TBR News December 21, 2016

Dec 21 2016

The Voice of the White House  

Washington, D.C. December 21, 2016:”The release of the so-called ‘Panama Papers’ was originally designed to attack Vladimir Putin but instead created havoc in the ranks of American oligarchs and the entire story was immediately squelshed on their orders. No one hears much about this off-shore hideaway for the rich as a tax avoiding project. At the time the papers were released, it was put about in the American media that great revelations would soon emerge but while some politicians were embarrassed, the Amercan oligarchs did not find the subject entertaining so it died a very quick death. And the Panama Papers were followed by the Podesta Papers and in the latter case, it cost both the oligarchs and their approved presidential candidate the election.”

The Panama Papers fallout: banana protests, paltry fines and a PR problem

Iceland’s prime minister resigned, UK tax evaders are under investigation and Panama is worried about its image. Still, it didn’t quite turn out to be David Cameron’s ‘worst week ever’

December 21, 2016

by David Pegg

The Guardian


Of all the world leaders shamed over hidden wealth stashed offshore, none was more unfortunate than Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. The hapless prime minister of Iceland was caught on camera desperately trying to work out how to explain the presence of his signature on the documents of Wintris Inc, a company in the British Virgin Islands that held shares in one of the country’s failed banks.

As many as one in 10 Icelanders protested in front of the Alþingi, the national parliament, demonstrating their anger through the time-honoured tradition of hurling Icelandic yoghurt and waving bananas. Gunnlaugsson eventually resigned – and in so doing, launched a year of political upheaval; this month, the Pirate party was invited to form a government.


Three-time Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif has spent the whole year trying to face down the discovery that his children had raised loans against multimillion-pound properties on Park Lane in London, owned through offshore companies.

“He is in trouble. I think he is going to find it impossible to govern Pakistan,” opposition leader Imran Khan told the Guardian in April. In November, Khan’s plan to “lock down” the capital Islamabad with a coordinated protest by thousands of his supporters was called off after the supreme court ordered a corruption inquiry. That the revelation prompted so much public anger is all the more striking in light of the fact that Sharif was first linked to the property 16 years ago.

Stolen art

Seated Man with a Cane, an £18m painting by Modigliani, has for years been at the centre of a legal battle between the Nahmads, a family of New York art dealers, and the descendants of Oscar Stettiner, the Jewish gallery owner from whom the painting was seized by the Nazis in 1940.

The Nahmads have long insisted that they don’t own the painting because the International Art Center, a company incorporated in Panama, bought it at auction. But the Panama Papers revealed the Nahmads to be the owners of the company, and within days the Modigliani, which had been languishing in a tax-free Geneva warehouse known as a “freeport”, was seized by Swiss police. The dispute continues.


About 170kg of silver bullion and $150,000 of coins were among the items seized by Australian police in Camp Mountain, Queensland, earlier this year after they conducted raids against suspected tax evaders based on analysis of the papers. More than $2.5bn was reportedly connected to the 1,000 Australians that appeared in the files, with 100 facing compliance action as a result of the revelations.


HMRC has a miserable record of pursuing offshore tax malfeasance, with just a single tax evader prosecuted after it was handed a disc of data naming thousands of British clients of HSBC Private Bank Suisse. So a swiftly created Panama Papers taskforce, set up by Downing Street to “deal with any wrongdoing” brought to light by the investigation, was looked upon by many with a degree of scepticism.

But a statement by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, to parliament in November suggests that, staggeringly, action is being taken: 22 people are now under suspected investigation for tax evasion; 43 high net worth individuals (the super-rich to you and me) are under examination over their links to Panama; two properties have been connected with a National Crime Agency inquiry, and 26 offshore companies with property ownership are considered by the NCA to be “suspicious”.


While the rest of the world focused on the leaked files’ revelations of massive wealth hidden offshore, potential sanctions-busting and the facilitation of grand corruption, the government of Panama called for attention to shift to a much more important problem: the name of the reporting series.

“Despite their name, the Panama Papers are not mainly about Panama,” wrote Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela in the New York Times. “It’s not about Panama, it’s about one company. Nobody called it the Texas fraud when Enron [went] bankrupt,” agreed Ivan Zarak, the vice-minister of the economy. “It’s unjust. You are holding accountable the whole country for the actions of one company.”

An attempt at crisis management involving an independent report to assess the transparency of the country’s financial system promptly fell apart after the government refused to commit to publishing the findings.

The cellist

Sergei Roldugin, a close friend of Vladimir Putin and an inexplicably wealthy musician, gave a performance in Palmyra in May after the ancient city was liberated from Islamic State control. Beyond simply a celebration of Russian success in the military response to Isis, the spectacle could be interpreted as a public display of the president’s continued affection for the cellist, despite all that offshore awkwardness that exposed Roldugin’s links to Putin’s hidden fortune. Isis was reported to have retaken the city early this month.

Arron Banks

At the time the Panama Papers were published, Ukip financier Arron Banks was having a jolly time campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union and wasn’t about to let journalists spoil his fun by reporting on PRI Holdings Limited. PRI Holdings? Nothing to do with me! You’ll be hearing from my lawyers, sir!

Banks later published a sort of self-congratulatory EU referendum diary, in which his entry for 5 April 2016 suggests that this steadfast denial might not have been entirely accurate.

“At first I denied having anything to do with it as it just didn’t ring any bells,” he explained. “However, I got someone at the office to look into it and discovered that we did actually use a law firm to set up a couple of companies for a project that didn’t end up happening.” Banks was “thousands of miles away on a boat in the British Virgin Islands” at the time, where it’s probably quite easy to forget about offshore companies.

David Cameron

The then prime minister’s four days of April prevarication over how to respond to the discovery of his father’s offshore fund in the Panama Papers was widely described as his “worst week ever”, which seems naive, post-everything else in 2016, but felt reasonable at the time.

In his rushed-out political memoirs, Cameron’s media adviser Craig Oliver revealed that he was worried the PM might have to resign over the scandal, and that Cameron had also invested “in something called the Vietnamese Enterprise Fund”. Oliver describes a remarkably chaotic press operation, with the Camerons spending hours on the phone with accountants and Oliver not actually discovering the PM had owned offshore shares until two days after the story first broke.

Mossack Fonseca

Mossack Fonseca, the offshore services firm at the centre of the entire scandal, continues to operate. The British Virgin Islands, where it incorporated most of its clients’ companies, administered a “record” fine of just under $500,000 (£404,000) and cheerfully allowed them to continue incorporating new shell companies.

However, the firm, which continues to insist it did nothing wrong, has had nine of its offices around the world, including in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, closed down. Several of its staff have been arrested, including one junior Venezuelan employee currently being held in a military prison in Caracas.

Death in Istanbul

The assassination of the Russian ambassador and the future of Syria

December 21, 2016

by Justin Raimondo,


If you think the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, the same day terrorist attack in Berlin, and the announcement the next day of an agreement by Russia, Turkey, and Iran to end the Syrian civil war are all a monumental coincidence, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Aside from the requisite “Allahu Akbar!”, Mevlut Mert Altintas, the Russian Ambassador’s killer – a police officer – shouted “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” That’s what’s being reported widely, but he also said, according to the Daily Mail, in Arabic:

“’We are the descendants of those who supported the Prophet Muhammad for jihad.’ According to local media, his words are similar to the unofficial anthem of Al Nusra. Some reports claimed he said words to the effect of: ‘We made an oath to die in martyrdom … it is revenge for Syria and Aleppo … until they are safe, you will not taste safety.’”

Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan has had to walk a tightrope between the party’s rural fundamentalist supporters and the realities of the Syrian civil war, as the combined might of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian forces has steadily made inroads on the Saudi- and US-supported Syrian rebels, which also include the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. With the fall of Aleppo, Erdogan’s turn away from support to the rebels and his focus on defeating ISIS and the Kurds, proved problematic on the home front.

With ISIS and the Kurds making gains near the Turkish-Syrian border, Erdogan had no choice but to change course from his previous policy of unconditional support to the Syrian rebels. This led to the necessity of having to forge a separate peace with Russia and Iran, a move that could not have pleased Islamists in his own ruling party. The coup de grace occurred right after the assassination, when the defense and foreign ministers of the three countries met. This statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu says it all:

“All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure. None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground, The approval of the declaration at the level of defense and foreign ministers implies our readiness to guarantee and jointly address concrete questions related to resolve (the crisis in) Syria.”

While the official government line in Ankara is that the killing was the work of the “Gulenists” – a group routinely blamed for everything by the authorities, from the recent coup attempt to the downing of that Russian fighter earlier this year – the reality is that Altintas was no Gulenist. He was reportedly active in the youth section of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and now there are reports that he was part of Erdogan’s personal security team.

It looks like Erdogan has reaped what he has sown. In August, he told Tass that, since the Nusra Front was fighting ISIS, they “should not be considered a terrorist organization.” As of this writing, no one has taken responsibility for the hit on the Ambassador, but it no doubt came from this milieu.

The Syrian catastrophe, and now the Islamist assault on Turkey, is yet another case of deadly “blowback.” For years, the US and its Saudi and Gulf state allies have been funding “moderate’ Islamists in an effort to overthrow the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, with Israel a silent partner in this regime change operation. Along with the Western media, which has bought into the myth of the Syrian opposition as a benevolent force, the Saudi propaganda machine has been working overtime to portray what is happening in the region as a “holocaust” perpetrated solely by Assad. This is simplistic nonsense of a sort our media is peculiarly susceptible to: they are always looking for Good Guys versus Bad Guys, Innocence versus Evil, in a world made up almost entirely of grays and shades of black. And of course the fact that our own intelligence services – notably the CIA – have been in bed with Syria’s Islamists (all of them “moderates,” to be sure!) may account for the favorable publicity they’ve been getting in the Western media.

Now that the jig is up in Syria, expect all of the terrorist factions – al Qaeda, Nusra Front, ISIS, etc. – to merge into one amorphous mass: they were never that separate to begin with. Also expect that the coming end of the “Caliphate” will result in more not less terrorist attacks in Western Europe and the United States: an animal fights harder and lashes out when cornered.

Terrorism won’t disappear as long as two factors continue to be operative: 1) Western intervention in the Middle East, which fills the ranks of al Qaeda, ISIS, and the rest, and 2) State sponsorship of terrorist organizations continues unabated. And the biggest culprits aren’t Iran, contra Fox News, but the Saudis, the Qataris, and the rest of the Gulf states – our so-called “allies.” This is the head of the snake: until and unless it is beheaded, is will continue to strike.

Artificial intelligence could cost millions of jobs. The White House says we need more of it.

December 20, 2016

by Steven Overly

The Washington Post

The growing popularity of artificial intelligence technology will likely lead to millions of lost jobs, especially among less-educated workers, and could exacerbate the economic divide between socioeconomic classes in the United States, according to a newly released White House report.

But that same technology is also essential to improving the country’s productivity growth, a key measure of how efficiently the economy produces goods. That could ultimately lead to higher average wages and fewer work hours. For that reason, the report concludes, our economy actually needs more artificial intelligence, not less.

To reconcile the benefits of the technology with its expected toll, the report states that the federal government should expand access to education in technical fields and increase the scope of unemployment benefits. Those policy recommendations, which the Obama administration has made in the past, could head off some of those job losses and support those who find themselves out of work due to the coming economic shift, according to the report.

The White House report comes exactly one month before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office, meaning Obama will need his successor to execute on the policy recommendations. That seems unlikely to happen, especially as far as unemployment protections are concerned. Congressional Republicans already aim to curtail some existing entitlement programs to reduce government spending.

Rolling back Social Security protections for out-of-work families “would potentially be more risky at a time when you have these types of changes in the economy that we’re documenting in this report,” Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a call with reporters.

Research conducted in recent years varies widely on how many jobs will be displaced due to artificial intelligence, according to the report. A 2016 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 9 percent of jobs would be completely displaced in the next two decades. Many more jobs will be transformed, if not eliminated. Two academics from Oxford University, however, put that number at 47 percent in a study conducted in 2013.

The staggering difference illustrates how much the impact of artificial intelligence remains speculative. While certain industries, such as transportation and agriculture, appear to be embracing the technology with relative haste, others are likely to face a slower period of adoption.

“If these estimates of threatened jobs translate into job displacement, millions of Americans will have their livelihoods significantly altered and potentially face considerable economic challenges in the short- and medium-term,” the White House report states.

Those same studies were consistent, however, when it came to the population that would feel the economic brunt of artificial intelligence. The workers earning less than $20 per hour and without a high school diploma would be most likely to see their jobs automated away. The projections improved if workers earned higher wages or obtained higher levels of education.

Jobs that involve a high degree of creativity, analytical thinking or interpersonal communication are considered most secure.

The report also highlights potential advantages of the technology. It could lead to greater labor productivity, meaning workers have to work fewer hours to produce the same amount. That could lead to more leisure time and a higher quality of life, the report notes.

“As we look at AI, our biggest economic concern is that we won’t have enough of it, that we won’t have enough productivity growth,” Furman said. “Anything we can do to have more AI will lead to more productivity growth.”

To that end, the report calls for further investment in artificial intelligence research and development. Specifically, the White House sees the technology’s applications in cyber defense and fraud detection as particularly promising.

Russia-Hack Story, Another Media Failure

The mainstream U.S. media’s gullible acceptance of unproven CIA claims about Russian interference in the U.S. elections is another reason to doubt the media and fear for the future of American democracy

December 19, 2016

by Joe Lauria

Consortium News

President Obama admitted in his press conference on Friday that his government hasn’t released any evidence yet of Russian interference in the election, but he said some would be coming.

That’s proof that an uncritical press has already printed stories as if true without any evidence just on the say-so of the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization long dedicated to deception, disinformation and meddling in other countries’ elections, not to mention arranging coups to overthrow elected governments.

Forty years ago, the established press would have been skeptical to buy anything the CIA was selling after a series of Congressional committees exposed a raft of criminal acts and abuses of power by the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Today’s journalists work for newspapers that fraudulently still bear the names New York Times and Washington Post, but they are no longer the same papers.

The vast U.S. news media also is not the same. The working journalist today is living off the reputation for skepticism and determination to get beyond government pronouncements that was established by their papers decades ago. Rather than add to that reputation, the credibility of the biggest newspapers continues to erode.

Both the Times and the Post should today be stained by their credulous reporting of official lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Instead of showing professional skepticism, the big papers became cheerleaders for an illegal invasion that killed hundreds of thousands of people and left behind a disaster that still reverberates today. Neither the Times nor the Post suffered any consequences and have picked up where they left off, still uncritically reporting anonymous U.S. officials without demanding proof.

On the contrary, any reporter who did demand evidence was in danger of career consequences. An editor for a newspaper chain that I was reporting for called me to chew me out because he said my stories were not in support of the Iraq war effort. He told me his son was a Marine. I told him I was sure he was proud but that my job was to report the news based on the evidence. On the very day when the invasion began, I was fired.

Of course, the television networks, including CNN, were most egregious for selling the war. I was shocked when I heard reporter Kyra Philips from aboard a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf gleefully announce: “Welcome to Shock and Awe!” just after a cruise missile was shown being fired. The people it killed on the receiving end were almost never mentioned.

CNN, which has accepted Russian interference in the U.S. election as a given, is also living off its reputation of a once very serious news organization. On its very first broadcast on June 1, 1980, Cable News Network aired as its second story a lengthy investigative report on faulty fuel gauges in commercial airliners. It broadcast an in-depth live report from the Middle East, and veteran newsman Daniel Schorr interviewed and challenged President Jimmy Carter.

But 1980 was when the period of skeptical, professional journalism that demanded proof from its own government started to decline as Ronald Reagan was elected. He worked to stamp out the skepticism bred from Watergate, Vietnam and the Congressional intelligence hearings. Reagan did this, in part, by resurrecting the most obvious and adolescent myths about America. And he worked with the CIA to manage America’s perceptions away from the critical thinking of the 1970s, as journalist Robert Parry has extensively reported.

There have been a few periods in American journalism when demanding proof from government was expected. The muckraking period led by Lincoln Steffens of the Progressive Era was one. The 1970s was another. But mostly it has been a business filled with careerists who live vicariously through the powerful people they cover, disregarding the even greater power the press has to cut the powerful down to size.

Egregious Case

The reporting on the supposed Russian hack of the elections is one of the most egregious examples of unprofessional journalism since 2003, particularly because of the stakes involved.

There have now been a slew of stories, each of which seems to offer a new promise of evidence, such as one under the ludicrous New York Times headline, “C.I.A. Judgment on Russia Built on Swell of Evidence.” But when you read the piece, its only sources are still unnamed intelligence officials. A later 8,000-word Times article was the same, as though the length by itself was supposed to lend it more credibility.

If there were any doubts, Obama wiped them away with his admission that no evidence had been released. Worse still, perhaps, is that counter-evidence has been suppressed, another consistent feature of today’s journalism.

The former British diplomat Craig Murray, has written and told at least two radio interviewers that the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta emails were not obtained by WikiLeaks through hacks, but instead from leaks by American insiders.

This story was totally ignored by established media until the Daily Mail in London reported it online, but incorrectly said Murray had himself received the leak. In the U.S., only The Washington Times reported the story, quoting the Mail. But that story took a swipe at Murray’s reputation, merely saying he was “removed from his diplomatic post amid allegations of misconduct.” In fact, Murray was let go for blowing the whistle on U.K. use of evidence extracted by torture by the corrupt Karimov administration in Uzbekistan. The rest of the Washington Times story just repeats what every other reporter has written about Russian interference.

Two Obstacles

Even if it were proven that Russian government operatives hacked these emails as part of their intelligence gathering, there remains the additional evidentiary hurdle that they then supplied the data to WikiLeaks, when the recipients, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, say the source or sources weren’t Russians.

It’s also noteworthy that none of the information in the emails has been shown to be false. The leaks provided real insights into how the DNC favored Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders and revealed some shady practices of the Clinton Foundation as well as the contents of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street bankers that she had tried to hide. In other words, the leaks gave voters more information about Hillary Clinton, confirming what many voters already believed: that she was beholden to the financial sector and benefited from her insider connections. But none of that was particularly news.

It is important to note, too, that Obama himself in his press conference said there is zero evidence Russia tried to hack into the electronic voting systems. In fact it now emerges from dogged reporting by a local Atlanta TV station that the Department of Homeland Security appears to have been behind earlier attempted hacks of voting systems in several states.

So, it would be virtually impossible to prove that the DNC and Podesta emails were the deciding factor in the election. Indeed, before the election, pro-Clinton corporate media downplayed the email-related stories and Podesta said the emails may have been faked (although none of them appears to have been made up).

The emails also revealed numerous instances of reporters colluding with the Clinton campaign before publishing stories, something no hard-boiled editor from an earlier era would have stood for.

Democratic Misdirection

By focusing on the alleged Russian role now, Democrats also have diverted attention from other factors that likely were far more consequential to the outcome, such as Clinton largely ignoring the Rust Belt and not going once to Wisconsin or her calling many Trump supporters “deplorables” and “irredeemable.” Further, Clinton was a quintessential Establishment candidate in an anti-Establishment year.

And, there was the fact that in the campaign’s final week, FBI Director James Comey briefly reopened the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State, a move that reminded many Americans why they distrusted Clinton.

Yet, as the mainstream U.S. media now hypes as flat fact the supposed Russian role, there remains the inconvenient truth that the Obama administration’s intelligence community has presented no verifiable evidence that the Russians were the source of the leaks.

Demanding to see the evidence on Russia, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee called the CIA, FBI and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to a closed-door briefing. Though these agencies are obligated to show up in response to requests from their Congressional oversight committees, the three agencies flatly refused. Then, DNI James Clapper refused to brief concerned Electoral College voters whose votes for or against Trump may have been influenced by the news media frenzy about alleged Russian interference. Clapper reportedly is preparing a report on Russia’s “hacking” for Congress.

Political Strategy

The Russia fiasco appears to have been part of a political strategy that I first wrote about on Nov. 5 – three days before the election – that a fallback plan, if Trump won a narrow victory, would be to influence the electors to reject Trump when they assemble in state capitals on Dec. 19. Playing the Russian card was designed to appeal to the electors’ patriotism to defend their country against foreign interference.

Assuming that Electoral College long shot failed, there would be one more chance for Clinton to stop Trump: on Jan. 6, when Congress meets to certify the election. The Clinton camp needs one Senator and one Representative to sign an objection to Trump’s certification (no doubt citing Russia) forcing a vote by both chambers.

If Trump loses – and there are a number of anti-Trump Republicans in Congress – the election would be thrown to the House where Clinton or a more conventional Republican could be selected as President.

Given those stakes for the American democracy and the risks inherent in U.S. relations with nuclear-armed Russia, the fact that the most influential establishment media has bought into this extremely flimsy story about Russian hacking should condemn them further in the minds of the public.

Ankara Assassination Proves Crisis in Middle East Is Engulfing Turkey

December 20, 2016

by Patrick Cockburn

Unz Review

The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara by a 22-year-old riot policeman underlines the degree to which Turkey is being destabilised by the hatred and violence spreading from the wars in Syria. Spectacular killings and bombings are happening every few days in which the identity, affiliations or motives of the perpetrators are often in doubt because the attacks are a reflection of the multiple crises threatening to tear Turkey apart.

The circumstances surrounding the killing of ambassador Andrey Karlov by Mevlut Mert Altintas are an example of this over-supply of possible suspects. Many Turkish observers regret that he was shot dead by the security forces soon after the assassination because his connections point in different directions and the reason for his actions may never be explained.

The international media has generally focused on his shout “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” This fits in with a simple narrative that a lot of Turks are enraged by Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and for his recapture of east Aleppo. Maybe one of them decided to do something about it.

But these cries were not the killer’s first words after he had fired the fatal shots and may not have been the most significant. These were in Arabic and spoke of those “who give Mohammed our allegiance for jihad,” suggesting that the speaker had moved in jihadi circles in Turkey. This argues against the killing being a spontaneous response to events in Aleppo, but does not tell one much about the gunman’s affiliations.

The best informed Turkish commentators are suggesting that these were with Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria or with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, which the Turkish government blames for the attempted coup on 15 July. On the other hand, they admit that he could have been a lone assassin who happened, from his point of view, to be in the right place at the right time.

Turkish and Russian leaders are almost over-assiduous in reassuring each other that the murder of a top Russian diplomat will not break their new-found bonds of friendship. President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made statements to that effect and, soon after the Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met in Moscow for a pre-arranged discussion on Syria. After failing to protect Mr Karlov, Turkey will probably have to pay a price by being more accommodating to Russia in Syria.

What is not in doubt is that Turkey is becoming a more violent place and a weaker power. In the last 10 days alone the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or one of its offshoots have killed 58 people, mostly soldiers and police in carefully planned bomb attacks. The political leaders of the Kurdish minority, an estimated 14 per cent of the 80 million Turkish population, are being charged with terrorist offences for expressing even the mildest form of dissent. The same may be starting to happen to the Alevi who make up a further 15 per cent of the population. The failed military coup of 15 July provoked a purge of soldiers, civil servants, universities and media suspected of Gulenist connections with more than 100,000 sacked or suspended and 37,000 arrested. There is a continuing state of emergency and the purge has extended well beyond suspected Gulenists to include anybody critical of Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

It did not have to turn out this way. As the Arab Spring so-called spread across the region six years ago, Turkey might have served as a mediator to prevent violence and contain crises. Instead, it backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and elsewhere and tolerated ever more extreme jihadis. Mr Erdogan was certainly not alone in thinking that there would be regime change in Damascus, but he was the one worst affected when the project failed.

Turkey is now faced with the nightmare of Kurdish control along most of its border with Syria and Iraq. In Syria, there is a de facto Kurdish state, in military alliance with the US, ruled by the Syrian branch of the PKK. The Turkish government has established a narrow anti-Kurdish cordon sanitaire further west, but it remained largely mute while the Syrian armed forces retook east Aleppo. Turkish policy in northern Syria is now directed against the Kurds and hopes of getting rid of Mr Assad have languished.

For all Mr Erdogan’s belligerent talk about military intervention in Iraq and Syria over the last six months, his actions on the ground have been cautious. The temptation may still be there to burnish his nationalist credentials and demonstrate his control over a heavily purged Turkish army by sending it deeper into Syria and even into Iraq.

But these ventures may be beyond the capacity of a Turkish state that lacks foreign allies prepared to back its policies. There are hopes in Ankara that a Donald Trump administration would be more sympathetic to the Turkish position than President Obama, but nobody knows if the new US position is going to be much different from the old. From Turkey’s point of view, Russia and Iran may not be great allies but they could be very nasty enemies.

Governments in deep trouble sometimes play the nationalist card to get themselves out of it by military intervention abroad. The result is usually disastrous, though there is popular support among Turks for action against the PKK in its foreign enclaves. A Turkish newspaper even speaks of “draining the swamp of the Qandil”, a peculiarly ill-chose metaphor referring the PKK’s bases in the Qandil mountains, one of the greatest natural fortresses on earth.

The assassination of Mr Karlov is one more symptom showing that the general crisis in the Middle East and North Africa is affecting Turkey. The forces unleashed in Syria and Iraq are exacerbating existing divisions in Turkey. Mr Erdogan is extending his authoritarian rule but he rules a weakening state unable to cope with mounting crises at home and abroad.

Russia, Iran and Turkey Meet for Syria Talks, Excluding U.S.

December 20, 2016

by Ben Hubbard and David E. Sanger

New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Moscow on Tuesday to work toward a political accord to end Syria’s nearly six-year war, leaving the United States on the sidelines as the countries sought to drive the conflict in ways that serve their interests.

Secretary of State John Kerry was not invited. Nor was the United Nations consulted.

With pro-government forces having made critical gains on the ground, the new alignment and the absence of any Western powers at the table all but guarantee that President Bashar al-Assad will continue to rule Syria under any resulting agreement, despite President Obama’s declaration more than five years ago that Mr. Assad had lost legitimacy and had to be removed.

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to back that demand with more involvement as the war escalated leaves Washington with little leverage on a geopolitical crisis as President-elect Donald J. Trump prepares to take office.

Mr. Trump’s only recent statement on Syria came last week, when he declared at a Pennsylvania rally that the situation was “so sad” and promised, “We’re going to help people.” He vowed to extract funds from Persian Gulf nations to build “safe zones” in Syria “so people will have a chance,” without addressing the question of who would enforce those zones on the ground or in the air.

But by the time Mr. Trump is sworn in next month, such safe zones may be irrelevant, if the evacuation of Aleppo and political negotiations proceed.

More than a year after launching the air campaign that remade the battlefield in Mr. Assad’s favor, Russia appears to be looking for a way out of the war. Analysts say that Moscow sees in the transition an opportunity to end the conflict on favorable terms both for Mr. Assad and for Russia’s broader interests in the region.

“Russia understands that nobody gives you anything, you just have to take it, and in this environment, with the U.S. retreating faster than the other side can advance, it’s just a free for all,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Syria. “When the Turks, the Iranians and the Russians all agree on a process without the U.S. being in the room, you realize there is a problem for us.”

Russian officials have made little effort to hide their disdain for American diplomatic efforts.

Last week, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said working directly with Turkey on the evacuation deal was more efficient than “fruitless get-togethers with the U.S.” On Tuesday, Mr. Lavrov said the International Syria Support Group, which he and Mr. Kerry led since 2015, had turned out “important documents,” but “has been unable to play its due important role in seeing to it that adopted decisions are implemented.”

The State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said on Tuesday that Mr. Kerry had spoken with Mr. Lavrov and Turkey’s foreign minister by phone, and he expressed skepticism that the new effort would be successful.

If the talks “lead to a sense of calm enough in Syria that political talks can resume, then that would be great and that’s what we’d like to see,” Mr. Kirby said, but added that “we have seen repeated promises to appropriately influence the Assad regime in the right way on the cessations of hostilities and seen those fail,” and said he held out little hope this would be different.

As Syrian forces and their allies retook rebel-held areas of Aleppo this month, Russia proposed new peace talks in Kazakhstan to replace those sponsored by the United Nations in Geneva. Russia also worked directly with Turkey — which changed its approach to Syria after years of backing the insurgents seeking to oust Mr. Assad — on the evacuation deal.

Since the Syria conflict started in 2011 with a popular uprising that evolved into a civil war, Mr. Obama has resisted direct American military involvement, arguing that it would not improve the situation and that Syria was not a core American interest.

Mr. Obama’s reluctance to challenge Mr. Assad angered the Syrian opposition and allies like Saudi Arabia who wanted Mr. Assad gone.

But the United States intervened in indirect ways, running covert programs with its allies to give the rebels arms, money and antitank missiles.

With the rise of the jihadists of the Islamic State, who seized territory in Syria and Iraq, the United States changed priorities. Washington led a coalition to bomb the group, also called ISIS or ISIL, and worked closely with Kurdish forces fighting the jihadists on the ground.

But that policy angered Turkey, which saw the United States arming fighters linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which both Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

Over time, Turkey’s fight against Kurdish militants took precedence over its desire to see Mr. Assad replaced.

Another factor has shaped how the various foreign powers are approaching Syria.

“Trump,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies Turkey. “One of his early signals was that he was going to scale back support for the opposition that the U.S. has supported.”

Mr. Trump has not articulated a comprehensive Syria policy, but he has suggested he will work alongside Russia to fight extremists including the Islamic State.

The signs of a Russian-Turkish rapprochement were clear on Tuesday, despite the assassination of Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara by a man identified as a Turkish police officer.

In Moscow, Mr. Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, placed flowers next to a portrait of the ambassador, Andrey G. Karlov.

“Turkish people are mourning this loss as much as Russia and the people of Russia,” Mr. Cavusoglu said.

Mr. Lavrov said Russia was “grateful to our Turkish colleagues” for their condolences and their rapid response to the killing, adding, “This tragedy is making all of us combat terrorism in a more resolute way and is making our meeting today ever more relevant.”

At the meeting, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to “the Moscow Declaration,” a framework for ending the Syrian conflict. They did not consult the United States, nor did they invite Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria, who has spoken of new peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 8.

“This is Turkey bending to Russia,” Mr. Stein said. “This is putting a fine point on Turkey’s policy of ‘Assad must go’ no longer being the policy.”

Iran’s presence is significant, as well. The original evacuation deal was between Russia and Turkey and involved only Aleppo. But Shiite militias loyal to Iran and fighting on the side of Mr. Assad prevented the first buses from leaving, demanding that the deal be renegotiated to include people from two Shiite villages in Idlib Province.

Iranian officials have boasted about their fighters’ role in Aleppo and that of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which helped besiege eastern Aleppo before the evacuation deal.

“As Russia has allied with Iran in the region, it is the coalition of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah that has caused Aleppo’s liberation, and very soon Mosul will also be liberated,” Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military aide to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said last week. “It shows that this coalition has an upper hand and the U.S.’s president-elect has to face its weight.”

But the United States remains relevant in its relationships with rebel factions and the fight against the Islamic State, said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group. Mr. Bonsey added that Mr. Assad’s coalition probably still lacked the personnel needed to take back the rest of Syria’s territory, but that as long as the United States wavered on involvement, other powers would fill the vacuum.

“Insofar as diplomacy on Syria can accomplish anything,” he said, “it will be between Russian and Turkey, with input from Iran.”

U.S. plays down absence from Moscow talks on Syria, says not ‘sidelined

December 20, 2016

by Yeganeh Torbati and David Alexander


WASHINGTON-The United States on Tuesday sought to downplay its absence from talks on the Syrian conflict among Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow, saying it was not a “snub” and did not reflect a decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East.

However, President Barack Obama’s decision to offer only limited support to moderate rebels has left Washington with little leverage to influence the situation in Syria, especially after Moscow began launching air strikes against rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Although Washington has long been a player in efforts to end the Syria civil war and other Mideast conflicts, the United States was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Syrian government and its allies, including Russia, mounted an assault to pin down the rebels in east Aleppo that culminated in a ceasefire deal.

Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who was an adviser on Iran and the Middle East to both Democratic and Republican administrations, said the United States had made itself “irrelevant” in Syria.

“The opposition finds little reason to be responsive to us and Assad. The Russians and Iran know that there is nothing we will do to raise the costs to them of their onslaught against Aleppo and other Syrian cities,” Ross said.

“Russia, having changed the balance of power on the ground, without regard to civilian consequences, has moved to make itself an arbiter.”

A spokesman for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed suggestions that America’s absence from the meeting indicated a change in influence.

“The secretary doesn’t see this as a snub at all. He sees it as another multilateral effort to try to get a lasting peace in Syria and he welcomes any progress towards that,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday.

“We would obviously refute any notion that … the fact that we weren’t at this one meeting is somehow a harbinger or a litmus test for U.S. influence and leadership there or anywhere else around the world,” Kirby said, adding that Washington was still engaged in the region on many other issues.

“We are not excluded, we are not being sidelined,” he added.

At the meeting on Tuesday, Russia, Iran and Turkey said they were ready to help broker a Syrian peace deal and they adopted a declaration that laid out the principles any agreement should follow.

Still, the meetings on Tuesday resulted in a “Moscow Declaration,” reflecting Russia’s growing links with Iran and Turkey, despite the murder on Monday of Russia’s ambassador in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and reflects Putin’s desire to increase his country’s influence in the Middle East and more widely.

It also shows that Russia is fed up with what it considers long and pointless talks with the Obama administration over Syria.


A U.S. official acknowledged that the U.S. absence from the evacuation talks on eastern Aleppo was Russia’s way of showing that Moscow, not Washington, was running the show.

“The fact is that we have put ourselves in a position where Russia is making efforts to try to work with anybody else so they can isolate us,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

“We let our differences with Turkey over the Kurds and our views over the northern part of Syria create gaps that the Russians have exploited.”

Kirby said that in the end, the United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey would like to see an immediate ceasefire and the “urgent delivery” of humanitarian aid.

Ultimately, he said, it was too soon to judge whether the talks were a success.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that he and his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, were working to organize new Syrian peace negotiations without the United States or the United Nations.

Russia says that if they happen, the talks would be in addition to intermittent U.N.-brokered negotiations in Geneva.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday he thought that what he called the Russia-Iran-Turkey troika was the most effective forum for trying to solve the Syria crisis.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by John Walcott and Leslie Adler)

Smog refugees flee Chinese cities as ‘airpocalypse’ blights half a billion

Thousands head to pollution-free regions as haze descends on the country’s northern industrial heartland

December 21, 2016

by Tom Phillips

The Guardian

Tens of thousands of “smog refugees” have reportedly fled China’s pollution-stricken north after the country was hit by its latest “airpocalyse” forcing almost half a billion people to live under a blanket of toxic fumes.

Huge swaths of north and central China have been living under a pollution “red alert” since last Friday when a dangerous cocktail of pollutants transformed the skies into a yellow and charcoal-tinted haze.

Greenpeace claimed the calamity had affected a population equivalent to those of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined with some 460m people having to breathe either hazardous pollution or heavy levels of smog in recent days.

A picture from Henan province, showing more than 400 students sitting an exam on a football pitch after their school was forced to close, was widely circulated on social media.

Lauri Myllyvirta, a Beijing-based Greenpeace activist who has been chronicling the red alert on Twitter, said that in an attempt to shield his lungs he was avoiding going outside and using two air purifiers and an industrial grade dust mask “that makes me look like Darth Vader”.

“You just try to insulate yourself from the air as much as possible,” said Myllyvirta, a coal and air pollution expert.

Others have simply opted to flee.

According to reports in the Chinese media, flights to some pollution-free regions have been packed as a result of the smog.

Ctrip, China’s leading online travel agent, said it expected 150,000 travellers to head abroad this month in a bid to outrun the smog. Top destinations include Australia, Indonesia, Japan and the Maldives.

Jiang Aoshuang, one of Beijing’s “smog refugees”, told the state-run Global Times she had skipped town with her husband and 10-year-old son in order to spare their lungs.

Jiang’s family made for Chongli, a smog-free ski resort about three hours north-west of the capital, only to find it packed with other fugitives seeking sanctuary from the pollution.

“It really felt like a refugee camp,” she was quoted as saying.

Yang Xinglin, who also fled to Chongli, said she had requested time off from her job at a state-owned real estate firm so she did not have to inhale the smog.

“You ask me why I left Beijing? It’s because I want to live,” Yang, 27, told the Guardian.

Emma Zhang, a third “smog refugee”, told the South China Morning Post she and her young son had swapped their home in the western city of Chengdu, which has also been blighted by severe pollution, for a hotel in the temperate south-western province of Yunnan.

“I finally saw the blue sky. It was wonderful!” she said.

Li Dongke, a 27-year-old Beijinger, said her entire family had decamped to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, or the tropical island of Hainan in the South China Sea. “It’s terrible,” she complained of the current pollution crisis.

Fleeing the danger zone has not been completely straightforward for China’s environmental exiles.

The China Daily reported that smog had paralysed airports in Beijing and across the country’s northern industrial heartland in cities such as Tianjin and Shijiazhuang, making escape impossible.

Beijing’s domestic Nanyuan airport cancelled all flights on Tuesday while the Beijing Capital international airport cancelled at least 273 flights.

Myllyvirta, the Greenpeace activist, said his group had been warning of a winter smog crisis since July when it began noticing the government was pumping economic stimulus into heavily-polluting industries such as cement and steel.

“A big part of what happened is that the steel price went up when the government started a huge wave of construction projects to stimulate the economy,” he said.

One consequence was that a large number of smaller, poorly-regulated steel producers had “gone on a tear” leading to increased emissions that were now blackening the skies over northern China.

Myllyvirta said he was convinced the future looked brighter for China’s environment, despite its latest airpocalypse.

A fall in the use of coal and air pollution were likely over the next three to five years as more urgent steps were taken to restructure the economy and preserve the environment.

For now, however, some locals saw temporary or permanent exile as their only option while many outsiders refused to come at all.

“People are definitely thinking about how to get out and … companies are complaining that it is hard to recruit talent [to come to China],” Myllyvirta said.

“People don’t want to live in places with terribly polluted air.”

Additional reporting by Christy Yao

Aghast at Iran’s Syria gains, Gulf Arabs see potential in Trump

December 21, 2016

by William Maclean


RIYADH-“Where are you, Oh Arabs, Oh Muslims, while we are being slaughtered?”

An old man’s cry, in a video posted online from Aleppo’s ruins, poses an uncomfortable question for the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab states backing rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran and Russia.

For Saudi Arabia, locked in a regional struggle with Iran, Assad’s capture of the rebel haven reflects a dangerous tilt in the Middle East balance of power toward Tehran.

Dismayed by this boost to Iranian ambitions for a “Shi’ite crescent” of influence from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, Riyadh is determined to reverse Tehran’s gains sooner or later.

Countering Iran, buoyed by its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, remains central to Gulf Arab policy but it is not clear how this might be achieved, especially when other concerns are multiplying.

Beset by low oil prices, at war in Yemen, and ties with Egypt strained, Riyadh and Gulf allies are questioning how much armed help they should now give the rebels, diplomats say.

The monarchies are frustrated with President Barack Obama’s light touch approach to the war – relying on local fighters instead of large U.S. military deployments or missile strikes.

President-elect Donald Trump poses an intriguing contrast.


Seen as more decisive than Obama, Trump’s choices of James Mattis, a retired Marine general distrustful of Iran, as Defense Secretary, and oil man Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, have pleased Gulf Arab energy exporters.

But much remains uncertain, not least Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally.

“What we have learned from the U.S. election is to wait for actions, not words,” said former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

A senior Western diplomat said Saudi officials were curious to see how Trump translates into policy his campaign criticism of Iran and his praise of Putin.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said he had spent time in the United States to sound out the next administration.

Officials said Gulf states were asking Trump associates about Syria, to assess whether he would pursue a U.S.-led effort with Gulf states, Turkey and Western nations to arm the rebels.

Trump has indicated he may abandon the rebels to focus on fighting Islamic State.

Gulf Arab states want to test that view, said one Western official. A Gulf state foreign ministry official described Trump as “a businessman with whom you can make a deal”.


Gulf humanitarian aid will remain: Sunni Arab societies will not accept curbs on relief to the mostly Sunni country, after a war that has forced 5 million Syrians to flee and killed 300,000.

But the extent of their armed support appears in question.

Qatar, with Saudi Arabia the most enthusiastic backer of the rebels, says it would prefer to continue military aid but insists this should remain a collective effort.

Proclaiming “great faith” in Trump, Asaad al-Zoubi, Saudi-based chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council, said some rebel backers had met Trump advisers to explain their cause. “They did not receive an answer from Trump’s people. They (the advisers) wanted to listen more than they wanted to answer,” he said.

Sami alFaraj, a security adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council of six Gulf Arab states, told Reuters that the Gulf countries “need to regroup, have a strategic pause and look at how we pursue our objectives in the time ahead.”

“The Syrian case has not been closed,” he said. They would push for a transitional administration in Syria – something neither Assad nor Tehran accepts.


Any notion of Gulf Arab leverage in future negotiations seems far-fetched, given the determination of Assad, Moscow and Tehran to carve out territorial gains.

But Jubeir told the Arab League in Cairo that if world powers failed to constrain Assad there would be no political solution to the war.

“If we cannot find an effective way to pressure the Syrian regime, we will not reach a political solution and the killing, displacement, and injustice in Syria will go on,” Jubeir said.

While drawn to Trump, the Gulf monarchies feel his views are not fully formed, and they want to do nothing that might cause him to harm their interests.

AlFaraj said he expected Trump to deal favorably with Gulf states, which have the wealth to help create U.S. jobs. He believed a suggestion by Trump that Gulf states pay for safe zones in Syria was worth considering.

“If he wants to create jobs there is no better field than selling weapons,” alFaraj said. “We are the only people who have surplus cash.”

However, Arab resentment at Western inaction over Syria appears deep and enduring.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, foreign minister of Bahrain, an ally of Riyadh, told Reuters: “The whole thing in Syria was because of disengagement from world powers about how to deal with the matter. So with all the changes in the political leadership (in the West) let’s hope for some new commitment for Syria.”

Asked if it was realistic to back rebels who had lost their major urban stronghold, he replied: “Do you think its realistic that we should also allow such bloodshed and people dying to go on and on and on. What’s the next city after Aleppo?”

(Additional reporting by Katie Paul; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Who, or what, is Sorcha Faal: A Posterboy for Mental Health

Unknown Energy Surges Continue to Hit Planet, Global Weather Systems in Chaos

December 21, 2016

by Harry von Johnston, PhD

Sorcha Faal turns out to be a nom de plume for one David Booth, a retired computer programmer from New Hampshire who stirred up limited controversy in conspiracy circles with the promotion of his book ‘Code Red: The Coming Destruction of the United States 2004.’ Booth claimed the book originated in a  “consecutive ten day dream he alleged he experienced in 2003 in which he saw a large sized planetary body pass close to Earth causing an explosion.  This was then built up into the story about ‘Planet X’ a heretofore unknown planet in our solar system  on a very long, elliptical orbit. In May 2003, it was alleged by the lunatic fringe that the non-existent “Planet X” would pass close enough to the Earth to affect it in some way, causing it to flip over (what many call a “pole shift”) and spur many other huge disasters. The end result was solemnly predicted be the deaths of many billions of people. There are a large number of web pages, chat rooms and books about Planet X and its horrible effects on the Earth. So the question is, does this planet exist, and did it come close enough to Earth in May 2003 and cause great catastrophes? Did an atomic bomb explode over downtown Houston, Texas, on December 25th, 2004 by orders of Paul Wolfowitz? Many internet readers were breathlessly informed of this by a Canadian masquerading as the “German Guy,” a purported senior intelligence official in the German BND. Houston still stands, undamaged, and as far as the mythical ‘Planet X’ is concerned, here is a comment from the official NASA website:

From the NASA website:

“There is no known Planet X or 10th planet in our solar system. Scientists have been looking for about a hundred years. It was believed that such a planet was required to explain the orbital characteristics of the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. Many searches have been performed and, to date, no evidence of such a planet has emerged. In addition, better information about the masses of outer planets has also now shown that no other planets are necessary to explain the planetary orbits. (See our article on “Planet X” below)

There also is no Sorcha Faal in St. Petersburg, Russia or Florida. None of the Russian scientific bodies listed in the Faal accounts, specifically the Russian Academy of Science, has any record of such a person.”


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