By Sylvia Westall BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamic State fighters tightened their grip on the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday and overran Iraqi government defenses east of Ramadi, the provincial capital that they seized five days earlier. The twin successes not only pile pressure on Damascus and Baghdad but throw doubt on a U.S. strategy of relying almost exclusively on air strikes to support the fight against Islamic State. U.S. and coalition forces had conducted 18 air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq since Wednesday, the U.S. military said. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the al Qaeda offshoot now controlled more than half of all Syrian territory after more than four years of conflict that grew out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. The monitoring group added that Islamic State had seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq controlled by the Damascus government. The crossing is in Syria's Homs province, where Palmyra is located. Fighters loyal to the Sunni Muslim group have also consolidated their grip on the Libyan city of Sirte, home town of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. The White House said the seizure of Palmyra was a setback for U.S.-led coalition forces in their fight against Islamic State. But spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama disagreed with Republicans demanding he send ground troops to fight the Islamist militants. The Obama administration has publicly expressed confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but some U.S. officials are questioning privately whether he is too weak to bridge Iraq's sectarian divide. Islamic State said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter that it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from the Syrian military and allied forces. The U.N. human rights office in Geneva said a third of Palmyra's 200,000 residents may have fled the fighting in the past few days. FEARS FOR CIVILIANS U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani also said there were reports of government forces preventing civilians leaving, although state media said pro-government National Defense Forces had evacuated civilians before withdrawing. "ISIL (Islamic State) has reportedly been carrying out door-to-door searches in the city, looking for people affiliated with the government," Shamdasani said. "At least 14 civilians are reported to have been executed by ISIL in Palmyra this week." The ultra-hardline group has destroyed antiquities in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theater. The U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, describes the site as a historical crossroads between the Roman Empire, India, China and ancient Persia and a testament to the world's diverse heritage. "We may have different beliefs ... different views, but we have to protect such incredible vestiges of human history," UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova, told Reuters Television. Syria's antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told Reuters: "This is the fall of a civilization. ... Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism." Al-Azhar, the center of Islamic learning in Egypt, urged the world to protect Palmyra, saying the destruction of cultural heritage was forbidden by Islam. Rami Abdulrahman, founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Islamic State fighters had entered the ancient sites by early on Thursday but there were no immediate reports of destruction. WESTWARD ADVANCE The assault is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to pressures on Syria's overstretched army and militias, which have also lost ground in the northwest and south. Taking Palmyra gives Islamic State access to modern army installations and control of a desert highway linking government-held Damascus and Homs with Syria's mainly rebel-held east. Although Islamic State has seized large chunks of Syria, the areas it holds are mostly sparsely inhabited. Syria's main cities, including the capital Damascus, are located on its western flank, along the border with Lebanon and on the coast. Just five days before Palmyra fell, Islamic State seized Ramadi, capital of Iraq's largest province, Anbar, where the Sunni Muslim Islamic State has tapped into resentment among local Sunnis who say they have been marginalized by Shi'ite-led governments in Baghdad. Obama said the fall of Ramadi was a "tactical setback" but, in an interview released on Thursday, added that he did not think the fight against Islamic State was being lost. 'MILITARY, DIPLOMATIC AND ECONOMIC HELP' "There's no doubt that, in the Sunni areas, we're going to have to ramp up not just training, but also commitment, and we better get Sunni tribes more activated than they currently have been," Obama said in the interview, conducted on Tuesday with The Atlantic magazine. "I think Prime Minister Abadi is sincere and committed to an inclusive Iraqi state, and I will continue to order our military to provide the Iraqi security forces all assistance that they need in order to secure their country, and I’ll provide diplomatic and economic assistance that’s necessary for them to stabilize," Obama said. Iraq's government has ordered Shi'ite militias, some of which have close ties to Iran, to join the battle to retake Ramadi, raising fears of renewed sectarian strife. Washington wants the counter-offensive to include both Sunni and Shi'ite forces under direct government command. One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been long-standing concerns in Washington about Abadi's ability to navigate Iraq’s sectarian politics and that recent events had raised misgivings about him. But Washington sees no viable alternative for Abadi, current and former U.S. officials said. (Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Tom Perry in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Isabel Coles in Erbil, and Matt Spetalnick and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Dominic Evans, Sophie Walker, Kevin Liffey, Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)
- Associated Press
Kamala Harris will make history on Wednesday when she becomes the nation’s first female vice president — and the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent to hold that office. With the confluence of crises confronting Joe Biden's administration — and an evenly divided Senate in which she would deliver the tie-breaking vote — Harris is shaping up to be a central player in addressing everything from the coronavirus pandemic to criminal justice reform. Symone Sanders, Harris' chief spokeswoman, said that while the vice president-elect's portfolio hasn't been fully defined yet, she has a hand in all aspects of Biden's agenda.
A boy who was killed in an alleged murder-suicide by his father has been identified as 9-year-old Pierce O’Loughlin. Family tragedy: The boy and his father, Stephen O'Loughlin, 49, were both found dead at their home on Scott Street, Marina District in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, SF Chronicle reports. The boy’s mother, Lesley Hu, asked authorities to check on her son after learning that he did not show up for school that day.
The officer who may have saved the life of Vice President Mike Pence could now be giving him the side-eye. The cop hailed as a hero for leading a crowd of insurrectionists away from the Senate floor and potentially saving hundreds of lawmakers’ lives has, perhaps, left the vice president on read. Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly reached out to thank Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman for his heroism on Jan. 6, but they have yet to connect.
Armenia has returned all Azeri prisoners who were captured during last year's conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, but the process with Armenian prisoners has been held up, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday. The six-week conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was brought to a halt in November by a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement under which Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces were expected to exchange all captives. Armenia has said that many of its prisoners of war remain in Azerbaijan, a problem it has raised with the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk group.
- National Review
A Honduran migrant worker claimed that a migrant caravan was headed to the U.S. because incoming president Joe Biden would give migrants “100 days” to arrive at the country, in an interview with CNN. Biden may seek to enact a 100-day moratorium on deportations, however transition team officials have cautioned that the president-elect will not be able to overhaul immigration policy immediately upon taking office. Even so, a group of about 3,000 migrants from Honduras clashed with Guatemalan security forces on Sunday during their trek north to the U.S.-Mexico border. One migrant claimed the caravan was heading north because Biden had promised to help them, in a CNN interview later reposted by The Hill. Honduran migrant: President-elect Biden is "going to help all of us." pic.twitter.com/LkrVCsXcSb — The Hill (@thehill) January 18, 2021 “I just want patience and prayers that we can get to the U.S. because they [will] have a new president, Biden,” the migrant said. “He’s going to help all of us, he’s giving us 100 days to get to the U.S. and give us [legal] papers, so we can get a better life for our kids, and for our families.” Meanwhile, Guatemala deemed the attempted crossing illegal. “Guatemala’s message is loud and clear: These types of illegal mass movements will not be accepted, that’s why we are working together with the neighboring nations to address this as a regional issue,” the office of Guatemala’s president said in a statement on Sunday.
- Associated Press
Pakistan’s prime minister reacted angrily Monday to media reports of a text exchange between an Indian TV anchor and a former media industry executive that suggests a 2019 Indian airstrike inside Pakistan was designed to boost Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chances for reelection. Imran Khan took to Twitter to respond to Indian media reports of an exchange on the WhatsApp messaging service between popular Indian TV anchor Arnab Goswami and Partho Dasgupta, the former head of a TV rating company.
An independent panel said on Monday that Chinese officials could have applied public health measures more forcefully in January to curb the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and criticised the World Health Organization (WHO) for not declaring an international emergency until Jan. 30. The experts reviewing the global handling of the pandemic, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called for reforms to the Geneva-based United Nations agency.Their interim report was published hours after the WHO's top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, said that global deaths from COVID-19 were expected to top 100,000 per week "very soon". "What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January," the report said, referring to the initial outbreak of the new disease in the central city of Wuhan, in Hubei province.
- The Telegraph
A woman identified as having taken part in the storming of the US Capitol is accused of stealing a laptop belonging to top Democrat Nancy Pelosi which she hoped to sell to a Russian spy agency, according to the FBI. There is no indication Riley June Williams, a 22-year-old careworker from Pennsylvania, took a laptop from Ms Pelosi's office. The FBI, which is working off a tip, said in the court record the "matter remains under investigation." The complaint, filed late Sunday in US District Court in Washington, sought the arrest of Williams on grounds including "violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds." Relying on several photos and videos of the chaotic January 6 riot, an FBI agent said Williams was seen near the office of Ms Pelosi, US House Speaker. A witness, identified in the court document only as W1 but who claimed to be "the former romantic partner of Riley June Williams," alleged that Williams planned to send the laptop to a friend in Russia to sell it to the SVR foreign intelligence agency. That sale "fell through for unknown reasons, and Williams still has the computer device or destroyed it," the affidavit says.
- Yahoo News Video
The spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert has quit less than two weeks after she was sworn into office, saying he felt like he need to due to the insurrection at the nation's Capitol.
- National Review
Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) on Sunday advised the president not to grant presidential pardons to the rioters who stormed the Capitol this month, warning that doing so would “destroy” Trump. “Mr. President, your policies will stand the test of time. You’re the most important figure in the Republican party. You can shape the direction of the party. Keep your movement alive,” Graham said on Fox News. “There are a lot of people urging the president to pardon folks who participated in defiling the Capitol, the rioters,” Graham continued. “I don’t care if you went there and spread flowers on the floor, you breached the security of the Capitol, you interrupted a joint session of Congress, you tried to intimidate us all, you should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and to seek a pardon of these people would be wrong. I think it would destroy President Trump and I hope we don’t go down that road.” On Wednesday, a large group of Trump supporters overpowered Capitol Police and forced their way into the halls of Congress. Pence and the assembled lawmakers evacuated the Senate floor, where a joint session of Congress was being held to certify the presidential election results. The violence followed a rally outside the White House earlier in the day where President Trump addressed the “Save America March” and repeated his claims that November’s election was rife with voter fraud that threatened to deprive him of his rightful second term. The violence on January 6 resulted in five dead, including a Capitol Police officer. Since then, dozens of criminal cases have been brought in connection with the riot. Graham defended Trump’s rhetoric at the rally, which received bipartisan condemnation and sparked a second impeachment against the president by House Democrats. “President Trump never said, ‘Go into the capitol and try to interrupt a joint session of Congress.’ That was the choice they made and they need to live with that choice,” Graham said. Graham added that there were “irregularities in mail-in voting,” but said “the election is over,” noting that the electoral votes have been certified.” “It is now time to move on,” the South Carolina Republican said. Graham also had a message for incoming president Joe Biden, calling on him to stand up against the second impeachment of Trump, which the Senate is expected to take up after he leaves office.
- Associated Press
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has authorized the dispatch of oxygen to Brazil to help its South American neighbor treat people sickened amid another wave of the coronavirus, despite frosty relations between the two governments and Venezuela's own lack of hospital supplies. Maduro approved departure for a convoy of six tanker trucks loaded with oxygen in a national broadcast Sunday on state TV. It's destined for the city of Manaus in the northern state of Amazonas.
Brazil's health regulator is seeking further data on Russia's Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine before considering its approval for emergency use. Documents supporting drugmaker Uniao Quimica's application for emergency use of the vaccine have been returned to the company because they did not meet its minimum criteria, the watchdog said on Saturday. In a statement on the Health Ministry's website, regulator Anvisa said the request failed to provide adequate assurances on Phase III clinical trials and issues related to the manufacture of the vaccine.
- National Review
At the outset of the pandemic, the government undertook a deliberate effort to reduce economic activity in what was widely thought to be a necessary measure to slow the spread of COVID-19. Whereas most recessions call for policy that stimulates the economy, the COVID-19 recession called for the opposite — measures that would enable workers and businesses to hit pause until a vaccine or therapeutic became widely available. Now that vaccines are being administered, policy-makers face a different challenge — not keeping Americans inside, but getting them back to work as quickly as possible. In this context, President-elect Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package misses the mark. The proposal gives a nod to public health — with $20 billion allocated to vaccine distribution, $50 billion to testing, and $40 billion to medical supplies and emergency-response teams — but fails to address the most pressing hurdles to COVID-19 immunity. Vaccines sit unused not for lack of funding but thanks to burdensome rules determining which patients can receive shots and which doctors can administer them. Additional spending to speed up vaccine distribution is welcome, but its effects will be muted if bureaucratic hurdles remain in place. Even if the public-health provisions were to succeed in reopening the economy, much of the rest of Biden’s plan guarantees that it will reopen weaker. For one, an expanded unemployment-insurance top-up of $400 a week would mean more than 40 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits would make more off-the-job than on-the-job at least until September, and possibly for longer. The food-service and retail industries hit hardest by the pandemic would see the largest shortfalls in labor, exacerbating the challenges they’ve faced over the past year. Enhanced unemployment may have been reasonable when we wanted workers to stay home, but it’s catastrophic when we want them to go back to work. Meanwhile, Biden’s proposed minimum-wage increase to $15 nationally would eliminate an estimated 1.3 million jobs, hitting low-income states hardest. In Mississippi, where the median wage is $15, as many as half the state’s workers would be at risk. A minimum-wage hike may be high on the Democratic wish list, but it does not belong in an emergency-relief bill. The Biden plan isn’t all Democratic priorities, though. He took a page from Trump’s book and proposed $1,400 checks to households, bringing the second-round total to $2,000. With household income now 8 percent above the pre-pandemic trend, additional checks would do little more than pad savings accounts. Indeed, 80 percent of the recipients of last year’s checks put the money into savings or debt payments, not consumption. The flagship item in Biden’s plan would do little to spur economic growth even on Keynesian assumptions. The same goes for state and local aid, for which Biden is seeking $370 billion on top of $170 billion in public-education grants. The total of $540 billion far surpasses the roughly $50 billion hit to state and local tax revenues last year. As we wrote in December, states and cities are slow to spend federal grants, so the lion’s share of this stimulus would not show up until 2023. Rather than attempting to stimulate the economy, Biden is hoping to launder bailouts of profligate Democratic states through COVID-19 relief. Other parts of the bill — expansions of the earned-income and child-tax credits — are defensible long-term structural reforms, but as year-long emergency measures, they will have the same muted effect as direct checks. By including a slew of proposals unrelated to the pandemic, Biden has weakened his hand in negotiations and made it less likely that urgent measures pass quickly. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic policy-makers rose to the occasion. Following an unprecedented external shock, the U.S. economy has emerged in relatively good shape, with less unemployment and bankruptcy than most feared. But the policies implemented to curb COVID-19 are not suited for what will begin to become, over the course of this year, a post-pandemic economy. Biden may have campaigned during a recession, but he is taking office during a recovery. He should govern accordingly.
- NBC News
In a freewheeling and at times combative interview, Jenna Ryan said she has no regrets about participating in the Capitol incursion.
- Associated Press
Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated and more than a dozen have been killed in recent days in flooding on Indonesia's Borneo island, officials said Sunday. National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Raditya Jati said floods brought by intense rains caused floodwaters as high as 3 meters (10 feet). As of Sunday, 39,549 people had been evacuated and at least 15 had been killed due to floods that affected 10 districts and cities in South Kalimantan province on Borneo island.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned Monday the world is "on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure" because of unequal COVID-19 vaccine distribution.Why it matters: Tedros noted during an executive session that 39 million vaccine doses had been administered in 49 higher-income countries, while one lowest-income nation had "just 25 doses." Be smart: sign up FREE for the most influential newsletter in America. * This "me-first" approach will ultimately "prolong the pandemic, the restrictions needed to contain it, and human and economic suffering," he added.Of note: The WHO itself faced criticism in an interim report on Monday for being slow to respond to the outbreak after it was first detected in late 2019 in China, which was also singled out for failings early on. * "The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose," said the preliminary report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, an independent panel commissioned by the WHO. * "The WHO has been underpowered to do the job."What they're saying: China's public health measures "could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities" in January, said the report's panel of experts, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. * The experts noted it was unclear why the WHO did not meet until the third week of January 2020, nor why it was unable to agree to declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern until a week later.What to watch: A World Health Organization team of researchers is in Wuhan, China, investigating the origins of the pandemic. * Tedros said his focus is on the roll-out of the global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX, which is due to begin next month. Over 180 countries have signed up to the WHO-led scheme. * He hopes that by World Health Day on April 7, COVID-19 vaccines "are being administered in every country, as a symbol of hope for overcoming both the pandemic and the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges."Support safe, smart, sane journalism. Sign up for Axios Newsletters here.
China's Sinovac Biotech said on Monday that a clinical trial in Brazil showed its COVID-19 vaccine was almost 20 percentage points more effective in a small sub-group of patients who received their two doses longer apart. The protection rate for 1,394 participants who received doses of either CoronaVac or placebo three weeks apart was nearly 70%, a Sinovac spokesman said. Brazilian researchers announced last week that the vaccine's overall efficacy was 50.4% based on results from more than 9,000 volunteers, most of whom received doses 14 days apart, as outlined in the trial protocol.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is set to take office on Wednesday with only a few of his top chosen deputies in place. The Democrat's Cabinet appointees are awaiting approval by the Senate, who are set to hold their first confirmation hearings on Tuesday. Biden's pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, will meet with the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday at 10 a.m. EST (1500 GMT).
- The Telegraph
Pfizer vaccine recipients are unlikely to transmit the virus to others, according to the author of an Israeli study. Participants in the survey developed up to 20 times more antibodies within a week of receiving the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The survey, which reviewed data from 102 of about 1,000 of the Sheba Medical Centre’s medical staff who have received both shots, showed that only two subjects have developed low amounts of antibodies - one of the subjects suffered from a compromised immune system. There was no explanation for why the second person did not develop antibodies, and the hospital said it was investigating the matter. The rest - 98 per cent - have developed levels of antibodies that were even higher than patients who have recovered from a serious coronavirus-induced condition, the hospital said in a statement released on Monday.
The U.S. Capitol complex was shut down for about an hour on Monday out of an abundance of caution after a small fire broke out nearby, underscoring security jitters days before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. The Capitol Police in a statement said the lockdown was lifted and the fire nearby was contained. The lockdown follows the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump, some calling for the death of Republican Vice President Mike Pence as he presided over the certification of Democrat Biden's November election victory.