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Gas

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) granted Turkey’s request for deployment of Patriot missiles on its border with Syria. The missile batteries from member-countries are to be deployed immediately.

This is an important development, raising the level of international engagement in the brutal civil war dragging on in Syria.

Attacks from the Syrian side aimed at the refugee camps across the border prompted Turkey’s request. There is fear Syria could escalate the bombardment, mainly to damage the training camps of the rebel Free Syrian Army located on Turkish soil.

The tide of war is slowly turning to favor the rebels. Over the past week, rebel units were able to down Syrian aircraft using weapons captured from camps overrun by the ragtag revolutionaries. Several important military bases are now under heavy rebel siege within Syria. Urban warfare is taking its deadly toll with each passing day with Assad’s seeming determination to demolish cities rather than yield them to anti-regime forces.

As NATO prepared to vote on Turkey’s Patriot missile request, Washington released intelligence information suggesting the beleaguered Assad government is now assembling poison gas munitions. The information understandably alarms the Turks, who fear chemical warfare launched against them.

The more pressing concern is that chemical weapons could be used on rebellious Syrian communities. These weapons could annihilate entire cities, dwarfing all the immense brutality we have so far seen in this civil war.

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We have seen what chemical warfare could do. When Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, he ordered chemical weapons attacks on a rebellious Kurdish city. The entire population of one township was wiped out. This incident, a clear crime against humanity, was one of the reasons Saddam was hanged.

So urgent is the intelligence information in Washington’s hands that President Barack Obama quickly went on air to warn Damascus that use of chemical weapons will cross the “red line” that will precipitate American action. What exactly the American response will be is not specified. That response will likely be in the form of drone and smart bomb attacks aimed at neutralizing Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

Should this happen, Damascus could retaliate by launching missiles against neighboring Turkey. This is where the Patriot missiles come into play.

Ankara has not concealed its disdain for the Assad regime. Turkey not only hosts refugee and training camps for anti-Assad forces. It is widely believed the improving rebel arsenal comes courtesy of Ankara, with funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Chemical weapons do not discriminate between combatants and civilians. This is why such weapons are banned under several international conventions and their use universally condemned.

The Assad regime is desperate. It enjoys material support from only one other pariah state: Iran. The diplomatic support it enjoys from Russia and China is turning limp.

If this desperate regime uses chemical weapons against its own already battered people, it courts the condemnation of all humanity. Nothing prevents direct military intervention against a regime that annihilates its own people.

Disclosure

The new “sin tax” measure is taking strange shape at the bicameral conference committee reconciling the House and Senate versions. The measure is radically departing from the original versions the committee is supposed to reconcile, adding truth to the derisive observation this committee is actually a third legislative chamber.

The current system features an even 50-50 distribution of the tax burden between tobacco and alcohol products. In the Senate version of the new excise tax schedule, the tax burden is shifted slightly, with tobacco bearing 60% of the burden. In the version passed by the House (and crafted largely by the DOF), the burden is exceedingly uneven, with tobacco bearing 85% of the burden and alcohol products only 15%.

Given the pressure from executive departments, the distribution could be even more uneven over time. This is because taxes on tobacco products escalate more quickly over those imposed on alcohol in the succeeding years.

This is not the only predicament facing local tobacco products manufacturers. The terms of the new “sin tax” measure favors new entrants to the market over the existing players. The proposed new excise tax schedule hardly differentiates between cigarettes and hand-rolled tobacco products.

The proud Philippine cigar could be on the way to economic extinction and the tobacco-farming communities are in for bad times. With little means to lobby, the small manufacturers are doomed. Imports will rule the market.

Those more familiar with the political dynamics of this particular piece of legislation attribute the pro-alcohol, pro-import features of the bill taking shape to the influence of a top administration official. This official, years before, tried to broker a deal for possible local distributorship on behalf of British American Tobacco (BAT). On the invitation of BAT, he even visited the company’s manufacturing operations in Cambodia accompanied by a prominent petroleum executive.

The deal for distributorship of a foreign brand fell through. As things go in Asia, relationship bonds remain even if initial deals fail.

That relationship, nevertheless, requires full disclosure consistent with the requirements for transparency. Full disclosure will enable examination of the current official’s role for possible conflict of interest.

There is no breach suggested here. Not yet, at least.

However, full disclosure might explain the curious elements of the pending legislation, especially those that skew the weight of taxation against local tobacco products and favors alcohol products. By penalizing local manufactures severely, the door is opened for imported substitutes. There should be a story explaining this.

 

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