Fighting on: rebels on a training exercise in Syria's northern Latakia province (Getty)
The international diplomacy to try and resolve the crisis in Syria is entering a new and complex phase. Over the next few weeks, the main focus will be on attempts by the US and Russia to convene a peace conference in early June that brings together representatives of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, president, and the Syrian opposition. Whether this conference can achieve anything – indeed, whether it will even take place – is hard to tell. As President Obama said when meeting David Cameron, British prime minister, this week: “I’m not promising that [the peace conference] is going to be successful. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s worth the effort.”
Despite that effort, the UK and France are not giving up on an altogether different diplomatic push. Both want to open the way for the transfer of weapons by EU states to the moderate rebels fighting the Syrian regime. Britain has committed itself to providing the opposition with armoured vehicles, body armour and power generators. But Mr Cameron said this week that he now wants “more flexibility” to support the rebels.
The UK and France are therefore committed to trying to get the EU arms embargo on Syria amended at the end of this month so that weapons can at some later stage be transferred to the Syrian opposition. The difficulty is the huge opposition within the EU to any amendment that allows weapons to be transferred to Assad’s opponents. Read more
♦ Energy companies scrambling for reserves in Somalia are at risk of opening up dangerous faultlines.
♦ Janan Ganesh thinks the UK Conservative party has become ungovernable. “Drama is giving way to farce. Having run out of big but rash things to ask for, the demands of eurosceptic backbenchers are now plain odd.”
♦ Germany’s Green party is still coming to terms with its historical links to pedophiles.
♦ On a final note… Are you a fan of statistics guru Nate Silver? Do you love Euro-pop song contests with political undertones? Martin O’Leary, a “recovering pure mathematician”, has set up a model to predict the results of this weekend’s Eurovision Song Contest. Read more
♦ There are doubts over how much longer Latin America will benefit from the “commodity supercycle”.
♦ Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president, has registered for next month’s election, disrupting the Islamic regime’s plans to hand power to a loyal fundamentalist.
♦ Nawaz Sharif has sealed his third term as prime minister of Pakistan. However, the sense of vibrant democracy has been tempered by Taliban attacks. The New York Times bureau chief was also expelled on the day of voting.
♦ Forty years after Watergate, the BBC looks at the legacy of investigative journalism in the UK.
♦ After the news that Bloomberg’s journalists could see more than Bloomberg’s customers would like them to, Quartz takes a look at the culture of omniscience that pervades the organisation and Hilary Sargent (aka ChartGirl) explains how it works in this neat diagram.
♦ On another note… Britain’s approach to Eurovision might need some fine-tuning. Read more
I have just returned from the annual “Polish-British Round Table” in Krakow. This year, the theme was – “Britain and Poland: A Shared Future?” After sitting through several hours of discussions, my conclusion was – “not necessarily”. In fact, it is quite startling how swiftly British and Polish viewpoints have diverged, since Poland joined the EU back in 2004. Read more
♦ Martin Wolf argues that forcing the eurozone to mimic Germany’s path to adjustment makes stagnation likely.
♦ US intervention in Syria becomes more difficult with time because of sequestration. “If you ask me today, we have forces that can go,” says General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff. “I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down.”
♦ Researchers have identified two dozen 15,000-year-old “ultraconserved” words, which suggest the existence of a proto-Eurasiatic language that was the root of about 700 contemporary languages.
♦ Film director Ann Shin discusses her film about the human smugglers who extract people from North Korea and why so many of them are women. Read more
Was it the man or the country? Roberto Azevêdo is a polished negotiator, a seasoned trade diplomat and in many ways a perfect pick to head the World Trade Organization.
He knows his way around the Geneva-based organisation, can hit the ground running fully briefed on all the issues, and is well known and liked around the developing world – not least for his record of criticising the farm-subsidy policies of the USA and Europe. If anyone can revive the Doha round of trade talks, launched 12 years ago in an attempt to cut tariffs and trade-distorting farm subsidies around the world but now on life-support, it is surely him.
Yet Azevêdo, 55, is also Brazilian, a country with a patchy record on trade liberalisation and little openness to the rest of the world. Trade accounts for only 20 per cent of Brazilian gross domestic product. Brazil is also the leading member of Mercosul, a regional Latin American trade pact created in 1991 with great hopes that have since foundered. If Brazil can’t boost trade locally, what chance it can boost trade globally? Azevêdo’s nationality therefore makes him an unlikely leader of the WTO, especially as the organisation’s role as a broker of ambitious trade deals is in doubt given the rise of so many regional trade initiatives, such as the mooted US-European trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Read more
One of the many alarming aspects of Syria in recent days – amid reports of ethno-sectarian cleansing and chemical weapons use – has been the brazen behaviour of two of the proxy warriors in the conflict: Hizbollah and Israel.
The Shia Islamist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, almost boasted in a speech broadcast last week that his forces were helping to prop up Bashar al-Assad. Then, over the weekend, Israel’s air force blasted targets in Damascus that anonymous US and Israeli officials suggested were Iranian rockets destined for Hizbollah.
This accelerating spiral of proxy warfare – and these are but two of the actors driving it – is becoming a menace not just to a fast disintegrating Syria but to the region. Read more
♦Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, is confronting the country’s culture of casual racism, but the success of her proposed legislation depends on her fellow parliamentarians – some of whom have not been entirely complimentary about her.
♦ China is pushing to water down the World Bank’s Doing Business report, showing its increased assertiveness at international bodies and its willingness to challenge liberal economic prescriptions.
♦ Growth in Indonesia has reached its slowest pace in two years, hit by the slowdown in China and India, but investors are still feeling confident.
♦ David Gardner argues that Israel’s latest attacks on Syria play right into Assad’s hands supporting conspiracy theories about a western-conceived attempt to destroy Syria.
♦ Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, calls for a Marshall plan to help his country recover from decades of poverty, civil war and terrorism.
♦ Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil and Herminio Blanco of Mexico are scrambling to secure last-minute votes in a tight race to become the next head of the troubled World Trade Organisation.
♦ Hollywood film-makers are going to great lengths to satisfy the whims of Chinese censors. However, appearances by Chinese actors in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 have not been to everyone’s taste – “One microblogger named Bumblebee Marz compared the new scenes to chicken ribs — a common expression denoting the most tasteless and undesirable cut of meat in Chinese cuisine.”
♦ Dexter Filkins looks at the White House debate over Syria. According to Gary Samore, who was President Obama’s chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction until February, “All the options are horrible”.
♦ Obama’s off-the-cuff remark about large quantities of chemical weapons crossing a “red line” have now put him into a bind, “his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
♦ Gabriel Kuris at Foreign Policy looks at how Latvia’s anti-corruption bureau managed to pass through reforms and take down oligarchs. Read more
♦ The FT argues today that Apple’s decision to borrow money in order to fund a dividend, despite being one of America’s most liquid companies, indicates a need for reform to the US tax system.
♦ Despite impressive economic growth, improvements in living standards in Malaysia have lagged behind those of its neighbours, building pressure for change ahead of Sunday’s election.
♦ North African governments are trying to stem the flow of young Islamic militants, heading to Syria to fight the regime.
♦ President François Hollande is struggling to please everyone and, in fact, anyone – leading to concerns that France might become the next European problem child. After a draft paper by the president’s party described Angela Merkel as “selfish”, Mr Hollande has had to reassure her that he still believes in a Franco-German relationship.
♦ William Finnegan discusses his article on Mark Lyttle, a US citizen from North Carolina who was deported to Mexico despite ample evidence that he was an American, and the soaring number of deportations.
♦ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has told the FBI that he and his brother considered suicide attacks on July 4, but instead decided to strike on Patriots’ day.
♦ Politics and vetting processes mean that Barack Obama has yet to fill some long-empty posts in his cabinet.
♦ Evangelical Christians in California have struck up a debate over whether yoga is a religion or not – where is the line between the body and the soul?
♦ SAYA, a Jerusalem-based design studio, is trying to provide a architectural resolutions to territorial disputes: “you can’t stop terror with just a fence. We need to imagine structures that can build hope instead of fear and resentment.”
♦ When Alex Christodoulou tried to quit his job for life in the Greek public sector, he found the process harder (and more labyrinthine) than he ever thought it could be, especially when the government had committed to taking thousands of workers off the public payroll. “They wanted to rehire him so that they could fire him and include him in the number of public servants being laid off to appease Greece’s international creditors”.
♦ In a review of The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, Richard Lloyd Parry argues against the idea that North Korea is a “zombie nation”, but wonders if the idea that the country is in a state of “political undeath” doesn’t perhaps suit some other states. Read more