What gives, clock kid?

Remember that 14 year old kid, Ahmed Mohamed, who tinkered around with a clock to try to show off his engineering skills in his Texas school, and wound up almost being arrested because he’s a Sudanese Muslim and therefore is presumed terrorist (at least when carrying around unfamiliar-looking electronics) here in US America until proven otherwise? Well, I felt real bad for that kid, because no 14 year old should be subjected to that kind of treatment just for trying to build something he thought was cool. And I still feel bad for him, and anger toward the school and police force who saw his name, looked at his face, and immediately assumed he’d built a bomb.

But since that whole thing happened, Ahmed’s been living kind of a whirlwind life. He went to the Google Science Fair, had a whole day proclaimed in his honor in New York, went on Hajj, and has been on TV over and over again. He’s also met a lot of world leaders, from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, to Jordan’s Queen Rania, to Barack Obama. Oh, and also, he and his family (who are Sudanese) got to go to Sudan and meet with that country’s President, Omar al-Bashir. The thing about that last one is, Omar al-Bashir is (allegedly, I guess) a genocidaire and a war criminal, wanted by the International Criminal Court for his efforts to exterminate and/or displace the population of Darfur. He is, in fact, the only sitting world leader currently wanted by the ICC, though admittedly there’s a case to be made that the ICC is unfairly biased toward a focus on African war crimes. Still, ICC bias or not, Omar al-Bashir is, by all available evidence, a really bad guy. Uh, allegedly.

Hmmmm (The Guardian)

What’s a little odd about this meeting is that Ahmed’s father, Mohamed al-Hassan, has actually tried to run for president against Bashir a couple of times (needless to say he hasn’t been successful). Omar al-Bashir doesn’t really countenance political opposition in general, but everybody looks chummy here. I guess international fame buys you a little leeway in Khartoum.

Then yesterday Ahmed’s life took another big turn. Ahmed needs a new school, since he (understandably) withdrew from the one where the teachers called the police on him. Well, yesterday his family announced that he wasn’t just changing schools, he’s changing countries: Continue reading

Burning a little political capital

Last week when I was considering all the motivations that Vladimir Putin might have to entangle himself in the Syrian quagmire, I considered that he might be doing it for domestic political reasons. Well, about that…

The Levada poll said that 69 percent either firmly oppose or probably oppose deploying troops to help the Syrian leadership, while 67 percent back Russian “political and diplomatic support” for Assad’s government.

It said that 43 percent support providing Damascus with weapons and military consultation — as Moscow has been doing throughout a more than four-year conflict that has killed some 250,000 people — while 41 percent oppose it.

So yeah, I was wrong. I figured Russian public opinion on Syrian escalation wouldn’t sour unless Russian soldiers started getting killed, but it turns out that public opinion on this issue is already sour.

There are a couple of things at play. First, “sending in troops,” if that phrase was really in the survey language, could mean different things to different people, and it’s possible that the 69% number might come down a little if “only airstrikes” was specified. But it probably wouldn’t come down by much, given that only 43% even support arming and advising the Syrians, which is a step short of airstrikes. Second, this shows that the Russian public’s appetite for foreign military adventures clearly stops at Russia’s near abroad. They’re OK (at least for now) with Russian intervention in Ukraine, but Syria doesn’t have the same appeal. Distance is surely part of the distinction there, but don’t discount bad memories of the last time a “Russian” (Soviet in this case) government got itself tied up in a mostly Muslim country.

These obviously aren’t favorable numbers for Putin, who depends on his (carefully engineered) popularity to keep Russia’s oligarchs from tossing him out of office (say, the Russian political system is more like ours than we know!), so he’ll need to tread carefully. This same poll finds that 39% of respondents (a plurality) don’t favor either side in Syria, so they’re not likely to support an operation that sacrifices Russian soldiers and resources to prop up Assad. Maybe fortunately for Putin, a third of the respondents said that they don’t care enough about Syria to pay attention to what’s happening there, but that number will undoubtedly go up along with this operation’s price tag (or if something happens to a Russian soldier or pilot).

"Is no problem. If public gets mad, I take another one of these babies and everything is OK."

“Is no problem. If public gets mad, I take another one of these babies and everything is OK.”

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The problem with protests

Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, is still the scene of clashes between forces loyal to the military junta that just toppled the country’s interim government and those who are protesting said coup. To you and me and most other outsiders, this obviously looks bad, right? And, you know, it is; people are dying in the streets at the hands of security forces backing a government whose legitimacy is highly questionable. But this brings up a point, which may not even apply in the case of Burkina Faso, that I know I lose sight of frequently (though I think/hope I catch myself at least some of the time) when protesters start clashing with security forces (I tend to sympathize with the protesters, in case that becomes unclear later on in this piece), which is this: the mere fact that there are protests is not evidence of a general popular resistance to the government.

Join me as I try to untangle my brains. It could get pretty ugly here, so be forewarned.

Continue reading

Red Cross or Red Flag?

I feel obliged to mention this here because when major disasters hit, and when I actually think of it (unfortunately those two things aren’t in a 1:1 ratio because I can be thick like that), I try to post links for charitable donations here in case people are able to give something. Often I include the Red Cross, American and/or International, in my list of links, because they’ve been around forever, they seem to be everywhere, and while the American Red Cross’s Charity Navigator score isn’t great it is three stars, plus they get high marks for transparency/accountability (which I now realize isn’t as singularly important as I used to think).

Anyway, because I’ve maybe steered people toward the American Red Cross in the past I think I need to acknowledge that it may have been a mistake to do so. Yesterday NPR reported (via Atrios) on what looks like their total mismanagement of half a billion dollars in donations meant for Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake that country suffered in January 2010:

NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success, according to a review of hundreds of pages of the charity’s internal documents and emails, as well as interviews with a dozen current and former officials.

The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people, but the number of permanent homes the charity has built is six.

Six! Well, that’s…something? Continue reading

Hadi and the Houthis cut a deal?

Details are still sketchy, but in general it sounds like Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Houthis have reached some sort of deal whereby the Houthis will surrender their territorial gains in exchange for political reform/power sharing. This should be excellent news for everybody in Yemen except maybe Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been thriving in the chaos created by the civil war, and ISIS, which also took advantage of the chaos by operating (or sponsoring operations) in Yemen for the first time. It also sounds like Khaled Bahah, Hadi’s new VP (now VP-PM) and someone who has some rapport with the Houthis, will be playing a big role in the political scene moving forward.

It could be that the Houthis were pushed into this settlement, not so much by the Saudi-led air campaign as by Sunday’s announcement by the commander of Yemen’s First Military District (along the Saudi border) that he and his ~15,000 troops were putting their support behind Hadi. Several military units have been declaring for Hadi in recent days, somewhat negating the military edge the Houthis gained when they formed their alliance of convenience with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Curiously, last week there were reports that Saleh was asking for safe passage out of Yemen for himself and his family from the other Gulf states, so it’s possible that he knew this was coming, or at least that his usefulness to the Houthis was starting to wane.

UPDATE: Yeah, not so much.

Always check the video

So it turns out that Iranian FM Mohammad Javad Zarif doesn’t think Western leaders are idiots after all. Despite what some media reports have said (and what some of us stupidly just picked up without checking), he wasn’t linking sanctions relief to fighting IS in Iraq yesterday, he was linking relief to modifying the heavy water reactor at Arak:

On Wednesday night, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif was interviewed by Iranian state television. Reports about what he said in the interview provided quite the adventure yesterday. Here is Reuters this morning trying to sort out just what took place:

On Thursday a story from the official Iranian News Agency (IRNA) cited by several news organizations including Reuters reported Foreign Minister Javad Zarif as saying that if Iran agreed to “do something in Iraq, the other side in the negotiations will need to do something in return”.

“All the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear activities should be lifted in return for its help in Iraq,” it quoted him as saying.

But later on Thursday IRNA reported foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham as dismissing “reports by some news agencies about Iran and U.S. cooperation in Iraq”.

“These reports are a misinterpretation of the foreign ministerˈs remarks and are ‘totally baseless’,” IRNA reported her as saying.

So what did Zarif actually say? Here is PressTV’s translation of the sentence in question:

“If we agree to do certain things at [the nuclear facility in the Iranian city of] Arak, then they should agree to do certain things in return; one of those things would be for them to go to the [UN] Security Council and lift the sanctions,” Zarif stated.

Here’s the video with subtitles:

It’s obvious from the context of the interview that Zarif is talking about the nuclear negotiations and Arak. There’s nothing about Iraq in that discussion. Now, obviously “Iraq” and “Arak” are similar sounding words (the initial short vowels are easy to confuse, and while the final consonants are distinctive sounds, at the end of a word and with a long “aa” sound in front of them, they can sound close enough to be mistaken for one another), and indeed the name “Arak” was probably a corruption of “Iraq,” but it’s not clear to me why the person doing the subtitles went with Iraq (عراق) and put Arak (اراک) in brackets, when there’s no contextual reason to think Zarif is talking about Iraq and, in fact, he’d just mentioned Arak a few seconds earlier. I don’t know why Mehr News, which is an official state news agency, would have gone with Iraq in its transcript of the interview (in Persian; search on “عراق” and you’ll find it) when in the context of the nuclear negotiations Arak is far more applicable. So I’m not going to rag on the US media for getting the story wrong, since Iranian media didn’t do much better, and neither did regional Arab media like Lebanon’s Daily Star.

The State Department is going with “Arak,” and after seeing all the context I would agree. The lesson, which FFS I should already know by now, is that when the media reports Iranian leaders saying wacky stuff, it’s always best to double-check what they’re reporting, or at least wait a couple of days while other people check it, before you comment on it.