WEST PALM BEACH, FL, May 30, 2013 — In today’s international headlines, Staff Sgt. Bales will admit to the March 2012 massacre of civilians in Afghanistan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad takes the upper hand, and religious violence explodes in Burma.
Bales will admit to massacre in Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will admit in court next week that he killed 16 civilians, primarily women and children, in Afghanistan on March 11, 2012. Bales, who was on his fourth combat deployment, reportedly will provide specific details about the slaughter in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. Bales attorney, John Henry Browne, said Bales was “crazed” and “broken” the night of the attack and was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury. Bales, who had been drinking alcohol, snorting Valium, and taking steroids before the attack, initially said he remembered little from the night, but that details later came back to him.
The plea hearing on June 5 will be followed by sentencing in September, which could significantly impact U.S.- Afghanistan relations. Both the U.S. military and villagers where the massacre happened want Bales executed for his crime. However, the military has not executed anyone since 1961, and questions about the culpability of the military for sending Bales on multiple deployments is likely to mitigate his sentence.
If Bales receives life in prison, there could be a backlash from Afghans. Violence against NATO troops in Afghanistan is already a significant problem, and attacks are likely to escalate if Bales is not executed. Several villagers have already vowed revenge, and Taliban insurgents will use a reduced sentence as a new excuse to attack U.S. troops.
Syrian regime gets weapons, rebels beg for help, peace conference in trouble. New developments at least temporarily favor the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, both in the military and public relations campaign.
In an interview on Lebanese television, Assad announced that the military now “holds the balance of power” in the Syrian conflict, thanks to recent “major victories” and the first shipment of an advanced air defense system from Russia. Earlier this week, Russia said it would fulfill a contract to supply S-300 missiles to Assad, despite international objections to the shipment. Assad said more missiles will arrive soon. Russia declined to comment, and several military analysts believe Assad’s statements are “a bluff.”
Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have escalated calls for weapons. The European Union allowed an embargo against supplying the rebels to expire, and U.S. Senator John McCain is actively lobbying to arm the rebels after his surprise visit this week, raising opposition hopes of new arms. Government gains, combined with rumors of new weapons from Russia, are increasing rebel desperation. So far, however, international actors have remained cautious over sending arms, worrying they could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda linked rebel groups.
Meanwhile, continued disunity in the opposition is threatening to undercut the latest U.S.-Russian peace initiative before it starts. The regime agreed “in principal” to participate, but the opposition has said it will only attend if Assad leaves office immediately. More troubling is that divisions in the opposition continue to raise questions about viable alternatives to Assad. The opposition has no coherent leadership and no single platform aside from ousting Assad.
The constantly shifting balance of power in Syria almost certainly will again change. However, weapons from Moscow will significantly boost regime capabilities. The advanced systems will also increase tensions between Syria and Israel, which has warned it will actively prevent any arms shipments from Syria to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Hezbollah is now fighting with Assad.
The latest developments suggest a cease-fire is unlikely in the near term. More than 80,000 have died in Syria since the uprising started in 2011.
Myanmar/Burma continuing tensions between Buddhists and Muslims. Troops in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are attempting to calm sectarian tensions that erupted in two-days of violence. Hundreds of Muslims are currently sheltered in a heavily-guarded Buddhist monastery after Buddhists burned Muslim-owned properties, including a mosque and an orphanage. Roving motorcyclists added to the chaos by attacking Muslims.
The latest violence started after a Muslim man splashed gasoline on a Buddhist woman and set her on fire.
Religious tensions have simmered in the country since the civilian government ended 49 years of strict military rule, and control, in March 2011. Sectarian violence erupted as the government of President Thein Sein instituted major reforms, opening the country to the world for the first time in five decades.
Human rights groups called Buddhist attacks last June against the minority Muslims, which make up about 5 percent of the approximately 60 million people in the country, “ethnic cleansing.”
The government quickly deployed troops to quell the most recent violence in an effort to avoid additional carnage and to deflect international criticism for its slow response. While Thein Sein has won international accolades, and investor adoration, for his reforms, the sectarian violence has raised serious questions about the reforms and his commitment to peace. The President almost certainly hopes the swift response demonstrates government resolve against violence and intolerance for sectarian attacks.
However, tensions are likely to continue between the two religious groups, and almost certainly will again erupt into violence unless the government makes a sustained effort to end the religious intolerance.
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