The defection of Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab is another twist in the country’s conflict. The issue is no longer political, if ever it was, but sectarian. Bashar al-Assad and his regime are Alawites or heterodox Shiites, a small minority fighting to maintain their rule over the Sunni majority. A Sunni, Hijab had had previous spells as a junior minister and as governor of Latakia. Two short months ago, he was promoted to prime minister because Assad needed a Sunni to cover for Alawite supremacy and thought he had a loyalist. Hijab has proved an unwilling collaborator. Rebels smuggled him and his family out to Jordan, whereupon Hijab declared in the expected high style that he had “joined the ranks of the freedom and dignity revolution.” Although Assad at once pretended that he had fired Hijab, he could not hide that he had received a resounding slap in the face and may now have a Sunni opponent with a plausible claim to replace him. Outrage follows outrage, as Assad tries to recover ground. Slowly the persistence of the rebels may change the balance of power in favor of the Sunnis, but Assad and the Alawites show themselves prepared to stop at nothing.
In February, three women belonging to the Russian punk band Pussy Riot tried to sing an anti-Putin song from the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. Their intent was ostensibly religious — they called on the Virgin Mary to rebuke Putin — but their means outré: They wore neon masks and screamed. Disturbing the peace — a misdemeanor. But they were charged with “hooliganism,” which could get them seven years. Western rockers, from Pete Townshend to Madonna, have spoken up for them, and Putin himself has suggested they should not be judged “harshly.” The protesters had valid targets: Putin’s late-phase authoritarian regime, and the Russian Orthodox church’s collusion with it. In the midst of Pussy Riot’s travails, Patriarch Kirill was spotted wearing a $30,000 gold Breguet watch in a photo on the church’s website. That represents a lot of tithes — and a lot of rendering unto Caesar.
As it has been for more than 50 years, the news from Cuba is tragic and infuriating. On July 22, two Cuban dissidents, Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, were killed in a car crash. From what can honestly be learned, they were rammed and driven off the road. Two weeks before, the same thing had happened to Payá. This dissident seemed to have awfully bad luck. On July 22, two democratic politicians from Europe were traveling with Payá and Cepero. They were Ángel Carromero of Spain and Aron Modig of Sweden. They had come to help Cuba’s peaceful dissidents, struggling for freedom and democracy. Both survived the crash. They were then held incommunicado by state security for about a week. After this period, which must have been harrowing, they apologized to the Cuban state for their illegal activities; Carromero, for good measure, confessed to causing the accident himself. Modig was allowed to return to Sweden. Once there, he said he could not speak freely, for fear of harming Carromero — who is still being held in Cuba. They have charged him with vehicular manslaughter. He is now, in effect, a hostage, same as Alan Gross, the American aid worker who has been imprisoned since 2009. The message of the Cuban dictatorship is clear: No one had better lift a finger for the island’s democracy movement. Since it took office, the Obama administration has claimed that its kinder, gentler approach to the dictatorship would yield results. One sees the results.
China has planted a military garrison on the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, about as far from Hainan province on China’s southernmost tier as Barbados is from Miami. The archipelago is Taiwanese territory, at least according to Taipei. So the longstanding fear that the People’s Liberation Army will one day storm Taiwan may be exaggerated: Beijing appears to have decided on an incremental approach. Other countries in the region — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines — dispute China’s extravagant claims over most of the South China Sea, which has oil reserves. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and other U.S. allies in the Pacific welcome the Pentagon’s decision to deploy most of the Navy’s fleet to Asian waters by 2020. But what the Defense Department aims to accomplish through the pivot to Asia, the White House would undermine through cuts in defense spending: A double-minded administration is unstable in all its ways.