Here are some key people, places, and issues in American foreign policy.
Inspired by other Arab Spring movements, protests began against the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad on Jan. 26. 2011. The ongoing protests escalated to an uprising in March 2011, with thousands taking to the streets in numerous cities to demand the ouster of Assad. The protests have been met with brutal government force, including tanks and sniper fire, with thousands killed. Here is a primer behind the headlines in Syria.
Al-Qaeda is an Islamic militant organization that operates in many areas around the world. Fueled by some successful attacks in their "jihad," or holy war, against the West, al-Qaeda is the first group that usually springs to mind when someone considers Islamic terrorism. Having lost its spiritual leader, Osama bin Laden, in a 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan, al-Qaeda continues it operations by utilizing the Internet to inspire and train followers, branching out into new regions by latching onto Islamic conflicts, and utilizing Western followers to try to expand its base.
The Israelis say that, as they are constantly under militant attack of varying degrees, the very survival of the Jewish state hangs in the balance. The Palestinians claim a right to return to the land that refugees fled in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war or the Six Day War in 1967. Even the means of conflict stoke controversy.
Protests against the government of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took office in a 1987 coup, sparked the Arab Spring with the act of one street vendor. Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, sold produce out of a small wheelbarrow, the only way he had to make a living and support his mother, uncle and siblings. Bouazizi was repeatedly harassed and publicly humiliated by officials as he tried to sell his wares, and he lacked the money to bribe police to continue his sales unfettered. Demanding his confiscated wares outside the governor's office on Dec. 17, 2010, which refused to hear his complaints, Bouazizi set himself on fire. He suffered burns over 90 percent of his body and succumbed to his injuries on Jan. 4, 2011. More than 5,000 people joined the funeral procession, and the protests fueled by numerous social and political grievances began.
As he neared the end of his second term, Putin was named Time magazine's 2007 Person of the Year. Their headline, "A Tsar Is Born," said it all: With Putin's hand-picked president Medvedev, his intention to be prime minister, and his intention to make the prime ministerial post more powerful, it would be erroneous to say that Putin gives up his reign by stepping down from the presidency. After December 2007 elections, Kremlin-backing parties control 393 of the 450 seats in the Duma, so even constitutional change is possible to put Putin back in the driver's seat. Taking over the Kremlin again in 2012 elections, many fear that the authoritarian bent of this regime will stymie dissent and put human rights in peril even more.
Peña Nieto has vowed to retool Felipe Calderon's six-year bloody war on drug cartels, criticizing the strategy of going after and dismantling the main cartels and promising to pour security resources into the towns where citizens have been most affected by the cartel violence. But he faces an extremely challenging task. The U.S. even has Mexico under a travel warning because of the "violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity." More than 50,000 have been killed in the violence since 2006. Peña Nieto also faces the task of dealing with his northern neighbor on everything from immigration to trade, as well as growing Mexico's economy -- particularly as fewer Mexicans have been coming north to seek employment in the job-stagnant United States.