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TODAY:

  • Syria's civil war enters new, deadly phase as troops advance on rebels
  • Pyeongchang readies for Olympic opening ceremonies
  • Jacob Zuma clings to power in South Africa as calls for him to leave grow


Syria's spreading misery

Syria's civil war appears to be entering a new, and even more deadly, phase.

Since Monday, at least 170 civilians have been killed in airstrikes and artillery attacks, and hundreds more wounded, as the Assad regime and its Russian allies advance on the last pockets of rebel resistance.

AFP_Z46OS

A man seeks cover following an air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near Damascus on Thursday. (Amer Almohibany/AFP/Getty Images)

Today, in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus where 400,000 people have been besieged for months, the local rescue service known as the White Helmets were reporting 35 civilian dead by just late afternoon. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the number includes 10 children and one medic.

The attacks have intensified since the downing of a Russian warplane last weekend over the rebel-held Idlib province in the country's northwest. The UN's commission of inquiry on Syria is probing reports of chlorine bomb attacks on the Idlib town of Saraqeb and the village of Douma in Eastern Ghouta.

Violence is also flaring in the areas that were formerly part of the Islamic State's caliphate.

Turkey Syria

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses local administrators in Ankara on Thursday. Turkish officials say the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran will meet in Istanbul to discuss peace efforts for Syria, and that Vladimir Putin agreed to the summit during a telephone call on Thursday. (Kayhan Ozer/Associated Press)

Yesterday, the U.S. military called in airstrikes against Syria troops and government-backed militias in Deir el-Zour near the border with Iraq.

The Americans say some 500 fighters, backed by tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, began advancing on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their U.S. special forces advisors. At least 100 pro-government fighters were killed in the counter-strike.

The mostly-Kurdish SDF has been battling the final remnants of the Islamic State on one side of the Euphrates rivers, while the Syrian government has been doing the same on the other bank. Although the real goal of yesterday's skirmish was probably control of nearby oilfields.

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A Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighter is seen in the eastern suburbs of al Bab, Syria, on Sunday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The Russian government today denounced the "unprecedented act of aggression" against its Syrian allies. The fighting demonstrates "that the U.S. is maintaining its illegal presence in Syria not to fight the Islamic State group, but to seize and hold Syrian economic assets," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Meanwhile, tensions remain high along the Turkish border after weeks of clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish militias.

Two U.S. generals visited the front-lines near Manbij, yesterday, flying large American flags in a pointed demonstration of support.

Syria

Civil defense workers search for survivors after airstrikes hit a rebel-held suburb near Damascus on Monday. (White Helmets via AP)

But the message failed to make much of an impression on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president.

In a speech in Ankara today, he vowed that the fighting will continue.

"We will clear our entire Syrian border of terror, as well as eliminate terror threats coming from Iraq. We will continue until the last terrorist is neutralized," said Erdogan.


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Rosemary Barton in Pyeongchang

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Children pose with 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics mascot Soohorang in Gangneung, South Korea, on Thursday. (Reuters)

It has been remarkably and uncharacteristically cold in Pyeongchang. Tomorrow that is supposed to end.

And the timing could not be better for this slightly chilly Canadian, and the 35,000 other people expected to attend the opening ceremonies for the 23rd Olympic games.

But just in case the stadium, which is open-air to save construction time and money, is not quite warm enough, organizers have thought of everything. Every person in attendance will be given heating pads and blankets to stay warm during the roughly two-and-a-half-hour show. Plus, there are strategically placed heaters throughout.

Like every Olympic opening ceremony, this one is top secret. I have seen it as part of a dress rehearsal for CBC — which is pretty much all I can say without being bounced from the premises.

Not surprisingly, though, given the geopolitics of the region and the remarkable moment of the two Koreas walking under one flag (something they have actually done three times before), the focus will be on peace and harmony.

And the ceremony will highlight Korean culture and some of the many things Koreans do well, like technology.

What may be more remarkable than the actual show, though, is the seating arrangements for guests.

Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, will be in attendance, as will U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who seemed determined to keep up the tough talk as recently as Wednesday.

Pence is not making things easier by choosing to invite the Father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after being in a prison in North Korea for 17 months. The drama of seating arrangements may well upstage the show, but that could just be the political reporter in me.

Cold temperatures and diplomatic gamesmanship aside, it should be a fascinating couple of hours.

- Rosemay Barton

Find CBC's online Olympic coverage, including a full schedule, here.


Programming note

Rosemary Barton hosts The National from Pyeongchang, South Korea, tonight at 11 p.m./11:30 NT on CBC Television. And she'll be back on the air co-hosting CBC's coverage of the Opening Ceremony with Scott Russell at 5:30 a.m. eastern/2:30 a.m. Pacific.

Beginning Friday evening, The National will pre-empted by the CBC's coverage of the Olympic Winter Games on the main network. You can always watch The National on CBC News Network and online on CBCNews.ca, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter at its regular broadcast times.


Zuma clings to power

Jacob Zuma's days are numbered.

But whether the figure is small or large remains open to debate.

SAFRICA-POLITICS/ZUMA

President Jacob Zuma, centre, leaves his office in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday. Rumours he would resign yesterday proved false. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters)

For several weeks now, South Africans have been anticipating the resignation of their scandal-plagued president. Zuma, however, seems in no hurry to go.

Yesterday, Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's deputy president and the new head of the ruling African National Congress, held emergency "transition" talks with Zuma and indicated that a deal is close.

There were reports that a resignation would happen "within hours." Local and world media duly set up camp outside of the President's office, but nothing happened.

Zuma instead spent the day chairing cabinet committee meetings. And his office maintains that it will be business as usual through the weekend, when he is scheduled to MC an awards show to honour South Africans who boost the country's global image.

The 75-year-old Zuma is nearing the end of his second — and under the constitution, final — five-year term as president. Elections must be held by the spring of 2019.

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Deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa leaves the office of the Presidency at Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, on Wednesday after emergency 'transition' talks. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters)

So there is some urgency on the part of the ANC to rid themselves of a vastly unpopular leader whose mismanagement has helped slow the economy to a standstill and created 28 per cent unemployment.

Zuma, however, is not one to be pushed.

The scrappy former guerilla and political prisoner — he was incarcerated on Robben Island for 10 years alongside Nelson Mandela — has already survived multiple scandals.

  • A 2005 arrest for the rape of an HIV-positive family friend. He was acquitted in 2006, after a trial in which he told the court that he showered to avoid catching the virus.
  • Charges of money laundering and racketeering pertaining to a $5 billion arms deal he signed in 1999. All 783 counts were dropped in the run-up to the 2009 election, but South Africa's High Court reinstated them in 2016. A decision that was upheld on appeal to the Supreme Court last fall.
  • Close to $20 million in public money spent on lavish improvements to his private home in his native Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal province, including a swimming pool, amphitheatre, visitor centre and chicken run. Zuma paid back $800,000 in 2016 after a court ruled that the transactions had breached his oath of office.
  • A pending public inquiry into his relationship with the Guptas family. The probe will examine claims that the wealthy Zuma-backers dangled cabinet positions before other politicians, as well as allegations of fixed contracts, licences and advertising deals.

Zuma survived an impeachment vote in the spring of 2016, but there is a sense that a pending no-confidence motion, which could come as early as this week, might have more success.  

And the calls for him to go are increasingly difficult to ignore. Earlier this week, the Nelson Mandela Foundation released a statement accusing Zuma of having "betrayed the country Nelson Mandela dreamed of as he took his first steps of freedom 28 years ago."

Still, a supposedly "urgent" meeting of the ANC's top leadership, scheduled for last night, has now been pushed back until Feb. 17.

SAFRICA-POLITICS/

Opposition Democratic Alliance party leader Mmusi Maimane says he won't rest until Zuma is jailed. (Mark Wessels/Reuters)

If Zuma leaves voluntarily, he will retain some of the trappings of his office, including a security detail, official vehicle and driver, a secretary and free domestic flights. As well as a pension equal to his current $103,000 salary.

But the window for a dignified exit may already have closed.

Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's official opposition, says he "will not rest" until Zuma is behind bars.

"He faces 783 charges of corruption, racketeering, and I'm stating it here on record, I'm not going to drop that case," Maimane said earlier this week. "He will end up in Johannesburg prison."


Quote of the moment

"I have no regrets. I did what I had to do."

Jolly Bimbachi, the Chatham, Ont., mother who tried to spirit her two sons out of Lebanon and back to Canada via war-torn Syria. She returned home last night after having spent a month in the hands of an al-Qaeda affiliate.

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Jolly Bimbachi speaks to reporters at the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey on Monday after being released to Turkish authorities. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)


What The National is reading

  • Manitoba's 'Minister Tickles' apologizes after 5 women complain of unwanted touching (CBC)
  • U.S. military launches 'self-defence' airstrikes on Syrian troops (Chicago Tribune)
  • Alberta bans spears for big game hunting (Calgary Herald)
  • Canada sort of apologizes for Pyeongchang cafeteria spat with Russia (CBC)
  • Plastic pollution has reached the 'pristine' Arctic (BBC)
  • George W. Bush: Russia definitely meddled in the 2016 election (Daily Beast)
  • 5,500 Great White sharks lurk off Australian coast, says study (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • Jimmy Buffett does not live the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle (New York Times)
  • The 12 most memorable moments from Olympic Opening Ceremonies (Vulture)

Today in history

Feb. 8, 1962: Twilight of Twitter the clown (radio)

The original Twitter, aka George Johnston, was a clown from Pictou, N.S., whose career spanned 50 years of vaudeville halls and circus tents. In this CBC Radio interview he walks down memory lane, describing "Frisco" flop houses and other "malarky." Just don't look up "mud clown," "bump act" and "European acrobat" on the internet in case they mean something different now.


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