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So another year is ending – Nostradamus and the Mayans were clearly horrible at this foretelling business, and our exile on this rock continues. The Syrian civil war continues unabated though the government forces of Bashar al-Assad seem to have gained the advantage, the European Union expanded by one more member – Croatia – despite its Eurocrisis, and Fidel Castro still lives to poke the United States in the eye. However, what were the defining moments of 2013? In the long term, it is hard to tell yet – as Groucho Marx said, outside of a dog, a book is Man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it is too dark to read. In the here and now, though, a few events stand out:

January 11 – France intervenes in Mali: Africa has been largely ignored since the end of colonialism there in the 1960s. Cold War struggles in Angola, Rhodesia, the Congo, Mozambique, Ethiopia, or Somalia rarely captured the attention of the world as Korea, Vietnam, or even South Asia did. After decades of neglect, Western powers are now following Islamists into the interiors of the continent; France’s intervention in Mali, soon after action in Libya and in context of its more vocal stance on Syria and the Congo, marks the Fifth Republic’s renewed interest in a global security commons, interestingly under a Socialist president. In the previous decade, France had notoriously blocked United Nations action in Iraq.

February 12 – N Korea’s third nuclear test: Any nuclear test is significant because it furthers a state’s knowledge of one of the most destructive weapons known. This test by Pyongyang is thought to have contributed to understanding warhead miniaturisation and greater fission of the core. If N Korea achieves this, together with its missiles (No Dong, Taepo Dong, Musudan, Unha), it becomes another de facto Nuclear Weapons State.

February 28 – Benedict XVI resigns as Pope: This is the first time since Gregory XII in 1415 that a pope has stood down, and the first to do so voluntarily since Celestine V in 1294. Benedict XVI may not have radically altered the course of history but by showing the ability to give up power, he has probably done more to remind the Church of its founding tenets than most popes in between.

April 2 – Arms Trade Treaty is signed: This treaty is dead on arrival, but it will nevertheless serve as another legal scalpel for powers when convenient, much like the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The aim of the treaty is to control and regulate the sale of conventional weapons, from small arms to battle tanks, prevent their diversion to clandestine buyers, and to restrict their flow into conflict areas. Past records show that such goals are a mirage – when the United States cut off arms sales to Pakistan during the South Asian Crisis of 1971, it encouraged Turkey, Jordan, and Iran to supply Islamabad from their arsenal which would be replenished and upgraded later; when the US Congress forbade the supply of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, the Reagan White House found a way to divert money to the cause from secret arms sales to Iran.

May 28 – Taksim Gezi Park protests in Istanbul: A minor sit-in grew into a protest which became a nationwide conflagration against Turkey’s ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s slow erosion of country’s Kemalist secularism. The protest, seen in isolation, means little but considering it alongside the corruption probes against several ministers in Erdoğan’s cabinet and the now open war between the AKP and the Gülen movement, the AKP will have a bust time up to the 2015 elections. Most experts give the win to Erdoğan again, but a large part of that is due to the failure of the opposition to come up with a viable candidate and platform yet. One thing is for sure – Turkey is on the simmer. and a place to watch in the new year

June 6 – Edward Snowden reveals covert surveillance by NSA: A Booz Allen Hamilton employee’s revelations about the US National Security Agency’s espionage set off a firestorm around the world. Despite being long past the era in which gentlemen did not read other gentlemen’s letters, the sheer scope of the operation is stunning. Not only did the NSA spy on other enemy governments as intelligence agencies usually do, but they also spied on friendly and allied governments, political leaders, businesses, activists, and actively worked to sabotage privacy and encryption algorithms on the internet. The public heard for the first time names of programmes like PRISM, XKeyscore, and Tempora which were designed to take metadata from phones and internet traffic in a massive attempt at mass surveillance. Whatever one’s views of Snowden are – hero, whistle-blower or traitor – the presence of US surveillance agencies in a country’s most secret networks is a great significance and this leak dwarfs Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers in potential consequences.

June 14 – Flash floods in Uttarakhand: A multi-day cloud burst over northern India caused India’s worst natural disaster since the Southeast Asian tsunami hit in 2004. Over 100,000 Hindu pilgrims were stranded in Uttarakhand, the site of the smaller Char Dham. The Indian military rescued tens of thousands of people in Operation Surya Hope but despite their valiant efforts, official records indicate that over 10,000 people perished in the tragedy. For a brief moment, there was some focus on questionable construction practices and dubious licenses issued for development in the region; the death toll made people pay attention to the environmental impact of ill-conceived development, but in keeping with India’s indefatigable inertia, everyone has adjusted swalpa and moved on.

July 3 – Mohamed Morsi removed from power in Egypt: After tempting fate one time too many, the Egyptian military removed the country’s fifth president from power. Morsi is the leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, and came to office via an election some claim was far from honest. The Arab Spring had come to Egypt and toppled Hosni Mubarak who had ruled the country since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. During the election campaign, Morsi had sounded like a moderate traditionalist. Once he assumed office, however, his manipulation of the judiciary and the Islamist accent of the new constitution worried many Egyptians. The Army thus enjoyed widespread support when they acted against Morsi, and while the West debated semantics – whether it was a coup or not – the bloodshed continued in Egypt, turning their Spring into a Winter of Discontent.

August 21 – Ghouta chemical attack in Syria: The use of chemical weapons in war is not as rare as one would like: most recently, they were by Saddam Hussein against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War; some accuse the United States of waging chemical warfare with its use of Agent Orange in Vietnam though there are some technical quibbles. Chemical weapons have been used on civilians too, most notably in Halabja against the Kurds by, again, Saddam Hussein. So why was Ghouta different? Honestly, it is hard to say, except for that it provided an excuse for the West to intervene in Syria if it wanted to. However, the difficulty of a military adventure in Syria appears to have stayed the West’s hand, as did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s offer to surrender his entire stockpile of chemical weapons and sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. This reduces the ranks of non-signatories to just four – Angola, Egypt, N Korea, and S Sudan.

September 21 – Al-Shabaab attack Westgate Mall in Nairobi: Four or five gunmen from the terrorist group al-Shabaab killed 72 people and wounded over 200 over a span of three days in the upscale shopping mall of Westgate in the Westlands neighbourhood of Nairobi. The brutality of the attack – how many of the hostages were tortured – shocked the world. This is perhaps the worst terrorist attack on Kenyan soil and one of the larger attacks in the world since the attack on Bombay in November 2008. The terror group claimed that the attack was revenge for Kenya’s role in Operation Linda Nchi (2011) in which the Kenyan military coordinated with its Ethiopian and Somalian counterparts and deployed into southern Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab terrorists. After the tragedy, President Uhuru Kenyatta admitted that the rescue attempt had been bungled and promised to set up an inquiry.

November 5 – Indian launches Mars orbiter: One of the few bright events of the year, apart from Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from cricket (#trollbait!), was India’s launch of its Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM). Dubbed Mangalyaan by the media, the project is a first for India and the country becomes only the fifth country to send a mission to the Red Planet after the United States, Russia/Soviet Union, Japan, and the European Union. Of course, one can question if Russia deserves to be in this list given the curse its Mars programme seems to be under – 18 failures and three partial successes. India’s mission may not push on the boundaries of knowledge in any great way, but it represents the development of indigenous technology and skills needed for such a mission. The recent failure of India’s most powerful rocket, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) meant that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had to settle for the smaller Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and hence a lighter payload. The probe is expected to reach Mars by late September next year, almost exactly when the United States’ Maven mission reaches the Red Planet. Despite these disappointments, Mangalyaan is a proud milestone in the history of India’s spacefaring.

November 24 – Interim Nuclear Agreement concluded with Iran: The deal represents nothing but a declaration of good faith to conduct negotiations, and establishes conditions for both the E3+3 (France, Germany, Britain + Russia, United States, China) and Iran that they may assuage the other side’s concerns. What is most important about this deal is that it has finally broken the jinx on Iran’s discussions with the West and achieved an agreement. Iran has been accused of being a year away from nuclear weapons capability since the early 1980s (!) and sanctions became tougher over the last eight years. In the last coupe of years, the threat of war loomed large as Iran inched closer to the West’s red line on Tehran’s nuclear development. Psychologically, this deal has readied many leaders to the idea that Iran is a country that can be negotiated with and has silenced the war drums for now. News of this potential breakthrough has already seen several businesses prepare to flood Iran’s market with their services the moment a final agreement is reached on the Middle Eastern state’s nuclear question.

December 7 – Bali Package signed at 9th WTO meet: The World Trade Organisation finally signed a trillion-dollar agreement in Bali at the Ninth Ministerial Conference. The deal has been widely hailed as an engine for growth, particularly for developing countries. It was agreed to simplify customs procedures so that goods could move quickly from state to state, and India finagled an exemption on the WTO’s limits on stockpiling, subsidies, and guaranteed pricing to farmers; in effect, the United Progressive Alliance’s new and ambitious food subsidy remains safe. The agreement is also expected to create some 20 million new jobs, most of which will be in developing countries. There are still wrinkles to be worked out, but those goals, such as duty-free trade, have been declared as eventual goals and put off for a later date. By stepping away from an all-or-nothing approach, the WTO was able to secure an arrangement beneficial to all at a pace acceptable to all.

Requiescat In Pace…

  • March 05 – Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela (59)
  • March 14 – Ieng Sary, Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia (88)
  • April 08 – Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (88)
  • May 12 – Kenneth Waltz, Professor of Political Science (89)
  • December 05 – Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa (95)
  • December 14 – Peter O’Toole, Actor (81)
  • December 23 – Mikhail Kalashnikov, Arms designer (94)

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on December 28, 2013.