Sunday, September 13, 2015

Putin Said to Explore Sidelining Assad Even as Russia Arms Him

Putin Said to Explore Sidelining Assad Even as Russia Arms Him

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Russia is sending signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Syria’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad to be eased out of power as it seeks to forge a united front against Islamic State and retain influence in the region, officials and Syrian opposition leaders said.
Officials from the three countries, as well as from the opposition, have been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Assad since at least June, when President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, they said. Saudi Arabia is Assad’s main regional enemy, while Russia is his longtime ally. Since then, Russia’s whirlwind diplomacy has brought key officials from across the region to Moscow for talks.
Syria’s civil war has traumatized the Middle East, spilling into neighbors and enabling the rise of Islamic State amid the turmoil. The latest Russian-backed efforts to end the conflict come as its fallout spreads westwards, with hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the European Union.
Like every other aspect of the war in Syria, though, Russia’s policy isn’t straightforward. U.S. and Russian officials say they’re weighing a transition plan that would strip Assad of power while remaining interim head of state.

Putin Gambit

“There’s a convergence on the threat of ISIS,” Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said by phone, using an acronym for Islamic State. “This convergence wasn’t there when they last tried diplomacy two years ago.”
Yet at the same time, Russia is ramping up military aid to Syria, home to its only naval base outside the former Soviet Union. Big questions remain, the U.S. official stressed, including whether Putin really is prepared to see Assad marginalized and, if so, whether he can persuade him to go quietly.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia is set to start flying combat missions from a new air hub inside Syria, other American officials said. Putin may be betting that an increased military presence will either help Assad stay in power or give Russia more sway in influencing the outcome of the crisis if the Syrian leader is forced out.
ISIS controls as much as half of the country, while rebel militias backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are gaining ground, leaving only about a fifth under the government’s firm control, according to Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official. That area is home to most of the population, though, including key urban centers such as the capital, Damascus.

Diplomacy or War?

If Putin continues to escalate his support for Assad, the Saudis, who are suspicious of the Russian leader’s intentions, will respond by stepping up their aid to the rebels, according to Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator and former government adviser.
“The fact that the Russians are sending servicemen to Syria now proves that it’s not diplomacy, it’s war,” he said.
Publicly, Russia remains far apart from the U.S. and its allies on Syria. Asked if Russia would accept Assad staying on in a purely ceremonial role, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “only the Syrian people can decide the fate of Syria, not some outside countries.”
If the gap is narrowing behind the scenes, it may largely be due to Islamic State. Putin came to power fighting Islamist separatists in the Caucasus, and has reason to fear the rise of jihadists in Syria. Their numbers include about 1,000 Russian-speakers, Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Mideast expert, has estimated, raising the threat of attacks inside Russia.

Road Map

Putin is more interested in defeating Islamic State and retaining influence in the Middle East than he is in propping up an increasingly weak ally, according to the Soufan Group, a U.S. security consultancy run by a former counter-terrorism official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The U.S.-Russian overlap may help shape a new road map put forward by the UN’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. It calls for reducing Assad’s role to “protocol” only, London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported Sept. 1.
The UN envoy is assembling working groups of Syrian government and opposition figures for a process dubbed Geneva 3, after two inconclusive rounds of talks in the Swiss city.
“The contours of a deal should be ready by year-end,” said Qadri Jamil, a Kurdish politician and former Syrian deputy premier who now lives in Moscow.

UN Address

Hassan Abdel Aziz, an Assad opponent who flew to Moscow from Damascus for talks, said there’s broad agreement that senior posts in the transitional government will be split evenly between current officials and the opposition, though die-hard Assad loyalists will be excluded.
Putin said last week that Assad agreed to hold early parliamentary elections and invite “healthy” opposition groups into his government. The Russian leader may flesh out his plan when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month, according to Peskov.
Other countries will also need to be brought on board if Russia and the U.S. can find common ground. Saudi Arabia may accept Assad staying on as a powerless figurehead but only during the transition, said Haytham Manna, a Paris-based opposition leader who met with officials in Moscow last month.

Iran, Germany

Iran, Assad’s other main ally, will be forced to fall in line if Putin does “wash his hands” of Assad, said Mustafa Alani, the Dubai-based director of National Security and Terrorism Studies at the Gulf Research Center. Iran depends on the Kremlin diplomatically, particularly after Russia helped broker July’s historic nuclear accord, Alani said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which also negotiated the Iran deal and is the top destination for Syrian refugees, said Saturday that “there’ll be no resolution” to the conflict without cooperation from Russia and the U.S.
While the former Cold War foes have different priorities in Syria, they haven’t always been at loggerheads. Putin averted U.S. airstrikes on Syria in 2013 by convincing Assad to hand over his chemical weapons. In March, Secretary of State John Kerry gestured toward the Russian position when he said the U.S. and its allies would have to negotiate with Assad.

Arms Flow

But the signs that Putin is hedging its bets are still ringing alarm bells in Washington. Russia’s naval facility is just down the coast from the Assad family’s heartland, Latakia, which has seen an influx of Russian materiel and advisers in recent weeks. Two Russian planes carrying 80 tons of humanitarian aid arrived in Latakia on Saturday, Syria’s official Sana news agency said.
President Barack Obama said Russia’s deepening involvement will make it harder to dislodge Assad and find a political solution to the war.
“The strategy they’re pursuing now, doubling down on Assad, I think is a big mistake,” Obama told military personnel at Fort Meade, Maryland, on Friday.
Russia insists its personnel are only in Syria to help government troops operate the weapons being supplied, though it doesn’t rule out taking unspecified “additional measures” as required.
“The Russians are laying the groundwork for some kind of transition,” said Theodore Karasik, a U.A.E-based geopolitical analyst. “It’s just not going to match what the U.S. envisions.”
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Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, says Britain should abolish armed forces 

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The man who will take over the leadership of one of Britain's two major parties has said Britain should abolish its armed forces.
According to a report in The Sun, new Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn made the remarks against the existence of military units in 2012, at an ...

John Boehner's Iran deal lawsuit unlikely to succeed: analysts

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House Speaker John A. Boehner has hinted at a lawsuit to stop President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran, but legal analysts doubted such a move would work, saying it's exactly the kind of case judges will steer clear of.
It's not even clear who, exactly, would even be able to ...

AP Top News at 5:05 p.m. EDT

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AP Top News at 5:05 p.m. EDT
Germany implements temporary border checks to limit migrantsBERLIN (AP) - Germany introduced temporary border controls Sunday to stem the tide of thousands of refugees streaming across its frontier, sending a clear message to its European partners that it needs more help with an influx that is straining its ability to cope. Germany is a preferred destination for many people fleeing Syria's civil war and other troubled nations in the migration crisis that has bitterly divided Europe. They have braved dangerous sea crossings in flimsy boats - another 34 drowned Sunday off Greece - and made long treks across unwelcoming countries in hopes of a better life.
Migrant crisis adjusts Merkel's image, but style unchangedBERLIN (AP) - In the space of two months, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone from being portrayed as the heartless villain in Europe's debt crisis to the heroine of those flooding in to find refuge on the continent. But while different crises have triggered contrasting perceptions of the German leader, Merkel's behavior has appeared consistent: a first-unhurried, then decisive approach to the challenge; an insistence that Europe must abide by international rules; an eye on public opinion at home; and hope that German leadership will help bring about a European solution.
Official: At least 100 homes destroyed by California blazeMIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) - At least 100 homes were destroyed by a wildfire in Northern California's Lake County that raced through dry brush and exploded in size within hours, officials said Sunday. The devastation comes after a separate wildfire to the southeast destroyed at least 81 homes. California Department of Forest Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant says wind gusts that reached up to 30 miles per hour sent embers raining down on homes and made it hard for firefighters to stop the Lake County blaze from advancing. Four firefighters were injured Saturday while battling the flames.
Signs that Republican hopefuls taking sharper aim at TrumpWASHINGTON (AP) - Gladiator season may have arrived in the fight for the Republican nomination. Three days before the next Republican presidential debate, signs abound that some rivals of billionaire developer Donald Trump are taking direct aim at his decisive lead with attacks on his divisive rhetoric and vague policy.
Kentucky clerk case divides religious liberty advocatesNASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kentucky clerk Kim Davis has become a hero to many conservative Christians who see her refusal to issue marriage licenses after the Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage as a litmus test for religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture. But lost in the uproar are the voices of Christians, some equally conservative, who disagree with Davis' stance and worry that holding her out as a martyr will ultimately hurt the cause of religious liberty.
After Iran deal, Obama struggles to regain Israel's trustJERUSALEM (AP) - Seeking to sell his nuclear deal with Iran to a skeptical Israeli public, President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared his deep affection for the Jewish state. But the feelings do not appear to be mutual. Wide swaths of the Israeli public, particularly supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have little trust in the American leader, considering him naive and even hostile. One recent poll showed less than a tenth considered him "pro-Israel."
The Latest on US Open: Start of men's final delayed by rainNEW YORK (AP) - The Latest on the U.S. Open (all times local): 4 p.m.
The Latest: Mariota, Winston begin careers differentlyThe Latest on the NFL's opening Sunday (all times EDT): 4:38 p.m.

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State of Emergency for California Wildfires

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A wildfire that raced through dry brush in Northern California on Sunday heavily damaged the small town of Middletown, burning buildings in the downtown and reducing other parts of the town to ash. The blaze in Lake County is one of two wildfires that sped through parched Northern California on Sunday, destroying at least 81 homes, forcing thousands to flee, injuring four firefighters and prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.   Residents streamed from Middletown...

Election 2016: Dark Assessment of U.S. Seems to Resonate with Voters who Feel Alienated 

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Damning assessments of America’s condition have become a powerful part of the message sounded by several candidates. To listen to the way some Republicans tell it, America is a pretty awful place these days.
“A hell hole,” as Donald J. Trump has put it. Our leaders are “babies” who are “so stupid” they can only watch helplessly as we become “a third-world country.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sees evil menacing America not just from within, like the “tyranny” and “lawlessness” of jailing a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, but from the outside as well.
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Refugees get a chance to wash and rest their weary soles in Budapest

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At Keleti train station, the stories of aslyum seekers can be seen in their swollen, blistered feet.















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Russian opposition party claims success in regional election

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Parnas said its exit polling shows it won 6% of vote in Kostroma, surpassing threshold of 5%, but state pollster says it won only 2.6%
A Russian opposition party has said it has won enough votes to make it into a regional parliament, but a state pollster said it had not passed the 5% threshold.
The opposition party Parnas said its exit polling on Sunday evening showed that it had won 6% of the vote in the province of Kostroma, enough to give its candidate Ilya Yashin a seat in the regional parliament. Electoral officials previously disqualified the opposition in the two other regions it had wanted to run in, saying they could not verify some of the signatures it had gathered to get on the ballot.
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RAF Typhoons: The pilots on standby 24 hours a day to defend British skies 

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On eve of Battle of Britain 75th anniversary, Telegraph given unprecedented access to RAF defences protecting 1 million square miles of airspace









Why are Russian bombers flying close to Britain? 

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RAF jets were last week scrambled for the seventh time this year to intercept Russian bombers near the UK











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Syrians Find It Harder to Flee Country

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While hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants make their way across Europe and stir debate about policies, many other Syrians are struggling just to flee their country.

Russia’s Risky Military Moves in Syria

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Over the last few months a series of diplomatic meetings from Moscow to Washington raised hopes for a serious new push toward a political solution to the vicious war in Syria that has killed more than 250,000 people and forced thousands more to flee to Europe. That optimistic idea has been put in doubt by Russia’s recent moves to significantly bolster military support for Syria’s ruthless dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whose hold on his country is weakening.
Russia has long been a major enabler of Mr. Assad, protecting him from criticism and sanctions at the United Nations Security Council and providing weapons for his army. But the latest assistance may be expanding Russian involvement in the conflict to a new and more dangerous level.
Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and transported prefabricated housing units for hundreds of military personnel to an airfield near Latakia, the Assad family’s ancestral home, The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt have reported. Russia also sent a portable air-traffic station and filed requests to make military flights over neighboring countries through September.
The Americans say Russia’s intentions are unclear. But they are so concerned that Secretary of State John Kerry called the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, twice this month ) and warned of a possible “confrontation” with the United States, if the buildup led to Russian offensive operations in support of Mr. Assad’s forces that might hit American trainers or allies.
The United States is carrying out airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State, which is trying to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, as well as struggling to train and arm moderate opposition groups that could secure territory taken from the extremists.
Russian officials add to the tensions and growing suspicions when they play down or lie about what they are really up to, as they did in Ukraine. In the case of Syria, they initially said the shipments carried only humanitarian aid; later, they admitted deploying military advisers and hardware, but insisted it was all part of a longstanding military agreement with the Assad government. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman also said the Kremlin was weighing its options in terms of intensifying the fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State.
Russia is obviously concerned about the fate of Mr. Assad and his regime, which is struggling to sustain an army after four years of war and is suffering such serious battlefield defeats that the state may not survive. The relationship with Syria dates to Soviet times and is one of Russia’s last levers of influence in the Middle East. Russia operates a small naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean and is keen to preserve it.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, may also be using the buildup to strengthen Russia’s hand in any political outcome in Syria and to constrain America’s military options there. The constructive way to have an impact is for Mr. Putin to drop his opposition to Washington’s and its allies’ insistence that Mr. Assad be replaced as part of a negotiated political settlement that includes a transition to a new government.
The United States has asked countries on the flight path between Russia and Syria to close their airspace to Russian flights, unless Moscow can prove they aren’t being used to militarily resupply the Assad regime. Bulgaria has done so, but Greece, another NATO ally, and Iraq, which is depending on America to save it from the Islamic State, so far have not. World leaders should use the United Nations General Assembly meeting this month to make clear the dangers a Russian buildup would pose for efforts to end the fighting.
For the United States, Russia and many other countries, including Iran (Mr. Assad’s other major ally), defeating the Islamic State, ministering to the millions of Syrians forced from their homes and salvaging what is left of the Syrian state should be shared goals. None can be achieved without a political solution that installs a more inclusive and competent government in Damascus.
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Puerto Rico Can't Heal Itself

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Puerto Rico has finally issued a plan to dig itself out from under $72 billion of public debt -- more than any state in the union except California and New York. It's a pretty good plan, too, except for one thing. The island's legislators can't be trusted to stick to it.
The Working Group for the Fiscal and Economic Recovery of Puerto Rico describes the scale of the problem. Even after calling for spending cuts and higher revenue, it predicts a $13 billion funding shortfall over the next five years, with a cash crunch of $500 million as soon as next June. And, it says, “available resources may be insufficient to service all principal and interest on debt that has a constitutional priority” -- a dark hint that general-obligation bonds might have to be restructured, too.
Puerto Rico's bondholders, including hedge funds lured by high yields, want deeper cuts in spending. They're right, though caution is warranted: Too much austerity would make it harder for the economy, trapped in a prolonged recession, to recover. Without economic growth, Puerto Rico will be even less able to pay its debts.
Puerto Rico's unusual position as a U.S. territory presents fiscal problems of its own. One is emigration to the mainland, which is shrinking the population and the tax base. School enrollment is projected to drop an additional 25 percent by 2020. Yet, even now, the island has more schools and teachers than it needs. The report identifies savings in that part of the budget, as well as measures that include loosening overly restrictive labor laws, revamping the tax system, modernizing creaky public utilities and generally reducing the cost of doing business.
Some of these changes will require the assent of the federal government, such as exemptions on minimum wage and maritime coastal transport laws as well as changes in Medicaid reimbursementformulas. Others will rely on new local legislation.
Unfortunately, there's little in Puerto Rico's recent political past to suggest that it has the gumption to implement real reforms. Earlier this year, for instance, the legislature watered down an effort to fix Puerto Rico's tax system. A recent investigation found that more than 30 government agencies ignored a law that froze hiring and spending. The legislature is polarized, and will become even more so in an election year. Running battles over Puerto Rico's future status yield frivolous legislation on the official language, rather than needed economic reforms.
The Working Group's answer is to empower an independent control board appointed by the governor, with most members proposed by "independent third parties" including the federal government. Whether a partisan governor can appoint an independent board is questionable, however. The U.S. Congress and the federal government are being asked for a lot, including anextension of U.S. bankruptcy law to Puerto Rico; they should insist on a leading role on the board.
Would that trample Puerto Rico's constitution? No more than shredding the protections the island affords to general-obligation bondholders. An effective control board offers the best chance of a brighter future for Puerto Rico's 3.5 million U.S. citizens.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at <a href="mailto:davidshipley@bloomberg.net">davidshipley@bloomberg.net</a>.
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Puerto Rico’s Slide - Bloomberg QuickTake

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Like a consumer using one credit card to pay off another, Puerto Rico had been borrowing to pay its debts as they came due. In June, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said the jig was up: The island commonwealth’s debt can’t be paid. On Aug. 3, the commonwealth defaulted when one of its agencies failed to pay $58 million of principal and interest after the island’s lawmakers declined to allocate the money because of a budget crunch. It was the first default for a Puerto Rico entity. Then on Sept. 9, the governor’s administration reported that even after spending cuts, Puerto Rico will only have about $5 billion available to pay $18 billion in principal and interest payments coming due from 2016 to 2020. As Puerto Rico’s credit ratings have eroded, it has turned to hedge funds, distressed-debt firms and corporate high-yield funds to lend it money. Puerto Rico’s plight also affects most people with a mutual fund invested in the municipal bond market. Unlike the bonds of most states and municipalities, Puerto Rico’s are exempt from local, state and federal taxes everywhere in the U.S. As a result, they are held by 52 percent of open-end muni funds, according to Morningstar Inc. The competitive advantage made it easy for Puerto Rico to double its debt in 10 years by selling bonds to plug annual budget deficits and pay for operating expenses — the combination that brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s.
Wall Street smoothed Puerto Rico’s path to fiscal debacle. After the U.S. territory adopted a sales tax in 2006, investment banks worked with officials in San Juan to create new bonds backed by a portion of the tax. Banks including UBSCitigroup and Goldman Sachs reaped more than $900 million in fees to manage Puerto Rico’s $126.6 billion of bond sales since 2000. These helped the government, which employs more than a quarter of the workforce, put off cuts. The island’s bond rating had fallen below investment grade in March 2014 as it issued $3.5 billion of general obligation bonds. The idea was to balance the budget, refinance debt and buy time to revive a shrinking economy. But it paid dearly, as these junk-rated bonds had an 8.7 percent interest rate. Like U.S. states, it can’t file for bankruptcy. Puerto Rico’s special tax status dates to 1917 and the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Jones-Shafroth Act. Puerto Rico, ceded to the U.S. in 1898 after a war with Spain, has relied for 50 years on this and other tax breaks to drive its economic development. The incentives attracted pharmaceutical, textile and electronics companies. The U.S. phased out the incentives from the mid-1990s to 2006, contributing to the loss of 80,000 jobs. Since 2006, Puerto Rico’s economy has contracted every year except one and its poverty rate is now almost double that of Mississippi, the poorest state. As jobs disappear, more Puerto Ricans are leaving. Population is heading toward a 100-year low by 2050.
Puerto Rico faces the difficult prospect of boosting its economy while fixing its public finances. Since taking office in 2013, Garcia Padilla has moved to raise excise taxes and expand the sales tax base, and to restructure public pensions and reduce the deficit. At the same time, the Puerto Rican government created tax breaks to entice non-residents to move to the island and invest. New residents are exempt from Puerto Rican taxes on interest, dividends and capital gains. Businesses that move and provide services for clients outside of Puerto Rico pay a 4 percent tax rate. Sergio Marxuach, policy director at the Center for a New Economy, a think tank in San Juan, says the government needs to cut spending on services, reduce business tax credits and increase investment in education, infrastructure and technology.
First Published Feb. 11, 2014
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Sanders: I'm concerned about GOP "war talk"

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The Vermont senator talked about how the U.S. should respond to the crisis in Syria, and warns against American "perpetual warfare" in the Mideast

Germany implements temporary border checks to limit migrants 

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BERLIN (AP) - Germany introduced temporary border controls Sunday to stem the tide of thousands of refugees streaming across its frontier, sending a clear message to its European partners that it needs more help with an influx that is straining its ability to cope.
Germany is a preferred destination for ...

Swedish Party's U-turn Reignites NATO Membership Question

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The political debate over Swedish membership in NATO has reignited after the Center Party advocated joining the alliance
       

Stratfor Confirms Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria