Friday, July 15, 2016

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The U.S. and Russia Have Unfinished Business

The U.S. and Russia Have Unfinished Business

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is in Moscow for talks on a range of issues. With only six months left in office, the Obama administration is running out of time to find a breakthrough in relations with Russia. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
After months of lobbying by Russia for serious talks on several issues, the Americans sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow. Kerry arrived on Thursday for talks with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and President Vladimir Putin amid a flurry of U.S. media reports regarding greater U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Though Putin's Thursday day planner was packed with preparations for Russian parliamentary elections this September, Kerry was whisked to the Kremlin to meet with the Russian leader. Putin had expressed reluctance to meet with Kerry, and the U.S. delegation seemed more prepared for the Lavrov-Kerry talks than the Russians did, unloading large binders onto the negotiation table compared with the Russians' handful of papers. These signals suggested the United States was there to negotiate, while the Russians were waiting to see what the Americans brought to the table.
According to The Washington Post, what they brought was a proposal for a joint intelligence group with Russia that would share information on al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and synchronize military strikes against the Islamic State. In return, Russia would cease airstrikes against moderate rebel forces backed by the United States.
But Russia has aims beyond the Middle East. Moscow has been seeking to use the Syrian civil war to make Washington dependent on it in disputes closer to Russia. By leveraging its position in the Middle East, Moscow hopes to exact concessions on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Western sanctions against Russia and the NATO military buildup along the Russian periphery. Indicating that all parties recognize Moscow's gambit, both sides brought their respective representatives on Ukraine — U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Russian presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov — to a meeting formally focused on Syria.
Doubtless spurring the U.S. side into seeking a breakthrough, U.S. President Barack Obama has only six months left in office. Obama has hinted he wants to conclude a deal on Syria and Ukraine before the next administration takes over. Tactical agreements are indeed possible, such as a plan to fight the Islamic State in Syria and moderate concessions on the Ukraine crisis, sanctions and the military buildup in Eastern Europe. In a preview of the kind of deal that could emerge from the Kerry-Lavrov talks, Russia offered on Thursday to turn on transponders on its warplanes in the Baltic region if NATO did the same. This is a small tactical shift, and today's meetings will probably not produce anything much bigger. Whatever progress comes out of the meeting, much unfinished U.S.-Russian business will carry over into the next administration.
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FBI has found no evidence so far that Orlando shooter targeted Pulse because it was a gay club

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US could soon release 28 pages of 9/11 report

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The Obama administration may soon release the still classified 28 pages of the 9/11 commission’s report, the Hill reported Thursday.
Many have speculated that the pages implicate members of the Saudi government in the deadliest terror attack on American soil. But no definitive proof has emerged linking Saudi officials to al-Qaeda.
Congress is expected to receive a redacted copy of the 28 pages as early as Thursday, the Hill reported, citing House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff. That would be followed by a public release Friday.
It's not yet clear, however, who will make the release.
“I think the administration probably concurs that it’s a congressional work product, it ought to be released by Congress,” Schiff said, but, “ultimately the speaker/leader will make the decision on whether they release it or the committees do.”
Former Secretary of the Navy and commission member John Lehman said he believes Saudi officials supported the 19 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"There was an awful lot of participation by Saudi individuals in supporting the hijackers, and some of those people worked in the Saudi government,” he said.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia.
Former Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the congressional inquiry previously said he believes substantial support for the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, including the government.
The White House was previously expected to announce by June whether it would declassify the 28 pages.

After Nice attack, officials warn that terror threats will stalk for ‘a long time’

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John Kerry Meets Vladimir Putin to Discuss New Syria Plan

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Russia’s stated position is that it is not wedded to Mr. Assad personally, but does not wish to see any head of state removed by what it sees as Western-engineered change.
The other complication is that the Syrians and Russians have routinely undermined previous commitments regarding cease-fires and other measures to spare civilian lives. In just the past week, the Syrian Army has repeatedly announced cease-fires only to conduct an extensive military campaign around the rebel-held section of the stricken city of Aleppo, leaving about 300,000 people there besieged. The government is also advancing on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, one of the first areas to revolt against the government, with many of its 8,000 residents fearing an imminent massacre. In recent days, a refugee camp near the Jordanian border was bombed, and civilians were killed. Whether it was the Russians or Syrians who undertook the operation is not known.
“It is true that Assad has, time and time again, broken commitments that either they had made or Russia had made on their behalf,” Mr. Earnest said, adding that the Russians can get things done in Syria if they so choose. “We know that the Russian government has influence with the Assad regime in a way that can have a tangible impact on the ground; it’s just a matter of President Putin deciding whether or not he cares enough about his own integrity to use it. And that’s the question that they face.”
The proposed agreement with the Russians, first reported by The Washington Post, would create a joint command center in or near Amman, Jordan, to coordinate an intensified bombing campaign against the two militant groups. Both Russia and the United States have been attacking the Islamic State, though acting separately, with minimal coordination to avoid unintended conflict between their warplanes. Yet most of Russia’s airstrikes have been aimed not at the Islamic State but at other groups fighting Mr. Assad, including the Nusra Front and American-backed rebel groups.
The Nusra Front has been one of the most effective anti-Assad forces, and because of that United States-backed rebel groups often coordinate their activities with its units. Russia has argued that means that Washington is effectively supporting Nusra, and that the American-backed groups are legitimate targets. So a joint campaign against Nusra would not only appear to concede Russia’s point, but could also bring American firepower to bear against the strongest anti-Assad military force and a sometime partner of Washington’s allies.
Up to now, the United States has carried out occasional strikes against what have been described as senior Qaeda figures in Syria. But it has refrained from systematic attacks against the Nusra Front, whose ranks are heavily Syrian, including many who left less extreme rebel groups because Nusra was better armed and financed. Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, was also critical of the proposed military coordination with the Russians. He said that combined attacks against Nusra would effectively end the Syrian opposition, cementing Mr. Assad’s grip on power and enraging most Syrians.
The United States proposal states that American and Russian officials would share information on the locations of rebel groups to ensure that strikes aimed at Nusra did not hit United States-backed groups. In the past, those groups — as well as some American officials — have worried that Russia might use that information for targeting, rather than avoiding, them.
The proposed agreement also raises questions of whether the United States would eventually come under Russian pressure to attack other rebel groups, like the Army of Islam, a leader of which led the opposition negotiating team at the last round of peace talks in Geneva.
Any formal agreement with the Russians could also suggest that the Obama administration was warming to Mr. Putin, contradicting efforts to isolate him after Russia’s annexation of Crimea two years ago, its continuing efforts to undermine Ukraine and its increasingly aggressive posture toward Europe. Last week’s NATO summit meeting showed that cracks are already beginning to appear in the alliance’s hard-line stance against Moscow, with Germany, France and Italy all showing signs of wavering.
Nevertheless, the top State Department official, who requested anonymity to speak about a sensitive diplomatic matter, said that any military cooperation in the Syrian theater would have no effect on the wider relationship with Russia, adding that differences remained over Ukraine and Crimea.
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CIA Chief Says Saudi Arabia Must Adapt Society to 21st Century - Bloomberg

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CIA Chief Says Saudi Arabia Must Adapt Society to 21st Century
"Saudi Arabia is among our closest counterterrorism partners," CIA Director John Brennan said Wednesday in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The kingdom has been a target of Islamic State attacks and, before that, of al-Qaeda ... 
CIA's Brennan: Saudi Bombings Bore 'Hallmark' of Islamic StateVoice of America

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Electronics Smuggler Sentenced for Illegal Exports to Russia

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A 36-year-old New Jersey man smuggled $65 million in electronics components to Russia.