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Sunday, January 22

Astana: How to bring a wolf, sheep, and cabbage safely across a river?

The Syrian talks in Astana launch on Monday. Can these talks go anywhere?  Well, the organizers have ditched the "Geneva format" of negotiation used in earlier talks and for this round will be following what's now called the "Astana format."  See the second report below for details. By the way, here's what Astana looks like, for those thinking in terms of yurts: 

Photo: Flickr/Ken & Nyetta

 There are still yurts out in the boonies but it's just amazing what boatloads of petrodollars can accomplish when you want to build a city from scratch. Astana is also a somewhat strange unusual modern city, I might add, as the title of this fabulous article with fabulous photos suggests: Astana: The Illuminati Capital of Kazakhstan. Moving along --

09:40 - 22.01.2017 (updated 13:36 - 22.01.2017)

A source in the Russian delegation to the Astana talks on Syria compared them to bringing "a wolf, a sheep and cabbage from one bank of the river to another" in terms of difficulty.

ASTANA (Sputnik) – Representatives of the Russian Defense Ministry are going to take part in Astana talks on Syrian peace settlement that will start on January 23, a source in the Russian delegation told Sputnik on Sunday.

"Of course they [representatives of the Defense Ministry] will participate, this is how it has been planned," the source said.

The source pointed out that it would be a very difficult task to reach consensus between Syrian warring parties.

“Of course we have an unbelievable task in front of us namely to bring a wolf, a sheep and cabbage from one bank of the river to another,” the source said adding that the Astana talks would be the first ones, in which armed opposition would take part.

The Astana talks on Syrian settlement will start in the hotel Rixos President Astana at 07:00 GMT on January 23 and are expected to end at 07:00 GMT on January 24. The negotiations brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran will be held behind closed doors.

“[The Russian Defense Ministry's Deputy Chief of the Main Operational Directorate] General Stanislav Gadjimagomedov will be the the main negotiator on military issues from the Russian Defense Ministry during coming talks in Astana,” the source said.

The delegations from Russia, Turkey and Iran as well as the UN's Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura have already arrived in Astana. 

The Syrian opposition groups agreed to attend the talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran as an attempt to end the six-year civil war in the country, which sees government forces fighting against a number of opposition and terrorist groups, including Daesh [Islamic State], which is banned in Russia and many other countries.

According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s delegation will be headed by ministry’s Director of Middle East and North Africa Department Sergei Vershinin.


Again, what are the chances these talks will make real headway? Possibly better than before, as this Sputnik report (21 January) explains:


Opposition field commanders will take part in the Syrian peace talks in Astana ...


Although the upcoming Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan's capital Astana will be no walk in the park, this conference is a step in the right direction in many respects, experts say.

"Meeting in Astana is quite an important stage of the process of settling the Syrian crisis," Boris Dolgov, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RIA Novosti.

The expert pointed out that the Astana talks are due to bring together the Syrian government and the opposition, which is represented by armed groups with influence on the ground.

He remarked that the Geneva format engaged the Syrian political opposition, which does not have any serious support on the ground. Furthermore, this political opposition consists of at least four different groups backed by different foreign actors [including Saudi Arabia and Qatar], the expert underscored.

In this respect, Dolgov echoes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's remarks, which he delivered at a Moscow press conference on January 17.

"I believe that one obstacle to the talks was the fact that the UN only sent invitations to members of the political opposition, the overwhelming majority of whom were emigrants living in Europe, the Middle East or other countries but not in Syria, and to some opposition members in Syria… These talks were not attended by those who really determine the situation on the ground, that is, armed groups or armed opposition," Lavrov emphasized.

He specified that the goals of the Astana meeting include "the consolidation of the ceasefire regime" and the engagement of the armed opposition in the Syrian political process.

"This process was launched by the UN in Geneva but has lost momentum. There are plans to re-launch it. We believe that field commanders must participate in this process as full members," he noted.

Nevertheless, the Russian Foreign Minister has repeatedly referred to the fact that the Astana format is not aimed at replacing the Geneva negotiations.

Speaking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit Friday, Lavrov stressed that Monday's intra-Syrian talks in Astana are "an important contribution to… a comprehensive political settlement in Syria which will continue in wider activities in Geneva in early February."

For his part, Sergei Demidenko, lecturer at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANERA), assumed that it would be hard for the Assad government and the armed groups to find common ground during the upcoming January talks.

However, according to the expert, the necessity to eradicate the threat posed by Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) could apparently unite the Syrian government and the militants.

"I think that it is unlikely that they [the Syrian government and the opposition] will negotiate dividing Syria into spheres of influence; I believe that the only issue they could hypothetically reach a compromise on is a joint operation against Daesh… This is [their] only point of convergence," Demidenko suggested in an interview with RIA Novosti.

The expert has drawn attention to the fact that many armed groups still do not accept that President Bashar al-Assad has held onto power in Syria; for his part, following a series of military successes the Syrian government is unlikely to make any substantial concessions to militants, Demidenko assumed.

On the other hand, it also deserves attention that the Assad government has to hold talks with a vast number of opposition organizations including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.

"There are a vast number of these organizations," Demidenko stressed, "some are more 'moderate,' the others are less 'moderate,' and each [of the organizations] has its own demands; some say 'we will build an Islamic state,' some pledge to establish democracy, and some have yet to formulate their agenda. Therefore, I do not see any opportunity [for them] to reach common ground except for their possible joint fight against Daesh."

Likewise it is still hard to predict whether the Geneva talks will bring any tangible results, Demidenko underscored.

He believes that the Geneva meeting on Syria should be preceded by a series of summits in the Astana format.

"I believe that more meetings [in the Astana format] need to be held with the involvement of international mediators," he stressed.

The Syrian government and opposition groups are due to meet in Astana on January 23 for negotiations brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The talks are aimed at establishing a platform for further peace negotiations. The Astana meeting comes on the heels of the Syrian nation-wide ceasefire endorsed by the UN Security Council on December 31, 2016.


As to the Rixos President Astana, like everything else in Astana this five-star hotel is fabulous. The pastries should be great. 

The Grand Lobby, replete with live parrots


Jared Kushner now clear to serve in Trump Administration - Yay!

Jared Kushner, Trump’s Son-in-Law, Is Cleared to Serve as Adviser
JAN. 21, 2017
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Hours after President Trump took his oath on Friday, the Justice Department issued an opinion saying that his appointment of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior White House adviser would be lawful despite a federal antinepotism law.
In a 14-page opinion signed on Friday, a longtime career lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said that the president’s special hiring authority exempted White House positions from a 1967 law barring the president from employing relatives at a federal agency.
Some legal experts had raised concerns that Mr. Kushner’s appointment violated that law, which Congress enacted several years after President John F. Kennedy had appointed his brother Robert as attorney general.
But the new Justice Department opinion, signed by Daniel L. Koffsky, a deputy assistant attorney general in the legal counsel office, said Mr. Trump had the power to appoint Mr. Kushner anyway because of a subsequent 1978 law that gives the president the authority to appoint White House staff members without regard to other laws restricting employment and compensation of federal employees.

Trump turns prayer service at Washington National Cathedral into love fest

The Trump Clan descends on the Cathedral
January 21, 2017

But prayer service or no, Trump was working the crowd at the Cathedral. The Daily Mail (all the photos here are from the Mail) has a funny video of Trump trying to sing a hymn but he keeps turning to eyeball the crowd and quickly loses his place in the sheet music.  

 How about those clergy? Aren't they great, folks?

Fist-bumping with the Rev. Ramiro Peña

Pretty soon Trump's irrepressible good spirits won out. This is a man who loves people, who's not afraid of people, and others feel that about about him in his presence. By the end everyone was crowding around, realizing Trump doesn't put distance between himself and others.

Plenty more photos of the event are at the Daily Mail website here and here


Saturday, January 21

US feminists were silent while Obama's war machine wrecked entire nations

But as long as Obama threw them bones, these self-termed feminists didn't care how many peoples his war machine massacred, didn't care how much chaos he created in the world, didn't care that his war policies led to genocides, didn't care how much hatred he sowed against Americans, didn't care that his envy of Vladimir Putin's popularity around the world so unhinged him he tried to destroy Russia.  

As an American woman I have nothing else to say about the Women's Anti-Trump March on Washington on January 21, beyond noting that it was an exercise in hypocrisy so horrific it verged on the demonic.   


I don't recall Alicia Keys protesting Obama's bombing of Syria and Libya

"... We will continue to rise until our voices are heard, until our planet's safety is not deferred, until our bombs stop dropping in other lands..."
 -- From Alicia Keys' declamation at the Anti-Trump March in Washington, 21 January 21 2017

21 January 2017

TEHRAN (FNA)- ISIL's attacks on Syrian military airports in Homs, Deir Ezzur and Damascus is a plan led by the US and Israel to weaken the combat capabilities of the Syrian Army aircraft, an expert said.

Salim Harba said that recent attack of ISIL terrorists on T4 airbase in Eastern Homs, the Israeli fighter jets' attack on al-Mezeh military airport in Damascus and the United States' and ISIL's recent attacks on Deir Ezzur airbase are entirely parts of a concentrated plan to slow down the Syrian air power in the war on terrorists.

Harba further added that Washington and Tel Aviv are resolved to target the Syrian air force that has been very successful in targeting and controlling terrorists.

He underscored that the US intends to provide the so-called moderate opposition groups with leverage to put the Syrian government under pressure on the threshold of peace talks by paving the way for ISIL to attack Deir Ezzur, especially the city's airbase.

On Wednesday, Syrian Army troops warded off ISIL's large-scale attacks on their positions in the Southern, Southwestern and Western outskirts of Deir Ezzur, while the country's Air Force continued to bomb terrorists' movements near the military airport.

Field sources said that the army soldiers repelled ISIL's attacks on government positions in areas surrounding Deir Ezzur university, the Western outskirts of the city and the 137th regiment.

ISIL suffered a heavy death toll and its military hardware sustained major damage in the failed attacks.

The ISIL terrorist also attacked government positions in Tal Barouk and the University's residential area Southwest of Deir Ezzur, but the army troops engaged in heavy fighting with them, killing a large number of them and repelling their attack.

Fierce clashes were underway in Deir Ezzur's cemetery and al-Omal region South of the city where the army men have not only stopped ISIL's advances but are also trying hard to take back the positions they have lost in last 24 hours.

The army soldiers also did not allow ISIL to advance in Panorama region in the Southern outskirt of Deir Ezzur.

The army's artillery and missile units were shelling the gatherings and movements of the ISIL in the battlefields around the city, while the army aircraft pounded ISIL's gatherings near the military airport, Panorama and the cemetery.

Field sources disclosed that the army men deployed in Deir Ezzur airbase have planted a large number of landmines ahead of their first line of defense in the airbase, adding that over 20 ISIL terrorists have thus far been killed in the landmines as they were attacking the airbase.



Debacle: ISIS releases photos of its rout of Turkish Army in Aleppo Province UPDATED 7:55 PM EST

By Leith Fadel 
January 21, 2017

BEIRUT, LEBANON (5:20 P.M.) - The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) foiled a massive assault by the Turkish Armed Forces in the Al-Bab countryside on Friday, putting a temporary end to their military operations in east Aleppo.

ISIS showed off photos of this failed Turkish Army assault on Friday, posting pictures of destroyed Leopard tanks and other armored vehicles near the town of Al-Sulfaniyah in eastern Al-Bab.

The pictures below were released by the Islamic State's official media wing, Al-'Amaq, via their Telegram social media account:

[See AMN for more of the photographs]

The Turkish Army is reportedly backing off from the Al-Bab offensive in favor of the Syrian Arab Army liberating the city, Lebanese journalist Hussein Murtada claimed on Friday.



From this 21 January RT news summary, Turkey's government tells a somewhat different version of events:

10:07 GMT
46 ISIS fighters killed in Syria – Turkish military

At least 46 fighters from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) have been 'neutralized' and 16 others injured over the last 24 hours within Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish military said in a statement, as cited by Hurriyet Daily News. According to the military, Turkish jets hit 21 IS targets, including two armed vehicles, in al-Bab, Bzagah, and Qabasin regions. Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria started on August 24. Ankara deployed ground and air forces to Syria with the stated goal of retaking areas held by Islamic State and securing its southern border.


Of course Islamic State didn't say they lost no people in the battle, but I'll take their word that they creamed the Turkish Army.  

Friday, January 20


The inauguration went without a hitch; the rain held off until Trump stepped on the platform to take the oath of office. As the Rev. Graham noted when he spoke to the gathering, the rain is a sign of God's blessing.  The inaugural parade starts at 3 PM EST; the rain should be cleared out by then.

Speech Transcript

Trump Inauguration Speech: The Carnage Stops Right Now; From This Day Forward It Will Only Be America First
Posted By Ian Schwartz
On Date January 20, 2017
Real Clear Politics

Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, delivers his inauguration address:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President bush, President Obama, fellow Americans, and people of the world, thank you. We the citizens of America are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and restore its promise for all of our people. Together we will determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come. We will face challenges. We will confront hardships, but we will get the job done. Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power, and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent. Thank you.

Today's ceremony, however, has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation's capitol has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs, and while they celebrated in our nation's capitol, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changed starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment. It belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration, and this, the United States of America, is your country.

What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public, but for too many of our citizens a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation, an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge, and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

We are one nation, and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams, and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny. The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans. For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military. We've defended other nations' borders while refusing to defend our own. And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We've made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuddered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world, but that is the past, and now we are looking only to the future.

We are assembled here today issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power, from this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it's going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body, and I will never, ever let you down. America will start winning again, winning like never before.We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders.

We will bring back our wealth, and we will bring back our dreams. We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels, and railways, all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work, rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor. We will follow two simple rules -- buy American, and hire American.

We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put

their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example, we will shine for everyone to follow. We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones, and you night the civilized world against radical islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth. At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The bible tells us, how good and pleasant it is when god's people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by god.

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger. In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving. We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action. Do not allow anyone to tell you that it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.

We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again. We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the ies industries and technologies of tomorrow. New national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It's time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black, or brown, or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag.

And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator. So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, from ocean to ocean, hear these words. You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams will define our American destiny, and your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.

Together, we will make America strong again. We will make America wealthy again. We will make America proud when it. We will make America safe again, and yes, together we will make America great again. Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you.


All right; I'm off to celebrate. God bless America.  


Putin up to no good again. Trump firework display last night spelled "USR" instead of "USA"

20 January 2017

An errant firework at Donald Trump's pre-inaugural fireworks display Thursday which spelled out 'USR' instead of 'USA' has sparked a storm of jokes suggesting that the incoming president plans to turn America into the 'United States of Russia'.

Russia can't seem to get a break from accusations of interfering in American politics. First, they were accused of hacking the election. Then, they got blamed for patching RT through to C-SPAN and glitching out an MSNBC anchor to say 'Russia' over and over. Now, a couple rouge fireworks at Donald Trump's pre-inaugural fireworks display saying 'USR' ('United States of Russia' presumably) have led to a revival of the 'Russians did it' meme in full force.

On Thursday night, at a pre-inauguration welcoming party, speaking before tens of thousands of supporters at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, the President-elect delivered a stirring speech, promising to make America not just great, but "greater than ever before." Telling the crowd to "enjoy the fireworks," Trump left the stage as the Battle Hymn of the Republic rang out, sung by US Marines, accompanied by a dazzling fireworks display which lasted for over five minutes.

However, just as the display reached its crescendo, meaning to spell out 'USA' in giant red, white and blue letters, viewers began scratching their heads and asking why the 'A' looked like an 'R'.
A cursory search of 'USA spelled in fireworks' in Google images reveals that an oddly shaped 'A' is actually quite common in fireworks displays, presumably owing to the difficulty of properly aligning the fireworks for such a complex spectacle. Examining the gaps in the 'R' from Thursday night, it's clear that a couple errant fireworks simply misaligned and appeared in the wrong place.

Still, the 'A's striking resemblance of an 'R', complete with proper curvature, soon turned into a social media sensation, and is even being reported on, tongue in cheek [for now], by major media outlets.

As expected, the meme quickly caught the attention of Russian Twitter users, who 'welcomed' Americans into the 'United States of Russia', created videos of the fireworks overlaid with an English-language version of the Soviet anthem, and joked that Russian hackers were obviously behind the 'R'.


The Peaceful Transfer of Power in the USA

Democratic Party mobs are already acting out in the attempt to block attendees to the inauguration at noon and getting pepper sprayed by police, who are already outnumbered by the mobs. So far Democratic Party news media (e.g., CNN, MSNBC) are forgetting to report on the violence. 

We're now waiting for biker gangs clubs to show up to uh help keep order.

Listen to acid-tongued local Washington, DC radio personality Chris Plante for his real-time hilarious lowdown on the melee. Yes of course you'll have to put up with ad interruptions; this is commercial radio (WMAL). It's worth it to help keep the Democratic Party madness in perspective. 


See C-SPAN website for live internet coverage of the inauguration. 


The Field

"Away, beyond all concepts of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."
-- Rumi


Thursday, January 19

The most beautiful rendering of a qawwali I've yet to hear

The Wadali Brothers have made several recordings of the Sufi love song Tu Mane Ya Na Mane but this one, for Coke Studio, is a spell of enchantment woven of inspired instrumental accompaniment and two voices that have been singing together for a half century.

If you don't want the sponsor's theme after the song to spoil any of the mood, stop the recording at the 9:52 minute mark.


Wednesday, January 18

"Syrian Army within reach of strategic water well in Wadi Barada"

By Leith Fadel
18 January 2017

[See AMN website for map]

BEIRUT, LEBANON (8:15 P.M.) - The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has been steadily advancing inside the Wadi Barada area of rural Damascus today, capturing several sites from the jihadist rebels of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) inside 'Ayn Al-Fijah.

Syrian Army soldiers from the 42nd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division, alongside Republican Guard units, managed to seize a number of jihadist trenches in 'Ayn Al-Fijah, paving the way for their swift advance through this integral village.

According to a military source in Damascus, the Syrian Arab Army is now within distance of the strategic water well that feeds into the Syrian capital.

Once this water well is secured, government technicians can begin the restoration of the water supply to Damascus, ending the 4 week long crisis that is plaguing more than 5 million people.

In addition to this advance, the Syrian Arab Army killed one of the top officers from the Free Syrian Army during their military operations on Wednesday.

Colonel Hammoud Douka, a Syrian Arab Army defector, was killed while fighting alongside Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham in 'Ayn Al-Fijah, Syrian opposition activists reported.


How did this capital city become almost completely dependent on one water source?  Crummy government administration, that's how. One hopes the situation has been a wakeup call. 

I have been a strong supporter of Syria's government because it's been fighting a foreign incursion masquerading as a domestic uprising. But the minute the incursion has been put down, I will switch to being a strong critic of the government. 

Granted, Assad didn't run the show when he was put in power; it was run by the Baath Party. But the help provided to his government by Russia has given Assad the power he needs to stand up to the party, and he'd better do so.    


Retarded Chinese, Indian officials spring into action against killer smog


New Delhi


For readers who missed my 4 January post, Smog is related to nearly one-third of deaths on China's mainland, read the South China Morning Post's 1 January detailed report on China's air pollution. 

But of course this is the best way to deal with China's pollution problem:

Chinese authorities tell local weather forecasters to stop issuing smog alerts; 17 January 2017; Reuters 

So I don't want to hear complaints that I'm insulting Chinese and Indians by calling them retards. I'm being nice because there's a much worse word for leaders who let their people die by the hundreds of millions while they blow billions on weapons systems to put on a big show.

Besides, you should hear what I call officials in my own government. Which reminds me: how's that lead poisoning cleanup going in Flint, Michigan these days? Never mind; today is International Retards Day at Pundita blog.

From Chinese tourists seek ‘lung cleansing’ trips to Antarctica and Iceland as smog worsens; 17 January 2017, The Telegraph:
Earlier this month, officials in Beijing announced it would be deploying a new environmental police force to help fight the war against smog, focusing on pollution from open-air barbecues, garbage incineration and the burning of wood and other biomass.
The city also said it would be closing 500 factories that have been a source of pollution, while 2,560 other companies would be forced to clean up their operations. High-polluting vehicles will also be restricted in the city from next month, the Beijing Daily reports.

“The root cause of the region’s smog problems, from a long-term perspective, is the unclean industrial and energy mix, which require big changes,” Chen Jining, the country’s minister of environmental protection told the Xinhua News Agency.
From Indian Air-pocalypse: Mega Cities to Adopt Odd-Even Car Rule; 17 January 2017, Sputnik:
India will implement the odd-even car rule to tackle 1.2 million premature deaths every year. Car number plates ending with odd numbers will ply on three days of the week and even ones on the other three days.
Yes yes they're taking other measures as well, as much as they can while still playing ostrich.  See the rest of the Sputnik report for details.  See also these Sputnik reports; note the year they were published:

European, Japanese Diplomats in India Concerned About Air Pollution; 27 February 2015

India Vows to Reduce Air Pollution in World’s Worst Polluted City; 5 April 2015

So a bunch of diplomats complain they can't breathe and the apparatus of Indian government finally starts to groan into action. Two years later: odd-even days for license plates. 

But we're just a poor developing country. Really? Those weapons systems don't look like spears and slingshots to me.

By the way, the face masks worn by the guards shown in the first photograph are virtually useless. And there is no escape from the smog indoors in Beijing and other worst-hit cities in China, not without draconian precautions that most residents can't afford. It would be the same in New Delhi and other highly polluted cities in India. For details see John Sudworth's Beijing: The city where you can't escape smog15 January 2017, BBC Magazine.


Tuesday, January 17

Seems to me Obama used the CIA in an attempt to prevent Trump's presidency

Former CIA and State Department analyst Larry Johnson didn't mention President Obama in his discussion last night with John Batchelor about what he believes was a CIA-led attempt at a 'soft coup' to prevent Donald Trump from taking presidential office. (Podcast of the discussion

But given Larry's description of CIA chief John Brennan as a pencil pushing brown-noser, I find it unlikely that Brennan acted according to his own lights while he served Obama or any other U.S. President. Equally unlikely in my view would be several CIA employees 'going rogue' under Brennan. 

At the same time Larry seems reluctant to place the blame at Obama's desk, and as a former CIA  insider with friends on the inside, his opinions on CIA matters must be at least considered. This is particularly so because Larry while he worked for the CIA was one of the analysts responsible for contributing to the Presidential Daily Brief. From his detailed 16 January report, Inside the Dossier Smear of Donald Trump at his No Quarter blog: 

It is very clear that these [dossier] documents were prepared and packaged for the express purpose of trying to smear Donald Trump and plant the seed of doubt regarding his political loyalties. Who would do such a thing?
Let me suggest one possibility -- U.S. and British intelligence operatives who do not want to see any easing of tensions with Russia and want to maintain the covert war in Syria against the regime of Bashar Al Assad. I am told by friends still on the inside that is exactly what is going on.
There are elements of our national intelligence apparatus, which includes senior leadership such as John Brennan and [DNI] Jim Clapper, that are colluding in trying to sabotage the Presidency of Donald Trump.
I realize that is a startling claim to make. But the evidence is pretty clear if you consider the conduct of these gentlemen. For example, Jim Clapper claimed in early October that there was “consensus” in the intelligence community about Russian interference. Yet, there was no actual written document to that effect. You can’t have “consensus” without such a document.
President Trump will need to clean house at the DNI and at CIA. There are political appointees and some career officers who have been participating in trying to foment what I call a “soft” coup. There needs to be an accounting.
I'm going to let the matter rest there, even though I have my own opinions about it, because I'm hoping that with the departure of Obama and his appointees from the American security establishment, much of the horror that characterized his presidency will vanish like a bad dream on waking. Perhaps this is a forlorn hope, but for now I'm taking Donald Trump at this word that there will be no more regime change and 'nation building' during his watch. 

However, I'll note it would be a great irony if Obama got so used to masterminding regime change operations against foreign governments that he saw nothing strange about mounting one against an incoming American president.


U.S., British, French Officers Training Terrorists in Jordan

The [U.S.] program was put on hold in 2015, after it became known that very few of the militants trained in Turkey by Western instructors succeeded in their mission, having either been killed by ISIL or al-Nusra Front (also known as Fatah al-Sham Front) militants, or surrendering, along with all of their brand-new US-supplied weapons and communications gear.

US, British, French Officers Training Terrorists in Jordan to Fight against Syrian Gov't
17 January 2017

TEHRAN (FNA)- A group of militants that have surrendered themselves to the Syrian officials disclosed that a large number of terrorist groups have been trained by the American, British and French military officers in training camps in Jordan to take part in battles against Syrian Army troop.

A seven-member group of militants in al-Rahibiyeh region in Damascus that have left terrorist-held regions with the coordination of the army and handed over their weapons and munitions to the army soldiers, disclosed that some of terrorist groups had been trained by the US, French, Italian and British officers in Jordan.

Also, one of the militants said that terrorists are being supported financially from abroad, adding that the Western states are even collaborating with ISIL and "attacks on ISIL by the Western states are entirely a show."

UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon announced in late October that the decision of resuming suspended program of training militants in Syria.

According to the plan some 20 UK trainers would be deployed in Syria or in neighboring territories "to provide vetted members of the 'moderate Syrian opposition' with the skills they need to continue to take the fight to ISIL", Sputnik reported.

"All volunteers from the moderate opposition will be subject to strict vetting procedures and will receive training in international humanitarian law. Trainees will be security and medically screened prior to the start of training and will be assessed during and monitored after training," Fallon told reporters.

The training was reported to include basic infantry drills and battlefield medicine, as well as skills to avoid mines and booby-traps, according to the text of the upcoming announcement.

The program was put on hold in 2015, after it became known that very few of the militants trained in Turkey by Western instructors succeeded in their mission, having either been killed by ISIL or al-Nusra Front (also known as Fatah al-Sham Front) militants, or surrendering, along with all of their brand-new US-supplied weapons and communications gear.

The US participation in the militant training program in Syria spent a reported $500 million on the program and was shut down by US President Barack Obama after it was detailed that the program, aimed at delivering some 15,000 skilled militants to the front, produced only a handful of soldiers.

US commanders acknowledged that they struggled to find militants who would agree to only fight ISIL, and not the Syrian army.

The UK Ministry of Defense still believes the moderate-opposition story, denying that those militants are terrorists. On the contrary, US President Barack Obama was reportedly unwilling to send more manpower to the militants in Syria, as it was suggested that they were becoming increasingly extremist.

Critics of the moderate opposition notion observe that the fighting skills, to say nothing of the weapons themselves, will be transferred to ISIL or other groups, as militants have willingly surrendered in the past.

Currently, some 500 British troops are training Kurdish and Iraqi forces in Iraq to support the ongoing assault on Mosul, according to the Telegraph.


Reportedly Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield has collapsed

Takan also quoted informed sources in the Turkish army as saying the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) sells the arms and ammunition it receives from the Turkish Army to the ISIL [Islamic State, which the Turks are supposed to be fighting].

Media sources disclosed on Sunday that tens of Turkish soldiers were suspended after selling their weapons and military equipment with the help of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the sidelines of the Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Aleppo.

See this Wikipedia article for background on the operation. 

FARS reported today (note closing paragraphs about a terrorist group using U.S. Army vehicles):

TEHRAN (FNA)- A Turkish journalist disclosed that at least fifty high-ranking officers of the Turkish Army have resigned due to their recent defeats in the course of the Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Aleppo.

Ahmad Takan, a columnist in Turkish language Yeni Chaq paper, wrote in an article that the army's heavy defeats in the Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Syria caused 50 senior officers to resign.

He added that the 50 officers have handed over their resignations to army commanders in al-Bab region.

Takan also quoted informed sources in the Turkish army as saying the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) sells the arms and ammunition it receives from the Turkish Army to the ISIL.

He further added that on January 8, a group of Turkmen militants affiliated to the Turkish army arrested a group of FSA near the village of Akhtari South of al-Bab region as they were dispatching two trucks of arms and munitions to the ISIL-held regions.

Takan went on to say that the Euphrates Shield Operation has been defeated and its casualties have been hidden by the operation commanders from the public opinion.

Hospitals in Dilouk, Kilis and their countrysides are full of injured soldiers of the Turkish army, Takan added.

He said that Ankara has also been forced to hand over ISIL's dead members to the terrorist group to take back its dead soldiers' bodies.

Turkey has also increased duration of mandatory military service to make up for the loss of forces in a fresh wave of resignations.

Media sources disclosed on Sunday that tens of Turkish soldiers were suspended after selling their weapons and military equipment with the help of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) on the sidelines of the Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Aleppo.

Al-Watan newspaper said that social media activists released reports along with images showing that "50 Turkish military men have been suspended and ordered to drop their operations in the Euphrates Shield Operation".

Meantime, dissident activists from Northern Aleppo reported that "after the Euphrates Shield Operation, we witnessed new equipment and guns in Northern Syria, and after investigation it became clear that the warfare equipment belonged to the Euphrates Shield Operation forces".

Opposition sources had also disclosed in September that militants affiliated to the Turkey-backed FSA have received a batch of advanced military vehicles in Northern Aleppo.

"The FSA-affiliated terrorist group of al-Hamza that is under the command of the Euphrates Shield Operation Room has received a number of military vehicles from the US army officers deployed in Northern Aleppo," the sources said.

Opposition sources have also released several photos showing the US army vehicles with al-Hamaza terrorist group's emblem.

Al-Hamzah had previously claimed that it is independent and is not working with any foreign country.



Monday, January 16

Battle for critical water supply to Damascus

Leith filed his report at 10 am Syria time. Syria is 7 hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time. No word as yet from AMN or any other source on the status of the battle. 

Syrian Army storms Al-Fijah Springs in Wadi Barada
By Leith Fadel

BEIRUT, LEBANON (10:00 A.M.) - On Monday morning, the Syrian Arab Army launched a powerful attack against the jihadist rebels of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) in rural Damascus, targeting the Al-Fijah Springs of Wadi Barada from their positions at the nearby Khadara Springs.
Leading the way was the Syrian Arab Army's 42nd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division, who began storming the Al-Fijah Springs this morning after the jihadist rebels refused to leave the area.
No gains have been reported as of yet at the Al-Fijah Springs, despite the intensity of the clashes taking place between the Syrian Arab Army and jihadist rebels of Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham.
However, the jihadist rebels reneged on the ceasefire agreement and assassinated one of the lead negotiators in the peace talks; thus, resulting in the Syrian Arab Army's resumption of their offensive operations in Wadi Barada.

We don't like the pastries in Kazakhstan. We want Swiss pastries.

Europeans grumpy they don't control upcoming Syrian ceasefire discussions being led by Russia and Turkey in Astana. 

No date set for intra-Syria talks: German FM
AMN Newsdesk
16 January 2017

(TASS) A date for the resumption of talk in Geneva on a political settlement of the conflict in Syria has not been set yet, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said upon arrival for a meeting of European Union foreign ministers.

"We should insist the process of negotiations on Syria’s future should be placed back into the UN hands," he said. "At this point we cannot say that this is guaranteed and most certainly we cannot say when the Geneva process will be resumed."

The EU, Steinmeier stated, should make up its mind regarding its own strategy for Syria.

"We keep a close watch on the efforts being exerted by Russia, Turkey and other participants in the de-escalation. We in Europe should be talking about the role and place reserved for the EU in this process," Steinmeier said.

At the end of December 2016 Russia and Turkey concluded agreements on the ceasefire in Syria and enter into consultations with the Syrian government and the armed opposition. The consultations are scheduled to begin in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana on January 23.



"Aleppo's Famous Street Market Opens for First Time in Two Years (VIDEO)"

Sputnik has the report today and a short video. Heartening news:

Aleppo’s main market area was swarmed with customers as it reopened for the first time in two years on Saturday. Shopkeepers displayed their goods at fixed shop entrances, while families walked between the different shops.

The Al-Tall street market was closed after being targeted with missiles by terrorist groups. Aleppo locals begin to get back to normal life after the Syrian Army's announcement on December 22, that it had recaptured the whole of eastern Aleppo following four years of militant occupation.

Prior to the conflict, Aleppo was Syria’s industrial and financial center. Now the city is trying to return to its previous glory.

Some vendors have already laid out their goods for sale while in the neighboring areas and houses reconstruction work is still ongoing. People are repairing the wiring and electricity is being supplied to the areas.



Much of N. California's deluge simply flowed into the Pacific Ocean

"We’ve gotten two wake-up calls – one a severe drought, the other a series of major storms – that tell us we’ve neglected the state’s most important issue."

Very important opinion piece by columnist (and Californian) Dan Walters:

Drought and storms prove again California needs more storage
by Dan Walters
15 January 2017
The Sacramento Bee

After a half-decade of drought, California has been buffeted this winter by a series of powerful rain and snowstorms that dumped countless billions of gallons of water on the state’s watersheds.

Some of the deluge was captured in the form of mountain snows that will feed rivers and streams during the annual spring melt. But at lower elevations, it was rain, some retained in man-made reservoirs that had become seriously depleted, but most flowing swiftly to the Pacific Ocean.

At one point last week, flows on the Sacramento River and its American River tributary were more than 130,000 cubic feet each second, much of which was diverted into bypass channels to protect the state capital from flooding that periodically devastated the city during the 19th century.

Let’s put that flow in perspective. Each cubic foot is equates to 7.5 gallons, so that meant nearly a million gallons were passing through, or around, Sacramento every second – enough water to fill an empty Folsom Lake-sized reservoir in about four days.

As the Sacramento River was running high, fast and dirty last week, a few blocks away, in the state Capitol, Gov. Jerry Brown was unveiling a new state budget. He renewed his annual pitch to build financial reserves so that when recession hits, as it inevitably will, the impact on the state budget will be cushioned.

It’s good advice, whether it involves a state budget or a family’s finances. Having a cushioning reserve is, as Brown terms, it “prudence.”

But what is prudent in a state’s budget also is prudent in a state’s water supply, which is at least as volatile and unpredictable as tax revenue.

The drought that the storms may have ended [in the North of the state] has been the hydrological equivalent of a severe economic recession, and proved once again that California has not provided enough water storage to sustain its nearly 40 million residents and its economy when precipitation is scant.

Moreover, were predictions of climate change to prove true, it would mean California could depend even less on the natural reservoir of mountain snowpacks because it would receive more of its precipitation as rain, and thus would logically need more man-made storage to close the gap.

Had we done what we should have done decades ago, and provided more reservoirs – such as the long-delayed, off-stream Sites project on the west side of the upper Sacramento Valley – or built systems to recharge depleted underground aquifers, we could have retained some of those heavy flows on the Sacramento and other rivers this month. Even a tiny percentage would make a huge difference when drought once again hits.

Oddly, relatively arid Southern California has been more attentive to protecting itself from drought than Northern California.

Those in the south state have built new reservoirs, expanded old ones, undertaken extensive conservation and reuse programs and, most recently, have opened one major desalination plant and have begun preliminary work on at least one more.

In Northern California, meanwhile, Sites and other storage projects have been kicking around for decades without decisive action.

Perhaps it’s because misplaced environmental sensitivity is stronger in the north, or perhaps because one superagency dominates water planning in the south while in the north, it’s scattered among hundreds of agencies that incessantly spar with each other.

We’ve gotten two wake-up calls – one a severe drought, the other a series of major storms – that tell us we’ve neglected the state’s most important issue.



Mexican government cries poor to avoid filling known border smuggling tunnels

"A cross-border drug smugglers' tunnel that had been shut down but left unfilled on the Mexican side was found to be back in operation in December, officials said."
Photo: Mexico attorney general's office / Associated Press via Los Angeles Times

Border tunnels left unfilled on Mexican side pose security risk, officials say
By Richard Marosi
15 January 2017
The Los Angeles Times

Mexican drug cartels have burrowed dozens of tunnels in the last decade, outfitted them with rail and cart systems to whisk drugs under the U.S. border and, after being discovered by authorities, abandoned them.

But some of the illicit passageways live on.

At least six previously discovered border tunnels have been reactivated by Mexican trafficking groups in recent years, exposing a recurring large-scale smuggling threat, according to U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials.

The breaches of border defenses, most recently in December, occur because Mexican authorities, unlike those on the American side, do not fill the tunnels with concrete once they have been discovered. Mexican authorities say they lack the funds.

Instead, only the tunnel openings are sealed. That allows traffickers to simply dig a new entry point to access the largely intact subterranean passageways leading to the U.S. border.

The security lapse is a boon for traffickers, experts say, saving them time and money and reducing their risk of being caught as they haul away dirt.

“The biggest threat is that it’s a huge open invitation for drug traffickers, and it’s definitely going to be taken advantage of,” said Michael Unzueta, a former special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.



If you think you know how bad Beijing's air pollution is, read this BBC report

"For much of the past month the cloud of toxic air hanging over this country has extended for thousands of miles, a giant, continent-sized cocktail of soot from coal fired power stations and car exhausts, smothering the lives and filling the lungs of hundreds of millions of people."

But that's not the half of it; it turns out that only the most draconian precautions can protect Beijing residents from the pollution while they're indoors -- precautions that are financially out of reach for most Chinese. 

The photos accompanying the BBC report include this one:

Beijing: The city where you can't escape smog
By John Sudworth
15 January 2017
BBC Magazine
China's capital is notorious for its chronic pollution. Even indoors it's a struggle to find clean air, says John Sudworth.
Having already taped most of my windows shut, I have now started on the air conditioning vents. The aim is simple - to close off every access point through which the toxic outside air leaks into our Beijing home.
Even our double-glazing doesn't keep out the smog. The most dangerous constituent, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter - or PM2.5 as it's known - finds a way through the tiniest of gaps where the windows close.
So the only solution there is duct tape.
It's like a re-enactment of a 1970s government information film on surviving a nuclear holocaust. Only it's not radiation we're trying to keep at bay, but the fallout from fossil fuels.
The most useful device in our armoury is our PM2.5 monitor. We have two, one upstairs and one downstairs, which we glance at frequently, and it was their arrival that prompted the frenzy of taping and draught-excluding that continues to this day.
When I first arrived in China, five years ago, there was no way of monitoring the quality of air in our home. Like everyone else, we left it to blind faith that our air purifiers were doing the trick.
It now transpires they weren't. Even now on highly polluted days, we struggle to get our PM2.5 count much below 25 micrograms per cubic meter, the World Health Organization's maximum standard for safe air.
And that's with multiple purifiers running at full tilt, large box-like machines that sit in the corner of every room - two in some - the combined noise output of which is akin to living in the engine room of an aircraft carrier.
hina's air pollution problem is now so bad that its effects are measured in more than a million premature deaths a year and markedly reduced life expectancy - an average of more than five years or so - in the worst-affected regions.
Over the past few weeks, a period of particularly acute and prolonged air pollution, the average air quality in Beijing has been well above 200 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre - many times the maximum safe limit.
During the worst of it, it's been like living under house arrest, our children confined to the small, deafening but breathable indoor space of our home for days on end.
And across China, the smog becomes a dominant topic on social media, with the population tracking the foulness of the air via mobile phone apps.
One group of Beijing mothers, armed with their own PM2.5 counters, have even been roaming the city in search of shopping malls or cafes with filtered air - and then sharing their discoveries online.
Of course, humanity's dependence on oil and coal long predate China's economic rise. But China offers a vision of environmental degradation far in excess of the pea-souper fogs of 1950s London or Manchester.
For much of the past month the cloud of toxic air hanging over this country has extended for thousands of miles, a giant, continent-sized cocktail of soot from coal fired power stations and car exhausts, smothering the lives and filling the lungs of hundreds of millions of people.
While growing awareness means that more of them are now taking action to protect their health, many others are either not fully informed about the danger or don't have the means to do much about it.
A set of new filters for a single air purifier can cost £100 ($120) or more and needs changing every six months or so.
It is, of course, not a problem only of China's making. The smartphones, computers, TV screens, jeans and shoes that have been pouring out of its factories over the past few decades are cheap, in part at least, precisely because they're made without environmental safeguards.
The interests of the rich world and an unaccountable Chinese Communist elite have neatly dovetailed. The West gets its cheap consumer desirables and China gets rich without the inconvenience of the independent scrutiny, regulation or democratic oversight of other markets.
The true cost is measured by the numbers on my pollution monitors, and it is one being borne disproportionately by ordinary Chinese people.
Following a crackdown on a rare protest against pollution in the central city of Chengdu recently, one blogger dared to speak out in favour of the protesters. The police, he suggested, should bear in mind that the elites, whose interests they protect, have sent their families to breathe clean air overseas.
He was promptly detained.

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