Checking Kerry’s “good guys” in Syria

September 5, 2013

U.S. intelligence contradicts Kerry’s claims, Egyptian interior minister escapes assassination attempt, and Mexican president prepares reform blitz. Today is Tuesday, September 5 – Shana Tova! – and this is the World Wrap, brought to you by @clarerrrr.

Just who is the U.S. backing?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presents the administration’s case for U.S. military action against Syria to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, September 3, 2013. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Fact check. In testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Kerry said moderate opposition groups in Syria are gaining influence. Are the rebels, as Kerry suggested, increasingly defined by moderation?

U.S. and allied intelligence sources and private experts on the Syrian conflict suggest [Kerry’s] assessment is optimistic. While the radical Islamists among the rebels may not be numerically superior to more moderate fighters, they say, Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front are better organized, armed and trained … Experts agree that the Nusra Front, an offshoot of the group al Qaeda in Iraq, is among the most effective forces in Syria.

In other words, Kerry’s testimony about moderate opposition groups appears to conflict information from his own intelligence sources. Extremist elements within the Syrian opposition pose a problem for Western backers, as a New York Times report on a video of rebels executing pro-Assad soldiers illustrates today.

Meanwhile, as turmoil blocks trade routes, Syria’s war economy has given rise to a black market where potatoes sell for five times the normal price and provisions are carted in by the truckload from the Turkish border.

Every day, hundreds of trucks piled high with goods ranging from cooking oil to cement and diapers form lines stretching for miles at Oncupinar, now a bustling hub for trade with Syria. At other crossing points along Syria’s hilly border with Turkey, people can be seen with suitcases crammed with goods such as baby milk powder to sell back home, where food prices are soaring. The scenes being played out along the frontier are part of a broader shift in patterns of trade with Syria, where the conflict now in its third year presents growing opportunities for those willing to take the risks

The conflict in Syria also has overshadowed the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, where Obama is facing pressure not to strike Syria. Russian President Putin made his usual hard-handed comments, calling his opponents’ arguments for intervention “very weak” or “non-existent.”

"What happened today is not the end but the beginning."

Egypt’s newly appointed Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim speaks to media at his office in Cairo, January 5, 2013. REUTERS/El-Youm el-Sabaa Newspaper

Assassination attempt. A remote-controlled bomb attack aimed at killing Egypt’s Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who helped orchestrate the crackdown on pro-Mursi protesters last month, left at least two dead and wounded 10 more.

The Egyptian interior minister survived an assassination attempt unscathed on Thursday when a car bomb blew up his convoy and he said afterwards that a wave of terrorism by opponents of the military-installed government was just beginning […] The head of Cairo security, Osama Al-Saghir, said the ambush began seconds after Ibrahim left his house in the capital’s Nasr City on his way to work. A car driving ahead of the convoy exploded and the minister’s armored car also came under heavy gunfire, Saghir told the newspaper Al-Ahram.

Egyptian police later killed two of the attackers. Attacks on security forces by Islamist militants have increased since President Mursi was removed from power, however no group has claimed responsibility for today’s bombing.

Man with a plan.

Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto smiles after his annual state of the union address in Mexico City on September 2, 2013. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

Legacy on the line. Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto is pushing an ambitious economic agenda that is likely to define the success of his presidency.

Pena Nieto is targeting economic growth of some 6 percent a year – up from an average of barely 2 percent since 2000 – via a number of key reforms: opening up the oil industry to foreign investors, boosting tax revenues, fomenting competition in major industries and overhauling a broken education system. To get there, he is pushing for deep changes that were long anathema to his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the president is offering political concessions to his opponents in return for their backing.

In addition to maneuvering laws through Congress, Pena Nieto faces public uncertainty over his pledge to end violence between drug cartels.

Nota Bene: A planned privacy law against snooping puts Europe on a collision course with the United States.


Grease into gold – The bizarre world of frying oil thievery. (Atlantic Cities)

Hallucinogenic health – Norwegian study finds LSD may be good for you. (The Independent)

180 from Ahmadinejad – Iran’s new president wishes the Jewish people a happy new year. (Al Monitor)

Cat mayor in care – Dog attacks cat elected as mayor in Alaskan town. (BBC)

Mexico’s blond avenger – Ciudad Juarez gripped by tale of Diana the Huntress. (LA Times)

From the File:

  • Dozens injured in 100-car crash east of London.
  • Finnish nuclear safety chief casts doubt on project timing.
  • Vatican recalls Dominican Republic envoy over pedophilia accusations.
  • Colombian president’s popularity hits low after unrest.
  • Controversial ‘tough love’ dad makes toddler fly a plane.
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