By Gideon Rachman
As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the west’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East. Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable.
♦ Chinese novelists publish tales of military victory online, in the face of censorship.
♦ To avoid “perpetual war” with terrorists, Pres. Obama calls for fewer drone attacks.
President Obama’s speech on terrorism and drone warfare yesterday was a rare example of a president responding to criticism of a covert campaign, before a major scandal has broken. Better still , President Obama has done it, not with angry denial, paranoia, or increased secrecy, but with a rational attempt to take on board some of the more telling criticisms of the drone campaign. That said, I think there are still problems with the policy.
Russia’s role in world politics
Under the second Putin presidency, the Russian government seems to have become even harder to deal with, be it in seeking to forge international agreement on Syria, spy scandals, energy diplomacy, or neighbourhood diplomacy. Charles Clover, Moscow bureau chief, and James Blitz, diplomatic editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the best ways to understand the Russian government.
'Getting to Gnome you' (Getty)
The Chelsea Flower show, that quintessentially British annual event where celebrities, business leaders, and horticulturalists rub shoulders with royalty, is in full bloom. This year it has generated a number of unusual talking points.
The chatter started with the Gnome controversy. This year the organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society, announced (well ahead of the show so Gnome collecting could begin in earnest) that they were lifting their ban on the love-them-or-hate-them ornaments. A plethora of photoshoots have now been held of the humble figures, displayed liberally around the show. Debate’s raged over whether they were tacky, somewhat lowering the tone of this highly polished event that kicks of the British social ‘season’, or whether it signified a welcome abandonment of snobbery and class discrimination.
Evidently, Ai Weiwei is not one to let 81 days in jail keep him quiet. China’s most famous dissident has just released a heavy metal song with a video that re-imagines his time in detention. The FT’s Kathrin Hille describes it as “a chilling, five-minute rant filled with coarse language that is provocative even by Mr Ai’s standards”.
The artist is nothing if not versatile, working with a range of materials – here is the best of the rest.
The battle raging in al-Qusair, about 15km east of Lebanon’s northern border, looks ominously like a turning point in Syria’s civil war. If the Assad regime can recapture this strategic corridor from the rebels, it will, on the face of it, be a morale-boosting triumph.
It will also almost certainly flatten the few remaining barriers to this bloody conflict turning into an out-and-out sectarian fight between Sunni and Shia that will graft an uncontrollable regional dimension onto what began as an Arab Spring struggle for freedom from tyranny.
Militarily, the narrow corridor between Homs and the Lebanese border is a great prize for both sides. The Homs Gap, as it is sometimes called, has always been the natural gateway from the Syrian coast to the interior; not for nothing did the Crusaders build a line of castles there (including the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, reportedly already damaged by regime shelling).
♦ Since 2010, American drone attacks have declined due to unfavourable popular opinion around the world.
♦ The US Attorney’s Office of the Southern district of New York is cozying up to the Wall Street rogues it once deposed, says Kara Scannell.
I am pleased that my column on Britain and Europe today has attracted lots of hits and comments. But, inevitably, when you try to deal with such a complex subject in 900 words (give or take), there is a lot you have to leave out. And there was one vital part of the subject that I didn’t deal with – and that is the impact of immigration on the British debate on Europe.
♦ Tim Cook faces a grilling by the US Senate committee after a report on Apple’s international tax structure accused the company of using Irish subsidiaries that are not tax residents of any country to avoid paying billions of dollars in tax. Although Ireland’s low tax rate has created a vibrant International Financial Services Centre, there are questions over the benefits of it – especially at a time of sluggish growth and stagnant tax revenues.
♦ Britain’s plans to renegotiate its ties with the EU could hit efforts to tackle crime and terrorism, particularly in Ireland.
♦ In Parma, the first major Italian city run by the Five Star Movement, the reviews so far are decidedly mixed.
♦ Hong Kong is being taken over by art, but is it ready for it?
♦ If any of you have been bemused by football in the UK before now, the NYT has pulled together a handy guide.