Posts Tagged ‘France’

Corruption in China’s Navy Worries Military Planners

April 30, 2017

Beijing’s unveiling of its first domestically built carrier, Shandong, shows it is on track to dominate the seas in Asia. But history shows hardware is not enough if the military is corrupt

BY CARY HUANG

30 APR 2017

China’s launch of a second aircraft carrier – its first domestically built – is a major step in its ambition to make the country a “maritime power”, a status the Middle Kingdom last enjoyed just over 120 years ago.

China is now the seventh country with the capability to build its own aircraft carrier, along with the US, Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, after Wednesday’s unveiling of the home-made Shandong. With two aircraft carriers – the Shandong is set to become operational by 2020 – and a few more under construction, China will soon dwarf all its regional rivals – Japan, India and the self-ruled Taiwan – in naval strength.

Only India can potentially rival China in sea power, with one conventional aircraft carrier in operation and two under construction.

Can Trump do anything to stop a war with North Korea?

China has quickly ascended from a land-based “green army” to become a regional military presence. Its “blue water” navy can project power far beyond its shores, thanks to double-digit increases in defence spending for most years in the past two decades.

The 50,000-tonne conventional Shandong, built along similar lines but slightly more advanced than China’s first carrier Liaoning (a refitted former Soviet-made conventional carrier commissioned in 2012) can carry 24 J-15 fighters and a dozen helicopters. However, there is still a huge gap between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy and the US navy, which has 10 nuclear-powered, 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class carriers, each capable of carrying about 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

The 100,000-tonne Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson can carry about 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The US has 10 such carriers in operation. Photo: EPA

But more telling than numbers is that the US also has more than 75 years of carrier experience, and well-connected global bases for logistical support. China has only one naval base – in Djibouti, Africa.

The Obama administration pledged to shift 60 per cent of American naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020 under his “pivot” to Asia plan. US President Donald Trump has vowed to upgrade the US navy’s hardware to build 80 advanced warships to address rising challenges in the region.

A PLA guard at China’s naval base in Djibouti, Africa. Photo: Reuters

China will continue to modernise the PLA navy into an effective fighting force that can safeguard its national interests amid escalating maritime disputes in the region. But military modernisation is not just about hardware – it’s about governance of the armed forces, as the history of the Qing dynasty’s Beiyang Fleet revealed.

At its height in the late 19th century, the Qing navy claimed to have the most powerful fleet in the Far East. Its state-of-the-art Beiyang Fleet had eight of the most advanced German- and British-built cruisers. Yet it was soundly defeated by the Meiji navy during the Sino-Japanese war in January 1895, largely due to rampant corruption. The humiliated defeat resulted in China’s ceding of Taiwan to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission Guo Boxiong. Last year he was sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery. Photo: AP

The PLA remains haunted by scandal, the scale of which is unseen in any other major military in the world. Nearly 100 generals including two senior military officials, Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄) and Xu Caihou (徐才厚), both vice-chairmen of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, have been ensnared in a recent crackdown on corruption. Last year, a total of 4,885 PLA officers were disciplined, according to official data.

Trump’s one-China affirmation should fool no one – especially China

One can hardly expect officers and soldiers to keep up morale in a corrupt system where promotions are attained through bribes.

While carrier-building is a huge step towards modernisation, the fate of the Beiyang Fleet is a cautionary tale that illustrates the importance of also promoting self-confidence in the PLA rank and file, if Beijing wants to remake its communist-led army into a true “people’s” force.

http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2091102/chinas-aircraft-carrier-impresses-pla-corruption-bigger-battle

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a China affairs columnist since the 1990s

Europe Investors Bid Adieu to Political Jitters and Begin Buying

April 30, 2017

Money flows to the continent as focus turns to economic recovery

Image result for euro, currency, photos

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April 30, 2017 7:00 a.m. ET

Investors aren’t waiting for the conclusion of the French election to put money back into Europe.

They are already flocking back, betting that the region has finally unshackled itself from fears of political turmoil.

Local stock markets just had their best week this year following the first round of the French presidential vote, and investors have poured money into the region’s equity funds at the fastest pace since 2015. The euro climbed 1.6% against the dollar in its best week since July.

All this comes as investors start to look beyond political risks and focus on the continent’s strong economic recovery.

“People are beginning to let go of European political risks as a theme,” said George Maris, portfolio manager at Janus Capital. The underlying economy and earnings picture are becoming more evident now in Europe, Mr. Maris said.

Europe’s buoyant equity markets are already reflecting much of that optimism, despite coming political events that had once concerned investors–chiefly the final round of voting in France’s presidential elections and votes in Italy and Germany.

Germany’s benchmark DAX index reached a record in the week following the French vote, while the Euro Stoxx 50 index of blue-chip eurozone stocks climbed 3.5%, with advances in Europe led by the banking sector. In dollar terms, the Euro Stoxx 50 index is up almost 12% this year, nearly double the S&P 500’s gains.

European equity funds recorded their strongest inflows since December 2015, with inflows of $2.4 billion in the week to April 26, according to EPFR Global data.

Eurozone markets have rallied since the first round of French presidential elections on April 23, when pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron won more votes than both Marine Le Pen, who pledged to take France out of the euro, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left antiglobalist candidate. Mr. Macron is now seen as a heavy favorite in the second round on May 7, when he will face Ms. Le Pen.

A solid election victory for the Dutch political establishment in March has also soothed fears of a continentwide lurch toward nationalism that had weighed on asset prices through this year.

Instead of politics, investors are focusing on economics and earnings.

Unlike previous years, analysts have continued to raise their projections for annual growth in earnings per share in the eurozone, according to J.P. Morgan.

First-quarter earnings in the Stoxx Europe 600 are expected to increase 5.5% from the first quarter of 2016, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Investors point to good signals from the economy. Business confidence and gauges of activity in the eurozone’s manufacturing and services sectors rose to six-year highs in April, despite uncertainty ahead of the French vote.

“European growth is the best it’s been since the global financial crisis, ” said Robert Waldner, chief strategist at Invesco Fixed income. “The combination of supportive financial conditions and a solid economy should boost equities and credit markets in the region.”

All this has ramifications for the European Central Bank as it contemplates an exit from a EUR2.3 trillion ($2.5 trillion) bond-purchase program. On Friday, eurozone inflation data for April came in higher than expected, reaching 1.9%. The ECB targets inflation close to 2%. The region has been battling low and at times negative inflation for much of the past three years.

The euro jumped after Friday’s inflation figures to settle at $1.0897. “The market is pricing out political risks and is pricing in a less cautious [European Central Bank],” said Vasileios Gkionakis, head of foreign-exchange strategy at UniCredit Research.

Mr. Gkionakis expects that if Mr. Macron becomes French president, the euro would go past $1.10.

The ECB’s signals in the months ahead are expected to be critical for the euro’s performance toward the end of the year.

Risks remain. There is still a chance that Ms. Le Pen could win the French presidency, renewing questions about the future of the eurozone. Euroskeptic parties have a shot at winning Italian elections that will come by next year, at the latest, and Italy continues to struggle with weak banks and bleak economic prospects.

French economic growth slowed at the start of the year, while ECB President Mario Draghi highlighted Thursday that consumer prices remain subdued across the euro area.

For now, the European party continues.

Assuming French elections go as expected, “it at the very least removes the immediate existential concerns about the eurozone and euro currency itself,” said Abi Oladimeji, chief investment officer at Thomas Miller Investment.

Write to Riva Gold at riva.gold@wsj.com and Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/europe-investors-bid-adieu-to-political-jitters-and-begin-buying-1493550004

Remaining 27 EU countries agree Brexit guidelines as Hollande says UK must ‘pay price’ (Following Merkel’s lead)

April 29, 2017

European Council President Donald Tusk has confirmed that guidelines for the bloc’s negotiations with the UK have been unanimously ratified

By Tom Peck
The Independent

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EU Council President Donald Tusk in Downing Street earlier this month Getty Images

The EU 27 have unanimously agreed their guidelines for the forthcoming negotiations with the UK, in a meeting that lasted ‘one minute’ and ended in spontaneous applause, as the draft guidelines published several weeks ago were ratified without a single alteration.

The EU Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter: “Guidelines adopted unanimously. EU27 firm and fair political mandate for the Brexit talks is ready.”

Meanwhile French President Francois Hollande had said the UK must “pay the price” for its decision to leave the European Union.

“There will inevitably be a price and a cost for Britain, it’s the choice they made,” Mr Hollande said as he arrived at a Brussels summit.

“We must not be punitive, but at the same time it’s clear that Europe knows how to defend its interests, and that Britain will have a less good position outside the EU than in the EU.”

Mr Hollande has only a few weeks left to serve as President of France as the country is about to elect his successor, but he dismissed suggestions that British Prime Minister Theresa May could strengthen her negotiating hand through the election she has called in the UK.

“I can understand the electoral argument but it will not influence the EU. The EU’s principles and the objectives are already fixed, these will be the lines chosen by negotiators,” he said.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel put Theresa May’s decision down to internal, not international problems..

“It’s an internal problem she wants to resolve in the Conservative party, to have not a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, but Theresa’s Brexit,” he said. “We are very united, you seem surprised, but it’s a fact.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said it was in Britain’s interests for the EU to be unified, as it would improve the chances of a deal being struck with the UK.

“This extraordinary meeting shows the unity of the 27 on a clear line, but this unity is not directed against Britain, I think that it is also in its interest,” he said.

European Council president Donald Tusk had said the EU 27 must “remain united” as leaders of the 27 European countries meet in Brussels to ratify its guidelines for forthcoming negotiations with the UK.

Arriving at a special summit in Brussels, Mr Tusk restated his view that the EU must first focus on the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU, the status of EU nationals in the UK, and the status of Northern Ireland, before considering any future trading arrangements.

“We need to remain united as the EU 27,” he said.

“It is only then that we will be able to conclude the negotiations which means that our unity is also in the UK’s interest.

“As for now I feel strong support from all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament, as well as all the 27 members states.

“I know this is something unique, but I am confident that it will not change.”

Mr Tusk published his draft negotiating strategy last month.

There are unlikely to be any radical departures in the final framework, with the EU 27 expected to remain firmly committed to a “phased” approach to negotiations.

Mr Tusk has insisted “significant progress” must be made on disentangling the UK from its ties and obligations to the EU before discussions can turn to the post-Brexit relations.

Mr Tusk told waiting journalists: “We all want a close and strong future relationship with the UK – there is absolutely no question about that.

“But before discussing our future we have to sort out our past, and we will handle it with genuine care, but fairly.

“This I think is the only possible way to move forward.

“We also need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit on both sides.

“This must be the number one priority for the EU and the UK.

“And the Commission has already prepared a precise and detailed list of citizens’ rights we want to protect.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/remaining-27-eu-countries-agree-brexit-guidelines-as-hollande-says-uk-must-pay-price-a7709016.html

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Donald Tusk speaks to the media as he arrives for a special European Summit in Brussels on Saturday

Donald Tusk speaks to the media as he arrives for a special European Summit in Brussels on Saturday CREDIT:  JULIEN WARNAND/EPA

See also The Telegraph

Ignoring demands from Theresa May, the EU is adamant that it will not hold trade talks with the UK, or any discussions about the future EU-UK relationship, before it has received satisfactory guarantees on EU expat rights, the Ireland question, and Britain’s so-called Brexit bill.

“This is the only possible way to move forward,” added Mr Tusk. “We also need solid guarantees for all citizens and their families who will be affected by Brexit on both sides. This must be the number one priority for the EU and the UK.”

The EU summit comes at the end of a week of testy exchanges between Britain and Europe following a Downing Street dinner between Theresa May and top EU officials including Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.

The dinner reportedly highlighted the gulf between the two sides, with Angela Merkel warning that Britain should have “no illusions” about Brexit, while her hawkish finance minister said there would be “no free lunch” for Britain.

Mrs May responded by warning that that EU nations were “lining up” to oppose Britain and that talks would be “tough”.

Macron bans Russian-state media from campaign trail

April 29, 2017

AFP

© THOMAS SAMSON / POOL / AFP | French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron talks to the press on April 18, 2017.

French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron’s campaign Thursday denied press access and passes to two Russian state-backed media, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, accusing them of spreading “propaganda” and “misleading information”.

The decision was described as “scandalous” by Kremlin foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, after Macron confirmed to AFP that the access applications had been refused.

“It (RT) is not just a news outlet like the others,” a source in the Macron campaign told the Daily Beast on Monday, “it is a propaganda organ. Therefore we have decided not to give it accreditation.”

RT promptly hit back, telling the Daily Beast, “RT has not received an official reason for its exclusion from the Macron presidential campaign. We hope that his team will see fit to afford the courtesy of accreditation to RT shortly, and not attempt to curtail journalism, and manipulate the media, by selecting who can and can’t report on his campaign.”

Macron’s campaign accuses RT of spreading ‘fake news,’ dodges requests for clarification https://on.rt.com/8a96 

The Kremlin’s Zakharova said that the necessary requests had been made by Russia media and as “other foreign media have not faced any obstacles, we consider these prohibitory measures to be targeted and openly discriminatory”.

Sputnik and RT (Russia Today) were created by the Kremlin for foreigners, and are available in several languages including French. According to Le Monde, the French-language versions of both RT and Sputnik are “very present on [French] social media,” and both sites doubled their traffic in 2016.

A “smear campaign”

The Macron campaign did not offer specific examples of what it considered “propaganda” from RT or Sputnik. However, in February, Macron’s spokesman Benjamin Griveaux accused the Kremlin of mounting a “smear campaign” via state media against the pre-EU centrist former economy minister.

Sputnik published an extensive interview with right-wing Les Républicains lawmaker Nicolas Dhuicq on February 4, in which Dhuicq accused Macron of being an “agent of the big American banking system” and of having “a very wealthy gay lobby behind him”.

The article may have prompted Macron on February 7 to publicly deny having an extramarital homosexual affair.

Anti-Macron or just pro-Le Pen?

Russia is viewed as a keen backer of Macron’s rival Marine Le Pen in the presidential race. Le Pen even met Russian President Vladimir Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow ahead of France’s April 23 first round vote.

RUSSIA ‘ACTIVELY INVOLVED’ IN FRENCH ELECTION, WARNS US SENATE INTELLIGENCE CHIEF

Russian attempts to influence the French campaign via hacking are easier to prove: cybersecurity experts have said they are “99 percent sure” that Russian hackers are targeting the Macron campaign.

The Russian cyber-spying group Pawn Storm used “phishing” techniques to try to steal personal data from Macron and members of his ‘En Marche!’ (Forward!) campaign, the Japanese cyber-security firm Trend Micro said Tuesday.

“This group set up a specific infrastructure to target Emmanuel Macron’s movement in March and April 2017,” Loïc Guézo, Trend Micro’s strategy director for southern Europe, told FRANCE 24.

Pawn Storm – also known as Fancy Bear, Sednit, APT28, Sofacy or Strontium – is also believed to be behind the attacks last summer on the US Democratic National Committee, thought to be aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

The group is widely suspected of having links to Russia’s security services.

Moscow has denied any involvement in seeking to influence France’s election, which will be decided in a second round run-off between Macron and Le Pen on May 7.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Populism on pause

April 28, 2017

By Charles Krauthammer

Opinion writer April 27 at 7:44 PM

Yesterday’s conventional wisdom: A wave of insurgent populism is sweeping the West, threatening its foundational institutions — the European Union, the Western alliance, even liberal democracy itself.

Today’s conventional wisdom (post-first-round French presidential election): The populist wave has crested, soon to abate.

Chances are that both verdicts are wrong. The anti-establishment sentiment that gave us Brexit, then Donald Trump, then seemed poised to give us Marine Le Pen, has indeed plateaued. But although she will likely be defeated in the second round, victory by the leading centrist, Emmanuel Macron, would hardly constitute an establishment triumph.

Macron barely edged out a Cro-Magnon communist (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), a blood-and-soil nationalist (Le Pen) and a center-right candidate brought low by charges of nepotism and corruption (François Fillon). And the candidate for the ruling Socialist Party came in fifth, garnering a pathetic 6 percent of the vote.

On the other hand, the populists can hardly be encouraged by what has followed Brexit and Trump: Dutch elections, where the nationalist Geert Wilders faded toward the end and came nowhere near power; Austrian elections, where another nationalist challenge was turned back; and upcoming German elections, where polls indicate that the far-right nationalists are at barely 10 percent and slipping . And, of course, France.

In retrospect, the populist panic may have been overblown. Regarding Brexit, for example, the shock exaggerated its meaning. Because it was so unexpected, it became a sensation. But in the longer view, Britain has always been deeply ambivalent about Europe, going back at least to Henry VIII and his break with Rome. In the intervening 500 years, Britain has generally seen itself as less a part of Europe than an offshore island.

The true historical anomaly was Britain’s E.U. membership with all the attendant transfer of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. Brexit was a rather brutal return to the extra-European norm, but the norm it is.

The other notable populist victory, the triumph of Trump, has also turned out to be less than meets the eye. He certainly ran as a populist and won as a populist but, a mere 100 days in, he is governing as a traditionalist.

The Obamacare replacement proposals are traditional small-government fixes. His tax reform is a follow-on to Reagan’s from 1986. His Supreme Court pick is a straight-laced, constitutional conservative out of central casting. And his more notable executive orders read as a wish list of traditional business-oriented conservatism from regulatory reform to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

I happen to support all of these moves, but they don’t qualify as insurrectionist populism. The one exception may be trade policy. As of now, however, it remains ad hoc and idiosyncratic. Trump has made gestures and threats to those cunning Mexicans, Chinese and now Canadians. But it’s not yet clear if he is serious about, say, withdrawing from NAFTA or just engaging in a series of opening negotiating gambits.

The softwood-timber dispute with Canada is hardly new. It dates back 35 years. Every intervening administration has contested the terms of trade in various forums. A full-scale trade war with our leading trading partner would indeed break new ground. Anything short of that, however, is the art of the deal.

The normalization of Trump is one indicator that there may be less to the populist insurrection than imagined. The key, however, is Europe, where the stakes are infinitely higher. There the issue is the future of the nation-state itself, as centuries of sovereignty dissolve within an expanding superstate. It influences every aspect of daily life — from the ethnic makeup of neighborhoods to the currency that changes hands at the grocery.

The news from France, where Macron is openly, indeed ostentatiously, pro-European (his campaign headquarters flies the E.U. flag ) is that France is not quite prepared to give up on the great experiment. But the Europeanist elites had better not imagine this to be an enduring verdict. The populist revolt was a reaction to their reckless and anti-democratic push for even greater integration. The task today is to address the sources of Europe’s economic stagnation and social alienation rather than blindly pursue the very drive that led to this precarious moment.

If the populist threat turns out to have frightened the existing powers out of their arrogant complacency, it should be deemed a success. But make no mistake: The French election wasn’t a victory for the status quo. It was a reprieve. For now, the populist wave is not in retreat. It’s on pause.

Read more from Charles Krauthammer’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/populism-on-pause/2017/04/27/c9aa2edc-2b7b-11e7-be51-b3fc6ff7faee_story.html?utm_term=.71751d0b89bd

Chemical weapons allegedly used 45 times in Syria: OPCW chief says

April 28, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | A child receives treatment following a suspected chemical attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in Syria’s the northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017

THE HAGUE (AFP) – 

Experts from the world’s watchdog tasked with destroying chemical weapons are probing reports that toxic arms have been used 45 times in Syria since late last year, the body’s chief said Friday.

Director general Ahmet Uzumcu said there was “a huge list of allegations” of the use of toxic arms reported to the operations hub of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In the “second part of 2016, 30 different incidents, and since the beginning of this year, 15 separate incidents, so 45,” he told a reporters, brandishing a list of several pages which he chose to keep confidential.

They include the April 4 sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun that was reported to have killed 88 people, including 31 children.

“All these allegations are recorded by our experts, who follow this every day from our operations centre,” Uzumcu said.

The OPCW is currently trying to ensure it is safe enough to deploy its fact-finding team to the town for further analysis, after Uzumcu said last week that “incontrovertible” test results from OPCW-designated labs on samples taken from victims showed sarin gas or a similar substance had been used.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has “already stated that they would support this mission, actually they have invited us to go via Damascus,” he said.

“The problem is that this area is controlled by different armed opposition groups, so we need to strike some deals with them to ensure a temporary ceasefire, which we understand the Syrian government is willing to do,” he added.

“If we can put all this together then we will deploy. The team is ready, and we have the volunteers.”

However, it is not yet mandated to also visit the Shayrat air base in the central Syrian province of Homs.

The base was the target of a US strike launched in the wake of the Khan Sheikhun attack, and Russia has called for the allegations that it was stocking chemical weapons to be investigated.

Uzumcu also confirmed that the OPCW, based in The Hague, believed jihadist rebels from the so-called Islamic State group had used “sulphur mustard” near Iraq’s second city of Mosul last week.

The Iraqi military said some security personnel were injured in the April 15 attack as part of the operation to recapture Mosul.

The OPCW has offered to help Iraqi forces investigate, but “they have not yet requested any assistance,” Uzumcu said.

Israel’s Attack in Syria: Israel’s Policy of Ambiguity Could Be Nearing an End — Proxy “War” With Iran — Has Russia Allowed Israel’s Raids?

April 28, 2017

By Amos Harel

Strike in Damascus international airport attributed to Israel ■ Why isn’t Russia taking action? ■ defense chief draws a new red line: No Iranian and Hezbollah military presence on the Syrian border

Explosion in Syria

Explosion in Syria . (photo credit:ARAB MEDIA)

Witnesses said a total of five strikes occurred near the Damascus airport road, about 25km from the capital, early on Thursday.

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Iranian cargo planes land in Damascus hours before ‘Israeli strike’ on airport

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Syria confirms Israeli strike hit military compound near Damascus airport

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Israel destroyed dozens of Hezbollah-bound missiles in last Syria raid, officer says

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What has been done up to now with a degree of ambiguity, not to say discretion, is now being done for all to see. Syria confirmed on Thursday, in a report from its official news agency, that the Israeli airforce struck a military compound next to the Damascus airport before dawn.

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Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz implicitly acknowledged Israeli responsibility for the strike when he explained in a somewhat sleepy radio interview from the United States on Army Radio that “the incident totally fits with our policy for preventing weapons transfers to Hezbollah.” And all of this happened while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was away on a visit to Russia, the chief sponsor of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Katz’s comments followed an earlier, first acknowledgement of its kind by Israel, after numerous reports in the Arab media of an Israeli airstrike in Syria in late March. And this past Tuesday, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer told journalists that about a hundred missiles, some intended for Hezbollah, were destroyed in that March airstrike. But it is still not certain that a deliberate decision has been made to abandon the policy of ambiguity that Israel has adhered to for the past five years, neither denying nor confirming its responsibility for such air strikes.

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This policy of ambiguity seems to be based on the idea that Israel’s refusal to comment on these strikes makes them less of an embarrassment for the regime and thus does not whet the Syrians’ appetite for revenge as much. The recent deviations from this policy were likely random occurrences and not the product of long-range strategic thinking.

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An Israeli tank on the Golan Heights

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The initial reports from Damascus did not specify what types of weaponry was hit. Arab intelligence sources (quoted by an Amman-based reporter for Reuters) claimed that the targets this time were arms shipments from Iran being smuggled on civilian commercial flights via the international airport in Damascus.

Syrian reports denied that Israeli planes had penetrated Syrian airspace, and claimed their bombs were launched from within Israeli territory. This could explain the lack of an antiaircraft missile response from the Syrian and Russian air defenses, although Russian radar in northwest Syria can also identify aircraft movements in much of Israel.

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Why isn’t Russia taking action? After the March airstrike, Russia reportedly protested to Israel that the Syrian target in the Palmyra area came too close to a Russian military base. Possibly, Russia doesn’t really care that much, as long as these actions don’t directly threaten the Assad regime’s survival. Most of the Russian troops and aircraft are in the northwest, in the area of Tartus and Latakia, and hardly Israeli strikes have been reported in that area since the start of the Russian military deployment in September 2015.

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On the tactical level, Russia and Israel seem to be getting along quite well amid the general Syrian chaos. The military coordination mechanism for preventing aerial clashes between the two countries is working properly and Israeli officials, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have held frequent consultations with their Russian counterparts. But on the long-term, strategic level, Israel has a problem: Russia’s military success in the war means the salvation of the Assad regime and a gain for Assad’s other allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Should Russia decide to promote the interests of these other members of the Assad alliance, it could come at Israel’s expense.

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In his talks in Russia, Lieberman has been emphasizing the new red line drawn by Israel: no Iranian or Hezbollah military presence near the Syrian border on the Golan Heights. As Assad’s forces have advanced southward, there have been initial reports of the arrival of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and related Shi’ite and Palestinian militias in the border area, mainly in the northern Golan Heights. Besides the arms smuggling, this is the matter of greatest concern for Israel right now. Should it decide to take action to enforce its stance, as Lieberman has spoken about, Israel will have to weigh the possibility not only of heightened friction with Iran, but also of a shift in relations with Moscow.

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read more: http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/1.786074

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Did Moscow Green-Light an Israeli Attack in Syria?

The Kremlin may be backing Bashar al-Assad and publicly denouncing Israel’s strike on Damascus’ airport Thursday, but the two sides are ‘tightly’ coordinating behind the scenes.
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By Benny Avni

An Israeli attack in Damascus on Thursday was evidently well coordinated with Russia, highlighting how transient alliances in the Middle East’s most consequential war can be.

Israel, in addition to Sunni Muslim countries opposed to the Syrian regime, is America’s close regional ally, while Russia backs some of Israel’s most formidable foes: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah.

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Loud explosions were reported near Damascus’ international airport Thursday morning, reportedly injuring three people.

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Syrian officials were quick to blame Israel for the attack, and in an apparent attempt to retaliate, an “object”—reportedly a drone—was sent over the Golan Heights that was destroyed by an Israeli Defense Force Patriot missile, according to an IDF spokesman.

Although Jerusalem officials normally refrain from confirming such attacks like the one in Damascus, this time they did not quite deny it.

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“The incident in Syria is consistent with our policy of preventing the smuggling of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told Israel’s Army Radio. He declined, in accordance with the long-held policy, to explicitly confirm that the IDF conducted the attack.

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 Image result for syrian aircraft at russian base, photos

Three weeks ago, in a rare departure from that Jerusalem’s policy of ambiguity, Israeli officials did acknowledge they fired missiles at Syrian targets. In Moscow, Kremlin officials publicly denounced that Israeli attack, leading some in Jerusalem to speculate that the tacit understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow could be at an end and that the Kremlin would no longer wink and nod at Israel’s routine incursions into Syria’s airspace, largely dominated by Russian and Syrian government air forces.

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On Thursday Russian spokesmen denounced the attack as well, though they were careful not to confirm Israel was behind it. And when asked Thursday whether Israel had notified Moscow in advance of the strike, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Kremlin reporters that “Russia and Israel exchange information using various channels.”

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One likely such channel, according to Jerusalem sources, is Avigdor Liberman, the Russian-speaking, Moldovan-born Israeli defense minister who landed in Moscow on Wednesday for a pre-planned visit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also speaks to Putin on the phone regularly and often visits Moscow.

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“The Russians know that our most important ally is the United States, and we know, of course, that Russia’s clients are Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah,” said an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Yet, he added, “that doesn’t stop us from tightly coordinating with Moscow through well-established work mechanisms.”

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The IDF and Russia want to ensure there are no collisions in the skies above Syria, the official added, saying, “And yes, the Russians are very familiar with our red lines.”

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Those red lines include “preventing Iran from establishing a military foothold in Syria,” Katz, the intelligence minister, told The Daily Beast last week. Additionally, he said, Jerusalem has made clear it will not allow Iran to transfer heavy armaments through Syria to Hezbollah, which he characterized as “our most formidable non-state enemy.”

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 Hezbollah fighters. Reuters photo
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Speaking to the UN Security Council last week, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington and its partners will resume their pressure on Tehran, documenting violations of several council resolutions that ban arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah, as well as to its Yemen-based ally, the Houthis.

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Hours after Thursday’s Israeli attack in Damascus, Russian diplomats exchanged barbs with their British and French counterparts at the United Nations, while Haley sharpened her criticism of the Kremlin’s Syria policy.

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During a Security Council session on humanitarian aid to Syria, Haley blamed Russia for shielding Assad, even as the Syrian dictator prevents UN aid from reaching its destination and bombs hospitals. “Many of you said we need to put pressure on the Syrian regime,” she said. “That’s actually not the case. We need to put pressure on Russia, because Russia continues to cover for the Syrian regime”—does so even when Assad “uses chemical weapons on his own people.”

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The French UN ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters Thursday that Paris has conclusively determined that in a well-publicized April 4 attack at Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s Idlib province, “sarin was used, and the presence of a substance called hexamine is characteristic of the sarin produced by the Syrian regime.” So, he added, “we have no doubt that the Syrian regime is responsible for this barbaric attack.”

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The United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles in response to that chemical assault, hitting a Syrian airbase that according to Pentagon officials was used to launch the Idlib attack.

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On Wednesday, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that if Washington asked London to join in future military attacks against Syria, “It would be difficult for us to say no.”

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But Washington has yet to clarify its ultimate goal in Syria—and particularly its policy on Assad’s future, despite the atrocities he has committed. President Trump, who hosted the 15 members of the Security Council at the White House last week, said that while the Syrian dictator is clearly a “bad actor,” his removal “is not a deal breaker” for the U.S., according to an ambassador who attended the session. However, the ambassador, who requested anonymity, said that at a later session National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told the visiting diplomats, “There can be no stable Syria as long as Assad stays in power.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/27/did-moscow-green-light-an-israeli-attack-in-syria.html

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Hezbollah Air Lines? Boeing Deal?

Le Pen woos Nice voters with vision of ‘happy Europe’

April 28, 2017

AFP

© Yann Coatsaliou, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the far-right Front National (FN) party Marine Le Pen arrives for a campaign meeting, on April 27, 2017 in Nice.

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen said on Thursday she wanted to replace the “grey” European Union by a “happy Europe”, in a speech that focused on her plans to build back border checks, but did not mention her anti-euro stance.

One aide said the positive spin on Le Pen’s euroscepticism was meant to reassure voters who had supported conservative candidate François Fillon, who did not qualify for the May 7 run-off, and try and convince them to vote for her.

“The EU is grey, like the colour of the Brussels technocrats’ suits, Le Pen said, adding: “I want to give it colours because my Europe is happy, diverse, colourful, it’s got the face of its peoples.”

Le Pen, who wants to hold a referendum on France’s EU membership after six months of negotiations to turn the bloc into a loose cooperative of nations, did not announce any shift in her policies and reaffirmed that what she wanted was a “Europe of free nations, of cooperations”.

But while she repeatedly talked of her plans to take France out of the Schengen border-free area, she did not mention returning to the Franc national currency – which is also among her policies.

With a majority of French voters opposed to leaving the euro, the Le Pen campaign has not insisted on that part of her platform over the past months.

Differing views on  Europe

Fillon came third behind Le Pen and first-placed Emmanuel Macron in the first round with about 20 percent of votes which Le Pen and Macron must now fight over.

During the first-round campaign he said that he wanted to step up border controls and make some changes to the EU, but he also several times severely criticised Le Pen’s anti-euro stance.

Macron is in favour of closer European integration, although in a series of interviews on Thursday he sought to present a tough position on countries he felt do not play by the rules.

Playing on fear

Keeping mum on her plans to reinstitute the French franc is not the only card Le Pen is playing in the hope of appealing to the traditionally rightist voters of Nice; she is also trying to capitalise on security fears here in the wake of an Islamic State group attack that killed 86 people there last July.

That’s an exploitation that has angered some residents of the Mediterranean resort town.

Dominique Eche was on the Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day and had to jump down to the beach below to avoid the truck that ploughed into the crowd, but when the 62-year-old children’s sports coach thinks about the presidential election, and Le Pen’s insistence that her tough line on security will prevent such atrocities, he gets angry.

“I saw the Nice attack from the inside and I find it appalling to try and benefit from such attacks, to say: ‘It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been in power’,” Eche said on Thursday, speaking hours after Le Pen’s rally in Nice.

Next to him, workers were erecting concrete bollards to make sure trucks cannot access the pavement there any more.

The FN has said some of the Islamist attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France since 2015 would have been prevented had it been in power, thanks to a platform that includes locking up French-born suspected jihadists and expelling foreign ones as well as scrapping the European Union’s open-border arrangement.

If Eche isn’t buying it, that rhetoric does resonate with some voters in Nice, where one in four voted for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, against 21.3 percent nationally.

Inflammatory language

Describing the city as a “martyr of Islamist terrorism”, Le Pen told the rally her first move if elected would be to reinstate border controls, to wide applause from a crowd of a few thousand.

“I have asked for it after each attack … how can we think we are protected if terrorists can move around freely, if weapons can circulate freely?,” she said, detailing a
law-and-order platform she said she would apply “without weakness”.

Le Pen’s fear-mongering seems to be working.

Local FN representative Lionel Tivoli said FN membership in Nice’s Alpes-Maritimes department had jumped from 740 two years ago to 3,500-4,000 now, driven in particular by the attacks.

“What strikes people is that this attack took place where they live, here in the Alpes-Maritimes,” Tivoli said in the FN’s local headquarters. “We’re not safe anywhere anymore.”

Hubert, a 70-year-old FN supporter who said he does not miss a chance to see Le Pen at a rally, said the attacks had reinforced his resolve to vote for her. “We need to feel safe,” he said, adding derogatory comments about Arabs.

But 79-year-old Nice resident Roger Blanc, who backed Fillon in the first round and will vote Macron in the second, took a very different view.

He said: “I was very shocked by the attacks. But what would she (Le Pen) have done about it? What would she have done? Nothing. It’s all just talk.”

While opinion polls all say that Macron will easily beat Le Pen in the second round, the head of France’s south east region and deputy Nice mayor Christian Estrosi, a conservative, warned against considering it was in the bag for the young centrist.

“Le Pen can win,” he told Reuters.

China more interested in Macron’s marriage than his politics

April 28, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Chinese social media users have been largely supportive of 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron’s relationship with his 64-year-old wife Brigitte

BEIJING (AFP) – China is closely following France’s presidential election, but web users appear less interested in the politics than the unusual marriage between moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron and his former teacher.

Comparisons with the characters of a popular Chinese television drama called “In the Name of the People” — which also happens to be the slogan of French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen — have flooded China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

The main villain of the ripped-from-the-headlines show, which follows the exploits of an anti-corruption squad tackling graft at the highest levels of government, is a dodgy official who marries a woman 10 years his senior in a bid for power.

Posts using a hashtag about the French politician’s much-discussed marriage — which translates into English as “Marrying his teacher 24 years his senior” — have been viewed more than nine million times on the social media site.

Despite the seemingly unfavourable comparison to a corrupt official, social media commenters have been largely supportive of 39-year-old Macron’s relationship with his 64-year-old wife Brigitte.

“Taking a high school teacher and mother as his wife, you can only call this French man a romantic,” one web user said.

“Age isn’t distance,” said another. “Please don’t make malicious assumptions about others.”

UNESCO May Be Set To Deny Israeli Sovereignty Over East Jerusalem — Israel May Have “Lost” European Support

April 27, 2017
BY TOVAH LAZAROFF
The Jerusalem Post
APRIL 27, 2017 14:09
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The new text, which Israel has yet to see, would replace an initial draft from last month, which contests Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem
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Israel fers the eleven srael fears that eleven European nations together with Arab states have co-authored a number of anti-Israel resolutions that UNESCO’s Executive Board in Paris will vote on at its May 2 meeting, diplomatic sources told The Jerusalem Post.

The new text, which Israel has yet to see, would replace an initial draft from last month, which contests Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.

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 That initial March draft put forward solely by Arab states said: “any action taken by Israel, the Occupying Power, to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration on the City of Jerusalem, are illegal and therefore null and void and have no validity whatsoever.”

Past resolutions approved by UNESCO have refused to accept Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, including the Old City.

This text would mark the first time that the UNESCO Executive Board has been asked to reject Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem.

Israel is concerned that the new draft, co-authored by the ten European countries, will include the clause rejecting Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem, a move which threatens to delegitimize the government of the Jewish state, according to diplomats.

Israel’s main governing bodies — its parliament, prime minister’s office, foreign ministry and supreme court — are all located in Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem.

Israeli officials could not help noting that the cynicism of passing such a resolution on Israel’s Independence Day.

“UNESCO has returned to the ritual of political anti-Israeli decisions that undermines anything Israel does in Jerusalem,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement it released on Thursday in advance of the vote.

Ten of the 54 UNESCO Executive Board members are EU states. This includes: Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The United Kingdom, which is in the process of withdrawing from the EU is also on the executive board as is the United States.

The resolution comes as US President Donald Trump is weighing the question of relocating the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to the western part of Jerusalem.

The international community is split over recognition of Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem, with many countries acknowledging Israel’s governing bodies there, without formally accepting its status as part of Israel.

Such a text would highlight Jerusalem’s tenuous political status in the eyes of the international community, which already places its embassies in Tel Aviv rather than in Israel’s capital.

The May 2 text is also expected to reaffirm that the Jewish holy sites of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem are “an integral part of Palestine.” Muslims consider both places to be holy to Islam and refer to them as the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque.

Absent from the text is the controversial issue of the Temple Mount.

For the last two years, Arab states at UNESCO, backed by the Palestinians have attempted to reclassify the Jewish holy sites of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount solely by their Muslim names of the Buraq Wall and the al-Haram al-Sharif.

Israel was not able to prevent the passage of the resolutions, but its Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen said that Western governments and Russia pressed the Palestinians to drop the matter.

In the new text on Jerusalem, there is no mention in any language of the two holy sites. Instead the resolution reaffirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls for the three monotheistic religions.”

It does however, have a line asking for reaffirmation of past texts referencing the sites only by their Muslims names.

Last year five European countries voted against the resolution ignoring Jerusalem ties to the Temple Mount; Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia and Lithuania. While six European countries abstained.

Berlin and Israel have been at odds over the last few months, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refusing to meet this week German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel during his visit to Israel. Netanyahu was upset that Gabriel and met with the Left-wing group Breaking the Silence.

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http://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Israel-fears-European-Arab-anti-Israel-resolution-at-UNESCO-489135
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