Humans damaging the environment faster than it can recover, UN finds

The Guardian reports: Degradation of the world’s natural resources by humans is rapidly outpacing the planet’s ability to absorb the damage, meaning the rate of deterioration is increasing globally, the most comprehensive environmental study ever undertaken by the UN has found.

The study, which involved 1,203 scientists, hundreds of scientific institutions and more than 160 governments brought together by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), concludes that without radical action the level of prosperity that millions of people in the developed world count on will be impossible to maintain or extend to poorer countries.

Water scarcity is the scourge of some of the poorest regions on Earth, the study found, leaving developing countries increasingly unable to feed themselves, and causing hardship for millions of people. There appears little prospect of this dire situation being remedied, according to the UN, without radical action being taken. [Continue reading…]

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Britain: Syrian airdrops begin next month if more aid blocked

USA Today reports: The United Kingdom said Tuesday the World Food Program will begin airdrops to besieged areas of Syria on June 1, if humanitarian access is not provided.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to remove medical aid from humanitarian convoys and to prevent convoys from reaching Syrians in need, said British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch. If the practice continues, the World Food Program will create an airdrop program starting June 1, Darroch said.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made the announcement after meeting with the International Syria Support Group in Vienna to discuss ways to save a shaky partial cease-fire.

The airdrops will be conducted by United Nations airplanes with security guaranteed by Russia.

Syrian government forces last week removed medical supplies from an aid convoy to the town of Moadamiya, according to the World Health Organization. Similar incidents have been reported since. [Continue reading…]

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Obama ‘pleased’ with Syria policy while Kerry warns Assad about unspecified ‘Plan B’

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday that if President Bashar al-Assad of Syria continues to block access of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and towns, they were prepared to help the World Food Program airdrop food and emergency supplies.

The very fact that they had to threaten the airdrops — which are expensive and often inaccurate — amounted to an admission of how little progress has been made in achieving either the lasting cease-fire or the regular humanitarian relief that European and Arab nations, along with Iran, laid out as the first steps toward a broader peace agreement.

The threat to conduct airdrops came after a meeting in Vienna of the International Syria Support Group, made up of the nations that drafted a largely unimplemented plan to end the country’s civil war. They gathered at a low point: A once-promising “cessation of hostilities” has largely collapsed, an effort to start negotiations between the opposition and the government broke down, and there has been no progress toward negotiating a “political transition” that was supposed to begin on Aug. 1.

Bolstered by Russia’s intervention to help prop him up, Mr. Assad is in a stronger position than he has been in years, many experts say, and has rejected the idea that any new government would have to exclude him. He has the strong support of Iran, his longtime provider of security, though Russian officials seem less concerned about whether Mr. Assad himself remains in power or is replaced by another leader from his Alawite Shiite sect.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry rejected a suggestion that, in dealing with Mr. Assad, he was operating without the kind of leverage he had in Vienna last year during the Iran nuclear negotiations — when American sanctions and sabotage of the Iranian program created the pressure that led to a deal.

But Mr. Kerry — who White House aides say has complained in Situation Room meetings about the lack of clout to force Mr. Assad to make good on his commitments — argued that the Syrian leader would be making a mistake to believe he would pay no price for refusing to cooperate.

“If President Assad has come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B,” he said, referring to more coercive action to force him to comply, “then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous.”

Mr. Kerry added later that Mr. Assad “should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision.” Mr. Assad, he said, has “flagrantly violated” the United Nations resolution calling for a nationwide cease-fire and allowing humanitarian assistance.

Yet in making public a case that there would be consequences for Mr. Assad’s intransigence, Mr. Kerry was touching on one of the hardest issues facing Mr. Obama and his national security team in their last eight months in office. The president has repeatedly defended his decision not to authorize a military strike against Mr. Assad after he crossed what Mr. Obama had described as a “red line” against using chemical weapons. He also rejected a no-fly zone to protect fleeing civilians and opposition forces.[Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama was “certainly pleased” with his administration’s policy on Syria, while simultaneously acknowledging that the country now poses a “heightened risk” to America and its interests.

“We’ve seen terrible violence in Syria, it’s an awful humanitarian situation, and it’s a genuine human tragedy. And it’s a dangerous place, and it’s a place that poses a heightened risk to the United States and to our allies and interests around the world,” Earnest said.

Earnest, who was asked by Yahoo’s Olivier Knox about The Daily Beast’s reporting, argued that the president’s Syria policy had “advanced the national security interests” of the U.S., placing the blame squarely on the Assad regime.

“There’s no denying that what has happened in Syria has changed millions of lives — and not for the better. And that’s a testament to the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad, it’s a testament to the way the political chaos in that country has propagated so much violence,” Earnest said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

The Daily Beast reported Friday that senior White House official Ben Rhodes allegedly told Syrian-American activists that he was “not proud” of the administration’s policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s peace plan is flawed and Jabhat Al Nusra knows it

Hassan Hassan writes: If the United States and Russia do not see that Al Qaeda’s main Syrian franchise is benefiting from the peace process, they should look again. In recent months, Jabhat Al Nusra has led a number of battles against the forces of Bashar Al Assad in the north, while poorly-executed ceasefires are causing people to question the efficiency of nationalist forces.

The reactions of some Syrians in the opposition towards the regime losses, especially in the context of the government’s violations of the recent truces, were captured by one activist’s Facebook post: “Some of us take to the streets to protest against Jabhat Al Nusra and demand that it breaks away from Al Qaeda,” he wrote. “Had jihadist groups like Jabhat Al Nusra done everything we wanted them to do, the only place in which we could raise our revolution’s flag today would be in Taksim Square in Turkey.”

For Jabhat Al Nusra, the gains against the regime do not have to hold. Mr Al Assad can retake the areas, but the fact that it is battling the regime while other forces stand by watching weakens the latter’s stance in the eyes of some Syrians. Jabhat Al Nusra has even produced footage of its recent operations using drones, including an ambush against a foreign fighter, the blowing up of a Baath party building and the storming of a government base in Aleppo. [Continue reading…]

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WHO report: Europe trails U.S. in cutting air pollution

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The New York Times reports: European countries, which rely heavily on diesel-fueled vehicles, remain far behind the United States in their efforts to reduce harmful air pollution, according to a report to be issued Thursday by the World Health Organization.

The report, which compiled air quality readings from 3,000 cities in 103 countries, found that more than 80 percent of people in those cities were exposed to pollution exceeding the limits set by W.H.O. guidelines, above which air quality is considered to be unhealthy. And in poorer countries, 98 percent of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants were out of compliance with the health organization’s guidelines.

Lower levels of pollution were far more prevalent in North America and higher-income European countries than in most other places, especially countries like India, Pakistan and China.

But in Europe, a higher percentage of cities exceeded the limits set by the W.H.O. than in North America.

That disparity was greatest in wealthier countries; more than 60 percent of European cities failed to meet the guidelines, compared with less than 20 percent in North America. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. has taken in 1,736 Syrian refugees — less than a fifth of pledged intake

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s effort to step up asylum for Syrian refugees is going so slowly, it may not meet the president’s deadline for accepting at least 10,000 by the end of the fiscal year.

More than seven months since the president pledged to resettle the most vulnerable Syrians, the United States has let in less than a fifth of that number — 1,736 through the end of April, according to government figures.

Most of the world’s four million Syrian refugees live in countries in the region: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Canada has offered visas to more than 48,000 Syrians, according to the United Nations, and is also allowing private groups to sponsor Syrian families. More than 400,000 Syrians sought asylum in Germany last year, and Brazil has issued nearly 8,500 humanitarian visas to Syrians.

At the General Assembly debate that is scheduled to begin on Sept. 20, Mr. Obama plans to lead a special session at which world leaders are expected to publicly pledge to take in more refugees.

Russia, a major supporter of the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, has not resettled a single Syrian refugee, according to the United Nations. [Continue reading…]

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UN investigators tell states to stop Syria war crimes

Reuters reports: States backing Syria’s peace process must stop the warring parties from attacking unlawful targets such as hospitals and other civilian sites, U.N. war crimes investigators said in a statement on Wednesday.

Air strikes, shelling and rocket fire had been consistently used in recent attacks on civilian areas, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in a statement.

“Failure to respect the laws of war must have consequences for the perpetrators,” its chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, said. [Continue reading…]

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The agonies of Aleppo

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Aleppo was once Syria’s second largest city, with 2 million inhabitants and a vibrant tourist industry around its 13th-century citadel, its Umayyad mosque, its ancient souk. After nearly five years of civil war, the city is an open wound, the bleeding symbol of a country’s descent into hell. It has been cleaved by a frontline, endured barrel bombs and artillery fire, and in many places been reduced to a landscape of ruins. Its estimated 300,000 remaining inhabitants struggle daily for bare necessities. And their nightmare has recently got worse. Fighting has again flared up in the past few weeks, destroying two medical facilities that offered rare relief, especially to children. The ceasefire brokered from Wednesday morning promised a mere 48 hours of relief even if it were honoured, and in practice observance has been patchy.

The backdrop is the near collapse of Syria’s two-month-old partial truce, negotiated by Russia and the US. At one level, Aleppo is one battleground of many, in a seemingly endless war of attrition; and yet the fate of a nation could hinge on this city. For Aleppo is a centre for the anti-Assad groups that are meant to be part of the UN-negotiated settlement, if it ever materialises. It is also because of Aleppo’s strategic location, close to the border with Turkey, which has acted as a lifeline for supply lines and refugee movements. If Aleppo falls, all hopes for a genuine peace negotiation will be crushed. Diplomatic efforts in Geneva and elsewhere have never seemed quite so divorced from realities on the ground as they are now. [Continue reading…]

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Mainstream Syrian rebels torn between giving up or joining extremists

The Wall Street Journal reports: Ali Othman is among a shrinking band of Syrian rebels in the mountains across from this border town who face an agonizing choice: accept a settlement with a regime they revile or fight alongside al Qaeda’s Islamist allies.

The Syrian army defector and his fellow fighters say they are weakened and cornered after enduring months of bombardment from Russian forces buttressing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Peace talks ended last month without progress amid a major escalation in violence in the northern city of Aleppo. On Thursday, a day after the U.S. announced a deal with Russia on a fresh cease-fire in Aleppo, Islamist groups targeted regime-held areas of the city with rocket, mortar and sniper fire, according to Syrian state media and U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“My wife begs me almost each day to leave the mountains,” Mr. Othman, 26 years old, said during a recent visit with his family in Turkey. “She keeps asking me: `Why are you still fighting?’”

The fate of Syria’s moderate rebels is critical to American efforts in the region. If rebels quit the fight or join forces with Islamist extremist groups fighting the regime, the U.S. will lose leverage to shape the war’s outcome — and potential allies against Islamic State.

Some rebel commanders close to the U.S. warn that the diplomatic deadlock and renewed airstrikes against rebel-held areas would push people into the arms of the extremists, including Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate that, like Islamic State, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations Security Council and excluded from any potential settlement with the regime. [Continue reading…]

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Partial truce in Syria is said to extend to Aleppo

The New York Times reports: A new partial truce in the Syrian civil war has been extended to the divided city of Aleppo, officials from the United States, Russia and Syria said Wednesday after days of diplomacy by American and Russian envoys to halt catastrophic fighting there.

But the details and duration of the partial truce — and whether it imposed new conditions on the Syrian government, insurgents or their international backers — remained murky.

The parties that negotiated it did not even agree on the precise timing. The State Department said the truce had begun at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday, and Syrian state television said it would take effect at 1 a.m. on Thursday.

Nor did their statements clarify the main disagreement between the United States, which backs some insurgents, and Russia, the most powerful ally of the Syrian government, over which rebel groups are fair game for government and Russian airstrikes. [Continue reading…]

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Timing not yet right for Libya intervention, Italy says

The Washington Post reports: Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, one of the central figures in allied deliberations on war-torn Libya, said Wednesday that the conditions are not yet right to launch a Western military operation to help stabilize that country.

The Italians have been among the most vocal European powers to insist that Libya’s shaky unity government must shore up domestic support — and then request international assistance — before any allied operation could unfold.

The new Libyan government, installed this past March and backed by the United Nations, is making strides, Pinotti said in an interview with The Washington Post. But she also warned of deepening complications.

The unity government not only is confronting a threat from Islamic State insurgents, but also a challenge from unruly militias and rival factions with which it still needs to build more support, she said. On Tuesday, for instance, factions in eastern Libya sought to block the unity government from exercising control over exports of oil produced in the country’s east. [Continue reading…]

Abdulrazag Elaradi writes: In Libya in 2011, an American-led coalition helped to topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship. Unfortunately, the coalition’s lack of engagement with the country’s transition allowed a political void to form that a number of groups have since then fought to fill.

The ensuing mess has made parts of Libya a hotbed for militants inspired by the Islamic State. This in turn has worsened the country’s security crisis, as opposing groups have claimed the right to govern under a banner of secularism.

The truth is that Libya’s struggle is not between Islamists and secularists. This tedious framework for interpreting Arab politics hides the complexity of Libya’s situation. Almost all of the major competing factions in Libya include some number of Islamists, liberals and militia supporters.

The real division in the country is between those who want Libya to move forward via the newly installed unity government, and those like the strongman Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who took control of a large part of the east after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi and is loath to give up his one-man rule of his fief, based in the coastal city of Tobruk. [Continue reading…]

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Another Aleppo hospital is hit, this time on government-held side

The New York Times reports: Insurgent shelling hit a maternity hospital in the government-held section of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to state media and footage from the scene, underscoring what rights groups are calling a growing disregard for the rules of war.

It was the sixth assault on a medical facility in the divided city in less than a week and the first to have caused casualties on the government-controlled side. At least three women were reported killed and 17 people wounded, including children.

On Wednesday, warplanes destroyed a pediatric hospital and a clinic on the rebel-held side of the city, leaving dozens of people dead, including medical workers, women and children.

That attack, believed to have been carried out by the Syrian government despite its denials, came as intensifying airstrikes and rebel shelling shattered what remained of a fragile truce that had prevailed for a few months. The violence of the past week has plunged Aleppo back into all-out war, killing scores of people, mainly civilians.

The strikes on hospitals and clinics have incited a new wave of outrage from international humanitarian organizations, which called for an end to the attacks and emphasized that, if deliberate, they constitute war crimes. The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks in a resolution on Tuesday that passed unanimously. [Continue reading…]

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As bombs fall, Aleppo asks: ‘Where are the Americans?’

The Telegraph reports: Recovering in Turkey after a deadly air strike on a hospital in Aleppo, all that Abu Abdu Tebyiah could think about was the six children he had been forced to leave behind.

Mr Tebyiah was critically injured when the Syrian regime dropped three bombs on al-Quds hospital next to his house in the east of the city last Thursday.

He was one of a lucky few allowed over the border to receive treatment for his broken ribs and pelvis, wounds that would probably have killed him otherwise. But the 49-year-old shop owner was taken away so quickly that he had little chance to tell his rescuers that his children were waiting for him at home.

“They are too young to be on their own,” Mr Tebyiah told the Telegraph. “The government is using barrel bombs on our neighbourhood again, so I stopped them going to school. They are now in great danger.”

Mr Tebyiah said the only way to bring his children to Turkey, which closed its border to fleeing Syrians earlier this year, was to pay smugglers $500 for each child – money he did not have.

“I have to find a solution as soon as possible,” he said. “Or I don’t want to think what will happen.”

Fighting has intensified in Syria’s second city this week, claiming over 250 lives and ending in all but name a much-vaunted ceasefire agreed in February.

Now the opposition-controlled eastern side of Aleppo is braced for an offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his Russian and Iranian allies. If Assad succeeds in recapturing the whole of the city, it could change the course of the war.

As the regime’s bombs dropped on their houses, hospitals and schools, residents wondered where their supposed protectors, the Americans, were.

Many had been optimistic that the ceasefire, brokered by the United States and Russia, was the ray of hope that Aleppo needed after enduring four years of killing since Syria’s war came to the city in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s peace talks begin to look like a cover for more war

The Guardian reports: Bombs hitting hospitals, doctors and rescue workers killed, civilians starving, scores of dead and injured every day – the raw, bleeding statistics of Syria’s unending war are making a nonsense of an already fragile truce and destroying the slim hopes that peace talks can even carry on.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, is a consummate diplomat, but this week he has struggled to mask a sense of rising panic – appealing to the US and Russia to come together to stave off what his humanitarian coordinator warned on Thursday would be a new “catastrophe” if violence did not stop.

De Mistura reported privately to the UN security council on Wednesday on the latest “proximity” talks in Geneva, where he met the two Syrian sides separately. Opposition negotiators walked out last week, insisting they could not stay in the Palais des Nations while their people were suffering on the ground.

“How can you have substantial talks when you have only news about bombing and shelling?” De Mistura asked journalists afterwards. “Barely alive” was his blunt characterisation of the truce. And diplomats said he spoke far more forcefully on the video link to New York. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: Looking out from the Syrian capital these days, one can understand why President Bashar Assad would be in no hurry to make concessions at peace talks in Geneva, let alone consider stepping down as the opposition demands.

In Damascus, it is easy to forget the war. The airstrikes, the ruins and starvation, sometimes only few miles away, seem distant and unseen. Since a partial cease-fire went into effect at the end of February, the mortar shells from opposition-held suburbs have all but stopped. On Saturday, the Interior Ministry said a number of mortar shells fell in two Damascus neighborhoods, including one several hundred meters from the Russian embassy. There were no reported injuries.

With the road to the loyalist coast and most of central Syria completely cleared of insurgents, Assad has guaranteed the survival of a rump state that he could rule over should the war continue for a long time. Even if Assad’s forces have little chance of regaining large parts of the country in the near term, Russia’s military intervention changed the conflict’s course in their favor and has boosted their confidence. [Continue reading…]

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Syria war: UN aid chief laments ‘massive suffering’

Al Jazeera reports: The United Nation’s aid chief has issued a strongly worded appeal to world powers to revive a shattered ceasefire in Syria and put an end to the “massive human suffering” that has left millions of people facing desolation, death and starvation.

Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council on Thursday that it must not squander what he saw as an opportunity for peace in recently stalled talks in Geneva, and again called for unimpeded access to get aid to people trapped by renewed and fierce fighting in the country.

“We must all be ashamed this is happening on our watch,” Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council during a meeting on the humanitarian crisis caused by the five-year war.

While the number of humanitarian convoys crossing borders and fighting lines has increased, O’Brien said “current levels of access still leave civilians starving and without medical care.

“Deliberately deprived of food and medicine, many face the most appalling conditions of desolation, hunger and starvation.” [Continue reading…]

Haid N Haid interviewed by BBC World discusses the situation in Aleppo, the systematic targeting of civilian facilities such as hospitals, schools etc by the Assad regime and Russian forces. He also talks about the Russian withdrawal, the besieged areas and air dropping aid.

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