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NEED TO KNOW:
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went to Russia and held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. The two countries waited to announce the trip until after Assad had safely returned to Damascus today.
Why the secrecy? Assad hasn’t left Damascus — that we know of — since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. It seems the Syrian president worries that if he slips away even for a moment, there would be someone at home all to willing to stage a coup and take his place. There is also the threat of assassination as he travels.
Assad is probably one of the most hated men in the world at the moment. His brutal crackdown on peaceful protests and his indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas of the country have sparked a mass exodus of Syria’s population. Half the country’s citizens are now displaced from their homes, many of them languishing in the Balkans as they try to make it to northern Europe.
The conflict between the government and the rebels also created an atmosphere well-suited to a group like the Islamic State. It has thrived, taking over large parts of northern and eastern Syria. The Islamic State’s presence has invited all kinds of involvement from other countries in the conflict, mostly in the form of airstrikes.
It looks like Canada might now pull out of the international coalition that is bombing the Islamic State. It’s got a new leader that is far less interested in foreign battles. Russia’s leader, on the other hand, is relishing their role in the airstrikes, which are targeting not just the Islamic State, but also the Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s regime.
Putin is one of Assad’s last friends in the world. And what a friend he is, hosting the embattled Syrian president and even posing for some photos with him. The get-together was a pretty surprising demonstration of the confidence both men are enjoying right now. For Putin, he even got to play the diplomat, the potential harbinger of peace. Putin said in a statement after the visit that he hoped with Russia’s help a “long term resolution can be achieved on the basis of a political process with the participation of all political forces, ethnic and religious groups.”
WANT TO KNOW:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is really not helping things.
Small-scale violent attacks continue to terrify residents of Jerusalem. Mostly young Palestinians — frustrated and angry at Israeli policies of occupation, settlement building and collective punishment — are carrying out many of the attacks. On the other side it is the Israeli police and army that is to blame, responding to protests and other incidents with unnecessary violence, sometimes killing young children. All told, 43 Palestinians and eight Israelis have been killed since the beginning of October, when the violence again began to flare.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon traveled to Jerusalem yesterday in an effort to defuse tensions. He told young Palestinians that he understood their anger — which, again, is the result of decades of oppression, marginalization, the loss of land, and the loss of rights — but that they must put down their “weapons of despair.”
Turning to the Israeli government, Ban said he understood its desire for peace and security, but warned that “walls, checkpoints, harsh responses by security forces and house demolitions cannot sustain the peace and safety that you need and must have.” That list of things Ban mentioned all fall under the concept of collective punishment. The idea is simple and taken from the pages of your high school athletics coach: if one person does something bad, you all must run laps. Or, in this case, you all must forcibly be imprisoned within your own neighborhoods until further notice.
Netanyahu, the conservative prime minister who during his tenure has expanded illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and launched multiple large-scale bombing campaigns on Gaza, has done little to ease the climate of fear and distrust. Today he made things worse when he suggested publicly that the former Grand Mufti of Palestine was the one who convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews. That claim has not gone over well.
STRANGE BUT TRUE:
A military junta now runs Thailand. This happened in 2014 after a coup. During his first year or so in power, coup leader and self-appointed prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has unleashed on the population some odd edicts.
His whole plan for the country was more or less laid out in a pop balled he recorded after seizing power. At one point the lyrics go, “all we ask of you is to trust us to make the land good again.”
To that end, Chan-ocha appears to be trying to crack down on alcohol consumption in a country that is synonymous with nightlife. He has proposed that all tourists wear ID wristbands in case they “get drunk or lost.” He suggested that waiters or waitresses could be punished for “verbally promoting” alcohol, like suggesting drink specials. He also ordered that all bars close within 300 meters of a college or vocational school. If the order was enforced, it would essentially gut Bangkok’s infamous nightlife industry. Fortunately, as Thais know well, none of these things will actually be enforced.
The leader’s most recent campaign is against “beer selfies,” which is when people post pictures of themselves on the internet holding a beer. This followed a ban on posting pictures of underboob. Jet-setting Instagrammers beware.