Wednesday, May 27

China-India border dispute escalates. Trump pats air with his hands.

“This escalation is serious; I don’t think this is just a localised incident. China’s behaviour is more aggressive this time, backed up by a fairly large number of troops, which is not typical of this border where troop levels tend to be low on both sides. ..."

Does the big escalation also mean Beijing is sending a message to Washington to back off? We'll find out soon enough.

China and India move troops as border tensions escalate
By Hannah-Ellis Peterson
May 27, 202
The Guardian

Thousands of Chinese troops reportedly move into sensitive areas along Himalayan frontier

Tensions between China and India over their Himalayan border have escalated, with China accused of moving thousands of troops into disputed territory and expanding a military airbase in the region.

Thousands of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops are reported to have moved into sensitive areas along the eastern Ladakh border, setting up tents and stationing vehicles and heavy machinery in what India considers to be its territory.

In response, the Indian army has moved several battalions from an infantry division usually based in the Ladakh city of Leh to “operational alert areas” along the border, and reinforcement troops have been brought in.

The aggressive military posturing follows two skirmishes between the two sides on 5 and 9 May in the border areas of Pangong Lake and North Sikkim in Ladakh, in which more than 100 soldiers from both sides were injured.

On Wednesday Donald Trump waded into the heightened standoff, claiming that he had “informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute”.

The high-altitude border has been aggressively contested and heavily militarised since 1962 when China launched an offensive into Indian territory, sparking a short but bloody war.

Ashok K Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to China and now director of the Institute of Chinese Studies based in Delhi, said the recent incursions and border aggressions from China were “far from routine occurrences”.

He said: “This escalation is serious; I don’t think this is just a localised incident. China’s behaviour is more aggressive this time, backed up by a fairly large number of troops, which is not typical of this border where troop levels tend to be low on both sides. It could be a territorial claim or part of a wider messaging to India that they need to be more mindful of China on sensitive geopolitical issues.”

Kantha said it was “in the interest of both India and China to keep the situation under control and maintain relative peace”.

China’s actions appear to be a response to India’s construction of roads and airstrips adjacent to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which will improve connectivity and enable easier mobility for Indian troops in the area. Construction has paused during the coronavirus lockdown but is due to resume imminently.

There have been diplomatic discussions as well as multiple meetings on a local level in an attempt to defuse the tensions.

On Tuesday India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, held a meeting with his national security adviser, Ajit Doval, plus his chief of defence staff and three security chiefs to discuss “bolstering India’s military preparedness to deal with external security challenges”.

According to satellite footage published by the Indian news channel NDTV, there has been large-scale construction work at a Chinese military airbase less than 120 miles from the border in recent weeks, including the building of a new runway suitable for warplanes.

“China is committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas,” a Chinese foreign ministry statement said.

In a recent statement, India’s external affairs ministry blamed China for provoking the military escalation. “In fact, it is the Chinese side that has recently undertaken activity hindering India’s normal patrolling patterns,” the statement said. “The Indian side has always taken a very responsible approach towards border management.”



Tuesday, May 26

When saving face is more important than life itself. U.S.-China dispute.

There are so many subplots in Story of Yanxi Palace that I'm not being a plot-spoiler when I note that one of the emperor's consorts commits suicide because she lost face. Wei Ying Luo, the heroine of the tale, is horrified by this. New to the Forbidden City, she tells her supervisor in the embroidery department that she wouldn't kill herself even if a million people spat on her.  The supervisor replies that without maintaining face there is no surviving the Forbidden City.

That is still how a great many people think, and nowhere is this truer than with governments, whether democratically elected or imposed. Face is everything for governments. They will do anything to save face. 

Would anything include nuclear war? It could.  

That is why I hesitate to say there will be no war between China and the United States. If you remove the face factor, if those countries were run by people who thought like Wei Ying Luo, then I'd state with confidence there would be no war because so many things mitigate against it. But humanity does not have that much advantage at this time. So I think it's fair to say we are now in a very dangerous period.


Monday, May 25

Top Five Reasons for Americans not to observe Memorial Day

Because --

5. It's not to observe the start of Summer.
4. It's not to kick off the political campaign season.
3. It's not to revile the other political party.
2. It's not to comment on the awful state of government.
1. It's not the start of barbecue season.

If Memorial Day stands for none of those reasons, then what use is it?

It's to honor the American soldiers who died in the line of duty. 

If that sounds like a dumb reason for a federal holiday, look at it this way. You have 364 days out of every year to express your grievances. But on one day, Memorial Day, you can take a moment to be thankful there are Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice to fight on behalf of their fellow Americans.

So this has nothing to do with your feelings about war or any particular American war.  You have a whole 364 days to protest wars and tell how awful they are. But on this one day, can you find it in your heart to act human?  


Saturday, May 23

Through it all, Syrians rebuild. "Aleppo is on its way back to its former glory."

A 20 year old Syrian interested in construction has put together a 'before-after' video of devastated Aleppo City sites that have been rebuilt, which he's posted at his Twitter page, "Rebuilding Syria." He's also posted many photos of sites in other regions of the country that have been reconstructed or are in the rebuilding process.  And he has much discussion about real estate development projects and other construction-related Syrian news. 

Here's the link to the video and his comment:
I have finally finished making this video showing Aleppo before and after reconstruction, 2016 vs 2020. There is of course more than this that has been done, but this video highlights some of the most important places in the city. Aleppo is on its way back to its former glory.

Friday, May 22

Stunning revelations about breathing

Science has found links between improper breathing and weak bones as well as hosts of chronic mental and physical illnesses. 

So if you read nothing else the rest of this year, I hope you'll read the following essay, adapted by the Wall Street Journal from a new book by James Nestor,  “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art” to be published May 26 by Riverhead Books. I've copied the entire essay, below, with profound thanks to the WSJ for highlighting Nestor's book. 

I do have a warning. Proper breathing, which Nestor describes, is not the same as breath manipulation. I'd say just focus on learning to breathe correctly.   

How we inhale and exhale has profound effects on our health—and not just during a crisis like the pandemic
By James Nestor
May 21, 2020 -- 6:04 pm ET
The Wall Street Journal

Breathing is not an activity that anyone is feeling confident about right now. We spend our days covering our mouths and noses with masks, struggling to inhale and exhale. We toss and turn at night, worried that we might be feeling a cough coming on or some tightness in our chests. Covid-19 has turned us into a planet of breath-obsessed people.

But as hard as it might be to fathom now, there is a silver lining here: Breathing is a missing pillar of health, and our attention to it is long overdue.

Most of us misunderstand breathing. We see it as passive, something that we just do. Breathe, live; stop breathing, die. But breathing is not that simple and binary. How we breathe matters, too.

Inside the breath you just took, there are more molecules of air than there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches. We each inhale and exhale some 30 pounds of these molecules every day—far more than we eat or drink. The way that we take in that air and expel it is as important as what we eat, how much we exercise and the genes we’ve inherited.

This idea may sound nuts, I realize. It certainly sounded that way to me when I first heard it several years ago while interviewing neurologists, rhinologists and pulmonologists at Stanford, Harvard and other institutions. What they’d found is that breathing habits were directly related to physical and mental health.

Breathing properly can allow us to live longer and healthier lives. Breathing poorly, by contrast, can exacerbate and sometimes cause a laundry list of chronic diseases: asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hypertension and more. Poor breathing habits can even change the physical structure of our skeletons, depleting essential minerals and weakening our bones.

The ancients understood this. Almost every major religion and many cultures—from the Greeks to the Buddhists, Hindus to Native Americans—considered proper breathing essential to health. Starting around 400 B.C., Chinese scholars wrote several books on breath, believing that it could be a medicine or a poison, depending on how we used it. “Therefore, the scholar who nourishes his life refines the form and nourishes his breath,” says a Tao text. “Isn’t this evident?”

Not really. Think back to your last health check-up. Chances are that your doctor took your blood pressure, pulse and temperature and then placed a stethoscope to your chest to listen to your heart and lungs. Maybe she discussed diet, taking vitamins, stresses at work. Any issues digesting food? How about sleep? Were the seasonal allergies getting worse? But she likely never checked your respiratory rate or breathing habits. And yet how we breathe affects all of these things, and much more.

Today, doctors who study breathing say that the vast majority of Americans do it inadequately.

We can blame some of our poor breathing habits on morphological changes in the human skull. Over the past 300,000 years, our mouths and sinuses have shrunk. It’s gotten so bad that today humans are the only species whose teeth no longer fit in our mouths; they grow in crooked. A smaller mouth and obstructed nose make it harder to breathe. Humans now have the sad distinction of being the most plugged-up species in the animal kingdom.

We can also blame our middle-aged bodies. Starting around 30, bones in the chest become thinner and collapse inward. We lose about 12% of our lung capacity by the time we hit 50, and then the decline speeds up. We’re forced to breathe faster and harder, making it even more difficult just to catch a breath.

But it’s not all bad news. Unlike problems with other parts of the body, such as the liver or kidneys, we can improve the airways in our too-small mouths and reverse the entropy in our lungs at any age. We can do this by breathing properly.

In the 1980s, researchers with the Framingham Study, a 70-year research program focused on heart disease, gathered two decades of data from 5,200 subjects, crunched the numbers and discovered that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity. Larger lungs equaled longer lives. Because big lungs allow us to get more air in with fewer breaths. They save the body from a lot of unnecessary wear and tear.

That’s the first step in healthy breathing: extending breaths to make them a little deeper, a little longer. Try it. For the next several minutes, inhale gently through your nose to a count of about five and then exhale, again through your nose, at the same rate or a little more slowly if you can. This works out to about six breaths a minute.

When we breathe like this we can better protect the lungs from irritation and infection while boosting circulation to the brain and body. Stress on the heart relaxes; the respiratory and nervous systems enter a state of coherence where everything functions at peak efficiency. Just a few minutes of inhaling and exhaling at this pace can drop blood pressure by 10, even 15 points.

Two New York psychiatrists, Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg, found that patients who practiced these slow-and-low breaths could blunt the symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders. It even helped 9/11 survivors restore airway damage caused by debris, a horrendous condition called ground-glass lungs. Where other therapies failed, breath alone offered significant improvement.

By building healthy breathing habits we can stop the entropy of our respiratory systems and increase our lung capacity. We can also reduce—or in some remarkable cases, reverse—modern maladies such as asthma and allergies and even emphysema and autoimmune diseases.

Last year, I wanted to see just how dramatically breathing habits—good and bad ones—could affect my own brain and body. I’d learned that up to 50% of us are chronic mouth breathers, a problem well described by an ancient Tao text: “The breath inhaled through the mouth is called ‘Ni Ch’i, adverse breath,’ which is extremely harmful.”

Scientists have known for decades that inhaling through this pathway saps the body of moisture, irritates the lungs and loosens the soft tissues at the back of the mouth. Mouth breathing has also been linked with neurological disorders, periodontal disease and increased risk of respiratory infection. But nobody knew how quickly this damage came on.

Working with Dr. Jayakar Nayak, chief of rhinology research at Stanford’s Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center, I spent 10 awful days with silicon plugs up my nose, breathing only through my mouth. Within a single night, my formerly minimal snoring increased 13-fold. I suddenly had sleep apnea. My blood pressure shot up to stage 2 hypertension while my stress levels spiked and cognitive scores plummeted. I felt anxious, stressed, fatigued.

Within a day of switching back to nasal breathing, my snoring began to revert and soon was almost gone. I went from having two dozen sleep apnea events a night to zero. My blood pressure dropped 20 points from its peak. The other subject in the experiment suffered the same damage from mouth breathing and the same restoration from nasal breathing.

Which brings us to the second step in healthy breathing: Breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing not only helps with snoring and some mild cases of sleep apnea, it also can allow us to absorb around 18% more oxygen than breathing through our mouths. It reduces the risk of dental cavities and respiratory problems and likely boosts sexual performance. The list goes on.

Covid-19 has forced modern medicine to broaden its outlook and look for new solutions, even in the wisdom of the past. Fortunately, a remedy for many of our chronic health problems is right under our noses. It requires no batteries, Wi-Fi, headgear or smartphones. It costs nothing and takes little time and effort. It’s a therapy our ancestors self-administered for thousands of years with only their lips, noses and lungs. Let’s hope that this time around we don’t forget it.

—This essay is adapted from Mr. Nestor’s new book, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art”, which will be published on May 26 by Riverhead Books.



Thursday, May 21

Rami Makhlouf's wealth is chump change next to what Assad needs.

What distinguishes the following Haaretz report from a Wall Street Journal one with a similar headline is that Haaretz provides useful information about the current state of the Syrian economy.  In my view, the WSJ provides propaganda.

Sure, Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, has an editorial policy that is not friendly to Assad, but one can always read past editorializing. However, I think they're making a mistake when they assume that Assad's dispute with Rami Makhlouf is about wringing money out of him.  

For crying out loud, Haaretz's own reporting about the economic disaster in Syria suggests that Rami's measly $3 billion isn't worth a family feud. Especially because the feud was guaranteed to drag the entire Syrian public into it. 

So what's it about, if money isn't the key issue?  I can only go by what I read in English-language reports. I was impressed with a May 7 analysis The Assad-Makhlouf Rift: A sign of Assad's Strength by Aiman Mansour, who served for years on Israel's National Security Council.

When I put the analysis alongside the thousands of reports and opinion I've read about Syria and Assad over the years of the Syrian War and place those next to the plot of Story of Yanxi Palace, which I've already admitted I've watched too many times, I'd say to Haaretz, "Guess again."

No matter how much mess the emperor's brother made for him, there was only one reason the emperor would ever move against the brother. That was if he had hard evidence the brother was mounting a coup against him. 

Assad Bets on the Wealthy to Bounce Syria Back From Economic Collapse

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the country has lost more than $775 million a month, or about $26 million a day, and Russia is waiting for payment

By Zvi Bar'el
May 20, 2020 - 08:58

After months of near-complete lockdown, life in Syria is gradually returning to “normal.”

The authorities have permitted some movement between districts, public transportation has resumed in large cities, the textile firms that nearly went bankrupt have received work permits, and an estimated two and a half million civil servants have largely returned to work.

Ali Kanaan, head of the Department of Banking and Insurance at Damascus University, estimates that the country lost more than $775 million a month during the coronavirus period, or about $26 million a day.

The Syrian Research Institute predicts that with the current restrictions that are expected to last through June, the Syrian economy may go bankrupt due to revenue losses from the barely functioning tax collection system.

Government aid distributed to the neediest citizens, beginning in March, costs the government about $78 million a month and far from suffices for even the most basic of needs. The average wage is $38 a month, and the extra six dollars is significant, but estimates show that the average household needs $334 to subsist, leaving a massive gap between wages and basic needs.

In normal times, before the pandemic, many public and private sector workers supplemented their wages by moonlighting. These opportunities have disappeared as the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the virus sent 80 percent of the population below the poverty line.
While the coronavirus crisis raged on, the Rami Makhlouf affair erupted. A cousin of President Bashar Assad, Makhlouf turned in an instant from a pillar of the Syrian economy into public enemy number one. 

Makhlouf, who amassed his billions during the two decades Bashar has been in power, owns the Syriatel cell phone company. He’s also one of the country’s largest oil and consumer goods importers and owner of dozens of subsidiaries in industry, commerce, and tourism.

Makhlouf was ordered to pay three billion dollars to the Syrian government – funds actually intended for Russia as part of Moscow’s “collection” campaign which aims to rescue Assad by extending his hold on the Syrian economy while repelling Iranian influence.

Makhlouf, who says he does not have the funds, began publishing video clips on social media claiming that his property has been impounded and complaining about the Assad family hurting his businesses.

Assad's economic security belt

The Assad family had long favored wealthy business people while pressuring them to hand over some of their capital to finance the regime. One of them, whose name has recently resurfaced in the headlines, is Samer Foz. Foz earned his fortune by taking over the wheat and oil trade in Kurdish areas and by controlling Islamic banks in Syria, through which sanctions on the country could be bypassed. Foz is not the liaison between the regime and the enclaves in Kurdish repel hands for wheat purchase. Syria published an international tender for the purchase of 200 tons of wheat which appears to be destined for Russia.

The economic security belt Assad has built also finances some of the army’s operations and contributes to the new welfare programs announced by the regime a few days ago. These plans are aimed at calming the storm surrounding the Makhlouf affair and its exposure of the regime’s corruption.

At the start of the week, the regime permitted private firms to import fertilizer, a product that has been controlled solely by the government, reduced customs taxes by about half on animal feed and seeds, and raised the quota on agricultural machinery imports from 1,000 to 5,000, which may be sold to farmers for loans on comfortable terms. 

At the same time the regime has ordered the establishment of popular markets where basic goods may be sold at wholesale prices, and even at a 15% discount, bypassing retail markups. 

Another order aims to encourage local production by listing 67 products whose manufacturers would win substantial benefits for making them locally instead of relying on imports.

Students from bereaved families and military personnel will also enjoy some benefits. Universities and colleges have been ordered to provide full scholarships for tuition, housing, and transportation for two percent of students, those who fall in these categories, even if they earn failing grades.

The costs of these orders to the state coffers are unknown and the criteria for the benefits are not set in stone. Based on past experience eligible people will have to tip officials and inspectors and navigate a complex web of mediators to receive any of the benefits provided under the law. Even the newly opened import channels for the private sector do not ensure that the government will abandon the system of charging additional fees that have lined the pockets of many people close to the regime, as well as contributed to a dizzying rise in prices and the Syrian lira’s nosedive to an unprecedented 1,500 to the dollar.

The Syrian finance minister had just one thing to say to citizens reading or hearing about the ring of wealth surrounding the president: “The citizens make enough money – if only they knew how to manage it.” 

The comment sparked such a storm on social media that the minister was forced to deny ever saying it. But the average Syrian citizen has already exhausted their toolbox of methods to maneuver around poverty, unemployment, the coronavirus, and the sweltering heat as the absence of any economic horizon extends before them.



The mask is coming off Britain's real role in the Syrian War

"The documents show that the UK was covertly running parts of the Syrian opposition."

Someone in the British government has been leaking documents to a publication called the Middle East Eye. The documents reveal that a British propaganda campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government was mounted not just to rationalize Britain's entry into the Syrian War but to instigate the war in Syria and prolong it. The main targets of British actions were the Syrians inside Syria. 

So the British public, which its government repeatedly lied to about the Syrian conflict, was simply collateral damage. However, some British aren't taking this lying down, and so a document leak has begun. News of this was first written up for MEE by award-winning senior reporter Ian Cobain with award-winning co-author Alice Ross and published February 19 under the headline REVEALED: The British government’s covert propaganda campaign in Syria.
Then Mark Curtis, a British author and editor of "Declassified U.K." took up the cudgel: Revelations about UK media operations challenge narratives of war, which Middle East Eye published on March 18. The lede:

 "British government effectively ran Syrian opposition groups' media offices, countering the notion that the UK has not played a significant role in the conflict."

I hope that when American readers digest the news it will occur to them that for years the British government was fine with letting Americans take the blame for the propaganda war against Syria's president.

It's my view that with allies like the British, America doesn't need enemies. If Russiagate didn't bring that home to you, maybe Syriagate will.