Homs on May 15.
Alain Frachon


PARIS — How often are war crimes being committed in Syria? Is it every time a helicopter from President Bashar al-Assad's regime drops a barrel bomb on a school, a hospital, an apartment block? Every time a fighter-bomber launches a strike in the middle of a town? Or every time a group of Islamist rebels slaughters people — sometimes by crucifiction — or abducts and tortures them?

The level of media attention varies depending on the day's news, but the Syrian disaster is perpetuated with every massacre. Of Syria's 23 million citizens, almost 10 million are now refugees, and after three years of war, between 150,000 and 160,000 are dead. As political commentator Frédéric Encel noted, Bashar al-Assad has managed a "tour de force" by having exceeded the number of victims from all Israeli-Arab wars combined.

Between the regime and its opponents, the status quo is over. The balance appears to have tilted to the side of Damascus. The government forces are slowly regaining control of the western part of the country, as Assad is preparing for his presidential "reelection" in June, in what will be a charade vote endorsed by his Russian protector. But this turning point in favor of the regime would not have been possible without Iran, the country with the most significant role in the Syrian tragedy.

The Islamic Republic is the architect of the conflict's current evolution. It supervises the Syrian forces. It ordered Lebanon's Hezbollah troops to take part in the fight. Thanks to its ties with the government in Baghdad, it also called upon Iraqi Shiite militias to join the ranks. And finally, it offers financial support to Damascus, spending billions of dollars while the Iranian economy is struggling under the weight of international sanctions.

At the same time, Iran plays another part — one that is more diplomatic but that could be remotely linked with Syria. A new series of talks on Tehran's nuclear program ended in Vienna.

Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, United States, Britain, France, Russia) are looking to rebalance the nuclear project with one goal in mind: to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining atomic weapons. In exchange, Iran wants the lifting of all sanctions imposed after its repeated violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua/ZUMA

The news from Vienna is bad: There has been little progress, if any. The two sides are supposed to meet again in mid-June and ideally want to seal an agreement by July 20. In this matter, the devil is not just in the details, but everywhere else too.

The negotiations revolve around a central proposition. In exchange for the possibility of enriching a limited amount of uranium in a limited dosage — and under strict international supervision — Tehran must abandon or seriously rebuild all its installations. As the West sees it, this is only way to guarantee that Iran does not have nuclear weapons.

A two-headed regime

The West is united on this question, and even Beijing and Moscow show no sign of breaking from this position. Iran's chief envoy, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, maintains a cordial demeanor, according to a source close to the negotiations. But he does not budge. On every single controversial point, he is unwavering.

For diametrically opposed reasons, two groups block any possible agreement. On one side, and hand-in-hand, are a large contingent within the U.S. Congress and within the current Israeli government, neither of which trusts Iran. On the other are the Iranian hard-line, guardians of the revolution and pro-nuclear advocates close to Ayatollah Khamenei, none of whom trusts the United States.

The main question in Vienna is which Iran is sitting at the negotiating table? The Islamic Republic's DNA is hard to identify. The nationalist tendency, for which the nuclear issue is a matter of status, is a part of it. Iran does not want to be a pariah state anymore. It wants to be free of sanctions, take part in the global economy and normalize its relationship with the United States. President Hassan Rouhani is probably the one who best represents this part of the Iranian family.

But there is another Iran, the one that maintains — either by belief or for material reasons — the original revolutionary streak as leader of radical Shia Islam. Accepting this messianic ambition, at much economic cost, it feels destined to be the Middle East's main power and to oppose American allies in the region. That Iran is looking more for expansion than recognition.

This is the Iran embodied by Yahya Rahim Safavi, Khamenei's main military adviser, who in a recent Financial Times interview claimed "victory" for Iran in Syria and assured that Tehran's "forward line of defense" was on the south Lebanese border with Israel. Through Hezbollah, Safavi's Iran is taking strongpoints in Lebanon and Syria. He is not concerned with the Vienna talks, and could not care less about what is happening to the Syrian people.

The conclusion is far from reassuring: Whether the martyrdom of Syria lasts depends a lot on the game of power being played in Tehran.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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