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Ramadan becomes the newest front in Syria's civil war

This weekend marks the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan - a time of fasting, prayer, and self-reflection throughout the Muslim world. But every year, it starts with a controversy: Ramadan begins with the sighting of the first sliver of the new moon, and religious authorities often differ by a day on when that occurs.

In Syria, the predominantly Sunni opposition is embroiled in a guerilla war with the Alawite-led government. The two sides disagree over the future of their country, the nature of the conflict -- and, you guessed it, the start of Ramadan.

"The Syrian National Council announces ... Friday is the first day of Ramadan, unlike what was declared by the regime," read a statement released by the umbrella opposition group. President Bashar al-Assad's government, meanwhile, declared the holy month would begin on Saturday.

There's a regional political dimension at play here: Most of the Arab world's Sunni states -- such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan -- have announced that Ramadan begins on Friday. These countries have been largely supportive of Syria's rebels. Meanwhile, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon's Shiite community -- whose political leaders have supported to the Assad regime -- are starting Ramadan on Saturday.

Just another example of how what seems to be a purely theological dispute quickly becomes politicized amidst Syria's bloody sectarian conflict.

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

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What does China want for its $20 billion to Africa?

China signaled its intention to expand ties with Africa today at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation by promising $20 billion in loans to African countries over the next three years. The pledge, which is double what China offered at the Forum's 2009 meeting in Egypt, includes outlays for training, scholarships, and medical care in Africa, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In recent years, China has left Western competitors behind in its drive to curry favor with African leaders, providing loans and building roads, railways and infrastructure with a no-questions-asked approach.

China's seeming indifference to abuses of human rights has attracted criticism from Western competitors and some rights activists. Many African leaders, however, don't express such concerns.

But China's focus on infrastructure -- designed to facilitate the extraction of oil and other natural resources -- has begun to rally a growing chorus of detractors, and not just in the West. At the Forum today, South African President Jacob Zuma called Africa's trade relationship with China "unsustainable," arguing that "Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies."

Africa's approach to Chinese investment in recent decades can hardly be described as cautious, however. Chinese-African trade has tripled in the last three years, totaling $166 billion in 2011. China is now Africa's biggest trading partner, having surpassed the United States in 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (Interestingly, other emerging market countries have also deepened their economic ties with Africa, with India, Korea, Brazil, and Turkey together accounting for nearly 35 percent of the continent's trade.)

Part of China's appeal seems to stem from its ability to marry authoritarian governance with high levels of economic growth. As the Wall Street Journal put it, "leaders from South Africa to Ethiopia have been touting [China's] model for development -- one that stresses state-led growth, validates tight-fisted political control and offers a powerful counterpoint to the free-market democracy mantra promoted by the U.S."

It's no surprise, then, that China has found willing partners in some of Africa's least democratic states. Zimbabwe and Ethiopia have both attracted substantial Chinese aid and equity investments, for example, as have Angola, Congo, and Sudan, all of which have oil or minerals on offer.

But today's announcement was intended to show another side of China -- and to deflect criticisms about its imperial designs. In addition to increased credit, training, and scholarships, China has taken measures to rebalance trade ties with Africa, including the elimination of tariffs on certain African products. Could this be an indication the China is becoming a more responsible player in the international community?

As today's other major news item on China -- its third consecutive veto of sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations -- indicates, there doesn't seem to be much danger of that. But China does seem to act responsibly so long as it makes financial sense. And so it was when China voted for UN Security Council Resolution 2046, which threatened sanctions against Sudan, long a client state of Beijing, unless it deescalated its conflict with the South. Oddly enough, with its oil supplies hanging in the balance, China might actually be the best hope for peace in this region.