Dispatches > News
CHEMICAL THREAT: Residents wear gas masks as they search for bodies after shelling by government forces in Aleppo Jan. 3.
Muzaffar Salman/Reuters/Landov
CHEMICAL THREAT: Residents wear gas masks as they search for bodies after shelling by government forces in Aleppo Jan. 3.

Crossing the red line

News | And more news briefs

A classified State Department cable and a spate of firsthand videos posted on YouTube from hospitals in Syria suggest that the Syrian government attacked non-combatant citizens in December and more recently used chemical weapons. But outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta denied the allegations. 

The cable, signed by the U.S. consul general in Istanbul and forwarded to the State Department in Washington in mid-January, said the consulate’s investigation concluded there was “a compelling case” based on reports inside Syria that chemical weapons had been used in the city of Homs on Dec. 23. Rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad told al-Jazeera on Dec. 24, “The situation is very difficult. We do not have enough facemasks. We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to Sarin gas.”

Israeli military commanders also have shared intelligence with the Pentagon suggesting the Syrian government could be engaging in chemical warfare: “Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pound bombs that could be loaded on airplanes,” the Israelis said, according to a Jan. 7 report in The New York Times.

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Last August President Barack Obama said use of chemical weapons would represent a “red line” in Syria’s civil war, and necessitate military intervention. 

But on Jan. 17, Panetta told ABC News that Syria has not used chemical weapons against its citizens “as we would imagine chemical weapons being used in that kind of battle.” Panetta added, “We have not seen intelligence that they have deliberately used this against their own people.”

Military spike


The Defense Department could classify a record 349 U.S. military deaths last year as suicides. That’s up from the 301 military suicides in 2011 and more than the 295 service members who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2012. The Pentagon has confirmed as suicides the deaths of 239 U.S. service members last year with an additional 110 deaths still being investigated as probable suicides. The 349 deaths would be the highest annual total since the military began tracking detailed suicide statistics in 2001. Most of the suicides occurred in the Army, which suffered 182 such deaths last year. But all the armed services experienced an increase in suicides in 2012 compared to the year before, with the Marine Corps suffering a 50 percent jump in the number of its suicides. Congress in 2009 created a Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide in the Armed Forces.

Flu's grip

Flu activity levels as of Jan. 12
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Flu activity levels as of Jan. 12

Flu season surprised health officials this year, arriving a month early and reaching “epidemic” status by early 2013. On Jan. 18 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said influenza was widespread in 48 states and had hospitalized over 5,000 people since October. Although the CDC doesn’t publish a running total of adult flu deaths, it reported 29 flu-related deaths among children. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a health emergency as the number of flu cases there approached 20,000. This season vaccine makers have distributed about 130 million doses of flu vaccine, which is 62 percent effective at preventing a severe case of flu. Last year only two out of five adults got the vaccine. Flu cases usually peak in midwinter, so hopefully the season is winding down.

Egypt cracks down on converts

FREEDOM FIGHTERS: A rally in Cairo for religious liberty.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
FREEDOM FIGHTERS: A rally in Cairo for religious liberty.

Despite promises from President Mohamed Morsi that Egypt’s Christian minority won’t face persecution under his Islamic-based rule, a family of eight discovered a different reality: An Egyptian court in January sentenced a widow and her seven children to 15 years in prison for converting to Christianity.

Nadia Mohamed Ali grew up in a Christian home, but converted to Islam when she married a Muslim 23 years ago. After his death, Ali changed her family’s religious status to Christian on their state-issued identity cards. When officials discovered the change, they arrested Ali, her children, and the clerks who processed the documents. A criminal court 75 miles southwest of Cairo sentenced Ali and her children to 15 years in prison for illegal conversion.

 Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute for Religious Freedom said the case highlights that converting to Christianity could grow even more dangerous under Morsi’s rule, and he called the country’s new constitution “a real disaster in terms of religious freedom.”

European liberty

Nadia Eweida
Associated Press/Photo by Alastair Grant
Nadia Eweida

Religious freedom is alive in Europe, but trumped by same-sex rights, according to rulings handed down Jan. 15 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The court issued decisions in four cases applying to 47 member states in the Council of Europe—one went in favor of religious freedom while three were against. 

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways check-in clerk, challenged workplace rules forbidding her from wearing a small cross around her neck. The human-rights court ruled Eweida was entitled to wear the cross, noting that freedom of religion is “an essential part of the identity of believers and one of the foundations of pluralistic, democratic societies.” In a similar case, it ruled against allowing nurse Shirley Chaplin to wear a confirmation crucifix, even though she had worn it for 30 years, saying barring the cross was necessary to preserve the health and safety of patients. 

The court upheld the firing of Gary McFarlane, a Christian relationship counselor who was ousted for “gross misconduct” when he said he objected to counseling same-sex couples, even though no clients actually were turned away. The ECHR also ruled that Lillian Ladele, a registrar, must conduct same-sex ceremonies instead of referring couples to someone who would not object to same-sex unions. “Where an individual’s religious observance impinges on the rights of others, some restrictions can be made,” the court said. All three Christians who lost plan to bring appeals to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.

False start


A new Health and Human Services report shows the Head Start program fails to accomplish its core mission. The HHS findings indicate the program might even be doing harm, despite $180 billion spent on the program since its inception in 1965. Two studies followed cohorts of children who did and did not have Head Start access from first grade to third grade. The two groups showed “little to no” change in “cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting outcomes of participating children,” according to The Heritage Foundation. In some cases, outcomes worsened. 

The federal government has spent an average $9,000 on more than 20 million children enrolled in the program during the last 48 years. A Hurricane Sandy relief bill introduced in January included an additional $100 million in Head Start funding. 

Marching to win

March For Life
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
March For Life

After 39 years of rallying in Washington, D.C., to protest Roe v. Wade, participants in the annual March for Life can count some victories: Since 1991 the number of U.S. abortion centers has declined 70 percent, to 660, according to Operation Rescue. State pro-life legislation has multiplied, and the overall number of abortions has dropped 25 percent. With an estimated 1.2 million abortions committed in 2012, though, marchers still have plenty of reason to congregate. This year’s event, scheduled for Jan. 25, was to be the first march without the movement’s founder, Nellie Gray, who died in August at 88.

Global leveling

SHIFTING LINES: Arctic 2012 photo with a line indicating average sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2010; Antarctic 2012 photo with line indicating median sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000.
Jesse Allen/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio and NASA Earth Observatory/NASA
SHIFTING LINES: Arctic 2012 photo with a line indicating average sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2010; Antarctic 2012 photo with line indicating median sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Jan. 15 reported temperature readings ranking 2012 as the ninth (or 10th, depending on the dataset used) warmest year in modern record books. Yet the temperatures were notable for what they didn’t show: an upward trend. The average global temperature has remained flat for the past decade, suggesting forces of nature are keeping warming in check.

In the contiguous United States, where 2012 proved to be the hottest year on record, it brought the worst drought in half a century. Arctic ice cover also melted to a record low. But other regions such as Alaska, Central Asia, and the southern Atlantic Ocean were cooler than usual, and Antarctic ice cover was above average. A NASA scientist said natural ocean cycles like El Niño and La Niña probably kept the average temperature level.


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