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Undercover Israeli forces detain 2 students from Birzeit University

Ma’an – February 2, 2017

undercover_abduct-e1486045796143RAMALLAH – Israeli special forces disguised themselves as Palestinians and “kidnapped” two Palestinian students at the entrance of Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank district of Ramallah on Thursday afternoon, according to a statement released by the university.

The two students were identified as Tawfiq Abu Arqub, a coordinator for the Hamas-affiliated Islamic student bloc at the university, and Basel Falaneh, the secretary of specialities committee of the student council. They were studying computer science and business, respectively.

Birzeit University released a statement after the incident, saying that the two students were detained at the western gate of the university by “a number of [Israeli] soldiers.” Locals also told Ma’an that the students were forced into a vehicle “at gunpoint,” while also pointing guns at other students in the area.

The head of the university’s security, Muhammad Rimawi, stated that Israeli forces had “intercepted” a car that Abu Arqub and Falaneh were riding in, according to the statement, when “a number of undercover occupying forces took the students out of the car and kidnapped them.”

“This is neither new nor unprecedented given the ongoing colonial aggression against the people and institutions of Palestine,” the statement said.

The statement called the incident an “outrageous act of violence,” and part of a larger Israeli campaign resulting in the “rapid arrests” of students.

“This violation of our students’ right to learn is a part of a systematic attack on the right of education and freedom of expression,” the statement added.

The university’s Dean of Student Affairs Muhammad al-Ahmad also said in the statement that Israel’s “repressive measures” against all Palestinians and specifically students “shall only strengthen international efforts in support of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.”

“The University condemns these outrageous acts in the strongest possible terms and calls upon all international and human rights organizations to speak this truth loudly in the face of these violations immediately and without reserve and to stand in solidarity with our struggle,” the statement concluded.

Birzeit University, ranked the top university in Palestine and among the highest-ranking universities in the Arab world, has been the focus of an Israeli military crackdown in recent months, which increased after the Hamas-affiliated Islamic bloc won student elections at Birzeit last year for the second consecutive year.

In December, more than 20 Israeli military vehicles raided the campus before dawn, forced campus security guards to stand against walls, and proceeded to raid several buildings, including the university’s administration building, the student council’s headquarters, Kamal Nasir Hall, and the Faculty of Science.

Another incident occurred in July, when at least 11 Palestinian youths were injured after Israeli undercover forces and soldiers opened live fire on the campus amid clashes sparked by an Israeli raid to detain a former member of the Islamic bloc.

At the start of 2016, Israeli military forces also raided Birzeit, destroying and confiscating university equipment. It was reported at the time that Israeli forces had detained more than 80 students between Oct. 2015 and the start of 2016.

Rights groups have widely condemned the concerted detention of Islamic bloc members at the university since their initial victory in 2015.

The Hamas movement is deemed illegal by the Israeli government — along with the majority of Palestinian political factions and movements — making students involved with the Islamic bloc vulnerable to raids and arbitrary detentions. Members have also been targeted by Palestinian security forces.

February 2, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Referendum on NATO Accession Would Mean Kiev Surrendering Donbass – DPR

Sputnik – 02.02.2017

DONETSK – A referendum on Ukraine’s accession to NATO would mean Kiev’s ultimate renunciation of Donbass as the region is against joining the alliance, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) leader Alexander Zakharchenko said Thursday.

In a recent interview with German daily Berliner Morgenpost, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he intended to hold a referendum on the country’s accession to NATO.

“An attempt to hold a referendum on Ukraine’s accession to NATO means Kiev is ultimately surrendering Donbass. First, because Donbass will not be able to participate in the referendum… Second, we have repeatedly said that one of the most important demands of Donbass is that Donbass calls for friendly and allied relations with Russia and, therefore, against NATO,” Zakharchenko told Sputnik.

In December 2014, Ukraine canceled its non-aligned status, confirming its intention to join NATO. Poroshenko said a referendum on NATO membership would be held by 2020, after all NATO requirements have been met.

February 2, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , | Leave a comment

Ukraine’s offensive ‘aimed at preventing Russian sanctions being lifted’: provokes criticism instead

By Alexander Mercouris | The Duran | February 1, 2017

Just a few days ago on RT’s Crosstalk programme Peter Lavelle, myself and the two other guests, Dmitry Babich and Ed Lozansky, discussed the Ukrainian regime’s likely reaction to the new Trump administration.

We all agreed that the likely response of the Ukrainian regime to the steps the Trump administration is taking to try to patch up US relations with Russia would be to escalate military tensions in the Donbass with a view in part to bolstering its political support in the West as this appeared to slide.

Our discussion took place in the early stages of the latest Ukrainian military offensive near the village of Avdeevka in eastern Ukraine. Since we had our discussion the situation has escalated – exactly as we predicted – with the fighting becoming fiercer and more bitter.

There is as always dispute about the state of the fighting and who is winning.  The Ukrainians predictably claim to be advancing. More reliable reports suggest they have in fact made little headway, and that their losses are high.

The most important point about the fighting is not that it is happening, or that it is getting worse.  Despite the two Minsk agreements – agreed by Ukraine in September 2014 and February 2015 – fighting in the Donbass has never stopped, and bitter flare ups repeatedly happen, as the Ukrainian military repeatedly goes back onto the offensive.

Rather what is striking about the latest fighting is that for the first time Ukraine is coming under criticism from the West.

For the first time since it was created the OSCE monitoring mission is apparently blaming Ukraine for the fighting.

Meanwhile a statement released by the US State Department – whose press office is still headed by Obama’s appointee Mark Toner – not only failed to support Ukraine but also failed to blame Russia for the fighting.  Instead it merely expressed “deep concern” and support for the Minsk II agreement (which Ukraine is violating) whilst appearing to contradict Kiev’s casualty claims by speaking of “dozens of Ukrainian military casualties” as opposed to the dozen dead Ukraine has admitted to.

Of far greater concern to the Ukrainian regime must however be the reaction of the German government, which following the change of administration in the US is now the one important ally it has left.

According to a report in Süddeutsche Zeitung, not only is the German government blaming Ukraine for the fighting, but it is apparently worried that the Ukrainian regime will achieve the opposite of its intentions. Specifically it seems the Germans realise the purpose of the offensive is to prevent US President Trump from cancelling the sanctions US President Obama imposed on Russia. However the Germans are worried that Trump will cancel the sanctions anyway, despite the fighting, leaving Ukraine further exposed.

Here is how Süddeutsche Zeitung explains German thinking

According to Berlin, whose information is based, among other things, on reports from the OSCE mission in the Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian military forces are currently trying to shift the front line in their favour…..

According to some members of the German government, this might be intended to increase tensions so as to block plans by US President Donald Trump to relax the sanctions. According to Berlin’s interpretation, Poroshenko wants to do just about anything to prevent an end to the sanctions against Russia.

The Federal [German] Government is however concerned that Kiev’s calculus could be counterproductive. Trump might ease the sanctions independently of the situation at the contact line. And then Kiev would be faced with double damage: an improvement in Russia’s position with a simultaneous intensification of the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine.

Whether it is possible to dissuade Kiev from its own provocations, no one in Berlin dares to predict.

If the Germans really are thinking in this way then it is understandable why Ukrainian President Poroshenko has just cut short his visit to Germany. Instead of getting the support from the Germans he might have been expecting, hearing this sort of thing would have been – to put it mildly – extremely unwelcome. It’s not surprising that Poroshenko preferred to return home rather than hear it.

How far Poroshenko and the Ukrainian regime are prepared to go in pursuing their latest offensive remains to be seen. The key point however is that even if some sort of ceasefire is patched up, it will not mean peace in Ukraine or the Donbass. Quite simply peace in Ukraine and the Donbass cannot happen so long as the current regime in Kiev remains in power.

In that respect the article in Süddeutsche Zeitung points to the key problem which has stood in the way of peace in Ukraine and the Donbass since the start of the conflict there.

Having trapped herself into a policy of open ended support for the current Ukrainian regime, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (the likely source of the story in Süddeutsche Zeitung ) is not really concerned with Ukrainian responsibility for the latest fighting in the Donbass, even though it breaches the Minsk agreement and a succession of ceasefires which she has herself negotiated. The report in Süddeutsche Zeitung contains no hint of moral censure by her of Poroshenko’s or the Ukrainian regime’s actions.

Instead Merkel’s concern is that because of Donald Trump’s policy of rapprochement with Russia the Ukrainian regime, by violating the Minsk agreement and the ceasefires by going on the military offensive, may be overreaching itself, threatening its own existence and by extension Merkel’s position in Germany and Europe.

Needless to say the converse of this is that if contrary to Merkel’s expectations the Ukrainian “calculus” turns out right, and the Ukrainians either achieve a military breakthrough or prevent the lifting of the sanctions, then Merkel will be delighted, in spite of the fact that the Ukrainians have violated the Minsk agreement and the ceasefires she has herself negotiated by going on the offensive.

So long as such cynical attitudes persist in Western capitals the Ukrainian conflict will continue because the Ukrainian regime will feel that it has a critical mass of Western support it can always rely upon however badly it behaves.

I would add that the cynicism behind Merkel’s thinking revealed by Süddeutsche Zeitung – which is so different from the moralising poses she likes to strike – is actually typical of her, and in large part explains the widespread mistrust and dislike of her there now is in Russia, in many European capitals, and quite possibly before long in the US.

It remains to be seen whether the new Trump administration in the US is able or willing to break with it, bringing a hope of peace finally to the Donbass and Ukraine, and securing the basis for a better relationship with Russia, which without a settlement of the conflict in Ukraine is in the end impossible.

February 1, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | | Leave a comment

King Salman has no issues with Trump

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | January 30, 2017

The US President Donald Trump must be a man with a queer sense of humour. He kept the call to King Salman of Saudi Arabia pending for his announcement on Friday to fully sink in – to the effect that the Saudi citizens will be subject to “extreme vetting” before being allowed to enter America.

Trump singled out Saudi Arabia as the only GCC country to be treated badly like this, on par with Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Finally, Trump made the call to Salman on Saturday. One would have liked to be a fly on the wall in the Oval Office. From all accounts, neither side showed fluster. The conversation was smooth as silk.

Salman is the Custodian of the Two Holy Places, and yet he didn’t raise the issue of Trump’s Muslim ban, which has created a world-wide uproar, including among non-believers.

Not only that, the accounts of the conversation suggest that Trump’s main purpose was to demand that Saudi Arabia should fund the ‘safe zones’ in Syria and Yemen – yes, Yemen, too, where the Saudis have been involved in a war of destruction. Simply put, Trump pricked the Saudi pride and 24 hours later asked Riyadh for money. Apparently, Salman agreed.

Thereupon, Trump and Salman agreed on the importance of making ‘joint efforts’ to erase the Islamic State from the face of the earth. The White House readout says,

  • The president requested, and the King agreed, to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts.

The Saudi press agency initially omitted any reference to Salman’s commitment on the ‘safe zones’, but later put out an amended version to say, “The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had confirmed his support and backing for setting up safe zones in Syria.” It nonetheless did not mention Yemen, where a Saudi alliance is waging a bloody military campaign against the Houthi group.

The Saudi version emphasised that Salman and Trump affirmed the “depth and durability of the strategic relationship” between the two countries. For Salman, it is crucially important to proclaim that Trump intends to continue with the strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. His main worry would be that without Trump’s support, Iran will steal a march over Saudi Arabia as the dominant Muslim power in the Middle East.

Curiously, Salman went on to invite Trump “to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially.” Plainly put, Saudi Arabia is petrified about a US retrenchment from the Middle East and is willing to overlook anything – even the humiliating blow of Trump’s Muslim ban – if only the American troops stayed on.

Salman’s fawning attitude in the face of Trump’s Muslim ban will put the Ummah in a quandary. Logically, Saudi Arabia ought to have reacted strongly in the same unequivocal manner in which Iran has reacted. No sooner than Trump announced a travel ban on Iranian nationals, Tehran imposed a reciprocal ban on US citizens. A foreign ministry statement said in Tehran on Saturday,

  • While respecting the American people and distinguishing between them and the hostile policies of the U.S. government, Iran will implement the principle of reciprocity until the offensive U.S. limitations against Iranian nationals are lifted.

Herein lies the secret of the western hegemony over Muslim Middle East. The bizarre truth is that the Gulf Arab regimes relish criticizing the US’s policies but cannot live without US military support because without that support they would collapse like a pack of cards. Besides, the Saudi elites keep their illegal private wealth in western banks and they own vast properties and business interests in the US. They travel to the US for fun as a permissive home away from their Wahhabi environs. In sum, they simply cannot afford to uphold self-respect and dignity as norms in their dealings with the Americans.

To be sure, Trump has put fear into the Saudi mind. What worries Salman most is Trump’s earlier stance that if the families of the victims of 9/11 attacks seek compensation from Saudi Arabia, he wouldn’t stand in the way. The finger has been pointed at important figures in the House of Saud for complicity in the 9/11 attacks.

But the Iranians have no such problem. They can insist on equal relationship and mutual respect from Washington because they owe Trump nothing. I can only echo Pakistani politician Imran Khan’s stirring call: “’Iran is an independent nation and other (Muslim) nations need to follow Iran against foreign pressures.” But then, Khan Saheb is asking too much.

January 30, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , | Leave a comment

Middle East: Rapid Tectonic Changes on Regional Chessboard

By Peter KORZUN | Strategic Culture Foundation | 30.01.2017

The Middle East geopolitical scenarios are going through rapid changes with new factors emerging on the regional chessboard.

Cairo’s foreign policy has been given a new twist. It has been announced recently that Egypt is set to receive one million barrels of petroleum per month from Iraq. Saudi Arabia had informed Egypt that shipments of oil products expected under a $23 billion aid deal have been halted indefinitely, suggesting a deepening rift between the countries. From now on, Egypt will enjoy as much oil as it needs at a lower cost, compared to Saudi pricing.

Egyptian President Al-Sisi rejected the Saudi-backed efforts to overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad. He is also reaching out to former-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and to his Houthi allies Saudi Arabia is fighting since March 2015. Cairo opened diplomatic channels with the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah, fighting on the side of President Assad in Syria against the rebel groups supported by Riyadh.

Iraq will provide Egypt with 1 million barrels of Basra light oil each month. The agreement involves extending an oil pipeline from Iraq to Egypt via Jordan. In December, Iraqi petroleum minister Ali al-Luiabi met with the heads of major oil and natural gas companies in Cairo, inviting them to contribute into developing the industry in his country.

Egypt is about to train four Iraqi army units on war against terrorism, in light of the rapprochement between Egypt and the Iraqi-Iranian axis in the region.

It also mulls sending peacekeeping troops to Syria during the coming days to support the ceasefire agreement under the auspices of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It has been reported that a unit of Egyptian ground forces might deploy to Syria this month. Last October, Syrian National Security Bureau head Ali Mamlouk visited Cairo to meet Khaled Fawzy, the head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. The two sides agreed to coordinate political positions and strengthen cooperation in «the fight against terror».

Egypt is a predominantly Sunni nation. Its open support of the Russia-backed coalition in Syria is a game changing event of fundamental importance. It makes the sectarian interpretation of the Syria’s conflict not valid anymore.

Middle East Observer quotes Nziv Net, an Israeli outlet close to intelligence sources, saying that «Egypt has sent a group of officers to Syria for the first time since the relations have frozen during Morsi’s reign».

Last December, Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Jaafari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, called on Egypt to participate in a «strategic project to fight terrorism», which includes Iran.

In September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shoukry met for the first time with his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, during their visits to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

In October, Egypt backed a Russian-backed motion in the UN calling for a ceasefire in Syria. The move angered Saudi Arabia, which suspended oil shipments to Cairo.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly affirmed his support for the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The relations between Russia and Egypt have been on the rise. In February 2015, Egypt signed a breakthrough agreement on establishing a free trade zone with the Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.

The progress in military cooperation is tangible. Egypt signed arms deals with Russia worth up to $5 billion by 2015 to include 50 MiG-29M combat aircraft, Buk-M2E and Antey-2500 long range air defense systems and about 50Ka-52K helicopters for Egypt’s new Mistral-class assault ships bought in France. The ships will receive the originally planned Russian helicopters and electronics suite.

The two countries signed several agreements for the renovation of military production factories in Egypt. A protocol is signed to grant Egypt access to GLONASS, the Russian global satellite positioning system. In September, Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy visited Russia to discuss the issues related to long-term close security relationship. Last October, the militaries held a joint exercise.

Egypt is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, the third-most populous in Africa and the fifteenth-most populous in the world. Last year, the country’s population has just reached 92 million. Its policy shift is well-substantiated. Cairo is fighting the Islamic State on the Sinai Peninsula. The fierce fighting there seldom hits media headlines but the IS poses a grave threat to Egypt. IS militants can also strike Egypt from Libya. The IS presence in Libya brings Egypt and Algeria together as the two great nations face the same threat.

The emerging Iran, Iraq, Russia and Turkey alliance may also include Algeria. In response to the growing menace, Algiers is strengthening ties with Moscow. It has recently purchased 14 Su-30MKA fighters and 40 Mi-28 «Night Hunter» attack helicopters from Russia. Last February, Russia and Algeria laid out a road-map for deepening bilateral economic and military cooperation during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Algeria.

Russia’s cooperation with Egypt, Algeria and other countries of the Middle East and North Africa reflects Moscow’s growing clout in the region.

With the Astana process making progress, other large and influential actors, such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria, may join the emerging Russia, Iran, Turkey coalition to make the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region face tectonic and dramatic changes.

January 30, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trump’s Muslim ban is insulting but sheikhs will adapt

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | January 29, 2017

The US President Donald Trump has hit Pakistan and Saudi Arabia hard where it hurts most – making things difficult for their elites to travel to America or get a Green Card — by subjecting the visa applicants to ‘extreme vetting’.

To societies such as Pakistan (or India for that matter), the ultimate insult that Washington can give is to deny the elites the privilege to visit America. Pakistani elites were willing to eat grass if necessary for making atom bomb, but if restrictions are put on their travel to America, it hurts. The bottom line is seamless freedom to criticize America and alongside unhindered right to visit America. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistani elites are livid with anger. The reaction ranges from embarrassment to indignation. In an editorial comment, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation advised the government that “its attempts to befriend the Trump administration might be altogether pointless.”

But Trump won’t retract. He knows it is an immensely popular move, as the average American thinks that the Muslim is a troublemaker and best kept away at arm’s length.

How do the European countries see Trump’s move? Will they emulate him? The fact of the matter is that anti-Muslim feelings are widespread in the countries of western and central Europe too. However, Europe may dither, because it damages their self-esteem as the ‘civilized world’ if primeval passions mutate as state policies. Besides, western companies make a lot of money in the CGG markets.

How will India look at Trump’s Muslim ban? The government will probably find it expedient to take an evasive stance by keeping mum or choosing to take a stroll on the sidewalk. A ‘senior MEA official’ probably did that by observing,

  • India is not really worried at the moment as the religious radicalization has not been a big problem in the country and it has not been a source of refugees. So far no Indians have been arrested abroad for being involved in acts of terror.

Will India’s political parties voice opinions? This is, after all, election time in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, the hardliners among our elites may (quietly) draw some vicarious satisfaction. One of them has blamed Trump for being not hard enough on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s detractors in America allege that he made an exception of those Muslim countries where he has business interests. Bloomberg illustrated the point with graphics. Take a look, here. In reality, though, it is a weak argument. With the solitary exception of the UAE, whose sheikhs have had a dismal record of promoting radical Islamist groups as instruments of foreign policies, Trump’s business empire overwhelmingly spans the non-Muslim world – Argentina, Brazil, Bermuda, Canada, China, Ireland, UK and US.

Will this sort of discriminatory attitude of viewing Muslim countries as plague-ridden regions colour Trump’s policies toward the Muslim Middle East? These are early days. Trump is courting Israel, but then, he could be calculating that it pays to keep the Jewish lobby in America (which controls the Congress, media and think tanks) happy. In Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has a cabinet minister who extensively cultivated Middle eastern elites. But the US has no more reason to covetously eye the Middle East’s oil. The US is not only energy self-sufficient but will likely be a major exporter in a conceivable future. Having said that, petrodollar recycling still continues to be of relevance to US industry and banking system.

Trump could be betting that the sheikhs have no option but to swallow the humiliation. A trace of contempt was probably discernible in his pugnacious remark calling for ‘safe zones’ for Syrian refugees, during a post-election thank-you trip in December:

  • We’ll build safe zones in Syria. When I look at what’s going on in Syria, it’s so sad. It’s so sad. And we’ve got to help people. And we have the Gulf States. They have nothing but money. We don’t have money. We owe $20 trillion. I will get the Gulf States to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people can have a chance. So they can have a chance.

So, in the mother of all ironies, Trump is bullish he’d get King Salman to cough up the money to put up Syrian refugees who have been rendered stateless in a bloody conflict that Saudi Arabia in the first instance promoted.  And, furthermore, he now expects that Salman would counsel his princes and princesses to patiently queue up for ‘extreme vetting’ to get American visas. It’s no more possible for them to succumb to the sudden itch to board their private jets and head for America to do shopping or indulge in fun and frolic.

To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia has been bracketed with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trump promised: “We’re going to have extreme vetting in all cases. And I mean extreme. And we’re not letting people in if we think there’s even a little chance of some problem… we’re gonna have extreme vetting. It’s going to be very hard to come in. Right now it’s very easy to come in. It’s gonna be very, very hard. I don’t want terror in this country.” By the way, Trump’s Muslim ban is not applicable to any country other than Saudi Arabia within the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The wheel has come full circle since the Faustian deal between FDR and King Abdul Aziz at their fateful meeting in 1945 in Egypt whereby in lieu for secure access to supplies of Saudi oil, US guaranteed the military security of the Wahhabi regime.

January 29, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Kremlin Warns against US Syria Safe Zone Plan, Says No Contact Made Yet with WH

Al-Manar | January 26, 2017

The Kremlin warned on Thursday against a US plan for safe zones in Syria, saying such move should be thoroughly considered.

Asked to comment on a draft executive order that President Donald Trump is expected to sign this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, underlined the importance to “thoroughly calculate all possible consequences” of the measure.

He noted that “it’s important not to exacerbate the situation with refugees.”

While suspending visas for Syrians and others, the order directs the Pentagon and the State Department to produce a plan for safe zones in Syria and the surrounding area within 90 days.

Meanwhile, Peskov said that direct contacts between the White House and the Kremlin have not been established since President Donald Trump took office.

“Contacts at the level of the administrations are not taking place at the moment, there haven’t been any yet, such contacts are yet to be established,” Peskov told a conference call with reporters.

“Routine diplomatic work is underway, our embassy in Washington is functioning, they are in constant contact with their counterparts in the State Department.”

January 26, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , | Leave a comment

Over 2,600 Militants Laid Down Arms in Syrian Wadi Barada Valley – Russian MoD

Sputnik – 26.01.2017

Over 2,600 militants have laid down arms in Syria’s Wadi Barada valley, which supplies the Damascus province with drinking water, Col. Alexander Blinkov, a spokesman for the Russian Center for Syrian reconciliation, said Thursday.

According to Blinkov, civilians in the area continue receiving humanitarian aid, including food and medicines.

“People living in the Wadi Barada river valley are returning to normal life. The first stage of a complex reconciliation plan for this district is currently being implemented. Over 2,600 people have already settled their status by now. Those militants, who have refused to lay down arms, are leaving for the Idlib province with their families under the supervision of the Syrian authorities,” Blinkov told reporters.

At the same time, militants, who have refused to join the ceasefire and found shelter in highland areas, continue shelling nearby districts and villages, Blinkov added.

The Syrian capital gets most of the water from springs in the Wadi Barada valley. Water supplies were drastically reduced in late December. The problem of the Wadi Barada area, controlled by the opposition, was one of the stumbling blocks at the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

January 26, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | | Leave a comment

US Congress Mulls New Sanctions against Venezuela over Alleged Food Corruption

By Lucas Koerner – Venezuelanalysis – January 23, 2017

Caracas – US congress members on both sides of the aisle have issued calls for new sanctions against top Venezuelan food ministry officials over corruption allegations.

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, urged the new Trump administration to sanction Venezuela’s food minister, Gen. Marco Rodolfo Torres, and other leading officials charged with overseeing the country’s food imports.

“This should be one of President Trump’s first actions in office,” said Rubio, a hardline opponent of Venezuela and Cuba, who chairs the Latin America Foreign Relations subcommittee.

The statement comes in response to an AP report released last month that accused high-ranking military officials, including Rodolfo Torres and his predecessor Gen. Carlos Osorio, of receiving kickbacks from government contracts for food imports. The article relies largely on the testimony of retired military officers opposed to the government as well as internal ministry documents allegedly obtained by AP.

Senator Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed calls for further sanctions, citing unsubstantiated allegations of starvation in the country.

Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Senator Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, likewise stated that they would push for sanctions by the US State and Treasury Departments against the officials in question in addition to pressuring US companies to cut ties with Venezuelan firms linked to corruption.

In July, Rubio, Cardin, and Menendez co-authored a Senate resolution backing Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro’s effort to suspend Venezuela from the body under the Inter-American Democratic Charter, citing “abuses of internationally recognized human rights”.

The latest drive for sanctions follows outgoing US President Barack Obama’s January 13 renewal of an executive order branding Venezuela an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to US national security. The decree was originally signed in March 2015 and included sanctions against seven Venezuelan government officials, freezing their assets and barring entry into the US.

More recently, Trump secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson has indicated that if confirmed he would press for a “transition to democratic rule” in Venezuela, which has been widely interpreted as an endorsement of US-backed regime change efforts.

January 24, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , | 4 Comments

Ukraine May Have a New President in Waiting, But He’s Another Oligarch

Sputnik | January 21, 2017

In December, Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk wrote an explosive op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, laying out how Ukraine can end its conflict with Russia. Pinchuk’s plan is simple: Kiev must close its eyes on Crimea, proceed with elections in Donbass, and forget NATO. Unfortunately, elites in Kiev see his ideas as nothing less than treasonous.

Pinchuk’s appeal, published in the opinion pages of the WSJ on December 29, laid out his vision on how the new administration in Washington can try to sort out the mess in Kiev in the interests of improving relations with Moscow.

Kiev, the billionaire steel magnate wrote, must be willing to compromise, including making a genuine effort to end the civil war that’s being waged in the country’s east. Ukrainian authorities must accept local elections in the breakaway territories, and live up to their commitments under the Minsk agreements, as must Russia, the oligarch added. Crimea, he said, “must not get in the way of a deal that ends the war in the east on an equitable basis.”

Kiev sent the Ukrainian army to deal with unrest in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, after protesters refused to recognize the legitimacy of authorities who came to power in the February 2014 coup d’état. In March 2014, Crimean authorities organized a referendum, asking the peninsula’s residents if they wanted Crimea to rejoin Russia. A whopping 96% voted ‘yes’, and Moscow soon accepted the peninsula’s request.Pinchuk also made proposals on other, related fronts, suggesting that Ukraine “should consider temporarily eliminating EU membership from our stated goals for the near future.” As for NATO membership, he stressed that Kiev should “accept that Ukraine will not join NATO in the near- or midterm.” For now, he said, the country should choose neutrality. He even hinted that Kiev would be “ready to accept an incremental rollback of sanctions on Russia” if that helps to restore peace, unity and security to the country.

Pinchuk’s ideas didn’t include anything radically outside the reigning political orthodoxy in Ukraine. He didn’t propose recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, and maintained that Moscow was to blame for “initiating” the conflict in the east.

Nevertheless, as expected, the billionaire’s op-ed caused uproar both in the Ukrainian media and in political circles. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko thundered that Kiev would never compromise on Russian ‘aggression’, and stressed that he would never abandon plans to join NATO and integrate into the EU. Pundits called the op-ed “An offer to surrender,” condemned Pinchuk’s “tone of appeasement” and defiantly proclaimed that Ukrainians would never accept his peace proposals.

Eventually, Pinchuk was even forced to apologize for publishing the article, blaming heavy editing and WSJ’s provocative headline, which read ‘Ukraine Must Make Painful Compromises for Peace With Russia.’So what was actually behind this political storm in a teacup? According to Radio Sputnik contributor Daria Cherednik, Kiev was mistaken to see Pinchuk’s op-ed a “treacherous blow to the back,” since the jab was actually “direct, open, and frontal – right in the stomach.”

With the publication of the editorial, Cherednik wrote, “all Poroshenko’s horses and all of his men were suddenly alarmed overnight, since the throne under the king had clearly started to wobble.” In fact, she added, not only was the throne wobbling, “but a contender has appeared for the king’s seat. At least that’s how it appeared to the Ukrainian president himself, and to his entourage saw things,” accusing Pinchuk of “filing down the throne’s legs.”

Pinchuk, the journalist recalled, has long been a notable figure in Ukraine’s circles of power. He’s married to the daughter of former President Leonid Kuchma, and is valued at $1.5 billion, making him the third richest person in Ukraine. “But most importantly,” Cherednik added, “he hasn’t been tainted in any political scandal.”Pinchuk “even managed to help finance Hillary Clinton’s election campaign without creating problems with Donald Trump,” the journalist wrote. The oligarch had indeed used the Victor Pinchuk Foundation to make millions of dollars in contributions to the Clinton Foundation, but also paid $150,000 to the Trump Foundation in exchange for a speech by then-candidate Trump in September 2015.

The billionaire’s op-ed in the WSJ was perceived as a stab in the back for obvious reasons, Cherednik stressed. “How else could the current Ukrainian establishment perceive Pinchuk after such ‘seditious speeches’? It would be one thing if he presented his ideas on some local television channel, something that could be cast off as insane and forgotten. But he published his thoughts in an American newspaper. What if the White House reads the article (it surely has) and thinks that Victor Pinchuk is a reasonable figure who’s able to negotiate, and therefore a very suitable candidate for the presidency?”

Kiev certainly didn’t appreciate Pinchuk’s “creative” approach, Cherednik suggested. “Poroshenko and his staff even refused to participate in the traditional breakfast organized by the businessman in Davos on Thursday. And that’s a shame. David Cameron and Henry Kissinger decided that this would be quite a worthy event and did not reject the invitation.” Ultimately, the journalist noted, President Poroshenko was left “standing outside the door at Davos salivating, not just because of the lost opportunities for a delicious meal, but also for the lost company.”

January 21, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Why are US tech firms suddenly trying to restrict RT’s access to social media?

RT | January 20, 2017

On Wednesday RT found its access to Twitter’s official news discovery partner Dataminr stifled, and it was temporarily denied full use of Facebook. These events followed weeks of hysteria about the network in the US.

First up, we need to explain what Dataminr is. It’s an American startup with exclusive access to Twitter’s ‘firehose’ (the full flow of all Tweets in real time), vital to any agency that breaks the news.

While it isn’t hugely significant for casual users, it’s extremely useful for media services, and it appears government intelligence agencies too.

The firehose is also seemingly a valuable resource for anyone looking for illegal activity on Twitter. This is due to how the information can help “explore an individual’s past digital activity on social media and discover an individual’s interconnectivity and interactions with others on social media.”

We know this because a lobbying firm called Beacon Global Strategies told the Danish government about these abilities when pitching a partnership between Copenhagen and the tech company.

RT, along with dozens of other news organizations, has been using Dataminr successfully for some time. Nobody batted an eyelid until a strange Wall Street Journal article last May placed the network center stage in a battle between Twitter and American spies. Headlined “Twitter Picks Russia Over the US,” it suggested that Dataminr was selling information directly to Vladimir Putin, via RT. Meanwhile, it denied CIA operatives access to its platform.
Changing tack

This stance changed five months later, when the startup, which is partially owned by Twitter, agreed to provide an “advanced altering tool” to the FBI. Furthermore, it was at the same time when RT’s relationship with Dataminr suddenly became more confused.

As this network attempted to pay the annual service charge for usage, the tech company insisted they’d prefer monthly payments, as they were “reviewing how we work with government agencies.” While that seemed unusual at the time, the reasons finally became apparent when RT’s access to Dataminr was revoked with immediate effect on Wednesday.

This unfortunate and sad move appears to be a result of the climate of fear that sections of the US press are whipping up around RT and Russian media in general. The preposterous Wall Street Journal article of last May is just one of countless similar diatribes.

Written by Louis Gordon Crovitz, senior enough to have been a former publisher of the paper, it hysterically created the impression that RT was somehow passing on information from Twitter to Russian special services – in other words, baseless, utter nonsense.

Crossed purposes

Just after Dataminr cut off RT, the plot thickened on Thursday when The Verge reported that it wasn’t only Denmark that Beacon had considered collaborating with. They also met officials from Azerbaijan and at least five other embassies over a period of three months. Unlike RT, which used the facility only for news gathering, these pitches were clearly made in ways that suggested it could have been used for surveillance.

While Dataminr has exclusive access to Twitter’s firehose, Facebook has a de facto near-monopoly on the distribution of news these days. Thus, when they blocked RT’s ability to post new links and video from Wednesday night to Thursday evening, it was easy to see the one-two punch to RT’s social media access as more than mere coincidence.

Especially, when RT was accused of breaching terms of service by merely streaming a video purchased under license from the Associated Press; AP confirmed it was entirely legal in a statement to RT. Not just that, but Facebook generated a notice nonsensically alleging that RT’s stream of AP video was infringing on the rights of US state broadcaster Radio Free Europe.

Facebook rectified its error the next day. Where RT’s Dataminr relationship is concerned, it is reasonable to assume the decision to deny service came from high-up in the company – or perhaps even above.

January 20, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , | 1 Comment

What’s going on in Gambia?

By Andrew KORYBKO | Oriental Review | January 20, 2017

An international scandal has been unfolding over the past month due to supposedly outgoing President Jammah’s flip-flopping remarks, with even the UN Security Council asking him to respect the democratic vote of the people and step down like he promised. Just yesterday, in fact, the regional military-economic integrational bloc of ECOWAS launched an invasion in order to depose him. However, everything needs to be put into context here because the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.

Yes, Jammah did lose the vote, and yes, he did initially recognize it as having been free and fair, but in the immediate electoral aftermath, presumable President-elect Adama Barrow and his campaign vowed to go on a political witch hunt and imprison Jammah within the next year. Worse still, they even pledged to reverse his decision to withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, or ICC. What this amounts to is essentially a top-to-bottom purge of the Gambian “deep state”, or its permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies under the presumed justification of carrying out “international justice” against a former “dictatorial regime”.

Adama Barrow

It’s thus somewhat understandable why Jammah so abruptly reversed his former position and perceptively seems to have the backing of the military and police as well. The fact remains that they’re interested in self-preservation, and that Barrow’s witch hunt was a politically premature move to declare when he hadn’t even entered into power yet and had chance of carrying it out. He likely did this to please his foreign patrons, which had been waging a concerted infowar against Jammah due to his domestic policies. The clearest indication of unipolar grand strategic connivance against Jammah and the Gambia comes from former US ambassador to Senegal and Gambia and former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman J. Cohen, who penned an op-ed at allafrica.com titled “Gambia: A message to the Gambia – Build that Bridge.” Former diplomats are usually much more candid than presently serving ones are and thus tend to directly say what the US wants as opposed to ‘diplomatically’ beating around the bush.

Former Ambassador Cohen said that “several African nations have suffered from psycopathic regimes during the past five decades, but the Jammeh dictatorship has assuredly been the worst“. One of the steps that he suggests Barrow’s new government take in rebuilding the country is to, ironically enough, dismantle it through what he says should be “the re-establishment of a confederation between the two nations [meaning with Senegal], including a joint military and a federal parliament.” The former diplomat is surprisingly undiplomatic by characterizing Gambia’s decision to pull out of that former arrangement as a “stupid mistake.” So what we can surmise from all of this lobbying and the ongoing post-election political crisis in Gambia is that the US wants Barrow to purge Jammah and all of his institutional supporters out of the country under the cover of the ICC in order for the country’s sovereignty to be ceded to Senegal under a so-called “confederation”.

January 20, 2017 Posted by | Aletho News | , , , , | Leave a comment