Daily Archives: December 11, 2012

Roula Khalaf

American policy-makers sometimes lack creativity. That, at least, is the sense one gets from the latest move on Syria — the blacklisting of rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

There is no doubt that the group has established itself as the jihadi front in Syria and that, if left unchecked after the fall of the Assad regime, it would become a threatening al-Qaeda franchise in the Levant that also bolstered its Iraqi affiliate.

“Al-Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” US state department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Memories of the blowback from Afghanistan are still fresh in the minds of American officials. Back in the 1980s, the US and Saudi Arabia backed the Mujahideen’s fight against the Soviet Union and, along the way, sowed the seeds of what became Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist organisation. No one wants to repeat the same mistake. Read more

Chris Cook

South Korean students in Seoul sit a test (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

South Korean students in Seoul (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)

A novelty that has emerged since the mid-1990s is the international standardised test solely designed to measure how good national school systems are – not individual schools nor their pupils. Today, two of the three big tests issued results.

The tests, TIMSS and PIRLS, measure basic learning skills and primary school performance respectively. (The third big test, the OECD’s PISA test, comes out next December. It measures higher order skills among 15 year-olds.)

The educational divide in the US is always startling: on the TIMSS maths test for teenagers, Alabama’s test scores put them in line with Armenia and behind Dubai. Meanwhile, Massachusetts comes in at around the same level as market-leader Japan.

These tests confirm the crowd of top performers: Korea, the Chinese cities and Singapore always do well. Not even Finland and Ontario, western school-reform pin-ups, have the degree of consistency that the Asian education superpowers do.

This will spark hand-wringing about school performance, but it is important to note the role of culture. As a really simple experiment to show this, we can look at how Chinese children in England do in their GCSE exams at the age of 16. Read more

James Blitz

David Cameron at a Syrian refugee camp (Getty)

David Cameron has long been anguished by the unwillingness of the west to do anything about the civil war in Syria. Ever since he became prime minister there has been a strong humanitarian instinct to his foreign policy. In 2011, he joined forces with Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, to push the case for western military intervention in Libya to stop the Gaddafi regime’s assault on Benghazi. Over the last 20 months, he has expressed even deeper concern over Syria, where civil war has led to 40,000 deaths. As he said in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, the blood of young children in Syria is a “terrible stain” on the UN’s reputation.

Mr Cameron’s agony over Syria is sincere, a product of the anguish that the Conservative party went through over its failure to act on the humanitarian crisis in Bosnia in the 1990s. That said, British military planning on Syria over the last 20 months has not shifted one jot. Read more

Neil Buckley

Georgia's former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning at an Interior Ministry building on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili arrives for questioning on December 7 (IRAKLI GEDENIDZE/AFP/Getty)

A spate of arrests and investigations of members of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s party since the October election victory of billionaire premier Bidzina Ivanishvili is causing a headache for western officials over how to respond.

On the face of it, the legal campaign seems to follow the typical winner-take-all logic of elections in post-Soviet states. It looks similar to how Mr Saakashvili’s government treated former associates of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. It also looks rather like the Ukrainian authorities’ pursuit under president Viktor Yanukovich of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko and her allies. Read more