Sunday, January 24, 2016

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Britain’s “Creative Clout”: Arms Sales and “Advice on Killing” in Yemen

By Felicity Arbuthnot

Today, I want to speak about the once-in-a-generation chance we have, together, to improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity. (David Cameron. Speech on the European Court of Human Rights, 25th January 2012.)
Last June, speaking in his official residence, No 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech on business: “Britain has huge creative clout around the world …From Asia to America, they’re dancing to our music, watching our films and wearing our designers’ latest creations”, he trilled. He omitted to say “and dying under our bombs.”
In December, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein warned, regarding the Saudi led bombing of Yemen:
“I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high a concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – in particular hospitals and schools …”
Yemen’s Ministry of Education’s data shows more than 1,000 schools inoperable, 254 completely destroyed, 608 partially damaged and 421 being used as shelter by those displaced by the Saudi led, UK assisted onslaught. Some destroyed schools were attacked repeatedly thus they were not errors, or that obscene US dreamt up whitewash for atrocities: “collateral damage.” (1) The US also supplies “intelligence” for air strikes.
Three Medecines Sans Frontier medical facilities have also been destroyed and this month the Noor Center for the Blind was hit – twice. Abdullah Ahmed Banyan, a patient said:
“People with disabilities are being struck in their residence. Around 1.30 am, two missiles hit the live-in quarters of a home for the blind. Can you imagine they are striking the blind? What is this criminality? Why? Is it the blind that are fighting the war?” (2)
As in Afghanistan and Iraq, those other favourite targets of the US, UK and their allies, wedding parties, have again become victims. One gathering in two large tents bombed last September, killed thirty eight people, another wedding celebration attack reportedly killed one hundred and thirty. In the country’s capitol, Sanaa a wedding party hall was also destroyed – what is this criminal obsession about weddings? The Chamber of Commerce was also destroyed.
Definition of war crimes include: “intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected … “ and: “Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives.” (3)
None of which deters the UK from joining in. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has confirmed to Parliament that UK troops are helping the Saudi military identify targets. He said there had been “no evidence of deliberate breach of international humanitarian law.” (4) He clearly has not bothered to do the research.
There is worse. Apart from aiding and abetting potential war crimes, the British government is profiting in eye watering sums from the human misery, deaths and destruction with arms sales to Saudi Arabia increasing by 11,000 percent in one three month period alone.
In spite of the United Nations stating that civilians are being disproportionately killed in Yemen, in one just three month period last year arms sales rose to over one Billion £s, up from a mere nine million £s from the previous three months. (5)
The exact figure for British arms export licences from July to September 2015 was £1,066,216,510 in so-called “ML4” export licences, which relate to bombs, missiles, rockets, and components of those items.
Angus Robertson, Leader of the Scottish National Party in Parliament is outraged, accusing during Prime Minister’s Questions this week, that:
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force and they’ve done that using British-built planes, with pilots who are trained by British instructors, dropping British-made bombs, who are coordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisors.
Isn’t it time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilians lives and he has not sought parliamentary approval to do this? (Independent, 20th January 2016. Emphasis added.)
Allan Hogarth for Amnesty International again confirmed that British advisors are: “ … actually located in the Saudi control room.”
David Cameron waffled inadequately with dismissive arrogance and supreme economy with the truth, that Britain was insuring that: “ … the norms of humanitarian law” were obeyed. Comments redundant.
Two days ago at Yemen’s Ras Isa port on the Red Sea, an oil storage facility was hit killing five people. The attack destroyed the part of the compound used to load tanker trucks with refined products for domestic distribution. So now a people, many of whom, the UN has warned are facing near starvation, will face further shortages to cook what little they have and to heat
So much for Cameron’s vow to: “improve the way we enhance the cause of human rights, freedom and dignity.”

Afghans Who Visit Saudi Arabia Recruited to Fight in Yemen War


Saudi Arabia is reportedly recruiting young Afghans who visit to fight against the Iran-allied Shiite rebels known as Houthis in the ongoing Yemen war.

Citing BBC Persian, Khaama Press reports that “the revelation was made after conducting interviews with the family members of the Afghan youths who have gone missing after visiting Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrimage.”
Nevertheless, the family members quoted say it remains unclear specifically who is deploying the Afghans to Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition has been combating the Houthis and their allies since March 2015.
Saudis are primarily recruiting young Afghans to fight against the Houthis, BBC Persian reportedly revealed.
“A man whose relative has been deployed to Yemen two months ago told BBC Persian that six to seven members of his family have left for Yemen after visiting Saudi Arabia for Umra Hajj pilgrimage,” notes Khaama Press. “The man identified as Ahmadeen further added that 40 to 45 people from the close villages and the youths are mainly participating in the war in Yemen to defend from Mecca holy city.”

SNP demand end to UK arms sales helping Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen

THE SNP has demanded a halt to the sale of UK weapons to Saudi Arabia amid growing concern they are killing thousands of civilians in the war-torn gulf state of Yemen.
Westminster leader Angus Robertson last night called on David Cameron to block sales after claims the UK Government is breaking national, EU and international law by supplying weapons to a Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.
In a letter to Cameron, Robertson requested an urgent meeting to discuss the situation.
Last month a legal opinion commissioned by Amnesty International and the Saferworld NGO concluded the UK was breaching its obligations under the UK’s Consolidated Criteria on arms exports, the EU Common Position on Arms Exports and the Arms Trade Treaty by supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia capable of use in Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition began bombing Yemen in March 2015 after the government was overthrown by rebels sponsored by the Kingdom's main regional rival, Iran.
Since then an estimated 2,800 civilians have died in a civil war dubbed “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam”, with accusations that the coalition has used cluster bombs in populated areas.
The UK has also issued more than 100 licences for arms exports to Saudi Arabia - more than £1.75bn worth in the first half of 2015 alone - most of which appear to be for combat aircraft and bombs for the Royal Saudi Air Force, whose pilots are trained by British instructors.
Since 2010, the UK has licensed a total of £5.6bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including fighter jets, tear gas, military vehicles and targeting equipment.
Robertson last week challenged Cameron on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions, attacking him for allowing British weaponry and British military advisers to become an integral part of the war in Yemen without parliament's approval.
Robertson told the Sunday Herald: “The UK is effectively at war, and is potentially involved in the loss of thousands of civilian lives, yet the Prime Minister has swept it under the carpet. The lack of transparency has been alarming.
“World attention on conflict in the Middle East is focussed on Syria and Iraq and sadly the catastrophic war in Yemen is largely overlooked.”
Robertson said he also wanted the Commons Committee on Arms Exports Controls, which has not been reconvened since the general election, re-instated immediately to scrutinise the matter.
"The public have a right to know if British-built bombs are responsible for civilian deaths."
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International’s Programme Director in Scotland, welcomed the SNP's call.
She said: “Angus Robertson has raised an important point about the UK’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that the UK government granted over £1bn worth of arms export licences for Saudi Arabia in just three months last year.
“There is overwhelming evidence that weapons sold by the UK are being used to destroy Yemeni homes, schools and hospitals, with a continuing risk of civilian deaths.
"The prime minister should immediately suspend export licences for all further UK arms bound for Saudi Arabia and allow a full investigation into allegations of serious breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”
Paul Murphy, executive director of Saferworld, added: "UK Government policy on Yemen is in disarray. The UK gives aid to Yemen with one hand while supporting the destruction of the country with the other. It’s time the UK acted as a peace broker, rather than an arms broker. The UK government must halt these arms sales immediately.”
Robertson was accused of hypocrisy after his PMQs intervention, when it emerged he had signed a Commons early day motion in 2012 calling on UK ministers to ensure the then Yemeni President had “all the security equipment and training assistance his forces require”.
A Downing Street insider said: "The Prime Minister gave clear answers to Mr Robertson on Wednesday. And as we now know, the SNP Westminster Leader is all over the place on the issue. One day he signs a motion calling for action, and then he condemns it."

Iran was the ally Israel wanted. It got Saudi Arabia

In a statement made in December 2015 but which gained attention last week, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, declared that chess was forbidden for Muslims. This was only one among many ignorant, bigotry-laced and extremist statements that constantly flow from the kingdom.

In December the same mufti claimed that Islamic State (IS) was actually run by Israel. On January 17 Sheikh Saud al-Shuraim, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, claimed that Jews and Iranians were conspiring against “Muslims,” by which he meant Sunni Muslims of his flavor. “There is no surprise in the alliance of the Safavids with the Jews and Christians against the Muslims, history witnessed this. But there is surprise at minds delaying their understanding of this truth until this moment,” he wrote. Given statements like these, it may be surprising that Israel has increasingly been moving into the Saudi orbit in recent years.

On January 21 Sudanese foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour said at a conference that “the matter of normalized relations with Israel is something that can be looked into.” His comments come in the wake of Sudan breaking off relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy in Iran was attacked and Saudi Arabia encouraged Sunni regimes to oppose Iran.

The embassy had been attacked by angry Shi’ite protesters after Saudi Arabia had executed a Saudi Shi’ite preacher named Nimr al-Nimr. The Sudanese “opening” to Israel is part of a larger quiet revolution in the Arab world. Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold told the Institute of National Securities Studies (INSS) conference on January 18 that Israel has contacts with “almost every Arab state.” Rather than being isolated, Israel is being incorporated into the Saudi Sunni-Arab orbit. Part of this includes the opening of a mission in Abu Dhabi and increasing contacts in the Gulf States. The Wall Street Journal termed this Israel “quietly courting Sunni states,” but in fact it is the other way around: the Sunni states of the Arab League want Israel defending their goal as their world crumbles under an Iranian octopus that has seen Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen fall to Iranian proxies.

Part of this reversal of fortune can be seen in the numerous statements coming out of Turkey about rekindling ties with Israel. Turkey’s President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan made criticism of Israel a key to his policy in the region since his AKP came to power 15 years ago. But after years of supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip and making outrageous anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish statements, including a famous tirade against Shimon Peres in 2009 at Davos, he changed course on January 2. “Israel needs a country like Turkey, we have to admit we need Israel,” the Turkish leader said, on a flight home from, guess where? Saudi Arabia. Israel plays into this new charm offensive like a poor kid in the sandbox who begs to be picked second-to-last when sides are chosen for kick-ball.

The Saudi-led initiative has its pedigree. During the second intifada Saudi Arabia led a peace plan to grant Israel recognition in the region if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza. In June 2015 the Saudis also told Israelis at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US that Iran was a common enemy.

The courting of Israel comes against the backdrop of the rise and fall of IS in the region and the frustration of Sunni regimes with their inability to topple Bashar Assad in Syria. At the base of the Saudi worldview is an interest in using other actors to achieve the kingdom’s goals in the region. In the 1980s that meant bankrolling Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to fight Iran. In 1990 it meant asking the Americans to “save” it from Saddam when he got too big for his britches and invaded Kuwait. Every time the Saudis find themselves in trouble they sell their role in the region as guaranteeing stability. Bret Stephens bought into this in a column on January 19, noting that the US must “stand by” its historic Saudi ally “lest they be tempted to continue freelancing their foreign policy in ways we might not like.” This is the Saudi blackmail tactic; support us or the “real” extremists might emerge, not “us moderate Wahhabis” that only ban chess and such.

The Sunni Arab states that want Israel to help them confront Iran have proved incapable of doing so themselves. In Yemen the “grand alliance” of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and others, has relied on Columbian mercenaries, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia even asked Pakistan to send troops.

The same weird idea that outsiders could topple Syria’s Assad led Turkey to allow thousands of IS volunteers to transit its borders. Initially Turkey thought that the Syrian rebels would defeat Assad, but for unknown reasons the country also didn’t notice the cancerous growth of IS. The Saudi-Turkey- Qatar alliance against Assad could have toppled him in 2013 and 2014 if they had not allowed IS to grow but instead backed the moderate rebel factions.

Instead they played “wait and see.” Not until 2015 did Turkey begin to detain large numbers of IS volunteers, by which time it was too late and IS had conquered parts of Iraq and Syria and emboldened Iran, eventually leading Russia to intervene.

Assad, whom everyone hated in 2013, was suddenly the “bulwark against extremism.” In 2015 Turkey detained 913 volunteers for IS from 57 countries.

These included Trinidadians, 324 Muslims from China (Uighurs), 99 Russians (Chechans), 83 Palestinians and dozens from Indonesia, Afghanistan, Germany and the UK.

Now you can understand why in 2016 Saudi Arabia fully awoke to the ruin that its failed policies of managing conflict and soft-power diplomacy had wrought. Who will stand against Iran now that Iraq and Syria have fallen? With the apparent election of Michel Aoun in Lebanon with the support of his old adversary Samir Geagae, Hezbollah’s stranglehold on that country is complete. Aoun runs a small Christian party allied with the Shi’ite movement and Lebanon’s president is by law a Christian.

IT IS perhaps understandable that Saudi clerics hate chess so much – they’re bad at it. In the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis have been badly outplayed. The Persians, on the other hand, invented the game. Without taking the stereotype too far, chess is a game whose complexity and history have more in common with the ancient intricacies of Iran than with the monochrome ignorance of Saudi’s Wahhabi imams.

Chess is also a game that Jews have excelled at.

It’s sophistication appeals to Jewish cultural and religious heritage. In one list of the 64 greatest chess minds of all time, 31 are Jewish. Here we find Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal and László Szabó.

So why are Israel’s allies in the region anchored by Saudi Arabia? Because Iran’s regime loathes Israel.

That’s the simple answer. When Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was speaking at INSS he made an offhand comment that he “prefers IS to Iran.”

What he meant was that Israel views Iran as a more serious threat, because of its strategic depth. Unlike IS, which has only one extremist policy which has brought it into conflict with the whole world, Iran is on the march in international diplomacy and its proxy Hezbollah threatens Israel. Over the weekend, for instance, Iran held high level meetings with China and John Kerry was in Riyadh admitting that Hezbollah’s 80,000 rockets aimed at Israel had come from Iran. Another report revealed Iran had recruited 20,000 Afghan Shia to fight it’s proxy war in Syria, and that sanctions relief would bring millions of dollars to the coffers of the Revolutionary Guards, which help run the wars in Syria and Iraq.

This isn’t the situation Israel would have historically preferred. Israel has far more in common with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. Iran builds on the legacy of an ancient Middle Eastern civilization, much as the Jewish people do in Israel. It is part of the fabric of diversity of the region. The Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia is a net destroyer of the region’s diversity and beauty. It abhors music, culture, dancing, pre-Islamic temples and architecture and of course chess. Wherever it is, diversity is destroyed in the name of a simplistic extremism. Localized Islamic diversity, sheikhs’ tombs, Sufi shrines or Islamic sects like the Ahmadis are all hated. Despite the extremist nature of the Iranian regime, levels of anti-Semitism in Iran are among the lowest in the region. The extremist nature of Iran’s current regime is in contrast to its history.

In the period after 1948 Israel and Iran had diplomatic relations and Iran was the second country after Turkey to recognize the Jewish state. It was a relationship based on common interests. During 1964-1975 the warm relations with Iran enabled the opening of contacts with the Kurds, who were fighting against the Iraqi regime.

In an interesting irony, the Kurds in Iraq now find themselves in the same perplexing situation as Israel. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have cultivated closer ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, at the same time that the Kurdish leadership there is seeking independence. The Arab states used to call Kurdistan a “dagger” that would be a “new Israel” in the region. There is no doubt that part of that newfound support for Kurdistan in the Gulf is due to perceptions that the Kurds can be a bulwark against Iranian power in Iraq and Syria. Some Saudi strategists seek to use Israel and the Kurds as pawns against the Iranian position.

Israel and pro-Israel commentators should therefore not take the Saudi opening as example of some genuine move toward friendship. There is also nothing to celebrate in having relations with Sudan, a pariah state. It is worthwhile to keep in mind that Iran, despite all the negative aspects of its regime, has a cultural heritage more in common with Israel’s in terms of preserving diversity in the region.

Israel may have wanted an Iranian ally, but due to the extremism of the 1979 Revolution, the Jewish state has ended up with the Saudis. For now that relationship may work. But the long-term strategy should be to build relations with groups like the Kurds, and others.

Saudi Arabia rules out mediation with Iran

 Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir has denied the existence of a Pakistani mediation between his country and Iran.
Reports last week said that Pakistan had offered to mediate between the two countries and end a tense situation sparked by the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in the Iranian capital Tehran and the northern city of Mashhad.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Riyadh and Tehran in his bid to ease the tension between the two countries, reports said.
However, on Sunday, Al Jubeir dismissed the existence of any mediation.
Some countries had offered to mediate and to convey thoughts and ideas between Riyadh and Tehran, he said, but added that Iran was well aware of what it is expected to do.
“There will be no mediation as long as Iran does not respond positively,” he said in the Bahraini capital Manama where he is attending the ministerial meeting of the Arab-India Cooperation Forum.
Al Jubeir said that Iran has been following a hostile policy towards the Arab world that included interference in their domestic affairs, sowing sectarian sedition and supporting terrorism.
He said that there was strong evidence of Iran’s acts of hostility and that Iran was on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries that was drawn up by the United Nations and other states, beside Saudi Arabia.
Al Jubeir said that Iran has government institutions classified as terrorist organisations and that there were officials in Iran and in Iranian institutions who were wanted for terror-related activities.
The Saudi minister said the picture was clear and Iran needed to change its policy and its approach, including promoting good neighbourliness and the non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, in order to see better relations between Tehran and neighbouring capitals.
On January 3, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran, a move that was emulated by several other Arab countries. More countries lowered their diplomatic ties with Iran in condemnation of the attacks.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), grouping Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates condemned the attacks, followed one day later by the Arab League.
Last week, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the 57-member group, also condemned the attacks.

Video - Migrants storm port of Calais

A Closer Look at 'Europe's Worst' Refugee Camp

While many pages have been filled with stories from the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais, another refugee camp – Dunkirk – around 50 kilometers away from Calais, hasn’t been talked about very much.

Germany's Deutsche Welle (DW) reported about the horrible living conditions at the Dunkirk refugee camp, home to predominantly Kurdish refugees from Syria.
The refugee camp has quickly grown from 700 inhabitants in October of 2015, to more than 3,000 now.
"This place is for animals, not for humans. France is not good for us," one of the refugees, Omed Mohamed, told DW, while standing ankle-deep in the mixture of mud and human waste.
A migrant is reflected in a puddle as he walks past shelters in a muddy field called the Grande-Synthe jungle, near Dunkirk, northern France
A migrant is reflected in a puddle as he walks past shelters in a muddy field called the Grande-Synthe jungle, near Dunkirk, northern France
Dunkirk is arguably Europe's worst refugee camp and has conditions "unseen anywhere else along the migration trail," said Angel Muller, a project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Grande-Synthe, according to DW.
The camp has only two water faucets and one toilet per 115 people. Rats are said to be crawling around the tents in search of scraps of food. Needless to say, the smell around the camp can be intolerable to many, but refugees in Dunkirk have no choice.
Migrants get warm around a brazier in the migrants camp of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk
Migrants get warm around a brazier in the migrants camp of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk
Muller said that refugee camps in South Sudan with 80,000 people are better coordinated than the Dunkirk camp, which has 3,000 people in a rich country like France.
"It's really a shame for me [as a French citizen]," Muller told DW.
Since a local municipality clearly isn't doing much to alleviate the dire situation in the camp, refugees are able to survive only thanks to MSF and volunteers willing to help out of the goodness of their hearts, according to DW.
Migrants prepare their food outside shelters in a muddy field called the Grande-Synthe jungle, near Dunkirk, northern France
Migrants prepare their food outside shelters in a muddy field called the Grande-Synthe jungle, near Dunkirk, northern France
Volunteer Mecha den Houdyker, for example, visits the camp every weekend to clean up drainage ditches, submerged waist-deep in them, hoping to decrease the spread of disease. The drainage ditches are often used as bathrooms.
Just last week, the head of the MSF mission in France told Sputnik that the French government was not willing to spend a single cent on the construction of a new refugee camp. So MSF alone would have to construct a new camp.
Europe is struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from conflict-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the United Nations, over a million migrants crossed into Europe via the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas in 2015.

Read more:

Video - Turkey knows Middle East going to blow up, should stay out of it - ex Margaret Thatcher advisor

Russia, US agree to have 2 rebel delegations at Syria peace talks - reports

Moscow and Washington are close to reaching a compromise on the participants of the Syria peace talks set to start next week. Two separate Syrian opposition delegations are expected to be invited to the negotiations in Geneva, according to media reports.
United Nations-sponsored negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition have already been postponed over disagreements between the US and Russia, which could not reach agreement on which opposition groups should be represented. The talks are being arranged to try to bring an end to Syria’s five-year civil war.
Washington supports the participation of the Saudi-backed Islamist militia Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) - something Moscow has strongly objected to. Russia insists that political figures it deems more moderate, such as Qadri Jamil, a former Syrian deputy prime minister, and Saleh Muslim, co-head of the Syrian Kurdish group PYD, should join the negotiations, Kommersant daily reported Saturday.
A compromise has allegedly now been reached, however, with Moscow agreeing to the presence of Jaysh al-Islam at the talks. In return, Washington will not object to a separate Syrian opposition delegation being invited, Bloomberg reports, citing three Western and UN diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The ‘main’ opposition delegation was rubberstamped in the Saudi capital Riyadh in December, and represents opposition groups sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the West.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, is now likely to send invitations to two opposition groups - one proposed by Washington, another recommended by Moscow.
“We are confident that with good initiative in the next day or so, those talks can get going,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Saturday in Riyadh, where he has been seeking a deal on the Syria talks.
De Mistura is expected to elaborate on the latest details of the peace process at a press-briefing in Geneva on Monday, his spokeswoman Jessy Chahine said.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made no comments in a press conference on Friday regarding which opposition groups will attend the talks in Geneva.
The nations assisting the Syria peace talks have reached an agreement to form a transitional government in Syria by mid-2016, with an aim to hold elections in 2017. According to Russian and Western diplomats, Moscow has managed to shutter Washington’s previously indispensable prerequisite that Bashar Assad must leave his presidential post before the transition process can start.
Moscow has always insisted that it is up to the Syrian people to decide whether President Assad should stay or go, and the participation of the acting president in the next elections remains on the table.
At the moment there are two anti-Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) coalitions operating in Syria - one headed by the US, the other by Russia.
The Russian military’s air operation against IS in Syria began four months ago, and has significantly disrupted terrorist communications and supply routes. Islamic State’s illegal trafficking of stolen Syrian and Iraqi oil has been crippled to such an extent that the terrorists have been forced to compensate the shortfall in profits by increasing taxes, cutting salaries to militants and attempting to take drug production in Afghanistan under its control.
The Syrian Army loyal to President Assad is also conducting an offensive on terrorist positions, and has liberated a number of settlements. The spearhead of the assault is directed against the borders with Turkey and Jordan, in order to cut terrorist supply routes and prevent reinforcements from abroad from infiltrating Syria.
According to an official Russian Defense Ministry report on January 15, since the beginning of the air operation in Syria on September 30, Russian warplanes have made over 5,660 combat sorties and launched 97 airborne and seaborne cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria.

Why are so many strong female skaters from Russia?


Competition in women’s figure skating in Russia has never been so tough. Sochi Olympics heroines Adelina Sotnikova and Yulia Lipnitskaya and the world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva have given way to younger athletes. Many of them are under 15 years old.

In December 2015, Russia’s national figure skating championship brought sensational results: both Olympic champions, Yulia Lipnitskaya and Adelina Sotnikova, as well as the current World Champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva were left out of the top three winners, which says quite a lot about the level of competition. However, this season, these recent champions have fallen even farther from the winners’ circle.
Other young athletes led by 16-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva, have come to the forefront. The equally young Elena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya also achieved great results at the Grand Prix series final. Even younger skaters are getting ready for victories: 14-year-old Polina Tsurskaya, 15-year-old Maria Sotskova and 13-year-old Alisa Fedichkina already occupy high places in national rankings.
RBTH investigates where this new golden generation of Russian skaters comes from.


There have been prodigies in women's figure skating since time immemorial. Three-time Olympic champion Sonja Henie from Norway first appeared at major international competitions at the age of 11. East Germans Anett Pötzsch and Katarina Witt were stars in the 1970s. The former made her debut at the European Championship when she was 13, the latter at age 14.
There was a similar youth project in the USSR. The legendary coach Stanislav Zhuk brought 12-year skater Elena Vodorezova onto the ice at the European championships in January 1976, in Geneva, Switzerland. With her funny braids, Vodorezova made a splash. In the short program she performed the 2 + 3 cascade for the first time in the world. Even men weren’t able to do this at that time.

Age limits

It’s a thankless task to compare a 15-year-old and a 22-year-old solo performer due to their differences in psyche and physical capabilities. However, sometimes both of them are involved in the same tournaments. Nominally age limits exist, but often athletes of rather youthful ages are allowed to take part in adult competitions. Lipnitskaya, Sotnikova and Tuktamysheva are three recent examples. Now, at an age when a female's body experiences hormonal changes, all three athletes have begun to encounter serious difficulties.
“There should be age limits, taking into account the physiology of athletes,” says coach Tatiana Mishina. “Of course, for a little girl it’s easier to jump and not be scared. Young athletes are also considerably more stable. Everybody knows that. The body is arranged in such a way that nothing can be done about it."

A talented generation

Today each one of the top eight Russian solo performers is capable of winning any international competition. Over the past 2.5 seasons at both the adult and junior levels Russians lost only two gold medals – the 2013/14 season Grand Prix finale and the World Championship were won by Japanese skater Mao Asada.
A similar situation was observed in the late 1990s. Then the Russian team gathered a wonderful constellation of solo performers: Irina Slutskaya, Maria Butyrskaya and Elena Sokolova. But, unlike the present case, the age difference between the oldest (Butyrskaya) and the youngest (Slutskaya) was much more significant - seven years instead of three.

Vivid examples

Over the last decade, figure skating in Russia has been experiencing a real boom. Last but not least, its popularity is associated with numerous televised ice shows. The most successful one – "Stars on Ice" – was launched in 2006 by Ilya Averbukh, the ice dancing world champion in 2002. It is this television program in particular that has motivated parents to encourage their children to take up figure skating.

Coaching secrets

Previous generations of top Russian trainers have carefully kept their professional secrets from prying eyes, so subsequent waves of coaches have had to reinvent the wheel. Surprisingly, they have greatly succeeded at this. Practically the entire top 10 of today's top Russian skaters have been “placed in orbit” by different coaches. The list of top coaches today includes Alexei Mishin, Eteri Tutberidze, Anna Tsareva, Inna Goncharenko and Tatiana Odinokova.

Flint Mayor Endorses Hillary Clinton

By Amanda Terkel 

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver (D) endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, repeatedly thanking her for the work she and her campaign have done on the water crisis facing the Michigan city.
"We want a friend like Hillary in the White House," Weaver told reporters in a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign Tuesday morning. "That's exactly what we need to have happen."
Weaver didn't necessarily intend to make endorsement news Tuesday. After she praised Clinton, a reporter told the mayor that her comments sounded like she was backing the former secretary of state.
"Yeah, it does sound like it, doesn't it? I want Hillary," Weaver said, chuckling.

"As far as what Hillary Clinton has done, she has actually been the only -- the only -- candidate, whether we're talking Democratic or Republican, to reach out and talk with us about, 'What can I do? What kind of help do you need?'" she added.
Clinton has elevated the crisis in Flint, where city residents have been drinking tap water with dangerously high levels of lead, by bringing it up on the campaign trail and giving it increased national attention. Last week, she sent two of her top campaign aides to Flint to assist city officials. And during Sunday's Democratic debate in South Carolina, Clinton brought up the issue again.
"We've had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways and majority African-American, has been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water," she said. "And the governor of that state acted as though he didn't really care."
Weaver said Tuesday that after Clinton's debate comments, she heard from people excited that the crisis was getting the attention it deserved.
"People just started calling and texting and saying how thankful they were to her for bringing this up and putting this out there and letting us know that she was willing to fight for us the way she took this on," Weaver said.
The mayor said she has spoken with Clinton directly about the crisis. The campaign said there were no immediate plans for Clinton to go to Flint but did not rule it out. 

Clinton, once in Cabinet, wins support from Obama officials

Hillary Clinton hasn’t just been wrapping herself in President Barack Obama’s legacy. She’s been wrapping herself in his Cabinet.Remember, she was Obama’s first secretary of state.
With Obama’s endorsement out of reach for now, the Clinton campaign has racked up support from his administration’s top officials. It’s part of an effort to win over loyalists in the Obama coalition as she fights for every edge.
Obama’s housing chief, Julian Castro, campaigned for Clinton in Nevada on Saturday and scheduled stops in Iowa on Sunday.
Clinton recently accepted the endorsement from Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and former Attorney General Eric Holder.And Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Labor Secretary Tom Perez are on the list of current and former officials backed Clinton.

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L.A. PARKER: President Obama responsible for Bristol Palin’s baby mama drama

By L.A. Parker

President Obama responsible for Bristol Palin’s mama drama

If Sarah Palin wants to hold responsible President Barack Obama for her son Track’s alleged post traumatic stress disorder condition then he should assume part of the blame for Bristol Palin’s second out-of-wedlock child birth.

Not that Obama is the baby’s daddy but if the POTUS in 2008 had not defeated Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his dingbat vice-president running mate, Sarah Palin, then Bristol would have had a security detail to prevent her legs opening more frequently than the Burlington-Bristol bridge.

Sarah Palin last week told a Tulsa, Oklahoma crowd while endorsing presidential candidate Donald Trump that President Barack Obama deserved part of the blame for her son’s health issues.
Palin said Obama had shown disrespect to veterans like Track Palin, who she said suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Track Palin condition became news last week when Wasilla, Alaska police arrested him on domestic-violence and weapons charges after a fight with his girlfriend.
Trump agreed with Palin, telling CNN news anchor, Don Lemon, that this issue falls in Obama’s lap.
“Look, everything starts at the top. He’s the president. And I think you can certainly (blame Obama).. And all you have to do is look at the Veterans Administration, and look at the bad, the horrible care our vets get. One of the many things I’m going to do is I’m going to straighten that mess out,” Trump said.
Neither Trump nor Palin mentioned that former President George W. Bush started war entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan, quagmired incursions that melded U.S. troops to foreign hell.
Track Palin would have been safe at home in Wasilla if not for U.S. war games that solved almost nothing. People were killed and U.S. insiders earned great wealth by rebuilding infrastructures after U.S. bombs delivered death and destruction.
We initiated the death of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein but U.S. families suffered tremendous loss of life for no real objective.
The U.S. suffered about 10,000 soldier deaths in both conflicts while American forces killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers.
Yet, Palin and Trump scapegoated President Obama with ridiculous accusations that received pushback from reasonable sources.
“It’s not President Obama’s fault that Sarah Palin’s son has PTSD,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who heads Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
“PTSD is a very serious problem, a complicated mental health injury and I would be extremely reluctant to blame any one person in particular.”
Meanwhile, Bristol Palin, who preached abstinence, should find a way to connect what she’s called a “planned” pregnancy, to President Obama.
No doubt room exist in the White House for Britol Palin and her brood.