Zika epidemic seen as one of a ‘litany of problems’ on President Dilma Rousseff’s lap

There is never a good time for an epidemic, but Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will agree that the outbreak of mosquito-borne Zika in her country could not have come at a worse time.

Rousseff, who is facing impeachment charges, has been the target of massive rallies in Brazil at which protesters have demanded her ouster. Brazil is facing one of its worst recessions ever and Rousseff has been accused of doing too little too late to address this severe economic downturn.

“Zika will be a problem for Rousseff because it will remind Brazilians of one more negative affliction facing their country. It is like the ten plagues,” said Peter Schechter, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

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More than a million civilians are currently suffering under siege from both pro-government and rebel-allied forces across Syria, according to a new report from the Syria Institute.

Last month, the international community was shocked to learn about Madaya—a besieged Syrian town where up to 300,000 civilians have been essentially cut off from the world. And on February 11, the United Nations reported that up to 120,000 civilians remain stranded in Homs, a city in western Syria, amid offensives. In December 2015, the United Nations released a full report detailing the horrific conditions besieged civilians have been forced to endure in Syria. Valerie Szybala, Executive Director and Cofounder of the Syria Institute, contends that this report falls short of the true extent of the problem.

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OK, OK, I get the symbolism, but it is a measure of how devalued the language of diplomacy can be that US President Barack Obama would hold an unprecedented summit at Sunnylands in California with ten heads of state whose countries comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to talk of a “strategic partnership.” 

The February 15-16 meeting is intended to underscore the US “rebalance” toward Asia, but it is more political theater than strategy. Yes, the nations of ASEAN total 625 million people, make up an economy of $2.4 billion, and individually are important economic partners of the United States with a combined bilateral trade of $260 billion and a similar level of US FDI in all ASEAN countries in 2015.

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NATO deploys ships to Aegean Sea to counter human trafficking between Turkey and Greece

NATO’s decision to deploy ships to the Aegean Sea in an attempt to deter the smuggling of migrants from Turkey into Greece focuses on just one aspect of the problem; to Europe’s south, in Libya, a well-established human-trafficking network continues to funnel thousands of people across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy.

NATO’s new mission is in response to calls for help from Germany, Greece, and Turkey to deal with the largest movement of people across Europe since World War II. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the mission is “not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” rather it is about contributing “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”

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A study of the tensions between the United States and its allies in the region with Iran shows that both sides have misunderstood and miscalculated their defense policies and strategies in the Middle East. Many Western critics do not understand the basis and distinguishing features of the Rouhani government’s strategy.

Based on general policies of the 11th elected government of Iran, the strategy rests on a set of principles aimed at: securing and preparing the background for various economic and social activities; balancing the safety of civilians with that of the government; maintaining independence, national integration, and geographical integrity; increasing Iran’s contribution to global peace and stability; creating trust between the government and the people; preventing external tensions, which could spread inside the country; and increasing national defense capability.

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s February 11 announcement that NATO has agreed to a proposal from Germany, Greece, and Turkey to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas is an important response to a refugee crisis that has enormous implications for Europe. NATO’s naval response, however, opens up several questions to consider.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has ordered Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG 2) to respond. SNMG 2 was already in the region, with FGS Bonn (Germany), TCG Barbaros (Turkey), and HMCS Fredericton (Canada) having recently concluded exercises with the Turkish Navy. NATO Maritime Command also lists ITS Libeccio (Italy) and HS Salamis (Greece) in SNMG 2.

“The goal is to participate in the international efforts,” said Stoltenberg. In other words, the NATO naval response will be cooperating with national coast guards and the European Union border agency Frontex. This is important and highlights the challenges of the comprehensive approach discussed in NATO’s 2011 Alliance Maritime Strategy. Coordinating between multiple national entities and two international organizations is inherently complex.

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China-Taiwan relations have warmed significantly as a consequence of increased economic interdependence, but some analysts believe that Beijing may ultimately use force to settle the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The election in January of Taiwan’s first female President, Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has been viewed warily by Beijing. Soon after Tsai’s election, China’s state-run media warned Taiwan to abandon “hallucinations” about independence. Beijing asserts that there is only “One China” of which Taiwan is an inalienable part. President-elect Tsai has vowed to preserve the status quo in relations with Beijing.

“[T]he status of Taiwan remains unresolved and the possibility of the use of force [by China] to resolve this issue is not entirely off the table,” said Tiffany Ma, Director of Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

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Ukraine's ongoing political crisis offers observers an opportunity to analyze the current state of affairs and determine likely scenarios for the country's political future in the near term.

First, the recent resignation of Aivaras Abromavicius from the position of Minister of Economic Development and Trade did not appear to be coordinated with either the reform camp in government or with Western creditors; otherwise we might have seen mass resignations. Rather, this appears to have been a personal effort by Abromavicius to put the government's reform efforts back on track after significant evidence that established political and oligarchic elites were falling back into their old habits of using the political process for their own interests.

Abromavicius has gone on record suggesting that the country's Western reform orientation is currently in the balance. He has stressed the remarkable reforms instigated thus far—against significant odds—but has added that the old oligarchic and political order is staging a fight to come back. His decision to "fall on his sword" is an attempt to rally the forces of reform, including Western creditors, civil society, and the general population, in defense of the country's reform orientation.

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The prolonged stalemate of Minsk II has provided the Ukrainian military ample opportunity to address a series of longstanding challenges stretching back to the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. While it is clear that the Ukrainian military has improved since its disastrous defeat at Debaltseve in February 2015, evaluating the real effect of ongoing reforms is slightly more difficult due to the current stalemate in the Donbas. Plus, the military hasn't really been tested in battle since the reforms were put into place.

Another part of that difficultly resides in understanding just how far the Ukrainian military had come leading up to Debaltseve. As of March 2014, the military was comprised of roughly 130,000 battle-ready soldiers and was "chronically underfunded, corrupt, poorly-educated, and ill-equipped," according to one account. Moreover, compared to the Russian military, the Ukrainian military was at a complete disadvantage at the onset of the conflict; by 2014, the Russian military was not only six years into an expansive modernization program but was also spending nearly fifty times as much on its forces.

And yet, despite years of being downsized and underfunded, the Ukrainian military performed valiantly in June and July 2014, almost defeating pro-Russia separatists before the Russian military interjected at Ilovaisk. Even during fighting in Debaltseve, the Ukrainian military showed glimpses of effectiveness but ultimately couldn't overcome pro-Russian forces supported by Russian logistical and material support.

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Plan seen taking heat off Gulf Arab states over role in war on ISIS, putting onus on the United States to do more

Saudi Arabia’s offer to deploy ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria is seen as putting pressure on the Obama administration—which has been urging its Arab Gulf partners to ramp up their efforts—to itself take on a greater military role in Syria.

“[US Secretary of State John] Kerry has been going around saying, ‘Everybody has to do more. Our Arab allies have to do more,’” said David Ottaway, a Middle East Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “They’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll do more, but you have to do more.’ And they know the US is not going to do more, so they’re not going to have to do more.”

“As a diplomatic ploy, I think it is a wonderful way of taking the heat off them and putting it on the United States,” he added. 

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