By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi BEIRUT (Reuters) - Four months of Russian air strikes in Syria are taking their toll on rebel forces, strengthening the hand of a defiant President Bashar al-Assad as the United Nations struggles to get peace talks off the ground. Insurgents in the west are being hit harder, while in eastern and central parts of the country, Islamic State is also under military pressure and is cutting fighters' pay as its oil-smuggling operations are hit by plunging prices. Rebel groups are reporting intensified air strikes and ground assaults in areas of western Syria that are of greatest importance to Assad. The government last week made one of its most significant gains since the start of the Russian intervention, capturing the town of Salma in Latakia province. While recent gains do not appear to mark a tipping point in the conflict, with rebels fighting back and regaining positions in some places, insurgents describe high levels of attrition on the front lines of western Syria. Officials close to Damascus say sealing the northwestern border with Turkey is the priority. A Syrian military source said rebel supply lines from Turkey, which backs the insurgents, were under pressure from Russian and Syrian air strikes. The course of battle underlines the uphill struggle facing U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura as he seeks to launch peace talks. Even with U.S. and Russian endorsement, a new peace process seems detached from the realities of a five-year-old war that may not yet be ready for peacemaking. "Most opposition-held areas turned to defense because of the huge mobilization by Russians troops and the use of a large number of planes with unlimited munitions," said Jamil al-Saleh, commander of a rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) group. While playing down the importance of government gains, Saleh said military aid from the rebels' foreign backers - including Saudi Arabia and Turkey - was not enough to confront offensives that are also backed on the ground by Iran. "These are among the difficulties facing the FSA on the ground especially since the aerial bombing is affecting some headquarters, equipment, cars and personnel and the aid given is little compared to the ferocious attack," he told Reuters. Saudi Arabia's support for the opposition has yet to be translated into the kind of heavier weapons the rebels are seeking, notably anti-aircraft missiles. The military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said rebels were suffering from the destruction of their weapons depots, made possible by good intelligence. Their appeals for more support showed they had "lost a lot of field capacities", the source said. MOMENTUM Noah Bonsey, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said levels of attrition remained high on both sides. "But it seems to be the rebel side that is more concerned about the trajectory at this moment, while the regime camp enjoys momentum," he said. "The regime itself never showed much openness for compromise even in its most vulnerable moments, so we can expect its current sense of momentum to further reinforce maximalism as Damascus pushes for a decisive military upper hand." Damascus and its allies are also doing better in their war with Islamic State, which is also being fought separately by a U.S.-led coalition from the sky and on the ground by Kurdish forces. The government has advanced to within a few kilometers (miles) of the IS-held town of al-Bab in Aleppo province. Slumping oil prices have added to the pressures facing the jihadists whose flow of foreign recruits has been choked by tighter controls at the Turkish-Syrian frontier, once a major transit route. Islamic State has also faced setbacks in Iraq, losing control of the city of Ramadi in recent weeks. Of the 3,000 people killed by Russian air strikes in Syria since they began in September, nearly 900 were members of Islamic State, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the war. But the group still controls swathes of eastern and central Syria where it is battling to safeguard its "caliphate" rather than reform Syria, which is the aim of the rebels in the west. The Observatory says IS has recently cut the pay of its Syrian fighters. As in the past, IS has responded to the pressure by opening new fronts. Its fighters reportedly killed scores of government loyalists in an attack on state-held areas of Deir al-Zor city this week, one of Assad's few remaining outposts in the east. The groups fighting Assad in the west include FSA factions, Islamists with a Syrian nationalist agenda, and jihadists including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front that have been declared terrorists by the United States. The main non-jihadist groups are part of a newly formed opposition council backed by Saudi Arabia that is tasked with overseeing the hoped-for negotiations. The rebels say they will not negotiate until the other side shows good will by halting the bombardment of civilian areas, lifting blockades of population centers, and freeing detainees. The government meanwhile says it is ready to attend Jan. 25 talks in Geneva, though it wants to know which groups will be deemed terrorists as part of the process, another stumbling block given its view that all rebels fall into that category. "BACK AND FORTH" Rebels interviewed by Reuters acknowledged recent government advances, but insist its manpower problems and dependence on foreign militias including Iranians still give the insurgents an important advantage and the capacity to fight back. The insurgency suffered a major blow on Dec. 25 when Zahran Alloush, one of the most prominent rebel leaders, was killed in an air strike near Damascus. The spokesman for one of the rebel groups fighting in northwestern Syria, the First Coastal Division, said the government side had captured Salma using overwhelming force. "Weapons do not concern it, and ammunition does not concern it, or the death of its troops, or anything else. The only thing that concerns it is that they progress using all weapons, all planes," spokesman Fadi Ahmad told Reuters. A commander in the Ahrar al-Sham rebel group said the government and its allies were trying to advance toward the Turkish border. "They are trying to isolate the Syrians inside from the Turkish border. They are not as concerned about areas deeper in Syria, Hama and so on," he told Reuters. The government and its allies have also turned their focus to the south for the first time since Russia began its air strikes on Sept. 30, launching an attack on the town of Sheikh Maskin near the border with Jordan in late December. Rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Southern Front alliance - a major component of the newly formed opposition council - say the government attack that got underway in late December has been accompanied by Russian air strikes. Abu Ghiath al-Shami, the spokesman for one of the Southern Front insurgent groups, said that despite the onslaught the fighting was still "back and forth". "I promise you in the coming period you will see something different that will surprise everyone in terms of military action," he said. A Western diplomat said the government appeared intent on weakening the Southern Front before any negotiations. "I am surprised by the number of strikes and the number of forces from the regime side, including Hezbollah, and the Russian aerial bombing on behalf of the regime and the fact the town has still not fallen," the diplomat said. (Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Giles Elgood)
- Yahoo News
Republicans built up QAnon backer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, but now are they afraid of what they created?
On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the combative Georgia Republican known for her association with QAnon, was back on Twitter after a 12-hour suspension, and back to making waves.
Tam Dinh Pham of the Houston police department was part of the deadly mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. A veteran Houston police officer is in trouble after attending the U.S. Capitol riots in Washington, D.C., then lying about it. Officer Tam Dinh Pham joined the deadly mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Alexei Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic who was jailed at the weekend, on Tuesday released a video in which he and his allies alleged that an opulent palace belonged to the Russian leader, a claim the Kremlin denied. The allegations, which first surfaced in 2010 when a businessman wrote about them to then-President Dmitry Medvedev complaining of official graft, come as Navalny's supporters urge people to join nationwide protests on Saturday. Reuters reported in 2014 that the estate in southern Russia had been partly funded by taxpayer money from a $1 billion hospital project.
- Architectural Digest
Mercedes-Benz’s Hyperscreen, General Motors’ Bright Drop, and Jeep’s Electric Wrangler were among the unveils that turned headsOriginally Appeared on Architectural Digest
- Yahoo News Video
President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to be his assistant secretary of health, leaving her poised to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
- The Week
Constitutionally-speaking, Chief Justice John Roberts is meant to preside over President Trump's impeachment trial, but he apparently wants out, Politico reports.Multiple Republican and Democratic sources have reportedly told Politico that Roberts is seeking a way to avoid the job because of how things played out when he oversaw Trump's first impeachment trial last year. Roberts, Politico notes, has worked hard to keep the Supreme Court apolitical during his tenure, so he was reportedly displeased that he "became a top target of the left" during the proceedings. "He wants no further part of this," one source told Politico, although there's been no official word from Roberts' camp about what he'll ultimately do.Trump's trial is a bit of a constitutional oddity. On the one hand, it's a presidential impeachment, but on the other hand, the trial will take place after he leaves office, which is why there's a chance Roberts may have some wiggle room. Historically, either the vice president or the longest-serving member of the Senate have taken up the mantle for lower-level impeachments, per Politico. That means Vice President-elect Kamala Harris or Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) could be the choice. Read more at Politico.More stories from theweek.com 5 more scathing cartoons about Trump's 2nd impeachment 12 National Guard members removed from inauguration duties Trump's White House staff and alumni are reportedly using the same excuse to skip his big sendoff
- National Review
Senator Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) blocked a quick confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas as Joe Biden’s Department of Homeland Security secretary, citing Mayorkas’s immigration policy stance. Mayorkas is a former Obama administration official considered the architect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a renewable deportation deferment, without providing a path to citizenship. The confirmation hearings for Mayorkas come as Biden has pledged to undue many of the Trump administration’s restrictions on immigration, although it is unclear how quickly the Biden administration can act on those promises. “Mr. Mayorkas has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures,” Hawley said in a statement. “Given this, I cannot consent to skip the standard vetting process and fast-track this nomination when so many questions remain unanswered.” Biden is reportedly set to propose an immigration-reform bill that would grant roughly eleven million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship over eight years. The bill could also grant citizenship to agricultural workers and illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. However, the proposal is not expected to include Republican-backed border security measures. The looming immigration debates in Congress come as a new migrant caravan continues to travel toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Several thousand people in the caravan clashed with Guatemalan security forces while crossing the border from Honduras on Sunday. “There’s help on the way, but now is not the time to make the journey,” a Biden official said in comments to NBC.
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.
- NBC News
Suspect William McCall Calhoun Jr. faces a host of charges stemming from the Jan. 6 pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol Building.
- The Telegraph
Vaccine ‘passports’ would risk spreading coronavirus, the Government warned on Tuesday, despite the European Commission tentatively backing the idea. EU leaders will have their first discussions on the vaccination certificates at a video summit on Thursday. The Department of Health confirmed that vaccine passports were not being considered in Britain because it is not yet known whether the vaccines stop you being a carrier. That could mean British tourists missing out on EU holidays because they will not have the vaccination certificates, which the commission said could be used in the EU “and beyond”. It is unlikely that Britain would accept the certificates from EU citizens hoping to travel to the UK. Brussels said that using the vaccination certificates to allow greater travel and tourism in the EU was “premature” at this stage but left the door open for the plans to be picked up in the future. “We feel that now this is the time for these vaccine certificates to be recognised across the European Union, and even beyond the European Union.” said Margaritis Schinas, a commission vice-president. Mr Schinas said it was “perfectly imaginable that this can open avenues for other use, including facilitating travel”. But EU heads of state and government would have to agree to the idea and enough Europeans would have to be vaccinated first, he said. The commission said member states should set ambitious targets to vaccinate at least 80 percent of health and social care professionals and people over 80 years old by March 2021 and a minimum of 70 percent of the total adult population by summer. The bloc started jabs three weeks ago and has so far approved two vaccines - from BioNTech/Pfizer and from Moderna - with others soon expected to follow. But its pace of vaccination trails behind countries such as the US, Britain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. In a swipe at Britain, Mr Schinas said the EU had opted for “safety first” instead of granting emergency approval for vaccines as the UK had. “It is not a race between countries but a race against time in Europe,” he said. The commission said the EU would agree the minimum data necessary for the vaccination certificate and ensure it would respect data privacy laws by the end of January. The common approach could be “scaled up globally” by becoming a model for the certification systems of the World Health Organisation. Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose country is dependent on tourism, has called for the certificates to allow for vaccinated people to travel freely around Europe. Other countries, including Germany, are more cautious, especially after the arrival of the British variant on the Continent, and are against any plan which discriminates between those who have the jab and don’t. Chancellor Angela Merkel and leaders of Germany's 16 states were expected to extend and tighten a partial lockdown beyond January last night, as fears grow over virus variant strains believed to be more contagious. The former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has told Times Radio he's feeling "optimistic" about being able to travel in 2021, and has already booked two summer holidays, including a trip to Italy in June.
- The Week
Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden's choice to lead the State Department, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and appears to have passed with flying colors. As it turns out, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) may have been his biggest fan.Graham, who called Blinken an "outstanding choice" and gave him an elbow bump during a break, asked a series of questions, many of which resulted in answers the senator found quite agreeable. For example, Blinkin doesn't "trust" the Taliban to police al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan after a U.S. exit. He also considers Iran the world's worst sponsor of terrorism and said he concurs with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's assessment that China is committing genocide against the Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities. That last point reportedly left Graham "positively gushing."> Blinken agrees that the Chinese Communist Party engaged in genocide against the Uighur Muslim population, agrees they were not transparent on Coronavirus. Lindsey Graham is positively gushing.> > — David B. Larter (@DavidLarter) January 19, 2021If the friendly exchange was any indication, Blinken won't have much trouble getting confirmed, but the bipartisanship on display did have receive from sharp criticism from supporters of non-interventionist policy.More stories from theweek.com Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly wants no part of Trump's impeachment trial 5 more scathing cartoons about Trump's 2nd impeachment 12 National Guard members removed from inauguration duties
- 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.
- The Independent
Trump ends term with ‘patriotic education’ report which makes excuses for slavery and calls anti-abortion movement ‘great reform’
White House website says report is “rebuttal of reckless 're-education' attempts that seek to reframe American history around idea that United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one”
The company's comments come after California's top epidemiologist on Sunday issued a statement recommending providers pause vaccination from lot no. 41L20A due to possible allergic reactions that are under investigation. The vaccine maker said it was unaware of comparable cases of adverse events from other vaccination centers which may have administered vaccines from the same lot or from other lots of its vaccine.
- Associated Press
A wave of Taliban attacks and violence has killed dozens across Afghanistan, even as talks are underway between the government and the insurgents in Qatar, officials said Tuesday. A statement from the defense ministry said four army soldiers were killed late Monday night in Taliban attacks on checkpoints in Kunduz province. According to the ministry, 15 Taliban fighters were also killed and 12 were wounded.
- The Week
Anthony Scaramucci was right: The White House appears to be having trouble rounding up a sizable crowd for President Trump's official send-off from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Wednesday."In what looks like a desperate attempt to build a crowd for the crowd-obsessed president, an email has been making the rounds to current and former White House officials inviting them, and as many as five plus-ones, to Trump's elaborate exit ceremony," Politico reported Tuesday morning. "The go-to excuse for skipping out has been the 6 a.m. call time at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. But truly, many just don't want to be photographed sending off their former boss."Trump's current staffers have a good reason to avoid their outgoing boss. "Former White House officials and campaign staffers who would typically land plum jobs in corporate America after serving their time are now out in the cold," Politico says. One former White House official who got out early put it this way: "No one wants to touch them, they're just toxic." Another former Trump aide, pointing to the fallout from the Jan. 6 insurrection, was more blunt, telling Politico: "They're f---ed."Trump will be the first president since Andrew Johnson, another member of the tiny impeached president club, to skip the inauguration of his successor. "Johnson snubbed Ulysses S. Grant in 1869," The Washington Post notes. More stories from theweek.com Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly wants no part of Trump's impeachment trial 5 more scathing cartoons about Trump's 2nd impeachment 12 National Guard members removed from inauguration duties
- Associated Press
A California sheriff’s deputy was killed and another deputy was wounded in a shootout with a suspect who gunned down a K-9 dog before he was fatally shot, authorities said. The gunbattle erupted in Sacramento near a racetrack at the Cal Expo event venue after a vehicle pursuit late Monday, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said. The deputy who died was identified as Adam Gibson, a six-year veteran of the department, Jones said.
- The Independent
The stories of Beau, Hunter, Naomi and Ashley Biden
- NBC News
Election experts have uniformly declared that the 2020 election was conducted fairly.
U.S. officials who have engaged in "nasty behaviour" over Chinese-claimed Taiwan will face sanctions, China's Foreign Ministry said on Monday, after Washington lifted curbs on exchanges between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. Sino-U.S. ties have worsened as China has already condemned this month's easing, announced by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the waning days of President Donald Trump's presidency. Further adding to China's anger, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, spoke last week to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, after a planned trip to Taipei was called off.