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Air bombardment or ‘chemical attack’: Suspense surrounds Idlib endgame

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The Syrian Civil War
Picture Credit : Fox News

The Byzantine and Roman sites of Ebla and Idlib, in northwest Syria, may well be reduced to dust if an explosion occurs on a scale many expect. Sadly these archaeological losses will not even be noticed. They will be submerged in the looming human catastrophe.

Ever since the manufactured civil war was launched in 2011 to turn the tables on the Arab Spring, the Syrian theatre has seen many climaxes: Homs, Hama, Deraa, Raqqa, Aleppo, 50 km, North East of Idlib. But there is unanimity that Idlib will shake the region like nothing else has so far. This hyperbole is not based on personal observational though I have visited Syria in the midst of the civil war.

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton has been warning repeatedly that the Syrian government was about to use chemical weapons in Idlib. Even before Bolton’s warning, Hassan Nasrallah, much the shrewdest leader in the region, had raised an alarm: We have information that a plot was being hatched to foist on Damascus the allegation that it had used chemical weapons. The alert eye being kept on Idlib by the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the US exposes a population of three million to all manner of unpredictabilities.

It is an irony of our times that great and medium powers are riveted on Idlib not because of its ancient monuments or the civilian population but because of the 60-80,000 militants scattered through the governorate. These militants are from half a dozen different groups. There are quarrels galore between these groups claiming proximity to major powers with stakes in the Syrian pie. Among the bewildering range of groups are the Al Nusra Front, Haya Tehrir e Shaam, Turkestan Islamic Front with links to Uigur groups in Xinxian. There are offshoots of PKK, keeping Turkey on sixes and sevens. Not to be forgotten are the Chechens focused on the Caucasus. Then there is the Free Syrian Front.

For Damascus a militant is a militant and should be eliminated. Turkey, on the other hand, may see some groups – Tehrir e Shaam, for instance – as assets in Ankara’s conflict with Kurdish groups. The US would like most of the militant groups to be protected because they will always come in handy whenever it becomes necessary to mount extra pressure on Bashar al Assad. Washington may be inclined to negotiate the future of some of the assets if Assad allowed them more bases in Syria.

Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, even far off Kosovo, everywhere, Americans a super power by habit, if not in substance any longer, develop multiple interests. After the 72-day bombing of Serbia, removing Slobodan Milosevic, creating an independent enclave of Kosovo, the US moved on only after they had created Bond Steel, abutting Macedonia, the largest military base since Vietnam.

Likewise, they entered Afghanistan ostensibly to remove Osama bin Laden but have, over the past 17 years, developed multiple interests – minerals, UNOCAL pipeline, Helmand Poppy fields, keeping an eye on the world’s only Muslim nuclear bomb in Pakistan, keeping Iran, Central Asian Republics, Xinxian, the Caucasus under surveillance – and within range.

In Idlib too, US interests are varied. Notice I have not mentioned Syria because that involvement is of epic proportions. Idlib in Syria is the enclave where all the regional and global stakeholders, have nudged and pushed their respective “militants”, “terrorists” and “moderate groups”. For Syria, Russia and Iran they are all the same and need to be exterminated.

This remedy is anathema to Turkey. The country is already host to 3.5 million refugees. Bombing of Idlib will cause another 2.5 million civilian to cross the Turkish border.

Further, there are among the motley crowd of militants those who will checkmate a “Kurdish enclave” contiguous with the territory the PKK claims. The enclave would be the thin end of the wedge for an expansive Kurdish idea.

The US would like to create just such an enclave. Not only would it like to have bases, an American habit as I have indicated earlier, but it would have another potential state under its control. It would be the second home away from home in West Asia just as Israel is – on a much smaller scale though.

The other, bigger idea is to divide Syria to the satisfaction of Israel and those with a steady gaze on the gas pipelines. The idea of dividing Syria into four is as old as the hills. But all the other powers – Iran, Turkey, Russia, for instance – will not allow this to happen. When the three powers met in Tehran last week, there was unanimity on one issue: the territorial integrity of Syria.

The presence of 1,000 European Jihadis in the brew adds further pungency to the vapours of confusion. The great European nations, their noses up, do not wish these “tainted” citizens to return. Should they be put away then? No, say European intelligence agencies. There are so many “militants”, “terrorists”, “moderate rebels” in Idlib. Let the Europeans gestate among them.

How long will this uneasy status quo last? Already, Russians have detected activity on the “chemical weapons” Front. There are reports that cameramen have already shot little boys being bathed to remove the “chemicals they have been exposed to”. White Helmets, the miracle men who save people by appearing in the epicentre of the attack without being burnt, have been seen here and there.

Remember, the eight-year-old Syrian boy with burnt skin in October 2016, in the midst of the US election campaign. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour flourished a photograph of the boy before Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov in the course of an interview in Moscow.

“Is this not a crime against humanity?” shouted Amanpour.

“Very sad,” said an amused Lavrov. This was the first time Lavrov publicly expressed the fear that Americans were helping terrorists in Syria.

When the photograph did not make much of an impression on the Russian Foreign Minister, the very same photograph materialized in candidate Hillary Clinton’s hand during the last presidential debate in Las Vegas. With expert histrionics, Clinton simulated a lump in her throat for maximum effect.

Is Idlib about to yield a crop of pictures of white helmets and little boys with burns?

(Saeed Naqvi is commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. He can be reached at [email protected])

Analysis

The US presidential elections and future of India-US relations

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Donald Trump Joe Biden

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.

What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.

Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.

To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.

In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”

Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.

This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.

Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.

This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.

Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.

He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”

Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.

During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.

That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.

The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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Analysis

Covid-19 toll across world crosses 35,000

The COVID-19 is affecting 132 countries and territories around the world.

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Patients infected with the novel coronavirus

New Delhi, March 30 : The death toll around the world due to coronavirus crossed 35,000 on Monday evening, with Italy heading the list of 35,097 deaths with 10,779, while the number of cumulative cases rose to 737,929, with US leading with 143,055 of them, as per data from the Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

Spain was second with 7,340 deaths, followed by China with 3,308 (3,186 of them in Hubei where the outbreak was first recorded), Iran with 2,757 deaths, France with 2,606 deaths, the US with 2,513 (776 of them in New York) and the UK with1,228 deaths.

In number of cases, Italy was second with 97,689, followed by Spain with 85,195, China with 82,198, Germany with 62,435, Iran with 41,495 and France with 40,747.

Meanwhile, 156,652 people around the world had recovered, with nearly half of them (75,923) in China, followed by 16,780 in Spain, 13,911 in Iran and 13,030 in Italy.

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Analysis

45% of Indians do not back up their data, files: Survey

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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Data Privacy

New Delhi, March 30 : Nearly half of Indians do not back up because they think their data or files are not important enough and most of those who back up their data, do it once a month, a survey said on Monday.

Other reasons cited by the respondents for not backing up their data included not knowing how to do it, not having time and forgetting about it, according to the survey by cybersecurity company Avast.

“It could be that many aren’t aware they are backing up, as it could be happening automatically, in the background, however, others really might not be backing up at all, thinking it is not worth it,” Luis Corrons, Security Evangelist at Avast, said in a statement.

“Losing personal documents, photos and videos can be a painful experience and it’s not until this happens that they realize how valuable it actually is,” Corrons added.

Of those who do back up their data, nearly 42 per cent Indians back up to a cloud storage, 36 42 per cent back up their data to an external hard drive, 23 42 per cent back up to a USB or flash disk, 18 42 per cent back up their phone to their PC, and 10 42 per cent back up to a network storage drive, the results showed.

Corrons recommended to back up data to two different locations, like the cloud, and a physical storage, like an external hard drive.

When it comes to iPhone and Android phone owners, the percentage that backs up is nearly the same, 69 per cent and 70 per cent respectively.

The percentage of smartphone owners that don’t know how to back up their data does not vary much between iPhone and Android owners, with 13 per cent and 17 per cent claiming not knowing how to, respectively, the study revealed.

Data loss can be caused by users accidentally deleting their data themselves, hardware damage and failure, as well as malware, causing valuable data such as photos, videos, documents, and messages to be lost forever.

Ransomware and other malware, such as wipers, can either encrypt or completely destroy files, and there is no guarantee that files can be decrypted if a ransom is paid.

The survey was conducted among 728 Avast and AVG users between February 20-March 25.

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