By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry QALAMOUN MOUNTAINS, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) - When Lebanon's Hezbollah first joined Syria's war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, its role was a closely guarded secret. Today, as Hezbollah plants its flag in land won from rebels north of Damascus, its role could hardly be more public. And for Syria's increasingly embattled president, Hezbollah's help is more critical than ever. In the last week, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group has unleashed its powerful arsenal to drive insurgents from wide areas of the Qalamoun mountain range, a short drive from Assad's seat of power in Damascus. "We have secured 300 square kilometers between Syria and Lebanon," the Hezbollah commander leading the operation told journalists during a trip to the area on Friday, as dozens of fighters in desert fatigues combed the barren landscape. Hezbollah's yellow flag fluttered from nearby hilltops seized from fighters identified as members of al Qaeda's Syrian arm, the Nusra Front. "It takes a while for the boys to clear the area because there are lots of mines," the commander said. The offensive, a joint operation with the Syrian army, is one bright spot for the Syrian leader. Over the past two months Assad has lost more of his country to a patchwork of groups that include Islamic State, which is also on the march in neighboring Iraq. For Assad, it has been one of the toughest spells since the first year or two of the conflict that spiraled out of an uprising against his rule during the 2011 "Arab Spring". He has lost big areas of Idlib province to an alliance of Sunni Islamist insurgents who are widely assumed to have received more support from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar - regional states that want Assad gone from power. Insurgents have edged dangerously close to the northwestern coastal areas that form the heartland of the minority Alawite sect to which Assad belongs. The Syrian army and allied militia are sending reinforcements to fight back. In the south, he has also lost ground to rebels including mainstream groups that are proving more potent and organized. Meanwhile, the Islamic State jihadist group has added to the pressure by attacking government-held areas in central Syria. Its most recent attack was on ancient Palmyra. HEZBOLLAH FIGHTS IN NEW AREAS Noting that "the situation is trending less favorably for the regime", a top U.S. military officer said on May 8 he would look to the negotiating table if he were in Assad's shoes. Yet the setbacks do not appear to have forced a change in strategy on the part of Assad or his most important allies, Iran and Russia. Tehran is heavily invested in a conflict that is a focal point of its struggle with the conservative Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Iranian resolve seems as firm as ever. Hezbollah, set up by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in 1982, is today fighting in parts of Syria where it had not previously deployed, its leader, Sayyed Hasssan Nasrallah, said on May 5. Salem Zahran, a Lebanese pundit close to the group, says these include the northwestern province of Idlib, where Assad lost an entire city in late March. Assad says Turkish support for the rebels was the main factor in the fall of the city. Zahran said Damascus had responded by "drawing on its friends more". "The regime has become completely invested in the decision of partnering with Hezbollah," he said. Syrian state TV, in its coverage of the Qalamoun fighting, has for the first time credited Hezbollah for its role. From Iran, there have been renewed statements of support for Damascus. A senior Iranian official used a trip to Damascus last week to launch a blistering attack on Saudi Arabia. Reports of new Iranian financial support have helped the Syrian currency strengthen from record lows it touched after the fall of Idlib. Assad received another Iranian official on Monday to discuss bilateral economic relations. Rustom Qasemi, head of a body tasked with developing Syrian-Iranian economic ties, said Iran would "not spare any effort in the economic sphere that allows Syrians to fortify their strength," the state news agency SANA said. The Syrian war has been a strain on both Iran and Hezbollah: Tehran has spent billions supporting Assad economically and militarily. Hezbollah, with a fighting force estimated to number many thousands, has been burying a steady flow of fighters killed in Syria. The group says 13 have been killed in Qalamoun. REBELS PLAN ALEPPO OFFENSIVE For Assad's opponents, the support from Iran and Hezbollah is a sign of his weakness, not strength. They claim he has lost control to his allies, or at least appears ever more dependent on them. Opposition reports say it was divisions over the extent of Iranian influence over fighting earlier this year in southern Syria that led to the demise of Syrian official Rustom Ghazali. His death in unclear circumstances was announced in April. Sources close to the government dismiss as nonsense the idea of any differences over strategy in a Syrian administration where they say power is still concentrated in Assad's hands. Issam al-Rayyes, spokesman for the "Southern Front" alliance of mainstream rebels in southern Syria, says their battle is now against Iranian influence. "We expect more (rebel) progress. But we can't forget that the militias that are supporting Assad have not yet given up on him," Rayyes said. In the north, the alliance of insurgent groups that successfully took Idlib city and the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour have set up a joint operations room aimed at taking the government-held part of Aleppo. That marks a dramatic shift in momentum from February, when the Syrian army and allied militia launched a big push to encircle the insurgent-held side of the divided city. The Syrian military and allied militia appear not to be making quick progress in recovering lost areas of Idlib. Diplomats say the northern rebels appear to be in possession of greater quantities of anti-tank weapons. There are foreigners on both sides. Central Asians are among the foreign jihadists fighting against Assad's government, whose dominance of the skies still gives it a critical advantage. Zahran said Assad's priority was to secure Damascus, "then the Damascus countryside, then Aleppo ... because the regime feels that the Turks are serious in taking control of Aleppo". "The regime feels that Idlib is not the goal, but a bridge to reach Aleppo". Despite the setbacks for Assad, Western diplomats are cautious about forecasting the end of a leader who has consistently defied forecasts of his demise in the four-year-long war. Indeed, Assad may have capitalized on the crisis to galvanize some foreign backing: "The regime's attempt to hold together the alliance behind Assad seems to have borne the desired fruit," one Western diplomat said. But Assad has not been able to convince Western governments including the United States they should engage him as a partner in the fight against Islamic State. A U.S. special forces raid against Islamic State in eastern Syria was carried out without consulting Damascus. (Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Tel Aviv; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet McBride and Peter Graff)
- The Independent
‘I was elected by the people of the state, I wasn’t elected by politicians,’ governor says, adding: ‘I’m not going to resign because of allegations’
- LA Times
Golden State Warriors standout Stephen Curry's mind "kind of went blank" as he put up his final shot to win the NBA All-Star three-point contest for a second time.
South Korea and the United States will conduct its springtime military exercise this week, but the joint drill will be smaller than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic, Seoul said on Sunday. The allies will begin a nine day "computer-simulated command post exercise" on Monday, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. South Korea and the United States decided to move forward with the drills after "comprehensively taking into consideration the COVID-19 situation, the maintenance of the combat readiness posture, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of peace," the JCS said, noting that the exercise is "defensive" in nature.
- Business Insider
Elon Musk posted a rare family photo with Grimes and their baby, X Æ A-Xii, taken in the new city he hopes to create in Texas
Musk and Grimes have been dating since about May 2018, when they made their debut as a couple at the Met Gala.
People who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can take fewer precautions in certain situations, including socializing indoors without masks when in the company of low-risk or other vaccinated individuals, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Monday.Why it matters: Per the report, there's early evidence that suggests vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and are potentially less likely to transmit the virus to other people. At the time of its publication, the CDC said the guidance would apply to about 10% of Americans.Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for freeWhat they're saying: "If grandparents have been vaccinated, they can visit their daughter and her family, even if they have not been vaccinated ... so long as the daughter and her family are not at risk for severe disease," CDC director Rochelle Walensky said at a press conference on Monday.The state of play: A fully vaccinated person — someone who's been vaccinated two weeks after receiving their last dose — should still take standard precautions like masking and social distancing when in public. Those who are vaccinated are allowed to: Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure to COVID-19, if asymptomatic. Yes, but: The agency is not adjusting guidance on travel, Walensky said, because a majority of Americans remain unvaccinated. Mitigation steps are still in place due to ongoing research in tracking infection and transmission among vaccinated individuals."There is still a small risk that vaccinated people could become infected with milder or asymptomatic disease and potentially even transmit the virus to others who are not vaccinated," the CDC director said.The big picture: "Today's action represents an important first step. It is not our final destination," Walensky cautioned. "As more people get vaccinated, levels of COVID infection decline in communities, and as our understanding of COVID immunity improves, we look forward to updating these recommendations to the public."Read the full guidance. More from Axios: Sign up to get the latest market trends with Axios Markets. Subscribe for free
- Associated Press
Fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing, according to long-awaited guidance from federal health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the guidance Monday. “We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in a statement.
With plenty of practice sending coronavirus relief payments to Americans, the federal government should be able to launch the delivery of $1,400 checks almost immediately once Congress finalizes the new aid bill and President Joe Biden signs it, tax experts say. Some Americans might see direct payments as soon as this week if the bill passes the House of Representatives on Tuesday as expected, compared with several weeks' lag in April 2020. Nearly 160 million households are expected to get payments, the White House estimates.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), widely seen as a member of the Republican establishment in Congress, will not run for re-election in 2022, he announced on Twitter Monday.Why it matters: The 71-year-old senator is the No. 4 ranking Republican in the Senate, and the fifth GOP senator to announce he will not run for re-election in 2022 as the party faces questions about its post-Trump future.Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for freeThe other GOP senators who have announced their retirement are:Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala., which Trump won in 2020 by +25.4%)Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio, Trump +8.1%)Sen. Richard Burr (N.C., Trump +1.3%)Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa., Biden +1.2%)What to watch: Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) are also considering retiring in 2022.Background: Blunt was first elected to the Senate in 2010, after serving in the House for 14 years and as Missouri secretary of state for eight. In addition to being a member of leadership as chair of the Republican Policy Committee, Blunt is the top Republican on the powerful Senate Rules Committee.Like this article? Get more from Axios and subscribe to Axios Markets for free.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), America's ultimate swing voter, told me on "Axios on HBO" that he'll insist Republicans have more of a voice on President Biden's next big package than they did on the COVID stimulus.The big picture: Manchin said he'll push for tax hikes to pay for Biden's upcoming infrastructure and climate proposal, and will use his Energy Committee chairmanship to force the GOP to confront climate reality.Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for freeWhy it matters: My conversation yielded the most extensive preview yet of how Manchin — a Democrat from a Trump state, in a 50-50 Senate, who relishes standing up to a Democratic White House — will use his singular power. Manchin, 73, said Biden expects, and understands, the pushback: "He's the first president we've had to really, really understand the workings of the Senate since LBJ."Manchin said that with just a few concessions, it would have been possible to get some Republicans on the COVID relief package that passed the Senate this weekend on a party-line vote. And he said he'll block Biden's next big package — $2 trillion to $4 trillion for climate and infrastructure — if Republicans aren't included. "I'm not going to do it through reconciliation," which requires only a simple majority, like the COVID stimulus, Manchin said. "I am not going to get on a bill that cuts them out completely before we start trying."Asked if he believes it's possible to get 10 Republicans on the infrastructure package, which could yield the 60 votes needed under normal Senate rules, Manchin said: "I sure do."Manchin said the infrastructure bill can be big — as much as $4 trillion — as long as it's paid for with tax increases. He said he'll start his bargaining by requiring the package be 100% paid for.Manchin said that with all the debt we're piling up, he's worried about "a tremendous deep recession that could lead into a depression if we're not careful. ... We're just setting ourselves up."He talked up an array of tax increases, including raising the corporate tax rate from the current 21% to 25% "at least," and repealing "a lot of" the Trump tax cuts for the wealthy. Manchin, sitting down with HBO in the Energy Committee hearing room where he now holds the gavel, said he'll use his new position "to try and inject some reality" — starting with a hearing "on climate facts."Asked about Republican senators who won't say that humans have affected climate, Manchin said: "Well, I think I think they know it." Manchin warned fellow Democrats about ramming through legislation by simple majority: "I would say this to my friends. You've got power ... Don't abuse it. And that's exactly what you'll be doing if you throw the filibuster out."Watch a clip.Like this article? Get more from Axios and subscribe to Axios Markets for free.
- Business Insider
Tesla is making a giant battery to plug into the Texas power grid, and it could store enough energy for 20,000 homes
Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticized Texas' power-grid operator after February's blackouts left millions in the state without power and water.
Meghan Markle said she had to hand over her keys, passport, and driver's license when she joined the royal family
Meghan Markle told Oprah Winfrey that giving up these things trapped her at a time when she was having suicidal thoughts.
- Business Insider
How Canadian soldiers set 2 records for longest sniper kill during the first major battle in Afghanistan
Operation Anaconda demonstrated the skill and bravery of US special-operations forces, their international partners, and local Afghan fighters.
- NBC News
Stone Foltz, 20, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University and a new member of the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity, was allegedly hazed during an initiation event when he was made to drink alcohol.
- Business Insider
Thousands of people who visited a COVID-19 vaccination site in California received the wrong dose, report says. Officials say nobody needs a booster shot.
An estimated 4,300 people at the Oakland Coliseum received a lesser dosage of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 1, KTVU reported.
During the handoff from his show, Cuomo, singing the ‘Good Times’ theme, made the joke causing cringes. The Cuomo brothers are having a bad week. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been besieged by sexual misconduct accusations from at least two former female staffers plus three others, not to mention a persisting inquiry into his handling of moving elderly people between nursing homes and hospitals at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
- LA Times
Helping to unlock baseball stadiums as season openers approach is guaranteed to be popular and bipartisan.
- Business Insider
Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, says he will fight for Republicans to get a say in Biden's infrastructure bill and block it if they don't
Manchin, who has become a pivotal figure in the finely balanced Senate, wants to see Democrats seek bipartisan backing for bills.
- The Telegraph
America reacted with widespread anger at Buckingham Palace following the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey. Serena Williams, the US tennis star who co-hosted the Duchess's baby shower in 2019, said she was a victim of "systematic oppression". She said: "Meghan Markle, my selfless friend, lives her life - and leads by example - with empathy and compassion. "She teaches me every day what it means to be truly noble. Her words illustrate the pain and cruelty she's experienced." Ms Williams added: "I know first hand the sexism and racism institutions and the media use to vilify women and people of colour to minimise us."
- Business Insider
A mask-less Trader Joe's customer in Texas had a meltdown after being denied entry - and it reveals how states' new rules endanger workers
In Texas, frontline workers are forced to impose corporate rules on masks without the support of the state, exposing them to customer backlash.
China turned on Chloé Zhao, the Beijing-born Golden Globe winner, and censored her film after people found old interviews where she slammed China
Chloé Zhao - the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe - said in 2013 China was "a place where there are lies everywhere."