Deadly Syrian stalemate spurs new diplomacy, little hope

Syrian rebel amid rubble of recent battle near Aleppo
Galvanized by a Syrian death toll that has doubled to 36,000 in little more than a month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for a new rebel hierarchy to direct the fighting against President Bashar Assad and steer Syria back to peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence.

GlobalFocusThe latest proposal for halting Syria's 19-month-old civil war brings little new strategy to the crisis. Rather, it vents frustration with the international community’s own "divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness," as the International Crisis Group recently noted, that have prevented brokering an end to the bloodshed.

Like European leaders before her, Clinton acknowledged this week that the West’s reliance on out-of-touch exiles within the Paris-based Syrian National Council has done more harm than good in the effort to have opposition forces speak with one voice on their plans for a post-Assad future.

Clinton told reporters accompanying her on a trip to North Africa and the Balkans on Wednesday that the Obama administration will be suggesting names and organizations it believes should play prominent roles in a reconfigured rebel alliance that Western diplomats hope to see emerge from Arab League-sponsored talks next week in the Qatari capital, Doha.

But the U.S. push to get the opposition’s act together also exudes desperation. In the two months since a failed rebel campaign to take strategic ground around major cities, fighting has ground down to a bloody impasse, giving neither Assad nor his opponents hope of imminent victory on the battlefields.

The rebels’ summer offensive also exposed the widening role of Islamic extremists who have entered the fight, bringing arms and combat experience to the side of Assad’s fractured opponents. But the Islamic militants’ alignment with Syrians trying to topple Assad also gives weight to the regime’s claims to be fighting off terrorists, not domestic political foes.

Clinton reiterated the West’s insistence that Assad have no role in Syria’s future. That prompted immediate pushback by Russia and China, which have opposed what they call foreign interference in Syrian domestic affairs.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart when Clinton announced the Obama administration’s latest initiative. A longtime ally and arms supplier to Syria, Russia has blocked three United Nations Security Council resolutions to censure Assad and, along with China, has rejected Western demands that the Syrian president resign and leave the country.

"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Lavrov warned.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi registered Beijing’s objections by unveiling a "four-point plan" for bringing peace to Syria that reiterates the communist state’s position that the future of Syria be left for Syrians -- including Assad -- to decide.

Beijing has a solid history of blocking international intervention on human rights grounds, apparently fearing China could become a target of such actions because of its harsh treatment of dissent and political opponents.

For some Middle East experts, the solution to Syria’s crisis lies somewhere between the Russian-Chinese "hands-off" policy and the U.S.-led Western view that only regime change will bring about peace.

"This conflict is for Syrians and their neighbors to resolve, with European and Russian involvement. The U.S. should stay one removed," said Ed Husain, senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He described Clinton’s appeal for a new rebel leadership structure as "laudable, but a year too late."

"She’s driven by a desire to want to help now, but also to ensure a smooth transition in a post-Assad Syria. Sadly, reality on the ground dictates otherwise,” Husain said, alluding to entrenched battles that portend a long standoff.

Growing fears that extremists are gaining clout with the rebels also complicates diplomacy, as Syria’s Shiite, Christian, Kurdish and other minority sects are wary of how they would fare under a Sunni-dominated government allied with fundamentalist jihadis.

Clinton emphasized that extremist forces should be excluded from any new opposition forum that might emerge from Doha.

"It may seem ironic to call for a broad tent and then say 'except for those guys.' But I think the administration and other countries concerned about the future of Syria know that one of the challenges will be to have an analysis of who is who in the opposition,” said Charles Ries, a career U.S. diplomat now heading Rand Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

Ries sees the need for "more movement on the ground in Syria" before Assad or the rebels are ready to submit to negotiations on the country’s future.

He is hesitant to declare the civil war a stalemate or the Russian-Chinese position unchangeable in the long run. But with rebels pinned down in the urban areas they hold and warding off attacks by Assad’s superior armed forces, he said, no one seems to think Assad is in the kind of imminent danger of being ousted that would be the catalyst for negotiation and compromise.


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Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter last month defends territory near Aleppo, one of many urban battlegrounds the opponents of President Bashar Assad are now struggling to hold. Credit: Zac Baillie / AFP/Getty Images

Ahead of China's party congress, ex-leaders pop up to show clout

BEIJING –- Apropos of seemingly nothing, the TV program “Music World Today” on China’s state-run channel 15 launched into a 30-minute segment Friday about a schmaltzy, obscure tune, “Moonlight and Shadows,” from the 1936 American film “The Jungle Princess.” But invited guest Chen Lin, a 90-year-old professor from Beijing Foreign Studies University, quickly clued viewers in to its significance.

This spring, he said, he received a call from Li Lanqing, who served as vice premier under President Jiang Zemin from 1998 to 2003. The former president, now 86, was urgently looking for the sheet music for the song, which he had enjoyed as a young man in his revolutionary days, Li said. Chen helped a composer notate the melody and words. (Sample lyric: “Even in shadows, I feel no alarm, while I hold you tight, in the jungle light, my dear ...”)

“This beautiful romantic song, for it to be able to reappear, to be restored, and for us to be able to remember it, all the credit should go to our comrade Jiang Zemin,” Chen said on the program.

As China prepares to begin a major Communist Party leadership transition next week, hardly a day goes by without a fresh TV or newspaper report highlighting the recent activities of a former leader, many of whom have been out of the limelight for years. 

While the appearances by and references to the retired cadres may seem awkward, comical or just downright dull, analysts say they serve a purpose: They’re telegraphing that these old-timers are alive, well and trying to play a role in shaping policy and determining appointments ahead of the 18th Party Congress.

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Storm Son-Tinh batters Asia; more than 30 reported dead

While Americans on the East Coast struggle to recover from onetime Hurricane Sandy, stretches of Asia have been battered by a typhoon that has cost more than 30 lives since it first struck last week.

In China, one person was reported dead, five were still missing and roughly 126,000 had been relocated in Hainan province due to Typhoon Son-Tinh, state media reported Monday. Powerful floods have reportedly destroyed hundreds of homes across the area. In the southern region of Guangxi Zhuang, scores of boats on a river bordering China and Vietnam went missing during the downpour.

In Vietnam, the storm had already claimed at least three lives and injured 29 people before moving on to China, the Vietnamese national news agency reported. Homes and bridges were destroyed, fields of crops ruined and electrical and telephone lines downed, the agency said. More than 86,000 people were evacuated to avoid the storm, while national authorities distributed hundreds of life vests and thousands of water purification tablets, a United Nations coordinator in Vietnam reported.

Before wreaking havoc in Vietnam and China, the typhoon had lashed the Philippines, killing at least 27 people, injuring 19 and leaving nine missing, its national disaster agency reportedTuesday, updating its earlier, lower death tolls. More than 109,000 Filipinos were affected by the storm as it hit the Philippines last week, where it was known as Ofel.

The tempest has weakened, but its damages in the three countries have been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars. In the Vietnamese province of Nam Dinh alone, local media estimated the damages ran as high as $45 million, with farms swamped and electricity damaged, the U.N. reported.


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Photo: A resident walks past fallen trees after the passage of Typhoon Son-Tinh in the northern city of Nam Dinh, Vietnam, on Monday. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Taiwan unnerved by arrests over alleged spying for China

Taiwan has arrested three retired military officers on suspicion of spying for China, allegations that have unsettled lawmakers fearful that state secrets could be leaked to Beijing.

The accused include the former chief of political warfare at the Taiwanese naval meteorology and oceanography office, according a Ministry of National Defense statement sent Monday to local media. The ministry said Chang Chih-hsin had initiated contacts with Chinese officials during his service and was suspected of luring fellow officers and “making illegal gains.”

The office is seen as especially sensitive because it holds information about Taiwanese submarines and hidden ambush zones. "This has gravely endangered Taiwan's security," ruling party lawmaker Lin Yu-fang was quoted by the Taipei Times. "It's a shame for the military."

As the news spread, the ministry downplayed the risks, saying that no “confidential information” had been leaked to Beijing. The Chinese office for Taiwan affairs told the Global Times, a paper linked to the Communist Party, that it knew nothing about the alleged spying.

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Chinese officials back down on chemical plant in face of protests

BEIJING — After a weekend of protests, Chinese authorities have capitulated to thousands of well-organized, middle-class demonstrators and canceled plans for the expansion of a petrochemical plant in a small coastal city near Shanghai.

Sinopec, the state oil monopoly, had been planning an $8-billion expansion of an industrial complex already suspected of raising cancer rates in Zhenhai.

"With living standards going up, people want not only fresh air and clean water, they want a stronger voice about what’s happening around them," said Timothy Tang, a 29-year-old working in finance who was involved in the protests in Ningbo, a larger city that administers Zhenhai.

Protest organizers said they had been encouraged by a similar uprising last year in Dalian, where middle-class protesters managed to stop a plant that was also supposed to produce paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical used in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and polyester.

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Attorneys for Chinese premier's family hit back at report on wealth

BEIJING -- Attorneys for family members of China’s prime minister hit back over the weekend at the New York Times, calling the newspaper’s report about wealth amassed by Wen Jiabao’s family “untrue” and suggesting they may take legal action.

On Friday, the Times published a lengthy article stating that Wen’s family members controlled a fortune worth $2.7 billion. The newspaper’s Chinese and English-language websites were promptly blocked in mainland China, and media outlets in the mainland did not mention the story.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry on Friday labeled the story a “smear” and suggested “ulterior motives” were behind the report. But it is highly unusual for private attorneys enlisted by a Chinese official to directly criticize foreign media reports in public and to hint at the possibility of legal action, as representatives for Wen’s family did over the weekend.

Wen’s attorneys released a statement to the South China Morning Post and Sing Tao Daily, two newspapers in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule 15 years ago but enjoys much greater press freedoms than does the mainland.

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Tokyo governor resigns to form new party, run for parliament

IshiharaBEIJING -- Shintaro Ishihara, the strident governor of Tokyo who helped touch off a major dispute between China and Japan over some uninhabited islets near Taiwan, announced Thursday that he was quitting his post and forming a new political party.

Ishihara, 80, told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo that he wanted to return to parliament and said he would run in the next election for the House of Representatives, Japan's lower house.

Ishihara has served as Tokyo governor since 1999, following a quarter of a century in parliament. Known as a fierce nationalist and co-author of the 1989 book "The Japan That Can Say No," he has pushed for Japan to rewrite its pacifist constitution and advocated acquiring nuclear weapons.

Last spring, he announced his intention to have his metropolitan government purchase three islands -– known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China -– from a Japanese family that has administered them in recent decades. China claims the islands as its territory, and some believe the nearby seabed holds significant energy reserves.

Japan's national government, fearing that Ishihara might attempt to build structures on the outcroppings or otherwise develop them and try to change the status quo, announced in September that it would buy the islands. That "nationalization" set off a serious diplomatic row with China and sparked violent protests in scores of Chinese cities that have seriously damaged economic ties with Japan.

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U.S. gas bonanza from fracking slow to spread globally


In less than a generation, the United States has soared to world leadership in extracting natural gas from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. But as the world debates whether “fracking” is an economic boon or a budding environmental disaster, few foreign countries are following the U.S. lead.

GlobalFocusConditions unique to the United States have encouraged investment in the abundant source of low-carbon energy and boosted prospects for reducing dependence on costly and unpredictable supplies of foreign oil. Of the natural gas consumed in the United States last year, 94% came from domestic production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The availability of large quantities of shale gas should enable the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas for many years and produce more natural gas than it consumes,” the agency reports, predicting a 29% increase in output by 2035, almost all of it from shale fracking.

The rapid advance toward self-sufficiency has made the U.S. industry both a model and a cautionary tale for other countries pondering all-in development of their shale-gas reserves.

Significant deposits of natural gas trapped in coal and shale seams have been identified in Eastern and Western Europe, Canada, Australia, China, South Africa and the cone of South America. Global energy giants like Shell and Chevron are bankrolling billions in exploration, sizing up the cost-effectiveness of replicating the U.S. boom in more remote locales with little infrastructure.

Technological advances in horizontal drilling have made it feasible to tap small pockets of gas trapped in shale layers a mile or more below the surface. Contractors bore thousands of feet down through soil, rock and water layers, then drill laterally through the shale to create a horizontal well. When sand, water and chemicals are blasted into the bore holes, the force fractures the shale, releasing gas from fissures within the sedimentary rock. The gas is captured and ferried by pipeline to distribution grids or to port facilities where it can be converted to liquefied natural gas for overseas shipment.

But the process leaves behind tons of chemical-contaminated mud. There are also reports of drinking water pollution from the chemicals and methane gas that escapes into underground reservoirs. A study last year published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences documented “systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction” in the aquifers above the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the U.S. Northeast.  This spring, the U.S. Geological Survey reported “a remarkable increase” in the occurrence of earthquakes of magnitude 3 or larger that it tied to fracking operations.

This month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged that the Environmental Protection Agency was finding it “challenging” to inspect and enforce clean air and clean water regulations in the fast-moving fracking industry. For example, the GAO report noted, the EPA is often unable to evaluate alleged water contamination because investigators lack information about the water quality before the fracking occurred.

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China media: Quiet on Communist Party Congress, gaga for U.S. election

If you picked up a Chinese newspaper in the past week, here's a smattering of the details you could have learned about the U.S. presidential campaign: Mitt Romney might be tanning himself in a bid to appeal to minorities; at 7-Eleven convenience stores, Barack Obama mugs are outselling Romney mugs by a 60%-to-40% margin; and Candy Crowley is known as a tough debate moderator
BEIJING -- If you picked up a Chinese newspaper in the past week, here's a smattering of the details you could have learned about the U.S. presidential campaign: Mitt Romney might be tanning himself in a bid to appeal to minorities; at 7-Eleven convenience stores, Barack Obama mugs are outselling Romney mugs by a 60%-to-40% margin; and Candy Crowley is known as a tough debate moderator.

The two candidates have turned China into a political football this fall, waging verbal war over issues such as outsourcing and currency manipulation. And to be sure, this "China-bashing" element of the contest has not gone unremarked upon in the Chinese media.

"Politicians who always look for scapegoats are either stupid or cowardly," Ding Gang wrote an Op-Ed article in the Global Times. "If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney really won more votes by slandering or playing tough on China, it would be a shame for the American politics and trouble for the world."

But among ordinary Chinese, there appears to be only the mildest concern about the issues of the election. What's of much greater interest, it seems, is just how the whole contest -- and the surrounding hoopla -- works.

Ahead of the second U.S. presidential debate, the Chengdu Business Daily in Sichuan province devoted a full page to the event. The paper outlined the seven major rules of the debate, published a brief biography of Crowley, and explained the whole notion of "cookie bake-offs" between the wives of the candidates and how accurate a predictor they are of actual election results.

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Better off than 5 years ago? Most Chinese people polled say yes


Are you better off than you were five years ago?

In China, most people say yes. Seventy percent of Chinese people said their finances are better than they were, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center. The vast majority of Chinese people also say they are living better than their parents did at their age.

Yet cheer over their financial gains has been tempered by unease about where China is headed. Corruption and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor weigh on the minds of Chinese people as their country girds for a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the poll shows.

More than four of five people polled said the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Half say corruption is a grave problem, second only to their continued frustration with rising prices.  

And in the throes of unsettling and sometimes deadly scandals over tainted pork and baby formula, alarm about contaminated food has surged. Four years ago, only 12% of Chinese people called it "a very big problem”; now that number has reached 41%.

Though more than half of Chinese people polled said they like the pace of modern life, nearly as many fear their traditional way of life could fall by the wayside. Perhaps for that reason, nearly three of four respondents said their way of life must be protected from foreign influence.

Despite that concern, more than half of Chinese like American ideas about democracy, the poll found. Fewer people disdain American democratic ideals than five years ago, even as Chinese opinions of the United States and President Obama have cooled.

"The Western democratic spirit has been accepted by Chinese society," concluded an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party-affiliated newspaper. Yet "Western-style elections" have lost some of their advantages as "political civilization has been absorbed by countries through globalization."
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