

Feb 4  While UN delegates talk, the Assad regime continues its policy of crushing those Syrians opposed to its power. This morning, BBC News reports that "activists" claim that last night Syrian forces, with tanks and mortars, killed more than 200 in the city of Homs, "in the worst violence since anti-government protests began." In the UN, Russia has been threatening to block with its veto an Arab League move against Syria supported by France, Britain the US and others. Russia has expressed disappointment with the Arab League for pulling its observers out of Syria. Russia does a lot of business with Syria, including arms sales. And Russia is looking forward to completed construction of a naval base for its warships on the coast of Syria, at Tartus. This would allow Russia a greater presence in the Mediterranean region – closer than its naval base on the eastern shore of the Black Sea.

Feb 4  Russia and China veto the UN resolution on Syria. US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, described the vetoes as "unforgivable." France's Ambassador Gerard Araud said it was "a sad day for all friends of democracy," Germany Ambassador Peter Wittig said, "The people in Syria have been let down again."

Feb 5  The US plans to save money by pulling two brigades from Germany, reducing the size of the US army in Europe by almost 10,000. According to Reuters, the US Army today has around 41,000 troops in Europe. US troops have been in Germany since 1945.

Feb 6  This morning, with heavy artillery fire, the Bashar al-Assad regime continues its several days of assault on the rebellious city of Homs, apparently believing it can crush the opposition there. Homs has a population of around 1.2 million. Assad's father, Hafez, killed a reported 20,000 in 1982 putting down a Sunni rebellion in Hama – a city just a little over half the size of Homs, but Hama remains a city opposed to the Assad dynasty. And Bashar faces an international situation different from what his father faced and revolts across Syria. Assad is getting help from his Shia ally, Iran. Iran's elite Quds Force is in Syria helping to manage Assad's offensive against popular unrest. Meanwhile, support for the Free Syrian Army is expected from neighboring Turkey and other Sunni powers. Assad is destroying a lot of homes and lives in the city of Homs, but that he can win the city any more than his father ultimately won Hama appears doubtful. Bashar al-Assad appears still on a path toward what befell the dictator Anastasio Somoza (assassinated in 1980), or Sadam Hussein (hanged in 2006), or Muammar Qaddafi (shot by a soldier in 2011) – more likely perhaps than he is to become a prisoner of the International Court of Justice at the Hague in the Netherlands.

Feb 7  Reporting from Homs for BBC News, Paul Wood speaks of a full colonel who defected four days ago describing morale crumbling in the Syrian army and the rebels gaining strength. Wood describes the assault on Homs continuing into today, the assault including mortar and heavy machine gun fire and Russian-made tanks. For the people of Homs food is a problem as they hunker down in the center of their homes, putting as many walls as possible between themselves and the outside.

Feb 9  Journalist/author Robin Wright tells Piers Morgan (yesterday) that Assad needs at least 30 percent support to stay in power and that he still has it. Assad's bombardment of Homs enters its sixth day today, with a report of at least 50 more people killed. The Italian news agency ANSA reports "thousands of asylum seekers are fleeing to neighboring Jordan seeking safety and refuge from hunting of Syrian security forces."

Feb 9  Running for president, Mitt Romney has been describing President Obama as wanting to make the US like a European welfare state. Looking at Germany (also a welfare state) a former chief economist at Deutsche Bank says that with one percent of the labor force of the world Germany has ten percent of the exports in the world, that with a quarter of the US population it exports more in total than does the United States. (News Hour Feb 8)

Feb 10  The Center for Science in the Public Intererest (CSPI) petitions the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prohibit the use of potassium bromate. These bromates were banned in Britain in 1990 and in Canada in 1994. In the US, some bakers have already switched to bromate-free products.

Feb 10  Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican colleagues have been blaming Democrats for the shape of the economy, saying that President Obama owned the economy. Yesterday, McConnell claimed that recent economic improvements are "not because of the president but in spite of him." He credited Republicans for the improvements and described Democrats as "liberal thugs." McConnell didn't mention any Republican contribution to political gridlock as an ingredient regarding economic recovery.

Feb 12  Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, has prevented a young Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, 23, from seeking asylum in New Zealand and has deported him to Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah had ordered that Kashgari be arrested "for crossing red lines and denigrating religious beliefs in God and His Prophet." Last week, Kashgari tweeted an imagined conversation with the Prophet Muhammad in which he objected to the "halos of divinity" that others had put on the Prophet, and Kashgari said he would treat the Prophet "as a friend, no more." The Koran has the Prophet saying "I am only a mortal like you," but hostile tweets went viral, and there were calls for Kashgari's execution. Kashgari said he was trying to exercise a most basic human right: freedom of expression and thought. Neverthless, to save himself, Kashgari has apologized.

Feb 12  "Markets don't correct their own excesses," says George Soros on CNN.

Feb 13  Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle East Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, describes the Assad regime as having the backing of Syria's Christians (about 10 percent of the population) and Syria's "bourgeoisie." He opposes giving support to the Free Syrian Army, saying that "The worst thing" that can happen to the uprising against Assad, "is the militarization of the intifada, because that would exactly play into the Assad basically world view." Gerges wants to give time for an economic squeeze on the Assad regime to work, and he wants to avoid an "all out civil war." There are others, however, who believe that deserters from Assad's army have a right to defend themselves, that Assad is the one who has started the civil war that already exists, that civilians need to be protected and that cringing to Assad's propaganda would be making that propaganda more effective. And some might consider that pacifist policies during the shelling of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica slaughter delayed the ending of that conflict.

Feb 13  The Arab League announces that it is ending all diplomatic co-operation with Syria, and it promises to give "political and material support" to the opposition.

Feb 15  A court in New Zealand has blocked government approval of Chinese investors buying New Zealand farmland.

Feb 15  In Egypt, a call by "activists" for a day of strikes and civil disobedience has fizzled. The actions were to mark one year since Mubarak's overthrow and to pressure the military regarding civilian control. BBC News reports that "strikes at universities attracted small numbers of protesters, and public transport in Cairo ran as normal." Meanwhile electoral politics are warming up. According to the state-owned newspaper, Al-Ahram, Egypt's first presidential election since the fall of Mubarak will be held at the end of May.

Feb 15  In Syria, government forces continue to provoke hostile neighborhoods as President Assad is handed a copy of a "democratic" constitution that is to be voted on. The government today has launched a new offensive in the city of Hama and it continues bombardments in Homs.

Feb 16  President Assad decrees that a referendum will be held on the new draft constitution on the 26th of this month. The new constitution drops political domination in Syria by the Baath Party, to which Assad belongs. Opponents of Assad voice opposition to the referendum while he continues assaults against their neighborhoods.

Feb 16  David Ignatius writes in today's Washington Post about President Obama's "outreach" to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Obama's outreach statement: "America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments — provided they govern with respect for all their people."

Feb 16  In the UN General Assembly today, voting NO with the Assad regime on the Arab League's resolution condemning human rights violations in Syria and calling for President Assad to step down: Iran, Russia, Belarus, China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Zimbabwe. Their number is 12. Voting YES were 137, and 17 abstained.

Feb 17  The Assad regime continues to ignore the idea of preparing the opposition for a political solution to the country's crisis. Today, nine days before voting is to take place on a new democratic constitution, rather than let the opposition live in their neighborhoods in peace, the Assad regime continues its assault on "armed gangs." Someone in the city of Homs complains, "We have a lack of medical supplies and food. The Assad forces have prevented people leaving the city." Someone else complains: "There are thousands of people isolated in Homs. There are neighborhoods that we know nothing about. I myself do not know if my parents are OK. I have had no news from them for 14 days." A report exists that government forces on the outskirts of Homs are poised for a big push into the city to wipe out all resistance. On the News Hour, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya Television offers what is becoming a common opinion among pundits: that the time for a political solution and the issue of reform in Syria "has come and gone."

Feb 18  Assad forces fire on a crowd attending funerals in the Mazzeh neighborhood in Damascus. The funerals were for three youths killed the day before. Thousands had joined the funeral processions on the way to the burial site. What was gained for the Assad regime by firing on the crowd? Stupidity is playing its role in Syria's crisis. Indeed, stupidity appears to be the proper characterization of the Assad regime since it began moving against dissidents a year ago.

Feb 19  A Syrian banker, Faisal Qudsi, who now chairs a London-based investment banking firm, predicts that Assad's military phase against protesters will last no longer than six months. Speaking to the BBC's Weekend World Today programme, he describes Syria's economy as crippled and its foreign exchange reserves dwindling rapidly.

Feb 21  The cost of becoming President of the United States has increased something like 7.5 times (in 2011 dollars) between the Kennedy-Nixon race in 1960 and the Obama-McCain race in 2008, according to Dave Gilson in yesterday's issue of Mother Jones magazine. Obama spent 260 times what Abraham Lincoln spent in his first presidential election.

Feb 22  In Buenos Aires, Argentina, a different kind of incompetence is made apparent. A commuter train's brakes fail and the train hits the end of a platform at about 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) per hour – a speed that with the combined weight of the train creates an impact great enough to kill an estimated 49 people and injure 600 others.

Secreatary of State Hillary Clinton

Secretary of State Clinton

Feb 23  Running for president and still the target of hostile rallies, Vladimir Putin does what is common for a politician. He speaks of enemies and he appeals to national conceit. He asks his crowd, "Do you love Russia?" And the crowd chants "Yes!" Putin tells them, "We won't allow anybody to interfere into our internal affairs and impose their will on us because we have our own will… We are a nation of victors. It's in our genes… The battle for Russia is raging on. We'll be victorious." (Christian Science Monitor)

Feb 23  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today says, "And I want the Syrian people who are suffering so mightily to know that the international community has not underestimated either their suffering or their impatience, and we are moving in an expeditious but deliberate manner."

Feb 24  Seventy countries meet in Tunis to establish "no-kill zones" in Syria. Jonathan Marcus, BBC News: "All the talk of safe havens or humanitarian corridors demanded by opposition groups founders on a simple fact; one way or another they all mean going to war with the Syrian regime."

Feb 24  In Cairo the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declares: "I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform." BBC News

Feb 25  Al Jazeera reports that yesterday Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal stated that arming the Syrian opposition is "an excellent idea."

Feb 25  Reuters reports that opposition activists in Syria deplore the results of the 70-nation international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunis and complain that the world has abandoned them "to be killed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad." The Obama administration and others are not supporting arming the Syrian opposition. They are leaving the Syrian revolution to wait for sanctions to work, for more desertions from Assad's military and, like the Chinese revolution in 1949, using whatever weaponry they can get their hands on, captured and otherwise.

Feb 26  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says "there is every possibility of a civil war" in Syria. What Clinton fears is a more intense civil war that spreads instability in the region. (A civil war already exists.) And she fears what she calls bad actors, al Qaeda and Hamas, siding with the opposition (boogeyman-talk to some). Also, Clinton points out that automatic weapons smuggled into Syria would be ineffective against tanks and artillery. She adds that part of the reason for the Tunis meeting on Friday was to see "whose side who was on." BBC

Feb 26  More informative than media news, a readable description of developments in Syria is published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (February 24). It's written by Peter Harling and Sarah Birke. The Princeton scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter tweets that it is a must read.

Feb 27  China's Communist Party newspaper lashes out at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton has described the Chinese and Russian veto of a UN Security Council resolution on Syria "despicable" while "people are being murdered." The newspaper describes Clinton as super-arrogant and egotistical. Meanwhile, China is asking the world to let Assad's move to a new constitution work. Some across the globe see this as a naive interpreation of events in Syria, and some of us will continue to see China's leaders as cretinous in their attitude toward brutal applications of authoritarianism, including those of us who understand China's history and concern regarding stability.

Feb 29  Russians are unpopular in Syria. A Russian Orthodox Church representative reports: "Our women are insulted out loud in some districts of Damascus. Sometimes taxi drivers deny a ride to Russian-speaking people. Even children can throw stones at people speaking the Russian language." It is said that Russian citizens who can are getting out, the Russian Embassy school has closed, and Russian workers on a natural gas development project have been evacuated.

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Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.