Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms

The Washington Post reports: The general in charge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan appeared to confirm Monday that Russia is sending weapons to the Taliban, an intervention that will likely further complicate the 15-year-old war here and the Kremlin’s relations with the United States.

When asked by reporters, Gen. John Nicholson did not dispute claims that the Taliban is receiving weapons and other supplies from the Russians.

“We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Nicholson said, speaking to reporters alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.” [Continue reading…]

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Russia funds and manages conflict in Ukraine, leaks show

Aric Toler and Melinda Haring report: Hacked emails show that the Kremlin directs and funds the ostensibly independent republics in eastern Ukraine and runs military operations there. In late 2016, Ukrainian hacker groups released emails purportedly taken from the office of Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Ukraine policy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Surkov leaks confirm what many have long suspected: the Kremlin has orchestrated and funded the supposedly independent governments in the Donbas, and seeks to disrupt internal Ukrainian politics, making the task of rebuilding modern Ukraine impossible. Russia has consistently denied accusations from Kyiv and the West that it is providing the separatists with troops, weapons, and other material support or meddling in Ukrainian affairs. The emails from Surkov’s office betray the official Kremlin line, revealing the extent of Russian involvement in the seizure of Ukrainian territory, the creation of puppet “people’s republics,” and the funding to ensure their survival.

There have been three tranches of information from Surkov’s account: a PDF document detailing plans to destabilize Ukraine, a dump of 2,337 emails, and a final dump of 1,000 emails. While the plot to destabilize Ukraine with its detailed plan to use energy tariffs to foment revolution has garnered attention, its veracity is disputed. The trove of 2,337 emails, released by the hacker group Cyber Hunta, covers the period from September 2013 to November 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and deployed separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine to start a war. The final dump dates from September 2014 to September 2016. We have analyzed the overlooked second and third troves. Here’s what we found. [Continue reading…]

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Entire U.S. Senate to go to White House for North Korea briefing

Reuters reports: Top Trump administration officials will hold a rare briefing on Wednesday at the White House for the entire U.S. Senate on the situation in North Korea, senior Senate aides said on Monday.

All 100 senators have been asked to the White House for the briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aides said.

While top administration officials routinely travel to Capitol Hill to address members of Congress on foreign policy and national security matters, it is unusual for the entire 100-member Senate to go to such an event at the White House, and for those four top officials to be involved. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s dictatorship: A war of Sisi’s own making

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The news that Egypt’s army shot dead up to eight unarmed detainees, including a minor, in the Sinai peninsula and tried to cover up the extrajudicial killings by claiming they had happened in combat should alarm all those interested in the cause of democracy in the Arab world. Back in December the Egyptian army posted on its Facebook page that the military had raided a militant outpost, killing eight and arresting four others. But a three-minute video that emerged this weekend raises serious questions over the army’s version of events. It shows no firefight but does record the cold-blooded murder of prisoners. In one instance a soldier casually shoots a man in the head. In another, soldiers escort a blindfolded man into a field, place him on his knees and shoot him repeatedly. Predictably, Cairo’s military dictatorship calls this propaganda by its opponents. Just as predictable is that there’s to be no investigation into alleged war crimes.

The video was leaked on the day the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, sat down with Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who seized power in a bloody coup in 2013. Possibly the most authoritarian leader in the Middle East, a title for which there is some competition, Mr Sisi bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians, jailing thousands of others and running his country’s economy into the ground.

Instead of treating the Egyptian leader as a pariah, this month Donald Trump welcomed him to the White House after he had been cold-shouldered by Barack Obama for years. Cairo’s pro-Sisi press proclaimed human rights in Egypt were no longer an issue. This may be true. While Egypt remains a human rights “priority country” for Britain, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did not focus on them when he visited the country in February. Perhaps Britain cannot afford such moral positions. British companies have extensive offshore gas interests in Egypt. The hypocrisy is not just ours. Following the coup, an EU arms embargo was brought in but it is honoured more in the breach. About £120m in British arms have been sold since the coup. [Continue reading…]

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The French elections showed the strength of the European far-right — and its limits

Zack Beauchamp writes: To understand what France’s election means, and what it tells us about the rise of far-right movements around Europe, you need to understand two fundamental truths about the results.

The first is that it’s a historic victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen and her Front National party. Le Pen was one of two candidates who qualified for the second round, soundly beating the standard-bearers both of France’s traditional establishment parties — the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists. The once-reviled Front has clearly entered the mainstream of French politics.

At the same time, the election seemed to demonstrate the very clear limits of Le Pen’s popularity — and, potentially, European far-right politics more broadly.

Le Pen came in second in Sunday’s election, with 21.7 percent of the vote. The plurality winner, upstart centrist Emmanuel Macron, won with 23.9 percent. He’s her polar opposite in virtually every respect. She wants to restrict immigration to France and pull France out of the EU; he supports keeping the borders open and proudly waved the EU flag at his final campaign rally. And when these two face each other one-on-one in a runoff in two weeks, he’s very likely to win — every poll that’s been taken so far has him up by massive margins:


The tolerant center, in France, appears likely to hold.

What we’re seeing in France mirrors what’s happening in much of Europe. After the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, the far-right has seen a series of setbacks. From elections in Austria and the Netherlands to polls in all-important Germany, the far-right is performing far less well than many have expected.

What these numbers suggest is that the far-right has a political ceiling: That while its supporters may be hard-core, the majority of Europeans still recoil from its vision — at least for now. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Trump-Russia probe has no full-time staff, no key witnesses

The Daily Beast reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s election interference is supposedly the best hope for getting the public credible answers about whether there was any coordination between the Kremlin and Trump Tower.

But there are serious reasons to doubt that it can accomplish this task, as currently configured.

More than three months after the committee announced that it had agreed on the scope of the investigation, the panel has not begun substantially investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, three individuals with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast.

The investigation does not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time do not have significant investigative experience. The probe currently appears to be moving at a pace slower than prior Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, such as the CIA torture inquiry, which took years to accomplish.

No interviews have been conducted with key individuals suspected of being in the Trump-Russia orbit: not Michael Flynn, not Roger Stone, not Carter Page, not Paul Manafort, and not Jared Kushner, according to two sources familiar with the committee’s procedures. [Continue reading…]

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China’s leader urges restraint on North Korea in call with Trump

The New York Times reports: China’s president, Xi Jinping, has urged President Trump to show restraint toward North Korea despite signs that the North may be preparing a nuclear test. Mr. Xi made the appeal in a phone call with Mr. Trump on Monday that reflected growing alarm over North Korea’s plans, which could tip the region into crisis.

The phone conversation, on Monday morning in Beijing, came after Mr. Trump had already used a meeting with Mr. Xi in Florida, a follow-up phone call, interviews and Twitter messages to press Mr. Xi to do more to deter North Korea from holding additional nuclear and missile tests. The United States and its allies have been on alert for another atomic test by the North.

In the latest call, the third between the two leaders, Mr. Xi indicated to Mr. Trump that China opposed any such test by North Korea, but he also nudged Mr. Trump to avoid a tit-for-tat response to the North’s fiery threats, according to a report on Chinese television.

“China adamantly opposes any actions in contravention of the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Mr. Xi said, according to the report, evidently referring to a series of decisions by the council to punish North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs.

“At the same time, it is hoped that all sides exercise restraint and avoid doing things that exacerbate tensions on the peninsula,” Mr. Xi said, referring to the Korean Peninsula. “Only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions can the nuclear issue on the peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible.”

The comments reflected growing Chinese fears that the tensions between North Korea and the United States and its Asian allies could spiral into outright military conflict. That widening rift is presenting China with confounding choices between its longstanding ties to North Korea and its hopes for steady relations with the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s warring sides reach diplomatic breakthrough in Rome

The Guardian reports: Rome has brokered a diplomatic breakthrough in Libya that has the potential to bring the two main warring sides together in a new political agreement after years of division, fighting and economic misery.

The scale of the breakthrough will be tested later this week, but Italy is hailing a compromise brokered between the presidents of the house of representatives, Ageela Saleh, and the state council, Abdulrahman Sewehli.

The meeting was overseen by the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, and the Italian ambassador to Libya.

According to a statement from the state council, “there was an atmosphere of friendliness and openness” at the meeting in Rome. The statement also said there would have to be further consultations between the two sides this week in order to bring about reconciliation “and stop the bleeding as well as [ensure] the return of displaced persons”. [Continue reading…]

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Marine Le Pen to face off against ‘France’s Justin Trudeau,’ Emmanuel Macron

Christopher Dickey writes: Two days after Donald Trump declared that anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-NATO, pro-Russian, anti-American, pro-Steve-Bannon Marine Le Pen was the “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” she has made it through the first round of the country’s presidential elections and into the sudden-death runoff that will take place on May 7.

If she manages to win, her election will have stunning consequences domestically and internationally, multiplying the shocks that have followed on the Brexit vote and Trump’s ascent in the United States.

A Le Pen victory would also be welcomed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who recently received her at the Kremlin as if she already were a head of state.

Right now, however, it looks like Le Pen doesn’t have much of a prayer, and France may well position itself as a new bulwark against Trump-style xenophobia and populism.

Her second-round rival is 39-year-old former banker and economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is pretty much in favor of everything that Le Pen opposes. He was the only one of the four leading candidates who did not speak warmly of Putin. He embraces globalism; he has even waved the European Union flag at his election rallies. And while Trump rooted for Le Pen, former President Barack Obama called Macron to give him encouragement. [Continue reading…]

An editorial in The Guardian says: The contest on 7 May is a contest between openness and bigotry, internationalism and nationalism, optimism and hatred, reaction and reform, hope and fear. The fact that Ms Le Pen has reached the second round should not be underplayed simply because it was predicted for so long, or because, if the exit polling is confirmed, she finished second behind Mr Macron, not first. She took almost a quarter of French votes. Her projected 21.9% is significantly larger than her father’s 16.9% in 2002. Even if she loses in round two, the FN may still stand on the verge of a historic advance in June’s parliamentary elections.

It is tempting to see Ms Le Pen’s result as a defeat alongside that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and to conclude that European liberal values have successfully rallied to stop another lurch to the racist right. Some of that is true, and it is a cause for immense relief. France stood up and was counted on Sunday. But the threat from the French extreme right is not over. Nor is the threat from kindred extreme-right parties in Europe. Both the AfD in Germany and Ukip in Britain have moved further to the right in the past week. The Front National remains a party of bigotry, hatred and nationalism of the worst kind.

Now France must stand up again in two weeks’ time and complete the job by electing Mr Macron. [Continue reading…]

Sonia Delesalle-Stolper writes: France had a choice. To be more or less open; more or less democratic; more or less European. With Emmanuel Macron, it has chosen openess, democracy and Europe.

The real work, the real battle begins in June, with the parliamentary elections. Macron will need to gather a big enough majority to be able to govern – and this with a political movement that did not even exist one year ago. He has promised to field candidates in all 577 constituencies, with at least half of them new recruits to politics. It will be difficult, but on the evening of the first round, nothing looks impossible for this extraordinary candidate. [Continue reading…]

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A rebuke of France’s political establishment

Krishnadev Calamur writes: [Emmanuel Macron] represents exactly the same values that voters in the West—following the victories of Brexit and Trump—are supposedly fed up with. He is business-friendly, favors globalization, and believes in allowing in more immigrants. Yet these positions haven’t hurt him as they have hurt politicians elsewhere in the West. “Macron’s great insight, which few initially recognized, was that the right-left divide was blocking progress, and that the presidential election amounted to a golden opportunity to move beyond it, without the help of an organized political movement,” [Zaki] Laïdi wrote in Project Syndicate. “At a time when the French people are increasingly rejecting the traditional party system, Macron’s initial weakness quickly became his strength.”

If Macron does, as polls predict, win the second round, it will undoubtedly be painted as a rejection of populism. But as my colleague Uri Friedman wrote in the aftermath of the Dutch elections, where a far-right candidate performed worse than expected, “the most significant trend in Western democracies at the moment might not be the rise and fall of populist nationalism. Instead, it is arguably the disintegration of political parties. The story here is less about which specific type of politician people want to be represented by than about a crisis of democratic representation altogether—less about the empowerment of populists than about the broader diffusion of political power.” Indeed, the exit polls in the French election show a similar dynamic at work. It’s the type of political fragmentation to be expected in a country where trust in government is low. [Continue reading…]

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The coming French revolution

Zaki Laïdi writes: To govern in France’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, Macron would need to secure a majority in the National Assembly. This opens the possibility of two scenarios.

In the first scenario, Macron quickly gains a parliamentary majority, as French voters seek to reinforce his mandate in June’s National Assembly election. This is conceivable, but not certain: it is here where the lack of an organized political movement on the ground remains a weakness for Macron.

That is why the June election could give rise to the second scenario: cohabitation with a parliamentary coalition comprising a small right-wing faction, a large centrist faction, and a hopelessly divided left-wing faction. Such a development would be familiar in many European countries. But in France, where republicanism gave rise to the left-right ideological spectrum that shapes politics throughout the West today, it would be a genuine revolution – one that could spell the end of the Socialist Party.

Given the symbolic power of the left-right divide, France’s voters and political leaders alike have long tended to frame virtually all of the country’s problems in ideological terms. The public and its politicians have little experience with government based on broad coalition agreements. This partly explains why the political system becomes gridlocked, sometimes making reforms difficult to implement, and why Macron’s message, which includes clear reform plans, is so unusual for France.

If Le Pen somehow comes out on top, French politics – not to mention the European Union – will be turned upside. But even the ostensibly moderate Macron represents, in his own way, a truly radical stance. With both candidates likely to make it to the second round, France is on the verge of a political revolution, regardless of who wins. [Continue reading…]

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410 ppm: Carbon dioxide has not reached this height in millions of years

Scientific American reports: The world just passed another round-numbered climate milestone. Scientists predicted it would happen this year and lo and behold, it has.

On Tuesday, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million (it was 410.28 ppm in case you want the full deal). Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years. It’s a new atmosphere that humanity will have to contend with, one that’s trapping more heat and causing the climate to change at a quickening rate.

In what’s become a spring tradition like Passover and Easter, carbon dioxide has set a record high each year since measurements began. It stood at 280 ppm when record keeping began at Mauna Loa in 1958. In 2013, it passed 400 ppm. Just four years later, the 400 ppm mark is no longer a novelty. It’s the norm.

“Its pretty depressing that it’s only a couple of years since the 400 ppm milestone was toppled,” Gavin Foster, a paleoclimate researcher at the University of Southampton told Climate Central last month. “These milestones are just numbers, but they give us an opportunity to pause and take stock and act as useful yard sticks for comparisons to the geological record.” [Continue reading…]

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How Britain’s former Syria envoy went on BBC to defend Assad… after quietly taking a job with dictator’s father-in-law

The Telegraph reports: A former British ambassador to Syria who appeared on the BBC to defend the Assad regime had already become a director of a lobby group run by the dictator’s father in law.

Peter Ford, 59, courted controversy this month by claiming that President Bashar al-Assad would not have carried out the chemical gas attack on his own people.

Now the Telegraph can reveal that just weeks before the April 4 attack Mr Ford had become a director of the controversial British Syrian Society.

This was founded by Fawaz Akhras, a London-based cardiologist whose daughter Asma is married to President Assad, and is closely linked to the regime, frequently accused of acting as its mouthpiece in the west.

According to documents filed at Companies House, Mr Ford – who has been accused of supporting the Syrian regime in the past – was appointed a director of the society on February 28 this year. [Continue reading…]

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When Nigel Farage met Julian Assange

Carole Cadwalladr writes: On 9 March 2017, an ordinary Thursday morning, Ian Stubbings, a 35-year-old Londoner, was walking down the street near his office in South Kensington when he spotted a familiar face. He turned and saw a man entering the redbrick terrace which houses the Ecuadorian embassy, where the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been holed up since 2012. And the familiar face? It was Nigel Farage, the man who spearheaded Britain’s exit from the European Union.

“I thought ‘hang on a moment’,” Stubbings says. “‘That looks a bit dodgy.’ I knew the building was the embassy because I often see camera crews outside. But there was no one else around. I was the only person who’d seen him. And I didn’t know what the significance was – and I still don’t actually – but I thought: that’s got to be worth telling and I was the only person who’d witnessed it.”

So, at 11.22am, he tweeted it. His handle is @custardgannet and he wrote: “Genuine scoop: just saw Nigel Farage enter the Ecuadorian embassy.” Moments later, a reporter from BuzzFeed, who happened to follow him on Twitter, picked it up and tweeted him back, and Stubbings told her: “No press or cameras around.”

No press or cameras around, that is, until BuzzFeed turned up just in time to catch Farage leaving, 40 minutes later. “Nigel Farage Just Visited the Ecuadorian Embassy in London,” the headline said. “Asked by BuzzFeed News if he’d been visiting Julian Assange, the former Ukip leader said he could not remember what he had been doing in the building.”

And that was how the world found out, by accident, that the founder of WikiLeaks, the organisation which published Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails – a decisive advantage for Donald Trump’s campaign – and Farage, a friend of Donald Trump, were mutually acquainted. [Continue reading…]

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How the March for Science finally found its voice

Ed Yong writes: They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chats that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.

Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.

His administration has denied the reality of climate change, courted anti-vaccine campaigners, repeatedly stated easily disproven falsehoods, attempted to gag government scientists, proposed enormous budget cuts that would “set off a lost generation of American science,” and pushed for legislation that would roll back environmental and public health protections, pave the way for genetic discrimination, and displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Sensing an assault on many fronts—to their jobs, funds, and to the value of empiricism itself—scientists are grappling with politics to an unprecedented extent. “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science,” said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, to the assembled crowds. [Continue reading…]

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A cooler future may hinge on removing CO2 from the air

Climate Central reports: Climate pollution equal to about 27 times humans’ 2015 carbon dioxide emissions may have to be removed from the atmosphere and locked underground forever in order to keep the globe from warming beyond 1.5°C (2.7°F) above preindustrial levels, according to a new study.

The research, led by scientists at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, or IIASA, in Austria, adds to the mounting evidence that countries will have to physically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to prevent global warming from exceeding dangerous levels.

Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is called “negative emissions,” and it’s central to the Paris climate agreement, which aims to prevent the globe from heating beyond 2°C (3.6°F). One of the main goals of the agreement is to keep warming to 1.5°C, a goal growing more difficult as the U.S. and other countries waver on their commitments to cut emissions.

Human greenhouse gas emissions will have to peak globally within 10 years for the 1.5°C target to be met, according to the study. [Continue reading…]

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