By Dominic Evans BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, meeting a major deadline in an ambitious disarmament program, the international chemical weapons watchdog said Thursday. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace prize this month, said its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country. The remaining two were too dangerous to reach for inspection but the chemical equipment had already been moved to other sites that experts had visited, it said. Syria "has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," it said, meeting a November 1 deadline for the work. The next target date is November 15, by when the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic agents and munitions. Under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States, Damascus agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons after Washington threatened to use force in response to the killing of hundreds of people in a sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21. It was the world's deadliest chemical weapons incident since Saddam Hussein's Iraqi forces used poison gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja 25 years ago. The United States and its allies blamed the forces of President Bashar al-Assad for the attack and several earlier incidents. Assad has rejected the charge, blaming rebel brigades. "This was a major milestone in the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program," Ralf Trapp, an independent chemical weapons disarmament specialist, said. "Most of the sites and facilities declared by Syria to the OPCW have been inspected, their inventories verified, equipment for chemical weapons production disabled and put beyond use, and some of the unfilled weapons have also been disabled." Assad still has a substantial conventional arsenal. Israel declined comment on Thursday on reports its warplanes had struck a military base where Syrian opposition sources said his forces had stored powerful, Russian-made missiles. WORKING IN WAR The OPCW mission is being undertaken in the midst of Syria's 2-1/2 year civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people. There had been concerns that the violence would impede the disarmament, but the OPCW says Syrian authorities have been cooperating with the weapons experts. At one location it could not visit, the OPCW said it was able to verify destruction work remotely, while Syrian forces had abandoned the two sites it could not inspect at all. Syrian authorities said that "the chemical weapons program items removed from these sites were moved to other declared sites", an OPCW document said. "These sites holding items from abandoned facilities were inspected." Trapp said it was "important to ensure that the remaining facilities can be inspected and their equipment and weapons inventoried and prepared for destruction as soon as possible". Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the U.S. Monterey Institute, cautioned that the work achieved so far had been relatively easy compared with the next stage, which will involve transporting and eliminating warfare agents. The OPCW also remained reliant on goodwill from Damascus, said Smithson, noting that Saddam and late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had tried to pull the wool over inspectors' eyes in the past. "What is unknown at present is whether Assad has declared everything in his arsenal - remember, Gaddafi kept a stash and Saddam tried his best to do the same but was outmaneuvered by savvy, determined inspectors - and to what extent Syrian cooperation will continue," she said. Under the disarmament timetable, Syria was due to render unusable all production and chemical weapons filling facilities by November 1. By the middle of next year it must have destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. The OPCW has not said which locations it had been unable to inspect, but a source briefed on their operations said one was at Safira, southeast of Aleppo in the north of the country. The site itself remains under government control but has been emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence in Syria, said forces loyal to Assad advanced towards Safira on Thursday and clashed with rebels on its eastern approaches. The other site not inspected was at Tel Kurdi in Adra, northeast of the capital Damascus. Tel Kurdi is now under rebel control but has been empty since early 2013 when the equipment was moved to another site, the source said. The site which was inspected remotely was Al Sukkar, also in Adra, which contained instruments, ammunition and other substances which were destroyed by Syrian officials. The OPCW monitored this operation by video because the site, although under government control, was dangerous to reach. (Additional Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Will Waterman and David Stamp)
- Yahoo News
Early data on the rollout of the vaccines for COVID-19 shows that minority populations in the United States already disproportionately affected by the pandemic are not being immunized at the same rate as white Americans.
- The Week
Biden did not, in fact, remove Trump's 'Diet Coke button' from the Resolute Desk, White House clarifies
The new Biden administration has yet not disclosed the secrets of Area 51 or explained what the Air Force really knows about UFOs, but it did clarify, at least, the mystery of the vanished "Diet Coke button" former President Donald Trump would use to summon refreshments in the Oval Office. The usher button, as it is formally known, is not gone, even if it is no longer used to summon Diet Cokes, a White House official tells Politico.The White House official "unfortunately wouldn't say what Biden will use the button for," Politico's Daniel Lippman writes, suggesting Biden might summon Orange Gatorade and not the obvious answer, ice cream — or, let's get real, coffee. What's more, there are evidently two usher buttons in the Oval Office, one at the Resolute Desk and the other next to the chair by the fireplace, a former White House official told Politico, adding that Trump didn't actually use the Diet Coke button all that much because "he would usually just verbally ask the valets, who were around all day, for what he needed."In any case, it is not the placement of the button that matters, of course, but how you use it. And Biden will presumably know better than to order ice cream treats during a top-secret national security briefing.More stories from theweek.com Democrats are getting Chuck Grassleyed MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell permanently banned from Twitter Josh Hawley knows exactly what he's doing
- Associated Press
The Biden administration on Monday suspended some of the terrorism sanctions that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo imposed on Yemen’s Houthi rebels in his waning days in office. The Treasury Department said it would exempt certain transactions involving the Houthis from sanctions resulting from Pompeo's designation of the group as a “foreign terrorist organization” on Jan. 10. The exemption will expire Feb. 26, according to a statement from Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control announcing a general license for transactions that involve entities owned by the Iran-backed Houthis.
Pirates who seized 15 sailors when they stormed a Turkish-crewed container ship in the Gulf of Guinea two days ago have not yet made contact with authorities, Turkey's foreign minister said on Monday. "We have not yet received word from the pirates," foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara. Turkey was in contact with officials in Gabon, where he said the Liberian-flagged container ship Mozart had docked with its remaining crew, and with authorities in neighbouring countries.
- The Week
In an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Monday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said his caucus won't allow Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to dictate the agenda in the Democratic-led 50-50 Senate or demand an end to the legislative filibuster as a precondition for a power-sharing pact. "We've told McConnell no on the organizing resolution, and that's that. So there's no negotiations on that," Schumer said, suggesting he had a secret plan. "There are ways to deal with him."Maddow included an update when she broadcast the interview Monday night. "While we were airing that right now, and you were watching it, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just put out a statement that he is folding on this" and willl "agree to go forward with what Sen. Schumer told him he must," she said. "Sen. Mitch McConnell has caved and Sen. Schumer has won that fight. That was quick. Let's see what else we can do."> No sooner has the portion of Rachel Maddow's interview with Senator Majority Leader Chuck Schumer aired than Mitch McConnell has put out a statement that he is folding, ending the stand-off. pic.twitter.com/9qR1jpKXkf> > -- Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) January 26, 2021McConnell said he would allow the Senate to move forward because two Democrats had reiterated their opposition to ending the filibuster, effectively taking that option off the table. Maddow asked Schumer about that, too, and he didn't answer directly."The caucus is united with the belief that I have: We must get big, strong, bold things done," Schumer said. The Democratic caucus is also "totally united" that "we will not let Mitch McConnell dictate to us what we will do and not do," and "we have tools that we can use," notably the budget reconciliation process," he added. "We will come together as a caucus and figure it out."> "We will not let Mitch McConnell dictate to us what we will do and not do." Here's Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer earlier in his interview with Rachel Maddow, talking about the filibuster specifically, and getting things done. pic.twitter.com/xOAKWfe2Fu> > -- Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) January 26, 2021Schumer also suggested he is not interested in playing cat-and-mouse with McConnell's Republicans again. Watch below. > "We will not repeat that mistake." Senate Majority Leader Schumer cites Obama era lessons in prioritizing legislation over bad faith Republican 'bipartisanship.' pic.twitter.com/gpc1kBP45w> > -- Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) January 26, 2021More stories from theweek.com Democrats are getting Chuck Grassleyed Biden did not, in fact, remove Trump's 'Diet Coke button' from the Resolute Desk, White House clarifies MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell permanently banned from Twitter
- FOX News Videos
Biden administration has system in place where reporters will not ask president tough questions: Media critic
Steve Krakauer, editor at Fourth Watch, says 'it shouldn't be contingent' on one reporter to ask Biden tough questions.
- Los Angeles Times Opinion
Gov. Newsom needs to do a better job communicating California's statewide COVID restrictions with the public, and with other state officials.
- Associated Press
Five days into her new role, Jill Biden signaled Monday that she'll be a more active first lady, with a trio of virtual appearances before governors' spouses, young Latinos and library officials. Jill Biden's early moves seemed designed to signal that she intends to be more active than her predecessor, Melania Trump. Mrs. Trump often allowed weeks to pass between her public appearances.
Germany's health minister supported European Union proposals to introduce restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday as tensions grew with AstraZeneca and Pfizer over sudden supply cuts just a month after the bloc started vaccinating citizens. The EU has proposed setting up a register of vaccine exports, amid frustration over delays in deliveries of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 shot and other supply problems.
- Associated Press
A federal judge on Sunday blocked the release of a Tennessee man who authorities say carried flexible plastic handcuffs during the riot at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month. U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell for the District of Columbia set aside an order by a judge in Tennessee concerning the release of Eric Munchel of Nashville. After testimony at a detention hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey Frensley for the Middle District of Tennessee determined Friday that Munchel wasn’t a flight risk and didn’t pose harm to the public.
- The Week
President Biden has pledged to get 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Americans in his first 100 days in office. And when reporters asked Biden if that plan was ambitious enough last week, he doubled down on the original plan.Even though the U.S. hasn't reached Biden's goal of giving 1 million vaccines each day, Biden still seemed ready to push forward on Monday. "I am quite confident that in the next three weeks or so," the U.S. will get that pace up to 1 million per day, and quickly after could make it to 1.5 million, the president said in a press conference. Every American who wants to get a vaccine will be able to do so by spring, Biden promised, though the COVID-19 pandemic itself could rage through summer and "early fall," he added. Immunologists meanwhile contend distributing only 1 million vaccines per day will drag the pandemic into 2022.Biden is pushing to get Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill after signing a series of coronavirus-related executive orders last week. He declared "time is of the essence" when it comes to passing the bill, but wouldn't pull out specific pieces of the legislation to prioritize on Monday.Biden also gave a confusing interpretation of his calls for unity, suggesting that a bill that doesn't have bipartisan support doesn't necessarily lack unity.> Unity doesn't have to be bipartisan, Biden says. "Trying to get at a minimum if you pass piece of legislation that breaks down along party lines when it gets passed. it doesn't mean there wasn't unity. It just means it wasn't bipartisan. I prefer these things to be bipartisan..."> > — Jennifer Epstein (@jeneps) January 25, 2021That comment comes as the Senate tries to work out a power-sharing agreement that's essentially at a standstill.More stories from theweek.com Democrats are getting Chuck Grassleyed Biden did not, in fact, remove Trump's 'Diet Coke button' from the Resolute Desk, White House clarifies MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell permanently banned from Twitter
Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is being used by the West to try to destabilise Russia, a prominent hardliner and ally of President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday, saying he must be held to account for repeatedly breaking the law. Navalny was remanded in custody for 30 days last week after returning from Germany where he had been recovering from a nerve agent poisoning. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council, called for Navalny to face the full force of the law in comments that offered a glimpse into the mood inside Russia's security establishment after tens of thousands of Navalny's supporters protested against his jailing on Saturday.
- The Telegraph
Why would the European Union threaten to block coronavirus vaccine exports? EU countries have long been waiting for the AstraZeneca vaccine – and now, at the last, it has been snatched from their grasp. In August, the European Commission announced that it had secured 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab, with an option for a further 100 million. With enough doses for 200 million people, the supply could have vaccinated roughly half of all EU citizens. It brought the European Commission's highly ambitious target of vaccinating 70 percent of all EU citizens by the summer, and even a revival of the tourism trade, into the realms of possibility. The European Medicines Agency is expected to grant market authorisation at the end of the week, meaning doses could be shipped out to the member states. But on Friday, AstraZeneca wrote to the EU executive saying it had supply chain problems and would not be able to fulfil its contractual obligations. The news was a bitter blow to the commission, which has led negotiations in the EU joint vaccine procurement process, but especially for the bloc's member states. National governments are now faced with the unenviable task of explaining to their voters why the promised vaccines are not coming. Many EU countries bet on the AstraZeneca jab, foregoing its more expensive and difficult to store rivals.That made it an attractive proposition for poorer member states, and easier to get to more remote areas than those requiring complicated storage technology. They were waiting for the AstraZeneca vaccine, despite growing pressure from their voters. Dissatisfaction with coronavirus restrictions is growing in Europe, with the Dutch rioting against a coronavirus curfew at the weekend.
- Associated Press
A group of U.N experts has criticized Sri Lanka's requirement that those who die of COVID-19 be cremated, even it goes against a family's religious beliefs, and warned that decisions based on “discrimination and aggressive nationalism” could incite hatred and violence. The experts, who are part of the Special Procedures of the U.N Human Rights Council, said in a statement Monday that rule amounts to a human rights violation. “We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” the experts said.
Venezuela's Juan Guaido is a "privileged interlocutor" but no longer considered interim president, European Union states said in a statement on Monday, sticking by their decision to downgrade his status. The EU's 27 states had said on Jan. 6 they could no longer legally recognise Guaido as after he lost his position as head of parliament following legislative elections in Venezuela in December, despite the EU not recognising that vote. Following the disputed re-election of President Nicolas Maduro in 2018, Guaido, as head of parliament, became interim president.
- Associated Press
An Iranian-American has been sentenced to prison on spying charges, Iran's judiciary reported Tuesday, the latest dual national held in the country amid tensions with the West. Iran's judiciary did not name the man sentenced, but said he had been free on bail and re-arrested while trying to flee the country. Many prisoners in Iran have been out on bail amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in the country.
- National Review
A surge of student suicides in the Clark County school district in Nevada is driving the district to reopen for in-person learning, The New York Times reported on Sunday. The coronavirus pandemic forced the mass closure of schools across the country in March 2020, and school districts have struggled to return to in-person learning. The nation’s largest district, New York City public schools, delayed its reopening for weeks in September 2020, while the January 2021 opening of Chicago public schools, the third-largest district, is proceeding in fits and starts. A petition to open Los Angeles County schools, the second-largest district, was rejected on Thursday by the California Supreme Court. The Clark County district, the fifth-largest in the U.S. and encompassing the city of Las Vegas, decided to reopen as much as possible this month after 18 students committed suicide in the months since the pandemic began. That is double the nine suicides recorded by the district in all of 2019. “When we started to see the uptick in children taking their lives, we knew it wasn’t just the Covid numbers we need to look at anymore,” Clark County superintendent Jesus Clark told the Times. “We have to find a way to put our hands on our kids, to see them, to look at them. They’ve got to start seeing some movement, some hope.” It is difficult to establish a clear link between school closures and an increase in suicides, in part because nationwide data on suicides in 2020 has yet to be compiled. However, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Robert Redfield warned in July that an increase in suicides could be one of the consequences of extended school closures. “I don’t think as many parents realize what I’ve tried to say…is there really have been substantial public health negative consequences for children not being in school,” Redfield said during a telebriefing on school reopenings. “We have seen, obviously, increases in adolescent suicide” as well as higher use of drugs.”
- Associated Press
President Joe Biden has brought back Dr. Kevin O'Connor as his physician, replacing President Donald Trump's doctor with the one who oversaw his care when he was vice president. The White House confirmed that Dr. Sean Conley, the Navy commander who served as the head of the White House Medical Unit under Trump and oversaw his treatment when he was hospitalized with COVID-19, will assume a teaching role at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. O'Connor, a retired Army colonel, was Biden's doctor during his entire tenure as vice president, having remained in the role at Biden's request.
- The Telegraph
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has announced the establishment of its embassy in Tel Aviv as the US national security advisor announced that America hopes to build “on the success of Israel’s normalisation agreements” under the Biden administration. The UAE cabinet decision to approve establishing the embassy comes after they signed the Abraham Accords in September, becoming the first Gulf state to establish a full diplomatic relationship with Israel. No further details about the embassy were given in UAE media. While Israel’s government recognises Jerusalem as its capital, the international community does not, with Palestinians claiming East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Most countries base their embassies in Tel Aviv. Before the deal, Israel only had peace deals with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan - where it has fortified embassies. Most Arab countries had previously refrained from recognising Israel, believing that recognition should only be granted if serious concessions are made in the Palestinian peace process. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later agreed to follow in the UAE’s footsteps and normalise ties with Israel under US-brokered deals.
Backers of the union of the United Kingdom's four nations should boycott any "wildcat" independence referendum for Scotland, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party said on Monday, after the nation's first minister pressed ahead with plans for a vote. Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Sunday she was hoping a strong performance by her Scottish National Party (SNP) in an election in May would give her the mandate to hold a second referendum. To get a legal referendum, any such vote must be approved by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has ruled out doing so.