German population at record high, but growth slowest since 2012 | Reuters

Germany’s population reached a record high of 83.2 million people last year thanks to migration but it grew at the slowest pace since 2012, the statistics office said on Friday as Europe’s largest economy experiences a chronic birth deficit.

Germany has one of the oldest populations in the world and has recorded more deaths than births ever since 1972. The aging population is a challenge for the country’s public pension system and is causing headaches for companies eager to hire skilled workers.

Source: German population at record high, but growth slowest since 2012 – Reuters

Sanders climbs, now tied with Biden among registered voters | Reuters

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders has been steadily climbing in popularity this year and is now tied with former Vice President Joe Biden for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination among registered voters, according to a Reuters/Ipsos national poll.

The online poll, released Thursday, shows that 20% of registered Democrats and independents said they would back Sanders over 11 other candidates to run in the general election against President Donald Trump, an increase of 2 percentage points from a similar poll that ran last week.

Source: Sanders climbs, now tied with Biden among registered voters: Reuters poll – Reuters

India to invite Pakistan PM Imran Khan to regional SCO summit | Al Jazeera

New Delhi will invite Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit when it hosts the event later this year, a senior Indian official has said.

“India will be hosting the heads of government summit later this year. As per established practice and procedure within SCO, all the eight members, as well as four observer states and other international dialogue partners, will be invited,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Raveesh Kumar told reporters in New Delhi on Thursday.

Source: India to invite Pakistan PM Imran Khan to regional SCO summit | India News | Al Jazeera

Why Experts Are Worried About a New Virus in China | Council on Foreign Relations

The new virus belongs to the same family as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which afflicted China and thirty-six other countries in 2002–03, killing more than 770 people worldwide. The impact was severe enough to hurt the economies of China and countries in Southeast Asia.

Like SARS coronavirus, this virus is expected to have high mutation rates, which means it can rapidly develop resistance to new drugs and vaccines.

It was reported that the new virus bears 80 percent similarity to SARS.

Yet the virus does not appear to be as dangerous as SARS. The latter is highly contagious and life-threatening.

Source: Why Experts Are Worried About a New Virus in China | Council on Foreign Relations

Yes, Virginia, China Is Exporting Its Model | Council on Foreign Relations

To begin with, China seeks to export its development model because Xi Jinping wants to do so. In numerous speeches, beginning at least at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi has reiterated his belief that “[China] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

While Xi did backtrack temporarily in the face of international backlash, once stating that China was not seeking to export its model, he quickly reverted to form with more statements to the effect that China has a model worthy of emulation.

Then there is the issue of how Beijing exports its model. Much of the export of the model occurs through the training of foreign officials—both in and outside China. Just last month, Zhejiang province hosted a forum called “The Significance of China’s Social Governance to the World,” which was attended by more than 200 experts from 20 countries.

The Xinhua tagline from the conference was “China can provide wisdom to a world that is in need of new governance models.” In Guangxi province, there is a beautiful new leadership academy established in 2017 to train officials from ASEAN on China’s governance and economic development model.

Subjects taught at the academy include how government officials can guide online public opinion, alleviate poverty, and develop a stronger grassroots presence.

Source: Yes, Virginia, China Is Exporting Its Model | Council on Foreign Relations

What’s at Stake in Libya’s War? | Council on Foreign Relations

Libya has been divided between dueling governments since 2014. Currently, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) seeks to hold the capital, Tripoli, against rebel forces led by former General Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s newest offensive—and the flood of drones, other weapons, and money accompanying it—has raised fears that the conflict is escalating into a proxy war between outside powers scrambling to control the Mediterranean.

The United Nations, as well as Russia and Turkey, have tried to mediate the conflict. The two sides have agreed to an informal cease-fire as well as peace talks in Berlin.

Moscow hosted its own surprise talks ahead of the Berlin summit.

Source: What’s at Stake in Libya’s War? | Council on Foreign Relations

Can Libya be turned around and become Russia’s ‘second Syria’?

Russia has failed to broker a compromise between Libya’s two warring parties, the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj and the Libyan National Army headed by Khalifa Hifter. The military commander left Moscow without signing a cease-fire agreement initiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hifter’s rejection of the deal means, above all, that this is just the beginning of a long journey. Despite its preference for a low-profile approach until recently, Russia has officially entered the playing field to resolve the Libyan conflict and the first setback will hardly make it leave the game. This is all the more so because Hifter’s departure from Moscow with no deal signed is a personal challenge for Putin.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, however, claims that the field marshal did not say “no” to Moscow.

Source: Can Libya be turned around and become Russia’s ‘second Syria’?

What to Make of Putin’s Shake-Up in Russia

If one nice thing can be said about Vladimir Putin, it is that he is a master of political jujitsu.

Putin is technically barred by constitutional term limits that prohibit more than two consecutive presidential terms. The dramatic reshuffling of Russia’s power structure—which if carried out could weaken the presidency while empowering the Duma, the Russian parliament, as well as an advisory body called the State Council—may pave the way for Putin to retain outsized political influence in Moscow even after his term ends in 2024.

It is too early for any declarations about what the proposed shake-up will ultimately mean for the Kremlin. But it may signal two things. It could be a subtle acknowledgment that Putin understands that his ability to maneuver is somewhat constrained by growing public discontent with corruption and his government’s hard-line tactics at home and abroad.

And it could reflect how the political and economic fallout from Western sanctions, imposed over Russia’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, is beginning to weigh more heavily on Putin’s calculations.

Source: What to Make of Putin’s Shake-Up in Russia

Syria’s Kurdish Forces Are Holding the Line But They Need a Political Settlement

What I found instead was at once heartening and devastating. Some scenes of hardship were indelible: children, forced from their homes by the Turkish offensive, now sat out of school in freezing, hastily constructed camps, without coats and with their small bare feet poking out of plastic sandals covered in mud spawned by the incessant rain.

But also striking was the region’s hard-fought stability despite its deep scars. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, known as the SDF, has done a heroic job of holding the northeastern region together, providing some security to the region’s traumatized people under conditions that would try most nation-states, and sustaining the governance model that it had earlier established to a remarkable degree.

But Syria now needs a political settlement more than ever. The SDF cannot continue to hold the line, plus rebuild ruined cities, reabsorb displaced people, and resist incursions from Turkey and from the Islamic State, known as ISIS, without robust and credible commitments from the outside powers that hold the country’s fate in hand, including a serious effort to broker talks between Turkey and the Kurds.

The United States, Russia, and other outside actors all benefit from the stability that the SDF brings to northeastern Syria, and they should take an interest in securing the region’s future.

But underneath, the change is profound. A year ago, SDF forces controlled the area, backed by a small, nearly invisible U.S. presence. On this visit, in the course of just a few hours’ drive between Hasakah and Ain Issa, I saw convoys flying Russian, Syrian regime, and U.S. flags. What had been a U.S. base in Ain Issa now flew a Russian flag. And the best road between Hasakah and Kobani has become unusable because of security concerns following Turkey’s military attack, forcing Syrians to take a minimum three-hour, poorly paved detour. Trucks lined up to pass the uneven and pockmarked road.

Northeastern Syria is today an uncertain territory, buffeted by great-power politics, ravaged by fighting, and staving off both Turkey and ISIS. Only a political resolution to the Syrian conflict can yield a durable peace for the region. But whether such a settlement is possible depends on the actions of outside powers.

Russia could push the Syrian regime to cut a deal sustaining the northeast’s autonomy. But at the time of my visit, the SDF was concerned that Moscow may instead give Turkey permission to launch a new offensive against the town of Kobani, where the United States and the Syrian Kurds handed ISIS its first defeat five years ago, and where regime and Russian forces now patrol.

The U.S. presence in Syria provides the SDF some diplomatic leverage and space. But for how long the United States is committed, and whether it plans to contribute its diplomatic muscle to the cause of those whose valiance it once praised in the ISIS fight, has been an open question at least since October, if not longer.

The recent upsurge in tension between the United States and Iran has complicated the calculus over Syria still further. The Iraqi parliament has asked the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq. But if the United States were to do so, it would almost certainly be forced to pull out of Syria as well, because logistics support for the troops in Syria depends on the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Mazloum stressed that while the United States should not stay in Syria forever, neither should it leave before a political process was underway.

“Right now, we have a kind of equilibrium in place with the Americans here. Without the Americans, the situation would be different and far worse,” he said. “Everyone is waiting for the United States to pull out so that they can pursue their agenda in the region: the Turks, the Syrian regime, the Russians, the Iranians.”

Source: Syria’s Kurdish Forces Are Holding the Line But They Need a Political Settlement

What Soleimani’s Killing Means for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

Many guards and Basijis, as the volunteers who worked with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) were known, are proud of a signature battle order in the organization: that the commanders fought alongside soldiers on the frontline, instead of “laying back” in the command headquarters.

“They were great commanders, but they had to risk and be present on the frontline,” the veteran continued. “It was hard for us to lose them, but the IRGC’s strength was that other great ones replaced them immediately.”

Qasem Soleimani, the controversial commander of the IRGC Quds Force, was an ordinary IRGC commander in this regard, but also an exception. He was himself one of the “great” young commanders who fought in the Iran-Iraq War, having started as a Revolutionary Guard in his hometown of Kerman and progressed to higher levels of command the way all guards were promoted in the absence of a systematized hierarchy and professional training: by showing dedication, initiative, and a penchant for bold, independent action.

Over time and through trial and error, the IRGC developed an informal, bottom-up order based on strong ties of trust among peers and through ranks. The organization found informal order in disorder and came to associate this mentality with revolutionary authenticity.

What kept the IRGC together on the battlefield, through civil conflicts and during the early years of the Iran-Iraq War, was not a central, transparent chain of command with rank orders: insignia were not even introduced until after the war. Rather, the organization cohered through ties of actual and projected interpersonal trust, infused with religious and revolutionary dedication.

The initial leadership circles of the IRGC were forged through links of friendship, kinship, and revolutionary camaraderie, and they expanded by projecting the same trust such ties implied onto new members, so long as they were passionate Shiite revolutionaries. After the war, the IRGC demobilized and bureaucratized—but even then, the preference for personal affinities over organizational structure has remained a characteristic feature of the corps.

Soleimani was an exemplary figure for a group defined by such traits.

Source: What Soleimani’s Killing Means for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps