February 2014

Feb 1  Going into February, those killed by the civil war in Syria are numbered at 130,000. Two million Syrians are refugees outside the country and four million are said to be displaced inside the country, with thousands lacking the food needed for survival and lacking shelter. Some are dying from starvation. Talks in Geneva are scheduled to continue on the 10th, seen by some as more wishful talk-talk while the Assad regime uses its time to decide the war like wars are often decided: by one side successfully applying military force. According to figures published by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group in Britain opposed to the Assad regime, during the past week death from the war killed 515 fighting on the government side, 850 fighting with the mainstream and extremists against Assad, and at least 498 civilians. At this rate according to less than accurate counting, given at least half of Syria's 22 million population hostile to the Assad regime and half of them as men, and half again as able bodied, it will take the Assad regime something like 26 years to kill off its opponents – if those killed include kids growing to a fighting age. Assad's troops are said to number around 170,000. At the rate suggested by the past week, Assad would lose something like 25,000 per year and they would cease to exist in 6.8 years. Meanwhile, today, government and rebel forces cooperate in the evacuation of hundreds of people from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Yarmouk. The evacuation diminishes the number of people in this population center hostile to the regime.

Feb 2 People in Ukraine continue their attempt to effect political change through demonstrations and building occupations rather than through the ballot box. Their protests began following their government's rejection of a far-reaching accord with the European Union. And the protests turned violent in their confrontation with police following parliament passing legislation outlawing protests. The protests have been massive enough to bring about the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet. President Yanukovich, elected in 2010, has been willing to talk with protest leaders, and parliament has annuled the new anti-protest laws. But the protesters want Yanukovich to resign. They want victory in the streets, a political revolution, which rarely happens when people can express themselves at the ballot box. Some speak of the possibility of a civil war. Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed US support for Ukraine's "fight for democracy," and Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov accused Western countries of a double standard regarding politics by violent protests. The election of Yanukovich in 2010 was described in Russia as "highly rated by international observers," while the losing opposition party claimed that there had been fraud.

Feb 3  In Thailand the losing political party in the elections of 2011, the Democratic Party, has been trying to win in the streets. It boycotted yesterday's elections. Yesterday, those hostile to the elections sent toughs out to block polling stations, resulting in poll closures. According to BBC News, "Protests prevented voting from taking place in 438 of Bangkok's 6,671 polling stations, and there was no voting at all in nine southern provinces" (where the Democratic Party is strongest). The protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, announced that the government would be unable to declare a result because of polling place closures, adding, "Therefore the election is a waste of time and money." Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva tells BBC News, "We are saying the government needs to recognise it has lost trust of people because of its abuse of democratic processes."

Feb 5  The Obama administration denounces Egypt's detention of three Al Jazeera journalists and calls for their release. In solidarity with the three, numerous journalists around the globe have tweeted photos of themselves with their mouths taped shut. Christiane Amanpour is among the protesters. Egypt's intirim government has accused the three of spreading false news and having links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt classified as a terrorist organisation.

Feb 6  Peace talks between Pakistan's government and the Taliban have begun. The talks have been described as friendly and cordial. Salahuddin Haider writes in Arab News that "The prospects for reaching any viable peace deal with the Taliban are growing dim with each passing day," and that Taliban delegates rule out "any chances of peace until the imposition of Shariah law in the country and a complete withdrawal of US forces from neighboring Afghanistan."

Feb 6  EJ Dionne writes about "willful stupidity" this past week in the Obamacare debate. In the Washington Post today he says that "the best arguments for health-insurance reform is that our traditional employer-based system often locked people into jobs they wanted to leave but couldn't because they feared they wouldn't be able to get affordable coverage elsewhere." Dionne writes about Republicans describing the new freedom to leave a job as Obamacare hurting the economy. An example of this is Senator Orrin Hatch (whom Dionne did not mention) describing Obamacare as having a "job-killing" impact. More than 1,500 so far this morning have responded with comments to the Post, some lauding Obamacare for providing more freedom of choice, others criticizing Dionne's "rhetoric." One comment critical of Dionne reads: "You liberals are incredible. No volume of facts or truths can lead you from your Marxist messiah or your journey towards economic destruction."

Feb 7  A leaked telephone conversation exposes differences between the US and the EU over events in Ukraine. A senior US State Department official, Victoria Nuland, in a message to the US ambassador to Ukraine said "F*ck the EU," and apparently it was the Russians who tapped into and leaked the conversation. The Russians are accusing the US of arming, funding and training the opposition to take power. According to Reuters News, "Moscow portrays the anti-Yanukovich demonstrators as paid Western agents and seems to be pushing for Yanukovich to order a crackdown to clear the streets." Russia is described as having "bailed out Ukraine with an offer of $15 billion in cheap gas and loans after Yanukovich snubbed the EU trade pact" and Russia has cut off these funds" until it learns who the new prime minister will be." Meanwhile Germany's Angela Merkel again expresses anger with the US, and she expresses support for EU policy regarding Ukraine.

Feb 7 In Germany, Helmut Linnsen, treasurer for Chancellor Angela Merkel's political party, quits over scandal regarding offshore banking accounts in the Bahamas and Panama.

Feb 9  People in Sarajevo and other cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina join the politics by street action, in place of electoral politics. According to an article in Aljazeera: "For nearly twenty years, Bosnians and Herzegovinians have suffered under the administration of a vicious cabal of political oligarchs who have used ethno-nationalist rhetoric to obscure the plunder of Bosnia-Herzegovina's public coffers. The official unemployment rate has remained frozen for years at around 40 percent, while the number is above 57 percent among youth."

Feb 9  A poll released today, commissioned by the US Spanish language network Univision, shows a divide among Catholics over doctrine. The division depends on where on the globe they live and people with different traditions.. Catholics in the advanced Western democracies were found to be more in conflict with present-day doctrine than are Catholics in Africa and Asia. More than 12,000 Catholics were polled, in twelve countries. The poll shows 40 percent of Catholics in the United States opposed to gay marriage, compared with 99 percent in Africa. In most Catholic African countries 75 percent agree with the church that divorcees who remarry outside the church should not receive Communion, compared with 19 percent of Catholics in Europe. The ban on female priests is supported by 80 percent of Catholics in Africa and 76 percent in the Philippines compared with 36 percent in the United States and 30 percent in Europe.

Feb 10  The Swiss vote to bring back immigration quotas. Switzerland has been doing well economically. Its unemployment is low, but foreigners are now 23 percent of the population and people have been complaining about foreign workers driving salaries down and putting pressures on transportation, education and health services. The vote puts Switzerland in violation of its free-movement of people agreement with the European Union. (Switzerland is not a member of the EU.) Switzerland's trade with the EU is expected to suffer, and Swiss businesses complain about a new inabililty to hire talented foreigners.

Feb 11  The peace talks resumed in Geneva yesterday, and this morning the talks opened with a minute of silence for the 130,000 killed in Syria since the conflict began there in 2011. The opposition delegate Ahmed Jakal said, "I hope that the minute of silence will signal an improvement in the atmosphere this time." But Assad's propagandists put a spin on what the minute of silence was about, describing it as "for the souls of the martyrs of the village of Maan in rural Hama." The regime accuses Sunni Islamist terrorists of killing 42 Alawites there two days ago. Al Arabiaya reports a claim by a spokesman for the opposition National Coalition that no civilians were killed in Maan. "There was a battle over there between (the rebel) Free Syrian Army and Assad forces. The village itself was evacuated of civilians more than six months ago. All people in that battle were killed in action. No civilians were killed in that battle." The opposition, meanwhile complains that the Assad regime continues to kill civilians with its military assaults, and US Secretary of State John Kerry condemns the Assad regime's use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters.

Feb 12   "The world is no longer changing every hundred years" and artificial intelligence will replace 50 percent of today's jobs in the service sector within ten years. So says Peter Diamandis, Intel entrepreneur and cofounder of the X-PRIZE Foundation. Conservative wealth distribution philosophy hasn't adjusted to the automation change so far, and no one knows how soon it will.

Feb 12 The World Press Freedom Index for 2014 is out – produced by Reporters without Borders, advocates of freedom of information. Finland, the Netherlands and Norway top the list. Denmark is 7th, Sweden 10th and Germany 14th. Syria is fourth from the bottom, followed by Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

Feb 13   The journal PEN America has condemned the executions in Iran in late January of the poet Hashem Sha'bani and the cultural activist Hadi Rashedi. The two were arrested in September 2011. They were convicted in July 2012 of "enmity against God," "corruption on earth," "gathering and colluding against state security," and "spreading propaganda against the system."

Feb 13   In France, another illegal Roma camp as been destroyed, this one in a wood just outside Paris. The fifteen families living there were given between thirty minutes and an hour to collect their things. Machines then pitted the area to prevent future settlement. BBC News writes that Roma mainly from Romania and Bulgaria have been moving into Western Europe since the 1990s and that their camps in France are systematically destroyed.

Feb 14  President Obama puts in an appearance in California, giving attention to the drought there, the worst drought in the state's recorded history. The drought is hurting the state's agriculture and wildlife including salmon, and it's threatening its supply of drinking water. California has long suffered from growing populations lowering its water tables, and Californians are wondering how quickly desalination plants can be put online. CNBC writes that "California has a half dozen desalination plants (the US total is more than 300, experts say) mostly around the central coast in towns like Sand City, Marina and Cambria." Bigger and more expensive plants are on the drawing board, to be paid for by private enterprise, which will sell the water to the public. The cost of buying water is expected to rise. There is also a concern over the outflow of seawater from desalination plants, which can kill marine life. Today in California, President Obama has promised to make available within 60 days up to $100 million in aid to help California farmers who lost livestock due to drought conditions. Public comments include a complaint that Obama is worthless because he is not addressing the root of problems, and someone else criticizes climate change deniers. Someone living on a meagre income complains that the price of everything is "really going to rise sky high" and we will need to start growing our own veggies.

Feb 15  Britain's shift from drought two years ago to recent rainfall that is twice the average for January and February leaves people arguing and frustrated. The British are fighting flood waters from "extreme weather" that began in December. Property damage is extensive. Britain's agriculture is suffering. People are cursing the Environmental Agency and politicians. Some complain about those who deny that climate change is man made. Data that accounts for weather variation across a vast time span tells climate scientists that climate change is a fact and that humanity is responsible for it. But many people don't trust or pay attention to scientists, and a few of them have a preference for the absolutism called certainty and play on the doubt that is part of science. Meanwhile a Dutchman in Britain sees the Brits as having been too slow in digging their rivers deeper.

Feb 15   Geneva 2 ends with no progress having been made. The Assad regime offered those who dislike his bombs and invasions nothing in the form of a ceasefire, nothing in the form of freedom from state terrorism or hope for some kind local self-governance. Britain and France blame the Assad regime for Geneva 2's failure. President Obama, meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, now in California, said yesterday he is considering new ways to pressure Assad. He says he will continue trying "to move forward on a diplomatic solution," which sounds like more of the same talking. Today, the anti-Assad "Syrian Observator for Human Rights" describes war driven deaths in Syria as having reached 140,041, more than 7,000 of them children, and it describes the period that began with the Geneva 2 talks last month as the bloodiest during the three-year confllct.

Feb 16   On Meet the Press today, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, argued that climate change theories are built on "unproven sciences." She called the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "very slight" and said that it benefits agriculture. Also on the program, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, noted that going from 320 to 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not slight in percentage terms.

Feb 17  Yesterday Secretary of State Kerry announced that "It is urgent that we tackle climate change. He said "the windows of time is still open," but he warned that it is closing. President Obama yesterday linked the drought in California to climate change. In the Washington Post over 700 comment on the Bill Nye and Marsha Blackburn discussion on Meet the Press. Opponents of the idea of climate change cite figures, and those in favor claim that averaging the figures is basic. Someone writes that temperature data is noisy and best represented by regression analysis. This is followed by, "Regression analysis? You expect people who think the Earth is 6,000 years old to understand that?" Another describes climate change as "a scam actually started in the 70's by the Carter administration" and extended by Al Gore. Another complained that twenty-five percent off Americans surveyed believe that the sun revolves around the earth.

Feb 17  Two days ago in Kentucky a snake handling preacher, Jamie Coots, was bitten by a snake. Someone called an ambulance, and when the ambulance arrived the medics found Coots had gone home. Coots was contacted there, but he refused medical treatment. Coots died about an hour later. About a year ago Coots told police who found snakes in his car that he believed the venomous snakes couldn't hurt him as long as he had the power of God.

Feb 18  Demonstrations and rioting, rather than politics by the ballot box, resume in the Ukraine. Yesterday protesters abandoned occupation of government buildings following an amnesty offered by the government, but today in central Kiev anti-government forces responded to an attack on their encampment. They still want constitutional changes and President Yanukovich to leave office. Seven protesters and two policemen are reported as having been killed. The protesters are hurling fire bombs and stones in what is described as the worse day of violence since the demonstrations began almost three months ago. Reuters News reports that Moscow attributes the rioting to a "direct result of connivance by Western politicians and European structures that have shut their eyes ... to the aggressive actions of radical forces". Someone comments: "The Ukrainian people simply want out of Russia's domination." Someone else: "Whole regions of Ukraine openly embrace Russia ... 20 thousand protesters rioting in Kiev do not represent the whole of Ukraine." After being described as perhaps a Russian stooge he responds: "Half of Ukrainians are actually Russians, the revolting west regions are ethnic Polish… Ukraine is an artificially created country, and Kiev was the cradle of Kievska Russia."

Feb 18  In Thailand, the police appear to have turned from neutrality to action against demonstrators trying to oust the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck. BBC News reports one police officer and two protesters shot dead and dozens injured as police clash with protesters in Bangkok.

Feb 19  The death toll from violence in the Ukraine yesterday has reached at least twenty-six. European Union leaders condemn what they describe as an "unjustified use of excessive force by the Ukrainian authorities," and they claim to be preparing sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown. President Yanukovich objects. He recognizes that modern nation-states are supposed to have a monopoly on applications of violence within the national borders, to be applied with respect for human rights – the point of debate. Anti-government forces using violence are revolutionaries whether they realize it or not, and they can't win without at least the support it takes to win an honest election. And someone comments: "Yanukovich was elected president of Ukraine in an election recognized by the US and the EU as free and open. He is up for reelection (or not reelection) in 2015 – in a year and a half from now. What is the point of those savages burning their formerly beautiful capital city?"

Feb 20  The Central African Republic, a former colony of France, is suffering from lack of a strong central government. Young men in Christian militias have found a role for themselves killing Muslims. About a mayor they killed in a nearby village one of them tells BBC News: "Even if he was a good man he was a Muslim." Also: "We don't want any of them to remain in this country." Militiamen speak of revenge for atrocities committed by Muslims. Muslims in the nearby village are afraid and waiting for protection from French troops. In other villages slaughters have occurred. According to Reuters News, "Thousands have died and around 1 million people, a quarter of the country's population, have fled cycles of violence that continue even though there are now 5,000 African and another 1,600 French peacekeeping troops deployed on the ground." Reuters adds that "heavy fighting" erupted yesterday at the country's main airport "as Christian militia tried to block the evacuation of Muslims."

Feb 21  Yesterday in Kiev violent protesters charged against police lines and the police in charge of their ranks allowed their men to fire point blank into the crowd. Seventy-seven are reported as having been killed and as many as 570 injured. Both security forces and rioters were filmed stalking the streets with rifles. Ukrainian authorities report three police as having been killed. Today, after hours of talks mediated by three European Union foreign ministers, President Yanukovich and protest leaders sign an agreement to have early elections by December. BBC News reports that "The deal provides for a national unity government, electoral reform and constitutional changes reducing the president's power."

Feb 21  Al Arabiya reports that "Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops." Deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow continues. In a Washington Post column published on the 18th, David Ignatius wrote of a two-day "strategy meeting" with representation from Saudi Arabia, Susan Rice of the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan "and other key regional powers that have been supporting the rebels."

Feb 22  In Kiev, demonstrators occupy the office of President Yanukovich, who is out of town. The opposition demands that elections be held by May. Fear that the military will move to crush the rising in the streets subsides as the military claims that it will not get involved.

Feb 22  In northeast Syria, a local Kurdish unit claims it has defeated and killed around fifty "armed mercenaries" – extremist ISIS and its allies. The fight was at a town on a highway between the cities of Hassaka and Qamishli.

Feb 22  The UN Security Council resolves unanimously that barrel bombing by the Assad regime must stop and that there must be full, unfettered humanitarian access to population centers. It added that If this is not complied with there will be more examination and futher action.

Feb 23  Ukraine's parliament removes Yanukovich from the presidency and frees Yanukovich's oppenent, the former prime minister, Julia Tymoshenko, after her more than two years in prison. She spoke yesterday to a crowd in Kiev, saying that people who had died there are heroes, and "heroes will never die. They will always be with us. They will be our inspiration." She thanked the crowd but said she had no interest in being prime minister again. Yanukovich has fled his palace on a grand estate, where today the public roams. He is in hiding and complains that parliament acted illegally. He is reported as comparing his ouster with Hitler's coup in taking power. (Hitler gained power through legitimate elections and a presidential appointment.) Parliamentarians of Yanukovich's own political party are reported as having voted for his removal on Saturday. According to BBC News one of them says. "Ukraine was betrayed and people were set against each other. Full responsibility for this rests with Yanukovych and his entourage."

Feb 24  This past week, Mercer, a consulting firm, released its ranking of 223 cities based on its Quality of Living survey (not to be confused with its Cost of Living survey). Mercer conducts its survey to help multinational companies and other employers when placing employees on international assignments.The top seven cities are Vienna, Zurich, Auckland (New Zealand), Munich, Vancouver, Düsseldorf, and Frankfurt, in that order. Berlin came in sixteenth, just behind Totonto at 15, ahead of Paris at 27 and ahead of London at 38. San Francisco is the top US city, rated equal to Paris. New York was 43rd. Among the terrible cities: Mexico City 122, Minsk (Belarus) 189, and Baghdad last at 223.

Feb 24  Winter Olympic results has Russia leading medal totals at 33. The US is second at 28 and Norway third at 26. Switzerland has 11 medals, a third of Russia's, but it has around roughly 1/17th Russia's population. Norway has 1/30th Russia's population and has 1/60th the population of the US. Canada won 25 medals, and its population is about 1/9th that of the US. Winter sports are not big in Latin America, and Latin-American countries won nothing. Neither did India. But that other country with an enormous population, farther to the north, China, won 9 medals, almost as many as Switzerland, which has 1/168th China's population.

Feb 25  In Venezuela, protests since early February have left fifteen dead according to activists, thirteen according to the government. The protesters include middle class highschool and college students. Disturbing issues in Venezuela are crime and inflation. Venezuela has the fifth highest murder rate in the world, and Inflation for 2013 is officially 56.2 percent. A professor at John Hopkins University puts that figure at 297 percent. Some blame the inflation on the government trying to prevent or slowdown people sending their money outside the country and trying to shore up Venezuela's currency, the Bolivar. According to BBC News there has been a "shortage of basic food items," and there have been the notorious toilet paper shortages. Another issue has been government violence against peaceful demonstrators, which has escalated the protests. Today's news describes the governor of the western state of Tachira, where the protests began, complaining that deployment of troops to his region is "unacceptable." He accuses those troops of "excessive use of force," and he demands the replacement of the officer in charge. The governor, Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, is a member of President Maduro's political party, the United Socialist Party of the late Hugo Chavez.

Feb 26  NASA announces the discovery of 715 newly verified planets outside our solar system, discovered by use of the Kepler Space Telescope.

Feb 26   In Uganda, police stop women from marching to protest a law banning the wearing of miniskirts. There have been several incidents over the past week of women in short skirts being publicly harassed and assaulted. It follows a law signed three days ago that provides a penalty of life in prison for a homosexual act. Also signed by President Lokodo is a bill that bans "indecent" dressing. President Lokodo describes himself as an Anglican Christian. Uganda has been listed as 41.9% Catholic and 42% Protestant.

Feb 26  Arizona state senator Al Melvin defends his support for a "religious freedom" bill that would allow businesses to refuse to serve gay customers. He describes religious freedom as under attack in the United States. He says: "All of the pillars of society are under attack in the United States, the traditional family, the family, traditional marriage, the boyscouts, you name it."

Feb 27  Republican Governor Jan Brewer vetoes the bill that would have allowed businesses to turn away gay customers. She cites opposition from big business and says the bill would "create more problems than it purports to solve." BBC News reports that "Business groups warned it would tarnish Arizona's reputation and discourage companies from moving to the state." According to Reuters, Cathi Herrod, who helped draft the bill, complains that "The religious beliefs of all Arizonans must be respected, and this bill did nothing more than affirm that." Somone who calls himself F00 comments:"To be fair, though — if she hadn't, jewish media, not to mention lawyers, would have been up her posterior." He gives verbal support to Hawkeye19 who speaks up for the Arizona legislature, saying "Another temporary win for Satan and his followers." An apparent follower of Satan named Zigo asks about the religious freedom of those who supported slavery based on scripture.

Feb 27  The Obama administration accuses the Syrian government of having detained the relatives of opposition delegates to the Geneva II peace talks. According to BBC News, among those held is Mahmoud Sabra, the brother of the National Coalition's legal adviser Mohammed Sabra. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki calls on the Assad regime to "unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested."

Feb 28  Columnist Michael Gerson has returned from Syria, and yesterday on the NewsHour he described his conversation with one of the victims of Assad's long standing war not only against an armed opposition but also a war on civilians. The man had been a protester and then had his house targeted by a regime tank, and he lost a 4-year-old daughter, a 6-year-old son and a 15-year-old son lost a leg. Gerson spoke of "a failure of sympathy" and added: "I talked to a lot of the great aid groups over there that are not getting much donor money right now for the Syrian crisis. One told me that they had raised in three months for the Philippines what it had taken three years to raise in the Syrian conflict."

Feb 28  In Syria's north-central city of Raqqa (about 160 kilometres east of Aleppo), al Qaeda-linked Jihadists continue their intimidations, the tactic with which Jihadists are most familiar. The Christians in Raqqa are told either pay a levy in gold and accept curbs on their faith or face death.

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Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.