News & Politics
No role for Assad in ‘peaceful and democratic Syria’
Category: News & Politics
Tags: Conflict Meeting Opposition Politics Russia Syria UK Violence War

Arab and Western Foreign ministers hold the

Arab and Western Foreign ministers hold the "London 11" meeting from the Friends of Syria Core Group at Lancaster House in London on October 22, 2013 (AFP Photo / Pool Oli Scarff)

The Friends of Syria group and opposition leaders insist President Bashar Assad has no role in the country’s future government, pushing for his resignation as a pre-condition for their participation in the Geneva-2 peace talks.

Assad “has no role in a peaceful and democratic Syria,”British Foreign Secretary William Hague said after the meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria group in London. He added that “the only sustainable way to end this conflict and the suffering of innocent Syrian civilians is through a political transition in Syria.” 

Hague was speaking after a meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria group.  Foreign ministers and representatives of 11 Western nations and Arab states gathered in the British capital on Tuesday, ahead of peace talks known as Geneva-2 which are planned for November. 

The group pledged further support to the Syrian moderate opposition. They pushed the fractured opposition to take part in the peace conference, even though Assad has made clear he was not planning to step down and even sees no “obstacles to being nominated to run” in the next presidential poll.  

“If [the opposition groups] are not part of a peace process in Syria then all the Syrian people have got left is to choose between Assad on the one hand and extremists,” Hague told BBC Radio earlier. 

The British minister warned that the longer the Syrian conflict goes on “the more sectarian it becomes and the more extremists are able to take hold and that is why we are making this renewed effort to get a Geneva peace process going.”

However, the Syrian opposition seems unwilling to discuss anything but Assad’s resignation from office. 

Opposition chief Ahmad Jarba said that they would not attend the peace conference unless its main objective was to remove Assad from power.

“There will not be any negotiations at all without making sure that the Geneva 2 meeting is basically for the transitional period and for Assad to go," Jarba said after the London meeting.

 From (L-R front row) Foreign Ministers of France Laurent Fabius, Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal, Britain William Hague, US John Kerry and Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu, (Back L-R) Egyptian deputy foreign minister Egypt Hamdi Sanad Loza, German State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office Emily Haber, Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah and Italy's deputy foreign minister Lapo Pistelli pose for a group photograph before holding the

From (L-R front row) Foreign Ministers of France Laurent Fabius, Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal, Britain William Hague, US John Kerry and Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu, (Back L-R) Egyptian deputy foreign minister Egypt Hamdi Sanad Loza, German State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office Emily Haber, Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah and Italy's deputy foreign minister Lapo Pistelli pose for a group photograph before holding the "London 11" meeting from the Friends of Syria Core Group

From (L-R front row) Foreign Ministers of France Laurent Fabius, Saudi Prince Saud al-Faisal, Britain William Hague, US John Kerry and Turkey Ahmet Davutoglu, (Back L-R) Egyptian deputy foreign minister Egypt Hamdi Sanad Loza, German State Secretary of the Federal Foreign Office Emily Haber, Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Qatar's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah and Italy's deputy foreign minister Lapo Pistelli pose for a group photograph before holding the "London 11" meeting from the Friends of Syria Core Group

“The people will not believe us and will regard us as traitors to the revolution and to the blood of the rebels,” he told the gathering earlier. 

A key group within the Syrian opposition National Coalition said it would not attend the Geneva-2 talks if the Assad regime takes part and would quit the Coalition if it participated. However, the National Coalition chief did not completely rule out the possibility of attending Geneva 2 and said the group was planning to meet on November 1 to discuss the issue.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped Geneva 2 would go ahead as planned but added that Western countries could not control whether all parties would attend the talks. 

“You can win at the negotiating table what it may take a long time and a lot of... loss of life to win on the battlefield,” he said told the opposition, according to the BBC. 

Kerry also observed that he knows no one “who believes that the opposition will ever consent to Bashar al-Assad being part of that government.”  The American diplomat added that if the Syrian President thinks that “he is going to solve problems by running for re-election… this war will not end.”

Russia and the US have been pushing to hold the Syria peace conference since May, but the idea has faced various obstacles and so far no firm date has been set. 

According to the Arab League chief, the gathering may finally start on November 23. The United Nations though has not confirmed the date saying that it has not been officially agreed.  

The Russian envoy to the UN, Vitaly Churkin said Tuesday the Geneva 2 conference had been delayed long enough. 

“We cannot delay it. The Syrian conflict is taking particularly dangerous inter-faith shades,”he said, as cited by Itar-Tass. Churkin also reminded that unlike the Syrian opposition, the Assad government has repeatedly voiced its readiness to participate in the talks.

Budget cuts leave US Army with only 2 fully-trained brigades
Category: News & Politics
Tags: Crisis Military Politics Protest Security USA War

US army soldiers patrol as they conduct an ambush drill as part of the Filipino-US joint military exercises inside a Philippine army camp in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, north of Manila (Reuters/Romeo Ranoco)

US army soldiers patrol as they conduct an ambush drill as part of the Filipino-US joint military exercises inside a Philippine army camp in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, north of Manila (Reuters/Romeo Ranoco)

Massive budget cuts in the US have forced the Army to cut corners on training, leaving only two brigades prepared for war. Military commanders have warned of a serious backlash if the White House continues to slash budgets.

At an annual conference for the Association of the US Army, military leaders voiced criticism of the spending cuts that are having a detrimental effect on the armed forces. 

General Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, attacked the government for the climate of economic instability that has forced the military to cut corners. 

“And there's going to come a time when we just simply don't have enough money to provide what I believe to be the right amount of ground forces to [carry out]... contingency operations,” Odierno told the media. 

He stressed that because of the cuts to the military budget they were forced to cancel six months of military training, leaving the US Army with only two fully-trained brigades. A brigade can contain between 3,500 and 5,000 soldiers. 

With the onset of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts the US military grew by about 570,000 personnel over the last decade. As the Obama Administration withdraws forces from these countries, officials are planning to scale down the military, cutting the number of brigades from 45 to 33. 

"The worst-case scenario is you ask me to deploy thousands of soldiers somewhere and we have not properly trained them to go because we simply don't have the dollars and money because of the way sequestration is laid out," Odierno said, referring to automatic budget cuts. 

The next government sequester is set to take place in January of next year and it could potentially see the Defense Department’s budget slashed by $21 billion. 

Technology vs. manpower

The Department of Defense is currently carrying out the ‘Quadrennial Defense Review’, a study that assesses Pentagon spending. Odierno said that had been suggested that manpower could be replaced with technology. 

“There are lots of different opinions out there. There are people that want to change how the Army fights, and they believe we don't need ground forces, that we can do everything with technology, stand-off weapons, missiles,” he said. 

However, Army Secretary John McHugh, who also spoke at the conference, said that the budget cutbacks had also caused big delays in weapons and military equipment orders, including “high priority projects for a new armored vehicle and new communications networks.” 

US finances were put under further strain by the government shutdown that could have a knock-on effect on next year’s military budget. 

Last week the US brought an end to the three-week deadlock that did significant damage to the economy. Moody’s Analytics estimate that the shutdown could cost the US up to $50 billion.

TSA accessing government and private databases to pre-screen everyone
Category: News & Politics
Tags: DHS Intelligence Security TSA Terrorism USA

 AFP Photo/Karen Bleier AFP Photo/Karen Bleier

Jetsetters, take note: According to a front page article in Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times, the United State Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is learning much more about airline passengers than just their meal preference.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to many, but Times reporter Susan Stellin revealed this week that the TSA has access to a trove of huge databases — both federally and privately run — which it uses to keep track of information about almost anyone traveling through American airspace.

Tax identification numbers, old travel plans, property records and even physical characteristics are contained in these databases, Stellin wrote, which is then shared among government agencies and often combined with other information on record elsewhere, including intelligence maintained by the likes of debt collectors and other private agencies whose profits depend on digging up personal information.

This mass data-mining is being used by Department of Homeland Security agencies like the TSA as a tool to monitor suspected terrorists and other criminals, and could assist in an agency-wide goal of trimming time off of the notoriously lengthy security pat-downs currently in place at airports across the country. But while representatives from the TSA touted these efforts to the Times as necessary implements in ensuring utmost safety, privacy advocates are asking for change.

According to Stellin, the TSA is now not just conducting routine background and criminal checks on airline ticket holders, but also relying on these massive databases to identify any potential red flags. With computers — not humans — calling the shots, though, it could change the face of travel to one where everyone and everything is suspect, until the system ensures them otherwise.

“I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly,” Identity Project consultant Edward Hasbrouck told the Times. “The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.”

Hasbrouck has previously sued the federal government in an attempt to learn about the information that agencies like the TSA compile on American travelers, and has long insisted that more than meets the eye is being collected.

Earlier this month, Hasbrouck noted on the Identity Project website that leaked security documents released to the media by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the US government is accumulating information from airline reservation systems and social media sites to scoop up information on travelers, both domestically and abroad.

Speaking to SF Weekly in 2010, Hasbrouck equated the Automated Targeting System started in 2006 by another DHS agency, Customs and Border Protection, as a “guilty-by-association machine” that can make any traveler appear suspicious since it relies on information compiled in a “database of detailed profiles of every person who'd crossed a US border.”

Even then, Hasbrouck said the government had access to personalized dossiers that contained more details on travelers than one might assume. "I've seen in one person's file that showed not merely who they were traveling with, but ... whether they asked for one bed or two in a hotel room, because their hotel was booked through the same reservation as their flight," Hasbrouck told the SF Weekly. "I don't think it's appropriate for anyone to be looking behind your hotel room and seeing who's sleeping with whom."

According to this week’s Times report more than three years later, the information being collected by the TSA is only expanding, and other government agencies are able to get their hands on it as well.

“For instance,” Stellin wrote, “an update about the TSA’s Transportation Security Enforcement Record System, which contains information about travelers accused of ‘violations or potential violations’ of security regulations, warns that the records may be shared with ‘a debt collection agency for the purpose of debt collection.’”

“A recent privacy notice about PreCheck notes that fingerprints submitted by people who apply for the program will be used by the FBI to check its unsolved crimes database,” she said of the new expedited screening process rolled out by the TSA at airports across the US earlier this month.

On the Identity Project website, Hasbrouck wrote that that same system authorizes the TSA to “create a new permanent file with everything from your fingerprints to ‘any other information provided . . . by government agencies or other entities.”

Couple that knowledge with leaked Snowden documents suggesting the NSA is independently accessing passenger records held by private airlines — then handing them over to the DHS — and the “pre-crime assessment” tools described by Hasbrouck are that much more powerful.

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