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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Amidst Regional Chaos, Kurds Try To Unite

Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have agreed to convene a pan-Kurdish conference with the aim of overcoming historical divisions and  taking advantage of the new geopolitical environment in the Middle East. The first meeting of its kind, Kurds from all different political factions hope to reach a “shared strategy and voice.” Successive governments across these four countries have used Kurdish disunity to undermine their calls for greater independence.

In the past decade, however, a lot has changed. Once persecuted and gassed by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Kurds now have their own autonomous region and are prospering while the rest of the country seems about to descend into civil war. A side effect of Syria’s civil war has been greater independence – today, organized Kurdish forces advanced through northern Syria, expelling jihadists from their villages and revealing the gulf that has grown between Syria’s Kurds and Arabs. No date has yet been set for the meeting.

FDA Considers Regulating Menthol in Cigarettes

The FDA released a “preliminary scientific evaluation” today, which found that the addition of menthol made it easier to start smoking and harder to quit. This is attributed to the mint flavoring masking the harshness of the tobacco, although the report notes that there is “little evidence” to suggest menthol cigarettes are more toxic than non-menthol ones. The agency also published a notice asking for input from the public on potentially regulating the amount of menthol in cigarettes.

Although this lays the groundwork for tighter regulations in the future, the FDA did not propose scientific restrictions or an outright ban, meaning that any potential regulations are months or even years away. The timing of the announcement is likely linked to a World Trade Organization ruling that the US’s ban on clove cigarettes violates Indonesia’s trade rights if menthol is not banned as well.

Outrage at Australia’s Asylum Policy

Human rights groups have criticized Australia’s new asylum policy, in which they will send all asylum seekers straight to Papua New Guinea. Australia’s right-wing government has been accused of “playing the refugee card” in the lead-up to the general election in which refugee policy will be a major issue.

Critics note that the law will undermine efforts to improve refugee protection for those who need it most. Additionally, Papua New Guinea is not an ideal candidate to house a large influx of foreigners. It is extremely poor and beset by entrenched poverty, unemployment and law and order issues (this year saw a string of gruesome ‘witch’ killings and gang rapes). 80% of its population lives a subsistence lifestyle in villages, with little access to health services or education. As refugees will be given funds to start a new life, their presence seems likely to sow resentment among the local population.

China Bans New Government Buildings

China has banned the construction of government buildings for the next five years, as part of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to crack down on the extravagant corruption within the Communist Party (CPC). The notice said that many of these buildings did not conform to regulations and had tarnished the image of the CPC. It banned extensive renovations disguised as repair work and specifically outlawed “glitzy structures.”

Over the past few years, a series of scandals has ignited public outrage over the lavishness of government offices and buildings, often in severely impoverished areas. Most notably, these included the government office building in Fuyung, which cost $4.89 million to build, and the offices of a state-run drug company that had been gilded with gold to emulate Versailles.

Pentagon Lays Out Options for Syria Military Effort

In the first detailed list it has presented to Congress, the Pentagon has outlined military options to stem Syria’s devastating civil war. The options ranged from training opposition groups to conducting air strikes to enforcing a no-fly zone. General Martin Dempsey, the nation’s highest-ranking officer, argued that any campaign to tilt the balance of power away from President Bashar al-Assad would cost “in the billions” and could easily backfire on America.

The letter describing America’s possible actions and their consequences comes as the White House seems to have implicitly accepted that al-Assad’s reign may not end any time soon.

A Syrian army ambush today left 49 dead and the UN envoy on the Middle East peace process said he had received 13 reports of alleged chemical weapons attacks.

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