World powers make an attempt at diplomacy in Yemen and Syria

GlobalPost
A general view shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and other leaders at the start of a meeting on Syria at the Quai d'Orsay, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Paris on Dec. 14, 2015.

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NEED TO KNOW:

The Syrian conflict is about more than just the Islamic State. It all began when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crushed peaceful protests. The demonstrators were calling for greater democracy. They got civil war instead.

The president’s violent crackdown inspired an armed rebellion. The chaos of the war allowed for extremist groups to take root. Now Syria is one big war zone, where dozens of countries and groups are fighting it out in one way or another.

The rest of the world sees the Islamic State as the biggest threat to come out of the madness in Syria. But the United States and others believe that in order to truly defeat the Islamic State, the conflict in Syria must be resolved. And to do that, the United States thinks Assad must go.

Unfortunately Russia disagrees. Russian President Vladimir Putin is a staunch ally of Assad and argues that the Syrian people should decide if Assad stays or goes, not the international community. It’s an impasse that has prevented any meaningful progress on a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Last month diplomats met in Vienna to find a way forward. They came away with the framework for an ambitious plan that would see UN-monitored elections in Syria in 18 months. But no representative from Syria, either from the government or the rebels, took part in the talks. Many of the same diplomats met in France yesterday and are due to meet in New York on Friday to continue hashing out the plan.

But first, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Moscow. The goal: to narrow the differences between Russia and the United States when it comes to Syria. Overcoming those differences might be the only way any progress is made.

WANT TO KNOW:

Diplomacy must be in the air. The United Nations has confirmed that the Saudi government and the Yemeni rebel group known as the Houthis will be holding peace talks at an undisclosed location in Switzerland this week.

The two sides agreed to an immediate ceasefire as the talks began. A Saudi spokesperson said Monday that the country would halt airstrikes for seven days.

Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the United States, has pummeled Yemen for about nine months now. Their goal is to drive back the Houthi rebels, who captured the capital earlier this year, forcing the country’s president to flee. The Houthis are loosely aligned with Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s nemesis. So Saudi officials fear growing Iranian influence on a country that is next door. From the US perspective, the government prefers a friendly president that allows it to freely conduct counterterrorism operations inside the country.

The war, however, has been devastating. Thousands of civilians have been killed in airstrikes, which have struck everything from weddings to hospitals. Already one of the hungriest places on Earth, parts of Yemen are now on the brink of famine because humanitarian aid isn’t able to get through a Saudi blockade.

A ceasefire will hopefully allow for some of that desperately needed aid to get to where it is needed most. But optimism is low. A similar attempt at talks and a ceasefire fell apart in June before the two sides even met.

STRANGE BUT TRUE:

A man in Thailand may go to jail for nearly 40 years because he made a sarcastic comment on social media about the Thai king’s favorite dog. The dog, pictured here, is beloved in Thailand. The king actually wrote about the dog. That book was just made into an animated film.

We don’t know what the man said exactly. It shouldn’t really matter. The man was a factory worker who lived in suburban Bangkok. Insulting the king in even subtle ways has long been punished in Thailand. But it has gotten worse in recent years, especially after the military took over in a coup last year.

The New York Times published the story yesterday. But it did not appear in editions printed in Thailand. This has happened several times recently. In each instance, a note has been published in the article’s place, saying that the story was “removed” by the printer in Thailand and that “editorial staff had no role in its removal.”