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Pause for thought on Syrian chemical attacks -- and reprisals

As the United States and its allies -- including Australia -- move closer to intervening in the Syrian civil war, more questions are emerging over the chemical weapons attack which is the pretext for that intervention. Challenging questions are being asked about the motive behind the attack, as well as the consequences of a response to it.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, yet drawn a "red line" which, if crossed, would trigger an intervention. The question now being asked is why Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would unnecessarily provoke the US into a response?

Assad knew that, once publicly committed, the US could not back down from its threat to intervene. For US President Barack Obama to make such a threat and then not carry it through would weaken its international status and prompt further possible tests of its strategic resolve.

The evidence, too, is that despite the huge cost in civilian lives, the Assad regime is at least holding its own in the civil war and has made recent gains. These gains have been largely due to logistical support from Russia, China and Iran, and the intervention of Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon.

This, then, begs the questions of why it would resort to using chemical weapons when there is no pressing need to do so, and especially knowing it would engender an external military response?

The Assad regime being evil is a morally satisfying but intellectually bereft answer to this question that does not transcend reasonable -- and growing -- doubt. It is certain that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but that is the extent of the facts.

It is possible that the order for Assad regime forces to use its chemical weapons did not come from Assad himself. A rogue commander could have used the weapons, for reasons that can only be guessed at.

But looking at who has most to gain from such an attack, suspicion falls less on the Assad regime and more on the faltering anti-Assad rebellion. External intervention could, at least initially, tip the balance of power in Syria’s civil war in favour of the anti-Assad forces.

The Assad regime's reluctance and delay in allowing in UN weapons inspectors has not helped allay suspicion that the chemical weapons attach was a deliberate act. However, had a local commander given the order, Assad would have been aware of the likely consequences and thus attempted to delay formal investigations in order to allow signs of the chemicals to dissipate.

Of the two main opposition groupings, the more secular (and Western-supported) Free Syrian Army has struggled and has the most to gain from external intervention. The Saudi and Qatar-backed and Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front and the Syrian Islamic Front, though, would also benefit from external intervention. If intervention helped topple the Assad regime, it would ease the way towards them establishing an Islamist state.

While there is no evidence that either of these two somewhat disparate groupings are responsible for the chemical attack, one is clearly desperate and the other has, during the civil war, demonstrated its own lack of moral compunction. The hard evidence, then, beyond the simple fact of an attack, remains ambiguous.

Apart from the formal legality of a direct external intervention, careful consideration is being given to how much evidence will be needed to launch a US-led attack. There appears little ulterior reason for the US to want to intervene in the Syrian civil war, given that it is only likely to further stir up the hornets’ nest.

The US is being drawn into the Syrian civil war in a seemingly mechanistic way. Yet there remains no hard evidence as to who was the perpetrator of the chemical attack. This level of uncertainty has echoes similar to that of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction", and the continuing disaster that remains what is left of the Iraqi state.

Why it's better to eat your fruit and veg rather than drink them

Juicing fruit and vegetables is a popular way to get a get a quick ‘health fix’, but does come with the downside that they are less filling than eating the solid foods in the first place.

Eating more fruit and vegetables is the foundation stone of any healthy diet. One popular way to consume them is through juices. The one clear downside from drinking fruit and vegetables compared to eating them is the loss of fibre and other nutrients found in the skin and pulp. Juices though can be a quick, convenient and tasty way to get some of the health benefits of fruit and vegetables which is certainly better than not eating them at all.

US intervention in Syria could escalate a bloody war

If the United States intervenes in the Syrian civil war, as it is now considering doing after more than a year of refusing to become involved, it would mark a major shift but might not end the fighting.

The move towards intervention follows claims of President Bashar al-Assad’s government using of chemical weapons in the country’s stalemated civil war. If proven, the use of chemical weapons would constitute a war crime under international law. In response, the US has gathered a flotilla of ships in the area, capable of launching missile strikes against Syria.

The Assad regime has denied the use of chemical weapons. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres says more than 300 civilian dead and thousands more injured show symptoms of nerve gas poisoning.

US President Barack Obama has said establishing that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons would trigger a response. However, Russia will block international intervention in the UN Security Council. The US and its allies are, therefore, looking beyond the UN for a legal rationale for intervention.

The most likely international response will be through a coalition of countries, probably under the auspices of NATO. Such a justification would employ the language of "responsibility to protect". Syrian neighbour Turkey, a NATO member, is also likely to join the fray.

Obama had been deeply reluctant to intervene in the Syrian conflict, as anti-Assad forces could lead a sectarian massacre. He is also concerned that radical Islamist fighters could establish a new base in the political vacuum, possibly assuming control of the state. Following the Iraq debacle, Obama will also be aware of the irony and possible deception of becoming involved in a war based on the presence of "weapons of mass destruction". And, perhaps most critically, Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would not only be deeply angered by such intervention but could also become directly involved in the conflict.

With the battling factions being supported by external actors, Syria’s civil war has been, in part, a war by proxy. That proxy war would be extended, with likely greater Saudi support for radical Islamists and, almost inevitably, dragging in neighbouring Lebanon, which in the last few days has been the site of a sectarian bombing believed to have been triggered by the Syrian war.

These outcomes are being factored in to the increasingly likely US-led response. An intervention will probably begin with missile strikes, followed by air attacks and the open provision of weapons to anti-Assad forces. A missile attack would first neutralise the Assad regime’s anti-aircraft capacity, as well as target chemical weapons sites.

A US-led attack could, initially, tip the balance of the war against the Assad regime’s forces. But should this intervention trigger a reaction from the Assad regime’s external backers, the war in Syria is likely to become not just more bloody but perhaps not any closer to a final resolution.

Nuts, seeds and diverticular disease

Popular wisdom and well meaning advice recommends that people with the digestive system problem of diverticular disease should avoid small, sharp and hard foods such as nuts, seeds and corn for the risk of inflaming the condition. Research studies now say otherwise, and these foods shouldn't be excluded from the diet, except for when experiencing painful flare ups of the disease.

Diverticular disease is a common disorder of the digestive system with estimates that one-third of people will develop this condition by the age of 60. Many people have small defects in the muscle of the wall lining the large intestine which can allow small pockets or pouches (called diverticula) to form. The condition of having diverticula is called diverticulosis.

Have attitudes to Asia changed in 60 years? Not as much as you’d think

For all the hyperbole around the importance of the Asian century, how well does the West – and Australia – really know Asia? We can argue that knowledge of Asia over the past 50 years has increased dramatically, but knowing the region – a more intimate, subtle process – is another matter.

Public opinion of Asia quickly declines in the West at the first sign of difficulty, as surveys by the BBC World Service, Pew Global Research and the Lowy Institute recently confirmed. These 2013 surveys show signs that sentiments towards Japan and China are slipping to similar levels recorded in 1953.

Taking a stand against family violence must occur in the courts

Last month the Victorian Premier Denis Napthine, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and AFL chief Andrew Demetriou came together to encourage the Victorian community to ‘take a stand’ against family violence. Part of a family violence campaign, the ‘Take a Stand’ initiative focuses on reducing family violence through increased awareness and by encouraging members of the community to take responsibility for preventing and reporting incidents of family violence.

In urging the community to take a stand against family violence and to end the veil of silence that often surrounds this type of victimisation, it is important that a clear message on the unacceptability of family violence is sent from the highest levels of our criminal justice system. The courts and members of the judiciary can play a key role in denouncing the use of violence within the home and ensuring that a central message is sent to the community that domestic violence will not tolerated and will not be excused by our justice system.

Lessons in self-publishing using iBooks Author

My initial iBook upload, ‘How To Mojo: A Guide to Mobile Journalism’, was published reasonably quickly on iTunes using iBooks Author - in about three days, I think. However, the update took almost three months. Here's what happened.

Three weeks after uploading the updated files for the second edition, the iBooks Review process found I had used their trademarked word, iBook, once. Since Apple take 30% from the sale of each book, I thought, why shouldn't I use the word? After all, it's what iTunes is selling, my iBook. But that type of thinking goes no where with Apple. So we removed the offending word and re-submitted the files. This is where the rot, or more to the point, the stench of rotten Apple, really set in.  It took almost another 8 weeks of prodding at Apple's core for the update to go live online.

Why weight loss may be a good thing to cut pre-ecplampsia risk

A recent review of the research field on body fatness and pre-eclampsia risk has added more evidence for how these two factors are linked together.

Pre-eclampsia is a serious complication of pregnancy seen as high maternal blood pressure, protein in the urine and severe fluid retention. Pre-eclampsia is the most common complication of pregnancy, affecting around five to 10 per cent of all pregnancies in Australia. One to two percent of such cases are severe enough to threaten the lives of both the mother and her unborn child.

The cause of pre-eclampsia is not known for certain, but there appears to be several factors involved. An exaggerated systemic inflammatory response, changes in immune factors, insulin resistance, and changes in the biology of the placenta are just some of a long list of candidates.

Egypt's brief fling with democracy draws to a close

Egypt's police were scheduled today to break up large sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, trying to end demonstrations intended to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Should the police proceed, there was expected to be some confrontation. But more importantly, the dispersal may be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s very brief experiment with democracy.

The army is now clearly determining Egypt’s political process, despite the fig leaf of installing a nominally civilian administration. This was to assuage the US and to entice the country to continue its military and financial support.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to not be included in the newest administration confirmed the fracturing of Egyptian political society. This fracturing has now created space for the rise of Islamist terrorism and, in response, the increasing political grip of the army.

In this environment, Egypt is unlikely to return to elections in the foreseeable future. And any such elections would probably be boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood in any case. But the rise of political violence, in response, would rationalise the army’s seizure of effective political power and ensure that it retained a tight rein over the political process.

There was never any likelihood that the sit-in protests, which have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, would have seen Morsi returned to office. But while they have been tolerated, Egypt’s political tensions have been relatively contained.

The dispersal of the sit-ins would show Muslim Brotherhood supporters that not only is democracy in Egypt a sham but so is the legitimacy of public protest. In the face of declining options, the current political climate has led to a split within the Muslim Brotherhood, with more radical Islamist elements moving to embrace terrorism.

Confirming a move in this direction, at least 25 alleged members of the militant Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group were killed or injured in a helicopter attack in the northern Sinai on Saturday. The Egyptian army said the group had stockpiled weapons and been involved in recent attacks against army personnel.

The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, which was responsible for last year's attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, has also said it was collecting weapons and recruiting militants for training in preparation for war in Egypt.

Winning Egypt’s presidential elections with a 3.4% margin in 2012, Morsi was the preferred candidate of a small majority of Egyptians. But facing an unholy coalition of liberals, supporters of the ousted dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak and the army, rather than pursue moderation, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party pushed an overtly Islamist political agenda.

Having little experience with democratic principles, including an inflexible religious-political agenda, Egypt’s fragile post-Mubarak politics was pushed to -- and then over -- the brink.

As a result, those Islamists who supported the experiment with representative democracy now see nowhere else to turn, while Islamists who never had faith in electoral politics have simply had their cynicism confirmed. With the army also having no commitment to democratic processes and Egypt’s liberals having sold out, we can expect the country’s dead democracy to be buried under increasing violence.

Why South Australia must abolish the partial defence of provocation

Provocation is a partial defence to murder, which has attracted controversy and critique in every Australian criminal justice system except South Australia … until now.

Courtesy of concerns surrounding the ‘gay panic’ defence, South Australia has joined the provocation debate and has already begun to take steps to minimising the application of this controversial law. 

Provocation is a partial defence to murder which where successfully raised reduces what would otherwise be murder to manslaughter. A reduction in culpability that has a significant impact in sentencing. It is based on the premise that a degree understanding should be afforded to those who lose their self-control and perpetrate lethal violence in response to provocative conduct on the part of the victim, or a third party.

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