— Middle East expert Augustus Richard Norton of Boston University • Referring to a planned ceasefire between the Syrian government and rebel forces, scheduled to begin on April 10, which is unlikely to ever become a reality. On Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad demanded that opposition groups provide written guarantees that they would lay down arms first, a demand that was promptly rejected by rebels. In the final hours before the ceasefire was to begin, government forces began shelling cities and towns across the country, killing well over 100 people, and leaving little doubt that the fighting will continue. The fighting also spilled over into neighboring Turkey, where two refugees and a Turkish translator were wounded by stray gunfire. source (via • follow)
How can the U.S. provide much-needed aid to a part of the world that is controlled by a terrorist group allied with al Qaeda?
The Horn of Africa is currently wracked by what seems to be its worst drought in 60 years, with tremendous humanitarian consequences. As the director of a humanitarian NGO that works in the region put it, the Horn faces “the perfect storm,” as inadequate rainfall, the global rise in food prices, a surging population, and declining natural resources have placed around 10 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Compounding the problem, and creating a dilemma for the United States, some of the hardest-hit areas are controlled by an al Qaeda-aligned organization that regularly extorts humanitarian organizations — and will likely do so again. […]
The southern parts of Somalia are the drought crisis’s “ground zero,” as David Shinn, the U.S.’s former ambassador to Ethiopia, put it in an interview with us. This creates a perplexing dynamic, since the dominant force in the drought-stricken areas of Somalia is al Shabaab, the extremist, al Qaeda-linked militia that many U.S. policymakers see as the region’s most significant strategic challenge. This drought thus presents challenges for Shabaab itself, but also for the United States.
Part of Shabaab’s legitimacy rests on its claim that it is a better regional administrator than Somalia’s weak transitional federal government (TFG). The flood of refugees into neighboring countries from the areas it controls has been a major embarrassment. Shabaab has thus backtracked on its previous expulsions of a number of humanitarian NGOs.
The UN World Food Programme would welcome any assistance from the hardline Muslim group al-Shabab to help avert a humanitarian disaster in the Horn of Africa, a spokesman has told Al Jazeera.
Al-Shabab has already lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying food aid to millions of citizens amid one of the region’s worst droughts in 60 years.
According to the World Food Programme, the number of people in the Horn of Africa who need food assistance is expected to rise toabout 10 million in coming weeks, as the drought takes its toll.
David Orr from the World Food Programme told Al Jazeera that 1,000 refugee families a day from Somalia were flooding into the Kenyan town of Dabaab.
“We’re assisting thousands of Somali refugees in the Dabaab camps, but if we need to enter south Somalia, we need to work with al-Shabab,” said Orr.
“We’re not operating in the al-Shabab areas of the south, which is a conflict zone, but if we get the security clearance from the United Nations and our donor approvals, then we’re prepared to go.”
Orr’s comments are the strongest indication yet by the UN World Food Programme that it is ready to work with al-Shabab since the agency was forced to pull out of southern Somalia in 2010 because of threats made against its staff by the group.
Al-Shabab, which is connected to al-Qaeda networks in Africa and the Gulf, controls the majority of Somalia, including around half of the capital, Mogadishu.
In the past, they have said food aid creates dependency, but they have also used aid for themselves and charged foreign organisations high fees to operate.
STOCKHOLM — Within a decade, all Swedish primary schools should offer Chinese lessons, Sweden’s education minister was quoted as saying Wednesday, insisting the move was needed to improve competitiveness.
“I want to see Sweden become the first country in Europe to introduce instruction in Chinese as a foreign language at all primary and secondary schools,” said Jan Bjoerklund, who heads the Liberal Party, a junior member of the centre-right ruling coalition.
Getting Swedish pupils to learn Chinese was vital to strengthening Swedish competitiveness, the education minister told financial daily Dagens Industri.
“Not everyone in the business world speaks English. Very highly qualified activities are leaving Europe to move to China. Chinese will be much more important from an economic point of view than French or Spanish,” he said.
English is today the main foreign language taught in Swedish schools, followed by Spanish, German and French.
Bjoerklund acknowledged that such a move would demand a lot of resources, especially for recruiting educators who can teach Chinese, but said that within a decade all primary schools should be equipped to teach the language, while it might take 15 years for secondary schools to readjust.
This week, Beirut achieved an underwhelming milestone: after 140 days, Sunni billionaire Najib Mikati finally managed to form a government. This may not seem like much, compared to the paroxysms of political change which have toppled dictators and shaken the foundations of the Middle East’s most entrenched authoritarian regimes. Traditionally one of the region’s most politically turbulent countries, Lebanon has seemed positively serene by comparison to its neighbors. There has yet to be a replay of the seas of chanting protesters and billowing flags in the streets of Beirut which followed the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
[…] The direction of the new government could profoundly re-shape Lebanon’s relationship with America and the international community, just as it will play an important role in determining the fate of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime.
The international media and many Lebanese politicians have rushed to portray the new cabinet as being dominated by Syria and Iran because of the preponderance of March 8 figures in key ministries. In response, Prime Minister Mikati has insisted that he has no intention of threatening Lebanon’s relationship with the West, and that he is not a fig leaf for a “Hezbollah government.” For the time being, the Obama administration has opted to wait and judge the government “by its actions,” but there have already been calls by a few U.S. lawmakers to cut Washington’s aid and adopt a hard-line stance toward the new government in Beirut.
The claim that Mikati’s government will actually be controlled by Hezbollah is an oversimplification, but there is no question that this new cabinet marks a watershed in Lebanese politics. As per its usual custom, Hezbollah only opted to accept two relatively insignificant portfolios out of a total of 30, while its allies (with whom it does not always see eye-to-eye) occupy the important ministries of defense, justice, telecommunications, labor, etc. It should be noted that the very fact that Mikati was chosen as prime minister rather than a more divisive “pro-Syrian” figure suggested from the very beginning that the March 8 coalition was wary of letting this government be painted as being “Made in Damascus and Tehran.” Mikati’s international stature, strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and his possession of a (rather tenuous) cabinet veto will likely be sufficient to calm fears that he can be steamrolled by the parliamentary majority, at least in the short term.