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Friday, January 10, 2020

World News, World News Updates, World News Headlines, Latest World News, Current Affairs

World News, World News Updates, World News Headlines, Latest World News, Current Affairs


Warplanes Strike Positions of Pro-Iran Militias in Syria, Human Rights Group Reports

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:00 AM PST

(BEIRUT) — Unidentified planes struck targets in Syria near the border with Iraq on Friday, reports said, triggering “a huge explosion” amid soaring tensions in the region between the U.S. and Iran.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the planes targeted positions belonging to pro-Iran militias in the Boukamal area, near the border with Iraq. The Britain-based organization which documents the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground said the planes struck among other targets weapons depots and vehicles belonging to the militias.

It reported several explosions in the border area. Deir Ezzor 24, an activist collective that reports on news in the border area, said that the planes struck trucks carrying weapons and depots for ballistic missiles in the area. Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based activist from Deir el-Zour who runs the group, said the attack triggered “a huge explosion” heard in the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Sound and Picture, another activist collective in Syria’s eastern Deir el-Zour area, said “unidentified planes” struck militia targets in Boukamal.

There was no immediate comment from Syria or Iraq, and the reports could not be independently confirmed.

The U.S. carried out military strikes in the area on Dec. 29, killing 25 members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia in retaliation to a rocket attack on a military base in Iraq that killed a U.S. contractor. The U.S. blamed that attack on a Iranian-backed Iraqi militia.

Israel has also struck Iran-backed militias in the area in the past.

The reported airstrikes came days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s most powerful general after he landed at Baghdad airport, drawing angry calls for revenge and escalating tensions to the brink of an all-out war between the two sides.

Iran responded by firing a barrage of missiles at military bases in Iraq that host U.S. troops. Since then, both sides have signaled they were stepping back from further escalation but tensions remain high and the region on edge.

Amid the soaring tensions, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to Syria this week for talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus. Russia has been a key ally for Assad, offering crucial military and political backing throughout the country’s civil war.

The area struck Friday is key to a land corridor for Tehran that links Iran across Iraq and Syria through Lebanon. The Observatory report on Friday claimed that Putin had informed Assad during the visit of a U.S. intention to “close” the land corridor for good.

The Iran Plane Crash Could Be the Latest in a Long History of Accidental Shoot-Downs

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 07:13 PM PST

A Ukrainian International Airlines flight that crashed in Iran Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board, was likely shot down by Iranian forces, U.S. intelligence suggests.

While the crash of Flight 752 is a tragedy, the likely cause of the crash might not be entirely surprising, given the flurry of threats and tit-for-tat attacks exchanged between the Untied States and Iran over the last week. While civilian air travel is considered to be very safe, there is a long history of civilian aircraft being accidentally shot down in times of conflict.

“I don’t think it’s all that unusual,” Arnold Barnett, an aviation safety expert and a Professor of Statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, tells TIME. “I think given that war so often involves aerial fighting these days, you could argue that planes should be careful.”

In fact, both Ukraine and Iran have their own tragic histories of civilian aircraft being shot down during geopolitical conflicts. In July 2014, 298 people were killed when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine’s Donetsk region by Russian separatists. In 1988, 290 people were killed when a U.S. ship shot down Iran Air Flight 655.

Barnett argues that airlines should err on the side of caution when considering the threat of sending flights through conflict zones — and urges civilian passengers to pay attention to warnings from the U.S. State Department and elsewhere.

“Planes being shot down accidentally—this is not something that’s never happened. And especially in wartime situations where you think it might happen, of course I think people should be thinking about it,” Barnett says.

Here’s what you need to know about some of the deadliest attacks on civilian aircraft.

Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 (Feb. 21, 1973)

More than 100 people were killed when a Libyan flight traveling from Tripoli via Benghazi to Cairo was shot down by Israeli fighter planes and crashed into the Sinai desert. The aircraft was about 100 miles off course, Major John T. Phelps II wrote in the U.S. Armed Forces journal Military Law Review.

Israel claimed the plane had entered Israeli airspace in Egyptian territory occupied by Israeli, and that the Israeli planes had directed the aircraft to land, but that the plane did not respond.

A co-pilot who survived the crash later said the plane had known that the Israeli planes had asked them to land, but they had decided not to because of the bad relationship between Libya and Israel, although the inflight record indicated that the pilot thought he was in Egypt and that the other planes were Egyptian, Phelps wrote.

Phelps asserted that the Libyan jet’s actions were likely viewed as “hostile” by the Israeli forces.

“The situation in the Sinai was anything but normal. Relations between Egypt, Libya, and Israel were tense and the threat of war was ever-present,” Phelps wrote.

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 (Sept. 1, 1983)

During some of the tensest moments of the Cold War, a Soviet fighter plane shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which had been traveling from New York to Seoul via Anchorage, Alaska. All 269 people on board, including U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald, were killed. The flight had traveled more than 300 miles off course and ventured into Soviet airspace, where it was shot down near Moneron Island west of Sakhalin Island. It crashed into the Sea of Japan.

The Soviets asserted that the aircraft had been sent on a spy mission, and that the plane had deliberately been sent into Soviet airspace, the New York Times reported. The U.S. denied that assertion.

Iran Air Flight 655: (July 3, 1988)

In the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. and Iran had just faced off in Operation Praying Mantis, a daylong naval battle between American forces and Iran in the Persian Gulf, which had been triggered by a U.S. ship striking an Iranian mine.

U.S. Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 traveling from Bandar-e Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, UAE, as it traveled over the Strait of Hormuz, a strait between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. All 290 people on board died. The passenger plane, which was traveling in Iranian airspace, had been misidentified as a fighter jet, according to the United States.

While the U.S. asserted that the plane was outside the civilian corridor, this proved to be untrue. The U.S. government later apologized and after eight years said it would compensate the victims’ families, according to the Associated Press.

Siberia Airlines Flight 1812: (October 4, 2001)

Not all airliner shoot downs have occurred during times of war. The Ukrainian Air Force shot down Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 over the Black Sea in an apparent accident, killing 78 crew and passengers. The flight had been en route from Israel to Novosibirsk, Russia, and many of the passengers were Russian-born Israelis, according to the Associated Press.

Ukraine’s military initially denied responsibility for the incident, but later admitted that an errant missile from a military exercise on the Crimean peninsula could have cause the crash. Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksander Kuzmuk, admitted that Ukrainian forces were involved and apologized to the victims’ friends and families.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17: (July 17, 2014)

In 2014, Ukraine was again the site of tragedy—this time, in the midst of conflict with Russia. Russian separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it traveled over the Donetsk region in Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people onboard. A subsequent investigation found that the plane had been downed by a warhead launched in eastern Ukraine by a Buk missile system.

The Public Prosecution Service of the Netherlands announced last June that it will prosecute four suspects—all affiliated with Russian separatists—for causing the crash and murdering the people on board.

Russian officials have denied playing a role in the crash.

Hotel Workers, Uber Drivers Asked to Be on Alert for Human Trafficking During Super Bowl

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 02:04 PM PST

(MIAMI BEACH, Fla.) — To combat human trafficking during the Super Bowl, law enforcement officials said Thursday that they need hotel workers, ride-hailing service drivers and security personnel to be especially alert.

These are the people most likely to encounter the victims and perpetrators of trafficking — and would be able to provide authorities with tips and evidence of the crime taking place, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody said at the “No Room for Trafficking” conference, held at the Fontainebleau Hotel.

The people most likely to be enslaved for sex work are young girls, officials said. They noted that events such as the Feb. 2 Super Bowl, with all its attendant parties, are ripe for human and sex trafficking. They also noted that trafficking occurs throughout the year, not just during major events.

“We’re enlisting people to help law enforcement,” said Moody, who chairs a statewide task force on human trafficking. “Most of the cases begin with anonymous tips. That’s how we’ll catch these guys.”

The hospitality industry is taking notice. Cecil Staton, president and CEO of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, said it’s bad business for people who run hotels to allow human trafficking.

“No honest hotelier wants human trafficking on their property. We are all about collaboration,” Staton said.

Mary Rogers, vice president and general manager at the Fontainebleau, said all of the hotel’s employees receive regular training on possible signs of human trafficking : rooms where people come and go at all hours, cash payments and young women who never leave their rooms.

“We just encourage everyone to report anything they see that looks suspicious,” Rogers said. “We really, really encourage that culture.”

Similarly, authorities want ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, as well as taxi drivers, to be aware of what is being said in their vehicles and to recognize when something doesn’t seem right. Moody was participating in a training event for Uber drivers later Thursday.

“It has to be a concerted effort that never stops,” said Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “It will take all of our efforts to make this happen.”

Representing the NFL at Thursday’s event was Miami Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson, who said the human trafficking issue has special resonance to him because he grew up with five sisters.

“It can happen to anyone,” Wilson said. “It’s important for me to use my platform to get the message out.”

The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle operates a hotline for tips and reports about human trafficking: 305-FIX-STOP or 305-349-7867.

“You can report it so we can stop it,” she said.

German Man Dies After Co-Worker Poisoned His Lunch

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 06:07 AM PST

(BERLIN) — A young man in Germany has died four years after being poisoned by a co-worker and falling into a coma.

The state court in Bielefeld, which convicted the suspect in the case last year, confirmed the death on Thursday, German news agency dpa reported. It said the 26-year-old’s parents spoke about their son’s suffering during a trial last year.

A 57-year-old man, identified only as Klaus O. for privacy reasons, was sentenced to life in prison last March after the court in Bielefeld, 330 kilometers (205 miles) west of Berlin, found him guilty of attempted murder.

The defendant, who has appealed the verdict, had peppered co-workers’ food with mercury and other substances over several years, leaving one in a coma and two others with serious kidney damage.

He was arrested in May 2018 after surveillance video showed him putting a suspicious powder on a colleague’s sandwich at their workplace in the town of Schloss Holte-Stukenbrock.

Athletes at 2020 Tokyo Olympics Will Be Sleeping on Cardboard Beds

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 05:41 AM PST

(TOKYO) — Tokyo Olympic athletes beware — particularly larger ones. The bed frames in the Athletes Village at this year’s Olympics will be made of cardboard. Sturdy cardboard.

“Those beds can stand up to 200 kilograms,” explained Takashi Kitajima, the general manager of the Athletes Village, speaking through an interpreter.

That’s about 440 pounds, and surely no Olympic athlete weighs that much. “They are stronger than wooden beds,” Kitajima added.

He also took into account the possibility of a wild room celebration after, say, a gold-medal victory. “Of course, wood and cardboard would each break if you jumped on them,” he said.

Olympics Tokyo Cardboard Beds
Jae C. Hong—APTwo sets of bedroom furniture, including cardboard beds, to be used in the Athletes’ Village at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Villages are shown in a display room on Jan. 9, 2020, in Tokyo.

The single bed frames will be recycled into paper products after the games. The mattress components — the mattresses are not made of cardboard — will be recycled into plastic products.

The mattress is broken up into three distinct sections, and the firmness of each can be adjusted.

The idea was to use materials that could be remade after the Olympics and Paralympics. But the cardboard frames and supports should give the rooms a spartan look.

Organizers showed off the beds and a few other furnishings on Thursday at their headquarters. The entire Athletes Village complex will be completed in June. The Olympics open on July 24 followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 25.

“The organizing committee was thinking about recyclable items, and the bed was one of the ideas,” Kitajima explained, crediting local Olympic sponsor Airweave Inc. for the execution.

Organizers say this is the first time that the beds and bedding in the Athletes Village have been made of renewable materials.

The Athletes Village being built alongside Tokyo Bay will comprise 18,000 beds for the Olympics and be composed to 21 apartment towers. Even more building construction is being planned in the next several years.

Real estate ads say the units will be sold off afterward, or rented, with sale prices starting from about 54 million yen — or about $500,000 — and soaring to three or four times that much. Some fear the apartments will flood the market, possibly impacting property values.

The units will be sold off by various real estate companies. Ads suggest many of the units will be slightly larger than a typical apartment in Tokyo, which is about 60-70 square meters — or 650-750 square feet.

Arsonists Set Fire to Controversial Statue of Donald Trump in Slovenia

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 04:54 AM PST

(LJUBLJANA, Slovenia) — A wooden statue mocking U.S. President Donald Trump was burned to the ground Thursday in Slovenia, the birthplace of his wife Melania, authorities said.

The nearly eight-meter (26-foot) high construction, erected last year in a village in northeast of Slovenia, showed Trump with his trademark hair style, blue suit, white shirt and a long red tie. His right arm — fist clenched — was raised high like that of New York’s Statue of Liberty.

Slovenian police are looking for the culprits.

When triggered, a mechanism inside the statue opened a red-painted mouth and shark-like teeth used to appear. “Like all populists, the statue has two faces,” its creator, Tomaz Schlegl, said when he unveiled the statue last August. “One is humane and nice, the other is that of a vampire.”

Although the construction quickly became a tourist attraction, some local villagers were unhappy with its appearance, pledging to torch it by Halloween, Oct. 31. It had to be moved to another village in the area.

Slovenia Trump Statue
Municipality of Moravce—APFirefighters work to extinguish a fire on a wooden sculpture of U.S. President Donald Trump in Moravce, Slovenia, on Jan. 9, 2020.

Milan Balazic, the mayor of Moravce where the statue ended up, said that unknown arsonists burned it. He said the torching of the statue “is symbol of intolerance toward artistic projects in our society.”

It’s not the first time in Slovenia that a member of the Trump family has been carved in wood.

A life-size sculpture of the U.S. first lady cut from the trunk of a linden tree was unveiled in her hometown of Sevnica last June, drawing mixed reactions from residents.

The first lady, born Melanija Knavs, changed her name to Melania Knauss when she started modeling. She settled in New York in 1996 and met Trump two years later.

There are mixed feelings about Melania in Slovenia where hopes were high that she would promote her picturesque Alpine home country after Trump took office. But she has rarely mentioned Slovenia in her public appearances, and hasn’t visited the small central European country since Trump’s inauguration.

Australia’s Fires Are Terrifying. Will They Get World Leaders to Act on Climate Change?

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 02:58 AM PST

Families huddle on a once picturesque beach as their homes burn behind them. Baby koalas, their fur singed, cling to their mothers as they face a fiery demise. And military helicopters whomp overhead, searching the charred landscape for stragglers looking for a last-minute escape.

These bracing scenes illustrate a terrifying reality on the ground in Australia, where more than two dozen people and millions of animals have died in wildfires that have destroyed more than 25 million acres since December and that are not expected to be contained anytime soon. The blazes, so large that they’ve created their own weather systems, have sparked widespread panic, prompted a military deployment and caused billions of dollars in damage. “We’re in the middle of a war situation,” says David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.

The infernos have also captured the world’s attention. While climate-linked disasters aren’t new–from the uptick in deadly heat waves to increasingly powerful hurricanes, floods and blizzards–images of such destruction often fail to resonate and are quickly forgotten in the next day’s news cycle. But what’s happening in Australia feels different. Haunting pictures of cute koalas, kangaroos and wallabies that have died en masse tear at our heartstrings. And as cynical as it may sound, the fact that the devastation is occurring in a wealthy, English-speaking country reminds even the most privileged observer that money alone cannot buy immunity from the wrath of nature. “You have the perfect storm of a story,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “[It] is happening on literally the other side of the planet, yet it seems to be resonating in this country.”

Most significantly, the Australian fires are burning at a time when the world is becoming increasingly attuned to the catastrophic dangers of unchecked climate change. Activists, a series of dire scientific reports and other recent extreme, climate-linked events–including wildfires more than 7,000 miles away in California–have perhaps succeeded in sharpening the mind. Whether global leaders are able to translate this newfound awareness into meaningful political action is the next test.

There’s no question about the link between the Australian wildfires and climate change. The country’s famed bush–the continent’s vast, often dry expanse that is sparsely inhabited but filled with vegetation–has always been prone to wildfires. But a warming climate has heightened the risk: decades of worsening droughts have killed off plants, grasses and trees, creating tinder for fires, and warmer average temperatures have created furnace-like conditions in which fire can easily spread. Last year was Australia’s hottest and driest on record, with temperatures in some parts of the country topping 120°F in December, according to government data. A 2019 report from the Australian government concluded that climate change had already “resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades.”

But Australia’s current leadership remains largely in denial about the problem. Along with the U.S., Russia and Brazil, Australia–where coal mining is a significant industry and a powerful lobby–is one of just a handful of countries with national politicians who have steadfastly refused to consider bold action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But while U.S. President Donald Trump outright denies the science of climate change, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has taken a different tack in recent months. He isn’t contesting that climate change is real or that it has worsened the bushfires. Instead, he argues that his country can’t do anything about it because Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions make up only a small share of the global total. “To suggest that with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently, more or less, would have changed the fire outcome this season,” he told an Australian radio station, “I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

It’s not clear if, or for how long, Morrison’s position will remain politically tenable among his fellow citizens. Last year, 61% of Australians said their government should take urgent action “even if this involves significant costs,” according to a survey from the nonpartisan Lowy Institute. That number is up 25 percentage points since 2012. “There’s been a backlash against Scott Morrison,” says Lowy’s Daniel Flitton. “Issues to do with the environment have been key to the downfall of successive Prime Ministers in Australia.”

Morrison’s dismissive rhetoric on climate change makes him an outlier among democratic leaders, who are for the most part rushing to proclaim all they’re doing to save the planet. But his position points to a dilemma: he is correct, of course, that Australia cannot single-handedly prevent climate change in the country’s backyard. Instead, nations–including those that aren’t emitting that much on their own–must act collectively to embrace policies that reduce emissions. Whether global leaders act boldly will determine if the heartbreaking images from Australia that have now gripped the world are a tragic aberration or a look at what’s to come.

–With reporting by AMY GUNIA/HONG KONG

Taiwan Is the Last Free Place in the Chinese-Speaking World. Can President Tsai Ing-wen Preserve Its Democracy?

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 02:56 AM PST

In the early 1980s, a young Taiwanese student newly enrolled at the London School of Economics heard a knock at her dormitory door. A pair of bedraggled British students were there to ask Tsai Ing-wen if she wanted to subscribe to a newspaper. In the spirit of collegiality, she readily agreed. “It was only later that I discovered it was a communist newspaper,” she tells TIME, laughing. “I eventually told them to keep my check but just stop sending the newspaper.”

More than 30 years later, Taiwan’s political leader is still fending off unwelcome leftist overtures. Elected President of the self-governing island of 23 million in 2016, Tsai set out to steer it further from China’s orbit. Taiwan has its own military, its own passport and the world’s 21st largest economy. But ever since 1949, when Mao Zedong’s forces ended a civil war by chasing the Nationalists to the island 100 miles (160 km) off the mainland, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has considered it a renegade province that must be reunited with China, by force if necessary. Through most of the Cold War, the capitalist enclave was shielded by the West. But in a world China now aims to lead after embracing market forces, Taiwan’s position has grown only more vulnerable.

So has Tsai’s. The Chinese strongman Xi Jinping in January 2019 declared unification across the Taiwan Strait the “great trend of history,” and his campaign to that end has gathered in intensity; Tsai’s first term was marred by diplomatic isolation, tightening economic screws and repeated threats of invasion. Taiwan finds less and less room to maneuver between forced reunification and resorting to force to remain independent. Tsai took a substantial risk in December 2016, when she phoned U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his election victory. The call was the first between American and Taiwanese leaders since the U.S. recognized the CCP’s dominion over China, including Taiwan, in 1979. In an interview with TIME, Tsai called the conversation a “very natural thing.” But it was deemed an affront by Beijing, one compounded when Trump suggested the U.S. might revisit the question of Taiwan’s status as a part of China.

The mercurial U.S. President adds a new wobble of uncertainty to the tightrope Taiwan has been walking for 70 years. Historically, even after embracing Beijing, the U.S. has maintained a strong, unofficial alliance with Taiwan. But as Trump has become entangled with China on matters from trade to cyberespionage, some in Taiwan worry that the famously transactional American leader might view their country as a pawn to be exchanged for something else, like a preferential trade deal.

President Tsai, photographed in her Taipei office on Oct. 6
Nhu Xuan Hua for TIMEPresident Tsai, photographed in her Taipei office on Oct. 6.

“If Taiwan becomes a major issue between Trump and Xi, nobody knows what Trump might do,” says Professor Shelley Rigger, an East Asia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina.

As Taiwan approaches elections on Jan. 11, the question for its people is whether they still trust Tsai to safeguard their democratic way of life. Her main opponent, Nationalist candidate and Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, hopes to convince voters that working closely with an increasingly influential and assertive Beijing will ultimately better protect the island’s de facto sovereignty. “Taiwan has one choice–to engage with China, because we can’t hide,” Han recently told students at Stanford University.

But Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party does not endorse the idea that island and mainland are the same country. Formal independence for Taiwan is a key goal in its party charter. Beijing says any move to “secede” would be met with a military response, and Tsai has pragmatically sidestepped the issue while in power. But her policy of prioritizing ties with other Asian nations has deeply troubled the Communist Party leadership, as has her full-throated support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Now the future of Taiwan–without rival the freest place in the Chinese-speaking world–as a U.S.-allied, liberal, democratic beacon in Asia is under “constant assault,” Tsai says, as Beijing tightens the noose on restive populations at its periphery, from Xinjiang to Tibet to, of course, Hong Kong. The CCP sees this election as an opportunity to do the same to Taiwan, Tsai says–something she is determined to prevent. “Beijing would like to see a divided Taiwan, to see our economy and development stall, to create a better foothold to influence cross-strait relations,” she says. “However, when it comes to Taiwan’s sovereignty, democracy and freedom, I believe our people are mostly in agreement.”

Tsai, 63, is a technocrat and former academic who has tried to shrug off a reputation for aloofness with a dizzying schedule of campaign events. On a single day, TIME followed her to a kindergarten, a farm, a technology conference and half a dozen temples. On another, she inspected frogman drills at military camps before tea at an artists’ retreat.

She is hoping this kind of retail politics can reverse a decline in her popularity over her first term in office, driven by party divisions; unwelcome pension reforms; and embarrassing scandals, like bodyguards caught using official trips abroad to smuggle cigarettes. Her decision to make Taiwan the first place in Asia to legalize marriage equality sparked a fierce conservative backlash. Still, Tsai, herself never wed, remains proud of the achievement, which “shows that Taiwan is an open and inclusive society and a rather mature democracy.”

She’s also suffering from the kind of resurgent populism afflicting democracies the world over. The viral rise of Tsai’s Nationalist opponent has been precipitous enough to be called the “Han wave.” His chest-thumping speeches and outlandish promises during his successful mayoral campaign–to drill for oil in the contested South China Sea and bring casinos and Formula One to Kaohsiung–have naturally drawn comparisons to the 45th U.S. President. “You cannot have a conversation about Han Kuo-yu without Donald Trump coming up,” says Rigger. “Everybody sees the parallels between those two guys.”

Kindergarten students welcome the President during an Oct. 5 visit.
Billy H.C. Kwok for TIMEKindergarten students welcome the President during an Oct. 5 visit.

Tsai isn’t blind to the risks. “The rise of disinformation and populism have brought great challenges to leaders and governments around the world,” she says. Yet the challenge is greater for Taiwan with a rapacious Beijing lurking and, she believes, pulling the strings. In the months leading up to the vote, Taiwan has been hit by a tsunami of false reports masquerading as news stories in its partisan and sensationalist media, often targeting Tsai. Her administration and independent analysts say a large proportion originate in the CCP’s United Front propaganda department, though the Chinese government denies any such campaign.

So Tsai is fighting back in kind, charming voters with renewed zeal and posting social-media videos of her frolicking with the two cats and three retired guide dogs she’s adopted. The key to protecting Taiwan’s democracy, she says, lies in “public participation in our efforts to counter disinformation.” It has worked, if her improved numbers are anything to go by.

A widening lead might also be explained by the ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong, which for over six months has been convulsed by increasingly violent pro-democracy protests against encroachment by Beijing. Last January, Xi suggested Hong Kong’s system of semiautonomy–known as “One country, two systems”–might eventually be a model for Taiwan. But that idea had little support among Taiwan’s citizens then, and even less now that unrest has engulfed the former British colony. “[The Hong Kong situation] has, of course, negatively affected the Taiwanese people’s trust in China,” says Tsai.

Still, Taiwan has been sucked into the escalating crisis. Its citizens have marched in support of Hong Kong’s right to self-determination and offered safe harbor to fleeing protesters. In October, Taiwan expelled a mainland tourist for vandalizing a public memorial in support of the demonstrations. Tsai sees a dire warning for her people in the leeching of freedoms there. “Seeing these developments in Hong Kong, the Taiwanese people feel the need for a leader who can stand firm, insist on what has to be insisted upon and clearly express their will,” says Tsai.

Supporters wait for photo opportunities outside a temple on Oct. 4.
Billy H.C. Kwok for TIMESupporters wait for photo opportunities outside a temple on Oct. 4.

If Tsai is re-elected this month, she will have to helm Taiwan through a period of deep uncertainty, as Beijing’s geopolitical clout continues to grow. Today, the island, officially known by the archaic pre-civil-war name Republic of China, is blocked by Beijing from joining the U.N. or potentially lucrative free-trade groupings. It is now recognized by only 15 countries after seven switched to Beijing during Tsai’s first term.

Beijing is also squeezing the island economically. In August, it stopped the free movement of independent Chinese tourists to Taiwan, a free-spending cohort that comprised 82,000 arrivals per month in 2018. The burning question for Taiwan is how far Beijing is prepared to go. “China is already taking steps similar to what Russia did in Crimea,” says Taiwan’s Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, referring to the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. Moreover, he says, were China’s slowing economy to foment domestic unrest, then Taiwan might find itself “a very easy scapegoat.”

In order to mitigate the risk, Taiwan has sought to spread its influence indirectly, building cultural, economic and humanitarian ties. During the recent presidential crisis in Venezuela, for example, Taiwan was one of the few actors able to send much-needed aid over the border from Colombia. To boost its soft power, Taiwan offers international cooperation in unconventional areas such as media literacy and disaster recovery. “Many of our allies still support Taiwan because they share the same values with us and will not be swayed by China’s economic inducements,” says Tsai.

Supporters at a swimming pool wait for the President's arrival during a visit on Oct. 5.
Billy H.C. Kwok for TIMESupporters at a swimming pool wait for the President’s arrival during a visit on Oct. 5.

Yet because few small nations can ignore Beijing’s dollar diplomacy, Taiwan’s ties with the U.S. have taken on newfound importance. The U.S. has moved in recent years to offset China’s attempts to isolate its wayward province, much to Beijing’s ire. In March 2018, Trump signed the bipartisan Taiwan Travel Act, which boosts the exchange of high-level officials. Then, last October, a U.S. bill to protect Taiwan from Chinese diplomatic pressure won Senate approval. That same month, former Republican presidential-primary candidate Ted Cruz became the first U.S. Senator in 35 years to join Taiwan’s National Day celebrations, cementing a “friendship that has never been more important as Taiwan stands up to the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression,” he tells TIME.

One of Tsai’s first priorities if re-elected will be to build on these overtures from allies in Congress. She may need them, as China’s ambitions are widely believed to stretch further still. In the South China Sea, it has militarized disputed islands and reefs into fortifications dubbed “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” In September, the Pacific nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands each restored diplomatic ties with China, a move Tsai’s government believes may give Beijing an enhanced foothold in the region. “China took them by strategic design,” Wu says. “If the international community does not react strongly, China might make changes to the Pacific in the same way as the South China Sea.”

Although Beijing insists these and other fortifications are defensive in nature, Tsai isn’t buying it. “China’s military capacity is still growing, and it harbors expansionist intentions,” she says. The danger is that the alarm bells might be ignored by a world so entwined with Beijing economically, including the U.S. But for Taiwan, there’s no choice. The islanders will, as ever, be standing in the breach.

Why the U.S. Assassination of Soleimani is a Windfall for Iran’s Mullahs

Posted: 09 Jan 2020 02:48 AM PST

Major General Qasem Soleimani was born in 1957 to a self-described “peasant” family in Kerman, the sunbaked province in southeastern Iran famed for its pistachios, rose water and hospitable inhabitants. Family debts forced him to leave school and earn a living as a construction worker at age 13. By his late teens, Soleimani was swept up in the country’s growing political fervor that culminated in one of the greatest geopolitical earthquakes of the past half-century: the 1979 revolution that replaced a U.S.-allied monarchy, led by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, with a viscerally anti-American theocracy, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Like young men from poor families throughout the world, Soleimani achieved upward mobility by joining the military. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was set up to supersede a national army Khomeini did not trust, and Soleimani cut his teeth as a soldier by helping to ruthlessly crush a rebellion of Kurds in northwest Iran, an estimated 10,000 of whom were killed. In 1981, he was among hundreds of thousands dispatched to counter the invasion of Iran by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Soleimani served mostly on the front line, distinguishing himself as a leader, then went on to confront drug traffickers in Kerman, the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and, reportedly, antigovernment protests inside Iran.

Iran/U.S. Conflict 2020
Morteza Nikoubazl—NurPhoto/Getty Images

But Soleimani came into his own after the attacks of 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which flank Iran. Soleimani was tasked with sabotaging the American effort in Iraq. He did this initially by unleashing al-Qaeda members detained in Iran after fleeing Afghanistan–including several members of the bin Laden family and Jordanian radical Abu Musab al-Zarqawi–and allowing them to inflame Iraq. Then he trained Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and provided them extraordinarily lethal roadside booby traps that could penetrate any U.S. armor. The efforts took the lives of as many as 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, making Soleimani the single most hated adversary in the world for two generations of American military commanders.

So how did the man live to 62? A former senior U.S. intelligence official on Iran told me that when previous Administrations discussed assassinating Soleimani, two questions were usually contemplated: Does he deserve to die? And, is it worth the potential risks? The answer to the first question tended to be affirmative. The answer to the second was always inconclusive.

It still is. The five days after Soleimani’s assassination on Jan. 3, by a drone’s missile fired on the order of President Trump, were among the most fraught in the four decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran–and a bowel-shaking lesson in the speed with which full-blown war can appear all but inevitable, even when neither side actually wants one.

“The fact that we have this great military and equipment … does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it!” Trump said, in a televised address that had the feel of stepping onto firm ground from a roller coaster.

Soleimani was killed early on a Friday. By Tuesday evening Washington time, Tehran was doing what it had never done before–firing a barrage of rockets from its own soil toward U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The time it took to count heads at the bases in Erbil and in the dusty reaches of Anbar province was excruciating for more than the families of service members stationed there.

American blood had emerged as Trump’s red line in dealing with Iran. A U.S. death presumably would require a lethal military reply from a President who had entered the spiral of escalation quite late, at the point where the circles narrow and everything moves very fast. For seven months, the normally bellicose U.S. President had declined to answer mounting attacks by Iran with reciprocal U.S. military action. “We had nobody in the drone,” Trump said, after Iran shot down a massive aircraft in June. “It would have made a big difference.” Holes blasted in oil tankers and an extraordinarily bold air assault on Saudi Arabia’s main oil facilities were received as Iran’s response to the economic sanctions Trump had imposed after unilaterally withdrawing from the international agreement that had arrested Iran’s nuclear program. If we cannot sell oil, Tehran was saying, no one else should be able to either. The Commander in Chief answered every attack with an eagerness to sit down and talk, just as he had with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Then, on Dec. 27, one of the militias handled by Soleimani killed an American contractor in a rocket barrage on a U.S. base in Iraq. Trump finally retaliated in kind, ordering U.S. warplanes to strike the militia two days later, killing 25. Iran responded by sending unarmed militiamen to swarm the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, where they burned a reception center. While Tehran has a long history of looting embassies, what infuriated Trump was comparisons with the overrunning, by Libyan militants in 2012, of the consular office in Benghazi, where the death of the U.S. ambassador became an obsession for some in the GOP, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The Anti-Benghazi!” Trump tweeted. When military advisers brought a menu of options to answer for the embassy vandalism, Trump stunned them by picking the killing of Soleimani. He later said the general was planning an “imminent” strike on U.S. interests, but has not elaborated.

But if the drone strike sped the U.S. and Iran down the road to war, both sides were looking frantically for an off-ramp. Iran seemingly showed the way, opening the path to de-escalation by the nature of its barrage.

Consider: before launching the strike, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced the retaliation would come from Iran’s own military, not proxy forces. What form did it take? Iran has weapons precise enough to elude a U.S. Patriot antimissile battery and take half of Saudi’s oil production offline, which it did on Sept. 14. Instead, Tehran sprayed ballistic rockets toward a vast air base and a token number toward the base in Erbil. Both facilities were braced for the attack. Several rockets failed to explode.

“All is well!” Trump tweeted a few hours later, radiating relief that no one was killed. The next morning, flanked by generals at the televised address, he announced “additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.”

Dangers remain. Still to be avenged is the militia leader killed along with Soleimani, a project more than one Iraq militia vowed to undertake. And Iran may not be finished. It has a long history of indirect covert action, from cyberattacks to terrorism. A former senior U.S. intelligence official said Iran may go further this time, potentially targeting current or former senior U.S. officials of similar rank to Soleimani. But the conflict Tehran favors least is the kind it appears to have avoided: conventional war. So it was no surprise that a couple of hours after launching the rockets, Tehran announced through its Foreign Minister that its retaliation had “concluded,” and headed for the casino door with its winnings.

Inside the Islamic Republic, the impact of Soleimani’s death will take years to appreciate. But its immediate effect was to throw the regime a lifeline. Only weeks earlier, an abrupt hike in gas prices brought into the streets not the elite and middle class who normally protest but tens of thousands of the working-class Iranians whom Khomeini called “the real owners of the revolution.” The regime answered by shutting down the Internet and killing as many as 1,500 people.

Soleimani’s assassination changed the subject. With his cocked eyebrow and soft personal manner, he had been among the most celebrated officials in the country, hailed by “moderates” and hard-liners alike. In life, he made Iran–however brutally, especially in Syria–the most consequential player in the Middle East, evoking the days of empire that may reside in the breasts of even many Iranians who despise the theocracy. (Persian General, read one of the posters rushed out.) And in death, he found the place akin to sainthood that prominent martyrdom holds in Shi’ite Islam, with its narrative that begins with the fatal 7th century defeat of the Prophet’s family in battle.

“Enemies felt humbled by the magnificence of the Iranian nation’s turnout for the funeral of Martyr Soleimani,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted Jan. 8, referring to crowds that included Tehran residents who had marched in 2009, in bloody antigovernment protests dubbed the Green Movement. The surge in unity does not change stubborn realities for Khamenei, 80. Iran’s economy remains in shambles, and its interference in the region still inspires protests in Lebanon and Iraq, where Soleimani directed militias and snipers to attack and kill demonstrators. But hostile attention from Washington is pure oxygen to a regime founded in opposition to it.

Since the 444-day hostage crisis that ended Jimmy Carter’s presidency, Iran has exulted in playing an outsize role in American domestic politics. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was tainted by the Iran-contra affair, George W. Bush’s presidency was demoralized by Iranian machinations in Iraq, and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program consumed the latter part of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Trump ran on an election platform of reducing America’s presence in the Middle East and avoiding “stupid wars.” But his erratic approach–provoking an escalation cycle while simultaneously making clear his aversion to conflict–only increased Tehran’s appetite for risk. And so thousands of U.S. troops have arrived in the region, every one as a buffer against an emboldened Iran. “On almost a daily basis, the military has had to react to the President’s decisions rather than plan for them,” says Chuck Hagel, a former U.S. Defense Secretary and Republican Senator from Nebraska.

During the tense wait for Iran’s retaliation, Trump threatened to counter it by bombing a list of 52 targets in Iran, including cultural sites: a clear violation of international law. Though his Secretaries of State and Defense disavowed this threat, when reporters asked Trump to clarify he first doubled down, then two days later backed off. It is the Trump paradox: everything the President of the United States says must be taken seriously; nothing that Donald Trump says can be taken seriously.

With that paradox comes confusion over why the U.S. has forces in the Middle East. The best reason is to fight ISIS, which lost its caliphate but remains an insurgency, especially in the Iraqi countryside. Soleimani had served to both fuel and fight Sunni extremists, who prey on Shi’ites. But the backlash from his assassination spurred U.S. commanders to confine their forces to base; operations against ISIS were suspended.

Worse, outrage by Iraqi politicians brought calls to expel U.S. forces from the country, where the U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion and thousands of lives. Expulsion makes no military sense: without U.S. airpower and special operators, ISIS would still hold much of Iraq. But after Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution ordering American forces out, the U.S. command in Iraq issued a letter suggesting it was packing its bags.

The letter was a mistake, but one that gladdened hearts in Tehran. Getting U.S. forces out of Iraq was, after all, the mission Khamenei gave Soleimani. His mandate expanded to the equivalent of a four-star general, CIA chief and Secretary of State. The Shi’ite foreign legion of 50,000 he cultivated projected Iranian power across the Middle East. And if his vocation made it unlikely Soleimani would die a natural death–Khamenei had called him a “living martyr”–his assassination may prove to be a force multiplier. Sensing that the notion of the U.S. leaving Iraq has now become credible, Iranian leaders are upping the stakes, calling for the expulsion of U.S. forces from the entire Middle East.

Fast forward to August 2020. Imagine news from Iran that a dozen U.S. sailors have been detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards navy. Instead of releasing them in a timely fashion, as it has in the past, Iran demands that all American troops first vacate the entire Middle East, an impossible request. Three months from Election Day, how does Trump react?

–With reporting by W.J. HENNIGAN/WASHINGTON

Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace