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Tuesday, January 31

SUPREME COURT NOMINEE GORSUCH HAS REPUTATION FOR WRITING COMPREHENSIBLE OPINIONS

[sniffing smelling salts and fanning herself]  Realize his opinions are easy to understand despite his stint at Oxford. For once I'm struck speechless. Well, here's the Denver Post backgrounder on Justice Neil Gorsuch.


Judge Neil Gorsuch stands with his wife Louise as President Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, to announce Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Mortal Combat: Fighting Chile's wildfire infernos

This is the second time in two days I've offered condolences to people in another country about deaths of firefighters -- the first was Iran, which lost 16 firefighters when a burning hi-rise collapsed on them. So far Chile has lost five firefighters in the conflagrations that fanned by high winds, fed by prolonged drought and fueled by extremely high temperatures have ravaged 680,000 acres (273,000 hectares) in just over a week, displacing or killing every living creature in their path and destroying villages.

Yahoo's photo staff has collected 30 photographs of the fires, the destruction they've wrought and the efforts to fight them. Taken together the photos, taken by brave photographers for AP and Getty, are even more overwhelming than video in conveying the scope of the catastrophe, which at the least hasn't visited Chile on this scale for a half century, and which Chile's President has called unprecedented. Below are two of the photos. Reuters has also collected 23 photos of the wildfires and efforts to fight them.



The wildfires sweeping across central and southern Chile have been fought by volunteers and by professional firefighters from a growing number of countries; they're being fought on the ground by every means possible, from simple bucket brigades to sophisticated fire control methods and from the air as helicopters dump huge buckets of water and advanced firefighting planes dump water and spray chemical foams.

As to the grim question hanging over the fires -- from RT today, the answer could be yes:
The country’s authorities also suspect that the extreme speed at which the wildfires was spreading was as a result of possible ‘help’ from arsonists. According to [President] Bachelet, some 40 people have been detained for “possible responsibility” in fanning the deadly forest infernos.
More from RT's report, Russian firefighters arrive in Chile to help tackle unprecedented wildfires, posted at 1:42:
 Russian Ilyushin-76 water bombing aircraft
42-ton water carrying capabilities



A Russian Emergencies Ministry team is in Chile to help battle the worst wildfires to strike the country in five decades.

The EMERCOM firefighting team was deployed to Santiago at the request of the Chilean government on Monday.

READ MORE: State of emergency as Chile ravaged by 'worst wildfires in its history'

“The Il-76 aircraft arrived in Santiago on January 30, after a transcontinental flight from Moscow 
[9,300 miles], and almost immediately departed to battle the blazes,” the Russian Emergencies Ministry told RIA Novosti.

The plane was filled with water shortly after arrival and promptly departed to tackle the fires, RT’s Roman Kosarev reported.

The first target for the Russian firefighters is a wooded area around the town of Portezuelo. The wildfires raging around the town endanger several thousands of people and the situation is critical.

“The Il-76 aircraft is on a mission in the area around the town, the primary objective is to protect it from the blaze and contain the fires,” the ministry said.

Wildfires are quite a regular occurrence in Chile’s hot summer, but was particularly severe this year due to extremely high temperatures and a prolonged drought.

[1:09 minute video from Ruptly of firefighting efforts]

The first target for the Russian firefighters is a wooded area around the town of Portezuelo. The wildfires raging around the town endanger several thousands of people and the situation is critical.

“The Il-76 aircraft is on a mission in the area around the town, the primary objective is to protect it from the blaze and contain the fires,” the ministry said.

Wildfires are quite a regular occurrence in Chile’s hot summer, but was particularly severe this year due to extremely high temperatures and a prolonged drought.

[...]

********

Monday, January 30

"Trump signs executive order to slash regulations"


"U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order cutting regulations, accompanied by small business leaders at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington U.S., January 30, 2017. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria"

By Ayesha Rascoe | WASHINGTON12:10 PM EST
Reuters

President Donald Trump signed an order on Monday that will seek to dramatically pare back federal regulations by requiring agencies to cut two existing regulations for every new rule introduced.

"This will be the biggest such act that our country has ever seen. There will be regulation, there will be control, but it will be normalized control," Trump said as he signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of small business owners.

Trump's latest executive action will prepare a process for the White House to set an annual cap on the cost of new regulations, a senior official told reporters ahead of the signing.

For the rest of fiscal 2017, the cap will require that the cost of any additional regulations be completely offset by undoing existing rules, the official said on customary condition of anonymity.

[...]

*********

My condolences to Iranians for the deaths of 16 firefighters

It is always a tragedy when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, but since 9/11 I have become especially sensitive to such losses. And I have not forgotten the candlelight vigils and other expressions of sympathy from Iranians in response to America's national tragedy, which took the lives of 343 firefighters when the Twin Towers collapsed.

Many thousands of Iranians turned out for the mass funerals of 16 heroic firefighters who died in the blaze that consumed a high-rise building in Tehran. Here is one of several photographs FARS has published of the funeral ceremonies.



     ********

"Syrian Engineers Start Pumping Ein Al-Fijeh's Drinking Water to Damascus"

January 30, 2017 - 2:46
FARS

TEHRAN (FNA)- Syrian Water Resources Minister Nabil al-Hassan said that pumping of water has begun from the newly-liberated Ein al-Fijeh village in Wadi al-Bardi region to Damascus city.

Al-Hassan said maintenance teams have begun pumping water into Damascus city’s reservoirs after only ten hours of repairing Ein al-Fijeh's water facilities, adding that the teams have been working since Sunday morning to repair the damage caused by terrorists who inflicted as much damage as possible to Ein al-Fijeh spring and its facilities such as structures, control mechanisms, power systems and mechanical systems.

The Minister said that samples are being taken from the water pumped from the spring for analysis, and after the results come out, the pumping will begin to homes gradually.

In the meantime, Damascus Governor Ala Ibrahim said that the repair teams have entered Ein al-Fijeh Spring to repair the water facilities, adding that there is a prompt plan for supplying Damascus with water from Ein al-Fijeh and Ein Haroush springs and the backup water wells until the damage on the water facility by terrorists is repaired.

The General Command of Syria's Armed Forces announced earlier today that the country's soldiers and popular forces have restored sustainable security and stability to the towns and villages in Wadi al-Bardi region in Western Ghouta after a series of successful anti-terrorism operations.

The General Command said in a statement that the military operations in Wadi al-Bardi took place in a complex geographical region with the ultimate caution to avoid civilian casualties.

The statement pointed out that the army's operations have contributed to establishing favorable conditions for the achievement of reconciliation agreements in a number of villages and towns, including Basimeh, Ein al-Khadra, Deir Muqren, Ein al-Fijeh, Deir Qanoun, Kafr al-Zita, al-Hosseiniyeh, Kafr al-Awamid, Birhalia, Afra and Wadi Bardi Souq.

According to the Armed Forces' General Command, some 400 sq/km of land has been set free in Wadi al-Bardi region.

The General Command reaffirmed in the statement its determination to continue carrying out its national mission of fighting terrorism, expressing its appreciation for the sincere efforts made by several national figures and forces that contributed to the restoration of security to Wadi al-Bardi.

[END REPORT]
********

2 of 4 freed Pakistani bloggers/rights activists flee Pakistan for their safety


"The Government has not brought perpetrators to account in even a single case of enforced disappearance. Rather than effective measures to prevent the practice or to strengthen existing accountability mechanisms, recent legislation actually facilitates enforced disappearances."
-- International Commission of Jurists 

The situation with kidnappings in Pakistan of people who've publicly protested against the government/military and human rights abuses is getting worse. See the third report below. But now there's a new situation  -- or at least the first time I'm hearing about it -- in what is clearly coordinated blasphemy allegations by media figures against 'disappeareds.'  

The allegations against the bloggers have created a reign of terror in Pakistan and prompted two of the freed bloggers to leave the country. See the VOA quotes and AFP report below.

The only good news in all this is that there was such a hue and cry throughout Pakistan and in the international media about the disappearances of the five bloggers that 'somehow' four of them have now been freed. The fate of the fifth man remains unknown.  

VOA, January 28:
... However, since their abduction three weeks ago, some Pakistani talk show hosts and postings on social media accused the five men of committing blasphemy through their blogs and writings.
Families and rights groups strongly denied the blasphemy allegations and insisted the men were kidnapped for promoting liberal views and criticism of Pakistan’s powerful military.
“The allegations of blasphemy against the "missing" activists and bloggers have put their lives in grave danger of vigilante killings after their return from their mysterious disappearance and captivity,” a leading human rights activist told VOA.
She refused to be identified, saying the atmosphere and environment is so fearsome in Pakistan that most people who have any information or views on this case are afraid to speak on the record.
While insulting Islam or The Prophet Muhammad carries the death penalty in Pakistan, even mere charges of blasphemy have provoked extrajudicial mob killings of suspects by religious fanatics. ...
January 10, 2017: Pakistani human rights activists during protest rally hold images of bloggers who had gone missing. (Photo: AFP Photo/AAMIR QURESHI)

Freed Pakistani bloggers go abroad for safety: relatives
January 30, 2017
AFP


[emphasis mine]

Two Pakistani bloggers who vanished earlier this month have left the country fearing for their safety, relatives told AFP on Monday, following a virulent media campaign painting them as blasphemers.

They were among five men who went missing from various cities in Pakistan. Four of the five who had stood against religious intolerance and criticised Pakistan's military have been freed, their families said.

They would not comment on where the men had been held.

Their disappearances triggered nationwide protests and raised concerns of government involvement -- claims denied by officials.

Allegations on social media networks Facebook and Twitter and by right-wing TV hosts that the missing men were blasphemers has triggered a flood of threats despite denials from their worried families.

The allegation can be fatal in deeply conservative Muslim Pakistan, where at least 17 people remain on death row for blasphemy.

Liaqat Ali Goraya, the father of blogger Waqas Goraya, confirmed to AFP that his son was safe and had left the country. But his nephew Abdur Rahman Cheema, whose disappearance at the same time as his son was not reported to the media, was still missing.

"Waqas has gone, we've sent him abroad," said his father, declining to comment on who had held him. Before he went missing, Goraya was based in The Netherlands and had returned to Pakistan for a family wedding.

A source close to the family of blogger Asim Saeed confirmed he too had left the country.

His father, Ghulam Haider Akbar, told AFP the family had received death threats purporting to come from the anti-Shiite Laskhar-e-Jhangvi group.

"You who have blasphemed deserve death. You are out of Islam and should be ready for a painful punishment, which will be remembered by your generations to come," a text message said, according to Akbar.

A relative of a third blogger, who asked to remain anonymous, said both he and his family had left their home town and were in hiding.

"We are going to think about it for a few days and assess the situation. If it seems ok, we'll return, else we'll try to go abroad," the relative said.

Zeeshan Haider said his brother, poet and activist Salman Haider, was "fine and safe".

The whereabouts of the fifth man remain unknown.

Rights groups have long criticised the colonial-era blasphemy legislation as a vehicle for personal vendettas as even unproven allegations can result in mob lynchings.

A number of NGOs and observers say the online campaigns are to silence progressive liberal voices and are carefully coordinated.

Pakistan has had a history of enforced disappearances over the past decade, but this has mainly been confined to conflict zones near the Afghanistan border or to Balochistan province where separatists are battling for independence. 


[Pundita note: AFP is behind the times; the disappearances are not mainly confined to conflict zones. See the following report; emphasis mine.]


[END AFP REPORT]

International Commission of Jurists
September 15, 2016
Enforced disappearances in Pakistan: UN statement

The ICJ, with support of the NGO the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), spoke at the UN Human Rights Council today on the continuing problem of enforced disappearances in Pakistan.

The statement was delivered during an interactive dialogue with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.


The ICJ, with support of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), welcomed the Working Group’s follow-up report on recommendations from its 2012 visit to Pakistan, and stated further as follows:

The practice of enforced disappearance has persisted and expanded since the Working Group’s visit. Previously restricted mainly to Balochistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, enforced disappearances are now a nation-wide phenomenon.

In August 2015, Zeenat Shahzadi, a Pakistani journalist, went “missing” from Lahore, a rare case of alleged enforced disappearance of a woman.

Estimates of the overall number of cases of enforced disappearance vary. The official Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has reported nearly 1,400 unresolved cases.

The HRCP, an NGO that documents human rights violations in 60 districts, has reported 370 cases of enforced disappearance since 2014.

Other NGOs claim between 5,000 to 18,000 cases. Even by the most conservative estimates, a significant number of enforced disappearances remain unresolved.

The Government has not brought perpetrators to account in even a single case of enforced disappearance. Rather than effective measures to prevent the practice or to strengthen existing accountability mechanisms, recent legislation actually facilitates enforced disappearances.

In January 2015, Pakistan empowered military courts to try civilians for terrorism-related offences. These courts have since sentenced at least 100 people to death, and at least 12 have been hanged, after grossly unfair trials without possibility of appeal to any civilian courts, including the Supreme Court.

Families allege that some of those tried had been subjected to enforced disappearance by military authorities, and military control over the proceedings leaves the family and victim without effective remedy.

Victims’ groups, lawyers, and activists working on enforced disappearance also continue to face security risks including attacks, harassment, surveillance, and intimidation.

The ICJ and HRCP commend the Working Group for its systematic follow-up, which can have a positive impact, and urge the Working Group to continue to monitor and report on the situation in Pakistan.

The statement may be downloaded in PDF format here: hrc33-oralstatement-disappearances-pakistan-15092016


[END REPORT]

********

Saudi king agrees in call with Trump to support Syrian safe zones

The Reuters headline below, quoting the White House, also states that the king agreed to safe zones in Yemen, but the text of the report doesn't support this statement. And I would certainly consider it unlikely at this stage that the Saudis would support such zones in Yemen. We'll just have to see. Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood were also discussed in the call.

Saudi king agrees in call with Trump to support Syria, Yemen safe zones: White House
Reuters
January 30. 2017 - 1:14 AM EST

Saudi Arabia's King Salman, in a telephone call on Sunday with U.S. President Donald Trump, agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, a White House statement said.

Trump, during his presidential campaign last year, had called for Gulf states to pay for establishing safe zones to protect Syrian refugees.

A statement after the phone call said the two leaders agreed on the importance of strengthening joint efforts to fight the spread of Islamic State militants.

"The president requested, and the King agreed, to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts," the statement said.

The Saudi Press Agency, in an initial readout of the call, made no specific mention of safe zones, but said the two leaders had affirmed the "depth and durability of the strategic relationship" between the two countries.

The agency later said "the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had confirmed his support and backing for setting up safe zones in Syria", but did not mention Yemen, where a Saudi alliance is fighting against the Iran-aligned Houthi group.

A senior Saudi source told Reuters the two leaders spoke for more than an hour by telephone and agreed to step up counter-terrorism and military cooperation and enhance economic cooperation.

But the source had no word on whether the two leaders discussed Trump's order to put a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the United States and temporarily ban travelers from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries.

The source said Saudi Arabia would enhance its participation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting to oust Islamic State from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

The White House statement said the two leaders also agreed on the need to address "Iran's destabilizing regional activities." SPA confirmed the report but made no specific mention of Iran.

Both countries share views about Iranian policies in the region, the Saudi source said, suggesting Trump agreed with Riyadh's suspicion of what it sees as Tehran's growing influence in the Arab world. Iran denies it meddles in Arab countries.

The White House statement said the two also discussed what it called an invitation from the king for Trump "to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially," for Saudi Arabia and the region.

The two also discussed the Muslim Brotherhood, the senior Saudi source said, adding in a reference to the late al Qaeda leader, "it was mentioned that Osama bin Laden was recruited at an early stage" by the organization.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Riyadh fears the Brotherhood, whose Sunni Islamist doctrines challenge the Saudi principle of dynastic rule, has tried to build support inside the kingdom since the Arab Spring revolutions.

U.S. officials and people close to Trump's transition team have said a debate is under way in the Trump administration whether the United States should also declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and subject it to U.S. sanctions.

Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In what appears to have been a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Crown Prince was cited by UAE state news agency WAM as saying "groups that raise fake slogans and ideologies aim to hide their criminal truth by spreading chaos and destruction."

The White House said Trump had also "raised the idea of supporting safe zones for the refugees displaced by the conflict in the region, and the Crown Prince agreed to support this initiative."

(Reporting By Steve Holland in Washington, Samia Nakhoul in Beirut and William Maclean and Reem Shamseddine in Dubai; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)

[END REPORT]

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Will the lazy lords and ladies of Capitol Hill adopt the Trump work ethic?

"U.S. President Donald Trump, joined by his senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner (R), speaks by phone with the Saudi Arabia's King Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst"
The nation is finally getting to see a government administered by a person who knows the meaning of work. President Trump gave his staff Sunday off, but not himself -- and not his family member Jared. He has set the pace for the rest of official Washington since he took office, but so far the rest have given every sign they want to continue their customary work habits. Already this has led to questions about the pace of legislative reform. Reuters reported on January 28:
When President Donald Trump was elected last November, Republican lawmakers enthusiastically joined his call to rewrite the tax code and dismantle Obamacare in the first 100 days of his presidency. But as congressional Republicans gathered for an annual policy retreat in Philadelphia on Wednesday, the 100-day goal morphed into 200 days.
As the week wore on, leaders were saying it could take until the end of 2017 -- or possibly longer -- for passage of final legislation.
Trump had a different idea when he spoke to lawmakers in Philadelphia, telling them: Enough talk. Time to deliver. ...
 The excuse from Republican lawmakers that details of changes to Obamacare, the new tax code, etc. are still sketchy rings hollow. They have had almost a month since the new Congress to hammer out details, and if they'd had their sleeves rolled up, since the elections in early November. 

All I can add to this is that midterm elections are on the way, and unless Trumpians see a real change on Capitol Hill by then I think they will vote out every lazy Member of Congress they can, whether Democrat or Republican.

********

Sunday, January 29

The modern "Urban Sophists" have placed blind faith in the city-state

The first part of John Batchelor's January 25 discussion with Gregory Copley, the editor and publisher of Defense & Foreign Affairs, is an educated attempt to peer into the economic future of 2017 and the challenges of war-fighting in this era. But at the 12:59 minute mark the conversation takes a fascinating turn. 

Gregory launches into an analysis of the rise in power of the city-states and their contempt for the Westphalian nation-state, which, as hosts of think-tank denizens have never tired of telling us during the past 20 years, is deader than a doornail.

Just how blinkered is this contempt John Batchelor captured in his remark, "Cities become unlivable in about 25 minutes when the internet goes down." 

Let us hope that cyberwar does not render his remark a literal fact. However, the Urban Sophists, as Gregory termed them, are not yet ready to bend to the will of reality, and so for some time to come the masses must endure blasts of hot air about what the sophists have misidentified as the rise in populism. 

What we're actually seeing is the masses, having escaped the requisite graduate studies that would transform them into sophisticates, clinging to common sense for dear life as reality bears down.
  
On January 27 John and Gregory returned to crystal ball gazing; this time about two emerging nation-state tussles -- one between Kosovo and Serbia, the other between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I confess the first caused me to blurt, "Oh no, not again!"  

Yes of course again because the mess in the 1990s was never resolved, only papered over, and now the paper mache is crumbling to reveal that Kosovo is in the running for the Crime & Terrorism Capital of the World award. If only President Bill Clinton had listened to the Russians instead of propaganda, which, according to Gregory, cost $2 billion to mount; not small change in those days. But that would have been the smart move, and where's the fun in that?

To round out the story, also listen to John's January 27 discussion with Michael Vlahos, which followed on the one with Gregory last night, and which John titled, "Reawakening of the Threat of Identity Conflicts at the End of Globalization" -- globalization for some reason becoming a more preferable term than transnationalism. I suspect he came up with that title so that every Batchelor Show podcast listener who didn't want to hear any more about Kosovo and Serbia would be coaxed into listening.   

Americans, listen now or be surprised later because three guesses who's going to be expected to deal with the mess.

********

"Trump found the gap in the Death Star" - Matt Taibbi


The quote in the title is from the second part of Matt Taibbi's conversation on the John Batchelor Show about his forthcoming book on Donald Trump's presidential campaign, Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus

John, who's read the book, pronounced it very funny (it's meant to be funny) and insightful even though Matt, as with almost everyone else in the media, was stunned by Trump's victory. And yet, as John underscored, during the months he covered the campaign Matt was actually chronicling what was to be an inevitable victory -- something he realized only with hindsight and thus, the book.

Both parts of John's insightful interview with Matt are themselves a great deal of fun but of course there is nothing funny about the Death Star. So I was surprised when Matt, who is famously Liberal in his political views, chose to analogize the news media to a world-killing machine. No small part of the analogy represents people in the media who slavishly follow and promote a version of political Liberalism.

The Death Star in the first Star Wars movie was impregnable from outside attack, but it did have a single chink in its armoring -- a tiny gap, a particle exhaust vent leading from its surface directly into its reactor core. So in theory if even a single fighter jet could get past the machine's defenses and fly into the vent, it could drop bombs that would cause a chain reaction, destroying the Death Star. 

In short the Death Star could only be brought down from inside.

And while Donald Trump didn't destroy the entire news media, Matt's analogy was inspired. Few people alive understood the modern media in the way Trump did, and even fewer knew how to bring it down. Again and again, political operatives and media insiders discounted that Trump was himself a veteran media insider, a fact that kept getting lost in the circus he created.

In the end, Donald Trump did to the alliance of the media and the two major U.S. political parties what the alliance nearly got away with doing to the United States of America: damn near destroying its foundations.

********

"Kun Faya Kun" UPDATED

Update
The most I'll give away of the plot is that the six minutes in the film clip are meant to convey that the protagonist stayed with the qawwali troupe for some time -- two months, to be exact -- which explains the different clothing they're shown wearing throughout the scenes.
*****
I've been debating with myself about how much to tell you about this 6 minute clip from a 2011 Hindi film called "Rockstar." Should I tell you the meaning of kun faya kun and provide an English translation of the lyrics? Summarize the plot or at least the background to the scenes where "Kun Faya Kun" is sung? Describe the place where most of the scenes are filmed and explain it's not a movie set out of a director's imagination but a very real place? Ruminate on whether a reviewer was right when he wrote that the film has a Sufi soul that was never fully actualized?

But nobody did any of that for me. I was just thrown in the water. So I'll split the difference with you. Take my hand. Ready? Jump!

********   

Saturday, January 28

The phone call today between presidents Trump and Putin

Washington Post, Jan 28; Trump orders ISIS plan, talks with Putin and gives Bannon national security role:
Trump and Putin spoke for one hour and vowed to join forces to fight terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, according to the White House and the Kremlin, signaling a potential shift in U.S.-Russian relations that have been marked by high tension.
RT, Jan 28-29; Putin & Trump signal new Russia-US partnership with 1st phone call on ISIS, trade & Ukraine:
In their first phone conversation that lasted nearly an hour, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the new US President Donald Trump have outlined their intent to cooperate on issues ranging from defeating Islamic State to mending bilateral economic ties.

“Both sides expressed their readiness to make active joint efforts to stabilize and develop Russia-US cooperation on a constructive, equitable and mutually beneficial basis,” as well as “build up partner cooperation” on a wide range of international issues, according to a Kremlin statement following their discussion.
The White House said that the “positive” conversation was “a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”
“Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful that after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern,” the White House statement added.
“The Presidents have spoken in favor of establishing a real coordination between the US and Russian actions in order to defeat ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Syria,” the Kremlin statement said.
The two leaders also discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as Iran’s nuclear program. “Major aspects of the Ukrainian crisis have been also touched upon,” the Kremlin announced.
The leaders of Russia and the US have noted a need to restore economic ties “to stimulate” further development of the relationship between the nations.
Putin and Trump also agreed to initiate a process to “work out possible dates and venue of their personal meeting.”
During the conversation the Presidents also expressed their desire to “maintain regular personal contacts,” the Kremlin statement said.
The Kremlin said the US President asked his Russian counterpart “to wish the Russian people happiness and prosperity” on his behalf, adding Americans “have warm feelings towards Russia and its citizens.” Putin said the feeling was “mutual,” stressing that historically, the Russians and the Americans were close allies on more than one occasion.
Putin said “for over two centuries Russia has supported the United States, was its ally during the two world wars, and now sees the United States as a major partner in fighting international terrorism.”

[...]
********



Presidents Trump and Putin have concluded their phone call


28 Jan, 2017 - 19:32
RT

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had his first telephone conversation with newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump.

The start of the telephone call was announced by White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a twitter post [12:07 PM EDT- 
"After speaking with Chancellor Merkel for 45 minutes @POTUS is now onto his 3rd of 5 head of government calls, speaking w Russian Pres Putin" ]

No official statements on the conversation have been released as yet. A senior official in the US administration has confirmed to Reuters that both leaders concluded the call.

[...]
********

SYRIAN ARMY TAKES CONTROL OF MAIN WATER SUPPLY TO DAMASCUS

By Leith Fadel
28 January 2017
AMN

BEIRUT, LEBANON (1:40 P.M.) - The Syrian Arab Army has officially taken control of the Al-Fijeh Springs of Wadi Barada after more than 4 weeks of fighting with the jihadist rebels in this rural Damascus valley.

Syrian TV reported directly from the Al-Fijeh Springs today, showing images of the Syrian Arab Army raising the flag over this strategic site that is responsible for supply water to an estimated 5 million people in Damascus.

With the Syrian Army in control of Wadi Barada, the remaining jihadist rebels will be transferred to the Idlib Governorate, where they will be reacquainted with their comrades.

The water supply to Damascus was cut off 44 days ago when the jihadist rebels poisoned the water supplied to government areas in the capital.

As a result of this act committed by the jihadist rebels, the Syrian Arab Army launched a powerful assault to recapture the Wadi Barada area after a 4 year absence.

[END REPORT]


Also, SouthFront reports that engineers are now working to repair the water supply line.  

********

"REFUGEES BLOCKED FROM USA"

Immigration-related headlines from Drudge Report, 1:00 PM EST

Airlines ground USA-bound migrants...



WASHINGTON — President Trump’s executive order on immigration quickly reverberated through the United States and across the globe on Saturday, slamming the border shut for an Iranian scientist headed to a lab in Boston, an Iraqi who had worked as an interpreter for the United States Army, and a Syrian refugee family headed to a new life in Ohio, among countless others.
Around the nation, security officers at major international gateways had new rules to follow. Humanitarian organizations scrambled to cancel long-planned programs, delivering the bad news to families who were about to travel. Refugees who were airborne on flights when the order was signed were detained at airports.
At least one case quickly prompted a legal challenge as lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees held at Kennedy International Airport in New York filed a motion early Saturday seeking to have their clients released. They also filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and other immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.
Mr. Trump’s order, enacted with the stroke of a pen on Friday afternoon, suspended entry of all refugees to the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into the United States for 90 days for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The White House said the restrictions would protect “the United States from foreign nationals entering from countries compromised by terrorism” and ensure “a more rigorous vetting process.” But critics condemned Mr. Trump over the immediate collateral damage imposed on people who, by all accounts, had no sinister intentions in trying to come to the United States.
An official message to all American diplomatic posts around the world provided instructions about how to treat people from the countries affected: “Effective immediately, halt interviewing and cease issuance and printing” of visas to the United States.
Confusion turned to panic at airports around the world, as travelers found themselves unable to board flights bound for the United States. In Dubai and Istanbul, airport and immigration officials turned passengers away at boarding gates and, in at least one case, ejected a family from a flight they had boarded.
[...]
It was unclear how many refugees and other immigrants were being held nationwide in relation to the executive order.
[...]
********

'For average Syrians all members of opposition are terrorists:' VA Senator Richard Black

Published time: 27 Jan, 2017 12:22
RT

This week, the draft text of a new constitution for Syria was drawn up with the help of the Russian advisors. RT sat down with experts to discuss the provisions in the document and the obstacles to its implementation.

[...]

Outspoken Virginia Republican State Senator Richard H. Black also commented on the draft Syrian constitution: “It is an interesting thing. What Russia is doing is a little bit what the US has done where we have come from a foreign perspective and attempted to impose rules on governments of other countries. It is much more complex with Russia. Because Russia did not begin the war in Syria. The war in Syria was begun by the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Russia was pulled in at a critical time. They are trying to resolve things.”

According to Richard Black, “it is always a problem when people who are not a part of the culture try to impose government rules on another nation. They are trying to bring sides together. The problem that you have is that there are no moderate rebels.”

“Tulsi Gabbard, when she made her visit to Syria, she found exactly what I had found. When I went in April, I met with Bashar Assad, I traveled all around the country and repeatedly Syrians are offended by this idea of rebels or opposition. To them, they are all terrorists,” Richard Black told RT.




[END REPORT]

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Sen. Black's military career and outreach to the Syrian government, from Wikipedia:

Black served as a pilot in the US Marines during the Vietnam War, earning the Purple Heart medal.[1] After the war, he left the service and earned a law degree, returning to military service as a prosecutor with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.[1] Black later headed the Army's Criminal Law Division at the Pentagon, before retiring from the military in 1994.

[...]

Syria

In April 2014, Black sent an official letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,[22] thanking "the Syrian Arab Army for its heroic rescue of Christians in the Qalamoun Mountain Range",[22] praising Assad for "treating with respect all Christians and the small community of Jews in Damascus," and stating it was obvious that the rebel side of the war was largely being fought by "vicious war criminals linked to Al Qaeda" [22][23] Democratic State Senator A. Donald McEachin called the letter "bizarre,"[24] while Republican State Senator Bill Stanley later joked "What's the matter, Dick? Was Kim Jong-un not returning your text messages?".[25]

In 2015 Islamic State included Black in a list of its enemies, calling him "The American Crusader." It quoted the following statement by Black: "One thing is clear, if Damascus falls, the dreaded black and white flag of ISIS will fly over Damascus. ... Within a period of months after the fall of Damascus, Jordan will fall and Lebanon will fall. ... I think you will automatically see a beginning of a historic push of Islam towards Europe and I think, ultimately, Europe will be conquered."[26]

On April 27, 2016, Black began a three-day trip to Syria in support of its government.[27] Explaining his trip in a series of Twitter exchanges with the Washington Post, Black wrote that the U.S. was "allied with two of the most vile nations on earth, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which are intent on imposing a [Wahhabi] fundamentalist government on the Syrian people."[27]


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With the FSA rout in Idlib, is the "Moderate Syrian Rebel" myth finally dead?

I have to interrupt the author of the following article fairly early because he clearly needs a history lesson about the Free Syrian Army, but to begin:

Death of the Syrian ‘Moderate’ Fantasy
By Jonathan Marshall
January 26, 2017
Consortium News
[...]
The neoconservative and liberal interventionist case for arming Syria’s rebels lost its last vestige of credibility this week with the routing of Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces by Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in northwestern Syria.
[...]
In her memoir Hard Choices, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounted her hope that “if the United States could train and equip a reliable and effective moderate rebel force, it could help hold the country together during a transition . . . and prevent ethnic cleansing and score settling.”
In much the same way, the Reagan administration hoped — and failed — to cultivate “moderate elements” in Iran’s army through its covert arms deals with Tehran in the mid-1980s.
The truth of the matter — exposed again this week — is that the FSA and other “moderates” never had the popular support or the grit to take on more fanatical warriors in Syria.
On Tuesday, the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate that rebranded itself last year as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), attacked the FSA in Idlib and Aleppo provinces with heavy artillery, suicide bombs, and even cyber attacks. Within a day, they largely succeeded in wiping out local FSA forces.
JFS explained that it was punishing the FSA for “trying to divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation with the criminal regime” of President Bashar al-Assad. The FSA recently joined other non-extremist rebel groups in Kazakhstan for inconclusive talks with the Syrian government.
If Washington had provided the FSA with portable anti-aircraft missiles, as advocated by influential interventionists like Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, those dangerous weapons would now be in the hands of one of the most extreme and lethal factions fighting in Syria with the possibility that they could be used for terrorist purposes such as shooting down civilian airliners.
Similar debacles, complete with weapons transfers to extremists, have taken place many times over the past few years. In September 2013, FSA forces in the northern city of Raqqa surrendered abjectly to Islamists, despite outnumbering them.
One top rebel commander said, “There is no such thing as the FSA [here]. We are all Al Qaeda now. Half of the FSA has been devoured by ISIS, and the other half joined Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Collaborating with Al Qaeda
Many FSA commanders learned their lesson and began to collaborate with Nusra Front, essentially fighting under Al Qaeda’s command. Those that steadfastly remained “moderate” paid a heavy price.
[...]
Here I interrupt Mr Marshall, who is clearly unaware of the origins of the Free Syrian Army. To review:
On the 29th of July 2011, France created the Free Syrian Army (the « moderates »). Contrary to the official communiqué concerning its commander, Colonel Riyad el-Asaad, the first elements engaged were not Syrians, but Libyan members of al-Qaïda.
Riyad el-Asaad is no more than a cover, supposed to give the affair a Syrian veneer. He was chosen because he bears a similar name to President Bachar el-Assad, to whom he is in no way related. However, ignorant of the fact that the two names are not written the same way in Arabic, the Atlantist Press chose to see in him a sign of the « first defector from the régime ».
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is supervised by French legionnaires, detached from their services and placed at the disposition of the Élysée and General Benoît Puga, President Sarkozy’s own private chief commander. The FSA now fights under the French colonial flag.
Currently, the FSA is no longer a permanent army. But its trade name is used from time to time for operations dreamed up by the Élysée and carried out by mercenaries from other armed groups.
France persists in making a distinction between « moderate » and « extremist » jihadists. Yet there is no difference in terms of personnel or behaviour between the two groups. It was the FSA who began executing homosexuals by throwing them from the roofs of buildings. It was also the FSA who broadcast a video of one of their cannibal leaders eating the heart and liver of a Syrian soldier.
The only difference between the moderates and the extremists is their flag – either the French colonial flag or that of the jihad.
From Why does France want to overthrow the Syrian Arab Republic?; 12 October 2015, Voltaire Network.

Has the French government changed its tune?  The answer could work out to how high the Saudis are telling the French to jump today. 

My only other dispute with Mr Marshall's article is where he quotes Joshua Landis in his eagerness to pound home his points: 
Joshua Landis, the respected Syria expert and head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, goes further and argues that trying to buy moderate allies with money and arms was doomed from the start.
As Landis told an interviewer recently, “Many activists and Washington think tankers argue that the reason the radicals won in Syria is because they were better funded than moderate militia . . . No evidence supports this. Radicals . . . fought better, had better strategic vision and were more popular. The notion that had Washington pumped billions of dollars to selected moderate militias, they would’ve killed the extremists and destroyed Assad’s regime, is bunkum.”
Yes that is bunkum, but before Mr Landis talks about "popularity" and "strategic vision" he needs to list out the number of nations that invaded Syria using proxy armies, and how many of them were providing the strategic vision and military tactics for those armies. 

The "moderates" fell apart every time foreign paymasters dropped them in favor of other mercenaries, that's all.

After giving additional examples of  Washington's idiocy in arming "moderates," Jonathan Marshall concludes on a grim note:
Bunkum it may be, but mainstream pundits continue to demand that Washington support anti-Assad forces in Syria — whether in the name of saving lives, fighting tyranny, or making life uncomfortable for the Russians. We can only hope that President Trump ignores them and confines his wars to Twitter.
So we're not out of the woods yet, and neither are the Syrians, even if the myth of the "Moderate Syrian Rebel" has taken (another) beating in Idlib.  

I've never read any of Jonathan Marshall's other articles but from the Consortium website here's a listing of some of his recent articles on arms issues: “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s Provocative Anti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” “Ticking Closer to Midnight,” and “Turkey’s Nukes: A Sum of All Fears.”

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Will the British kindly stop trying to supervise U.S. relations with Russia?

This is for readers who thought I was overstating the case when I wrote yesterday that the British idea of a special relationship between the U.S. and U.K. is British brains and American muscle with the British supervising. From the January 27 Daily Mail:
May also warned Donald Trump to 'beware' Russian president Vladimir Putin and chose to evoke the memory of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the Cold War.
She said: 'When it comes to Russia, as so often it is wise to turn to the example of President Reagan who - during negotiations with his opposite number Mikhail Gorbachev - used to abide by the adage 'trust but verify'. With President Putin, my advice is to 'engage but beware'.
She made these statements publicly at the Republican retreat in Philadelphia while an invited guest of the White House. Yet whatever foreign policy advice she had to give President Trump should have been made during her private consultations with him. 

If the British have a hard time understanding this rudimentary point of diplomacy, how would they like it if Trump publicly advised May's government while their guest that they need to beware of the Saudis? 

Now look, the British should stop using the U.S. government as a battering ram against the Russians. 

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