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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

US Strikes on Syria Loom; Tensions & Refugees Soar

Tensions are high across the region as the Congressional vote on whether to take military action in Syria looms. Among Syrians, support for Western intervention varies across the board, reflecting the difficulty in assessing what actions will most help Syrian civilians. The Assad regime, meanwhile, has begun hiding military hardware and shifting troops out of military bases and into civilian areas.

Obama has gained some crucial bi-partisan support, with Senator John McCainSpeaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor all backing his call for strikes against Syria. Whether Congress will approve the strikes remains to be seen, as some Democrats are on the fence and the issue will split the Republican party, pitting its traditional hawks against a growing group of noninterventionists. Whether or not the US strikes, however, the Assad regime seems unlikely to fall.

In preparation for retaliatory attacks, Israel conducted joint anti-ballistic missile tests with the United States. German intelligence has officially confirmed that it, too, believes Assad used chemical weapons. The French government released videos of the sarin gas attack that killed almost 1,500, after Assad challenged the U.S. and France to prove the strike had happened.

The United Nations reported that the number of Syrian refugees has surged above 2 million, with 5,000 fleeing the country each day. Anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 child refugees are currently working in foreign countries, in deplorable conditions under constant threat.

DEA’s Access to Phone Records Eclipses NSA’s

For at least six years, the DEA has had routine access to an enormous AT&T database that contains records of Americans’ phone calls. This close collaboration between federal and local drug officials and AT&T was first reported on today by The New York Times.

Under the Hemisphere Project, AT&T employees supply DEA agents and local detectives with phone data from as far back as 1987. This includes every single call that passes through an AT&T switch (not just those made by AT&T customers) and the locations of each caller. Four billion call records are added to the database every day.

The records are maintained by AT&T, not the government, although agents with subpoenas can have access to the network within the hour. After accessing the database, however, agents were told to file duplicate subpoenas directly to the target’s phone company to hide the existence of this program.

Egypt Increasingly Resembles Military Dictatorship

Over the past few days in Egypt, an Egyptian military court sentenced 11 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to life in prison and gave another 45 up to five years of jail time for “shooting and adopting violent means” against the army after a military crackdown against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Morsi himself was charged yesterday with inciting the murder of protesters during December of last year.

Another Egyptian court banned an Al Jazeera TV affiliate and three other stations as part of a government attempt to silence media outlets that it perceives as supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military fired rockets at militants in the Sinai region, killing at least eight in an attempt to quell the Islamic radicals who have escalated their attacks since Morsi’s ouster.

Japanese Government Pledges $470 million for Fukushima Plant

Radiation near a tank of highly-contaminated water surged by 18 fold on Saturday to 1,800 millisieverts per hour – enough to kill a person in four hours.

The main element of the government’s plan is to create a frozen wall around the nuclear plant to stop the leak of radioactive water. Using pipes filled with coolant, a frozen wall would be created around the reactors to prevent groundwater coming into contact with contaminated water being used to cool them. The technique has been used on a small scale to control pollution, but not on radioactive contamination.

The announcement comes days before the International Olympic Committee decides whether Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics. The measures, however, do not address the full problem of water management at the plant or the issues surrounding decommissioning the ruined reactors. The clean-up will take decades.

Recent International Protests

After talks broke down last week, 80,000 South African gold miners have gone on strike for higher pay, demanding a 10% wage increase. Over the past year, labor unrest has left more than 50 people dead.

Weeks-long protests by Thai rubber farmers have spread to three more provinces, as 12,000 demonstrators blocked roads, demanding that the government guarantee declining rubber prices.

Romania’s prime minister voted for the draft of a law to open the biggest open-cast gold mine in Europe after the government was offered a higher stake. Thousands of Romanians across the country demonstrated against the project because it would use cyanide to mine almost 2,000 metric tons of silver and gold, and could destroy ancient Roman gold mines and villages in the Carpathian mountains.

In the country’s first public demonstration to support gay rights, dozens gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital, to protest Moscow’s anti-homosexuality law.

Two days after thousands welcomed home Serbian war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik, Croatians in the town of Vukovar tore down signs written in Serbian Cyrillic, which had been hung in accordance with the EU’s laws on bilingual signs.

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