WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama will welcome Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif to the White House on October 23 to encourage his pledge to improve relations with Washington and India.
The announcement of Sharif's visit came from the White House as the premier met US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
“The president looks forward to discussions with Prime Minister Sharif on ways we can advance our shared interest of a stable, secure, and prosperous Pakistan,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
“The visit will highlight the importance and resilience of the US-Pakistan relationship and provide an opportunity for us to strengthen cooperation on issues of mutual concern, such as energy, trade and economic development, regional stability, and countering violent extremism.”
The announcement of Sharif's visit came on the eve of a meeting between Obama and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh at the White House on Friday.
Singh and Sharif are expected to meet at the weekend at the UN General Assembly in an attempt to quell rising border tensions between the rivals.
After Kerry met Sharif, who was elected in May, a senior US official praised his effort to lower tensions in volatile South Asia.
“In the short intervening period (since Sharif's election) he's made it clear that he's committed to improving relations not only with his neighbors but also importantly with the United States,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The officials predicted a “full agenda” for the White House talks but also warned of “frank discussions about some serious challenges and some serious concerns.” The anti-terror alliance between Washington and Islamabad has been troubled ever since it was forged in the days after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
But it has been especially frayed since the US raid to kill Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory in 2011 and a US airstrike, which it claimed, ‘mistakenly’ killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border later the same year.
Washington needs Pakistan's cooperation as it prepares to withdraw thousands of pieces of heavy equipment from Afghanistan ahead of the end of Nato combat operations at the end of 2014.
The United States also wants the Pakistani government to do more to crack down on militant havens. Pakistan, meanwhile, is chafing at continued US drone strikes against militants on its territory.
The senior US official said that Sharif took along his national security advisor, and finance and energy ministers to the meeting with Kerry.
“I think the inclusion of those three ministers is pretty indicative of the priorities of the Sharif government ... in the first 100 days,” the official said.
NAIROBI: Most of the hostages trapped in a Nairobi shopping mall by Islamist gunmen have now been rescued and most of the complex is secure, the Kenya army announced late yesterday. “Our concern is to rescue all hostages ‘ALIVE’ and that is why the operation is delicate,” the Kenya Defence Forces said in a situation update on Twitter.
“All efforts are underway to bring this matter to a speedy conclusion,” it said. The army said four of its soldiers were wounded in the latest fighting inside the upmarket Westgate mall, which was stormed by gunmen from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shabab rebels midday Saturday.
At least 68 people have been killed and 200 wounded in the attack, officials said.
Earlier, Kenyan security forces launched a “major” assault late yesterday on the upscale Nairobi mall where an unknown number of hostages were being held by Al-Qaeda-linked militants, in an operation officials said would end the two-day standoff that had already killed 68 people.
The assault, which began shortly before sun down, came as two helicopters circled the mall, with one skimming very close to the roof. A loud explosion rang, far larger than any previous grenade blast or gunfire volley. Kenyan police said on Twitter that a “MAJOR” assault by security forces was ongoing to end the two-day siege. “This will end tonight. Our forces will prevail. Kenyans are standing firm against aggression, and we will win,” Kenya’s Disaster Operations Centre said on Twitter.
The assault came about 30 hours after 10 to 15 Al-Shabab extremists stormed the mall from two sides, throwing grenades and firing on civilians at will. Loud exchanges of gunfire emanated from inside the four-story upscale mall, throughout the day Sunday. Kenyan troops were seen carrying in at least two rocket propelled grenades and helicopters hovered throughout the day. Al-Shabab militants reacted angrily to the helicopters on Twitter and said the Kenyan military action was endangering hostages.
Kenyan officials said they would do their utmost to save hostages lives, but no officials could say precisely how many hostages were inside. Kenya’s Red Cross said in a statement citing police that 49 people had been reported missing. Officials did not make an explicit link but that number could form the basis of the number of people held captive.
Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked rebel group, Al-Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack that specifically targeted non-Muslims. The attackers included some women. The Islamic extremist rebels said the attack was retribution for Kenyan forces’ 2011 push into neighboring Somalia.
Al-Shabab said on its new Twitter feed – after its previous one was shut down on Saturday – that Kenyan officials were asking the hostage-takers to negotiate and offering incentives. “We’ll not negotiate with the Kenyan government as long as its forces are invading our country, so reap the bitter fruits of your harvest,” Al-Shabab said in a tweet.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reiterated his government’s determination to continue fighting al-Shabab. “We went as a nation into Somalia to help stabilize the country and most importantly to fight
terror that had been unleashed on Kenya and the world,” said Kenyatta.”We shall not relent on the war on terror.”
He said although this violent attack had succeeded, the Kenyan security forces had “neutralized” many others. Earlier in the day Kenyatta said he his nephew and his nephew’s fiance were killed in the attack. Former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told reporters at the mall that a number of people were being held hostage on the third floor and the basement area of the mall, which includes stores for Nike, Adidas and Bose stores. Kenyan security officials sought to reassure the families of hostages inside but implied that hostages could be killed. The security operation is “delicate” because Kenyan forces hoped to ensure the hostages are evacuated safely, said Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Lenku. “The priority is to save as many lives as possible,” Lenku said, adding that more than 1,000 people escaped the attack inside the mall on Saturday.
“We have received a lot of messages from friendly countries, but for now it remains our operation,” Lenku said. More than 175 people were injured in the attack, Lenku said, including many children. Kenyan forces were by Sunday in control of the mall’s security cameras, he said.
Britain’s prime minister, in confirming the deaths of three British nationals, told the country to “prepare ourselves for further bad news.” Westgate Mall is at least partially owned by Israelis, and reports circulated that Israeli commandos were on the ground to assist in the response. Four restaurants inside the mall are Israeli-run or owned.
In Israel, a senior defense official said there were no Israeli forces participating in an assault, but the official said it was possible that Israeli advisers were providing assistance. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing a classified military issue, would not elaborate.
Israel has close ties to Kenya going back many years. And in recent years, Israel has identified East Africa as an area of strategic interest and stepped up ties with Kenya and other neighboring countries, due to shared threats posed by al-Qaida and other extremist elements. In 2002, militants bombed an Israeli-owned luxury hotel near Mombasa, killing 13 people, and tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the same time. Kenyans and foreigners were among those confirmed dead, including British, French, Canadians, Indians, a Ghanaian, a South African and a Chinese woman.
Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian poet, professor and former ambassador to Brazil, Cuba and the United Nations, died after being injured in the attack, Ghana’s presidential office confirmed. Ghana’s ministry of information said Awoonor’s son was injured and is responding to treatment.
Kenya’s Red Cross said the death toll yesterday rose to 68 after nine bodies were recovered in a joint rescue mission. Kenya’s presidential office said that one of the attackers was arrested on Saturday and died after suffering from bullet wounds. Britain’s Foreign Office said that Foreign Secretary William Hague has chaired a meeting of Britain’s crisis committee and sent a rapid deployment team from London to Nairobi to provide extra consular support. The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks and “expressed their solidarity with the people and Government of Kenya” in a statement.-Agencies
WASHINGTON: Republicans in the House of Representatives on Thursday plowed ahead with a bill to gut President Barack Obama's healthcare law while temporarily funding other government programs, ignoring a warning from the White House that the measure would be vetoed.
The bill, which would keep the government running through December 15 and avert shutdowns with the start of the new fiscal year on October 1, cleared a procedural hurdle on Thursday, setting up debate and likely passage on Friday.
"We'll deliver a big victory in the House tomorrow," a confident House Speaker John Boehner predicted.
Several of Boehner's fellow Republicans in the U.S. Senate, however, have rejected the House plan as "foolish," a "silly effort" and one has described it as "the dumbest idea I've ever heard."
The administration wasted no time in formally announcing that it would not allow the Republican-controlled House to destroy the Obamacare healthcare law by denying funds.
In a terse statement, the White House said the House bill would be vetoed "because it advances a narrow ideological agenda that threatens our economy and the interests of the middle class." It went on to say that "millions of hard-working middle class families" would be denied affordable health coverage.
Separately on Thursday, House Republicans took another step in their deficit-reduction drive by again defying an Obama veto threat and passing a bill to cut $40 billion over 10 years from the food stamp program that helps feed the poor.
Boehner declined to say what the House might do if the Senate next week, as expected, rips out the Obamacare defunding provision and sends back to the House a bill to simply keep the government operating through December 15.
But some lawmakers and aides said House Republicans were considering several options that could further delay passage of the legislation with the September 30 deadline looming.
This is the latest round in a series of battles Obama faces with Congress over the next few months in what has become an unending standoff over running Washington's most basic operations, from the FBI and national parks to education and military programs.
The December 15 cut-off date for the funding measure guarantees yet another struggle around Christmas time, when Democrats and Republicans were to fight over whether to scrap across-the-board spending cuts.
Besides the spending bill, Congress and the White House have to either agree in October or early November on a measure to increase U.S. borrowing authority or plunge the country into its first credit default.
House Republicans might unveil their debt limit increase proposal by the middle of next week. It is likely to include approval of the controversial Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf of Mexico and tax and energy initiatives.
REMINDERS OF 2011 MARKET SWOON
In 2011, as Republicans and Democrats fought over spending cuts and a debt limit hike, U.S. financial markets swooned because of all the uncertainty created by the inability of the two parties to work together. Between July 7 and August 9 of that year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average blue-chip stocks fell 16.9 percent.
This year, the fight over spending cuts and debt limit will be just as heated and so far, there are no signs of negotiations, but only some barbed comments by both sides.
"While the president is happy to negotiate with Vladimir Putin (on Syria), he won't engage with the Congress on a plan that deals with the deficits that threaten our economy," Boehner told reporters.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney offered a different view. "We had a lot of constructive meetings (with Republicans this year), but what we never saw, from even the Republicans who said they were interested in common ground, was a counterproposal."
Meanwhile, Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a darling of the Tea Party movement who is thought to be weighing a 2016 run for president, threatened a prolonged fight over the spending bill when it is debated in the Senate next week.
The bill is expected to win little to no Democratic support and nearly unanimous backing from conservatives.
One particularly controversial provision of the bill would instruct the Treasury Department to pay bondholders and Social Security retirement benefits even if Congress fails to increase the government's $16.7 trillion borrowing cap that will soon be breached. But money would not be available to pay for many government programs, including military salaries and health care benefits for the elderly.
Earlier this week Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said, "There is no way of knowing the irrevocable damage such an approach would have on our economy and financial markets."
Assuming the House passes the Republican-backed bill to defund Obamacare and provide temporary government funds, it will be significantly altered by the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Democrats plan to delete the House's Obamacare provision and send the temporary spending bill back to the House for passage before the September 30 deadline when the current fiscal year ends.
Senate Democrats believe that more than a dozen Republicans in the chamber could back them since they are on record opposing linking Obamacare to keeping the government open.
Among them is Senator John McCain of Arizona who told CNN: "We're not going to defund Obamacare in the Senate."
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Rachelle Younglai, Thomas Ferraro and David Lawder; Editing by Vicki Allen and Grant McCool)
Washington DC: Former security contractor Edward Snowden was able to obtain secret documents revealing a massive US spying effort from the National Security Agency's internal website, US officials said according to a report on Wednesday.
The classified documents leaked by Snowden were posted internally, and Snowden's job allowed him to single-handedly make digital copies without his supervisors' knowledge, government officials told National Public Radio.
They did not tell NPR how Snowden took copied files out of the office, citing an ongoing investigation.
"We have an extremely good idea of exactly what data he got access to and how exactly he got access to it," NSA's chief technology officer, Lonny Anderson, told NPR.
Anderson said the agency has taken steps to limit employees' options for storing data since the NSA surveillance programs were revealed.
"One thing we have done post-media leaks is lock those down hard, so those are [now] all in two-person control areas," he told NPR's "Morning Edition" program.
Snowden disclosed secret NSA programs involving the collection of telephone and email data to media outlets, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, which began publishing details in June.
He is wanted on US espionage charges and is living in temporary asylum in Russia.
The NSA disclosures have raised questions about US surveillance efforts and privacy as well as private contractors' clearance procedures and access to sensitive data.
But changes to data-sharing could also have national security implications given the push to share more intelligence among agencies after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Information sharing also arose as an issue in the Boston marathon bombing in April.
Anderson said other changes include limiting access to sensitive documents by "tagging" them with identifiers that will also allow supervisors to see who is viewing what data and what those individuals do with it.
The NSA's internal website still exists but it would not be possible for anyone now to make such copies without risk of detection, he added.
KANSAS CITY: Installers show up on time. Headquarters often tells customers when something needs to be fixed without prompting. Unsolicited credits sometimes show up on bills to account for small service glitches. Talk to a sampling of the earliest Google Fiber subscribers in the nation’s first neighborhood wired to the company’s service, and you find a pretty happy lot. Yet Google Fiber’s customers in this first, small group don’t talk about the service as life-changing. Even those with its fastest Internet hookups say things feel more evolutionary than revolutionary. So far, they’ve not found new uses for the Internet. Rather, they say, it’s just easier to handle things they were already doing.
Those who buy their TV lineups from Google mostly talk about the delight of dumping predecessors, cable and phone companies that have had the chance over decades to disappoint customers. Despite some glitches, many talk giddily about living in the first neighborhood in the country to get industrial-strength Internet connections at consumer prices. They’re regularly gleeful that they’ve found a new, endearingly attentive company willing to fill their TV screens with programming.
“The customer service is outstanding. They’re very apologetic if there’s a problem. They do their best to take care of things,” said Jennifer Tuttle, whose home was hooked up in November. “It’s not something you’re used to with that kind of service.” Her experience rings typical of what the Kansas City Star heard from many in the Kansas City, Kan., neighborhoods of Spring Valley and Hanover Heights. The newspaper contacted dozens by online survey and telephone. They’re the first to get Google Fiber service, the ultra-fast Internet and TV service that could signal to the rest of the country whether home consumers can show a demand for next-generation connection speeds.
Broadly speaking, these first-in-line customers say prices run roughly the same or less than what they paid to Time Warner Cable or AT&T for Internet or TV packages before. True, TV channels can freeze for a moment or two, Wi-Fi might not reach every corner of a house, the TV setup feels to some more attuned to Web surfers than couch surfers. None of the problems, however, seems like a deal breaker.
Home office workers seem the most grateful for the Internet upgrade – theoretically 100 times faster than most home broadband – even if the speedier Infobahn doesn’t entirely remake life online. Dramatic ways to put the full 1-gigabit-per-second speeds to use could come later, and figure to be more likely as the service spreads across the market and, next year, to Austin, Texas.
Can Google keep it up?
For now, just a few scattered neighborhoods in Kansas City, Kan, have been lit up with Google Fiber service. Google won’t say how many customers it has connected. The early satisfied customers, analysts said, speak to the resources Google poured into a service unlike any it’s tried before.
“It looks like they’re pacing their installations based on their ability to fulfill the service, to take the time and make sure the installation goes right,” said Glen Friedman, who runs the Ideas & Solutions broadband consulting firm. “The challenge will be to maintain the consistency as they get to a larger and larger customer base.” Another student of the industry, former cable trade group executive Steve Effros, said he fully expected Google Fiber to please its first customers. He’s less sure that the company will be able to keep a broader customer base as satisfied.
“If I’m the new guy in town and serving a fraction of the number of people as the old guy, my customer service damn well better be better,” said Effros, a cable industry analyst. “Do we really believe that Google is not going to have billing problems? Everybody else has security problems, but not Google? They’re human. They’ll find this only gets harder.” A Google spokeswoman said in an email: “We’re going to continue staffing our support team so that our customers can always get their questions answered quickly, and aren’t rushed off the phone.”
For now, customers largely say the California-based Internet colossus delivers well. Time and again they talk of friendly installers and helpful customer service folks – Google representatives fairly easy to reach either by email or phone. The company also responds to problems in an online forum. Several people in the neighborhood speak appreciatively how Google has opened its local sales office for neighborhood association meetings, and how it lavishly catered a block party – using local vendors.
Google Fiber isn’t without flaws. Among the observations: “There have been some growing pains.” “I have experienced periods of very slow response.” “Still has some kinks to work out.” “Fiber Internet is great. TV service stinks.” “Buggy skips in watching TV.” Google Fiber representatives talk proudly about the service but concede it has room for improvement. “We don’t claim to be perfect,” said Carlos Casas, the leader of Google Fiber’s team in Kansas City. “But we are going to learn and make it better.”
Generally, customers gripe very little about the Internet service. Some are just delighted at the price. Google offers seven years of service for a total of $300 – for relatively pokey Internet speeds of 5 megabits-per-second downloads and 1 megabit uploads. “We feel like we’re saving a ton of money,” said Elaine Mick, a part-time teacher who lives with her husband and a small child. The household still uses Time Warner for its TV package, but finds the low-end Google Fiber Internet connection more reliable than the 15 megabit service it had been buying from the cable company.
At the high end, Google Fiber sells TV service and a 1-gigabit-per-second Internet connection for $120 a month on two-year contracts. That Internet on-ramp can carry data back and forth at theoretically 100 times the speeds of conventional home broadband. Mike Karr notices the difference.
He’s an information technology specialist who regularly checks in by audio Skype with colleagues in India. He regularly sends and receives large data files. Before he got his gigabit connection, such tasks could be maddening. Now he’d rather do that work at home over Google Fiber than at work.
“Everything is pretty instantaneous,” he said. “There’s never any kind of slowdown.” It’s changed slightly, as well, the family use of the Internet. For instance, the Karrs recently moved a number of digital keepsakes to the Internet cloud, using the online storage that Google Fiber includes in its service. Uploading between 20,000 and 30,000 photos and a number of videos, Karr said, took maybe an hour. With his previous Internet connection, which cost him about $45 a month, it might have taken a week.
Reviews of the TV packages suggest something mildly more problematic: The picture can freeze. On rare channels at rare times, the audio and video seem slightly out of sync. Even people who report such glitches don’t seem much annoyed. “It’s buggy,” said Gabriel Rowe, a corporate consultant. “At the top of the hour, it will hiccup.”
He’s also puzzled at the way channels line up. On AT&T’s U-verse, his previous TV provider, all the children’s channels are grouped together. With Google Fiber, he said, a kid might be more likely to flip from Nickelodeon to more PG-13-grade programming.
Google’s numbering of channels does differ from the industry standards. High-definition channels are the low numbers rather than those above 1,000. And the system is designed more for searching – Google, is after all, about using keywords – than surfing. And sometimes what appears like a glitch is there by design. For instance, the TV system has an anti-spoiler feature. If a show is being recorded – or somebody started watching it earlier in another room – anybody who turns to that channel while the program is in progress is automatically taken to its start. Some customers find it annoying. Google said it might further customize the feature.
Users differ on the ease of mastering the TV controls. You can use a Nexus 7 tablet that Google throws into the deal, but most seem to prefer a traditional remote control. There’s also broad consensus that streaming Netflix becomes much smoother in a Google Fiber world. The boosted Internet speeds make buffering extinct, and the TV package makes finding a Netflix movie or show simple. “I’ve become more of a Netflix viewer,” said Layne Feldman, a salesman. “It takes an instant to appear and you’re up and watching a movie.” – MCT
KUWAIT: A total of 1,259 Gulf residents have applied to join a program that is aiming to establish the first human settlement on Mars by 2023, with the majority coming from Saudi Arabia, a spokesperson for the Dutch company behind the ambitious project exclusively told Arabian Business. The Mars One Astronaut Selection Program received more than 202,586 applications from people around the world seeking to be among the first to obtain a one-way ticket to live on the Red Planet. Organizers said applicants come from over 140 countries, with the largest coming from US (47,654), India (20,747), China (13,176), Brazil (10,289) and Great Britain (8,497).
A spokesperson for Mars One told Arabian Business a total of 1,259 residents from the six GCC countries applied to join the program. With 477 applications, the majority of would-be Gulf astronauts seeking to blast into space came from Saudi Arabia. Bahrain registered 421 applicants, followed by Kuwait with 142 and Qatar with 122. Just 52 UAE-based residents applied, and only 45 were willing to swap Oman for the Red Planet.
The deadline has now closed for applications and all 202,586 applicants will go forward to the Mars One Selection Committee, which will select prospective Mars settlers in three additional rounds spread across two years. By 2015, six to ten teams of four individuals will be selected for seven years of full-time training. In 2023, one of these teams will become the first humans ever to land on Mars and live there for the rest of their lives. The initial section process is expected to take several months, the company said.
Any Gulf based candidates selected for the next round will be notified by the end of this year. The second round of selection will start in early 2014, where the candidates will be interviewed in person by the Mars One Selection Committee. The project was launched in April by Stitching Mars One, a Dutch non-for-profit foundation. In the coming years, a demonstration mission, communication satellites, two rovers and several cargo missions will be sent to Mars. These missions will set up the outpost where the human crew will live and work and it is planned to have a human settlement on the Martian surface by 2023. US is already in the early stages of plans to land humans on the surface of Mars in 2036, Charles Elachi, head of NASA’s missions to the Red Planet, told delegates at the Arabian Business Forum 2012 in Dubai in November. “We don’t have a program [to send a man to Mars] but we are starting to plan,” Elachi, who heads up the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Pasadena-based NASA agency that constructs and operates robotic planetary spacecraft, said. “Interestingly enough we can go to Mars every four years or so. Every 18 years they get very close. We are thinking not for 2018 but 2036 [for a human mission],” he added.
Elachi’s team at JPL successfully masterminded the landing of a one-ton vehicle – called ‘Curiosity’ – in a deep crater on the surface of Mars in August 2012. The rover has now begun a two-year mission to look for evidence that the Red Planet may once have supported life, but Elachi said plans to send humans to Mars is possible. “It is a challenge as it takes nine months to get there. Imagine if you are sending three people for 18 months, how much food and garbage and water you have to take. It is a massive engineering challenge but it is it is feasible. “We are in the early stages. 2036 – that is the target,” he said. Lebanon-born Elachi still retains his ties with the Gulf region via a board position of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and the King Fahd University of Petrochemicals and Minerals, both in Saudi Arabia.
Last month it was the one-year anniversary of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and its findings have so far concluded that the planet could indeed have supported microbial life, the primary goal of the mission. “The stunning thing is that we found it all so quickly,” California Institute of Technology geologist and lead project scientist John Grotzinger told Reuters in August. Now scientists hope to learn whether life-friendly niches on Mars are common and whether any organic carbon has been preserved in the planet’s ancient rocks. Curiosity is expected to be joined next year by another NASA robotic probe, called MAVEN, which will remain in orbit to assess how and why the planet is losing its atmosphere.
PARIS: Syria accepted a Russian proposal yesterday to give up chemical weapons and win a reprieve from US strikes, while its warplanes bombed rebel positions in Damascus for the first time since the West threatened military action. The Russian diplomatic initiative, which apparently emerged from off-the-cuff remarks by the US secretary of state, marks a sudden reversal after weeks in which the West appeared finally headed towards intervention in a two-and-a-half year old war.
France said it would put forward a UN Security Council draft resolution for Syria to give up its stockpiles of chemical arms, threatening “extremely serious” consequences if Syria violates its conditions. Syria’s rebels reacted with deep dismay to the proposal, which would halt Western military action to punish President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces for a poison gas attack that killed hundreds of people in a Damascus suburb last month.
US President Barack Obama, for whom the proposal provides a way out of ordering unpopular strikes days before contentious Congressional votes, said it could be a “breakthrough”. Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem, visiting Moscow, as saying Damascus had agreed to the Russian initiative because it would “remove the grounds for American aggression”.
While the diplomatic wrangling was under way in far-flung capitals, Assad’s warplanes bombed rebellious districts of Damascus yesterday for the first time since the Aug 21 poison gas attacks. Rebels said the air strikes were a demonstration that the government now believed the West had lost its nerve. “By sending the planes back, the regime is sending the message that it no longer feels international pressure,” activist Wasim Al-Ahmad said from Mouadamiya, one of the districts of the capital hit by the chemical attack.
The war has already killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes, and threatens to spread violence across the Middle East. The Russian proposal “is a cheap trick to buy time for the regime to kill more and more people,” said Sami, a member of the local opposition coordinating committee in the Damascus suburb of Erbin, also hit by last month’s chemical attack.
French officials said their draft resolution was designed to make sure the Russian proposal would have teeth, by allowing military action if Assad is uncooperative. “It was extremely well played by the Russians, but we didn’t want someone else to go to the UN with a resolution that was weak. This is on our terms and the principles are established. It puts Russia in a situation where they can’t take a step back after putting a step forward,” said a French diplomatic source.
The Russian proposal makes it easier for members of the US Congress to vote to authorize action as part of a diplomatic initiative, without it leading directly to missile strikes. Republican Senator John McCain, a leading hawk, said lawmakers were working on new wording of a Congressional resolution to ensure “strict timelines and guidelines that would have to be met” for Assad to give up chemical arms
Russia’s proposal apparently began life as an off-the-cuff remark by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday, although both Moscow and Washington later said President Vladimir Putin had discussed the idea in principle with Obama in the past. Putin’s spokesman said it came up at a summit last week. With veto-wielding China also backing it, it would be the rare Syria initiative to unite global powers whose divisions have so far blocked Security Council action.
Assad’s main regional backer Iran has also signaled support, as has UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Washington and Paris have threatened to carry out strikes to punish Assad for the Aug 21 poison gas attack on Damascus suburbs, which they say Syrian government forces carried out. But after 12 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has had a hard time winning over the public or members of Congress. Britain quit the coalition threatening force after Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote in parliament.
Moscow unveiled its proposal on Monday after Kerry, speaking in London, said the only way to halt strikes would be for Assad to give up his chemical arsenal. The State Department said his remarks were rhetorical and not meant as a serious proposal. But hours later Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for Assad’s government to do just that.
Responding to the Russian initiative, Obama told CNN: “It’s possible that we can get a breakthrough,” although he said there was a risk that it was a further stalling tactic by Assad. “We’re going to run this to ground,” he said. “John Kerry and the rest of my national security team will engage with the Russians and the international community to see, can we arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.”
Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the initiative spoils Obama’s strategy, but Washington was likely to be relieved. “It basically throws a bit of a wrench into the administration’s plans, but it may be a welcome wrench.” The wavering from the West was a blow for the Syrian opposition, which had thought it had finally secured military intervention after pleading for two and a half years for help from Western leaders that vocally opposed Assad.
The Russian proposal “fails to hold the Assad regime responsible for the killing of innocents,” the Syrian National Coalition said, calling it “a political maneuver which will lead to pointless procrastination and will cause more death and destruction to the people of Syria, and further threats to the countries and people of the region.”
Assad’s forces – which had been withdrawing from fixed positions and bracing for expected Western strikes – appear to have responded to the hesitation by redoubling an offensive to clear fighters from Damascus suburbs. Troops and pro-Assad militiamen tried to seize the northern district of Barzeh and the eastern suburb of Deir Salman near Damascus airport, working-class Sunni Muslim areas where opposition activists and residents reported street fighting.
Fighter jets bombed Barzeh three times and pro-Assad militia backed by army tank fire made a push into the area. Air raids were also reported on the Western outskirts near Mouadamiya. Syria is not a party to international treaties which ban the stockpiling of chemical weapons, but it signed the Geneva conventions that forbid using them in warfare. Syria has tried to avoid confirming whether it possesses poison gas, while denying it has used it.
Western countries believe Syria has a vast undeclared arsenal of chemical arms. Sending inspectors to destroy it would be difficult even in peacetime and extraordinarily complicated in the midst of a war.
The two main precedents are ominous: UN inspectors dismantled the chemical arsenal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s but left enough doubt that suspicion he still had such weapons was the basis for a US-led invasion in 2003. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was rehabilitated by the West after agreeing to give up his banned weapons, only to be overthrown with NATO help in 2011.
Assad’s government says the chemical attack was the work of rebels trying to win Western military support, a scenario that Washington and its allies say is not credible. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog, said evidence strongly suggested Syrian government forces were behind the attack. It said in a report that the type of rockets and launchers used in the attacks suggested weapon systems in the possession only of government forces. – Reuters