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Hugs for thugs

Most people would do just about anything to avoid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Vladimir Putin is not most people.

This morning the Kremlin released footage and transcripts of yesterday's meeting between Syria's controversial leader and the Russian president at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

By all appearances, the encounter with the accused war criminal was downright chummy.

Syrian forces pushed ISIS out of the town of Boukamal, its final urban stronghold, last week, and the conflict is entering a new phase. And Assad, having overcome long odds — with the considerable help of Russia's military — to retain his grip on power, is appropriately grateful.

"Nobody can deny this success in the fight against terrorism now. Thanks to your actions, as well as the actions of the Syrian Army and our allies, many Syrians have returned home," Assad said. "Speaking on behalf of the Syrian people, I would like to express our gratitude for what you have accomplished. We will never forget this."

The four-hour meeting — bookended by hugs — was a prelude to a mini-summit tomorrow in Sochi, when Putin will meet with the leaders of Iran and Turkey. They will discuss what Syria might look like post-conflict.

What is most notable is who will not be at the table: The Kurds, who have done much of the fighting and control large swathes of territory, and the United States.

MIDEAST-CRISIS/PUTIN-ASSAD

Putin's meeting with al-Assad included high-ranking Russian military officials, such as Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, right. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters)

Donald Trump and Putin issued a joint statement on Syria last week, after meeting on the sidelines of the APEC conference in Vietnam. It focused on increased communication between the two superpowers' forces in the region, and the need to observe various United Nations resolutions on the future of Syria.

However, if Putin is able to go it alone and broker some sort of peace deal in Syria, it won't necessarily be welcome news in Washington. The close co-operation between Russia and Iran during military operations — Moscow provided air power, Tehran backed the militias on the ground — is already a concern.

Israel, which sees Iran as its greatest existential threat, fears anything that expands Tehran's influence. And neither the Kurds, nor the Arab gulf states, will be happy to see the balance of power tilted towards Ankara and the Ayatollahs.

The battle for Syria might be over, but the war could just be beginning.

Babylon system

Phoenix Pay Protest

More than 150,000 public servants have outstanding pay issues, having received too much, not enough, or no money at all under the federal government's Phoenix payroll system. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Last year in Iraq, archeologists uncovered evidence of the world's first known payroll — a 5,000-year-old clay tablet inscribed with cuneiform writing depicting names, work provided, and compensation given (in beer). So if the ancient Mesopotamians could keep track of and pay their employees, why is Ottawa finding it so hard?

The debacle that is the federal government's Phoenix payroll system was a central focus of the Auditor General's fall report, tabled this morning. Here is some of what Michael Ferguson found:

  • The government's payroll system was a disaster from the moment it was rolled out in February 2016, but it took bureaucrats months to figure out that there were real problems. And a year to understand just what they were.
  • The government's estimate of what it will cost to fix them — $540 million — is a "lowball," says the Auditor General. A fully functioning system is years, and millions more dollars, away.
  • More than 150,000 public servants have outstanding pay issues, having received too much, not enough, or no money at all. That's more than half of the 290,000 people the system serves.
  • As of the end of June, there had been $502 million in unresolved pay errors.
  • The average wait to have a problem fixed is three months. Almost 49,000 employees have been waiting a year or more.
  • The current backlog stands at 265,000 files.

Justice delayed

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On Wednesday, the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague is finally set to hand down its verdict against Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army. His trial lasted six years, five months and 18 days. (Oleg Stjepanovic/Associated Press)

The Bosnian war lasted for three years, eight months and 13 days. The war crimes trial of Gen. Ratko Mladic has dragged on for almost twice that long.

Tomorrow, the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague is finally set to hand down its verdict against the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army.

Now a frail 74-year-old, Mladic bears little resemblance to the bear-like warrior who was known as the Butcher of Srebrenica. His lawyers have sought to have him excused from the court proceedings, citing fears that the tension might provoke a stroke or a heart attack.

Netherlands War Crimes Karadzic Mladic

Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, first left, and wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, second right, walk with their bodyguards on the Mount Vlasic front line in Serbia in 1995. (Sava Radovanovic/Associated Press)

Few will be sympathetic. Mladic stands accused of overseeing the genocidal massacre that gave him his nickname — the systematic execution of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys in July 1995. He's also accused of additional war crimes during the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, where shelling and snipers killed as many as 10,000 civilians beginning in the spring of 1992.

After being indicted in 1995, Mladic spent 14 years fleeing justice — although he was hardly running.

In the beginning, he lived in the open in Belgrade, hanging out in cafes and dancing at his son's wedding, protected all the while by armed soldiers and the Serbian government.

Bosnia

A girl sits next to the coffin of a relative in July 2014. It was one of 173 coffins of victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre whose remains were discovered that year in several mass graves around the town. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Later, as international pressure intensified, he shuttled between luxury safehouses. Only his last few years as a fugitive, when it was just a handful of hardcore loyalists and family who stuck with him, could be described as harried.

At the time of his capture in May 2011, he was living in a single, cramped room in a cousin's rundown farmhouse.

Srebrenica Bosnia

A Bosnian Muslim woman mourns a relative killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which Bosnian Serb forces commanded by military commander Ratko Mladic killed up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Perhaps that prepared him for life in his austere 15-square-metre prison cell in the seaside resort town of Scheveningen. It is likely to remain his home for the remainder of his life. Last March, his fellow war crimes defendant, Radovan Karadzic, was handed a 40-year sentence for his part in the Bosnian genocide.

Tomorrow's verdict will be the final act of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which will shut down operations after 24 years and 160 indictments.

There were 600 witnesses and 10,000 exhibits in Mladic's trial. It lasted six years, five months and 18 days.

Quote of the moment

"The crusty paw."

- The term young, female employees of The Charlie Rose Show used to describe the 75-year-old host's habit of giving them unwanted shoulder rubs. Eight women have come forward to say they were sexually harassed by the PBS and 60 Minutes star.

USA-TIME 100/

TV host Charlie Rose. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Big hike in cigarette taxes needed to reduce smoking, says Health Canada report (CBC)
  • Trump golf course reimburses Trump charity for Trump lawsuit amid investigation (Washington Post)
  • Up to 10,000 U.K. criminal cases may have been compromised by fudged lab data (Guardian)
  • Blue whales demonstrate a kind of 'flipperdextrousness' when on the hunt (Quartz)
  • Rock icons squabble over Israel gigs (Sydney Morning Herald)
  • The last of the iron lungs, and the polio survivors who live in them (Gizmodo)

Today in history

Nov. 21, 1979: A shirtless Terry Jacks reflects on life after recording Seasons in the Sun, the world's most depressing song. Which somehow paid for a yacht, and a lot of taxidermy.

Terry Jacks on life after Seasons in the Sun22:29