UN Official: Buffer Zone in Syria’s Idlib Province Averts War for Now

A Russian-Turkish agreement to create a demilitarized buffer zone between the Syrian army and rebels inside Syria’s northern Idlib province has averted a war for now, according to a senior United Nations official.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed to set aside a large area along the border between Turkey and Idlib to potentially protect some 3 million civilians from attack. Turkey already shelters more than 3 million Syrian refugees and fears a massive exodus into its territory if Idlib were under attack.

Jan Egeland, a senior adviser of the U.N. special envoy for Syria, says he was informed of the agreement’s details during a meeting of a U.N.-backed task force on humanitarian access in Syria. Egeland says he feels relieved the countdown to war was stopped at the “11th hour.”

Egeland says the threatened military onslaught by Syrian and Russian forces to retake Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria, would have risked the lives of the civilians, including one million children. 

He says the Russian-Turkish agreement bought more time for diplomats and politicians to protect civilians inside the buffer zone and avert a catastrophic humanitarian disaster.

“What I understand is that the so-called war on terror is not called off,” Egeland said. “On the contrary, there will be in the future, air raids against the listed organizations. There will also be fighting between armed groups, armed actors and the so-called terrorists, the so-called radicals.” 

Under the deal, Egeland says only al-Nusra and other U.N.-listed terrorist groups can be attacked. These groups, which number about 10,000, will be moved outside the buffer zone, he says, adding that other “more moderate fighters” supported by Turkey will not be attacked.

Egeland warns that the terrorist groups will be scattered in different parts of Idlib, which is cause for alarm. Many of the groups vow to fight to the end, he says, but efforts will be made to reach out to them to try to get them not to fight to the last fighter and not to fight to the last civilian in their areas.

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Turkey Looks to Germany for Help on Deepening Financial Distress

Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak heads to Berlin Friday to meet with his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, as Ankara struggles against an emerging financial crisis.  Turkey’s currency fell 40 percent this year and discussions on potential financial support from Berlin are expected to be on the agenda.

Albayrak, speaking in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace Thursday, unveiled his much-vaunted medium-term economic plan. He promised to curb debt-fueled growth, enforce financial austerity and undergo a reshaping into the “value-added” economy investors have been clamoring for for years.

The Turkish lira surged before Albayrak’s speech, fueled by rising expectations. However, once delivered, the currency fell sharply with investors criticizing the plan for lack of details, along with concerns over the exposure of Turkish banks to foreign debt.

 

The Turkish corporate sector is estimated to owe over $100 billion in foreign denominated debt in the next 12 months.

“We are talking of a five or six percent drop in the economy, to pay off debt by contracting imports and expanding exports at any cost,” analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said. “It’s going to be extremely painful, really painful. The IMF(International Monetary Fund) can take some of the pain.”

During Turkey’s economic crises in the 1990s through to the early 2000s the country depended on bailouts from the IMF. However Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly ruled out IMF support.

“There is a stigma attached to the IMF given that the government has repeatedly said that one of its biggest achievements was to end Turkey’s dependence on the IMF, “ said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research group Edam.  “So for these reasons Erdogan does not want to return to the IMF for support. “

The IMF might be unwilling to provide funds to Turkey given the current animosity between Ankara and Washington, warns international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul.

 

“The bill that was passed in (the U.S.) Congress to ask American agencies to block multi-international economic institutions, to actually block any kind of loans or favorable terms for Turkey was a very significant and very hostile move,” Ozel said.

The bill Congress passed was in response to the ongoing detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial in Turkey on terrorism charges. Washington claims the allegations are baseless.  

Analysts point out while the United States does not have a veto on IMF funding decisions, Washington could delay or complicate any deal with Ankara.

 

The European Union and in particular Berlin, observers suggest, is seen by Ankara as a politically acceptable source of international financial support. “…That is certainly an idea that is being openly discussed in some of the European capitals, analyst Ulgen said.

“The EU could be an alternative to the IMF, but that is an open-ended question,” he added, “because we don’t have examples of the EU acting unilaterally. Even in past cases related to Greece, for instance, the EU was part of a consortium that also included the IMF.”

Analysts suggest Ankara is likely to be banking on its strategic importance. “Turkey plays an important role in keeping the refugee flow outside the EU. That is a starting point,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said.

Two years ago Ankara and Belgium signed a migration agreement that resulted in a big reduction in the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants a year that once entered the EU.

The continuation of the migrant deal, analyst Ulgen argues, is viewed as a necessity by Berlin.  “From the German perspective, there seems to be a fear that the economic instability in Turkey could end up affecting the overall political stability of the country so possible jeopardize Turkey’s ability to stand by its commitments on the refugee deal,” Ulgen said.

However, given any financial assistance to Turkey would likely be in the tens of billions of dollars, there is skepticism about whether Berlin and the rest of the EU would be prepared to act alone.

“Regarding the European funding, the indications are so far they would want an IMF involvement,” chief economist Inan Demir of financial services company Nomura International said.

“Even if there is no IMF involvement in the (financial support) package,” he added, “that funding would come with conditions similar to those that would come from the IMF.  I am very skeptical that those conditions would be acceptable to the Turkish government.”

Analysts suggest measures including ending Erdogan’s prestige mega-construction projects would likely be demanded in any financial assistance deal, along with calls for reform to ensure an independent judiciary, a concern of many foreign investors. The Turkish president has until now resisted such reforms.

 

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EU, UK Fail to Resolve Border Row as Brexit Deadline Looms

Britain and its European Union partners failed on Thursday to secure a breakthrough in Brexit talks, largely because of seemingly intractable divisions over the best way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and how to deal with future trade.

With Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29, 2019, looming, there are growing concerns that a deal on the post-Brexit relationship may not be cobbled together in time to ensure a smooth and orderly British exit.

All leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, are desperate to solve the biggest Brexit riddle — how to keep goods moving freely between Northern Ireland in the U.K. and EU member state Ireland.

Despite reports of a friendly spirit at a summit in Salzburg, Austria, the fundamental differences remained. EU Council President Donald Tusk said parts of May’s Brexit plan — dubbed Chequers after a key Brexit meeting at the premier’s country residence of the same name — simply “will not work.”

But just minutes after he spoke, May insisted that her Brexit plan was the “only serious and credible” proposal on the table.

Like many leaders, including May, Tusk said “we need to compromise on both sides.” He wants to see a major breakthrough by the time the leaders meet again in Brussels on Oct. 18-19.Tusk said a special Brexit summit could be held in mid-November if things progress as hoped — but only as a “punch line” if most of the deal had already been agreed.

If Britain is to leave with a deal in six months, May and the Europeans must find solutions in coming weeks so parliaments have enough time to ratify the agreement.

They’ve spent two days in Salzburg trying to do just that, but with things at a standstill, each side tried to ramp up pressure on the other. Each is urging the other to compromise, while EU leaders issue constant warnings to Britain about the Brexit clock ticking.

“Time is running short,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters. “We want to avoid a `No Deal Brexit,’ but we are preparing for that. We are hiring extra staff and officials, bringing in IT systems. We are ready for that eventuality, should it occur.”

Tusk said that key parts of the British proposals to leave would undermine the union of the 27 remaining members.

May wants to keep the U.K. inside the bloc’s single market for goods, but not services. The EU has insisted that the single market cannot be cherry-picked like that.

“Europe isn’t an a la carte menu,” French President Emmanuel Macron said.

The French said May’s proposals “are not acceptable as they stand, particularly in the economic realm” because they “don’t respect the integrity of the single market.”

Tusk agreed May’s Chequers proposals “will not work, not least because it risks undermining the single market” of seamless movement of goods, services, capital and persons.

The biggest single obstacle to a deal is the need to maintain an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. For Ireland, it’s important not to undermine the hard-won peace after decades of sectarian tensions in neighboring Northern Ireland.

May said Britain and the EU agreed on the need for a legally binding backstop to guarantee there would be no hard Irish border. But Britain rejects the EU’s proposal, which would keep Northern Ireland inside the bloc’s customs union while the rest of the U.K. leaves.

May said the backstop “cannot divide the United Kingdom into two customs territories.” She said Britain “will be bringing forward our own proposals shortly” about how to break the impasse.

Dealing with the EU is only part of May’s problem. Her Chequers plan also faces opposition from pro-Brexit members of her own Conservative Party, who say it would keep Britain tethered to the bloc, unable to strike new trade deals around the world.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who quit the government in July, said Thursday that the Chequers plan was “devoid of democracy” and “worse than no deal.”

Macron, meanwhile, expressed contempt for pro-Brexit British politicians who told the public there would be “simple solutions” to leaving.

He said Brexit “demonstrated that those who explain that one can get by easily without Europe — that it will all go well, that it is easy and brings in a lot of money — are liars.”

Any Brexit deal will include a withdrawal agreement and transition period to smooth Britain’s exit from the bloc.

Currently that’s expected to last until the end of 2020 — but without a deal Britain would crash out of the EU on Brexit day, a development that in theory could see flights parked and trade between the two sides grind to a halt.

It all suggests a fractious summit in Brussels next month.

“We are today at the moment of truth,” Macron warned.

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Report: Extreme Poverty Declining Worldwide 

The world is making progress in its efforts to lift people out of extreme poverty, but the global aspiration of eliminating such poverty by 2030 is unattainable, a new report found.

A World Bank report released Wednesday says the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day fell to a record low of 736 million, or 10 percent of the world’s population, in 2015, the latest year for which data is available.

The figure was less than the 11 percent recorded in 2013, showing slow but steady progress.

“Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said.

“But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor,” he warned. “For their sake, we cannot fail.”

Poverty levels dropped across the world, except in the Middle East and North Africa, where civil wars spiked the extreme poverty rate from 9.5 million people in 2013 to 18.6 million in 2015.

The highest concentration of extreme poverty remained in sub-Saharan Africa, with 41.1 percent, down from 42.5 percent. South Asia showed the greatest progress with poverty levels dropping to 12.4 percent from 16.2 percent two years earlier.

The World Bank’s preliminary forecast is that extreme poverty has declined to 8.6 percent in 2018.

About half the nations now have extreme poverty rates of less than 3 percent, which is the target set for 2030. But the report said that goal is unlikely to be met.

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Russia to Study Israeli Data Related to Downed Plane

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accepted Israel’s offer to share detailed information on the Israeli airstrike in Syria that triggered fire by Syrian forces which downed a Russian reconnaissance plane, the Kremlin said Wednesday.

Syrian forces mistook the Russian Il-20 for Israeli aircraft, killing all 15 people aboard Monday night. Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed the plane’s loss on Israel, but Putin sought to defuse tensions, pointing at “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Putin on Tuesday to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew and blamed Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad sent Putin a telegram Wednesday offering his condolences and putting the blame on Israeli “aggression,” the official SANA news agency said.

Israel’s air force chief is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on Thursday to provide details. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that Russian experts will carefully study the data that the air force chief will deliver.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia and insisted it warned Russia of the coming raid in accordance with de-confliction agreements. It said the Syrian army fired the missiles that hit the Russian plane when the Israeli jets had already returned to Israeli airspace.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Israeli warning came less than a minute before the strike, leaving the Russian aircraft in the line of fire. It accused the Israeli military of deliberately using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge Syrian defenses and threatened to retaliate.

While Putin took a cautious stance on the incident, he warned that Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Wednesday that those will include deploying automated protection systems at Russia’s air and naval bases in Syria.

Business daily Kommersant reported that Russia also may respond to the downing of its plane by becoming more reluctant to engage Iran and its proxy Hezbollah militia, to help assuage Israeli worries.

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

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Pussy Riot Links Member’s ‘Poisoning’ to African Murder Probe

Russian punk group Pussy Riot on Wednesday linked the suspected poisoning of member Pyotr Verzilov with his attempt to investigate the deaths of three Russian journalists in Africa.

The journalists were shot dead on July 30 in the Central African Republic (CAR) while probing a shadowy Russian mercenary group for a project founded by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Verzilov’s estranged wife, told the independent channel TV Dozhd that he received a report on the killings a day before falling ill last week.

“We think that (Verzilov’s involvement in the inquiry) is one of the possible scenarios because Petya could be of interest to Russian secret services or state structures including in the Central African Republic,” she said, using a shorter version of his name.

Verzilov, who has both Canadian and Russian citizenship, was admitted to a Moscow clinic on Sept. 11 following a court hearing, with symptoms including vison loss and disorientation.

He was flown to Germany on Saturday by the Cinema for Peace Foundation NGO. Doctors say he is now out of danger.

Tolokonnikova has already commented that Verzilov’s illness was probably the result of an “assassination attempt.”

Verzilov, who works for the Mediazona news site that focuses on courts and prisons, was making a film with one of those killed in Africa, acclaimed documentary director Alexander Rastorguyev.

Tolokonnikova told Dozhd that Verzilov’s cell phone showed he had received a report on Sept. 10 from a CAR contact who was investigating the journalists’ deaths.

Tolokonnikova said Verzilov had told her he expected “sensational information.”

Only Verzilov knew the password to access the report, and he was still “in a quite unstable condition,” she said.

A doctor treating Verzilov at Berlin’s Charite hospital said Tuesday it was “highly plausible that it was a case of poisoning.”

Tolokonnikova told Dozhd that she and other people close to Verzilov thought he might also have been poisoned for taking part in a pitch invasion at the World Cup final in Moscow to protest against police abuses.

That action “possibly upset many” people, she said.

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Fort Trump? Poland Invites Permanent US Base

President Donald Trump said the United States is considering establishing a permanent military base in Poland. At a joint news conference with President Andrzej Duda at the White House Tuesday, the Polish leader said his country would not only help pay for the military facility, it would also name it “Fort Trump.” White House correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has more.

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Putin: Syrian Downing of Russian Jet Was ‘Tragic, Accidental’

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called the downing of a Russian military plane by Syria “a chain of tragic, accidental circumstances,” tamping down what could have turned into a tense situation with Israel.

Fifteen people aboard the Russian reconnaissance jet died when the Syrians shot it down, responding to an Israeli missile strike.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, that Israel “bears full responsibility” and that Russia had the right to retaliate.

But Putin stepped in, calling it “a chain of tragic, accidental circumstances.” He said Russia would respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.” He said “everyone will notice” those steps.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his sorrow at the loss of Russian lives and blamed Syria for the incident.

The Israeli military said its jets were targeting a Syrian military facility supplying arms to the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah.

Israeli warning

Israel said it had warned Russia of the airstrike in advance, and its jets were already back in Israeli airspace when Syria fired its missile.

The Russian defense ministry said Israel’s warning came less than a minute before the airstrike. It accused the Israelis of using the Russian plane as a cover to avoid Syrian air defense systems.

While Putin did not appear to blame Israel outright for causing the Russian plane to be shot down, the Kremlin said it told Netanyahu that Israel had violated Syrian sovereignty and urged it “not to let such situations happen again.”

President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that, based on what he had been told, Syria shot down the Russian plane. He called the deaths of those aboard “a very sad thing.”

Trump took a moment to say the United States has done a “tremendous job” in helping eradicate Islamic State from Syria and said “we are very close to finishing that job.”

Putin is striving to maintain his good relationship with Israel, while continuing to back the Syrian government in its fight against the rebels.

Russia also has healthy relations with Iran, Israel’s archenemy.

Israel has said it will not allow any permanent Iranian military presence inside Syria and has looked to the Russians to help keep Iranian-backed forces away from the Israeli-Syrian frontier.

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European Nations Plan to Use More Hydrogen for Energy Needs

Dozens of European countries are backing a plan to increase the use of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels to cut the continent’s carbon emissions.

 

Energy officials from 25 countries pledged Tuesday to increase research into hydrogen technology and accelerate its everyday use to power factories, drive cars and heat homes.

 

The proposal, which was included in a non-binding agreement signed in Linz, Austria, includes the idea of using existing gas grids to distribute hydrogen produced with renewable energy.

 

The idea of a “hydrogen economy,” where fuels that release greenhouse gases are replaced with hydrogen, has been around for decades. Yet uptake on the concept has been slow so far, compared with some other technologies.

 

Advocates of hydrogen say it can solve the problem caused by fluctuating supplies of wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energies. By converting electricity generated from those sources into hydrogen, the energy can be stored in large tanks and released again when needed.

 

Electric vehicles can also use hydrogen to generate power on board, allowing manufacturers to overcome the range restrictions of existing batteries. Hydrogen vehicles can be refueled in a fraction of the time it takes to recharge a battery-powered vehicle.

 

On Monday the world’s first commuter train service using a prototype hydrogen-powered train began in northern Germany.

 

The European Union’s top climate and energy official said hydrogen could help the bloc meet its obligations to cut carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris accord. Miguel Arias Canete told reporters it could also contribute to the continent’s energy security by reducing imports of natural gas, much of which currently comes from Russia and countries outside of Europe.

 

Kirsten Westphal, an energy expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said encouraging the use of hydrogen as a means of storing and transporting energy makes sense, but added the overall goal for should be reducing fossil fuels rather than pushing a particular energy alternative.

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UN: A Child Dies Every Five Seconds, Most Are Preventable Deaths

An estimated 6.3 million children died before their 15th birthdays in 2017, or one every five seconds, mostly due to a lack of water, sanitation, nutrition and basic healthcare, according to report by United Nations agencies on Tuesday.

The vast majority of these deaths – 5.4 million – occur in the first five years of life, with newborns accounting for around half of the deaths, the report said.

“With simple solutions like medicines, clean water, electricity and vaccines” this toll could be dramatically reduced, said Laurence Chandy, an expert with the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF. But without urgent action, 56 million children under five – half of them newborns – will die between now and 2030.

Globally, in 2017, half of all deaths in children under five were in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in 13 children died before their fifth birthday. In high-income countries, that number was one in 185, according to the report co-led by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

It found that most children under five die due to preventable or treatable causes such as complications during birth, pneumonia, diarrhoea, neonatal sepsis and malaria. Among older children – aged five to 14 – injuries become a more prominent cause of death, especially from drowning and road traffic.

For children everywhere, the most precarious time is the first month of life. In 2017, 2.5 million newborns died in their first month, and a baby born in sub-Saharan Africa or in Southern Asia was nine times more likely to die in the first month than one born in a high-income country.

Despite these problems, the U.N. report found that fewer children are dying each year worldwide. The number of under five deaths fell to 5.4 million in 2017 from 12.6 million in 1990, while the number of deaths in five to 14 year-olds dropped to under a million from 1.7 million in the same period.

 

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