Monthly Archives: August 2013

By James Blitz and Barney Thompson

On Friday, John Kerry, US secretary of state, published the American intelligence agencies’ assessment of why the regime of Bashar al-Assad was culpable for last week’s chemical attack in eastern Damascus. The document was considerably more detailed than the much shorter assessment published by the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

This difference is certain to lead to questions in Britain as to why David Cameron,UK prime minister, was unable to paint a more detailed picture of the Assad regime’s culpability. Some commentators are already arguing that if he had been able to do so, he may have been in a better position to persuade parliament of the merits of military action.

The UK frequently refers to the close collaboration on intelligence matters which it enjoys with the US. But the difference in detail between the two documents is striking.


The UK document says that there was “little serious dispute” that the chemical attacks caused mass casualties on a large scale “including, we judge, at least 350 fatalities.”

The US document said a “preliminary US government assessment determined that 1,429 people were killed in the chemical weapons attack, including at least 426 children.” Read more

By Catherine Contiguglia

Upon the humiliating loss of a vote in Parliament on military intervention, UK Prime Minister David Cameron lamented: “It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.”

At first glance, it appears he is right. Public opinion polls show a stubborn opposition to military intervention in Syria, even as evidence mounts that hundreds of civilians were killed in chemical attacks by Bashar al-Assad’s regime Aug 21.

Those sorts of poll numbers are replicated in the US and France. But a closer look shows that public opinions appear to be more nuanced. Read more

German flag

Image by Bloomberg

Calling our readers in Germany.

What are the big issues in the German election?

The campaign is now in full swing ahead of the September 22 vote: TV ads have begun in earnest, politicians are out on the hustings and the eurozone crisis has now burst into the political debate. Read more

By Catherine Contiguglia

Below are some of the best background readings from the FT and elsewhere about Syria’s civil war and the brewing conflict with western forces. Read more

The debt dragon: China’s growing debt burden
China’s debt has ballooned over the past five years raising questions over the sustainability of such a burden amid slowing growth. Simon Rabinovitch, China correspondent, explains the country’s debt dynamics and answers some of the questions FT readers posted on our blog and sent via social media.

By Catherine Contiguglia

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For campaign issues that Germany’s political elite had all but agreed to shy away from, the eurozone debt crisis in general and Greece in particular are proving remarkably capable of generating unscripted campaign trail surprises. Read more

As western leaders prepare to strike Syria, many ordinary people and observers, inside and outside the Middle East, are inevitably drawing parallels between this attack and the US-led war on Iraq a decade ago. Whether in its complicated ethnic composition and its prospects for further violence, in the weapons of mass destruction as a trigger for military action, or in the questions of legality and the likely diplomatic bypassing of the UN security council, a growing perception is that we are about to witness a repeat of recent history.

The Middle East is such a complicated place that these perceptions are not unreasonable. It’s not easy to make sense of Sunni versus Shia, Alawite versus Sunni, regime versus jihadis. Also complex is the debate over legality versus legitimacy of intervention. Western shifts of policy can be confusing, from watching tens of thousands of Syrians slaughtered to declaring the death of hundreds in an alleged gas attack a moral obscenity that cannot go unpunished. Read more

By Catherine Contiguglia

  • In the first of a three-part series, the FT examines the Chinese Debt Dragon. Although the Chinese government denies the country has a debt problem, the picture on the ground shows failing public services and unpaid wages as debt dependency rises to dangerous levels, reports Simon Rabinovitch.
  • “Vote me out of jail or I will bring the country down with me,” is the message from Silvio Berlusconi following his conviction for tax fraud – but to bow to this threat would be “accepting the age-old intuition that [Italian] politics will always be corrupt” and that there are better things to worry about, writes Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books.

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Should the west intervene in Syria? Whatever it does, it will do so in the shadow of the war in Iraq. Tony Blair, the prime minister who led the UK into that war, has come out in support of action. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
The pace of events in the Middle East has quickened once again. More than two years since the start of the Arab spring, the facts on the ground can still change so rapidly in the region that western governments struggle to keep pace. Last week Barack Obama had convened an emergency meeting to discuss the violent crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, only for the US president to find himself confronted with an even more dramatic challenge – a chemical weapon attack in Syria.

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Beirut

People struggling to understand the diabolical complexities of the Middle East may have found solace in the FT last week, not in the news pages, but in a letter to the editor from KN Al-Sabah of London, EC4, published last Thursday under the heading ‘A short guide to the Middle East’.

“Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad”, its brisk summary begins, before detailing the myriad and contradictory alliances which make this place the bewildering tinderbox it is (“Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!”).

The letter, which ends with an exhortation to “have a nice day” struck a chord with general readers and experts alike as they reel from the last few weeks’ barrage of violent and confusing Middle East news. Read more

For the past 2½ years, the US and its allies have been deeply reluctant to become engaged in the Syrian civil war. Over the past few days, however, the mood in the Obama administration has clearly shifted. In the aftermath of an apparent chemical weapons attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, the US is clearly contemplating military action. Nothing, as yet is guaranteed. Instead, as Mr Obama and his allies contemplate the next steps, there are three broad questions they will be considering.

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By Catherine Contiguglia

Coming back to Cairo after a week in which her Facebook page turned into “an obituaries page”, Ursula Lindsey, a blogger for The Arabist, reflects on the situation in Egypt and the failures of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal “cultural and political elite”.

Here’s the story of 35-year-old American photographer Matthew Schrier and his seven months as a prisoner of Syrian jihadi fighters, who robbed and beat him and then assumed his online identity – before he managed to escape.

A good old-fashioned show trial? The FT’s Jamil Anderlini looks at what’s going on behind the scenes at the highly publicised trial of Bo Xilai. An attempt to rally the party or a smokescreen to deflect attention from the stagnating economy?

“It took a murder on August 20th of an anti-superstition campaigner to remind India of the lot of its faithless,” The Economist writes in an account of life in India for atheists and activists against powerful groups that “continue to exploit superstition and religious fear.”

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to boost the participation of women in the workforce “are not motivated by softhearted political correctness but by hard-headed economic logic”, writes economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson. If employment rates for Japanese women reach those of Japanese men, Goldman Sachs estimates Japan’s GDP could be 14 percent larger. Read more


There is now less than a month to go before Germany’s general election. The summer holidays are mostly over. Children are either back at school, or due to return on Monday, in 12 of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer. And that means the so-called “hot phase” of the campaign is getting under way and the main parties are releasing their election TV ads.

Here is a quick round-up of some of the more notable ads hitting the airwaves ahead of the September 22 electionRead more

Pardon or no pardon, Silvio Berlusconi, who was handed a final conviction for tax fraud by the Supreme Court earlier in August, has for now retreated in his private residence just outside Milan, as uncertainty looms over his political future.

But, ever the master of reinvention, he has channelled his energies into launching the rebranding of his PDL party as Forza Italia (after an earlier attempt in 90s) and their move to new offices in Rome: decorators are at work, hauliers are being enlisted and preparations are underway for the grand opening expected in September. Read more

Currency jitters in India and emerging markets
India was once seen as a rising superpower and one of the world’s most dynamic economies, but now its rupee is plunging and the economy is stalling. What’s more, this seems to be part of a broader problem in emerging markets, as Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa and Brazil all experience currency jitters. Gideon Rachman is joined by Victor Mallet, New Delhi bureau chief and Ralph Atkins, capital markets editor, to discuss what’s going on and how deep the problems are.

By Catherine Contiguglia

♦ It takes more than a weaker currency to reshape an economy, Sarah O’Connor writes in her FT analysis of why British exporters have not seen the boon they might have expected from sterling’s post-crisis fall.

“It was always delusional” to see the changes in Arab political culture as a “matter of seasons rather than the work of a generation”, David Gardner writes, reflecting on the sense of “counter-revolution” in Egypt symbolized by the release of Hosni Mubarak.

♦ If reports that 1,200 people were killed by chemical weapons are not the “red line” defined by US President Barack Obama for intervention against the Assad regime, it isn’t clear what is, the Economist writes on its Pomegranate blog. Assad is calculating on the ambiguity afforded by chemical attacks, but only time will tell if he is right.

♦ Despite a promise to change his “calculus” in the event of chemical weapon use in Syria, the Obama administration seems to remain reluctant to intervene in Syria – the Washington Post’s Max Fisher gives a rundown of reasons why.

♦ Ever since the publication of his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” has practically become part of American vernacular – and has received some searing criticism as well, which he explains overlook the complexity of the theory.

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Video footage showing rows of children in burial shrouds and doctors desperately trying to save other victims shocked the world on August 20. What appeared to be a chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital was the latest in a series of allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons in its war against the armed opposition. Just over a year ago, Barack Obama, the US president, vowed that any use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would be a ‘red line’ that would provoke US intervention in Syria’s conflict. But despite acknowledging that Mr Assad has used chemical weapons, the US has so far failed to take action. Here is a timeline of US statements on chemical weapons and allegations of their use in Syria.

July 23, 2012 The Bashar al-Assad regime confirmed for the first time it possessed chemical weapons, saying it would use them in the case of Western military intervention but never against the Syrian population.

August 20, 2012 President Barack Obama announces his “red line” for Syrian intervention, threatening “enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

December 6 2012 The White House expresses concern that the Assad regime “might be considering the use of chemical weapons” and that the Syrian authorities would be “held accountable by the United States and the international community if they use chemical weapons or fail to meet their obligations to secure them”. Read more

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest tells reporters UN investigators should be granted access to determine whether chemical weapons were used by the Asad regime in Syria (Getty)

Of course, we don’t yet know for sure that it was the Assad regime that carried out the horrific chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus. Assad’s friends are already arguing that it was a “false flag” attack – designed to bring the West in, on the side of the rebels. It is actually hard to imagine anyone, being prepared to use weapons this horrific. But the finger of suspicion does point strongly to Assad for three main reasons.

First, the regime has already used chemical weapons in small amounts, over the course of this conflict. Second, a chemical attack on this scale is not that easy to stage. You need the weaponry and the knowledge of how to deploy it. Finally – and most conclusively, in my eyes – the Syrian government’s refusal (so far) to let the UN chemical weapons inspectors in to see the site, suggests they have something to hide. Read more