What We're Watching: A Syrian Pandora's Box

What We're Watching: A Syrian Pandora's Box

Dangerous Chaos in Syria – Turkey's military move into northern Syria had two stated goals: to push Kurdish fighters inside Syria further from Turkey's border and to create a "safe zone" inside Syria in which Turkey could place up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in camps inside Turkey. But the Kurds have now allied with Syria's army, which is backed by Russia, and these forces are now moving north into that same territory toward Turkish troops and Arab militias backed by Ankara. Meanwhile, large numbers of ISIS fighters and their families have escaped prisons where Kurds had held them captive. Turkey's President Erdogan vows to press ahead with his operation until "ultimate victory is achieved." Pandora's Box is now wide open.


Orban's Urban Rebuke – Viktor Orban's Fidesz party outperformed all others in Sunday's local elections across Hungary, but opposition candidates made headlines by winning control of Budapest, the country's capital, and ten of Hungary's 23 large cities. The fiercely nationalistic Orban, who prides himself on building an "illiberal democracy," remains hugely popular in rural areas, and we're watching to see if he responds to this setback in the cities by tightening his grip on the country's media and pushing for changes to Hungary's constitution to further centralize power. We're also watching to see how an emboldened opposition might respond.

Ecuador's Lingering Money Problems – In a deal to end nearly two weeks of violent protests, the Ecuadoran government agreed late Sunday to cancel cuts to fuel subsidies. The protests began after President Lenin Moreno ordered the government to stop subsidizing gasoline and diesel sales as part of a plan to stabilize Ecuador's finances by securing $4 billion in emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund. Protesters have gone home (for now), but oil-exporting Ecuador remains stuck with the same basic problem: lavish government spending plans rolled out during boom times are no longer sustainable now that oil prices are lower and the economy has slowed. What's more, the government is saddled with several billion dollars of outstanding loans to China. We're watching to see how President Moreno squares this circle – which requires a mix of unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes – without touching off more unrest.

Tunisia's Outsider Must Now Work Inside – An austere, stiff, and formerly little-known law professor has won Tunisia's presidential election in a striking rebuke to the country's mainstream political parties. Kais Saied, an independent who ran a deliberately low-profile campaign, defeated charismatic populist media tycoon Nabil Karoui by as much as fifty points, according to exit polls. High turnout showed that Tunisians clearly want something better after a decade of dysfunctional post-Arab Spring governments. Saied won't have it easy. Tunisia's presidency has few formal powers and the party that backed Saied in the runoff – the Islamist Ennahda – has the most seats in Parliament but will have trouble forming a government. And so Saied, who lacks a party of his own, now faces a problem familiar to many outsider candidates: how to work within a system that he was elected to overhaul.

What We're Ignoring

Vietnam's Ban on the New Yeti Movie – The Vietnamese government has banned screenings of DreamWorks' animated blockbuster, Abominable, the story of a Chinese girl who finds a yeti living on her roof. Why? Vietnam is angry that the film contains a map showing a controversial U-shaped dotted line that indicates China's claims over large portions of the oil-rich South China Sea. The so-called "nine-dash line" is a regular maritime feature on Chinese maps, but other countries bordering the sea, like Vietnam, reject Beijing's claims. We're ignoring this controversy because Vietnam's ban won't change the movie or the politics of the South China Sea—and because we like animated yeti movies.

Demography is destiny. That ominous-sounding pronouncement, credited to French philosopher Auguste Comte, is today taken to mean that a nation's fate depends on the youthfulness of its population. For a poor country to become rich, it needs lots of young people ready to work, to support those too old or too young to work, and to pay taxes. This is called the "demographic dividend."

That's an important part of China's success story. Over the past 40 years, more than one billion people have emerged from poverty in China. Waves of young people surged from the countryside into cities to work in factories. The state invested in education, and wages helped young workers, and then their children, go to school. The state also began a drive to develop the technologies of the future, by any means necessary. In China, once dirt-poor, hundreds of millions have created a middle class.

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Not everyone thinks that President Biden's decision to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by 9/11/21 is a good idea. Conservative Congressman Mike Waltz (R-FL), a combat-decorated Green Beret with multiple tours in Afghanistan, thinks that the US still needs to maintain a small presence in the country to avoid incurring "massive risks." In a spirited discussion with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, Waltz, who served as counterterrorism advisor in the George W. Bush administration, argues, "The next 9/11, the next Pulse Night Club, which is right on the edge of my congressional district, the next San Bernardino, that's now on Biden's watch. He owns it with this decision." Their conversation is featured in the upcoming episode of GZERO World, which airs on US public television starting Friday, April 23. Check local listings.

Vaccines are the best hope to end the COVID-19 pandemic. But rich countries are hogging most of the doses, with more than 83 percent of shots administered to date having gone to residents in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Most poor countries will have to wait years to achieve widespread vaccination, according to one study.

To address this inequity some stakeholders are pushing hard for waivers to intellectual-property (IP) rights through World Trade Organization trade rules so that manufacturers in poorer countries can make their own vaccines locally. India and South Africa have been leading the charge, which would essentially mean that deep-pocketed pharma companies like New York-based Pfizer, for instance, would have to hand over the keys to the kingdom, allowing local companies in New Delhi and Johannesberg to make generic versions of their vaccines.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has gotten fiery, with passionate arguments emerging both for and against.

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Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective on Europe In 60 Seconds:

What are the Russians up to against Ukraine?

We simply don't know, except the fact that they're concentrating a huge amount of military forces. And you don't do that for nothing or for fun. They are there for a purpose, to have pressure or to undertake limited to larger operations. We simply don't know. And when Putin delivered his State of the Union speech the other day, he didn't say a thing about this. They are now talking about withdrawing the forces. But let's wait and see. They have talked about withdrawing forces from Syria for a long time, but we haven't seen that as of yet.

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Australia rips up Belt & Road deal: Australia cancelled two 2018 deals signed between Victoria, Australia's wealthiest state, and the Chinese government, that committed the two sides to working together on initiatives under China's Belt and Road infrastructure development program. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that the agreements "were adverse to our foreign relations." Similar deals between Victoria and institutions in Iran and Syria were also abandoned by the Australian government this week, under a 2020 law that allows Canberra to nullify international agreements struck at local and state level. (Australian universities say the "foreign veto bill" amounts to "significant overreach.") Meanwhile, Beijing hit back, calling the move "unreasonable and provocative," and accusing Canberra of further stoking divisions after a series of escalatory moves by both sides that have seen China-Australia relations deteriorate to their worst point in decades. Chinese investment in Australia dropped by 62 percent last year, a massive blow for Australia's export-reliant economy.

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50: The US will aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The Biden administration's commitment, double the goal set by Barack Obama almost six years ago, was announced to coincide with a virtual Earth Day climate summit attended by dozens of world leaders.

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Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday threatened an "asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh" response for anyone that dares to cross a "red line" with Russia.

What's the red line? Putin says he'll decide on a case-by-case basis. And the cases at the moment are growing: the US has sanctioned Russia over cyber crimes; Putin critic Alexei Navalny is near death in a Russian prison; the Czechs say Russia blew up a Czech munitions depot; and as many as 120,000 Russian troops are reported to be massing along Russia's border with Eastern Ukraine.

Which is to say: there's potentially a Sol Lewitt's-worth of red lines to ponder now.

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