Syria

How do we decide what matters in the world?

The question is prompted by the coincidence of the crisis in Ukraine and the third anniversary of the outbreak of war in Syria.

There is no doubt that it is Ukraine that is dominating the attention of world leaders and the media. John Kerry, US secretary of state, is meeting Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, in London today to discuss Ukraine, while Angela Merkel has been working the phones with Vladimir Putin to try to defuse the crisis.

The front-pages of newspapers blare about the build-up of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border. My own work has reflected these priorities, with my last three FT columns on the Ukrainian crisis.

But are we right to be so focused on Ukraine rather than Syria? Read more

The Syrian armed forces that took control of the Homs province town of Deir Balbi in 2012 wanted to show the locals they meant business and avoid attacks by approaching rebel units. So they forced children out of their homes, and allegedly placed them as human shields between their tanks and soldiers to dissuade the rebels from attacking.

The incident is described in a harrowing report issued by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, chronicling the devastating effects of the Syrian civil war on the country’s children, and adds fresh urgency to efforts to end the war. At least 10,000 children have died as casualties or combatants of war or under torture in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s prisons, the report estimates. Read more

Simply by coming to the World Economic Forum, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is sending a message. He is the first Iranian president to have spoken in Davos for a decade. In a public speech at the forum and in private meetings with journalists, the president has sought to present a smiling and conciliatory face.

Certainly his personal style is a marked contrast to that of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, his predecessor. While Ahmadi-Nejad was all staring eyes and confrontation, Rouhani has a ready laugh and listens carefully to questions. Read more

Anyone who thought references to the Assads’ “killing machine” in Syria’s civil war was hyperbolic metaphor should read a horrendously literal report that has just surfaced, detailing the “industrial scale” killing of about 11,000 detainees in the regime’s dungeons. It provides harrowing confirmation of what organisations from the UN to Human Rights Watch had partially documented: the systematic liquidation, usually by or after torture, of those who question or combat the Assad tyranny.

The report is based largely on evidence assembled and smuggled out on a memory stick by a Syrian military policeman, codenamed Caesar to protect him and his family from reprisals, whose job it was to photograph the dead bodies, often up to 50 a day. The evidence has been examined by lead prosecutors for the war crimes tribunals of Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia and top international forensics experts, commissioned by a London law firm on behalf of Qatar, which has been a leading supporter of Syria’s rebels. They found it to be credible evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes that would stand up in a court of law. Read more

By Richard McGregor in Washington

After sensitive details of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden began leaking, an infuriated Robert Gates, then secretary of defence, stormed into the office of Tom Donilon, the national security adviser.

“Why doesn’t everybody just shut the f*** up?” said the incensed Pentagon chief.

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♦ Borzou Daragahi on how the excesses of the extremist group Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – have sparked an armed rebellion against it in its northern Syria stronghold.

♦ Jamil Anderlini argues that modern China needs to set up its own House of Lords to improve governance.

♦ In a world with more inherited riches, it makes no sense to cut estate taxes, writes Robin Harding.

♦ A handwritten poster at a Seoul university has struck a nerve, prompting a wave of copycat banners airing grievances across South Korea. Young-Ha Kim explains the craze in The New York Times.

♦ Bangladesh’s leaders must deliver on the most basic promises of democracy – or they will prove Henry Kissinger right, says Tahmima Anam in The Guardian. Read more

At the end of every year, I attempt a first draft of history by listing what seem to me to be the five most significant events of the past twelve months. Some of my picks for 2013 also featured in 2012. I hope this is not because of intellectual laziness, but simply because the war in Syria, and the turmoil in Egypt remain defining events of our era. I probably should also once again include the tensions between China and Japan – but they are still simmering and have not yet boiled over. So I’ll give the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands a rest this year.

So let me start the list for 2013 with a genuinely new event that has global significance: Read more

Scene of the huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut, killing Mohamed Chatah and at least four others on December 27, 2013 (Getty)

The bombing in the heart of Beirut on Friday morning, which killed leading Sunni politician Mohammed Chatah, was no random terror attack or communal reprisal. It was a targeted assassination, which would have required careful reconnaissance, detailed intelligence, and complex logistics.

The blast that destroyed Chatah’s car, leaving little but shredded metal and a torn vehicle license that identified its owner, took place not very far from where Rafik Hariri, former prime minister and the towering figure of modern Lebanon, was assassinated by a vast bomb in February 2005Read more

The death of Abbas Khan in Syria reminds me of Stalin’s infamous quote that – “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” As the war in Syria has dragged on, the world has become almost inured to the horrors there. Back in June, the UN reported that the death toll in the conflict was nearing 100,000 – it has certainly risen above that since then. Millions have been turned into refugees. Yet, sometimes, it takes a single story to remind one of the horrors that are taking place. The death of Abbas Khan is one such story. Read more

A suburb of Damascus after it was recaptured by regime forces (Getty)

On a recent trip to Damascus, an acquaintance surprised me by announcing his plans to leave the country. Concerned friends have been trying to get him to move to Lebanon for the past two years, but he always refused. Like many Syrians, he felt that even with a civil war raging, Damascus had a soulfulness and integrity that Beirut lacks. Now he’s had enough.

“Its not the shelling,” he explained. “It’s the greed.” Read more

• After meeting Hossein Shariatmadari, editor and commentator of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, the FT’s editor Lionel Barber says the conversation was a reminder that not all Iranians want a nuclear deal and that Iran’s “fractious relationship” with the rest of the world may not be about to end.

• An EU’s “Eastern Partnership” summit is trying to save hopes of a future deal with Ukraine. Russia’s tactics towards ex-Soviet countries preparing to do EU deals have raised questions over the future of an agreement and caused tensions between EU members, reports the FT. Read more

By Luisa Frey

♦ Twenty-three years after German reunification, a report shows that east-west migration is fizzling out. As the socio-economic differences become smaller, investors are pumping capital into the ex-communist east, writes the FT’s Stefan Wagstyl.

♦ Slovenia – which cruised to the EU as the wealthiest of the 10 ex-communist members – is now struggling to avoid a eurozone bailout.

♦ In the US, inequality is moving to the front line of politics. The rich-poor gap has long been an issue, but in post-crisis times it seems more difficult to raise hopes of upward mobility.

♦ “Keeping China moving will keep its leaders busy,” comments the FT’s David Pilling. Xi Jinping – “the world’s most powerful leader” – has nine years left at the helm of an economy that could be the world’s biggest by 2020.

♦ In post-revolutionary times, Arab countries are dealing with the task of rewriting history and figuring out how to teach it. Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia are removing from school textbooks the praise they once heaped on former dictators, writes The Economist.

♦ A video report from the Wall Street Journal follows citizens whose lives were upended by the conflict across Syria’s northern border. “I always try to make my students forget what they saw in Syria”, says a teacher in a refugee camp in Turkey. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
The Middle East has a way of provoking wild mood swings. The Arab spring of early 2011 was greeted with euphoria in the US and Europe. A month ago, after the coup in Egypt and the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the mood was despairing. Now, hopes are surging again, after a historic phone call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, the US and Iranian presidents.

It is encouraging that the UN Security Council seems to be edging towards a resolution on Syria. It is even possible that a diplomatic breakthrough there, could lead to wider Russian/US co-operation on a peace process for Syria.

But while the diplomatic picture is improving outside Syria, the situation on the ground gets ever more complicated — in ways that will make it even harder to find a political solution that outside powers can endorse, and that has a chance of sticking. Read more

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani address the UN General Assembly (Getty)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been at the UN in New York all this week, opening up the possibility of engagement with the US over Tehran’s nuclear programme. One of the most striking features of his performance is the way he has used different settings to push forward different messages about how he views the world.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Mr Rouhani took what sounded like a very traditional Iranian line. It may have had none of the apocalyptic and offensive rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on such occasions. But the speech contained plenty of passages which implied a strong attack on America’s “coercive economic and military policies.” Many experts were disappointed that it failed to deviate from Iran’s traditional script.

Mr Rouhani has also found plenty of time, however, to meet US media, and here his tone has been very different. With CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he read out a message in English of goodwill towards Americans.

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Not many letters to the FT go viral. But KN Al-Sabah’s pithy explanation of the intricacies of Middle East politics, deservedly garnered a wide audience. It read as follows:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad. Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi. But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood! Read more

Ever since the chemical weapons attack in Syria, I have assumed that there would have to be a western military response – and that’s still my view. But I must admit that some US efforts to sell the idea have been so ham-fisted that they are having the opposite effect on me, increasing my doubts. I was particularly alarmed to hear John Kerry describe the Syrian crisis as “our Munich moment”. Munich is one of the most over-used and abused analogies in the making of foreign policy. Almost every western foreign-policy disaster since 1945 – from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq – has been preceded by some idiot saying that this is Munich. Read more

Obama’s political gamble on Syria
President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress before launching any military strikes on Syria came as a surprise to friend and foe alike. How is this political gamble likely to work out and what are the implications for the crisis in Syria and and for the use of American power around the world? Gideon Rachman is joined by James Blitz, diplomatic editor and Richard McGregor, Washington bureau chief, to discuss

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

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