Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump: A choice between two stark visions of America


Our two political parties have never been more different from each other. They inhabit wildly opposite political and social universes. The two party conventions that just ended revealed one party whose view of America is of a hellish dystopia, while the other sees a struggling, striving optimistic nation of diversity.  

The Republican Party of Donald J. Trump is a distilled version of the white, working-class and middle-class pessimism that has been growing for years as the nation’s diversity has become more politically and culturally dominant and the economic recovery has left behind many voters. This is the 100-proof angst that has been a core energizer for Republicans, but until now had not ever won control of the party.  

Trump’s campaign is not so much a traditional national effort, with local and state organizations, policy agendas, a data plan to reach voters and a strategic program in battleground states, but rather a primal scream to stop the world, I want to get off!  

As unprecedented as Trump’s campaign has been, it has shown a certain logic in its boiled-down 140 characters on Twitter. It is purely one man and one message. And it can work in that way. Our culture has many models of the individual against the group, such as the sheriff in the town driving away the bad guys. This one-person solution can also be a source of autocracy and a threat to democracy. What if the sheriff is nuts?

To the agony of traditional conservatives, this new, distilled Republican Party is less concerned with the role of government than with race and identity, and Trumpism is fairly certain to outlast Trump, whatever happens in November. Remember, Mitt Romney was fairly reasonable but was pulled to the right on immigration, and he’s the one who invented “self deportation.”  It was a small step from that to Trump dropping the “self” part. I doubt that, except perhaps in tone, the party will go backward in the future.  

Democrats, once the party of Bill Clinton’s centrist balancing act, are now the home of the new electorally empowered diversity of Barack Obama. The party is varied, not distilled, which is both its strength and its weakness. Today’s Democratic Party is unmistakably more liberal, and much bolder than Bill Clinton’s party, which he crafted as a brilliant improvisation to survive in a Republican-dominated system.  

Today, communities of color and labor and others have made massive strides in the Democratic Party, Republicans have become much more conservative on social issues important to Jews, and Bill Clinton’s less than 50 percent coalition has become a 50-plus percent majority. That’s why Obama has been a bigger and more consequential president than Clinton. Where once the party had to focus on surmounting black-white tensions, Democrats now must work on keeping African-Americans, Asian- Americans, Latinos, labor, business and environmentalists all together in the same tent. At the same time, they cannot ignore whites, who still compose the majority of voters. Crafting a single message like Trump’s is not in the cards.

The differences between the two party models now seem insurmountable, and only a decisive victory by one side or the other will solve the gridlock we face. Even outside nations are now playing parts in this epic battle. For Israel, it was Benjamin Netanyahu tying himself to Republicans in Congress over the Iran negotiations (Jewish Journal, March 27, 2015), but this is small potatoes compared with what Vladimir Putin seems to be doing. Russia’s alleged interference by hacking Democratic National Committee emails during our election cycle (as well as its increasingly active role in other democracies) could change global politics and reverse the end of the Cold War. A weakened U.S.-Europe-NATO alliance (if Trump’s promised revisions take hold) combined with the post-Brexit fragmenting of the United Kingdom would be sweet revenge for the former KGB agent.

Seeing these two party machines in conflict is, for a political scientist, both spectacularly fascinating and frightening. I cannot write off Trump, because he reminds us how a distilled message made by one person can be powerful: I am not among those who dismiss the power of 140 characters (our modern version of the bumper sticker). But Clinton’s party is better organized than it has ever been: Thanks to the merging of the Clinton and Obama organizations, it is data wise, younger, broader and has two ex-presidents and most everybody on board. So it comes down to a test of whether a vast party can beat an eccentric individual with few friends but a message.

For Jewish voters, finding the right “home” is complex. Jews are not a single voting bloc. There are still thousands of Jewish Berniacs; there are Hillary enthusiasts; there are socially liberal, strongly pro-Israel voters who were comfortable with Bill Clinton but detest Obama; there are Jewish liberals who preferred Obama to Hillary Clinton. There are Jewish Republicans, who worry about the direction of their own party, but detest Democrats. And there are Jewish independents such as Michael Bloomberg who have taken the plunge to support Hillary. The odds are, though, that there are very few Jewish enthusiasts for Trump.

In any case, Israel has been less of a fixture in this round than it has been before. Israel was not mentioned much at either convention, except to check a box of support. And polls show that Israel is no longer quite the deciding factor even among many American Jews in terms of vote choice that it was in earlier times. It was a moment’s news that Bill Clinton was wearing a button pledging his support to Hillary in Hebrew, and both nominees have Jewish sons-in-law.    

Oddly though, Trump’s rise may nevertheless more closely bind Jews to the Democrats for a different reason. Democrats have lost college-educated whites in election after election. But this year may be different, and one thing you can say about Jewish voters: They are college educated whites. Trump’s behavior and attitudes alienate these voters. Clinton is now leading among them, and in the suburbs around the Democratic cities, she will run up big margins.  College-educated whites, like Jews, are high turnout voters. Jewish voters, who once were seen as keys to national elections (as in the perennial question: Will Jews turn to the right this time?) may once again emerge as a balance wheel in our divided American politics.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.  

Peres: Trump’s foreign policy proposals would be ‘a very great mistake’


Israel’s former president Shimon Peres said carrying out Donald Trump’s isolationist foreign policy vision would be “a very great mistake.”

In an interview with Bloomberg.com published Monday, Peres — who is 93 and served in numerous roles in Israel’s government since its founding in 1948 — did not refer to the Republican presidential nominee by name.

But asked about Trump’s statements on foreign policy, the Nobel Peace Prize winner said, “To suggest that America will disconnect her relations with NATO, that America will leave the whole field open to other countries — in my judgment it’s a mistake. A very great mistake.”

Last month Trump suggested in an interview with The New York Times that U.S. military support for NATO member states might be conditional on whether those members’ fulfill their obligations to the bloc.

During the interview, Peres, who turns 93 on Tuesday, also addressed other topics, such as a project he’s working on that seeks to bring together Israeli and Arab tech entrepreneurs.

“We want to make not just a Startup Nation, but a Startup Region,” Peres said of his project, the Israeli Innovation Center. “Science doesn’t have flags. Science doesn’t have borders.”

Asked about the Palestinian Authority ’s threats to sue Great Britain over the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Peres compared the move to refighting the Crusades, the medieval battles for control of the Holy Land.

“The past is dead,” he said. “The future is the agenda.”

Possible Clinton VP choice, an ex-NATO chief, slammed Iran deal and has close Israel ties


A former NATO commander being considered as a running mate for Hillary Clinton has called for a formal U.S.-Israel defense treaty and was sharply critical of the Iran nuclear deal.

James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral, is being vetted by Clinton’s campaign to join the former secretary of state as she accepts the Democratic Party nomination later this month, The New York Times reportedTuesday.

In his 2009-13 term as NATO commander and as U.S. European commander, Stavridis met frequently with Israelis and forged close ties with the Israeli security establishment. During that time he received a top award from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a conservative pro-Israel group.

Stavridis retired in 2013 and became a dean at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and has slammed the Iran sanctions-relief-for-nuclear-rollback deal. In 2015, writing in Foreign Policy, he called for a defense treaty with Israel, citing what he said were the weaknesses in the Iran plan.

“We have to think through the execution of the agreement and what steps we can take to mitigate the ill effects of the plan,” he wrote. “At the top of the list should be seriously considering a formal alliance with Israel.”

Israel has resisted past U.S. overtures for a defense treaty, preferring independence when it comes to making security decisions.

Last summer, at the height of the battle led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to kill the Iran deal in Congress, Stavridis was the keynote speaker at an AIPAC fundraiser in Boston.

Baker suggests Trump’s foreign policy proposals would lead to more instability


The world “would be far less stable” if proposals floated by Donald Trump are implemented as U.S. foreign policy, former Secretary of State James Baker III told a Senate panel on Thursday at the same time the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was meeting party leaders on Capitol Hill.

“We’ve got a lot of problems today, but you’d have a hell of a lot more if that were the case,” Baker said. “These commitments promote U.S. Security. NATO has been the foundation of peace and stability in Europe. The more countries that obtain nuclear weapons the more instability there will be in the world.”

Trump has been critical of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on the campaign trail, arguing that the alliance no longer serves its founding purpose and that it is too costly to the United States. In March, Trump suggests Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia should be allowed to develop nuclear weapons if that means they could defend themselves independently from their adversaries. “Maybe it’s going to have to be time to change, because so many people, you have Pakistan has it, you have China has it. Iran is going to have it within 10 years… At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself,” he explained. Can I be honest with you? It’s going to happen, anyway. It’s only a question of time.” 

But according to Baker, abandoning the fight against nuclear proliferation “would not promote stability. That would promote instability.” 

The former secretary of state and foreign policy advisor to former presidential candidate Jeb Bush testified before Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a hearing titled “Examining America’s Role in the World.” Former National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon also testified at the hearing. 

While Baker did not mention Trump by name, the reference was made to Trump’s proposals after being raised by Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Israel’s status at NATO headquarters gets an upgrade


NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has upgraded its ties with Israel, bringing Jerusalem even closer into its circle at a time of mounting instability throughout the Middle East.

Israel will open offices at NATO’s Brussels headquarters and will credential its representative, Israeli Ambassador to the European Union David Walzer.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed NATO’s “inviting the State of Israel to open office at the organization's headquarters,” adding that he saw the move “as an important expression of Israel's standing in the world.”

“The countries of the world are looking to cooperate with us due to – inter alia – our determined fight against terrorism, our technological know-how and our intelligence services,” he said.

In a statement posted on its website, NATA announced that it had “agreed ‎to accept the request that an official Israeli Mission be established at NATO headquarters.”

In what some interpreted to be a tampering down of Israel bravado, the statement added that “NATO has invited all partners to open diplomatic missions to the Headquarters of the Atlantic Alliance in Brussels.”

Israel has been a member of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue since December 1994.

But the real news behind the upgrade was that that Turkey, which has used its membership in NATO to block Israel’s request for years, had lifted its veto and may, despite the lack of a formal agreement for normalization of ties, be ready to patch up a six-year rift with Israel.

Gen (ret) Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former National Security Adviser, said that “as a small country all contacts with international organizations are important to us, both so as to bring our voice to the table and, no less, as a way of learning from one another.”

Speaking with The Media Line from Europe, he said “a small country such as ours, with real problems and needs and also the need to present its case in public forums, should actively promote all contacts with multinational groups, most definitely with a large and important organization like NATO.”

Not all Israeli experts were quite as convinced, though in Jerusalem the upgrade is viewed positively across the board.

Ephraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Israel-Turkey relations said Turkey’s acceptance of an Israeli office at NATO headquarters “is apparently a gesture within the framework of negotiations to end the crisis between the two nations.”

“It’s not nothing,” he told The Media Line, “but it is a symbolic move. We have representative offices in all too many unimportant countries, too. It’s not that big a deal.” 

Asked about the now abandoned veto at a press conference in the Turkish capital of Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu supported the Israeli upgrade and said Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain should get similar treatment. “This isn’t just Israel, the same right needs to be given to all the southern partners,” he said.

There are any number of reasons Turkish president and strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have decided this is the week to play nice with Israel, but simple exhaustion may be one of them.

Turkey, in crisis with the Jewish state for the past six years, since Israel staged a raid on the Mavi Marmara, a boat attempting to break the Gaza blockade, in which nine Turkish citizens died, finds itself at odds with almost every regional neighbor.

Supporting the rebels, Turkey is an undeclared war against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. Diplomatic ties to Egypt, a regional colossus, were ruptured over Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was unseated by current President Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Turkey is embroiled in an ongoing civil war with nationalist Kurds. It is at an impasse with Russia, with whom it has skirmished in the Syrian theater.

For Gallia Lindenstrauss, a researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, loosening the anti-Israeli veto at NATO “is one of the more tangible  forms any normalization agreement will take, and Israel has waited for it for a long time.”

Speaking with The Media Line, she said it indicated that “the deal is very close.”

In 2009, in a pre- Arab Spring, pre-Mavi Marmara world in which Turkey found itself resurgent,  foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu set designed a foreign policy based on a principle he called “zero problems with neighbors.”

The congenial-sounding policy was formulated only a few months after a heated exchange about the loss of civilian life in Gaza between a fervid Erdoğan and Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres. Erdoğan stormed off stage after protesting that Israeli air strikes were “very wrong” and saying “many people have been killed.”

But by the summer of 2013, only four years after Davotoglu’s reboot, the journal Foreign Policy published an article entitled How Turkey Went from Zero Problems to Zero Friends.

This week, he seems to have lost definitively. Now prime minister, Davotoglu resigned on Thursday after losing yet another political battle with Erdoğan, whom the British newspaper The Spectator has dubbed “the most powerful man in Europe.”

Less sympathetically, the headline is followed by “Turkey’s thuggish president has European leaders exactly where he wants them.”

Lindenstrauss points out that lifting the veto on Israel also resolved long-standing tensions between NATO and its Muslim member states. “Turkey had the role of limiting the constructive cooperation between NATO and Israel, and this has been a big problem.”

The next round of Israeli-Turkish talks, which are expected to be critical, is scheduled for later this month. Most of the points of contention have been resolved, including the issue of Israel scaling back its blockade of Gaza—Israeli has purportedly agreed to enable Turkey to carry out a number of infrastructure projects there, such as building a new power plant (in a collaboration with Germany) and building a long-awaited desalination plant. The principal open question regards the activities of Hamas in Turkey, where Israel claims the planning and financing of West Bank terrorism is conducted sotto voce.

NATO approves Israeli representation to its headquarters


NATO said on Wednesday it had agreed to non-member Israel setting up representation at its Brussels headquarters, a tentative sign of rapprochement between the Jewish state and NATO member Turkey.

Israel and Turkey have stepped up efforts to patch up a relationship badly damaged following an Israeli raid in 2010 on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, which had been trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

NATO said in a statement that Israel's ambassador to the European Union, David Walzer, would now also head its mission at alliance headquarters.

The foreign ministry of Israel, which is not a NATO member but has partner status as a participant in the alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue programs together with six other non-NATO countries in the region, welcomed the move.

Turkey's mission to NATO had no comment on Wednesday but Ankara previously opposed some forms of NATO cooperation with Israel following the Mavi Marmara incident.

In 2010, Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara, which was the lead ship in a group of boats trying to break the blockade, and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Ankara has discussed the opening Israeli mission at NATO with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“We said we may welcome this if all countries are treated equally,” Cavusoglu said. “It's important that not only Israel but other southern partners are granted the same right.”

NATO weighs four battalions in Eastern states to deter Russia


The NATO alliance is weighing rotating four battalions of troops through Eastern member states, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Monday, in the latest proposal by allies to guard against aggressive behavior by Russia.

The Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – which joined NATO in 2004, have requested greater presence of the alliance, fearing a threat from Russia after it annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Carter acknowledged NATO deliberations included the deployment of the four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland. The Wall Street Journal said this would likely total about 4,000 troops split between the United States and its allies.

“That's one of the options that's being discussed,” Carter told reporters traveling with him at the start of a three-day trip to Germany, declining to enter into details about the deliberations by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We're obviously involved in those discussions. I just don’t want to get out in front of where that goes.”

U.S. officials say the goal in Europe is to move increasingly from efforts to reassure allies to broader activity to deter any aggressive moves by Russia.

The United States has already budgeted to sharply boost military training and exercises and last month announced it would deploy continuous rotations of U.S.-based armored brigade combat teams to Europe.

Carter's trip to Germany will include meetings with Army General Curtis Scaparrotti as he takes over as the next NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, succeeding U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove.

Scaparrotti told a Senate hearing last month that a resurgent Russia was displaying “increasingly aggressive behavior that challenges the international norms, often in violation of international law.”

Trump says U.S. should spend less on NATO


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said the United States should decrease the amount it spends on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“We are paying disproportionately. It's too much and frankly it's a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea,” Trump said in an interview on CNN.

“We have to reconsider. Keep NATO, but maybe we have to pay a lot less toward NATO itself,” he said.

Russia and Turkey refuse to back down in row over jet downing


Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Underscoring the message, Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia on Wednesday, near where the jet was downed, rebels and a monitoring group said.

The United States and Europe both urged calm and continued dialogue in telephone conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a sign of international concern at the prospect of any escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

The downing of the jet on Tuesday was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria.

President Tayyip Erdogan made no apology, saying his nation had simply been defending its own security and the “rights of our brothers in Syria”. He made clear Turkish policy would not change.

Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey's action and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as a planned act and said it would affect efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Moscow would “seriously reconsider” its relations with Ankara, he said.

Jets believed to be Russian also hit a depot for trucks waiting to go through a major rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam, the head of the crossing said.

Syrian jets have struck the area before, but if confirmed to have been carried out by Russia, it would be one of Moscow's closest air strikes to Turkish soil, targeting a humanitarian corridor into rebel-held Syria and a lifeline for ordinary Syrians crossing to Turkey.

DO NOT WANT WAR

But the Russian response was carefully calibrated, indicating Moscow did not want to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.

“We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey,” Lavrov said. Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

In Paris, where deadly attacks on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State prompted France to step up its aerial bombing of the militant group in Syria, President Francois Hollande expressed concern over the war of words between Ankara and Moscow.

“We must all work to make sure that the situation (between Russia and Turkey) de-escalates,” Hollande told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hollande was due to discuss Syria and the fight against Islamic State with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin said an advanced weapons system would be despatched to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province.

“I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights,” Putin told reporters, in an apparent warning to Turkey not to try to shoot down any more Russian planes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. Russian operations would continue, he said.

MUTUAL RECRIMINATION

Turkey said the downed jet had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials have said the plane was at no time over Turkey.

The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels.

The surviving pilot was quoted by Russian agencies as saying the crew “knew the region like the back of their hand”, that they did not fly over Turkish air space, and that there were no visual or radio warnings from Turkey.

The Turkish military later released what it said was an audio recording of a warning to a Russian fighter jet before it was shot down near the Syrian border. A voice on the recording can be heard saying “change your heading” in English.

The Turkish military said it had explained the rules of engagement that led to the downing of the jet to Russian military attaches and had tried to rescue the pilots.

At a business event in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had made a “huge effort” to prevent such incidents but that the limits of its patience had been tested after repeatedly warning Russia about air space incursions in recent weeks.

“Nobody should expect us to remain silent against the constant violation of our border security, the ignoring of our sovereign rights,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has been angered by Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly those near its border targeting Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

TRADE TIES

Russia made clear it could target Turkey economically.

“The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market,” Medvedev said in a statement.

Russia is a major exporter of grain and energy to Turkey, and sends over four million tourists each year to Turkish resorts, second only to the number of German tourists.

The Russian government has already said it will discourage Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, though the immediate impact will be limited because Turkey is now in the off-season.

But while Russia may mothball deals with Turkish firms and curb imports of Turkish goods, it is unlikely to let the fallout affect energy exports that are the core of their economic relationship.

“Erdogan is a tough character, and quite emotional, and if Russia pushes too far in terms of retaliatory action, I think there will inevitably be a counter reaction from Turkey (like) tit-for-tat trade sanctions, perhaps extending to things like the Russia nuclear deal,” said Nomura strategist Timothy Ash.

“But I think there is also a clear understanding that any such action is damaging for both sides, and unwelcome. The ball is in Russia's court now,” he wrote in a note.

Turkey downs Russian warplane near Syria border, Putin warns of ‘serious consequences’


Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying the jet had repeatedly violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plane had been attacked when it was 1 km (0.62 mile) inside Syria and warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a stab in the back administered by “the accomplices of terrorists”.

“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” Putin said, as Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

Each country summoned a diplomatic representative of the other and NATO called a meeting of its ambassadors for Tuesday afternoon. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a visit to Turkey due on Wednesday and the defense ministry said it was preparing measures to respond to such incidents.

Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area the TV said was known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. 

Separate footage from Turkey's Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed. A deputy commander of rebel Turkmen forces in Syria said his men shot both pilots dead as they came down.

A video sent to Reuters earlier appeared to show one of the pilots immobile and badly wounded on the ground and an official from the rebel group said he was dead.

But a Turkish government official told Reuters the pilots were believed still to be alive and that Ankara was working to secure their release from Syrian rebels. 

Russia's defense ministry said one of its Su-24 fighter jets had been downed in Syria and that, according to preliminary information, the pilots were able to eject. “For the entire duration of the flight, the aircraft was exclusively over Syrian territory,” it said.

The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish air space. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.

“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” another senior Turkish official told Reuters. 

“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish air space before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish air space was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.

A U.S. military spokesman said it was an issue between the Turkish and Russian governments and that U.S.-led coalition operations in Syria and Iraq were continuing “as planned”.

In Washington, an official said the United States believed the incursion probably lasted only a matter of seconds before the jet was downed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident was still being investigated.

RUSSIA TARGETS TOURISM

Russia's decision to launch separate air strikes in Syria mean Russian and NATO planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to Turkish borders. 

Russia’s military involvement in Syria has brought losses, including the downed jet and the bombing by militants of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt. But there is no sign yet that public opinion is turning against the operation in Syria and the Kremlin said it would continue.

Instead the Kremlin, helped by state-controlled television, has used these reverses to rally public opinion, portraying the campaign as a moral crusade that Russia must complete, despite indifference or obstruction from elsewhere.

A U.S. official said U.S. forces were not involved in the downing of the Russian jet, which was the first time a Russian or Soviet military aircraft has been publicly acknowledged to have been shot down by a NATO member since the 1950s. 

The incident appeared to scupper hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the West in the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which led to calls for a united front against the radical jihadist group in Syria.

Russia's main stock index fell more than two percent, while Turkish stocks fell 1.3 percent. Both the rouble and lira were weaker.

Lavrov advised Russians not to visit Turkey and one of Russia's largest tour operators to the country said it would temporarily suspend sales of trips.

SHOT AS THEY FELL

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the head of the military, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was due to report on the incident to NATO ambassadors. He also informed the United Nations and related countries.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Latakia province, where there had been aerial bombardment earlier and where pro-government forces have been battling insurgents on the ground.

“A Russian pilot,” a voice is heard saying in the video sent to Reuters as men gather around the man on the ground. “God is great,” is also heard.

The rebel group that sent the video operates in the northwestern area of Syria, where groups including the Free Syrian Army are active but Islamic State, which has beheaded captives in the past, has no known presence.

A deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade told reporters on a trip organized by Turkish authorities that his forces had shot dead both pilots as they descended. A U.S. official said the pilots' status remained unclear.

“Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air,” Alpaslan Celik said near the Syrian village of Yamadi, close to where the plane came down, holding what he said was a piece of a pilot's parachute. 

In a further sign of a growing fallout over Syria, Syrian rebel fighters who have received U.S. arms said they fired at a Russian helicopter, forcing it to land in territory held by Moscow's Syrian government allies.

Turkey called this week for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent, and last week Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of their villages.

About 1,700 people have fled the mountainous area due to fighting in the last three days, a Turkish official said on Monday. Russian jets have bombed the area in support of ground operations by Syrian government forces.

Europe, ISIS and us: Now what?


Simon Wiesenthal Center officials sat across from French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace some 18 months ago, sometime between the Toulouse Day School and the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher massacres. His words were devastating: “I can confirm that 1,000 French citizens went to Syria and Iraq” to train with ISIS or al-Qaeda, the somber French leader told us, adding…”They have returned to France, melted into the general population–many of them armed–and we do not know where they are.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier asked— “How many imams are there in France, and how many have condemned terrorist attacks”? “Six thousand imams…and about 10 have publicly spoken out…” These days the number has been reduced to one: Imam Chalgoumi of Drancy. The others have been cowered into silence…

So, a year and a half later, here we are, the morning after ISIS plunged the City of Lights into darkness. Now what?

Without question, the terrorist leaders are triumphant:

–Despite France’s heightened alerts, the three cells converged on Paris, apparently undetected. One suicide bomber reached the entrance of France’s largest stadium during a soccer match and almost succeeded in detonating himself in the venue where 80,000 fans—including President Hollande were in attendance. How could that happen? Without a doubt, the latest off-the-shelf encryption apps and other Internet technologies must have been deployed to enable the terrorist networks to communicate and evade surveillance.

–ISIS was able to infiltrate at least one terrorist within the mass migration to Europe. He was processed along with other refugees on the Greek Island of Lesbos before making his way to Europe’s heartland. This fact, puts more pressure on the entire European Union, but especially on Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to stop her open-door policy to Middle East refugees and migrants.

–ISIS is enjoying a huge propaganda victory. There were reports of more than 50,000 tweets on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the bloodbath celebrating the mass murders. With a boost from their sophisticated social media marketing strategy, their “triumph” is sure to attract more young recruits and more supporters for the global food-chain of terrorism.

–ISIS sees a world leadership deeply divided in what, if anything, to do next. Statements by the United States' president and Secretary of State that “we will do everything it takes to defeat ISIL” are not taken seriously. The president himself has admitted that we have no strategy.  Despite the aerial assassinations of a few ISIS leaders, the terrorists are convinced that America has no appetite for boots on the ground. The Democratic presidential debate on Nov. 14 yielded a half hour of semantic sparring over the Islamist terrorists, but no specific ideas as to how they would protect the homeland. Beyond declaring that we are at war with radical Islamists, most Republican candidates have yet to articulate how they would take on the evildoers.

— ISIS and its supporters are thrilled by every drop of infidel blood spilled, by every tear shed. Their greatest export is fear, and they take great pride that they brought the greatest carnage to the streets of Paris since World War II.

So what needs to be done to ensure that the Paris attacks will serve as a turning point and not merely another bloody stop on the highway to hell?

First, President Hollande declared war on ISIS. The United States and other NATO allies should join with France, whether Russia agrees or not.

Yes, with all due respect to Hillary Clinton, these terrorists are at war with us. It’s time to articulate an effective strategy. Someone’s boots—perhaps NATO's— will have to get on the ground so that the ISIS snake can be beheaded, not innocent Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis. Large-scale ISIS casualties and destruction of their training bases will destroy their nexus to extremists who have returned to Europe. A NATO force would also help secure an immediate humanitarian goal of establishing a safe-haven/no fly zone for the millions of displaced Syrians that would at least slow the flood of humanity storming the shores of Europe.

Secondly, in 2015, we must reject the mantra that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” ISIS and all groups associated with Islamic extremism are determined to bring humanity back to the Dark Ages. These groups attacking soccer stadiums, concert halls, and restaurants in Paris, or stabbing women and children in streets of Jerusalem, have one thing in common–they have declared war on the basic tenets of humanity and decency. Leaders, whether stationed in the halls of political power, on university campuses or in the pulpits of houses of worship, must demand that their constituents denounce all acts of terrorism.

Finally, social media giants must join the war against terror. When will Twitter finally wake up? Why do they continue to allow themselves to serve as the key platform for the cheerleaders of depravity? And Silicon Valley leaders may want to take note that the apps they are generating are not only allowing teens to hide their sexual antics from their parents, but enabling mass murderers to threaten us all.

During the Cold War there was a doomsday clock always set a few minutes before a feared midnight of a nuclear war. Humanity was lucky that no lunatic got close to that button. But a new doomsday clock lurks. We need leaders who will forge new alliances to defeat movements who will stop at nothing to destroy our values and our lives.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To buttress Iran deal, a NATO-like treaty with Israel


When America faced fears of a nuclear attack during the Cuban Missile Crisis more than 50 years ago, President John Kennedy offered a strong statement to the Soviet Union: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

While President Barack Obama has repeatedly said he stands behind Israel, he should now issue a statement similar to Kennedy’s to make it crystal clear to the Iranians that, whether or not the nuclear accord is ratified by Congress, the United States will consider an attack on Israel as an attack against the U.S. and “a full retaliatory response” will follow. Congress should then endorse that statement.

There is more the president can and should do to deter Iran and allay Israel’s fears concerning the agreement with Iran.

His Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), published by The New York Times, is a good step. In it, he made further security assurances, pledging, among other guarantees, to increase missile defense systems and boost tunnel detection. Additionally, Obama wrote, “I have proposed to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu that we begin a process aimed at further strengthening our efforts to confront conventional and asymmetric threats” and is prepared to enhance information sharing.

That Israel is the country most threatened by the agreement with Iran is indeed a realistic assessment, one offered by Israel’s prime minister as the reason for his taking controversial and rare steps to interfere in the domestic American process of foreign policy-making. He spoke intensely on the floor of Congress in March to urge American legislators to oppose the agreement. He is now directly lobbying American Jews to pressure their representatives in Congress to vote against the accord.

Thus, Netanyahu not only publicly and forcefully opposes the president of the world’s greatest power — Israel’s only reliable ally; he asks others to do the same. It is not surprising that Obama answered in kind, noting that if Israel continues to fight against the deal, it will be further isolated and more vulnerable if the agreement is rejected.

This regrettable breach in the Israeli-American relationship need never have occurred. Israel was not a participant in the negotiations, and its defense needs could have been, and still should be, handled by means other than getting mired in bitter arguments over whether Congress should disapprove the accord. This battle served only to seriously erode U.S.-Israeli relations.

There is a far better and more direct way for Netanyahu to ensure Israel’s safety, and the U.S. has other ways to protect Israel: a U.S.-Israel bilateral treaty analogous to the Rio Pact in Latin America, the NATO treaty in Europe, and U.S.-bilateral treaties with such countries as Japan and Australia.

It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who began the move toward a U.S.-Israel defense treaty. Obama has come closer than any other president to implementing these ideas by his comments in the wake of the Iran deal that America will protect Israel.

Now the president must take the next step: a specific treaty. But with or without one, the U.S. needs to put in writing that any weapons of mass destruction threat to Israel will be treated as an attack against the territory of the U.S., perhaps backed by a vote of Congress. This kind of deterrence would offer a far more effective means of ensuring Israel’s security and allaying its fears arising from the nuclear agreement than the Israeli prime minister’s staunch opposition to the Iran nuclear deal or by the U.S. trying to
defend Israel without dramatic, practical
actions.

This is what Netanyahu and Israel’s supporters should have been lobbying for throughout these many months of heated debate over the deal. Unfortunately, they didn’t. Hopefully, their efforts in the U.S. to scuttle the nuclear agreement have not damaged the U.S.-Israel relationship to such an extent that it is too late to ask Obama to unveil an effective deterrent to Iran’s ever attacking Israel: unequivocal statements similar to Kennedy’s and a defense pact. 

Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum

Russia says it will retaliate if U.S. weapons stationed on its borders


A plan by Washington to station tanks and heavy weapons in NATO states on Russia's border would be the most aggressive U.S. act since the Cold War, and Moscow would retaliate by beefing up its own forces, a Russian defense official said on Monday.

The United States is offering to store military equipment on allies' territory in eastern Europe, a proposal aimed at reassuring governments worried that after the conflict in Ukraine, they could be the Kremlin's next target.

Poland and the Baltic states, where officials say privately they have been frustrated the NATO alliance has not taken more decisive steps to deter Russia, welcomed the decision by Washington to take the lead.

But others in the region were more cautious, fearing their countries could be caught in the middle of a new arms race between Russia and the United States.

“If heavy U.S. military equipment, including tanks, artillery batteries and other equipment really does turn up in countries in eastern Europe and the Baltics, that will be the most aggressive step by the Pentagon and NATO since the Cold War,” Russian defense ministry official General Yuri Yakubov said.

“Russia will have no option but to build up its forces and resources on the Western strategic front,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

He said the Russian response was likely to include speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordered by Poland and Lithuania, and beefing up Russian forces in ex-Soviet Belarus.

“Our hands are completely free to organize retaliatory steps to strengthen our Western frontiers,” Yakubov said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the Pentagon plan, citing the lack of any official announcements from the U.S. government.

ALLIED ARMY

U.S. officials said their proposal envisages storing a company's worth of equipment, enough for 150 soldiers, in each of the three Baltic nations: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Enough equipment for a company or possibly a battalion, or about 750 soldiers, would also be located in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary.

The idea was that, in the event of an attack on NATO's eastern border, the United States could quickly fly in troops who would use the equipment, cutting out the weeks or months it would take to transport convoys of gear overland across Europe.

However, the U.S. proposal could cause tensions within NATO, an alliance that often struggles to accommodate more hawkish members such as Poland or Lithuania alongside other states that want to avoid a military stand-off with Russia at any cost.

Speaking after talks in Warsaw with the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak said he expected a final U.S. decision on the equipment within a few weeks.

“They know how important this is to us, because we want to build a permanent U.S. presence, the allied army here on the Polish territory,” Siemoniak told reporters.

“It seems to me that such enterprises, that is equipment warehouses, are a very crucial step when it comes to building such a presence.”

A spokesman for Lithuania's foreign ministry, Kestutis Vaskelevicius, said any increased NATO presence was intended to improve the security of the Baltic states. “(It) is not directed against anyone, and it does not threaten anyone,” he said.

TWO-SPEED NATO

Since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and a rebellion by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states – countries with a history of Russian occupation – have pushed NATO for a muscular response.

But proposals for a permanent NATO combat presence in eastern Europe were blocked by Germany and some other alliance members. Instead, NATO intensified exercises, rotating troops through the region and set up a command headquarters for a rapid reaction force in north-west Poland.

Sources close to the government in Poland, and other states in the region, said that response persuaded them they could not fully rely on NATO, and that their best bet in the event of an attack was that the U.S. military would come to their aid.

At a NATO summit in Wales last year, agreement was reached on “pre-positioning” military equipment in eastern Europe, but the Pentagon's plan appeared to go further and faster than measures envisaged by the alliance.

The initiative could force some former Warsaw Pact countries now in NATO to make uncomfortable choices.

Bulgaria and Hungary both say they are committed members of the alliance, but they have maintained close cultural and commercial ties to Moscow, and may not want to jeopardize those links by storing U.S. military equipment on their soil.

Rosen Plevneliev, the Bulgarian President, said it was too early to say if his country would join the Pentagon's initiative.

“At the current moment there is no proposal whatsoever to the Bulgarian government upon which we can start discussions,” he said.

Auschwitz survivors urge a troubled Europe not to forget


Auschwitz's last survivors urged the world not to forget the horror of the Holocaust 70 years after the Nazi death camp was liberated in the final throes of World War Two, an anniversary that finds Europe again confronted by intolerance.

European Jews warn of a growing under-current of anti-Semitism, fuelled by anger at Israeli policy in the Middle East and social tensions over immigration, inequality and increasing economic hardship under austerity policies that have contributed to a rise of far-right political movements in Europe.

With deep snow blanketing the Polish countryside, some 300 aging survivors and a host of world leaders gathered on Tuesday under a tent at the brickwork entrance to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, the railway tracks that bore more than a million European Jews to their deaths illuminated in gold.

“Seventy years later, the daily cruelty is still etched in my mind,” former prisoner Roman Kent told the gathering.

The commemoration marked perhaps the last major anniversary that survivors of Auschwitz, the youngest of them in their 70s, will be able to attend in notable numbers.

It was held in the shadow of war in neighbouring Ukraine, a spate of assaults on Jews in Europe and a recrudescence of open anti-Semitism even as memories of the Holocaust fade with the passing of those who lived through it.

“To remember is not enough; deeds are crucial,” said Kent. “It is our mutual obligation – the survivors and world leaders – to install an understanding of what happens when prejudice and hatred are allowed to flourish.”

A string quartet played the work of Szymon Laks, a Polish Jewish composer who led the prisoners' orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau and managed to survive the war. David Wisnia, an 88-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, sang a funeral prayer of the Ashkenazi Jews, moving some of those present to tears.

Seated among them were the heads of state of Germany, France and other nations. France's Francois Hollande made the trip less than three weeks after 17 people, four of them Jews, were killed in Paris by Islamist gunmen in attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly newspaper and a kosher supermarket.

Speaking earlier in the day at the Paris Shoah memorial, Hollande addressed France's 550,000-strong Jewish community:

“You, French people of the Jewish faith, your place is here, in your home. France is your country.”

'I WANT TO CRY IT OUT'

Around 1.5 million people, mainly European Jews, were gassed, shot, hanged and burned at the Nazi German death camp in southern Poland, before the Soviet Red Army entered its gates in the winter of 1945 during its decisive advance on Berlin.

Auschwitz has become probably the most poignant symbol of a Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives across Europe.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had an everlasting responsibility to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism. “We've got to expose those who promote prejudices and conjure up bogeymen, the old ones as well as the new,” Merkel said on the eve of the anniversary, in apparent reference to the right-wing grassroots PEGIDA movement in Germany.

The camp's victims included, among others, Roma, homosexuals and all shades of political opposition to the Nazis.

Notable for his absence was Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support of pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine has helped drive Western-Russian relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War ended 25 years ago.

Poland has been one of the most vociferous critics of Russia's March 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and its support for Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Keen to avoid a domestic political furore, Poland did not send a full diplomatic invitation to Putin, sources told Reuters.

“It would be hard to imagine, in this situation, hosting Russia's president. Albeit informally, Russia is taking part in this (Ukraine) conflict,” Polish Justice Minister Cezary Grabarcyk told Polish ZET radio.

NATO says Russia has sent men and armour to aid the separatists. Putin denies this, but risks new sanctions when European Union foreign ministers meet on Thursday.

Among those who made the return trip to Auschwitz for the first time on Tuesday was 84-year-old Susan Pollack, who made Britain her home after the war having lost her mother to the camp's gas chambers.

Pollack told Reuters: “If at all possible, I'm hoping maybe some relief will come. And I want cry it out, because back then crying in the camp meant weakness, and weakness meant death.”

Rebels press Ukraine offensive, Obama promises steps against Russian-backed ‘aggression’


Pro-Moscow rebels, backed by what NATO says is the open participation of Russian troops, pressed on with their offensive on Sunday after restarting the war in eastern Ukraine with the first all-out assault since a truce five months ago.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Washington was considering all options short of military action to isolate Russia. The European Union called an emergency meeting of foreign ministers of its 28 member states.

“We are deeply concerned about the latest break in the ceasefire and the aggression that these separatists – with Russian backing, Russian equipment, Russian financing, Russian training and Russian troops — are conducting,” Obama told a news conference during a visit to India.

“I will look at all additional options that are available to us short of military confrontation and try to address this issue. And we will be in close consultation with our international partners, particularly European partners.”

NATO accuses Moscow of sending troops to fight on behalf of rebels in territory the Kremlin has dubbed “New Russia” in a war that has killed more than 5,000 people.

In some of the strongest language ever from Brussels, Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister who now presides over EU summits as European Council president, denounced “appeasement” of Moscow, a word with unmistakable World War Two connotations.

“Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence. Time to step up our policy based on cold facts, not illusions,” Tusk said on Twitter.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine had mainly died down since a September ceasefire, but in recent days the war has returned in full force, with the rebels announcing the effective end of the truce and an offensive to expand territory under their control.

On Saturday rebels attacked Mariupol, a strategic Black Sea port of 500,000 people and the biggest city still in government hands in the two rebel-dominated eastern provinces. Kiev said 30 civilians were killed in shelling.

Rebels launched new attacks on Sunday against government positions elsewhere along the front line that winds through the two restive provinces, the Kiev army said.

“Rebels are attacking the positions of anti-terrorist operation troops extremely intensively, using artillery, mortars, grenade launchers, tanks,” military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said in a televised briefing.

He said four Ukrainian servicemen had been killed and 17 injured in the past 24 hours and that rebel attacks on the town of Debaltseve, northeast of separatist-held Donetsk, had been particularly fierce.

“Because of constant shelling in the past few days, there are dead and injured among local residents. Around 60 homes have been destroyed or damaged,” he said without giving a figure for the number of casualties.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko said on Saturday the separatists planned to encircle Debaltseve, which has a population of around 26,000.

NEW SANCTIONS

After months in which European politicians had been debating whether it was time to start rolling back sanctions, the talk now is of how to tighten them.

“If the Russian government cannot prove that it is making verifiable progress towards a de-escalation of the situation, we'll have to talk about more severe sanctions unfortunately,” said German politician Karl-Georg Wellmann, a foreign policy specialist for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Merkel called the attack on Mariupol “a clear and totally unjustifiable violation of the ceasefire” in telephone calls with the presidents of Ukraine and Russia on Sunday, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said, and asked Russia's Vladimir Putin to prevent further escalation.

The rebels say government forces have been hitting cities with artillery, killing civilians and forcing them to advance to push Kiev's troops further from population centers. Moscow blames the West for failing to force the Kiev government to talk to the rebels.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on Sunday to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini. He told both the escalation in violence was a result of Kiev refusing a proposal laid out in a letter from Putin to Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko to withdraw heavy weapons away from the demarcation line.

Lavrov blamed the escalation of violence in east Ukraine on what he called “constant shelling of populated areas by Ukrainian army”. He called on Kerry to press Kiev to renounce “betting on the military scenario.”

Mogherini called an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers for Thursday to discuss Ukraine and the Mariupol assault.

Russia says it has not sent troops into Ukraine, and any Russians there are volunteers. NATO says this is nonsense.

“Russian troops in eastern Ukraine are supporting these offensive operations with command and control systems, air defense systems with advanced surface-to-air missiles, unmanned aerial systems (drones), advanced multiple rocket launcher systems and electronic warfare systems,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

“I strongly urge Russia to stop its military, political and financial support for the separatists, stop destabilizing Ukraine and respect its international commitments,” he said.

Last week Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Russia had 9,000 troops stationed in his country.

U.S. under fire over Senate’s report on CIA torture


The United States on Wednesday faced criticism from the United Nations as well as governments that Washington often reprimands for human rights violations over a Senate report on CIA torture techniques in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some U.S. allies, who could face embarrassment or legal liability for any role in the CIA's “enhanced interrogations” during the George W. Bush administration, either condemned the CIA's methods or played down any involvement their governments might have had in them.

“The CIA's practice of torture is gruesome,” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas told German newspaper Bild. “Nothing justifies such methods. Everybody involved must be legally prosecuted.”

Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said according to the Convention Against Torture, not even a state of war justified torture.

In a statement issued in Geneva on Human Rights Day, he said, “The convention lets no one off the hook – neither the torturers themselves, nor the policy-makers, nor the public officials who define the policy or give the orders.”

A White House spokesman said the U.S. Justice Department had reviewed the interrogations and found no reason to indict anyone.

Poland long denied allowing U.S. intelligence to use a secret site in the country for interrogations but on Wednesday former President Aleksander Kwasniewski acknowledged his government let U.S. officials run a facility there. But when asked at a news conference in Warsaw if he knew what his NATO ally was doing, said: “About what the CIA was doing? No. Inside the site, no.”

China, Iran and North Korea, regularly under fire for their human rights records, prodded Washington on its methods.

“China has consistently opposed torture,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing. “We believe that the U.S. side should reflect on this, correct its ways and earnestly respect and follow the rules of related international conventions.”

A Twitter account associated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei said the report showed the U.S. government was a “symbol of tyranny against humanity.”

“They claim they've a prideful nation; US govts. debased & misguided their people who aren't aware of many realities,” said one tweet.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry accused the United Nations of ignoring “inhuman torture practiced by the CIA” while focusing too much on Pyongyang's human rights practices.

The Senate report concluded CIA interrogation tactics were ineffective and often too brutal. U.S. officials had been concerned the report would incite attacks and endanger the lives of American hostages held by Islamic militants but there had been no incidents a day after the report's release.

Israel goes to new elections


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Just 20 months after the current government was sworn in, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two of his top cabinet ministers, leading their parties to pull out of the government and the Knesset, or parliament, to vote to dissolve itself. A new date has already been chosen – March 17 – a few weeks before the Passover holiday.

The Israeli public is not happy about the election. A new poll shows that 57 percent of the public think the elections are unnecessary. Fired Finance Minister Yair Lapid attacked Netanyahu for “dragging the country” into an expensive election, estimated to cost up to $500 million.

“The general feeling is that after the election we’ll have the same government we have now,” Guy Ben Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “The left are not very hopeful that things will change and people on the right already have power so there’s no great motivation on either side for an election.”

New contenders are already popping up. Popular former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon repeated that he intends to form a new party.

“I arrived at the conclusion that we need a different platform, with its own agenda and own people – innocent people with no foreign interests, professionals who are not afraid to serve people and not power,” he told a group of students in Haifa. Kahlon is well-liked for encouraging competition in the mobile phone market that brought prices down dramatically.

In the previous election, recently-fired Yair Lapid, then a popular television presenter, took the electorate by storm, winning 19 seats in the 120 seat Knesset for his Yesh Atid party and becoming the country’s finance minister. Polls show that Lapid’s party will lose significant support in the next election.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped Israelis will choose a government that will restart the peace process with the Palestinians.

“We hope that whatever government is formed is a government that will – or whether there are elections, that those elections will produce — the possibility of a government that can negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, and obviously, the differences in the region,” he said while speaking Tuesday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israeli relations, said Kerry’s statement was a hint to Israelis not to vote for Netanyahu.

“The Obama Administration may retaliate for what they perceive to be Netanyahu’s intervention in the last US Presidential election in the last Presidential election (when Netanyahu openly supported Obama challenger Mitt Romney) and try to influence them here,” Gilboa told The Media Line.

He disagrees with the conventional wisdom that there is no alternative to Netanyahu. He said that a center-left bloc of the two fired cabinet ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzippi Livni, along with the Labor party, headed by Isaac Herzog, could pull in a substantial number of seats.

“If the Obama administration wants to help the center-left bloc they could invite Herzog to the White House,” he said. “The center-left is going to go after Netanyahu for the deterioration in US-Israeli relations.”

Israel’s parliamentary democracy system means that voters choose a party, and the party with the largest number of seats puts together a coalition of at least 61 in the 120-seat Knesset. With the break-up of the former alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud and Yisrael Beytenu headed by Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman there will be more medium sized parties.

“We used to have two big blocs – Likud and Labor,” Gilboa said. “Now we have too many medium sized parties that cannot get more than 20 seats. That is a recipe for instability and frequent elections.”

The Netanyahu ‘chickenshit’ slander: Friends and allies shudder … despots and bullies rejoice


A top, unnamed Obama administration official calls an important leader a “chickenshit.” Was this a hard-nosed warning aimed at Ayatollah Khamenei to pressure Iran to destroy those 23,000 centrifuges before next month’s nuclear negotiating deadline? Perhaps it was a signal to the emir of Qatar, to stop being the paymaster of terrorists? Or just maybe, a well-deserved barb at our Turkish “ally” Erdoğan to stop acting like a regional bully and more like the eastern guardian of NATO?

Of course not. No one in this White House or State Department would ever deign to insult America’s enemies. Unfortunately, and too often such special treatment has been dished out against our only reliable friend and ally in a region that is rapidly self-destructing – Israel.

It is Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu who is “courageously” singled out for public humiliation by an administration official who calls Netanyahu a coward but lacks the decency to use his own name.

The immediate fallout from this slur, the State Department’s non-stop finger wagging at Israel for real and imagined sins, and the Administration’s insistence that violence-inciting, terrorists-honoring, Mahmoud Abbas is the one partner committed to peace in the Holy Land:

– Say goodbye to The Israeli Street. For a two-state solution to have any chance, Israelis have to know that the US has their back. Forget about it. The Obama Administration’s carefully calibrated rhetoric is shoving Israelis further to the right. Forget the Israeli cabinet, Israeli taxi drivers no longer trust President Obama.

– Iran, Hamas, Qatar. They are emboldened to push their anti-American, pro-terrorist, and anti-peace agendas by a leader perceived as soft in word and deed.

– American Jewry. Even those Jews whose democratic creds are deeply embedded in their political DNA, are insulted by a slur, that had it been uttered in any other country would have been denounced by the State Department’s Special Envoy on Anti-Semitism. Of course Jewish supporters of President Obama would be right to point to the President’s vital support for Israel’s defensive needs, including the Iron Dome. But even those American Jews and other critics of Bibi’s policy and style, still worry about the safety of the world’s largest Jewish community that is threatened by Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and ISIS.  Will it impact on Jewish voters next Tuesday? Useless to predict, but friends of Israel fear may have been provided a foretaste of the direction of the President’s foreign policy over the next two years. Friends and allies are shuddering Despots and bullies, rejoice.


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center

Obama expands air strikes against Islamic State


U.S. warplanes carried out five strikes on Islamic State insurgents menacing Iraq's Haditha Dam on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, widening what President Barack Obama called a campaign to curb and ultimately defeat the jihadist movement.

Obama has branded Islamic State an acute threat to the West as well as the Middle East and said that key NATO allies stood ready to back Washington in action against the well-armed sectarian force, which has seized expanses of northern Iraq and eastern Syria and declared a border-blurring religious caliphate.

The leader of a pro-Iraqi government paramilitary force in western Iraq said the air strikes wiped out an Islamic State patrol trying to attack the dam – Iraq's second biggest hydroelectric facility that also provides millions with water.

“They (the air strikes) were very accurate. There was no collateral damage … If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even (the capital) Baghdad,” Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.

The aerial assault drove Islamic State fighters away from the dam, according to a police intelligence officer in the vast western province of Anbar, a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.

The U.S. military said in a statement that the strikes destroyed four IS Humvees, four IS armed vehicles, two of which were carrying antiaircraft artillery, an IS fighting position, one IS command post and an IS defensive fighting position. All aircraft left the strike areas safely, the Pentagon said.

The strikes were Washington's first reported offensive into Anbar since it started attacks on Islamic State forces in the north of Iraq in August.

Almost three years after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and 11 years after their invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the war on Islamic State is drawing Washington back into the middle of Iraq's power struggles and bloody sectarian strife.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes on the Sunni Muslim insurgents had been carried out at the request of the Shi'ite Muslim-led central government in Baghdad.

“If that dam would fall into (Islamic State's) hands or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq,” Hagel told reporters during a trip to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

OBAMA VOWS TO REPEL, DEFEAT ISLAMIC STATE

Obama said on the weekend he would explain to Americans this week his plan to “start going on some offense” against Islamic State. “We are going to be a part of an international coalition, carrying out air strikes in support of work on the ground by Iraqi troops, Kurdish troops, he said in an NBC TV interview.

“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em.”

The six-month-old battle for control of the Haditha Dam has been a rare case of cooperation between local Sunni tribes and the Shi'ite-led Iraqi military. The Juhayfa tribe in Haditha has a long-standing fight with the Islamic State, which split with its parent organization al Qaeda last year.

Anbar is complicated terrain for the Americans as they seek to root out Islamic State, since Sunnis fighting on behalf of the Baghdad government are the exception to the rule.

The large desert province, bordering Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, has been at war with Baghdad since last December when then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent troops to raze an anti-government demonstrators' camp.

That sparked a tribal revolt against Maliki whom Sunnis accused of isolating them with indiscriminate arrests. Islamic State fighters took advantage of the chaos to muscle in and become the dominant force among Sunnis.

The fighting there, which has displaced 430,000 people since January, strengthened Islamic State ahead of its lightning blitz this summer across the north of Iraq, also threatening the semi-autonomous, Western-backed enclave of Kurdistan.

Thriving on Maliki's sectarian-motivated alienation of Sunnis, Islamic State committed wide-scale atrocities against Shi'ites, Christians and other non-Sunnis this summer as the Iraqi army imploded in the face of the insurgents' advance.

Since June, Islamic State has massacred hundreds of soldiers outside of Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, after capturing it, and killed a similar number of Yazidis and other religious minorities outside of Mosul, the north's biggest city.

Obama ordered air strikes in northern Iraq last month as Kurdish-controlled territory fell to the Islamic State and the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan looked in endangered.

Last weekend, U.S. warplanes carried out raids farther south in the province of Saluhuddin to break an Islamic State siege of the Shi'ite Turkmen town of Amerli.

Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Tbilisi, Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Peter Cooney

Obama says hopeful but sceptical of Ukraine cease-fire


President Barack Obama said he was hopeful but sceptical about a ceasefire agreed in Ukraine on Friday and urged European allies to agree on new sanctions against Russia that could be suspended if the peace plan holds.

He also said he was leaving a two-day NATO summit in Wales confident that U.S. allies were prepared to join a broad coalition to take action to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State militants in Iraq.

“We also sent a strong message to Russia that actions have consequences. Today the United States and Europe are finalising measures to deepen and broaden our sanctions across Russia's financial, energy and defense sectors,” Obama told a news conference.

NATO had made clear it would defend every ally, and that it supported Ukraine's sovereignty against what he called Russian aggression, he said.

“With respect to the ceasefire agreement, obviously we are hopeful but based on past experience also sceptical that in fact the separatists will follow through and the Russians will stop violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. So it has to be tested,” the president said.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Writing by Paul Taylor

Crisis deepens as Ukraine says Russian soldiers back rebel thrust


Ukraine's president said on Thursday that Russian troops had entered his country in support of pro-Moscow rebels who captured a key coastal town, sharply escalating a five-month-old separatist war.

Petro Poroshenko told a meeting of security chiefs that the situation was “extraordinarily difficult … but controllable” after Russian-backed rebels seized the town of Novoazovsk in the south-east of the former Soviet republic.

Earlier he said he had canceled a visit to Turkey because of the “rapidly deteriorating situation” in the eastern Donetsk region, “as Russian troops have actually been brought into Ukraine”.

Russia's defense ministry again denied the presence of its soldiers in Ukraine, using language redolent of the Cold War, even as two human rights advisers to President Vladimir Putin said more than 100 Russian troops had died there in a single attack on Aug. 13.

“We have noticed the launch of this informational 'canard' and are obliged to disappoint its overseas authors and their few apologists in Russia,” a defense ministry official, General-Major Igor Konashenkov, told Interfax news agency. “The information contained in this material bears no relation to reality.”

But Western governments appeared to be running out of patience with Moscow's denials.

Referring to talks that Putin held with Poroshenko just two days ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “It is simply not enough to engage in talks in Minsk, while Russian tanks continue to roll over the border into Ukraine. Such activity must cease immediately.”

Poland's foreign minister said Russian “aggression” had created the most serious security crisis in Europe for decades, and a top NATO official said Russia had significantly escalated its “military interference” in Ukraine in the past two weeks.

“We assess well over 1,000 Russian troops are now operating inside Ukraine,” said Dutch Brigadier-General Nico Tak, head of NATO's crisis management center. “They are supporting separatists (and) fighting with them.”

Global markets fell on news of the worsening crisis, which has prompted the United States and European Union to impose sanctions on Moscow and led both Russia and NATO to step up military exercises.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an EU summit on Sunday would discuss the possibility of further sanctions.

NEW FRONT

Rebel advances this week have opened a new front in the conflict just as Ukraine's army appeared to have gained the upper hand, virtually encircling the separatists in their main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine's security and defense council said Novoazovsk and other parts of southeast Ukraine had fallen under the control of Russian forces, and a counter-offensive by Russian troops and separatist units was continuing.

It said Ukrainian government forces had withdrawn from Novoazovsk “to save their lives” and were now reinforcing defenses in the port of Mariupol further west, which a rebel leader said was the separatists' next objective.

“Today we reached the Sea of Azov, the shore, and the process of liberating our land, which is temporarily occupied by the Ukrainian authorities, will keep going further and further,” Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters in an interview.

He said there were about 3,000 Russian volunteers serving in the rebel ranks.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk appealed to the United States, European Union and G7 countries “to freeze Russian assets and finances until Russia withdraws armed forces, equipment and agents”.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said on Facebook: “The invasion of Putin’s regular Russian army of Ukraine is now an established fact!”

Despite Russia's denials, a member of Putin's advisory council on human rights, Ella Polyakova, told Reuters she believed Russia was carrying out an invasion of Ukraine.

“When masses of people, under commanders' orders, on tanks, APCs and with the use of heavy weapons, (are) on the territory of another country, cross the border, I consider this an invasion,” Polyakova told Reuters.

Polyakova and Sergei Krivenko, another member of the council, which has no legal powers and an uneasy relationship with the Kremlin, said more than 100 Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine in a single incident on Aug. 13, basing their information on eyewitnesses and relatives of the dead.

They said the men were in a column of trucks filled with ammunition, which was hit by a sustained volley of Grad missiles.

“A column of Russian soldiers was attacked by Grad rockets and more than 100 people died. It all happened in the city of Snizhnye in Donetsk province,” Krivenko told Reuters.

DUST-COVERED TROOPS

In southern Russia on Thursday, a Reuters reporter saw a column of armored vehicles and dust-covered troops, one of them with an injured face, about 3 km (2 miles) from the border with the part of Ukraine that Kiev says is occupied by Russian troops.

The column was driving east, away from the border, across open countryside near the village of Krasnodarovka, in Russia's Rostov region.

None of the men or vehicles had standard military identification marks, but the reporter saw a Mi-8 helicopter with a red star insignia — consistent with Russian military markings — land next to a nearby military first-aid tent.

Asked if he was with the Russian military, a man in camouflage fatigues without any identifying insignia who was in the area of the tent, said only: “We are patriots.”

The U.S. ambassador to Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt, tweeted: “Russian supplied tanks, armored vehicles, artillery and multiple rocket launchers have been insufficient to defeat Ukraine' armed forces. So now an increasing number of Russian troops are intervening directly in fighting on Ukrainian territory.

“Russia has also sent its newest air defense systems including the SA-22 into eastern Ukraine & is now directly involved in the fighting,” he said.

Fighting in the east erupted in April, a month after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in response to the toppling of a pro-Moscow president in Kiev.

A United Nations report this week said more than 2,200 people have been killed, not including the 298 who died when a Malaysian airliner was shot down over rebel-held territory in July.

Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Anton Zverev, Gabriela Baczynska, Vladimir Soldatkin and Thomas Grove, Adrian Croft, Lina Kushch, Andreas Rinke and Alessandra Prentice; Writing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Will Waterman

Putin seeks better ties with West but blasts U.S. over Ukraine


President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he wanted better ties with the West but fiercely criticized U.S. policy on Ukraine and the global economy – and acknowledged that sanctions were hurting Russia.

In a speech to foreign and Russian businessmen gathered at Russia's answer to the Davos World Economic Forum, Putin sent mixed messages, signaling he would work with whomever is elected Ukraine's president on Sunday and trying to woo foreign investors by promising reforms.

But, describing the situation in Russia's neighbor as civil war, he accused the United States of fomenting unrest in Ukraine and aggravating global economic problems, and reiterated concerns that Ukraine would one day join NATO.

“We are not planning any self-isolation,” Putin told the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual conference that is meant to showcase Russia as a place to do business but has this year been boycotted by many American bosses.

“We hope that common sense … will prompt our European and U.S. partners to work with Russia,” he said, looking pale after a trip this week to China in which he concluded a $400-billion gas supply deal.

But reverting to the anti-U.S. rhetoric that has been a hallmark of his third term as president since May 2012, he appeared to try to drive a wedge between the United States and the European Union over the sanctions they have imposed over Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

He said Washington had “crapped” in Ukraine by encouraging the removal of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich, but that European businesses had shown a more pragmatic approach – the European Union has been reluctant to impose tough sanctions because of its heavy reliance on Russian natural gas supplies.

“The world has changed,” Putin said. Indirectly criticizing Washington, he added: “The unipolar vision of the world … has failed.”

“REAL IMPACT” OF SANCTIONS

A senior government official said at the forum in Russia's second-biggest city on Thursday that the sanctions, mainly ivisa bans and asset freezes on individuals and companies close to Putin, were having a serious effect.

Putin acknowledged this more openly than previously, saying: “The sanctions … are having a real impact.”

Russia is sliding into recession and capital flight has accelerated this year as the crisis in Ukraine caused the biggest East-West standoff since the Cold War.

Russia seized and annexed Crimea in March and has since then massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier. Kiev and its Western allies say Moscow is behind an uprising in eastern Ukraine by armed separatists who have declared independence and called for Russian military support.

Ukraine will hold a presidential election on Sunday, and Washington and Brussels have threatened to impose much tougher sanctions if Moscow interferes with the vote.

Attempting to end doubts that Moscow will not recognize the legitimacy of the next president, Putin said: “We will treat the choice of the Ukrainian people with respect.”

He called for better relations with Ukraine but said it must halt military operations against the separatists in east Ukraine, pay off its gas debt to Russia and release Russian journalists held in detention.

Addressing the decline of Russia's $2 trillion economy, he said his country must reduce its reliance on energy exports which provide about 25 percent of gross domestic product, and said Russia must boost major domestic banks and industries.

Putin also said there was a plan to create a state fund to help replace imports from Western countries with domestic production.

Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Lidia Kelly and Giles Elgood

Russia, NATO discuss Ukraine as tension mounts over Crimea


Russia's top general discussed the situation in Ukraine with the chairman of NATO's Military Committee by telephone on Thursday, the Interfax news agency cited the Russian Defense Ministry as saying.

The chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov, discussed “the state of Russia-NATO relations and the current situation in Ukraine” with NATO General Knud Bartels, the report said.

Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Ukraine appeals to West as Crimea turns to Russia


Ukraine's government appealed for Western help on Tuesday to stop Moscow annexing Crimea but the Black Sea peninsula, overrun by Russian troops, seemed fixed on a course that could formalize rule from Moscow within days.

With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be drawn from volunteers among veterans.

The prime minister, heading for talks at the White House and United Nations, told parliament in Kiev he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian “aggression”.

But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.

Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S. financial aid to the “illegitimate regime” in Kiev, which it calls ultra-nationalists with “Nazi” links.

That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies for provoking Crimean secession.

Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments, dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.

Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment among some Ukrainian nationalists – though many native Russian speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.

SANCTIONS, REFERENDUM

U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key officials, as early as Monday.

By then, however, Crimea could already have voted – in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West – to seek union with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60 years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with the West for geostrategic advantage.

In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia – a process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.

There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I'm not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

UKRAINIAN TROOPS

It is unclear whether thousands of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are native Crimeans but are effectively trapped on their bases and ships by Russian troops and local militia allies, will take part in the referendum.

One sailor, who declined to be named, said he would only vote if he got the order from his commander to do so, a position echoed by many other servicemen spoken to by Reuters. They all said they would vote for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.

Elena Prokhina, an ethnic Russian planning to vote for union with Moscow, said she feared the referendum could lead to conflict with others in Ukraine, notably nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country of 46 million.

“Knowing what I know about the fanaticism of the western Ukrainians, we will have to defend our rights after the referendum,” she said. “They won't just let us leave.”

Around Sevastopol, Ukrainian military facilities remained under virtual siege on Tuesday. At an air defense base outside Sevastopol, dozens of men who looked like Russian soldiers were camping outside the gate, while an armed Ukrainian serviceman could be seen pacing the base's roof keeping a wary eye on them.

In the port, two Ukrainian warships remained on alert but unable to set sail because of Russian vessels and a cable strung across the harbor by Russian forces. Relatives of the sailors come to the dockside every day to converse and provide food.

A Ukrainian officer said there was a fragile understanding between the two fleets not to escalate the situation, but he said nerves were frayed: “The Russians have not troubled us until now,” he said. “But all it takes is one order and they will open fire. We won't be able to hold out long”.

CALL FOR HELP

In parliament, the acting defense minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilized last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared to over 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilize a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will visit the White House and United Nations Security Council this week, said the 1994 treaty under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons obliged Russia to remove troops from Crimea and also meant Western powers should defend Ukraine's sovereignty.

“What does the current military aggression of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory mean?” he said.

“It means that a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, rejected nuclear status and received guarantees from the world's leading countries is left defenseless and alone in the face of a nuclear state that is armed to the teeth.

“I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states.”

Parliament passed a resolution he had proposed calling on the United States and Britain, co-signatories with Russia of that treaty to “fulfil their obligations … and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine”.

But Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine, not being a member of NATO, has no automatic claim on their help and Ukrainian officials gave no details on what they hoped for. The wording of the 1994 treaty indicates that help is only required if Ukraine is threatened by a nuclear attack.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Ron Popeski in Kiev; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff

Abbas says NATO force can patrol Palestinian state


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would be willing to allow a U.S.-led NATO force to patrol a Palestinian state for an indefinite amount of time.

Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlements could remain for five years from the state’s establishment, Abbas also said in an interview with The New York Times published on Monday, adding two years to a previous offer.

Abbas also said the Palestinian state would be demilitarized — it would not have an army, only a peace force.

The third party force would remain “to reassure the Israelis, and to protect us,” Abbas told New York Times reporter Jodi Rudoren and columnist Tom Friedman at his Ramallah headquarters.

The NATO proposal had the support of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush.

“We will be demilitarized,” Abbas told the newspaper. “Do you think we have any illusion that we can have any security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly will present the two sides with a framework agreement to guide the rest of the talks in the coming weeks.

Abbas asserted, as did Netanyahu before him, that the framework is not binding, saying of Kerry’s trial agreement,  “He has the right to do whatever he wants, and at the end we have the right to say whatever we want.”

The Palestinian leader called recognizing Israel as a Jewish state “out of the question,” and pointed out that Jordan and Egypt did not sign anything to that effect when they signed peace treaties with Israel.

Abbas said that at the end of the nine months set aside for the peace talks, in April, he would be willing to extend the negotiations if progress is being made.

NATO says Turkey no longer balks at missile shield helping Israel


Turkey has accepted assurances a planned NATO missile defense system in which it is playing a part is not designed to protect Israel as well, the alliance's deputy secretary-general said on Wednesday.

Alexander Vershbow said objections by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government had resulted in part from confusion about a Turkish-hosted NATO radar. Ankara had been further assuaged by alliance Patriot anti-missile batteries assigned to protect its territory from Syria.

A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2010 described the Islamist-rooted Erdogan, under whom Turkey's once-solid ties with the Jewish state have deteriorated, as worrying that the NATO shield might provide cover for a threatened Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Addressing an Israeli security forum, Vershbow said there had been “a lot of confusion” in Turkey, including over the similarity between its NATO radar and a U.S. radar posted in Israel to help it spot any ballistic missile launches by Iran.

“I think that there was misperception that somehow the NATO system would be focused on the protection of Israel and that Israeli-based assets would be part of the NATO system, whereas in fact these are two separate issues,” he told Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

“So I think that issue has receded. It may still be a problem among some parts of Turkish public opinion, but I think Turkey is now as a government supportive of missile defense.”

He linked that support to the fact the Erdogan government has “been benefitting from the deployed Patriots now for more than a year, deterring the Assad regime from firing some of its Scud missiles against civilian population centres in Turkey”.

Ankara agreed in 2011 to host an early-warning radar system as part of the NATO ballistic missile defence system.

 

RUSSIAN “PROPAGANDA”

The NATO missile defence system, which Vershbow envisaged being complete by the early part of the next decade, has encountered fierce opposition from Russia though the alliance insists the plan is not to counter its capabilities.

Vershbow chided Moscow for not taking up NATO offers to cooperate on missile defence and for apparently ignoring the assessments of Russian experts that the shield's technologies and deployment were inconsistent with a threat on the country.

“This has actually been documented in numerous scholarly articles by Russian generals and rocket scientists in Russian journals,” said Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and Pentagon official.

“But the bad news is that Russian leaders and senior officials seem to pay no attention to their experts … Instead they continue to beat the drum about the purported threat posed by NATO's missile defence system to Russia's strategic retaliatory capability coupled with ominous warnings of retaliation against a threat that does not exist.”

Among such messages have been media reports of new Russian missile deployments in Kaliningrad, a western enclave of Russia lodged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

“After some days of ambiguity they made clear that they haven't yet deployed them,” he told Reuters.

“There is expectation that they will replace the older generation (of missiles). They have recast this system thing that they had planned to do and they are characterising it as a retaliation at least in part to (NATO) missile defence.” (Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton)

U.S. readies strikes, Syrians prepare for attack


People in Damascus stocked up on supplies on Wednesday and some left homes close to potential targets as U.S. officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days.

United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.

But as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for unity among world powers and sought more time for the inspectors to complete their work, Washington and its European and Middle East allies said their minds were made up and that President Bashar Assad must face retribution for using banned weapons against his people.

Syria's government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, cried foul. It blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the United States, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”.

Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred Western powers from arming Assad's foes – but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas.

Britain pushed the other four veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council at a meeting in New York to authorize military action against Assad to protect Syrian civilians – a move certain to be blocked by Russia and, probably, China.

The United States and its allies say a U.N. veto will not stop them. Western diplomats called the proposed resolution a maneuver to isolate Moscow and rally a coalition behind air strikes. Arab states, NATO and Turkey also condemned Assad.

Washington has repeatedly said that President Barack Obama has not yet made up his mind on what action he will order.

A senior U.S. official said strikes could last several days and would involve other armed forces: “We're talking to a number of different allies regarding participation in a possible kinetic strike,” the administration official said on Wednesday.

Western armies are expected to wait until the U.N. experts withdraw. Their initial 14-day mandate expires in four days, and Secretary-General Ban said they need four days work.

A second U.S. official said objectives were still being defined but that the targets could be chosen to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons in future. Washington was confident it could handle Syrian defenses and any possible reprisals by its allies, including Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

INVESTORS, RESIDENTS ALARMED

With only the timing of an attack apparently in doubt, oil prices soared to a six-month high. World stock markets were hit by jitters over where the international escalation of Syria's civil war might lead – however much Obama and his allies may hope to limit it to a short punitive mission.

Neighboring Turkey, a NATO member, put its forces on alert. Israel mobilized some army reservists and bolstered its defenses against missile strikes from either Syria or Lebanon.

Syria's envoy to the United Nations said he had asked Ban to have the team investigate three new attacks by rebel groups.

People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes.

In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighborhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer, though many doubted it was worth it: “Every street, every neighborhood has some government target,” said a nurse in the city center. “Where do we hide?”

At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.

TIMING CALCULATIONS

Numerous factors, including weather and assessments of Syrian air defenses, may affect the timing of strikes. Analysts expect cruise missiles to be launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean. Aircraft could also play a role, as may forces from other NATO powers, notably Britain and France.

Obama is waiting for a U.S. intelligence report, though its findings are in little doubt. U.S. officials have already blamed Assad for the attacks on August 21.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled parliament to debate the Syria crisis on Thursday. He should be able to secure cautious support, despite widespread misgivings among Western voters about new entanglements in the Muslim world. But British action is unlikely before lawmakers have had their say.

The prospect of a Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg next Thursday may also weigh in calculations over timing any strikes. Russian host President Vladimir Putin has made clear his view that Western leaders are using human rights as a pretext to impose their will on other sovereign states.

“The West behaves like a monkey with a grenade in the Islamic world,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on Wednesday. Western leaders in the G20 may prefer to have any strikes on Syria completed before the summit starts.

As diplomats from Russia, China, Britain, France and the United States met at the United Nations, Moscow said Britain was “premature” in seeking a Security Council resolution for “necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Russia and China might veto the move but added: “It's time the U.N. Security Council shouldered its responsibilities on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do.”

A senior Western diplomat said: “Of course there will be a Russian veto, but that's part of the objective – to show that we tried everything and the Russians left us no choice.

“The Americans want to go quickly.”

INTERNATIONAL LAW

China's official newspaper also criticized on Wednesday what it saw as a push for illegal, Iraq-style “regime change” – despite U.S. denials that Obama aims to overthrow Assad.

The U.S.-led NATO alliance said evidence pointed to Assad's forces having used gas, calling it a threat to global security.

Ban's special envoy for Syria, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, said “international law is clear” in requiring Council authorization for any military action. But Western leaders say precedents, including NATO's bombing of Russian ally Serbia in 1999 during the Kosovo war, allow them to protect civilians.

There was tension between the United Nations and Western governments. One U.N. official said: “The U.N. is annoyed and feels the Western powers haven't shared data or evidence with them, which is a problem. It kind of undercuts U.N. authority.”

Rebel fighters and opposition activists showed the inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week's gas release. The experts also tested and interviewed survivors in hospital, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack.

Amateur video showed the convoy of white U.N. jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.

Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011 and driven millions from their homes, many crossing borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

It has heightened tensions between Assad's sponsor Iran and Israel, which bombed Syria this year, and has fuelled sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon and in Iraq, where bombs killed more than 70 people on Wednesday alone.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that U.S. action would be “a disaster for the region”.

Additional reporting by Wiliam Maclean and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Osborn in London, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Yeganeh Torbati and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Anthony Deutsch and Thomas Escritt in The Hague, Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman and David Stamp

Israelis line up for gas masks over Syria war fears


Thousands of Israelis are lining up for gas masks or ordering them by phone, spurred on by fears that any Western military response to last week's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria could ensnare their own country in war.

Western powers are considering military action to punish the Syrian government for the alleged attack that killed hundreds near Damascus last week.

With speculation mounting that NATO powers might fire cruise missiles into Syria, many in Israel worry that President Bashar al-Assad, embroiled in a 2-1/2 year uprising against his rule, could strike out at the Jewish state in retaliation.

Israeli media reports of Syrian officials threatening retaliation against Israel for any Western strike have only served to heighten the anxiety.

“We live in a crazy region. All it takes is for one crazy person to push a button and you never know, everything can go up in flames,” said Victor Bracha, 72, one of those queuing for protective gear at a makeshift distribution center in a shopping mall in Jerusalem.

Maya Avishai, spokeswoman for the Israeli Postal Service which oversees the distribution of gas masks on behalf of the military's homefront command, said four times as many people as usual had phoned in orders in the past two days.

“Twice as many as usual are showing up at public centers to pick them up. The pressure has been great,” Avishai said. There was also talk of expanding the number of centers handing out gas masks to meet demand, she added.

DOUBTS

Israel has eschewed any involvement in the internal conflicts gripping its Arab neighbors in the past two years, and some Israelis doubt Assad would turn his guns on Israel.

“It is not in his interest, it could bring about his demise more quickly,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday.

“It would be insane for somebody to try and provoke Israel,” he added in remarks to foreign correspondents in Jerusalem on Monday.

Shlomi Goldstein, 32, another shopper at the mall in Jerusalem, said he had no plans to join those queuing for masks, confident that Israel could deter any attack.

“I think Assad wouldn't dare to attack us, he knows that if he did it could be the last thing he ever does,” he said.

Israel has provided its citizens with gear to cope with possible chemical or biological attacks since the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S.-led troops drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

During that conflict, Iraq fired Scud missiles into Israel and its leader, Saddam Hussein, threatened a chemical attack on Israel, though he never acted on this.

Three years ago Israel launched a campaign to renew the protection kits. But until last week's attack in Syria, only around 5 million of Israel's 8-million strong population had updated theirs, officials said.

Israel remains technically at war with Syria, which has long demanded an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, land that Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

Explosions, gunfire heard around Kabul International Airport


Insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack on Afghanistan's main international airport in the capital, Kabul, on Monday, police said, with explosions and gunfire heard coming from an area that also houses major foreign military bases.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and there was also no early claim of responsibility for the attack.

Attacks on the heavily guarded airport, used by civilians and the military, are relatively rare and would represent an ambitious target for insurgents, with recent assaults staged against less well-protected targets.

The airport, by comparison, is home to a major operational base for NATO-led forces that have been fighting Taliban and other insurgents for 12 years and is bristling with soldiers and police, guard towers and several lines of security checkpoints.

Police said the attack appeared to be centred on the military side of the airport, to the west of the civilian terminal.

“Gunmen have entered a house under construction in the west of Kabul airport and are fighting with security forces,” Kabul police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanekzai said.

“Their target is Kabul airport and all roads to it are sealed,” he said.

A spokesman for the Afghan Air Force, which is also based at the facility, also said the airport was the target of the attack. There are also a number of logistics bases in the area.

The attack began at about 4.30 a.m. (2400 GMT). Embassies in the diplomatic zone in the centre of Kabul were quickly locked down and emergency alarms were heard ringing loudly from the British embassy.

Reuters witnesses reported hearing explosions at the airport, with reports of rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Blasts still being heard an hour after the attack was launched.

Concerns are mounting over how the 352,000-strong Afghan security forces will cope with an intensifying insurgency once most foreign combat troops leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

The airport attack came soon after assaults on the International Organisation for Migration in Kabul and against the International Committee of the Red Cross in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Four people were killed and three wounded in those attacks.

In April 2011, a rogue Afghan air force officer shot and killed eight U.S. servicemen and a civilian contractor in the worst attack at the airport since the war began.

Additional reporting by Dylan Welch and Omar Sobhani; Writing by Dylan Welch; Editing by Paul Tait